5 ways to play RPGs without a GM
Ditch the DM screen and run exciting, immersive campaigns as a group - or by yourself.
Want to play a tabletop RPG but not sure if you’re ready to be a game master? Maybe you’ve picked up a D&D starter set or are ready to crack open your copy of Cyberpunk, but the idea of turning all those rules in the text books into fun is a little daunting.
Don’t worry! There are a bunch of ways to play RPGs without needing to run them yourself or convince someone else in your group to do it for you.
How to play RPGs without a GM
- Pick up a GM-less RPG
- Go it alone with solo games
- Play an RPG board game
- Find a local GM or group
- 5. Use a GM alternative
From amazing pen-and-paper emulators to games that tell a story with cards or dice, this list of ways to play RPGs without a GM will help get you gaming with your group without anyone needing to take on the burden. No prep, no scary improv and worldbuilding - what’s not to love?
1. Pick up a GM-less RPG
If you’re looking to play an RPG without a GM, why not start with the obvious: a game that doesn’t need a GM to begin with. There are tons of GM-less RPGs out there that you can jump into playing without making someone do a load of prep beforehand.
That might sound like a weird concept if you’ve never tried an RPG like that before, but most GM-less games work where everyone takes on some of the game mastering. You all develop the story, play NPCs and describe locations together as a group, so no one person has to take on the burden of GMing.
Like their traditional counterparts, GM-less games cover many different genres. You could try something like Fiasco, an RPG inspired by the likes of Fargo and Reservoir Dogs where you play out cinematic capers gone wrong. Cards help you to develop the story rather than relying on a GM, so the rest of you can concentrate on being hopeless criminals having fun.
Perhaps you’d rather something more gentle, such as Wanderhome - a roleplaying game where you’re all animal folk on a peaceful journey together. The book is full of prompts to help you all collaboratively build the whimsical world and decide who you meet along the way. Players take it in turns being NPCs, so you’re basically sharing the role of the GM as you go - which is a great way to ease into the idea of running games. Wanderhome can also be played with a game master, so maybe after a few games someone will feel ready to have a go at leading the session.
Whether you want a fantasy or sci-fi setting, modern-day or historical, there are so many types of GM-less games to play with your group. Each uses different ways to make playing an RPG without a GM possible, so it’s worth reading around to find one that’s right for your group.
2. Go it alone with solo games
If a game where people take it in turns running the game still sounds too much like GMing for you, why not try a totally different style of game with a solo RPG? These are usually meant to be played alone, often asking the player to journal their experience of a story as a character using prompts from a book.
Just because they’re intended to be played by a single person, doesn’t mean you can’t collaborate with friends or even play them together. Some solo games even have rules to help you play with friends - such as Apawthecaria, Anna Blackwell and Brian Tyrell’s delightful RPG about being an animal helping other critters with ailments across the Scottish highlands. Apawthecaria suggests a number of ways to expand its solo experience into a collaborative one by sending your adventures to other players through letters or becoming a caravan of creatures who work together. Apawthecaria is a great game to start with if you’re interested in solo games, but you can use these ideas in any number of traditionally solo adventures.
Another great example is Colostle, a solo adventure where you explore a castle so huge it has entire cities and oceans inside each room. As you draw cards to generate what happens on your adventure, you can come up with ideas with a friend or two and fill in your journal as if you were all travelling together. You could also play in silence side by side with a cup of tea and some gentle music, or chat about everything you see and compare notes on what you experience before you take to solo journals.
Like GM-less games, there is a whole world of solo games to explore out there that utilise different mechanics, play with different themes and can open your table up to some really exciting adventures without a game master.
3. Play an RPG board game
If you want to embody a cool group of characters with friends but don’t have anyone to plan your adventures, then why not grab a board game with strong roleplaying elements to scratch that RP itch?
While not quite the same as playing a tabletop RPG, you can still have some great fun doing silly voices, becoming a cool elf or exploring unknown places.
The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth offers the chance to have exciting adventures and stories in the fantasy world without needing to prep anything in advance. Players can jump in as Gimli, Legolas and other characters both familiar and new, heading off to uncover clues across Middle-earth and fight orcs along the way. Journeys in Middle-earth uses a companion app and modular game board to weave a tale for you, keeping its twists and turns a surprise and giving plenty of reason to replay its different scenarios to see the possible outcomes.
Another classic board game with strong roleplaying elements is Gloomhaven, the epic legacy game in which players are adventurers tackling dark dungeons and forgotten ruins. Rather than just going from A to B, you can enhance your character’s powers through loot, battle monsters and tell a branching story through the choices you make. With all of that, it’s basically like dungeon-crawling through D&D, but the game runs it for you instead of a dungeon master.
There are a ton of RPG board games out there, with plenty for traditional fantasy lovers but a great selection for those after something different too.
4. Find a local GM or group
If you want a traditional RPG experience and don’t have a group to play with, or anyone to GM for you and your friends, there are ways you can find one.
Firstly, check out your local board game café or friendly local game store. They’ll almost definitely have RPG nights or know of nearby ones you can join. You can usually find both big hitters and indie games, so there will be options on what to play if traditional fantasy isn’t your tavern drink of choice.
Sign yourself up and you’ll quickly find a new group to play with or someone willing to run a game for your friends. Sometimes these will be groups just for fun but you can also find paid GMs to run specific games for you. Either way, head down to your game store and you’ll soon be sharing adventures and supporting a great local business.
If you haven’t got any shops nearby or aren’t too worried about playing in person, you can find an RPG group online. Head to a subreddit of the game you’re playing or just search /lfg - internet lingo for ‘looking for game’ - and you’ll soon be able to find groups to join with someone willing to run a game.
5. Use a GM alternative
There are a few great tools out there that will GM an RPG for you. GM emulators or oracles allow you to play a game and let dice or cards decide what happens next, instead of a human game master.
Mythic Game Master Emulator, originally created for the Mythic RPG, can be used to run all sorts of games. It’s a system of tables and rules that mean after a few minutes of setup you can have a dynamic, exciting RPG session. It uses an oracle system to answer questions the GM would normally decide - for example, if there’s a monster in the room you enter or if a chest is locked.
There are various types of oracles and emulators, so be sure to search around to find the best one for your group, but Mythic is generally a great starting place. These systems also mean you can also play RPGs alone if you don’t have a group together yet.
Another alternative is DM Yourselves, a set of rules to help you adapt pre-written adventures into amazing immersive experiences without a GM. If you love the look of Spelljammer, Radiant Citadel or any other Dungeons & Dragons campaign out there, this is your chance to try it without needing a GM to read through the books first and plan it all for you.
The original version of DM Yourselves was meant for solo players, but the new version invites friends to the table with you. It started out as a way to run D&D 5E games, but there are guides to adapt it for other systems too.