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Freeform Roleplaying

Started by xenopulse, February 09, 2005, 12:40:50 PM

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From the thread on "Nar Play with Sim Rules:"

Quote from: SeanAn interesting thing about this is that while making the rules lighter can facilitate better Nar and Gam play relative to a traditional RPG, the zero-point solution - freeform - is functional for Nar but not really for Gam, I think. Maybe if someone has ideas on that they can start another thread to analyze the claim or call bullshit on it.

As someone who has played freeform intensively for many years, this is one of my main points of interest. Therefore, I'd love to discuss freeform play and CAs more in depth. As a precaution, this post mostly deals with freeform environments that are accessible to many players (mostly online communities), not small discrete groups of players who meet regularly and play in a continuous game only with each other. Here are some of my observations:

a) Narrativism in Freeform Play.

Yes, the freeform environment allows for Narrativist play. It gives a lot of freedom over the premises to address. In most freeform environments, players have total character ownership, so they can decide over their character's life, wounds, psychological state, relationships, etc. This ownership can be limited through Social Contract (if players agree on a GM and grant her powers), but it is generally assumed as the starting point. Notice, however, that this makes many players uncomfortable, especially Sim and Gam players (see below).

Now, one problem that Nar players often encounter with freeform play tends to be what I call the Comfort Zone. Most players don't dare to leave it; they address premises only to a limited degree, and since they have total control over their characters, they can always choose an easy way out. It's difficult to make tough choices when you can alter anything to make things easier. That's why most freeform Nar experiences seem to play out among the relationships between player characters (as that's a place where one player does not have total control), and tend to revolve around issues of loyalty, passion, betrayal, and sometimes sacrifice.

Therefore, my thesis is that total lack of structure is not the best environment for Nar play. Certain systems, such as Dogs, push the players via the resolution mechanics to face certain issues. They do not allow for an easy way out. That is, in my eyes, where the true nirvana of Nar play lies. Players still have a vast input in the kind of premises they want to address and enough freedom with character generation to play toward these issues and make them visible to the GM, while at the same time the game draws them out of their Comfort Zone.

b) Gamism in Freeform Play

Gamism deals with Stepping on Up: taking risks, mastering challenges, and impressing fellow players (that's my simplified version for the purposes here). In my experience in freeform environments, many Gamist-oriented players become frustrated because they cannot outright defeat other players' characters (because of total character ownership).

Often, cliques form that all agree on a System to regulate who wins. This is based either on writing skills, some dysfunctional hybrid of power play and supposed realism, or creativity in attacks. They also use player's notions of plausibility to play against them; when one player with total ownership decides that his character turns all the air in a 5 mile radius into acid, the opposing player (who can't block on the basis of rules because there is no limitation to characters' powers (total ownership)) can either die, or change his/her character spontaneously to have powers to deflect the attack, or start an OOC refutation. None of those is a happy choice for most players.

Notice that social Systems of deciding conflicts often become established in a specific forum, and newcomers who do not conform are considered "bad roleplayers." There is a lot of social pressure that replaces structured mechanics. However, the potential for abuse of these social reinforcements is much higher than that of clearly written-out Systems that include Fortune mechanics and balancing rules for character powers, for example.

Therefore, Gamism often looks very different in freeform play than it does in structured play. Freeform Gamists tend to focus on establishing what they perceive to be their best skill (literary descriptions, creative actions, coming up with the most powerful events imaginable) as the social norm. Also, seniority and numbers are frequently invoked to decide conflicts ("My character has been here for five years, he is rightfully much more powerful than yours;" "We are three players against one, and as we're all equal, we are now three times your power, so your character should lose."). So, Gamism exists in freeform play, but it is often frustrated and frustrating. Still, I've seen many occasions on which players were very happy with playing conflicts against one another and showing off their skill, especially when they had an audience.

c) Social Contract in Freeform Play

As with most RPing, it all comes down to the Social Contract. Where there are no printed authorities or Fortune mechanisms to fall back on, figuring out how to play with each other becomes that much more important. But it's also more difficult. Often, people play with different players all the time. Ad hoc Social Contracts form and are most of the time only implied. This creates a lot of potential, both for rewarding setups that are not limited by rules as well as problems with implicit and conflicting ideas.

