Larp and freeform

(Warning: this will probably not be of interest if you’re not a gamer. In fact even if you are, it still might easily not be πŸ™‚

A couple of months ago, I played in a larp – the first time I’d done that for quite a few years. It was the weekend before Consequences, at which I played a load of freeforms: and that got me thinking about the differences between larp and freeform.

If you’re thinking at this point “eh what? isn’t a freeform just a specialized subtype of larp?” then I hear you. It certainly started off like that. But I feel that evolution over the last 20 years or so has meant that freeform, or at least what we in the UK mostly think of as freeform – the kind of thing that gets run at Consequences – has become effectively a different style of game1.

Now obviously there are going to be heaps of exceptions and grey areas, but it seems to me that the two are characterized by:

Larp Freeform
Player usually creates their own character Invariably prewritten characters
GMs often play characters, including whole-game NPCs GMs rarely play characters, and even rarelier do they NPC for the whole game
Player usually defines own goals and objectives, and relationships with other characters Character goals, objectives and relationships are predefined
GMs intervene and respond actively during the game, like in a tabletop GMs intervene and act as little as possible
Player improvisation invention of personal background material is welcome Such improvisation invention may risk ‘breaking’ the game
The general story of the game is open and may take many paths, the GMs supervising it flexibly The general story of the game is limited to a preconsidered set of possible outcomes, which depend on player groups’ relative success/failure; or to just one inevitable outcome
Complex plotlines evolve only slowly, if at all: short-term plotlines are generally pretty simple Plotlines are typically complex, deep and thoughtful, even in very short games
Often campaigns Usually one-offs

So when I started doing freeforms, it struck me how extremely elegant and clever they were as a game form, compared with the fuzzy, messy and often unsatisfying nature of larps. It seemed to me that the ultimate freeform design was like an exquisitely-crafted mechanism, where the plots, character motivations, and incidents were all designed in at the start, and once set in motion the players would experience it all unfolding around them like a glorious web through which they could dance. And these days, lots of them do actually reach that level, thanks to the skill at plotting and balancing that game-writers have developed.

But all this has taken freeform further away from mainstream larp. When we2 rerun freeforms that we first ran more than a decade or so ago, we pretty much have to double the amount of plot in the game, if it’s to go to the full length of time. The reason being that in the first instance, players were still thinking partly like larpers, and cheerfully improvised invented their own material to explore and fill out the rather sketchy game environment: now, they don’t expect to have to do that, and may complain if shortage of plot requires them to make their own entertainment.

What struck me in particular about the larp that I played in November is that it was pregen, so we did have character background to digest, like for a freeform. But there was only one page of it, for a 24-hour game. By contrast, one of the freeforms I played at Consequences had eight pages of background, for a 4-hour game3. And my character in that game had eight defined goals, and 18 defined character relationships: the larp character had none of either.

I hasten to add that both were terrific games which I enjoyed hugely: I’m not saying one approach is better than the other, or anything like that. It’s just that this contrast brought home to me how much the forms have diverged.

So one thing I’m thinking about for this year is how to bring back a bit of larp-style spontaneity and unpredictability into my freeform designs. In particular, to hand over some control to the players: to let them have more creative input into their characters’ thoughts, feelings and intentions.

Now this ventures into potentially risky territory: what if the players come up with stuff that breaks the game, or makes it not work out how I intended? That’s exactly what I want to stop thinking like. I want to trust players more, and treat the game as a joint venture in which they and the GMs are all involved together.

So expect some posts here with my thoughts about how to open my freeform design out a bit. I’m sure a lot of people will find the idea pretty repellent or feel that it defeats the point of what makes freeform freeform. And they may well be right, but I think it’ll be interesting to try some things out.

I’m very keen to hear your thoughts on any of the above, of course! Particularly where you think I’ve got it wrong :-0)

Edited to change improvisation to invention – see discussion below as to why.

1 As huggyrei pointed out the other day, other people use ‘freeform’ to mean other things, some of which are much more like larp. But bear with me for now, I’m particularly talking about the Consequnces-style thing which I myself have mostly written and played in recent years.
2 This is ‘we’ = The Epic Experience, as against a general ‘we’. YMMV.
3 This is not picked as an extreme example: it’s not at all an unusual amount of material.

50 replies on “Larp and freeform”

Very interesting post, I look forward to your future thoughts.

