Me and Freeforms

This page is really a history of me and my involvement in freeforms. If you're looking for definitions of what a roleplaying game is and what a freeform is, then you've probably come to the wrong site, but for what it's worth, you can read my thoughts on the differences between the two by following this link.

The Beginnings

I first started playing conventional ("Round a Table") roleplaying games in 1984, courtesy of my friend Andrew McBrien (McB), who introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons®. I was immediately hooked and by the time I went to the University of York, I was writing and running my own games, first using AD&D® then using ICE's MERP and Rolemaster systems. If anyone out there remembers Aslan, Andrew Rilstone's fanzine of the mid to late 80s, the Middle-earth/Rolemaster campaign was written up as "Ramblings of Madmen" in issue 6.

After York, I did a Ph.D. at Edinburgh, where I continued running roleplaying games, but I kept going back to York and at the end of the first term (December 1988), I attended my first "Fantasy Party". I maintain that the fantasy parties at York (of which Andrew Rilstone ran the first three) were the first examples of the genre that became known as "Freeforms" in the UK (and "theatre-style" in the US). Although the concept was independently invented in other parts of the world, I believe Andrew can reasonably claim to have invented the format in the UK.

Andrew's first game was a pretty basic affair, but that didn't stop it being excellent fun. It was a new type of roleplaying that was so different from anything I had ever done before. Although we had talked about it as a concept for some time in York, to see it in action was wonderful.

The setting was a fairly derivative fantasy court. The King was holding a contest to find a husband for his daughter and heir, the Princess. I landed a role as one of the princes, one who'd been mugged on the way to the court and ended up forcing his way in wearing nothing more than a blanket (which has set the standard and my approach to costuming ever since...). I think the character sheet was about 4 lines long, but it was enough to give me the scope for some excellent roleplaying, especially with the Princess, who I ended up marrying.

What made the first Fantasy Party so impressive was the scale of the thing. No longer was I, as a player, aware of the distinction between the "group" and everyone else. No longer was there the them and us split between PCs and NPCs. Everyone was a PC! It was a liberating experience and led to a very immersive game.

I was so impressed that I went back to York at the end of the next two terms of that academic year to play in two more of Andrew's games, in which I continued to play the Prince, now joint heir to his wife's Kingdom. It's safe to say that they were some of the best roleplaying experiences that I've ever had. Each game lasted perhaps three hours and took place in a single room at the York campus. I really can't remember how many of us turned up to that first Fantasy Party, but I'd guess it was around 30. By the time Andrew ran his third game, they were a firm fixture and numbers might have been up to about 50.

Andrew then handed over the reins and others took up the responsibility for writing and running the Fantasy Parties, which ran at the end of every term. I kept coming back to play in them, but the next significant event in my involvement took place in Edinburgh a few months later.

Andrew had managed to get the indepedent professional roleplaying magazine of the day (I forget its name) to print the first Fantasy Party as a scenario and someone in Edinburgh came across it and announced to the roleplaying society there (GEAS) that he was going to run this new game. I, of course, couldn't resist, so I played again, this time as the Prince who went in disguise as his servant. And I got to marry the Princess again.

The game was a reasonable success. I think about 15 or 20 people turned up, and it was enough to kick-start me into action. I honestly can't remember if I'd thought of doing a game myself before then, but after the Fantasy Party was run in Edinburgh, I realised that there was a ready and willing group of players and so, that summer (1990), I launched "The Ace of Spades" on an unwitting set of Edinburgh students. To my great pride, a few of my friends also came up from York to play in it, among them Andrew, whose fault all this was. I think I also have to be honest and say I don't think he enjoyed it that much, but overall, the game was sufficiently successful for me to run two more, "Indec's Lair" and "The Man in Black".

I had planned a follow-up to "The Man in Black", but the pressures of doing and then writing up my Ph.D. rather put paid to that idea and I left Edinburgh without writing any more freeforms.

The Quiet Years

After that, my own freeform writing activity ground to a halt and I went back to much more conventional roleplaying, running a series of on-going campaigns for a group of (mostly) ex-university friends at weekends. Although I wasn't writing freeforms, I was however sowing seeds and laying foundations for my future involvement. The first of these on-going campaigns involved the continued development of the UFG, the background to a re-vamped The Man in Black which I was eventually to run in 2000, while the second of these, my Dunlendings campaign, led directly to the Council of Fennas Drúnin, the first freeform I wrote after Edinburgh.

