Tuesday, 5 July 2011

What to do in a (bad) convention freeform

In the bad game survey, one of the most common complaints was insufficient stuff to do in a freeform. Moving from theory to reality, I've come up with a few strategies for players who find themselves in a less than well constructed freeform.

In the first, say 15 minutes, of a freeform the players are undertaking an analysis – who are their friends, their enemies, what are they supposed to be doing and so on. By the time the freeform is three quarters of the way done, friends and enemies have been set in stone, everyone knows what the objectives are and are working towards them. As a player, the faster you can figure just what this freeform is (both in type and quality) and get on the front foot, the better game you are going to have - and offer everyone around you.

Stage one – Analysis
The freeform design article has a lot to say about how writers can create a good freeform, but you can use the same points to test what style and quality of freeform you have gotten yourself into.  To figure out what style, look at your objectives and any other pieces of paper you have been given.  Check the blurb.  These should point you straight at the plot.  It could be:

  • HUMOROUS - A humorous freeform sets up characters and situations where people can be silly and not worry too much about rules and objectives 
  • INTRIGUE - This style involves a large number of sub plots. The objectives are to find out information and to get specific objects. Everyone has secrets they are trying to hide and others that they are trying to find out.
  • POLITICAL - Players trying to get position in a formal power structure. Here groupings and support from other players is vital to success. Having one overall leader or central character is a disaster. 
  • ECONOMIC - An economic game does not necessary involve money, it means a game where players actions affect the external world and this results in them gaining some advantage 
  • MODULE - A module freeform has a normal freeform of any of the other styles and also mini modules where players form groups and go off to play a table game. 
  • TRADING - Players trying to get things, cards, bits, items etc. from each other. For this to work there has to be a large variety of possible things and the trades need to involve a lot of people instead of simple two players swapping things. 

 The other main source of information is the character sheet.  The character sheet should contain (again according to Robert Prior):

  • PERSONALITY - something you can hook your acting on for the next few hours. 
  • KNOWLEDGE - what are you going to talk to people about (or try to hide)?  Do you know why your character is here? 
  • POWER - what ability do you have to achieve your objectives?  This could be a position, something to offer other characters (in a quid pro co way) or something else 
  • OBJECTIVES - do you have clear guidelines on what you are trying to achieve within the freeform?  These are extremely important and need to be achieveable.  Examples of bad obectives (which may result in a crappy freeform for you) are:
    • Marry (or in some way interact only with ) X - if X doesn't' turn up, doesn't want to marry you or marries someone else, you are blocked.   Not fun. I suggest you change it into "marry (or otherwise interact) with someone of that type.  Sure, you didn't end up marrying Lord Blockington-Smythe, but you married his brother who you were secretly in love with all along / was a noble anyway.
    • Stop someone from finding out your secret. You have no control over this, look at leaks in the real world.  Besides, if you have a secret, chances are it needs to come out because of the plot or because another player will have the objective to discover it.  I suggest you change this one to frame someone else for your secret - for the murder, the blackmail, the heist, or what have you.
    • An objective that will happen as part of your character, is inane or meaningless, for example, the town drunk has an objective to "Get drunk", you have an objective to "make mischief" and / or you have an objective to "have fun". These objectives are useful for turning into variations.  More on this below.
After analysis, you might decide that your character will not have enough to do or their objectives are unachievable or that there doesn’t seem to be enough plot to go around. None of this speaks well for the freeform as whole.  It’s worth saying again, the sooner you can figure this out, the better for everyone. It's on to the next step.

Stage two – Action
I’d like to introduce you to Morden. He was the major antagonist in Babylon 5. While he was the villain of the piece, the strategy he employed is one which I believe will work for all character types. For those who don’t know the series, Morden met all the major characters and asked them “What do you want?”. He received a variety of answers in return – revenge, restore power and glory, just go away. From those answers, Morden choose the one that suited his own goals most closely and worked to make it happen.