I’m very much more a LARP player myself, to the point where I’d be very wary of ever signing up to a freeform (of the kind you describe) by someone I didn’t know. I first encountered freeform as you describe them here in the form of the murder mysteries run by and back in the early 90s. Those were a lot of fun, but I spent most of my time thinking about the actual murders and trying to solve the clues. When I later encountered freeforms of different kinds I found they left me with nothing to do. I would go and prod each other PC in turn and occasionally I’d get some information which would unlock further prodding opportunities, but it was very much like watching a movie in which I was reluctantly obliged to remain on my feet for the duration.

I wonder if to some extent freeforms aren’t really ever the game of choice, but rather a consequence of the nature of the conventions they run at. 20 players is just far too many to write a really interactive game for if they’re not allowed to improvise. Indeed, even 12 seems like pushing it. Plays don’t have 12 (main) character casts so the demands on the scripting are massive.

My experience of freeforms in many cases echoes yours, and when they are like that (which many were) it can be pretty soul-destroying to be stuck in one.

But in recent years people have really put in a lot of time and effort into working out how to design and run freeforms that don’t suffer from those problems, to the extent of weekend-long workshops on plotting, and intense mathematical analysis of how much interesting stuff each character will have to do during the various phases of the game as it develops.

So I think that a good-quality modern freeform these days pretty much avoids the issues that you identify. But that is at the expense of some of the spontaneity that gamers generally enjoy.

I maybe misled when I talked about desirability or not of improvisation. I didn’t mean to imply that players’ actions are scripted and restricted like in a trad murder-mystery game – they aren’t at all. Players can say and do whatever they want, whenever they want. So in that sense, the game is still entirely improvised.

I should maybe have used the term ‘invention’ instead. So players aren’t supposed to eg. spontaneously during the game come up with personal links to a significant novel NPC who’s not mentioned in the game background and who the other players then have to adjust their worldview to accommodate. Whereas that would probably be OK in a larp.

I guess it’s evolved that way really because people who played a lot of freeforms tended to subsequently discuss what was good and bad about them, and so were disposed to try and avoid similar mistakes when writing their own freeforms for the same group of players. But this did require a significant-sized such community (big enough that different participants could frequently run games on each other), communing sufficiently often.

The UK Freeforms organization, which organizes Consequences, is the main hub of it, and the annual Peaky workshop weekend is their channel for actively disseminating good practice.

Although the page you linked to does give the information, I simply wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out that Peaky is actually biannual (and has even spawned a sister event (if you’ll forgive the unlikely sounding biological analogy) in the USA).

Of the two types, I’ve played LARPs very rarely and Freeforms a lot more. However, as the years have gone by I have become less and less keen on Freeforms and now actively avoid them.

The reason I don’t – and haven’t – played much LARP is because the ones I was aware of were mainly night-time games and I like my sleep too much (also I’m not big on the cold). There are ones that run in the daytime (society games being the most obvious), but these days I don’t have the time to seek them out. However, if one happened to pop up that I had the free, awake time for, I would be interested.

Most of the issues I’ve had with Freeforms are covered already in ‘s post. I’ve often found myself bored in them, wandering the room waiting for the main plot to finish. The best one I’ve played in in recent years centred around a dinner – there was a huge advantage to being able to eat/drink when you had nothing to ask or tell.

I would add to ‘s point about main cast – in my experience, the characters vary in importance or “main”ness and some simply have more to do / more fun stuff to do than others. There’s a related problem with type-casting; I find I get two particular character types a lot and I know someone who now avoids Freeform because they are always cast as the same quirky/humorous side character in every game and they are beyond bored of it (although this suggests they might do a lot better in a randomly assigned game).

I think your two lists are right – those are the main differences between the two types. About the only point I hesitated over was the complexity of the plot – but I think that’s right based on the styles today.

I like your idea about making Freeforms more LARP-like and will be interested to read more.

Thanks! – I also stopped doing larps mostly because of the outside/night/cold aspects, so it was quite nice to play an indoor one in a comfy house where you got to sleep during the night πŸ™‚

I’ve picked up some of ‘s comments in my notes above, but I guess I can say the same sort of thing here, which is that good modern freeforms generally work hard to avoid the ‘main’-ness weakness you describe, and succeed in doing so: it is a known issue, so there’s no excuse for people to keep on doing it.

Typecasting can be an issue in any game with pregens, but I suppose it stings more in a freeform, where you have less freedom to reshape the character a different way during play. It’s down to the individual GMs whether they indulge in it or not (and again, there’s no excuse for it, really). I hate being typecast myself, so I always cast my own games randomly. Other GMs have extensive questionnaires seeking to find out exactly what sort of character each player would ideally prefer to play in the game: that’s probably the most common casting practice at the Consequences games, for example.

(I guess the person you mention should either tell the GM that they’d rather not play that sort of character next time; or, if they’ve tried that, avoid that GM!)

