Dev Log 3: What are “Communal Action” RPGs?

I described Stars Fall Up as a “Communal Action” roleplaying game in the launch post. It’s a term I came up with myself, so I figured I should elaborate a bit more. In a roleplaying game that uses the Communal Action model, all players share equal power in creating the world they’re playing in, and determining the consequences of the actions their characters take. Many would recognize similarities to improv theater or collaborative writing.

The majority of roleplaying games on the market require a Game Master to run them. The Game Master (or Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.) is the “author” of the narrative that the players are immersing themselves in. In many ways, they (the GM) are the omnipotent, godly force that controls all aspects of the world, save for the players’ actions and their freak luck, determined by the rolling of dice (but even GMs can fudge their own die rolls). There’s a power imbalance, to say the least, between the singular GM and the players. Despite this uneven dynamic, you’ll usually get the “that’s how it’s always been done” from many players who stick to a single game system, or newbies who enter the hobby through one of the big-brand RPGs. You have to get a bit more indie to find the games that play around with or abolish the role of the GM.

Ever since playing Universalis, I’ve been interested in the concept of “GM-less” games. The players of Universalis create all the aspects of their game from scratch- genre, setting, characters, plot points, everything, with a system that makes you feel like being in the writer’s room of a TV show. If you’re into that kind of experience, it can be great, but personally I felt it was a bit too overbearing for people who just wanted to dive into the meat of the game without having to consult each other over every little detail.

What I really wanted to take away from Universalis was how each player got an equal opportunity in the creative process of a game. This was a priority when I started designing games meant to be accessible for newbies—those who maybe had only played once before, or those who don’t even have a concept of what a “roleplaying game” is. This style of communal decision-making takes the burden off of one person who would have to learn the rules much more thoroughly than everyone else and have to assume the responsibility of creating and maintaining an engaging experience for the other players. When it’s a seasoned GM and a bunch of newbies, the GM’s natural role as “teacher” and the players as “students” work in their favor—but when the group lacks a person with experience, it’s hard to get the ball rolling.

Could you imagine playing a board game like Monopoly if it had a 300-page rulebook that the banker was expected to be reasonably familiar with? RPGs already have enough problems about them that scare new players away. Not only do I want to make a game that eliminates one of these variables, but also to create a precedent that other designers can look to with their own work; and depending on how well I’ve done, they can see it as an inspiration or a cautionary tale.

(header image credit: Burning Wheel RPG)

— Nagi