I have seen many attempts at ratifying a System and enforcing it in a certain forum. Usually, there are guidelines that most players sooner or later agree upon. These consists of pointing out total character ownership, the cooperative nature of roleplaying (especially in the absence of mechanics), the idea that people play to have fun and may disagree about whether random fights that kill off characters are considered such, etc.

Overall, freeform play has a lot of potential and seems to attract many players who are not happy with the standard industry RPGs. Many of my friends would not enjoy playing D&D and never have played any RPG at all, but love to play freeform. But because of the stigma of FTF RPGs, these players are potentially missing out on mechanics and games that could allow them to play their CA more efficiently, or with more focus, or outside their Comfort Zone. That is, I believe, where most of the growth potential of RPGs lies.


Awesome post, Christian.

There are two sets of issues that are interesting to me in it, but I can see a lot of other possibilities in it too - particularly for people who actually play freeform or near-freeform games, which I haven't for like fifteen years.

1) What is freeform, exactly? It's not absence of system, and I think Christian does a pretty good job saying what the system of most freeform play is: each player has credibility over their own character, conflict resolved by consensus, etc. There's a social contract which includes commitment to this system. So the strength of the activity is going to stand or fall on the ability of the players to work with consensus.

I happen to hate consensus decision-making, so I'm not a good candidate to say more about this, but I think there's more to be said. So you introduce descriptions into an SiS in a freeform game. What different kinds of constraints, methods, etc. have evolved for this?

2a) A relatively freeform Gamist game I played when I was young was Cops & Robbers, which was published I think by SPI (can't recall). The way this works is, you divide people up into two teams and all fade into the background in somebody's backyard or a park. Conflict resolution was adjudicated by physical speed - who pointed the finger and said 'bang' with the finger pointed in the right direction the fastest. Last kid (or kids, if they were on the same team) standing wins.

One problem that came up was that ties or near-ties were so frequent that there was this incredible temptation for people to cheat. Eventually, cheating became so endemic that we largely stopped playing the game. More than cheating itself, it was the suspicion that others were cheating - which undermined the social contract - that 'broke' the game.

Another possibility would have been to introduce some more system. The best fix I can think of offhand is to say that in the ties and near-ties, yer both dead - so stealth becomes paramount.

But anyway, this isn't really freeform in one sense, because there's a victory condition. It seems like freeform gamist-facilitating games would rely on no specified victory condition, only Step on Up, since once you specify a victory condition I think it doesn't qualify for the 'freeform' label any more.

2b) So that leads me to question your description of the gamists in your freeform games. OK, so they're trying to push the types of input expected from people into the SiS towards the ones they're good at, which makes them seem like bigger studs. I agree that this is a way of getting your Step on Up on, but I'm not sure it's really part of the freeform game itself. (There is a big issue here though about what's game and what's metagame that is going to be very hard to resolve sometimes in ongoing freeform communities.)

Here's something that comes to mind. There's a painting by Chuck Close at the Chicago Art Institute that's basically like a perfect 10' tall polaroid photograph. This is, in one sense, a Gamist painting - Close is paying a certain kind of homage to Lichtenstein, making a move in the war between the painters and the photographers, making what's essentially a kick-ass representational painting in a largely post-representational age in art - the painting is engaged in several major polemics in art theory.

Does that make 'serious' painting a 'gamist' form of activity? I want to say it doesn't. Sure, artists compete and Step on Up in choosing their projects at times - that's just part of being human. But the art form itself has a certain integrity independent of this. A person's act of painting something may be heavily invested with Step on Up and all kinds of wholesome alpha primate goodness, but that doesn't make painting a gamism-facilitating art form.

Likewise, someone might decide they wanted to write the king of all Narrativist RPGs, 'to show all those guys at the Forge who's really got his shit together.' So this guy is displaying a 'gamist' motivation in real life to do something. But still, that doesn't make the Narrativist RPG he produces Gamist, if he does it.