I’ve picked up some of bateleur’s comments in my notes above, but I guess I can say the same sort of thing here, which is that good modern freeforms generally work hard to avoid the ‘main’-ness weakness you describe, and succeed in doing so: it is a known issue, so there’s no excuse for people to keep on doing it.

Ah – nice. I suspect I’ve not played one sufficiently recently to see that.

I always cast my own games randomly.

I do that too now with my table-top games with pre-gens. There’s still sometimes the comedy allocation (in my last game got the martial artist), but at least it isn’t deliberate!

Other GMs have extensive questionnaires

I wonder how well that works – would be interested to hear the comments of anyone who does it or has been given a character following that.

I guess the person you mention should either tell the GM that they’d rather not play that sort of character next time; or, if they’ve tried that, avoid that GM!

Yes – good advice.

I’ve been cast from questionnaire plenty of times (I think at the last Consequences, I was cast from questionnaire in all four games I played) and again it’s one of those things that can be done well or badly, but good practice is steadily spreading. (I was happy with all four of those results, and they were quite different types of character.)

Here are a couple of example questions from one of them (there were seven questions in all, but I don’t want to give away too much about the game), which give an idea of the kind of thinking:


2) For the following questions, please give an answer between 1 and 5, with 1 meaning β€˜Not even if threatened with a cattle prod, 2 = not really, 3 = not fussed either way, 4 = yes and 5 = absolutely and emphatically yes.

a. I wish to be in a position of authority over other people.
b. I am happy to be involved in one or more romantic plot-lines.
c. I am happy to play a loud, outspoken character.
d. I would like to play someone with a tactful, charming nature.
e. I would like to play someone with a scheming, backstabbing nature.
f. I prefer office politicking to open confrontation.
g. I prefer to follow orders and let others take the strain / blame.
h. I like sparkly stuff, especially to wear.
i. I am a lone wolf more than a team player.
j. Information is only valuable when shared.

3) What sort of things would you like to be involved in? (Check any that you wouldn’t mind doing).

a. Politics
b. Secret Society
c. Investigation
d. Romance
e. Collecting
f. Revenge
g. Occult
h. Villainous stuff

Many thanks – very interesting. I see it can help move players to the sorts of stuff they want to do.

I guess there might be more players that want a certain role type than number of roles available – but that’s a general player/character mismatch that no pre-gen approach can solve once the players are signed up to the game!

Yes, that can be a problem – the larger the game, the more likely you’ll be able to keep people happy (on the basis of probabilities) – this one was for 30 players iirc.

(And also, sending out casting questionnaires early helps – this particular one came out out a couple of months in advance of the game – so if you see a mismatch, you’ve got time to reslant some characters to accommodate it.

I think that the “main-ness” of some characters is a hard one to totally avoid – even when all characters have a similar amount of stuff to do and plot to be involved in, the more visible, high-social-status characters (if there are any) will usually tend to be involved with the more visible, world-changing plotlines.

There is an epithet that I have always tried to bear in mind when writing freeforms (which is not something I’ve done an awful lot I should add), which is that “every character should be able to view themselves as the hero[ine] of their own game, not just a minor character in someone else’s”. It doesn’t banish the problem, but it helps, and gives an effective rule of thumb when deciding if a character is “main” enough to play enjoyably.

“every character should be able to view themselves as the hero[ine] of their own game, not just a minor character in someone else’s”. It doesn’t banish the problem, but it helps, and gives an effective rule of thumb when deciding if a character is “main” enough to play enjoyably.

Seems like a good solution.

V. Interesting stuff. Following my experiences with LARP over the years (both the kind you seem to be describing i.e. social LARP, and the more violent, boffer/cap gun kind), I had started to move in the direction of what you call freeform, precisely because the game often seemed a bit aimless and with a tendency to peter out unless constantly fed with plot.

I’m intrigued that you’re going in a different direction. I wonder if there’s lessons to be learned from GMless tabletop gaming; I suspect so, but would need to think about it.

I find it ironic, by the way, that what you’re describing on the right is called “freeform” when it’s so much more structured and fixed than what you call LARP. Really the names should be the other way around.

I wonder if there’s lessons to be learned from GMless tabletop gaming

Mm, this is very much my thinking. My most useful lesson from GMless tabletop has been the observation that experienced players can quickly evolve a consensus background between them that does actually work and that they can safely develop further during play without fearing breaking game balance, as long as the narrative expectations are suitably explained.

