There’s a whole spectrum of collaborative modes in existence these days, ranging from the cameo appearance or recurring pastiche all the way through cross-overs to the tightly-knit true shared creative spaces that are almost completely collaborative in nature. Although in literature, the Thieves’ World series is generally thought of as the first shared world that was explicitly created to be “co-owned” by the contributors as a setting in which each could set stories, and whose protagonists could interact with characters created by the others, a broader perspective suggests that the deliberate move by Marvel Comics in 1961 to set each of their comic books in a common “universe” permitting the characters to interact, or even the creation of the Justice Society Of America in 1940-41 as the formative introduction of the concept.

The latter claim is dismissed by some because the creators of the shared group were strictly forbidden from making fundamental changes to the characters or their supporting cast in the course of these adventures. At first, Marvel’s integrated universe also had similar restrictions in place, but over the years those restrictions were relaxed. Nevertheless, it was often frustrating to see one writer/editor combination make significant advances in a character’s personal continuity only for that character to be essentially unchanged in their next appearance. It was in the original Secret Wars that this paradigm was changed for the first time in a significant way, and in fact this was used as a selling point for the series. But this event post-dates the 1978 publication of Thieves’ World, so while the comics may be considered precursors to the shared world, edging closer and closer to the concept, for my money, the original anthology in that series takes the prize – but there are multiple places in which the dividing line can be drawn.

Of course, shared collaborative spaces in TV series are nothing new, and each series has its own way of uniting the efforts by its writing team into a cohesive audiovisual entity. The various behind-the-scenes extras in the Stargate SG-1 DVD series is most instructive in this respect, as is “The Making Of Star Trek”, which showed how a writer would submit an script which would then be partially or wholly rewritten in-house to incorporate character developments that would then become canon to the series.

The key word that connects all of these together is continuity, and the degree of independence available to the contributors.

This entire range of collaborative possibilities can also be applied to an RPG. Which brings me to the question posed by Sharky for this Ask-The-GMs.

Ask the gamemasters

Sharky wrote,

“I’m trying to start a campaign. It’s been years since I was in an RPG. We were considering taking turns being the GM. We are a group of 3 so far.

“The point of the RPG is that it’s a world [that combines the products of] each of our imaginations. Each of us has a character that will be able to understand part of the things going on. The characters will have to cooperate to try and figure out how their worlds got fused together and get everything back to normal.

“I feel like something is missing I just can’t put my finger on it.

“I found this place and I said to myself, ‘Why not get some advice?’

“So I’m here asking for advice to make this into an interesting RPG. Any ideas?” (edited for clarity)

A discussion of the question (and the issues that it raises) between myself and two of my usual players over the weekend proved quite broad-ranging, covering everything from the foundations of collaboration through to specific analysis of the stated campaign premise. We were looking for answers to four specific questions:

  • What advice do you have for GMing a Shared World?
  • What problems can be foreseen for this specific premise?
  • What is the “something” that is missing? and finally,
  • What can be done to make this a more interesting game.

Shades of Collaboration

When Blair and I co-GM the Adventurer’s Club, it’s a fully collaborative effort. We are both GMs at the same time, we have both taken part in crafting the adventure, and we aren’t afraid to take a five-minute break to discuss any problems that arise and how we are going to resolve them. We share the responsibilities, kudos, and blame equally.

That’s not the only way to do it. Another approach is the sequential God-spotlight in which each GM takes the Big Chair in succession, but in which part of the campaign has been developed in collaboration. There are three major variations on this approach:

  • Rotation by game session
  • Rotation by adventure
  • Rotation by plotline
Rotation by games session

The DC Challenge was a 12-issue out-of-continuity comic book in the 1980s which functioned as a round-robin. Creators had to end their stints on a cliff-hanger, had to start their share of the comic by resolving the previous cliff-hanger, couldn’t use any of the characters that they regularly worked on (and if they were left with such a character already involved, had to write them out as quickly as possible), and – in between – had to advance the meta-plot. No consultation between the writers was permitted, only a hint – in the form of the title to be used for the next ‘chapter’ – was permitted.

