(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 🙂
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:
|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.