You can expect to see in my next post some further thoughts along these lines πŸ™‚

Really the names should be the other way around.

heh! – yes, maybe so. In the US, what we call ‘freeforms’ are mostly called ‘theater-style larps’, which perhaps in some ways better conveys the distinction. (Although opening up all sorts of other connotative cans of worms…)

S’true. For many years I’ve thought that the most freeform thing about freeforms is the definition of what constitutes a freeform in the minds of those who write and play them (although there is a lot more commonality now than there once was).

I don’t see any significant problem with (most) players expanding stuff to include new NPCs or whatever (there are one or two who I would not trust to do so in a balanced and sensible manner), but the main problem I would see is the difficulty of communicating that info to other players who should know about it within the game (and within the game time — I’m assuming a more-or-less-standard four-hour slot here).

For instance, if you have a player who comes up with the new NPC their Aunt Patty, who happens to be a world authority on ferrets (assuming that doesn’t unbalance the game completely), then either:

a) Aunt Patty is completely irrelevant to the other players, in which case fine, but the player is likely taking up GM time when they perhaps shouldn’t be;
b) Aunt Patty’s existence affects one or more other players, in which case the GMs need to figure out who, and communicate this to them.

If b) is true, then either the GMs have to take the affected player(s) to one side and tell them of Aunt Patty’s existence and how it affects them, or they have to produce a bit of write-up and give it to the relevant players. I’d err on the side of write-up as it is less easier for people to forget what they have been told, but then people have to have the time to read and digest it.

The other option, I guess, would be to send stuff out ahead of time and invite people to send in suggestions, but that penalises players who don’t have time to read the stuff significantly ahead of time…. and GMs who don’t have stuff finished that far ahead πŸ˜‰ (And, also, is likely to get you a very wide variety of different amounts of additional info — a couple of lines to a novella, depending on the player concerned.)

I think I’d be tempted to limit it a bit to say “you can give us one NPC to include in your background, no more than 250 words of it — and we won’t be accepting superheroes” and then ask for it beforehand. That then gives the GMs a bit of leeway to pre-populate connections between those NPCs and other characters.

Mm, I like the idea of giving players a bit of scope to create NPCs etc ahead of the game, to allow GMs to build it into the game – that’s a nice extension of what and I did for Reading Between the Lines (allow them to choose their own para-character ahead of time).

The third option (c) I guess would be to rely on the player themselves to spread the word about Aunt Patty within the game. This would potentially break the frame (player whispers in the ear of other player “by the way, this is not me saying this to you, but you happen to know that I have an Aunt Patty”), which is a bit of a no-no in freeforms [I explain for the benefit of readers less familiar with them] – and/or force the player to effectively reveal their intentions in a way that GM secret mediation avoids.

But with a bit of thought, and some constraints on the sorts of Aunts Patty that could be invoked, might it be possible to organize it so that the player just has to mention her in character, and the other players are attuned to pick up on her and to internalize her appropriately?

I think it’s a potential balance issue whichever way you do it, but it might work for smaller games (less sure for larger ones). I suspect it’s going to be heavily dependent on the amount of background people have already been given; if they’ve got six sheets (say) of background already, Aunt Patty’s existence and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the intestinal flora of ferrets might get lost in the background noise. Also, if people have no goals which are likely to be enhanced or achieved by their knowledge of Aunt Patty’s existence, they may just not take any notice… I’m not sure the new NPCs would actually get internalised in a useful manner. Sure, they’d give the player with the additional aunt something to talk about, but many (most?) experienced freeform players can come up with fluff of that nature already.

As a _player_ I think I would find it more difficult the more background we had already been given, because there’s a limit to the amount of information I want to try to retain and work with for a (relatively short) game. If it was a game where we’d been given very little information to start with, it starts veering into the realms of improv — which is fine, if not necessarily something I would sign up for — or those Vampire freeforms of olden days where most characters had a two-line description πŸ˜‰

more difficult the more background we had already been given

Yes, that is key I think. I felt the page that we had in the larp I mentioned was about right, because it made it clear to what extent the GMs had defined a sturdy skeleton of stuff, but also left plenty of gaps which it was apparent we could fill in mutually.

Marlowe runs very much on the ‘make shit up and everyone runs with it’ and has tiny character sheets as a result.

It was a different experience to GM.

I enjoy both (although my LARP experience is very much based on Lasertag rather than out in the woods in the dark stuff) and I’d dearly love to find a long term indoor campaign where I could develop relationships and stuff ala Freeforms

Speaking as one of the players; I certainly queried it at the time we were sent the character sheets (“that’s a bit short, isn’t it?”) ;). It seemed to work well for some people, less well for others. I think I’d’ve preferred a bit more to work with, personally, but I did have a good time anyway.

