5 Rules of Freeforms

This seminar became the “Michael Hitchen's Five Rules of Freeforms”. The fact that I have met people 20 years later who quote them as good advice to give freeform writers is testament to their usefulness. For the interested, I understand the five rules are:

  • Every character must have a friend
  • Every character must have an enemy
  • If something needs doing, a PC should be doing it, not an NPC
  • There should be one GM to five players
  • All characters must have equal amounts to do

Notes from the full seminar are below

Freeform Seminar

Held at Necronomicon '95: Sydney, Australia
Moderator: Michael Hitchens
Panellists: Kyla Ward, "Siggy", one other person whose name I didn't get (hereafter referred to as Mr. X)
Each panellist gave their views on freeform role-playing, before the floor was thrown open for discussion.

Kyla Ward


  • Mass firefights
  • Virgin sacrifices
  • Giving major characters to friends
  • Amnesiac characters
  • Orgies (except by prior agreement of all participants)
  • Marriage as character objective (except arranged marriages)
(Note that, for each of the above, at least one example was cited of the rule being broken successfully - usually by Siggy)


Do not use hand-written character sheets.
Have at least three sets of character sheets and notes, as players will lose the set you mail to them, then lose the one you hand them at registration.

Minimum Number of Players (Critical Mass)

A freeform must have enough players to roll on its own, with minimal GM input. The theoretical minimum is five, the least that has occurred in practice was eight (controversy as to whether this was an actual freeform - the smallest universally accepted freeform had twelve players). The largest had one hundred players, and two writers. The usual number would be from twenty to forty players.
Characters should have from three to five objectives. Objectives can usually be divided into three categories: gain an item (including information; also referred to as the "magic widget" or "stuffed owl"); keep an item; or stop a person (includes finding person and learning motives of person).

Character Sheet

A character sheet is the one essential piece of equipment. A freeform may be set anywhere a large group of people could have gathered, all having something in common. Everything that is going to happen, originates on the character sheets. Objectives should be achievable within the scenario, not something that will come to fruition outside of or after the freeform. Avoid referring to other characters who are not present within the freeform, although GM characters and GM plants are OK.

Mr. X

Designing Freeforms

  • First ask, why?
  • Ideas: plagiarise like hell.
  • The freeform is the crucible, where everything gets resolved; where other modules might build up to a climax, the freeform is the climax.
  • Freeforms are primarily political and intrigue-y; they originated from the down-time between adventures, when things were bought, sold, or swapped, contacts acquired and alliances made, and character backgrounds established.
  • Characters need to have both histories and objectives.
  • The setting is there to keep the characters in close contact. The freeform needs a clear-cut ending (eg. The characters must all return to their coffins by sunrise, the Orient Express arrives at the terminus in three hours, the planet will eat any characters remaining on it after a certain point) and an over-riding plot.
  • Props: live versus cards. Live props add feel and texture (Mr. X used the term verisimilitude, but I'll resist the temptation); cards are easier to handle, easier to lose (which may be a plus), and can have written on them details of the item and what it does.
  • Be flexible; remember that no plot will survive contact with the players.

Other Thoughts

Continual, sequential role-playing; experiments in this area in Melbourne have forced organisers to look more closely at ongoing character objectives. In particular, Mr. X warns to avoid racially specific events. People involved in this approach may tend to form cliques, and may resist or reject any plots or objectives that break up their clique. There is a trend towards genre freeforms at the moment, that is, freeforms set within a particular, widely recognised milieu (Star Wars, Blakes' Seven, etc)


Explore every other format, before resorting to a freeform. It is better to run a ten-player module, than a thirty player freeform with ten well-thought-out characters and twenty fillers.
Keep the character sheet short. Players will skim through long character sheets, possibly missing important details.
Characters with power or status should be balanced with other characters of equal standing, and their power (including why they hold it and why others should feel compelled to respect it) should be stated on all relevant character sheets.
Safety First!!! Ensure that no prop can possibly cause injury; even plastic toy swords can cut people with the seams.

Michael Hitchens


  • Every character must have a friend (a real friend, not just someone who is pretending to be on their side).
  • All characters must have equal amounts to do. If there is a main plot, all characters must be connected with it.
  • All characters must have subplots involving at least twelve others (Michael acknowledged that this number was fairly arbitrary; however, it was generally agreed that at least half the freeform was a good number)
  • Describe all the other characters on each character sheet.
  • There should be roughly one GM to eight players (in the case of deeply emotional or cathartic freeforms, the ratio should be higher, perhaps one GM to four players).
  • GM characters: beware the balance of power, but don't give all the interesting characters to GMs. Players shouldn't have to feel like spear carriers.
  • Underlings need reasons (perhaps given as objectives) to follow orders from their superiors, explicitly stated on their character sheets.
For every rule, there is an exception or a way around it.

Open Forum

Rules Systems

Rules systems are needed for magic and combat. (Note: Never use live poison rules, especially at food-based freeforms such as banquets). For magic, as an example, characters may need only a single score to resist its effects. Sometimes interpersonal relationships are also dealt with using rules systems, eg. the common seduction score. Card-based systems work well for freeforms.
Character deaths need to be delayed until near the end of the module (writing the character sheet so as to ensure this generally doesn't work), or made non-fatal; otherwise, you need backup characters. Some character types shouldn't kill each other if role-played properly, but others will naturally tend to kill other characters, and this needs to be allowed for.

"The Floorshow" (Set Pieces)

The floorshow means putting everything on hold so the players can watch GM plants doing something. This is fine, as long as it comes from outside, and involves the players.


There are three options for dealing with interpersonal relationships: leave them out altogether; phrase the character sheets openly, so that players will act out intimacy at the level they feel comfortable with; or abstract them through the rules system (eg. exchanging cards to represent consummation).
If you are going to ask players to act out intimate relationships to any extent, warn them in the game blurb before they sign up. Also, warn the target of any potential seduction, on their character sheet, that they may be the subject of a seduction attempt.

Special Effects

Before using special effects, ask yourself: will they add anything to the freeform? Will the freeform fall apart without them?


Nametags should be placed in plastic holders, and be sure to use legible fonts. Be aware of the possibility of swapping nametags; players may want to swap identities for a time, or may disguise themselves using new nametags.

Tactical Tendencies

Defining how a character usually goes about doing things is part of characterisation.

Dropout Characters

Design characters so that they can be dropped out of the freeform in clumps, if necessary, to adjust the numbers. This can be done by defining one-way relationships, eg. a character may be famous, other characters know and have objectives involving the famous character but are not known by them.

Critical Events/Items

Designate one GM to keep track of each plot-critical item, to avoid the "I though you were doing it" syndrome. Write in failsafes, in case items are lost, destroyed, or otherwise removed from play by characters (eg. a secret society, whose members vote to disband in the first five minutes of the freeform, because of the number of people who are hunting them). Put one GM in charge of each main plot or area.

Popular Posts