So What's All This
There's two ways of answering this question. One is to describe what a freeform roleplaying game is and the other is to describe why I find them so exhilarating and give up so much of my time to writing, running, playing and publicising them.
I've tried many times to do the former and describe what a freeform is and each time I've failed miserably. I think a freeform is more a state of mind than anything that can be captured by a mere definition. So instead, I'll try and illustrate why I love freeforms so much and the best way I can think of doing that is to contrast them to conventional roleplaying games.
So, if you haven't got a clue what "conventional" roleplaying is, let alone freeforms, then please bear with me...
The Conventional GameIn a conventional ("Round a Table") roleplaying game, there is a single referee who is effectively in charge of the game. The referee's job is to present the world to players, who usually number between four and six (but can run from one to as many as twelve or more). Each player plays a single character which has generally been developed in conjunction with the referee.
Other than these characters, everything else; all the descriptions, all the other characters, are provided by the referee. This split, between player characters (those played by the players) and non-player characters (those played by the referee), is to me fundamental to the concept of a conventional roleplaying game. It leads to what I call the "group mentality" which dominates the dynamics of the game.
The best way of describing the split to non-roleplayers is by analogy to a TV soap-opera. Here the long-running characters are the player characters (PCs) and those who drop in for an episode or two are the non-player characters (NPCs). No matter how well the NPCs are acted, they invariably have less depth than the PCs, just because of the limited amount of time they have to establish themselves. They are simply less important and we care less about them. The classic example are the "red shirts" from Star Trek (and anyone who thinks that Star Trek isn't a soap opera can see me outside right now!) who would beam down to the planet with Kirk and Co to be killed horribly by the monster.
However, in a conventional roleplaying game, it's more extreme than that. Not only are the NPCs lacking in depth compared to the PCs and less important than the PCs, the whole referee-group dynamic dominates the game. Not only does every scene have to focus on the players, but every scene has to have the referee as the arbiter, interpreter and presenter of the world. So if two of the PCs want to go off and do something, the other PCs can't do anything while they're away, because they don't have access to the referee.
There are rare examples, usually in very good games, where this is not the case, but generally the group mentality dominates the game. All the PCs have to get on with each other to some extent, stay together and act together, otherwise the game becomes unplayable. If half the group decides it hates the other half and wants to go off in a totally different direction, then the game's in trouble and the probable outcome is that half the players have to get new characters, which is hard if they've invested significant time and effort in developing them.
The FreeformFreeforms free you from this restriction at a stroke by simply removing the distinction between PCs and NPCs. All the players are PCs and all are of equal worth to the game. No longer are the players constrained to operate in a single group. The referee, instead of being the bottleneck through which the game has to flow, is relegated to the place of arbiter, adjudicating in disputes between the players, handling mechanics to simulate things that the character can do but the player can't and generally providing information that the character would know but the player doesn't.
This can be incredibly liberating. I remember the first time that I played a freeform, it was an incredible experience. I could go and do what I wanted, no longer having to wait for other players or the referee. At last I could judge every character on their merits instead of making the mental comparison between PCs and NPCs.
There is also the aspect of depth that you can get in a freeform. In the "The Home of the Bold", the first large (60+ player) freeform I ever played, I was blown away by the city of Boldhome, where the game was set. Here was a whole city to explore, full of its own characters, each with their own plots and stories. It gave the game so much more depth and "reality" (always a dodgy word to use about something that is essentially make-believe). No longer was the innkeeper just a one-dimensional puppet controlled by the referee with a specific part to play in the game. Here instead was another player, with their own motives, concerns and, most importantly of all, freewill. They might have nothing to do with my plot and might know nothing about it at all, but if they wanted to do, there was nothing stopping them getting involved. It was great.
The DownsideNaturally, freeforms aren't the be-all and end-all of roleplaying and I certainly wouldn't claim that freeforms are better or worse than conventional roleplaying. I'd just settle for "different". And, of course, I could argue that there aren't really any differences either. There is certainly no clear-cut distinction between freeforms and conventional roleplaying that I could point to and give you a definition that says this one is a freeform and that one isn't. There exists a whole spectrum of games that spans all the way from the sort of games that I write, run and play through to the conventional one referee and a few players round a table game. Many of these games liberally borrow aspects from each style of play and I'd be hard pressed to put a label on them and say what is and isn't a freeform.
So, sticking to generalities and the sort of freeform that I run and play, there are downsides to freeforms, things that you can't do or can do better in conventional games.
One of the big differences is the game environment. By definition, most freeforms have a very limited environment. So that they can interact, all the characters have to be together in the same place at the same time. You can describe that place in great detail (eg "Home of the Bold") but what is hard to do is to create the sweep of a whole country say, where you have several cities, each in great detail, which the players can travel between, etc.
The other one of these is continuity. The games that I've written last about four hours. Big freeforms last a weekend. They tend to be very focused, concentrating on specific events. The characters start off tied together and then they usually diverge from there. By the end of the game you'd be hard pressed to run a sequel that contained more than about one-quarter of your players because everyone else's characters have gone off in totally different directions.
In contrast, I have run conventional roleplaying campaigns (on-going games where the action continues in episodic form week after week) that have lasted up to two years. Obviously that has a very different feel to a one-off game that lasts four hours. For the non-gamer, the analogy is the on-going TV series (the campaign) versus the feature film (the freeform). They are very different beasts.
