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Freeform, UK style

(Caveat: this is not an attempt to define anything, or to declare anything, or any kind of artistic or political statement… just a set of observations which will hopefully be helpful.)

Freeform in general

Here in the UK there is a type of game called ‘freeform’. Well, this is inaccurate already: there are probably all sorts of different types of games that are called ‘freeform’ by the people who do them. But if you come to the UK’s annual national freeforms convention, Consequences; or if you attend its freeform-writing workshop, Peaky; or if you check out a game written, run or played in by members of the UK Freeforms group; you will find that the games are generally of a particular type. Which I will outline in this post, for those who aren’t familiar with it (or who are, but hadn’t really thought about what distinguishes it). I’m not going to go into the history of how it all evolved to this point… although that might make for quite an interesting post at some later date.

Confusion sometimes arises because in other parts of the world the term ‘freeform’ is used to mean a rather different type of game. They have things in common, of course: they’re both subspecies of larp. But the differences are marked enough that I think it’s worth warning the unwary. If someone signs up to play the UK kind of ‘freeform’ expecting it to be the other kind, or vice versa, they might well not enjoy it at all; because the emphases are quite different.

In the Nordic countries, see this description which makes it clear their ‘freeform’ is more like standing-up tabletop than the mainstream of larp. In the USA, an ‘American Freeform’ has recently been identified, which again has more tabletop-like elements than the usual run of larp, and is avowedly an Americanized descendant of the Nordic version.

So what is UK freeform like, then? Here follow some statements that apply to most of the games run by people associated with the UK freeforms group. None of them are necessary conditions. Of course, it’s a broad church, and there are exceptions to all; but there’s a solid core of our games here that satisfies most of these.

UK freeform qualities

So UK freeform games usually:

  • are for somewhere in the 8-40 player range;
  • last 2-4 hours;
  • are set in a fixed location / group of locations, rather than moving setting during the game;
  • are played out pretty much in real-time, ie. two hours of game play represents two hours passing in the game world;
  • are one-off rather than part of a campaign;
  • put effort into costuming for the character (or at least, this is encouraged);
  • … but use minimal set design/dressing, intended to be indicative rather than immersive;
  • character death during the game is rare;
  • individual character background is thoroughly designed and detailed by the GM team in advance of the game, with no player input;
  • have minimal system, if any;
  • during the game, use GMs to answer questions, make rulings and provide information, but not to lead play;
  • use NPCs rarely;
  • are designed to require minimal improvisation from GMs during the game (although player factors may thwart this aim);
  • are intensely plotted and balanced, with the design expectation that plots will expose and play out during the game more or less as planned;
  • (but often with a range of variable outcomes, including unexpected ones);
  • have explicit character goals which are commonly instrumental to plot (get item X, persuade character Y to do Z) as well as sometimes character-based (find a new love, resolve your issues): these might not be typed out as a ‘list of goals’, but they are apparent from reading the character background: it may not be a design intent that such goals are accomplishable, but they serve to drive action and tension;
  • have character secrets from each other (and sometimes GM secrets from characters), ie. players would be spoilered if they were to read the whole game in advance;
  • prefer to use a casting questionnaire, to carefully fit players to characters;
  • prefer to cast well in advance, to allow players to prepare thoroughly;
  • go straight into play, with no workshop or other prep technique;
  • come straight out of play into out-of-character debrief.

Now readers in the USA are perhaps thinking at this point “that sounds like what we call theatre-style larp”. There are a lot of similarities: via (I think) a combination of convergence and cross-pollination. So UK freeform games have happily run at Intercon, and vice versa, without frightening the horses too much. Nonetheless they are separate traditions, and I think deserve to keep separate names and identities rather than just being blurred together.

I think it’s worth making this identification, not as some sort of landgrab, but just to avoid the term ‘freeform’ running away from this particular area of usage. It’s going to be helpful for people to be aware that a UK freeform is a different kind of beast to what it might be elsewhere in the world.

(Thanks to everyone who helped me clarify these thoughts, and in particular to Sam Winston and CJ Romer who came up with a  few that I’d missed.)

19 replies on “Freeform, UK style”

There’s quite a big danger of self-selection bias here. Those of us that have found our way to the UK Freeforms Yahoo and/or Facebook groups are not necessarily representative of wider trends. It’s possible, at least, that there are more people calling a different type of game “freeform” in the UK.