Applying the concept to a shared-universe RPG gives the Rotation By Game Session model. It’s good practice to end any given game session at either a point of plot conclusion or at a moment of high drama – a cliff-hanger or key decision, in other words. That means that it’s then up to the next GM to oversee the resolution of that dramatic moment or to instigate the next part of the plotline.

Unfortunately, this also leaves the campaign vulnerable to the problems that befell the DC Challenge. It immediately devolved into an effort to stump the incoming writer by leaving a character in an almost-impossible situation, in particular since – in place of the usual letters page – the next issue would include how the original writer intended to get the character out of that “impossible” situation, which shed light on the creative thought-processes of the respective authors. All this made the series great fun to read, but rather less fun at times for the creative personnel involved. Another key problem was that no-one had any clear idea of what was supposed to be really going on, so the series bounced around quite a bit. Ultimately, the contributors had to lock themselves away together to collaborate on a solution to the overarching plot for the final issue, which (as it turned out) had to be double-sized in order to tie up all the loose ends.

It’s a fact of life that knowing that someone else is going to have to clean up after you encourages laziness, and as the saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Throw in even a modicum of competitiveness between the three GMs and remove any strong oversight – more on that later – and the DC Challenge story is the inevitable result.

And that’s before you throw in any emergent ill-will as the GMs manipulate the world to cross-purposes. It’s only human to feel these petty irritations from time to time, it happens to all of us – and they fade just as quickly if given the chance. But there exists a real danger under the rotation-by-game-session model for feedback loops to set in and amplify any such irritations turning a minor molehill into Caddyshack’s gopher war.

That’s not to say that this approach can’t be made to work; it can. But it’s unlikely to be stable by accident.

Rotation by adventure

A more stable situation results when each GM takes the reins for the entirety of a single adventure provided that there’s no concern about adventures taking unequal amounts of time to complete. In theory, this enables one GM to be crafting his next adventure while another is running the game, and the third enjoys some downtime and can engage in long-range planning and idea development. Because each GM’s contributions are largely self-contained, the potential for functioning at cross-purposes is greatly reduced, and can be reduced still further by forbidding each of the other GMs from making major changes to the “supporting cast” during their stints without the approval of the GM introducing them.

There remains some potential for conflict over the direction of the shared universe, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but this is the simplest approach with relatively few problems.

It does require some communication between the GMs at a metagame level – “I expect the current plotline to wrap up next game session, maybe part-way through the day, be ready to take over” – but that’s about all that is needed, assuming the fundamentals have been agreed to. I’ll deal with that issue a little later in the article, because it’s common to all possible approaches.

Rotation by plotline

Perhaps the safest option of them all when it comes to avoiding plotlines is for each GM to take charge of one overarching plotline of their own devising, one of which has to be the central mystery of what has created this ‘shared world’ in the first place. This leaves almost no room for cross-purposes to emerge. Another approach is to divide up the aspects of the shared world and hand one bundle to each of the GMs to use as the basis of his contributions – one might focus on trade and law-enforcement (the civilian functions) between the different realms, another deals with politics and conflict (the military/control functions) while the third handles the arcane / spiritual / natural law consequences (the scientific functions), which would naturally lead to an understanding of the causes and potential to undo whatever resulted in the shared world,

This is certainly the approach that I would favor, for reasons explained later in the article. But it (or rotation by adventure) might mean four, five, or even six months before the next GM gets his turn under the rotating “god-light”, depending on how often you play – if everyone is fine with that, there’s no problem, but if that seems too much to anyone, it’s time to get more creative.

Other Variations

Another possible approach is the concept of “inheritance”, in which each GM advances the plots and leaves notes for the next GM on the situations, relationships, decisions, and ‘established facts’ that they will have to work with. That means that if one GM decides that the shared world is the work of demons, the rest are bound to at least pay lip service to the appearance that demons are responsible. By gradually amassing a body of shared lore that has resulted from their individual efforts, and applying plot-twist principles to anything that they have inherited and don’t like, the game can be constantly evolving, with even the creators unsure of where it will go.