Getting back to Christian's post, then, I'm not see how the techniques you mention are operant at the game-level. I've participated in group writing activities, and I have from time to time wanted to write something better than the guy before me. That's competition. But the story-writing itself wasn't competition: it was making the story.

Is this making any sense? If so, maybe someone can provide a more concrete example of freeform gamism that meets my criteria.

2c) My mom and I used to play a game called "Realistic War Game". We would draw an oval on a map and a line down the middle, with a capital city on each side. Play went like this: I'd take a little of her territory by erasing part of the border line, she'd take more of mine the same way, I'd take even more of hers, she'd send planes to bomb my capital city (erasing it from the map), I'd retaliate, and eventually we'd scratch out the whole piece of paper giggling as the world was destroyed in nuclear fire. Was that freeform gamism? I'd say no, because there was nothing to facilitate Step on Up, and the game always ends in a draw.



Thanks for the reply—there's a lot of good food for thought here. Let me see if I can give you my view on some of these issues.

1) What is freeform?

This is, of course, related to the question of what roleplaying is. I believe roleplaying to be a discourse, not a literary art, even when you're playing over a chat interface. Most roleplaying games have certain elements that are given from the start; System, Setting, Characters... a freeform environment, basically, starts at the pre-game level. It has a lot more to do with the group of friends sitting around asking "What are we going to play" than with that group once it's involved in a specific game. The nature of freeform communities makes the figuring-out aspect a part of the constant process. Nothing is ever accepted outright or permanently. New players come, old players change their attitudes. So, the defining factor of freeform play is really this state of chaos. It has isles of cliques with historically shaped social contracts, but even those are mostly implicit and open to constant negotiation.

In light of that view, I propose that freeform playing is defined by absolute credibility over one's own characters, absence of specified Fortune/Karma/Drama mechanics and resulting dependence on discursive resolution of disputed input, and multitudes of Shared Imagined Spaces that may or may not overlap like Venn Diagrams (at least in communities, though maybe not in small static groups).

The constraints and methods of input I've seen are diffuse. The absolute credibility of one's own characters is the focus point here; players are free to provide input on how their characters act and influence the immediate environment around them. If they try to describe something about another character, it's considered an "autohit" (you can see that most of the issues are named after problems during fights, as those emphasize the character credibility and absence of resolution mechanics) and will usually be shot down by anyone seeing it. From there on, it becomes a matter of personal style. I know people who are snobby and only accept input to affect their characters that's written in convoluted lyrical prose. I know others who react to (and take hits from) strangers who just show up and declare "I punch you." I think this relates a lot to different attitudes toward the hobby, but I can't put it in concise words just yet. Obviously, there are also people who have very specific agenda for their characters, using them as romantic or sexual proxies, which leads to them focusing on other types of input and, for example, ignoring any conflict outright (as that would impact their ability to play what they want).

I guess it comes down to the fact that there is more than one SIS. In fact, there are many personal imagined spaces, and players have control over those just as they have control over their characters.

2a) Actually, your example is great. Cops and Robbers is a lot like freeform play. "Bang you're dead." "Now I'm not." Perfect example of character credibility. Even the resulting social system is the same. If one kid never dies, the others stop playing with him. That's why most players in freeform games let their characters be wounded, because of they were impervious, no one would ever play conflicts with them.

2b) I am not saying that the only way to Step on Up is by promoting a style of resolution. Actually using that style of resolution well is Stepping on Up, too. A player who is great at descriptions will try to outwrite the other player in battle, and often receives lots of positive feedback on his or her skills. Then the other player is forced, socially, to take a hit because the description was so good. Cliques form whose members believe in the same resolution style, and then try to beat each other at it. We can argue what the product of this activity is (as in your example of art or writing), but the CA—the fun these players get out of it—lies within the challenge and showing of skill.