During this time, I also started getting involved in playing in larger freeforms. The first of these was at Convulsion in July 1992, where I went specifically to play "Home of the Bold". This was a six hour, 80 player freeform set in the Gloranthan city of Bold Home at the time of the Lunar Occupation (if that doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry, it didn't mean anything to me either). Despite knowing next to nothing about Glorantha and having received the 32 page character and background booklet on my arrival on the Friday evening (the game was Saturday afternoon), I was utterly captivated. I played Havar Ironfist, one of a number of independent Lords who was trying to decide whether to side with the occupying Lunars or the independence movement.

What hooked me, and what I have still to this day never seen done better, was the scope of the game. I had my own little room which represented my "embassy", while other rooms of the university halls of residence where the game was being held, represented other parts of Bold Home. It was fantastic. Here I was, in a real city, with real people. It had its own bar, marketplace and population. I even had my own followers. There were so many people to interact with, so many people to talk with, so much depth. I hardly touched the various plots that were going on, which all added to the sense of reality of the place and the game. It was truly excellent.

Two years later, I returned to Convulsion to play in "How the West Was One", another large Gloranthan freeform. Although this was a good game, I left it feeling slightly disappointed. It was set at a religious conference where various factions of a Gloranthan religion (I can't remember which one) were meeting to decide the "One True Way". The problem for me was that it lacked the depth of Home of the Bold. I was expecting another city to explore, another enviroment to involve myself in. Instead, there was nothing except the conference. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

I missed the next Convulsion as they were running "Home of the Bold" again and as I only really attended to play in the large freeforms, there didn't seem much point. I wasn't to go again until Convulsion 2000, but that comes much later.

The "American" Games

The next big step for me was down to Kevin Jacklin and friends. Kevin was one of those behind Convulsion and also a very keen freeformer. At the 1994 Convulsion, we had had Sandy Peterson as a guest and he told us about "Café Casablanca", a truly massive weekend-long game that he had helped to write in the States.

It was Kevin who was instrumental (although there were certainly others involved, to whom I apologise for not giving due credit) in bringing "Café Casablanca" over to the UK in 1995, when it was run at a hotel in Nottingham. It was my first weekend long game and once again, although I enjoyed it, I was left feeling slightly disappointed. I played Karl Sakall, Maitre D' of Rick's Café and would have been quite happy in that role, ensuring that the café was well run and the guests entertained. However, I was also in the Resistance and since the Resistance plots took up most of my time, the cafe suffered and the game suffered too in my opinion.

I was looking for that sense of immersion that I had in "Home of the Bold" (and have never really experienced since as a player). "Café Casablanca" had the potential as it had Rick's Café, the Casbah and a few other game locations, but it never achieved the atmosphere I was looking for. The locations never managed to be more than the rooms that they were set in. Part of this was down to the players, since it is usually the players who create the atmosphere. As Karl, I would have been quite happy to be left alone to run Rick's Café , but it wasn't to be, and as a result, the atmosphere suffered. It just didn't feel like Rick's. Despite these reservations, I have to say that I had a wonderful time and still have very fond memories of the game.

After that, the weekend games started to come along quite regularly. Next was the "King's Musketeers", a game set in the age of Dumar's Three Musketeers. I played the head of the Huguenots Faction (French Prostestants). In purely game terms, it was probably my most successful game, although I'm not sure how I managed it. I had a very successful faction, who managed to significantly increase the fortune and influence of the house and even managed to keep from washing its dirty laundry in public (which included an adulterous wife and a rebellious brother who ended up fighting for the English).

Things reached their peak in 1997 with "1897", a game set around Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. "1897" boasts my favourite character of all time - Raffles, the gentleman thief. I had a wonderful time playing him and even managed to make it as Captain of the MCC (the English cricket team of the day).

Unfortunately, after the success of "1897" (which had nearly 100 players), things moved rapidly downhill. October 1998 brought with it "Arabian Nights" which while not a bad game, was not up to the standards of those that had preceded it. This was soon followed in March 1999 by "Shakespeare's Lost Play", which was, to be blunt, a poor game and very poorly run.

What marked out all these five games, other than that they were weekend long games for 50+ players, was that they were American games, imported to the UK. Most importantly, they were run by American referees who flew over especially for the games. While in some ways this was good, since it introduced us to some excellent games ("Café Casablanca", "King's Musketeers" and "1897") and got a large group of British freeformers together, I can't help thinking that it also stiffled the home-grown game scene, both in terms of writing and running our own games. However, by the time of "Arabian Nights" and "Shakespeare's Lost Play", I had started to look elsewhere for my freeform fixes and had taken my own faltering steps towards producing some home-grown games.