Most importantly, this shared inheritance would contain things that the GM has decided that have not yet come out in play. If you want to replace something you don’t like, your new explanation has to be consistent with the actual experiences within the game to date. This is actually a very loose form of collaboration, and one modeled on the usual techniques of television series. The primary purpose is to protect the shared continuity of what has happened so far.

Other, more exotic, solutions can also be devised. Each GM might be able to establish a specific and limited number of “fixed facts” that all must adhere to, and each fact must not relate to any other chosen by that GM – which means that GM #1 might decide that a dark god was responsible for the ‘blending’ of the worlds, but could not decide his motives or how he achieved it, not definitively. He could present his theory of these things, but as ‘unfixed and unfixable facts,’ either of the other GM can choose something different – and can even make that one of their ‘fixed facts’ if they feel that strongly about their choice. You could have these facts agreed to at the start, or you could preserve the surprise factor by letting each GM choose a ‘fixed fact’ per adventure.

Shades of Independence

There is an absolutely huge assumption implicit in the described campaign – that the different nations, and the PCs that have derived from them, will cooperate with each other. The reality is that when something this dramatic occurs, they will all be looking for someone to blame, and the most ready targets are the other nations. This is especially true if one is belligerent or a would-be conqueror.

There are two possible solutions: the first is to have this part of the story happen pre-game; the second is for the first adventure to be how the three first come into contact and agree to work together, risking charges of treason in the process. You would need pretty compelling and convincing reasons to cooperate before you undertook such a risk.

This exposes a huge question that needs to be resolved before play can begin – how much of the background of the blended reality will be decided ahead of time? And how much freedom will each GM have to create, independently of the others, content for the shared world? Any answer is acceptable, but everyone needs to be on the same page before things start happening in-game.

Part of the problem is the presumed equality of the three GMs. In television production, one voice is usually elevated to a position of supremacy (and ultimate responsibility) over the others, and there is usually no need (or desire) for the different contributors to keep information from each other. That changes when you are a player in the RPG 2/3 of the time; if the other GMs already know everything factual that you are putting into the adventure in terms of the overarching meta-plot, actual play becomes an exercise in going through the motions until your characters know what you do.

Similarly, in the comics world, there is an editor-in-chief – a third party with the responsibility of overseeing the whole, settling disputes, and lobbing in ideas from the outside when the line editors and writers get stuck – and who also has the clout to say “no”. Such a position can be in the privileged position of knowing everything – a privilege that excludes them from playing in the game. It doesn’t preclude them from being a GM in the game, it simply means that for 1/3 of the time they are fully the GM and for the other 2/3 they are a collaborator and co-GM with the other GMs involved.

Often, that sort of privileged position is accorded to the person who came up with the idea in the first place, but it doesn’t have to be so. This is certainly an alternative to the simple rotation models proposed earlier.

Other decisions need to be made in advance by the GMs in collaboration, unless the game is to be truly exotic. Game System. House and Optional rules. Even rules interpretations, where these are contentious. None of these are insurmountable difficulties, but the solutions won’t just happen – they will have to be solved in advance and in collaboration with the others. Again, most of these issues go away with the appointing of a GM-in-chief.

The Malleable World

Another possibility, one that permits the maximum independence with the minimum conflict, is for history and/or reality to be malleable. This obviates most of the need to be consistent with a fixed history by changing reality. If that seems too wild and woolly for you, consider fixing it with respect to some other factor – sequential months, or the seasons, or whatever. “Every 28 in-game days, reality warps and changes, and history runs down new paths to a different now. Only the PCs, who are somehow protected from the effects know that this is happening. Each GM will handle a successive 28-day period. When Steve is at the helm, the nature of the world will be Shadowrun; when Peter is in control, it will be Pathfinder; and when I’m in charge, it will be GURPS Fantasy, with some rules mods. The same NPC will have three different incarnations and no memory of the other two; because history itself is morphing, an individual can even be dead in one of the three realities and absolutely fine. Any plotline that is unresolved at the changing of the GMs is suspended until that GM again takes the hot seat.”