Now, freeform play by itself is not a Gamist facilitating environment at all. I am just trying to show how Gamists still try to play their CA within that environment. As I said, they often end up frustrated. Personally, when I want to play Gamist, I go the opposite way and play a nice round of WARMACHINE, the perfect incarnation of Gamist attitude. :)

2c) The game itself did not facilitate much of anything it seems. It certainly had few or no rules, so it's a sort of freeform game (I'm not sure it classifies as RPG, since there were no characters, and therefore no character credibility; obviously, you could each make determinations about the other's territory). What was it that made it fun for you?

Emily Care

Hey Christian,

Thanks for writing this up. It's great to hear more about free-form play.  

How much of your play has been table-top, and how much live action? Are there simplified mechanics you've used (eg paper-rock-scissors) for resolution?  And you talk about social contract which is very fluid and unique to each group. Do you have any generalizations for rules of thumb or guidelines that many groups adopt to facilitate concensus in the absence of traditional mechanical structures?

And finally, could you say more about the distribution of narrative power with respect to gm's and players?  Where are the dividing lines drawn as contrasted with standard games?

Emily Care
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games



The vast majority of my freeform play has been online, starting in 1995 in CompuServe's roleplaying games forum (GO RPGAMES :). I did some freeform tabletop with my friends from my usual FTF group back in Germany, but they were never fully comfortable with it (interestingly, the elimination of Fortune mechanics made them feel less in control rather than more). I've only occasionally experimented with live action, so I have the least experience there.

Most of the freeform places online have simple chat interfaces, though most provide message boards for PBMB games and libraries for character pictures etc. as well. Some are on web sites, others on IRC. In completely freeform places (there are also specific setting-based freeform games), there is usually one main room, which is considered a nexus, i.e., it has no determined space or time and links all possible universes. It tends to be described as a tavern/bar/spaceport when characters actually describe the environment. People pick a character name and start playing simply by describing their character's entrance, maybe looks, etc. Then there are several other rooms that have descriptive names ("The Forest," "The Ruined Temple," and so on). Those names are enough to give people some common situational grounds when they want to play a more specific scene and gather other characters around them. Player groups range from a couple to several dozen, which gets difficult and usually splinters off into subgroups. But once you've played in a game where you had 50 fully fledged out characters, each played by a dedicated player, all interwoven with each other and with histories and interests among the characters, you realize how powerful that can be.

There are really no simplified mechanics in that case, because you don't really see the other person. Sure, you could find a dice roller online (there are actually some that save the result of your rolls for anyone to see so that it's verifiable), but people usually enjoy their control over their characters. I've found three ways in which disputes (usually fights among characters) are resolved:

1) Agreement. Some people agree beforehand on the outcome of a conflict or scene and just enjoy playing out the narrative. They usually do this OOC (in private messages), so any other players watching don't really know this is happening, and can enjoy some insecurity.

2) Persuasion. This is the most common way. One side persuades the other to give in through IC actions. This procedure varies among the players. Some are fond of realism and just take whatever seems most plausible as acceptable. Others compete on a writing or creativity level and have actual respect for the others' skills, and are persuaded by elaborate or elegant or inventive descriptions (think of old-school D&D, as in the recent thread, where the player overcame obstacles by avoiding the rules system and simply talking his way through with the GM). And still other players have certain ideas carrying over from systems they played, so that when someone else does something along the lines of the familiar system (say, cast Globe of Invulnerability), they give it credibility. And finally, some players decide on what creates their favorite type of play, e.g., some players allow and push things to happen that create the most drama. Other players never allow any attacks to get to them because they're just not interested in fighting.

3) Frustration. The players just can't figure it out. One of them gives in, or both abandon the scene. Sadly, this is not too rare.

Most of the rules and/or guidelines, if at all explicit, are simply pointing out the foundation of freeform playing, as I mentioned above (absolute control over one's character, cooperative environment, ...).

As to the narrative power, most of the time, there is no GM. Players simply create their characters and let them interact with all the other characters. If you have a large pool of players (in my favorite days, 200+ at various times of day and week), that works wonderfully. You have enough to do building up relationships, interacting with new people, forming "guilds," waging wars against one another, having romantic involvements, etc. From time to time, someone will introduce a metaplot that is then picked up by whoever wants to play it (i.e., "There's a plague out there that only affects vampires and drains their power"). Those metaplots build bridges between players and allow them to actually have a sort of plot. Usually, the plot's creator will throw out hints or allow special little sessions to ultimately resolve the issue. Overall, in non-GMed games, the game world is shared and anyone can narrate anything. It's the social enforcement and the power to reject what others submit for your imagined space that allows this to work.