Hooked on Intercon

In October 1998, as well as playing "Arabian Nights", I was also on an extended holiday between jobs and had decided to make my first ever trip to America. Having played in "Café Casablanca", "King's Musketeers" and "1897", I was keen to see what the American gaming scene, being the home of those excellent games, had to offer.

At "1897", as well as bringing referees over from the States, they had also brought over some players, one of whom was Jeannie Whited, my in-game fiancée. Jeannie and I had stayed in touch when she got back to the States and so I e-mailed her to ask if there were any live-action games/conventions going on while I would be over there. She suggested Intercon 13.5 and the rest is history.

I flew in to Washington DC, did the tourist things there for a few days and then Jeannie drove me up to Baltimore, where I played in my first ever Intercon. It's difficult to describe what an effect that weekend had on me. Although I had been to roleplaying conventions in the UK before and had played weekend long games, Intercon was something different. A weekend dedicated to freeforms, with three or four streams of games running simultaneously. I was spoilt for choice and was staggered by the quality of the games, the quality of the roleplaying and the sheer friendliness of everyone towards me.

The first ever game I played at my first ever Intercon was Nepenthe and I was so taken by the game that I ended up running myself (see below). I also played in the magnificent Intrigue in the Clouds by Dean and Dana Edgell. This game, more than any other, made me realise the heights that a four-hour game can reach. I still maintain that it is the gold-plated standard of the four-hour Freeform genre. I have fabulous memories of that game, playing Professor Fritz Zwinger with Karen Bowman playing my daughter. Karen and I just hammed it up all evening - I'd have been happy doing father and daughter skits all game, but there was also the mother of all plots to keep us busy and amused.

That's when I became an Intercon junkie. While it's not fair to say that I went to America specifically to attend in Intercons, it is fair to say that for a period of five years, I arranged my American holidays so that I could attend the New England Intercon in February/March each year. After that first Intercon, I went to the New England Intercon from 1999 (Intercon XIV) to 2004 (Intercon D). All of them have been excellent and in terms of the depth and bredth of roleplaying available (200+ attendees over the weekend), I've not seen better. If you're ever in the Boston area in February/March (or would like to go), then give Intercon a try. I'm sure that you won't be disappointed.

Various factors, none of them having anything to do with Intercon, led me to stop going after 2004. Put simply, February/March, for personal and business reasons, was no longer a good time for me to be away for the length of time needed to attend Intercon. While I could, in theory, fly out for the weekend, I've never been able to motivate myself to go through all that hassle for three days away. If I can't fit in a holiday as well, it's not something that appeals to me.

Running my own games

Attending Intercon 13.5 gave me the impetous to start writing and running my own games. Although I write all my own games, I also run other people's games and, while running games, I am usually helped by a crew of three or four people, one of whom is always the long-suffering AJ Smith, who also proof-reads everything. I've tried to give all these wonderful people credit in the various individual game pages on this site, but haven't mentioned specific individuals here since it'll be even longer than it is if I do! So, when I say "I ran this" or "I ran that", I'm really not trying to take all the credit for myself!

The first of my games was the Council of Fennas Drúnin, the game which grew out of my Dunlendings campaign and which I'd originally written for some friends of mine in 1995. This was dusted off, re-written and expanded to be run at the Short Tales convention in June 1999.

I then went through a very productive period, running the Council of Fennas Drúnin for a second time at Intercon XV in March 2000, a week after I helped run a second UK outing for "Café Casablanca", this time with a local cast of referees. Next was The Man in Black, my most successful game from the Edinburgh days, doubled in size and complexity, which saw the light of day in July 2000 at Convulsion 2000, followed by a most successful outing at Intercon A in March 2001.

Sandwiched between those two were a couple of runs for Nepenthe, the game I first played at Intercon 13.5, which I ran at FallCon in Oxford in October 2000 and again in Edinburgh for some friends in January 2001. Nepenthe and the Council of Fennas Drúnin then got their third (and for the moment, their last) outings at Gencon UK (end of August 2001) and FallCon (October 2001) respectively.

I then wrote two brand new games, House on the Hill and the Cardolani Succession, which, with hindsight, was a very daft thing to do. Both were huge games, far bigger than anything I'd done before or since and both were produced in a period of about nine months, while I was holding down a full time job and then setting up my own business!

