Spione and the Power of Tabletop Freeform Design

This Spring I helped curate and also participated in one of Allen Varney's charity Bundles of Holding, called the Indie Spring Festival. It included Serpent's Tooth, Twenty Four Game Poems, Crossroads, Itras ByLove in the Time of Seið, Thou Art But A Warrior, Misericord(e) and Spione. Throughout the two weeks the bundle was available, I wrote summaries of the eight games, ending with Ron Edwards' Spione (pronounced "shpee-Own-eh", meaning "spies" in German).  Spione is one of the earliest written of the games in the bundle and in many ways was a precursor of the others and the movement in game design they represent. This game is a capstone to the collection and embodies recurring themes seen in the whole group. All together, these games exemplify the structures that can make tabletop freeform a powerful and elegant form of design. 

The goal is for the reader to arrive at his or her fictional Berlin, in
two ways: (1) using it to create spy-stories of one’s own (the Story
Now part, described in the final part of this book) and (2) arriving at
perhaps new or at least reflective thoughts about the Cold War and
its relationship to our lives today. — From Spione, Ch. 1: Introduction

Spione is a game of cold-war spies and intrigue written by the creator of influential indie classics such as Sorcerer and Trollbabe. Spione uses a rules-lite, structured system to bring you to confront the personal price and ethical cost of spying, that caps off our collection. The first and largest portion of Spione the book is an engrossing summary of the key organizations and important players of the Cold War, as well as discussion of the English-language fiction surrounding the era.

The choices made, of material and presentation are all focused on creating a sense of the period that the players can embrace--to make "his or her own fictional Berlin." There are multiple maps of Berlin during the different decades, and one of the steps of setup is to determine what era the game will take place in. Agencies active during that time, examples of historical events, different pressures on the nations during that time inform the characters created, and the missions they are assigned through Dossiers. 

What happens fictionally, and what it means, evolves through the activity itself. It’s not like a screenplay or stage-play; it cannot be preset. Everyone involved simultaneously acts as authors and audience for a story that gets created right there: Story Now. -- From Spione

The in-depth research Edwards devoted to Spione supports a deceptively simple game of cat and mouse espionage, embedded in a tale of personal sacrifice, betrayal and loss that comes from the deception involved in 20th century spycraft. He calls his system Story Now--emphasizing the shared nature of the storytelling and world portrayal. All come to the table with the same ability and empowerment to craft the tale.

Each player champions a character and may narrate for, or play others--one or more is a spy, and others are civilians in their life, people they spy upon or answer to. The characters lives are frames in brief passages of play, called Maneuvers: dialogue, description, an action taken, a scene set. Until the characters come to a Flashpoint: a moment of crisis or climax where perhaps desperate actions must be taken to determine how the course of the spying falls out. Will the spy betray himself to his wife to reveal that she's been followed home by an enemy? Will a foreign spy handler turn a spy to betray their country, out of hope of relieving some secret debt, shame or failure?   Playing cards are dealt out representing the characters, and may be moved by the players in certain ways. Once the final constellation is arrived at, this structures the types of narration the players may make to resolve the outcomes of the Flashpoint. Then back to Maneuvers, to see how this fallout ripples outward in their lives.

Themes in Spione and the structured freeform of the Indie Spring Bundle:

Spione uses Place as an organizing principle. Edwards dissects a time and place and grounds it in a fictionalized version of  the city of Berlin. This is a powerful tool that supports the collaborative nature of these games. It creates a central fictional motif that can be understood, changed and used by all equally. My Misericord(e) and Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen's Itras By also use this tool--having a shared city that all play groups set their games within. Each making it their own and but having a coherent politcal entity to place their characters within. Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar's  Love in the Time of Seið and Anna Kreider's  Thou Art But a Warrior similiarly use a very specific moment in time and place the events of play. In their cases, its not a single city, but a kingdom with coherent issues and themes that the characters' lives embody and exemplify. 

Spione uses characters in a moral quandry as the basis for story In Spione, players place pressure on the characters through the requirements of spying versus the normal needs of living. Ross Cowman's  Serpent's Tooth, Per Fischer's Crossroads, Love in the Time of Seið and Thou Art But A Warrior all use this tool to drive play. In Serpent's Tooth the malaise of the old King calls in the main cast to take action. Cowman intertwines this fictional theme with the mechanics of the game: as they characters take action, the players are empowered to steer the game play as well. Crossroads' stories hinge on a morally dubious situation, a temptation the characters are offered. The GM uses the magic lamp of fictional play to allow the players to see what a person will do to relieve themselves of their troubles. This mirrors the choices spies make in Spione--is my safety worth destroying my family's belief in me? Is my country's interest worth betraying someone who trusts me? Perhaps ruining their life? The characters in Seið and Warrior are caught in their own predicaments. Bound by their personal hopes and the crises of their kingdoms. 