There are also GMed games. Some of them are simply there to create familiar and narrowed environments. We had a couple of WoD games that didn't really use any of the rules except as guidelines to how characters interact. Success and failure of actions between player characters remained in the hands of the players, no matter how many dice one would usually roll. On the other hand, I ran a Wild West game where everyone who wanted to play would simply be briefed by me on the basic background. There were two main player-created families, and people made new characters to fit into that R-Map (or not). Then I would mostly facilitate, but sometimes play NPCs or events that challenged the players. Usually, those are actually quite Narrativist, now that I think of it. The question was never, "Will the PCs succeed," it was, "How are they going to do it, and how far are they willing to go?" E.g., I'd play a lynchmob that was tied into the family background ("Someone allegedly killed player A's cousin, and now his uncles started a mob") and see how they would resolve the issue. Violently? With persuasion? What if it required a sacrifice? What if your uncle draws a gun on you?

In those cases where there were GMs, player control over the narrative was mostly limited to their actions. They could decide whatever they wanted about their characters, their looks, their reactions, their equipment, their health, etc. And the GM simply did all that for all NPCs and the game world. Of course, the whole idea was to create an enjoyable experience, so as a GM, I would do my best to challenge the players and yet let them get what they want out of it. Sometimes they felt good just mowing down hordes of NPCs to show off their characters' skills. Other times, they reveled in tough decisions on whether to save the innocent in the burning house or ride after the perpetrators to hunt them down.

So to make it short: Dividing lines are difficult to see because there is not only one SIS. People pick and choose what to accept and what not. The continuation of the game does not depend on agreement with everyone, just with enough people to go on playing with. In GMed games, that's different, but here players willingly give deference to the GM who volunteers to put in the work to provide a more detailed session and actual plots.

Hmm, did that answer your questions? I tend to get a little carried away sometimes :)

Callan S.

Gamism in freeform is sort of at half speed to book play, at best. In freeform gamism, a principle needs to be established before you can step up on to it. The more something is established, the more you can step on up.

So if the bad guy is described as advancing toward you, that's all there is.

If a lush carpet is described on the floor and then the bad guy advancing is declared, the player might say they pull the carpet to trip the bad guy. This is admirable tactics, IMO.

The more establishment there is, the more opportunity for gamism. In freeform, your spending mostly half your time or more establishing stuff.
Philosopher Gamer


I agree, Callan. Of course, this is something we do in mechanics-based RPGs as well. I am sure everyone has had moments where they used the environment or did something else in a freeform way that circumvented the usual conflict resolution mechanics.

Lance D. Allen

Hm. Lot to wade through. Fascinating topic though, 'specially to me. See, I've free-formed, in one form or another, for much, much longer than I've done RPGs. I'll stick with the online sort of FFRP though, when I make my comments.

My credentials: I started, on a lark, back in the Red Dragon Inn on AOL which pretty much dead-on matches Christian's comments. Things that were common there, which later came to be synonymous with "bad roleplaying" could be boiled down into two terms.

Godmoding: Godmoding was when you never allowed anything to happen to your character. You were always too powerful, too fast, too tough, whatever. Likewise, any power you had was beyond anything anyone else came up with. If they topped you, then you'd top them right back. Godmoding, or moding for short, was simply that.. You were godlike in your abilities.

Calling shots: Specifically, calling shots for other people. "I hit you" or "I kill you" were the most common types, but "you die" or "you turn into a werewolf" were almost as common. As the other person's character is out of your control, this was against the rules. Sometimes this was due to simple misunderstanding or misstatement; Either you didn't know the rules, or your intentions were more to state the action of your character. Other times, it was exactly the sort of thing you mentioned in your first post when you talked about frustrated gamism; You can't "win" when you can't control the outcome of your actions toward someone else.