I have to say that I totally loved Marlowe at Consequences. Daft, mad plot, I got to costume, and LOTS HAPPENED. Even in four hours. Very satisfying.

My LARP experiences are very different. See below…

Mm, I think that’s true: but there’s been quite a bit of subsequent blurring and bifurcation in the twenty-odd years since that stemming took place.
These days there are quite a lot of things calling themselves larps which don’t involve combat at all. One could say “well, those are freeforms really then, not larps”: but they’re (in feel and design aim) quite different from what people actually call freeforms, which branched off larp much earlier: they’ve just convergently evolved towards the same direction.
Straining the analogy further, I think your distinction is like saying that fish live in the sea while mammals live on the land. It was true some time ago, but since then a lot of mammals have gone back into the sea: and I’m interested in the ways in which they’ve ended up as similar to and yet different from actual fish. What can the fish learn from them? – and vice versa?

So… you’re saying that what LARPers should really learn from freeformers, when it comes down to it, is that they should stay the hell away, or the freeformers will eat them?

Have I got that right?

In fairness, basking sharks and whale sharks clearly follow the same sort of model as some of the biggest sea-mammals, (although I’m not sure which evolved the filter-feeding M.O. first), so perhaps there’s something to be said for it.

And there are freeformers out there who do seem to go through plot like a blue-whale through a shoal of krill!

Rei’s Comment Part 1….

What I find interesting about this is that when I started freeforming, I very much approached it from the point of view of the Oxford Socety Game, which I thought of as a freeform, but by your definitions was not.

While I enjoyed a lot of the ‘new’ type of freeform, one of my frequent criticisms was a lack of flexibility in what I could do, and a feeling that this room ful of people was actually the only bit of the world that existed. I felt they were missing something, a bit of freedom to wander off and do stuff, and more importantly, to have that stuff actually effect what happened in game.

My first freeform, Foundations, was more or less an attempt to bring in elements of the Oxford society game style into a freeform, and in fact all my games so far have included somewhat experimental elements or structure as I’m trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.

Comparing Foundations to your list:
-Characters are prewritten in broad life story strokes, but actual detail is sparse and most of the information is in the setting and factions, in an attempt to give players lots of flexibility in how they interpreted and played their characters (interestingly, a lot of people said to me that their character had been perfect for them, which considering the character itself was terrifically sketchy, I suspect means that they comfortably created the personality they wanted to play without really noticing)
-There are several GM played NPCs (and at one point a small horde, recruited from whoever happens to be nearby), although they don’t last long; they’re more a means of introducing and advancing plot, rather complex or personal characters to interact with
-We predefined *faction* goals, objective,s and relationships, gave each character two factions and somewhat conflicting associated goals, and let the players derive their own personal objectives and relationships from the framework
-As GMs, we run around all game like mad things and are pretty tired by the end
-Not sure about the invention of personal background thing; given so little character detail, I wouldn’t be surprised if this occurred, but I didn’t see it as a GM. It’s difficult to know as a player what detail might or might not be potentially game breaking.
-Available paths oddly somewhere in between; there were a bunch of plotlines we already had built in, but the outcome of these were entirely unknown, and we gave the players huge scope to do whatever they could come up with (so we have a game where someone created an army of giant space squids, and a couple of runs where despite the premise of the game being to stop giant rocks from destroying the world, the players entirely ignored that plotline, and as a result, giant rocks did indeed destroy the world)
-Haha – with H writing plotlines, they all end up unecesarily complex, and I usually need to tone them down a bit so that they make sense (H is a plot bunny and is great at churning out loads and loads of plot ideas). It depends what you mean here; I don’t find a lot of freeform plots all that complex, but then I don’t tend to consider relationships as plots, just links and excuses to involve other people in actual plot. I tend to feel that character development should happen as a result of plot, not as a plot.
-Is a one-off, as we were intending to run it at cons, although now that we have the setting and world it’s tempting to write something else in the same universe.

…Rei’s Comment Part 2

Looking at the list, I think there are a number of things limited not so much by the feel of a freeform as the intention of running repeatable games at cons. It needs to be a one-off if you’re not sure of getting the same players; which means you don’t have time to let things develop slowly and you need to define enough things at the start to give them something to base relationships and player actions on; and this means that there isn’t time for the GMs to weave in everything a player wants to improvise or every plotline they might want to introduce. I’m still not convinced that a campaign freeform, run without some of these constraints, would not ‘feel’ like a freeform or deserver to be called one. I don’t want to call them ‘Oxford Socety Game style’ forever as that’s even more confusing and only works for a very small clique, and LARP is inadequate as it’s not combat based and is definitely a different feel to a classic combat LARP even without the combat.