Of course, this example cheats a little by having all three be fantasy, because that makes integration a little easier. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t blend fantasy with sci-fi with steampunk or something else equally strange. “Your spacecraft morphs and shifts around you, becoming a viking ship sailing between the stars…” “…you reach the alien world of Narizeth just as reality shifts around you, and Narizeth transforms into a ball of magma floating in the elemental plane of fire, the inhabitants becoming Elementals and Fire Giants…”

The more diverse the malleable world, the harder it will be to have a consistent plot through-line, but this hardly matters. What if the original cause of the shared world’s existence was a “serendipitous” (calamitous) confluence of separate acts in each reality? Or perhaps the reality is a shattered timestream in which the same civilization is represented by three different eras of its history – a history that is rendered malleable by virtue of the shared existence?

The Geographic Solution

Border crossings can be transformative at the best of times. Some people behave differently as tourists to their natures at any other time in their lives! “Tourist” clichés abound. Another way of dividing up the GMing responsibilities – one that completely ignores any concept of equality of GMs and lets the chips fall where they may – is for each GM to take charge whenever the PCs cross the border into the world for which they are responsible. This works best if the world is NOT malleable, and everyone is using the same game system, and there is rough technological parity between them, though more diverse options are also possible. One GM name-drops the identity of an NPC in one of the other realms in the course of his stint; when the PCs follow up by traveling to that realm, the GM responsible for that ‘reality’ is in charge of creating the NPC in question, and of handling the consequences of the encounter. Is the named individual an Elf or a Lich, a shopkeeper or a priest, an ally or an enemy? Will they divulge what they know willingly, can they be bribed, or must the knowledge be forcibly extracted?

This solution clearly settles the problem of mutual cooperation; all three sometime-PCs can come from the same reality/society.

The problem with this approach is that one reality will be ‘home’ and almost certainly one of the alternatives will be preferred by the majority over the other. One GM will get a disproportionate share of the “god-light” at the expense of one of the others – hence my comment about ignoring the concept of equality between the GMs.

Ultimately, that was where my TORG campaign – a completely different form of shared reality, all under one hand – fell over. The players were simply too scared of my redesigned Orrorsh to be willing to go there; they’d had a small taste of it through a ghost ship and that was more than enough for them. Or maybe I just did too good a job of selling it! Since campaign-critical events were to take place there, that was where the campaign collapsed. Up to that point, they had simply wandered from reality to reality, enjoying the local color and local threats and the unique way each reality was interacting with the others; this was where the campaign was to get its direction.

Again, if the PCs are going to be forced by the meta-plot or by the other GMs to spend a roughly-equal amount of time in each of the other realms, this isn’t as much of a problem as it might be. There are ways around it that can be put in place – but those decisions will need to be conscious ones on the part of the GMs involved.

Dispute Resolution

By now, you probably know what I’m going to say in this section. Some system of dispute resolution needs to be in place and enforceable without ill-will before play begins, and everyone will need to know and agree to it. These disputes could range from character misappropriation to rules arguments. There are lots of possible solutions, and any of them would work; but it’s a major point of agreement that has to be reached in advance.

Solutions include an outside arbiter (but that can hold up the game), majority rules (but what if none of the three agree?), a “GM-in-chief” as described earlier, or a geographic-based primacy. There are others that could be devised; since the whole situation is profoundly unnatural, such decisions could be made by a roll-off!

Reality Fraying At The Edges

Game physics, and in particular how the realities will interact at the line of contact, is another decision that will need to be very clearly understood. This is especially true of Malleable Worlds, where the dysfunction can be quite extreme.

These are all issues that confronted the designers of TORG and while their solution is well-implemented at a game-mechanics level, the explanations of “why” reality works that way at an in-game level are somewhat wanting. In fact, my entire TORG campaign is built around one possible answer to those conceptual holes. Copies are getting rare and expensive at the moment:

  • There are two collectible copies here for $35 and $44.99 respectively plus P&H;
  • There are three more copies here (one new at $125 + P&H, two used at $175.95 and $839.61 plus P&H, respectively);
  • There’s a game supplement for the system that I haven’t read, called “Torg: The High Lord’s Guide to the Possibility Wars (The GM’s Guide To TORG)” which may contain the relevant system information. Amazon have 11 used from $26.99 (and probably climbing steeply in price), 6 new from $80.61 (ditto), and 1 collectible at $54.69;
  • And finally, there is TORG, Revised and Expanded (I have no idea what’s changed) – Amazon lists the hardcover with 9 used copies starting at $116.99 and 5 new copies from $197.92.
  • Last time I went looking, I found a handful of copies on e-bay at more reasonable prices (but often with much higher P&H than Amazon) – here’s one. Search for “TORG” on for more.