I'm suggesting you duplicate this. Go up to each other character in the freeform and finds out what they want. You too will get a range of replies (including “go away”). The answers will tell you what sort of characters you are interacting with, what sort of freeform you are in and what they might want. From there, choose goals which are either the most interesting or those which closest match one of yours and go make them happen. 

For the record, if you find characters with short term goals (such as “get drunk”), you can fulfil those fairly easily and then move on to more long term ones. Ideally, you are looking for something you can play with for the rest of the game. But supposing all you can find is short term, or inane goals. I suggest everyone might be bored very soon and you could then feel free to make up variations on the theme. For example, you find three characters whose goal is get drunk.  If you are in a:
  • humorous freeform – set up a drinking competition
  • intrigue freeform – convince the characters to use their desire for drink as a way of loosening tongues, then gather up what they find out for your group goals of blackmail, with the currency being alcohol
  • political freeform – you are unlikely to get a bunch of drunks into a position of power in this freeform. So instead, form a collation of voting drunks and see how you much you can sell your votes for.
  • economic, trading or module freeform – set up, or take over the drink supply. In the economic and trading game, you now have a trading power. In the module, everyone needs somewhere to relax in-between (or during) missions. Your place is it.
The more players you can involved in getting your goals, the more interesting the game will be for everyone. If you are correct and the game has insufficient stuff for the players to do, lots of people will be willing to jump on board any plot. If it is a good game, your goals should be achievable.


  1. I think you've skipped a worthwhile "step 0" here... and really, your starting point for this essay has pushed you to miss that step.

    Robert's essay is very goal-oriented. That is an approach to freeform writing that certainly works for some writers/players/games, but as Robert says himself, it isn't the only approach. Some excellent freeforms have been written using much less goal-oriented approaches. It is often bad if nobody has any goals - you can wind up with everybody standing around and nothing happening the entire game - but some of the characters I have most enjoyed playing have not had clear goals. Those characters were deliberately designed that way, and were intended to be enjoyable in other ways. For example, one character was attending a party he really didn't want to be at, but for personal reasons couldn't leave either. He was terribly hurt emotionally, and the... well, not fun, because he wasn't fun to play, let's say the value of playing him was in the experience of going through his trauma and the story of his growth through it. In that case, the writer herself was really worried about including that character due to his lack of clear goals, she told me later, and it was only after seeing me play it that she knew she had done right by including him.

    So it isn't wrong for some characters to lack clear goals. However, some players really don't know what to do with characters like that. They wind up sitting and watching everyone else playing, and that is clearly a problem.

    So, assuming that we don't want to deprive players like me of our unmitigated joy of such characters, how do we avoid that problem? Here, I think communication is key. If you are a player who prefers clear, achievable goals, just ask for that when you talk to the writer about selecting a character. Most freeform writers, in my experience, are more than happy to guide players towards characters that best suit their styles.

    Now, if you ask for that and the writer claims to give it to you, but you still can't figure out what goals you are supposed to have, then you may just be in a bad freeform. Still, it's worth trying, as a preventative measure.

  2. It's probably fair to say that these are good rules, there are exceptions to every rule, but you should know and be comfortable with the rules before you experiment with breaking them creatively.

  3. Greg, I wouldn't call using a less goal-oriented approach to freeform writing creative breaking of a rule. Freeforms in which the characters are not written with such a heavy emphasis on goals are common today, and I don't believe this is a sign of a marked decline in freeform quality.

    And rather than simply write of all of those freeforms as bad games, I think it is probably worth seeing what the writer has to offer to entertain me other than just attainment of character goals. If the answer is "nothing", well, then we start rewriting the game in play as above. I'm not writing off such approaches entirely. I just think there's a few proactive steps that can be taken to increase the chance of a good game first.

  4. I'm with you, Travis - you need to be very careful about making that decision, where you're in a bad game and need to save it. (To the point that if you go in thinking, "I won't play the game that's written, I'll make my own," you're actually a bit of a dick.)

    That said, having written a flat freeform that was rescued by sterling players, I'm all for making your own fun within the GM's boundaries.