Tony’s Linfarn games are a campaign. Does that make them less of a Freeform? Carl tends to run games where the players are indeed allowed to create their own characters, and he adds in details and relationships later. Does that make them not a freeform? It seems to me that your list is more or less just a bunch of features that are commonly used, rather than a prescriptive definition. It’s like saying that board games are about competing with other players, then discovering cooperative board games, or my favourite troll post of why D&D isn’t actually a roleplaying game. I think I’d rather stick to ‘if it calls itself a freeform, and people treat it like one, then that’s what it is’.

Our second game was closer to a ‘standard’ freeform, the only real difference being that most of the characters had special abilities that let them call on something outside the game space, either information or resources (although even in that one, by the end the players are being allowed to do things like build terraforming devices from a bunch of wires and bits of twigs if they decide to ask), and then we tried our semi-horde Starship game, in which I made use of some of the monster encounter format in combat LARPs. Our next one will be run at Conception and is largely ‘traditional’ freeform with some elements of the external events and plot used in Foundations, so will have to see how that goes! I love running Foundations, and people seem to enjoy it, but it is such a heck of a lot of effort and without a 3rd ‘runner’ to help us can suffer from impatient people spend a lot of time queuing for GMs, so we’ve done lots to it to help information flow. This is why we’ve settled on ‘hybrids’and using a ticketing system – so that players have plenty to do without needing the GM, and don’t end up standing around bored if we’re busy, but can still do things ‘outside’ the game space and thus change the course of the game.

Anyway, I’d be curious to try more games that experiment a bit with this list and try to cross some of the boundaries, since I’m pretty interested in trying that out myself!

Re: …Rei’s Comment Part 2

It seems to me that your list is more or less just a bunch of features that are commonly used, rather than a prescriptive definition.

Yes, absolutely, that’s why I hedged it about with all sorts of caveats. In general I don’t think prescriptive definitions are necessary, helpful or even possible in most cases.

All I’m trying to say there really is that in the notional n-dimensional game-space there’s a cluster of similarish stuff over here, another cluster of similarish stuff over here; and although there is a continuum of stuff inbetween, it’s a thin continuum compared with the denseness of the clusters where things tend to share those characteristics. The examples you cite are at various places in the inbetween zone, as is Foundations by the sound of it. So you’re well ahead of me in experimentation!

(Although I do differ from you in that the Oxford Society Game, to me, is definitely a larp (unless it’s changed nature in recent years). It was set up with explicitly that goal: to be an indoors combatless larp campaign with PBM alongside. At the time we already had a ‘trad’ larp campaign going, and we’d experimented with indoors real-time sessions of that, which everyone had enjoyed: so we wanted to devise a new kind of game, which had the structure of a larp campaign of regular meetings of a group of characters with timelapses inbetween.)

Re: …Rei’s Comment Part 2

Ah, I see. I suspect I’m just reacting from remembered conversations in which people insisted that various game ideas of mine weren’t actually freeforms and I felt they were occasionally dismissed on that basis, which is why I wasn’t keen on the labelling, although more a preconceived notions and caution of new styles than a problem with the definition necessarily (and I do suffer somewhat from the caution-with-new-styles myself, although trying to branch out a bit – difficult to separate ‘unreasonable fear because it’s new or hasn’t been done well in the past’ from ‘comparing this format to my preferences implies I may not enjoy it’).

I’m happy to call the society game a LARP; I think what happened is that the combat based FLRP has now been caleld LARP for a while, and it’s definitely not the same as that, so there’s been a shift to freeform as a description to distinguish it. I certainly find the feel/style of it closer to freeform than to combat LARP, and people tend to associate the word LARP very strongly with the combat. Maybe I should stick with ‘theatre style LARP’ as an umbrella term πŸ™‚

Re: …Rei’s Comment Part 2

Mm, I’ve heard that kind of dismissal myself, and I think it’s not helpful really – tending to polarization and retreating into silos. Which is human nature I guess: if people are used to doing things one way which works for them, they often may think that doing it a different way is either a threat or else automatically inferior. Which often it may be inferior, of course, but one shouldn’t assume so!

difficult to separate ‘unreasonable fear because it’s new or hasn’t been done well in the past’ from ‘comparing this format to my preferences implies I may not enjoy it’)

Yes, that’s very well put! And sometimes difficult afterwards, too, to separate ‘I enjoyed/didn’t enjoy that game’ from ‘it was a good/bad format’.

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually commented on your principle question yet on this thread, and I should do so, as the subject does matter to me.

My main thought about what might be done to improve freeforms, or at least change their current direction slightly, is (and this will be seen by some as the worst kind of heresy) to ease up slightly on plot, or at least the equation of plot with concrete goals/stuff to do.