If you can get your hands on one at a reasonable price, or if you are lucky enough to have access to one already, crack it open for a re-read and some heavy thinking about house rules. If you have one and aren’t using it, think about listing it on Amazon; you could buy an awful lot of new stuff for even US$100 (never mind the optimist who wants over $800 for his copy).

If there’s one area where disputes and GMs acting at cross-purposes can have a long-term serious impact, its the fundamental game physics of the shared world. I mentioned the idea of giving each GM a conceptual foundation for their adventures, with one person specifically responsible for handling the physics and metaphysics; this is the reason.

Reinforcing The Continuity

If I could offer only one piece of advice on the subject to Sharky, it would be this: add more players. Not more sometime-GMs, but at least one and preferably two or three players who do nothing but experience the continuity of the campaign from a non-GM point of view – then get regular feedback from them about any rough edges they experience in the course of the transitions from GM to GM.

With only three PCs, one of whom is an NPC at any given time, continuity is almost certain to suffer. Too often, a character will react in the way the GM-to-come wants them to react, or can be accused of doing so. The omniscience that comes from being a GM will inevitably taint the decision-making process in-play from time to time if not more often.

Having a core of full-time players around which the sometimes-PCs can fit themselves reduces the degree to which foreknowledge can influence the game. Getting the feedback I mentioned earlier can identify problems while they are still small. This is true in any campaign, but especially critical in one exposed to the unusual stresses and conditions of a shared world.

The Fan-boy idea

The overall impression that all three of us got, when reading Sharky’s submission, was that this was a fan-boy idea that would have “sounded like fun” but that insufficient thought appeared to have been put into the practicalities of implementation.

There’s nothing wrong with “fan-boy” ideas per se; we all have them, and with sufficient development and attention to detail, they can become all the more compelling as a result. Many of the best comics, novels and TV series started as a “fan-boy idea”, a “wouldn’t it be cool if…”. For reasons of licensing and editorial oversight they then get divorced from their origins, and a series of redevelopments and rewrites then produces a work that is able to stand on its own merits and originality.

It’s a formula that I’ve used myself on a number of occasions: think of an episode of a TV show that you enjoyed, find a variation that looks like fun, subtract everything that’s excessively derivative of the original, creating new content to replace it, rewrite to integrate that new content – like adapting a proposed episode of Star Trek for use in Doctor Who, or as a Star Wars project, except that the “universe” is the one in which your game takes place. Above all, erase any and all expectations that the PCs will follow the plot of the original, because they won’t. Ever.

In this particular case, it can also be a solution where no one of the GMs has enough free time to commit to running a campaign full-time, or even developing one on their own. And, make no mistake, the collaborative process itself can be a heck of a lot of fun, especially when ideas are flowing freely and being bounced off one another.

The very act of collaboration means expanding the range of your ideas to accommodate the creative input of someone else. Even without the synergistic sparks that fly, that immediately doubles the level of creativity involved; factoring that in produces a total that is more than the sum of its parts. Adding in a third font of conceptual brilliance amplifies the effect. A shared world can be the most creative space imaginable; this is a phenomenon that I see all the time in music and literature.

I agree with Jesse Meixsell who wrote in VentureBeat that ‘fanboy’ is an overused and often misconstrued term, especially when it is used in a derogatory sense. I am using it only in the sense that the idea is one that fans of a particular source often come up with – “Wouldn’t it be cool if the Enterprise visited Babylon-5?” – mashing incongruent ideas together and (hopefully) wresting rationality from them. Some can be surprisingly good – there’s an exceptionally good one in a star trek / dr who crossover which can be used to resolve canonical conflict in the history of the Cybermen, for example, and I used another in the last adventure of my Dr Who campaign to make the Dr Who movies starring Peter Cushing canonical within my game universe (Doctor 2b) by drawing plot threads from several other stories, some early, and some recent.