  5. @Travis, you have raised an interesting point – that of whether a player is actually in a bad freeform or not. My essay starts, as you have pointed out, with a defined complaint from players on a lack of stuff to do. From what I read in your comments, one of your suggestions is to switch styles of play, moving into being the character, emoting and exploring the situation.

    Moving into GNS speak for a minute, I’m suggesting that
    Narrative orientated players are finding the game dull, while I think your response points finding another mode of play – Simulationist. This might work for players who are happy to play both modes of play, but linking back to the original complaint, not all are. For them, further exploration of narrative is, I suspect, an optimal solution.
    It is quite tricky I think, to attempt to link modes of play and players within a freeform without a discussion on GNS, and that’s without bringing in the idea that some freeforms attempt to be Narrativist and fail dismally.
    The other side of the coin is of course, Stu’s rule zero post. My response to that in this context is then, when is it ok for a player to decide this game is crap? To make their own fun? This is something each player has to decide for themselves within the game, no matter what conversations they may or may not have had with the GM on the game’s purpose and context.

  6. I really like Jacinta's ideas. They would take good roleplaying skills to pull off, and maybe wouldn't work the first time tried, but they are definitely something to work towards.

    Of the freeforms I've played and enjoyed, maybe 20% I liked, and all of those 20% had clear and achievable objectives. That's something I feel pretty strongly about. I've broken that guideline myself on some characters, and it's always turned out badly.

    Maybe a great GM could write a character with no obvious goals in a freeform and make it work. Usually though, a lack of objectives shows a lack of thought.

    Of the 80% of freeforms I haven't liked, the vast majority have been obvious from the character sheets themselves that not enough thought has been put into the characters. They are a vital clue as to quality. Scanty backgrounds, backgrounds that don't make sense, a lack of objectives, a lack of hooks into other PCs... I've only misjudged a good game from a character sheet I didn't like once.

    I'd say that thirty minutes is enough time to determine whether a game is going to be good or not. It takes fifteen minutes for people to work out their relationship to everyone else, and another fifteen minutes for plots to get into full swing.

    Still, in a bad game, do you want to wait for thirty minutes before starting to do cool stuff? If half the players have poor characters, and the other half have good players, could those missing minutes cost you being locked out of these techniques? Is there some way of determining in those first fifteen minutes the quality of a game? I'm not a good enough player to be able to answer those questions.

  7. Darn it, I have to break this into two parts to fit within the character limit. Luckily I'm really addressing two separate subjects, so that's pretty easy. Here goes...

    Really, I think GNS is a very bad direction to take this conversation. Wanting to do something is not inherently Narrativist. Wanting something to do just means the player wants agency, and perhaps a chance to be proactive. Using a Narrativist approach might lead to wanting to do different things to what comes from a Simulationist approach (or Gamist), but just wanting something to do really isn't categorised by GNS. Somebody with nothing to do will still get bored, no matter which corner of the triangle they lean towards. So, I think we really have to leave that there if we want to get anywhere productive.

    And no, I'm not talking about me, as a player, being happy to "just be" the character. (Sometimes I am, for a while, but generally not for an entire freeform.) Everyone should have a chance to do something during a freeform. All I'm saying is that the "something" may come from something other than obviously-stated goals on the character sheet.

    That character I used as an example actually gave me plenty to do. He had a strong story to play out, one which tied into the game's uber-plot well. However, that story started as a very personal story. I spent some time at the start of the game sitting alone. But then, inevitably, people came to talk to me (often asking why I was sitting alone) and I started actively telling his story (not by directly telling anyone what was really going on, of course, but by demonstrating it through play). He desperately wanted not to be there, but I most definitely had things to do - seeds to plant, clues to drop, important interactions through which I learnt about others. As I unlocked the secrets of the game, he acquired goals.

    Some characters provide players with goals that are not the character's goals (and a mechanism to achieve those goals through the character's actions, despite the character not intending them). Some characters will be provided their goals during the game. Some characters are light on goals because circumstances are such that they will be too busy to work towards goals. (I once played a freeform in which everybody spoke one of two particular languages, but my character was the only one fluent in both of those languages. I was run off my feet just due to the constant demand for a translator, and was very glad that I didn't have many goals of my own, though I did have some, including some that got added through what I learnt while translating.) In short, there are lots of ways to give a player agency or to allow a player to be active other than stated character goals.