Why does this matter for structured freeform tabletop play? As Chris Chinn, has said, these precarious moral predicaments are like "ammo." Fictional dynamite to kick your story into motion. In his game Sorcerer, Ron Edwards asks the players to describe a "kicker", an event that destablizes a character and sets them on a narrative arc. These games embrace this principle to provide the players an immediate direction for play, allowing their collaboration to be sure and not founder on lack of dramatic tension.

Spione uses mood and tone to give the players a shared understanding of their fictional goals. The text evokes a tone of anxiety, paranoia and moral ambiguity both through the expression of story through the narration and by priming players with the exegesis on European/US spy culture in this era. And through a mechanically simple but very structured procedure, navigates collaboration for the players through turning points and choices made about the moments of stress and high drama. Marc Majcher's Twenty Four Game Poems and Itras By use mood and tone extensively as organizing principles. Each Game Poem is centered around a mood: it may be regret, it may be childhood nostalgia, it may be yearning, but each is a short game that eschews plot and character development over creating a contained experiences that strongly expresses a certain emotional mood. Itras By's surreal setting uses the text, illustrations and priming of the players to embrace the bittersweet tones of a 1920s/30s European city: the optmimism, the decadence, the shock and horror of dealing with the aftermath of industrial production of war. Spione in some ways is a return to the setting of Itras By, but without the comforting veil of fantasy and dream. Instead, it is with the deception and dance of espionage--hard, real, and true, and yet no less traumatized, self-deceived or full of fear. In Misericord(e), I have sought to create a mood of adventure and community. The Lineage Trees evoke the generations of Guildsmembers who carry on their craft traditions. The world is one where magic can enter at will, and themes are shared and understood but the will of Fate rules: as represented by the Tarot Cards. The overall tone (whether Hopeful or Fearful, happy ending or tragic) of the story, too, is set by whether most of the Tarot Cards pulled are upright or reversed. And pulling the Fool switches all, reversing the tone of the tale.

Spione's Story Now is fast paced and laser focused. Build to climax, sort the fallout and repeat. Serpent's Tooth, scenes provide an opportunity for characters to respond to the changs in the King, and Threats to be offered and Harm the Kingdom. Over time, the players wrest control away from the King's player, and become the new focus of hope or fear. In Love in the Time of Seið and Itras By, scenes are played that allow the players to explore the desires of the characters and the texture of the world. Then at turning points, "Yes, and..", "No, but.." and other cards are pulled that give more information about what may happen, and choices for interpretation about how what has occured may develop. In Thou Art But a Warrior, when a Knight comes into conflict--usually with an element of the world played by the player in charge of the Infidel aspects of the world--a ritualized set of negotiation phrases ("But only if...", "You ask far too much...") to craft a set of events that takes a toll on all, and deepens the crisis and tragedy of the world. The Game Poems vary in their structures, wildly: some having simple tokens that are used to keep track of who says what when, some have elements that evoke the story (candy, feathers), some simply structure a conversation or give a certain scene to play. Misericord(e) uses Tarot Cards as a random prompt to create situations filling out story profiles ("The Argument", "The Quest", "The Rescue"), and then to introduce new elements, pace play and show whether the story is tending to Fear or Hope at its end.. With two Question tools used by the players and the Storyteller to share their world and character development: players asking "yes/no" questions of the Storyteller about what might happen, the Storyteller asking a concrete, open-ended question about individual details of the world. 

Crossroads varies from the others in two ways. It uses a fairly standard--if still rules lite--process to resolve when dangerous things are attempted by characters. Roll 2d6, with success/complication/failure similar to games using Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World engine. But overall the game uses another common structure found in structured freeform games: the set story. Each of the four characters is pregenerated, and the challenges they face and the morally questionable tasks they will be asked to undertake are pre-set. Just who will have to do what, and whether they actually do, is in question.  

My Summaries of the other seven games can be found here:

Serpent's Tooth by Ross Cowman

Twenty Four Game Poems by Marc Majcher

Crossroads by Per Fischer

Itra By written by Ole Peder Giæver and Martin Bull Gudmundsen

Love in the Time of Seið by Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar

Thou Art But A Warrior by Anna Kreider

Misericord(e) by Emily Care Boss

Note: Thanks to Jonathan Walton for coining the term Structured Freeform in 2006, which can be applied to tabletop or live action role playing games. Freeform larp, and other uses of the term “freeform” refer to various styles of play. Structure Freeform refers to the types of rules used in play, particularly for games that use negotiation, "Yes, and..." or other non-numeric oriented procedures for resolving conflict, dramatic questions or turning points. Many games (particularly found in live freeform styles such as Jeepform, American Freeform, Fastaval Scenarios or Tale-telling Larps, Golden Cobra Challenge games) use rules to structure scenes and character creation, but use “yes, and..” principles and simple play to establish the accepted fictional sequence of events of play.