If anyone wants to backtrack my work, here’s the summary of it that I wrote up:

The 2165 Invasion Of Earth; ten years from now, the Daleks’ plan will be revealed by the first doctor as an attempt to turn the planet itself into a weapon. And a year before that, rebels – who will have survived and grown effective, against all probability – will capture experimental time machines from the Daleks and attempt to use them to undo a series of wars between 1973 and 2174 that enabled the Daleks to conquer the earth so easily in the first place. That threatened to destabilize the entire history of the galaxy until the Third Doctor saved a peace conference in 1973 from an explosion. The Doctor always assumed that this threw the entire Dalek Invasion into an alternate timeline, a branch in reality that would naturally have sealed itself off, perpetually in a state of collapse because history had changed and no longer led to those events, it was only the time travel into the past of the rebels that kept the alternative timeline from completely vanishing.

With Dalek efficiency, it should not take them more than a year to pacify the planet. Something must delay them by another 9 years. Furthermore, they were only just stopped by the first Doctor; the slightest change to events and his first self might fail. Not only would Human history collapse like a house of sticks, not to mention his own personal history, but the history of whichever world the Daleks intended to use the Earth as a weapon against would suffer a temporal cataclysm.

In the first Cushing movie and the TV episodes adapted from them, the Daleks were assumed to be contemporary to the era, variously identified as 2150 and 2165. In fact, this was a backup plan by Davros in case his control of Satellite Five was broken; the Daleks were given “old” body casings and sent back in time to turn the Earth into a weapon against Gallifrey. This explains how they came to have temporal technology for the rebels to steal, despite not being shown to invent that for many centuries to come.

In 2030, The second Dr encountered would-be world conqueror Ramon Salamander, that Dr’s physical double, who had already conquered half the world and gathered it into his “United Zones Organization”. The populace had been deceived into believing the world devastated by Atomic Weapons and had retreated into underground domes, but this was not appreciated by anyone for some time. Opposition was centered around Giles Kent, the former Deputy Security Leader for North Africa and Europe, and his ally, Alexander Denes. Salamander planned to cause or take advantage of foreknowledge of various natural disasters to complete his takeover. Ultimately, it was revealed that Kent and Salamander had been partners all along, but the plans came unstuck when Salamander turned on his ally and the deception began to unravel at the hands of better men. Salamander then attempted to escape using the TARDIS by impersonating the Doctor, just as the Doctor had impersonated Salamander to get proof of his guilt. Prematurely triggering the dematerialization process with the TARDIS doors still open was Salamander’s undoing; he was blown out the doors and into the Time Vortex.

When the 2nd Dr was forcibly regenerated by the Time Lords into the 3rd after his trial for interference, it did NOT use one of his Regenerations, but he doesn’t know that. The lost Regeneration was “captured” by Salamander during the struggle in the Tardis, and will – when Salamander is seemingly killed – regenerate him into a very confused Peter Cushing ‘doctor’.

By sending this alternative “doctor 2” back in time to “invent” the Tardis and “recruit” the people who think of themselves as Louise, Susan, and Tom Campbell (in fact, these are actually comatose contemporary patients who can healed and imbued with false memories by the Doctor (manipulating Salamander’s regeneration energy), The Doctor (PC) can create a new dead-end branch of time and seal most of the Daleks off in it, leaving just enough to delay the conquest until his *real* first incarnation arrives. A timespan of 15 years should be just about perfect – and will falsely give the “new doctor” the impression that the date is 2150. The key to success is adapting the technology that enabled the Daleks to enter this branch of time into a Temporal Discriminator so that they end up in one or the other branch of time and aren’t duplicated in both.

There was more to it, but those are the central points.

Process Is Not Enough

“Process” refers to the practical nuts and bolts of actualizing the shared world. Without some degree of shared vision, as the campaign unfolds, it will inevitably start to run into conflicts. There has to be at least some degree of collaborative vision in terms of what has happened and how the world will work.