"Cardolani Succession" was the first off the blocks, despite being conceived some time after House on the Hill. It had its first run at Intercon B in March 2002 and despite some teething problems, it was a huge success. It's the biggest game I've written and is likely to remain so (it was about twice the size of The Man in Black) since it really stretched what one writer can do with a game. It still hasn't had a second run, although I keep threatening to run it again and I'm sure that one day I will.

House on the Hill ran for the first time in July at Convulsion 2002 in Leicester. I then took it out to America for the first of two very successful runs: Intercon C at the end of February 2003 and Intercon D the following year (although this last run was not without its problems. Sandwiched between these two runs was a second US outing for The Man in Black which ran in Chicago in September 2003.

The Quiet Years (Again)

After the second of the Intercon runs of House on the Hill, things went pretty quiet for me on the freeform front. Due to various commitments, both personal and business, I couldn't devote the time that I need to write and run games, so I stopped. I had been scheduled to run "Cardolani Succession" at Continuum (the successor to Convulsion) in July 2004, but various problems led me to pull the game when it was clear that it was never going to fill.

Since then I've played in a number of weekend-long games, starting with the fabulous "Torch of Freedom" by Bruce Glassco. This came over to the UK in November 2003 after a successful run in the US and was fantastic. I played Julian Blanc, a frustrated revolutionary. After Raffles from "1897", he is probably my favour character. "Torch of Freedom" also came very close to matching the immersive experience that I've been seeking ever since "Home of the Bold". All in all, an utterly fantasic game and wonderful experience!

This kick-started the weekend-freeform scene in the UK and the following year we had the first of three home-grown games: "The Seige of Troy". This was followed by the excellent "Once Upon a Time in Tombstone" in 2005 and by the extremely disappointing "Pyrates" in 2006. I'm not even going to start on "Pyrates" and why it was so poor.

There was no weekend-long game in 2007 since the November slot was taken by Consequences (see below). Instead "1897" came back for a second UK run in February 2008. Having enjoyed the role of Raffles so much the first time around, I felt that playing again could only ever be an anti-climax, so I was part of the (UK) refereeing team, something which I thoroughly enjoyed (although Jeannie Whited was in the UK at the time and helped us run it, which was just as well since I lost my voice and relied rather heavily on Jeannie for the early part of the weekend).

I'm Back!

After four relatively quiet years, I'm glad to say that I'm back running games. I took the first steps in November 2007, when I ran The Man in Black at Consequences. It was a good run, but it could have been better. Too many players had a poor game and I realise that, eight years on, some of the characters are a bit plot thin and need beefing up.

In 2008 I ran House on the Hill twice, once out in Chicago as part of Brit Invasion in October and then a month later at Consequences B. Consequences also marked a special moment. My good friend Dean Edgell died from cancer in December 2007 and as part of our tribute to him, a group of us from the UK ran Intrigue in the Clouds, one of Dean's most celebrated games.

2009 was another quiet year, with only a visit to Chicago in October for Brit Invasion II. The original plan was to run Under Angmar's Shadow, but that had to pulled for a variety of reasons, so I ended up running Council of Fennas Drúnin twice on the same day for everyone who had signed up for "Under Angmar's Shadow". Although I was at Consequences, I didn't run anything that year.

2010 marked another important milestone: my first new game in eight years! However, before that, Under Angmar's Shadow finally got run in June in Chicago. It was a great success, but still needs polishing and a longer run! I also sneaked out to Madison in October to run Council of Fennas Drúnin for my friend David Simkins and got to play in my first ever Whately. Then, at Consequences D, I ran The Clockwork Café, my first new game since House on the Hill back in 2002. The Clockwork Café was a big success and I was very pleased with the way it went. It's easily the most densely-plotted game that I've ever written.

2011 was also a busy year as I ran The Clockwork Café three more times, once at Intercon K, and twice on successive days in Chicago in October, which made it four runs for the game in less than 12 months. It was also my first appearance at an Intercon after a six year absence. Before that I had attended the New England Intercon for six straight years, so there was a pleasing symmetry about it. At Consequences E in November I helped to run "Intrigue Beneath the Waves", Dean Edgell's sequel to Intrigue in the Clouds. I also helped to run Once Upon a Time in Tombstone, which had its US debut in Hagerstown, Maryland, the weekend before I ran The Clockwork Café.

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