The thought came from a conversation I had with , in which he told me that he had more or less given up on freeforms, because the “list of stuff to accomplish in 4 hours” style of game was becoming too much like actual work. I could see his point. What I enjoy most about roleplaying of any sort is the actual roleplaying; immersing myself in a character, and interacting with other people who are immersed in the same shared fiction.

Granted, a large percentage of the problems that anyone I know who has ever freeformed come down to lack of Stuff To Do, but then, “MacGuffin Hunt” plots (and similar), while they can fill up time in a game, rarely feed the soul very much.

When I have suggested that “less is more” might apply to freeform plots to other freeformers, the reaction has thus far been horror verging on mortification, but I am convinced that if I cut through enough mental undergrowth in this area, there’s a path to somewhere desirable.

The closest I’ve got so far does (fortuitously) bring me back a little way to your thoughts on making freeforms more like LARPs, in the sense of GM intervention (and by extension, player improvisation (and perhaps even invention).

What I thought was that you could have a selection of events or occurrences that GMs could inject into a game, at times that seem to suit, or that they could simply hold in reserve unused if the need never seemed to arise. These could affect one person (“A distant relative has died, and they’ve left you this mysterious artefact in their will.”), a few people (“A Papal Bull has been issued, excommunicating all practising Freemasons and their immediate families!”) or everyone (… you get the idea, I’m sure…).

Now I realise that this probably isn’t a totally original idea, and to some extent, contingency envelopes are sometimes used in freeforms to trigger new bits of plot for characters when certain conditions are met. The aim of what I’m suggesting is for GMs to have pre-prepared ways in which they can intervene if one, some or all PCs seem to have come adrift, or if a period of the game has gone a bit flat. The intention would be to make these injected pieces of plot things that the PCs have to respond to by action and (hopefully) interaction, and preferably things that the characters would care about, and which would possibly modify their relationships with other PCs.

On a completely different note, some people (Mystery in Mind frex) do tend to encourage players to volunteer their own background at the character writing phase, which often gives them ways in which other characters in the game can be woven into theirs, and can generate usable plot points.

Damn, that took longer than expected!

Mm, good to see your thoughts, thanks! It was a similar line of consideration (about the lack of space for the actual role-playing in a plot-busy game) which led and me earlier this year to write Reading Between the Lines – which is plot-light, goals-light and character-heavy compared with most recent games. But, as you say, we did even so get a couple of players afterwards commenting along the lines of ‘not enough to do’.

Plot that can be injected into the game on the fly, as required to suit player needs, is an interesting idea. Either or (sorry, can’t remember who) suggested doing something like that for our rerun of Winter of Discontent, at Consequences just now, as we were pretty sure it wouldn’t have enough plot for the modern player. I couldn’t work out a way of doing so without it seeming like random bibble, so in the end I just wrote extra ordinary plot instead. But I think you’re right that there is considerable potential there.

Don’t have much time to comment or trawl the comments, but very interesting. I have a couple of things to add – not sure if they’ve been already said or if you even care, but…

1/ System
often has objective systems that equate to World vs Party, as a measure of challenge, character progression, etc.
Freeforms, if they have any system at all, have cellular mechanics that are subjective to each PC (even if they are grounded in common principle) and of course adjudication is Player-GM 1-2-1.
The interesting crossover is the RPGSoc Society Games over the years, and the Minds Eye Theatre stuff (as a commercial example).

2/ Character Death
In LARP it’s an ongoing concern/challenge and real threat (even though GMs will try all sorts of Deus Ex Machina to avoid a PC actually dying).
In Freeforms its a consequence of the plot, and is actively prevented/delayed in some systems.
One could argue that LARP Death is “losing” whereas Freeform Death isn’t, because it’s a thespian contribution to the shared experience.

Very good points, thanks!

Has there been a systematic study of that sort of system-type distinction vs the GNS model, do you know? Would seem that objective systems fit very naturally with G-type games; subjective with N-type.

I don’t know of any such study. I’ve heard of more than one theoretical model, but I can’t seem to find the page I once found with all the cool diagrams on it. Maybe I dreamed it.

And of course arguing whether the freeform model is “N” or actually “G” with a different sort of social contract could be stock for a really good flame war. Having those terms to discuss is useful though–especially if you have a practical goal like getting the maximum output per hour of game prep.

(I suspect Edwards would argue that G, N, S were all Objective, just as those designers argue that some games are Objectively Better than others because they tick certain boxes.)