Shared Purpose Is Not Enough

The three GMs having characters who function as PCs when their creator is not running the game with a common purpose is not enough either. There are conceptual gaps that stretch and strain credibility. Even their cooperation is not something that can reasonably be taken for granted without being written into either the plot or the shared background.

In any shared world, there needs to be a collaborative foundation.

The Never-ending Complication

Done well, a shared world can be the most breathtakingly exciting game environment imaginable – or even beyond the imagination of any one creator. But it is also a never-ending source of complications that need to be carefully managed, or better yet, avoided.

In the case of Sharky’s proposed campaign, it falls short in both of the areas nominated above, at least based on the description provided. The process is insufficiently defined and there is not enough collaborative foundation to give the campaign direction, but the latter shortcoming is masked by the vague statements, “Each of us has a character that will be able to understand part of the things going on. The characters will have to cooperate to try and figure out how their worlds got fused together and get everything back to normal.” This is a premise that could work if presided over by a single visionary who could develop and integrate a consistent solution within the campaign as it unfolds, but which would require well-developed collaborative mechanics to function within a shared world.

We think that is the “what’s missing” that Sharky couldn’t put his finger on, and why it wasn’t obvious.

Making it more fun

Finally, do we have any suggestions for making the campaign more fun? Well, yes we do. There’s a lot of entertainment, and fascination, to seeing how someone else has twisted something that you’ve created. Ian Gray came up with a trcukload of encounters and backstory for the Zenith-3 campaign because his character had supposedly been running around and getting into trouble for months (game time) before the other PCs even showed up. A lot of this material was stuff that the DM (me) needed to know but that his character did not know. To prevent him using his foreknowledge and to keep the campaign interesting for him, there was little if anything that I didn’t give an additional twist to. In some cases, the reinvention was almost total; in others, his basic concept is still recognizable at the core of an encounter. Because he never knows quite what to expect, the encounters are as fresh and surprising to him as they are for any of the other players. It works because I’m always careful to respect the ‘history’ of his ‘past encounter’, either staying consistent with what happened in his description of events or providing him with an updated version at the start of play.

In the same way, each of the three GMs can contribute ideas to each other’s worlds without knowing how that GM will make use of their creation. They can strengthen the bonds that tie the world together by making at least some of these ideas a result or consequence of interaction with the part of the game world that they are creating. A limited creative round-robbin like this, with content that the GM creating that part of the game is free to reinterpret, revise, or twist, means that none of them know everything about even their own parts of the game, keeping it fresh for everyone.

A single paragraph, consisting of less than a handful of sentences, is more than enough to convey the core of an idea with plenty of scope for adaption, revision, and convulsion. Call it ‘free inspiration’ – something that never goes astray.

About the contributors:

As always, I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights:


Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.


Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), Mike’s “Lovecraft’s Legacies” Dr Who campaign, WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.


Ian Gray resides in Sydney Australia. He has been roleplaying for more than 25 years, usually on a weekly basis, and often in Mike Bourke’s campaigns. From time to time he GMs but is that rarest of breeds, a person who can GM but is a player at heart. He has played many systems over the years including Tales Of The Floating Vagabond, Legend Of The Five Rings, Star Wars, D&D, Hero System, Gurps, Traveller, Werewolf, Vampire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and many, many more.

Over the last couple of years he has been dirtying his hands with game design. He was a contributor to Assassin’s Amulet, the first time his name appeared in the credits of a real, live, RPG supplement. Recently he has taken to GMing more frequently, with more initial success than he was probably expecting (based on his prior experiences). Amongst the other games he now runs, Mike and Blair currently play in his Star Wars Edge Of The Empire Campaign.

In the next ATGMs: Equipment Issues!

NB: This is not the post that I expected to be making this week, but it’s been so hot and uncomfortable that it has negatively impacted on my health this week, and left me unable to even contemplate finishing the next shelf of the Essential Reference Library as scheduled. So I’ve brought this item forward – by how much remains to be seen! Fortunately, Summer is almost over…

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