Of course, not all freeforms are one-off (and not all conventional games are on-going) and I know of (but have never played in) on-going campaigns. The problem here is that you again end up partially constrained by the group mentality, the need to include all the characters in the game. You trade a certain amount of freedom for the on-going continuity.
From a writing point of view, you are also dealing with very different problems. As a referee of an on-going (conventional) game, you are looking to provide situations and challenges to your players that you expect the players to deal with and move on. As the writer of a one-off (freeform) game, you are writing characters, giving them plots and links into other characters, but with very specific goals within the game. The difference, I think, is in the creation of characters: in the conventional game it is largely player led and in the freeform it is largely referee/writer led (which appeals to the novelist in me). In the on-going freeforms (and here I speak largely outside my own direct experience) the referees are much more like conventional referees in that they leave the character creation and development much more to the players and concentrate on the on-going plots and game events.
The BuzzI think the best way to describe why I love freeforms is to describe what I get out of them. To me, the key aspect of the freeform is the ability to get into character and totally immerse myself in the role. Paradoxically enough, the aspect of problem solving and goal-seeking, which many people see as a main attraction of freeforms, actually decreases my enjoyment of the game. If you give me a character which has lots of "plot", with lots of problems to solve and political things to get on with, then I find I revert to being myself trying to work things out, not being the character in question.
To give a concrete example, I played in Dennis Douglas' game "Superbia" where I was cast as King William. Without giving away anything about the game, the main enjoyment I got was from playing the character of William rather than the playing the role of the King. William was a man who never wanted to be King. He had the crown thrust upon him as the result of a bloody civil war. He was, in effect, the compromise candidate. At the time of the game, he had ruled Superbia for 20 more or less peaceful, prosperous years. However, he was a far from happy man. Although he was, in his eyes, a good king, and he gave his all to the job, he resented it immensely for taking away the life he could have had instead. He felt himself trapped in a loveless, political marriage and saw his children heading the same way.
What I really enjoyed in that game was playing through those emotions, the resentment and the guilt that William felt. When a close family member died in the game, I was devastated. Now, I'm not suggesting for a minute that what I felt was anything like the grief that someone genuinely feels when a loved one dies, but for a couple of hours I had an insight into how awful it can be.
It's important to say at this point that I'm not claiming that this level of emotional involvement is the sole domain of freeforms. Indeed, it is often easier to get this sort of play from a conventional roleplaying game. However, a freeform gives a different perspective, a different feel. In Superbia, while King William and his close family were locked away in grief, the rest of the characters were getting on with things. The King's staff were doing their best to run the Kingdom and take the heat off the King while everyone else was scheming and plotting as before, creating things that William had to deal with, grief or no grief. It's that level of parallel activity and complexity that is difficult to create in a conventional roleplaying game where the narrative is much more linear. For some of the characters, King William's loss was neither here nor there, while for me, it was the central part of the game. In a conventional game, it would be the central point for everyone. It would have to be.
The Other BuzzThat's the buzz I get from playing in a good freeform, which is why I give up my time to play in them. Why on earth, though, do I give up my time to write the things? I worked out that for The Man in Black, one of my earlier games, that I had written over 150,000 words, which is about the size of my first novel, Naughty Ned's Backstreet TV. It took me four months of solid writing to put the game together and if I'd dedicated that effort to novels, I'd have three or four of them finished by now instead of just one.
I said earlier that the writing of freeforms appeals to the novelist in me and there are certainly parallels. I write novels to explore characters, emotions and ideas (one of the problems I have with writing short stories is being able to explore an idea to my satisfaction in so few words - as to exploring a character, then forget it). Writing a freeform is a very similar thing for me. I write characters, I create them: their lives and their stories. Then I weave them together at a certain point in time (although the actual experience is the other way around, starting with the certain point in time and working them backwards). Finally, I give them to my players and see what they do with them, which is where the experience diverges from writing a novel, where I have slightly more control over what my characters do (but not that much more as they always have a life of their own).
For me, other than the pleasure of writing the characters themselves, the big buzz is seeing my characters through the eyes of others, of seeing how someone else interprets what I have done and how they take that character forward. Once you have written a character and given it to a player, then you absolutely have to let go. That character is no longer your property and you cannot dictate to the player how they play them (the biggest mistake of a referee is to say or even think of a player "you're playing that character all wrong" - they might not be playing it how you envisaged, but that doesn't make it wrong).
Seeing my characters come to life in the hands of others is such an amazing feeling. That synthesis between my creativity and that of all my players (and the synthesis between the each player's creativity and every other player) is wonderful to behold and the end result is invariably more than the sum of the parts.
To give an example from "The Man in Black", I have many treasured memories. One is watching a player standing in a corner, shaking with anger because the man who drove her mother to suicide and ruined several friends' lives has walked into the room. She's also shaking to control herself, because she knows that if she lets go for one second, she's going to lose it and go over there and beat the crap out of him, and she knows that despite him deserving it, that's not going to be a good thing. And then I watched her find out that her best friend is his mother...
To know that I created the germs of that scene was wonderful. I didn't make it happen, I couldn't have made it happen. Only my players could have done that: the man who played the object of her hatred for being so hateful, the woman herself for her emotional involvement, the woman who played her best friend for having the courage to tell her; none of it could have happened without them all, but equally none of it could have happened without me having written the seeds. Knowing that is a wonderful feeling, to be a part of such creativity.
Four months solid writing? Worth every moment of it.
Me and Freeforms
What to Expect