My first i8ntroduction to any sort of LARP?Freeform game (and at the time I didn’t know there was a division!) was Masqueraders in 2011. It was…

Very confusing!
Contained a small patch of boredom when everyone was off in huddles doing PLOT that I had no idea how to break into!
Lots of fun.
And I caused lots of last minute confusion and angst among the other characters by doing something totally off the wall at almost the last minute when I finally got the hang of things. And that was fun.

And it allowed me to make costumes for ME, which was (and is!) one of my prime motives for doing this. Which many people may thing WRONG, but I don’t actually care. πŸ˜‰

It was kind of in at the deep end stuff. I felt that in such a complex game a bit more guidance for new players along the lines of “you are actually allowed to make stuff up if you need to” and “The GMs really are there to help you have a good time, so if you are out on a limb or feel ignored, employ the paperclip and go and pester them a bit”.

Shortly after that I got involved in the last seasons of Maelstrom, which ran for a total of nine seasons, I believe. I could wish to have been involved earlier. It was very different: NOT being given chunks of plot, whole characters, making up your own character’s goals and ambitions, and deciding what level of Dire Machinations you want to be involved in, and how you want that character to proceed is a very different game indeed. But to me it’s just as much fun. It’s harder work, maintaining that level of involvement over the seasons, but things develop slowly and you can build up your levels of character, skill, and history as you go. To start with there isn’t so much to digest: you can be up and running on the minimum of guidance and go with the flow. Or you can plunge in fully fledged and with a camp the size of half an army (or, in our case, an IC shop and an insane collection of frocks and family silver!) and forge a path/cut a swathe through whatever obstacles are set in your way.

It’s good to have the greater scripted levels of the freeforms: you have less of a responsibility for your character and the plot, and that suits some folk and some events. But it’s equally good, and in some ways a bit more satisfying, to be master of your own plot within the world of the game.

I don’t think it’s either or: for me there are great merits in both. I could sometimes wish I had more to do in the seasonal system games and less to read beforehand in the freeforms, but both are what you make of them when you are playing. And a well-written seasonal world or freeform plot and characterisation set goes a long way towards making them both great.

I strongly suspect that both types of game, from the writer’s point of view, is a bit like preparing to teach a lesson: your plan can be meticulously plotted and fine tuned, you can cover all the bases, and it will still turn out to be different in places you never even though of when you prepared it!

I felt that in such a complex game a bit more guidance for new players along the lines of “you are actually allowed to make stuff up if you need to”

Mm, I felt that when I started off freeforming too: I basically didn’t dare make anything at all up for the first couple of games. I developed a feeling for the sort of things you could safely add and what you probably shouldn’t, in particular styles of game, but it is still pretty vague at times.

I don’t think it’s either or: for me there are great merits in both

Yes, absolutely. And also, I think both can learn things from the other, because the areas inbetween (seasonal larps that are a bit more like freeforms, or freeforms that are a bit more like seasonal larps, etc) are potentially very enjoyable.

Interesting discussion! Thought I would pop back on to LJ as this is a topic of particular interest to us.
From a Mystery In Mind point of view we have always been happy ( and actively encouraged) players to make shit up. Sometimes it breaks the game as we have envisioned it but never does it grind to a halt ( though that very much relies on the GMs being happy to think fast and also make shit up). Personally we started off closer to writing LARPs rather that freeforms ( but with more plot) and over the years people have wanted more and more in the way of background elements etc. I very much like the idea of moving back towards LARPs in that players can develop the characters much more and have more freedom but that is our personal preferences.
Freeforming to me has become more and more about trying to remember details on a character sheet rather than actively getting into and playing a character and just letting loose. Probably one of the biggest reasons I started to loose interest in them. While I like a bit of background I don’t really want to decode 8+ pages of intricate details in order to actually play the game.
Some of the greatest moments I have had in a freeform were when players made shit up and I got to experience it as an NPC, but immense fun was had by all and we got to enjoy it together rather than the player/gm divide that exists more today. I think people are much more resistant to such things today and for me that’s a shame. My ideal would be somewhere between what you classify as LARP and freeform.
We are currently writing 2 (potential) campaign games which more than likely will never see the light of day as I am not sure they will appeal to true freeformers but they are an enjoyment to write nonetheless πŸ™‚

Thanks for posting – what you say really resonates with me.

My hope is that these sorts of discussions will prompt people to think about creating some more freeforms that are a bit more like larps, rather than being bound by pages of intricate details in that way.

I completely agree that some of the best moments are when players and GMs are flying together – and I’ve not experienced that so much lately, because of the way player expectations have evolved.

I want to post some more concrete thoughts about how to design in that flexibility (without frightening the horses) later, when I’ve got them together in my mind.

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