  8. As for when to decide a game is crap and do something about it... Your essay advises basing that analysis on only two sources of information: the blurb, and the character sheet. I would suggest that unless there are very obvious signs of problems in the character sheet beyond lack of a clear statement of goals (if the signs are in the blurb, why are you playing the game in the first place?) it is probably worth engaging with the game as written in good faith (to borrow a phrase from Stu's post) to see what it brings in play before attempting a re-write. Maybe the first thing that happens is that somebody runs up to you yelling, "Quick, your girlfriend has fallen off a cliff and is hanging onto the edge by her toenails!" Or, you know, something much less lame but even more exciting.

    And perhaps some characters are designed to be enjoyed in an entirely different mode of play, in which case, I'd advise at least attempting that mode first - maybe you find you do enjoy it in this case, and all you've risked is the first ten minutes of the session finding out.

    There's also that conversation with the GM I mentioned. If the character sheet is such that you have qualms about playing for a quarter hour and seeing how it goes, a chat with the writer may produce more substantive results than simply learning a bit more about the game's purpose and context. It may be that between you, you can work out that this really isn't the character for you, and you can switch to a different character, and who has obvious, achievable goals or whatever other quality happens to float your boat. (That's an option in some games.) Or maybe the writer can reassure you that an event early on in the session will give you the direction you seek, or the writer can highlight aspects of the character that you hadn't noticed that give you something to do.

    Or you could, as I suggested earlier, say what you are looking for before receiving a character at all, to increase your chances of getting a character who works for you first time.

    Yes, it is up to the player to decide when to enough boredom is enough and it is time to replace the engine of the game with something else, but I would hope that reasonable players would at least enter play before making that decision. Going by blurb and character sheet alone seems premature in general.

  9. @Travis I don't think I'm being clear enough in the essay if you're thinking I'm suggesting to read the sheet and then change stuff in play. My first suggestion is to hook into another's plot, one that matches your own chr's goals. I've suggested that players look for something they think will last the freeform.

    Only after talking to as many players as they can and finding only inane goals am I suggesting they start to re-writing the game in progress. Even then I've not suggested they completely alter their chr, but instead attempt to find plausible varitions on the things they have been given to play with.

    It would be my hope that by the time they have finished talking to all the players, they would know what the main plot(s) are likely to be and have found something. I would suggest if, in the time it takes to have a decent conversation with 20 other players, nothing has developed in play, there maybe an issue with the construction of the game.

  10. Jacinta, I think you're probably right about not being clear enough. You do talk about working to achieve another's plot, but this is in "Stage two - Action", by which stage you've already concluded, near the end of Analysis, that there isn't enough to do in this game. Sure, working on somebody else's goals can be a good thing and not disruptive to the game - sometimes that is even intended by the writer - but doing that, or pretty much anything else, with the mindset that this is a bad game that needs fixing is very dangerous. It isn't engaging the game *in good faith*, and the mindset we bring into the game can have a major effect on our experience of it.

    That said, I'm not advising staying passive and waiting for direction from the writer, either. Depending on the character and the game, you should often be talking to other players and getting involved in their plots, yes. Your involvement might or might not be Morden-like - it wouldn't be appropriate for all characters. But something that drives me spare sometimes are players who don't take opportunities to do things and then complain that they didn't do anything. ("I thought of things to do but I didn't do them because I was afraid of interfering with other players' plots," said one player to me, and I thought, "You nit, of course you'd have interfered with other players' plots. That's where the fun of the game is. You can't pick your nose without finding plot in this game.") Freeforms generally aren't intended to be 20 players waiting for one GM to grant permission to act.

    But we should usually be willing to do this as engagement with the game presented, not with an attitude of "there's something wrong, I may need to fix this". We should still be well within the analysis phase at this point.


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