I’ll also repeat the criticism I’ve previously made of “American Freeform” as a concept. For something to justify a geographical descriptor, I think it may need to have certain concepts that can be pointed at as being specific to that country. There’s an argument that existed with Nordic LARP for a time (although the term does exclude a large amount of LARP also played in the Nordic country). I’m not sure that the UK has that. What we do seems pretty near to what I know of freeforms in both New Zealand and Australia. And I can’t see any real difference between us and the Irish freeforms I’ve seen.

Those caveats aside, here’s some of the other things I see being the case with the freeforms we play.

The purpose of UK freeform is primarily or exclusively to entertain. Games are written about serious issues sometimes, but they’re still played for enjoyment. The idea of writing a game to explore the human condition isn’t big here. We see entertainment as a worthwhile goal in its own right.

If ‘bleed’ takes place, it’s a byproduct, not a design goal. It’s generally resolved informally (with a pint and a casual chat) as opposed to via formal debriefings etc.

There simply isn’t a need to be taken seriously for a lot of us. Nor do we seem to care much about being seen as ‘childish’ because of our choice of hobby. That’s a noticeable difference with the American Freeform crowd, some of whom are pretty explicit about that being one of their goals in taking up the concept. Some of that is cultural. We fit pretty well into a tradition of English eccentricity to non-freeformers. Certainly, what we do is no stranger then morris dancing or trainspotting.

Mm – I tried to avoid ‘tonal’ description, because I saw that as potentially opening up an even bigger can of worms 🙂 But I think you’re right about the general tone of the UK Freeforms group.

(Personally I am quite interested in writing (and playing) games to explore the human condition, in between doing so for fun: but I’ve met quite a bit of surprise/revulsion from UK gamers when expressing that.)

Of course you’re quite right that there may be larger groups out there who use the term ‘freeform’ for something else, but without it gaining any searchable online presence. If so, maybe this post will help flush ’em out. It’ll be interesting to see!

(It’s interesting that you say you find UK games quite similar to Irish ones. I once asked a long-term freeform writer in the Irish scene about this, and they felt they were quite different, to the extent that they wouldn’t try running their own UK-intended games at an Irish convention. I guess perceptions are bound to vary depending on where you’re standing.)

But I should make clear, I’m not attempting here to use UK as a geographical descriptor – I agree with you that that’s not really helpful – other than in the very practical sense that if you come to a game advertised as ‘a freeform’ in the UK, this is what it’ll probably be like.

I’m still working out in my head what I think about all this…

But to repeat what I posted on Facebook:

I think I’m responsible for “UK freeforms”. Back in the early 90s when we were playing and writing these wonderful games, we called them freeforms because, if I remember rightly, it’s what they were called at Convivium (which is where I played my first freeform).

I think they were named after the Australian “The Freeform Book”, and the name stuck. I created the uk-freeforms mailing list (and subsequently this group) for geographical reasons. There was no attempt to define as style, purely that the list was to discuss the writing running and playing of the games here in the UK.

(It may be worth noting that when this was happening, in the early 90s, larp here in the UK was very defined: fantasy, foam weapons, mandatory costuming, player-generated characters, very simulationist. I’ve never really enjoyed that sort of larp, so it made sense to me to give these new games a different name, to differentiate them from larp.)

I later discovered that they were known as theatre style larps in the USA, but by that point it was too late.

So there’s no real difference (in my head at least) between theatre style and freeform. Same game, different terminology.

For me, though, the fun aspect is critical in playing freeforms. I don’t really want my games to explore the human condition – I want to have some diverting fun for a few hours. (Often extremely stressful, frantic diverting fun.) I’d be prepared to try a more serious game (probably given a few caveats, such as who the other players are), but I’m unlikely to seek one out.

Anyway, all this discussion has prompted me to get a bit reflective and look back on those early days. I’ll try and get it down in words at some point.

I was pretty chuffed to find a reference to my book in relation to UK freeforms. Do you have a copy of “The Freeform Book”? If not, I’d be happy to send you one. Cheers Morgana 🙂

Hi Morgana, how lovely to hear from you! Yes, your book was pretty influential over here — I guess it hit us at just the right time. There’s a lot of fantastic creativity that’s been directly and indirectly inspired by your words, over the last 25 years!

And thank you very much for your kind offer — I’ve never actually seen a copy of the book myself, so I’d love to take you up on that. I’ll drop you an email.

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