For the Love of Freeform

I fell in love with rpgs in the early 90s: introduced to the hobby by college friends who lived together and played their own mash-up homebrew of Ars Magica and GURPS (as one did at the time: the number of games I played back then that were simply the game as it was published is vanishingly small). 

Having the luxury of time and youth, it was wonderful--staying up all night playing and talking about the world. Asking questions and entering into the shared history they co-authored. Learning and negotiating as we went, since one of the major adaptations they made was to take the Troupe Style play rules of Ars Magica--where everyone plays multiple characters and GM responsibility rotates--and run with it. Focusing on intuitive bits of the system (for example, thinking of magic in terms of "nouns" and "verbs": I create water with my Creo Aquam spell, now it's raining) rather than focusing on the stats, modifiers and dice rolls.

Like many people who role play, we took it and made it our own. Ending up in a freeform place: mostly spending time playing out the deliciously spiteful or mischevous interactions all the characters we cooked up had with one another. Or spending time in side conversations while "the plot" was happening with other players and the GM across the room. With 11 players (at its height), this was a natural state of affairs, and I had the pleasure of having one of my characters fall deeply in love with another during these interludes.


But oh, the mad dysfunction. I've no idea if I was annoying with the side love affair. And over time, this style of play while deeply satisfying in the depth of world and character experience it opens up, the wandering stories can founder. And in latwr games like this, I'm just grateful that my friendship with Meg and Vincent Baker was not harmed by our too-late-at-night arguments when we came to fictional loggerheads. It was very much not "I hit you", "no you didn't", but having set aside the formal constraints of a traditional rpg to forge freely into the shared fiction, we hit the rocks now and again.

So, here we are 20 years later. With so much more design and discussion under our collective belt. The Forge  happened.  Jeepform arose. Structured Freeform was coined. We even have concepts like Group or Social Contract,  Bleed and Steering now. We have many more rules and guidelines we can use to help resolve creative differences and help focus play so that we better understand one another's view of the characters and the world. And can bridge differences, calling judiciously upon resolution mechanics that fit the task at hand. For example, in the Jeepform game A Freeform Soap Opera, each character has an arc (similar to the narrative arc plotted using the beat analysis in Robin D. Laws' Hamlet's Hitpoints) which you compare. Is your character on a tragic arc? Things going well at first, then precipitously downward later? Is mine on a heroic arc? Beat down and discouraged at the start, then leading on to triumph and redemption later? Where do our paths cross? At the start of play, yours would trump mine. My underdog would indeed be under your heel. But later, oh, just wait until you get your come-uppance. 

All done with no formal stats. No quantified, weighted modifiers. No elaborate process of measuring up who each our characters are, what their relative resources and access to effectivness is. Not even a number to compare. Instead it is all boiled down to a gestalt. A single line that helps us communicate about how to make an effective story about the two. Reminiscent of Amber and its in-fiction rationale of pre-eminence. What was of more importance in Jeepform is who we see the character to be, what their motivations are, what their choices can or cannot be. We fill the spaces of interest and tension with the interactions between the characters, rather than a lot of time and effort spent dealing with abstractions that we manipulate in order to get an eventual story outcome. 

Don't get me wrong, though, there is absolutely time, place and nail-biting suspense that gets injected into games in the right context--with numbers, stats, dice, coins and etc. I use them myself. But they are not necessary in every case. And also, I'm very much not advocating a pristine bubble of immersion which is oh-so-fragile and must be coddled.  Our imaginations are robust. Our engagement with play can be incredibly agile. But our toolbox is bereft if we don't also look at the freeform techniques we can use to guide play in a different direction.