While the basic freeform rules did exist, the setting, and the vast majority of people who didn't care about consistency or continuity didn't encourage much beyond the occasionally overlapping SiS's.

Eventually, I followed a friend to a sebset of the AOL FFRP community, a place called The Crosswinds Tavern. This place had a setting, continuity, and a much better ratio of "good" roleplayers to bad ones. Suddenly the one basic rule of freeform "You have total control of your character" is joined by various other rules and guidelines. In specific we had:

Setting continuity: Basically, this is the same as the idea of "genre conventions". Certain things weren't allowed or acknowledged by the community in general. Saiyans, any sort of technology, bizarre vampire/dragon/cat crossbreeds, etc. were not part of the setting, and as such, they did not work.

Take your hits: ie. no godmoding. This was in some ways a subset of the setting continuity rules.. You couldn't turn everything within a 5 mile radius to acid, because that sort of thing broke setting continuity. But on a smaller scale, it meant that you had to react to things realistically, which meant occasionally taking your hits. The final fate of your character was still in your hands, though.

Cooperative creativity: You talk about this sort of thing in points 1 and 2, Agreement and Persuasion. Whenever there's a conflict, one of two things generally occurred. Either people got to talking in IMs, determining what each wanted out of a given scene, and what each was willing to accede. Alongside this there was often a cooperative angle where all participants were doing their best to make a memorable and fun scene. Alternately, the participants just reacted in character, trying to feel out what the other participants wanted, and trying to find a compromise therein. Some people who prefer this method would willingly let a character die, because it "made sense for the character".

On top of all of this, we had leaders who were the final authority over given elements of setting. Their responsibilities were to create interesting aspects for players to interact with, and to make sure everything that touched on their purview was consistent. They were generally volunteers, but the primary 7 were appointed by the forum head, who designed the setting.

The majority of regular players in the CWT ascribed to these rules. If you did not, then the only penalty was disdain and censure. This was remarkably effective in driving away undesirables, or reforming them. Some of the most active players today were among the worst godmoders of a few years ago.

While there were some problems with the setup, I think the addition of more rules allowed for a richer, more mature, and more entertaining environment. There were still a bunch of smaller SiS's, but they were all consistent with the larger community SiS, and there was a mutual concern for making sure it stayed that way. This allowed for players to venture out of their safe zones if they chose, knowing that there was a community who was interested in their stories, and would assist them in making it as deep and meaningful as they wanted to.

Characters were more likely to have weaknesses and flaws. They were more likely to be everyday people who never intended to be anything extraordinary, which allowed deep exploration of themes like prejudice and discrimination, infidelity, death.. Even such taboos as pedophilia, necrophilia and incest could be explored in a mature fashion. And all of this coexisted alongside pure escapism, with adventures, drama and intrigue being regular occurrances.

Egad. I've rambled again. So I'll sum up my point and end..

There's a certain continuum between pure freeform and rigidly defined rules of play. The "ideal" place between them will vary according to your CA, but neither extreme is particularly conducive to meaningful roleplay in any sense, especially toward the pure freeform end.

In terms of GNS..

Gamist tendencies can be channeled into being the best writer, or describer of combat actions, or the authority on a particular setting element, but I think the further to pure freeform you go, the more likely Gamist tendencies will be frustrated.

Simulationist tendencies require a certain level of agreement that is harder to acchieve when there are no constraints on what you may describe. However, there's a point where more rules can obscure the exploratory aspects.

Narrativism also suffers in a wide-open environment with no constraints. Rules allow a level of consistency that can help you form trust for your fellow players, and answering the deeper questions usually requires a level of trust.

I can't even summarize in brief, can I? Well, I'm done. Hope I managed to get my point across in there somewhere.
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls

Callan S.

Quote from: xenopulseI agree, Callan. Of course, this is something we do in mechanics-based RPGs as well. I am sure everyone has had moments where they used the environment or did something else in a freeform way that circumvented the usual conflict resolution mechanics.
Yeah. We get to do that in addition to being able to use the established rules to step on up to. Best of both worlds! :)
Philosopher Gamer