(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.)