It’s been a long time, but back in those hazy, halcyon days of high school and college gaming, it wasn’t unusual for members of my gaming groups to trade turns game mastering — something I’ve lamented before is that I can’t seem to find people who can find the time (or more likely the wherewithal to put in the time) to run a game that I can play in. Back then, we didn’t just trade out GMing, we would swap into that role in the same campaign, allowing whomever was stepping out of the lead slot to play. We would often still play our character as a favored NPC — a frequent lament on other gaming blogs, the GMs favorite NPC that steal the players’ thunder. To us, it wasn’t a big deal; whoever had an adventure ready to go ran it.

The main issue for this communal campaign is similar to that of the television writing rooms of the 1970s and 1980s. Inevitably, no matter how well as character was written, there would be a few episodes where some big shot author or some one off writer would come in and the characters or the flavor of the show would morph to fit their story they wanted to tell. The game universe would lack a certain cohesion. The greater the difference in GM style, their world view, their desired direction of the stories, the more unworkable this style of campaign becomes.

But it can work. In the late ’80s, a friend of mine and I had been pretty much the only gamers we were acquainted with in the small town we were living. We gamed a lot — nearly every night, and sometimes day and night, if we weren’t working. We got to know each other’s style of play, the kind of characters we played, and the kind of game universe we were looking for. When you spend every day together, practically, for several year you start to get into synch with each other. One of our shared loved at the time was comic books. The late 80s was when comics saw an explosion in popularity, at the same time as RPGs (and now some of those geeks are making movies — good and bad — for themselves and their friends…) and we decided to do a superhero campaign that had a high level of verisimilitude (not realism..it’s superheroes, for cryin’ out loud!) similar to what we’d read in the Wild Cards! book series (based, funnily enough on the supers campaigns of a bunch of writers out here in Albuquerque), and the angsty Marvel universe.

We had a similar political and social outlook at the time. We had similar tastes in narrative style, although they were different enough to entertain the other person, and we had a good read on the probable punchlines for the stories being told. When we added a bunch of new gamers to the mix in Philadelphia, it was pretty stellar. We could not only co-GM the game, swapping who was storytelling from one night to the next, we got so good at it, we could swap in the middle of a session. Think of it as having a bunch of writers work on the same story: the basic outlines are there, and you simply add color.

Thinking back on it, I think the simplicity of the superhero tropes, in particular the idea that each session (or issue, if you will) had a specific challenge or two for the night, and that combat was up front and center often…combat and action sequences take time, and that meant that you had a relatively simple task, say stop the villain of the night and their cohort from attacking New York. It was the outcome of the characters actions that would — as with all RPGs — write the basic lines for the next issue. But like comics having a guest writer or artist, a guest or different GM doesn’t detract from the overall campaign because each issue tends to be relatively self-contained. Episodic.

In an RPG campaign that is similarly episodic, where each session or two is a specific story that might be tied together over time by the GMs, each is able to stand on it’s own. The problem is making certain that the players and game masters are on the same general sheet of paper for what the goals and flavor of the game is to be.

This is where communal world-building like we see in games like Primetime Adventures and Smallville come in handy. The group works out their characters, group relationships, and overall theme together. This allows for the metastory or story arc to be generally understood by all. For example, I recently pitched a Supernatural campaign to my players, and suggested to one who wished to GM a Call of Chthulu-style horror campaign that we could swap GM duties. We agreed that a modern day setting would be best and that the flavor would be a bit lighter than the usual investigate evil and go mad or die style of Lovecraftian horror CoC is known for. I, and others in the group, don’t much care for it. But a game that combined, say, a Night Stalker theme with monster hunter of Supernatural would work — where horror and humor coexist. It would be more episodic — a monster of the week series that would steadily weave in a basic plot idea (probably the usual stop Armageddon thing…I understand this is the general line of story for the Supernatural series, a war between Heaven and Hell, but I havent’ seen more than a few of the early episodes.)

It’s one of several workable frameworks for having multiple game masters.

Next time: Some characters from the Supernatural campaign that might work in one of your games as PCs or NPCs.

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