GMing on a Budget

No, I’m not talking about money. I don’t know if Lauri came up with this term himself, but it sounded good, so I’m using it here.

A definition:

GMing on a Budget is a form of GMing where the GM doesn’t have a full control of the environment. The GM has resources they can use as they see fit, but the rules limit them.


Agon gives the GM a number of points, which he can use to build opposition to the characters. Basically the game is about the players competing with each other and the GM plays against the players. With this unique dynamic, giving the GM limited resources is good. Also, the players have some control over the GMs resources, as GM will get more points to use if the players rest.

In tremulus, the GM (or Keeper) can only make moves when the players make moves, the players are silent, the threat track lets them, or the Keeper can spend a hold to do it. Again, the players have some control as being active they can thwart the GM (and give GM more powerful tools, if they are unlucky).

I guess D&D has similar rules (or probably more like guidelines) these days, but I haven’t read the DM Guide of the newer versions (or the Players’ manual, for that matter).

The idea here is to change the dynamic between players and the Keeper. Back in the day the GM was a (hopefully benevolent) dictator, who controlled the whole world. This left the players more like an audience than active participants.

Thankfully, now the GM is more like a member of the group with a different role. Like our company. There isn’t much hierarchy. Obviously, someone is the CEO and not every one has equal stake in the company, but generally no-one orders anyone around. We just try to get things done. The gaming group doesn’t need this sort of hierarchy either, although the GM generally controls all incentives (which is also often the real basis of GM power).

So, how should a GM approach this new situation, where he is limited by the rules. Depends.

In Agon, this actually requires more planning than I’m used to. Also, this approach means I have to railroad the PCs somewhat. I have to “buy” my monsters beforehand and I can’t really do it at moment’s notice. Also, when the players rest, I might need to come up with more obstacles just because I now have more points, which I can’t use to make the final boss tougher since it has its own limits on how many points I can use on it.

This means, you should probably leave some room for the final boss to have more abilities. It would probably also be better if you plan beforehand how you are going to improve it. If you still have more points to use, you can always thrown in some more of your stock baddies, if you have a chart with how many you can buy.

Planning for Agon is really mathy, which I generally don’t mind, but since its more about just calculations then real math, this is basically pretty boring, but its difficult to do on the fly.

In tremulus, the point is not to plan. Your players will give you resources and those are your tools for moving the story along. Enough points is the best way to move the game into a new stage. Using a “hard move” should be a big thing, which gets the players going when the game slows down (although, the game should slow down every once in a while). This means saving those moves. You don’t know when you’ll get more. Gladly, its enough for you to mess with one character. The others will react appropriately, as long as they know something has happened.

I think in general, this idea of limiting what the GM can do is something that warrants further innovation. There must be design space here, which hasn’t been explored yet. Granted, there might have been innovations I’m not aware of (and there probably are)…

One thought on “GMing on a Budget

  1. Indeed, D&D 3 and onwards (Not sure about Next yet) has level-appropriate encounter design systems. Not even all published adventures use them.

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