25 August, 2010

Vector Theory #28: Australian Freeforms

FUBAR is my exercise in designing a game according to the principles of Vector Theory. Where-in players get the chance to manipulate the effectiveness of their characters, or manipulate the direction of the story. They must choose between these options when proving successful in their die rolls. Players also choose how well their character is able to resist negative effects imposed upon their characters, or choose to buffer the direction changes in the story (they are rarely able to do both). I'm not sure completely how successful the game is in that regard, but it has gotten me thinking about a lot of other games and gaming styles.

The American indie roleplaying community (with links to the English and the Norse) has recently had a fascination with the style of play known in Australia as "Freeforming"...it's an annoying name because freeform means completely different things in the roleplaying communities from other parts of the world. I'll try to ensure I refer to it by the complete name of "Australian Freeforming" (or AF for short).

Australian Freeform games run with a minimum of rules, I've commented about the subject before (but looking through my blog archives, it appears that I haven't really made blog posts about it). Players are given a series of objectives which typically intersect with the objectives offered to other players. Sometimes players will work together to achieve a goal, other times they'll come into conflict. The play is typically "real time", and the goals are typically set up in such a way that combat is not a viable option. These types of games draw people from theatre backgrounds and those who like to costume, they are often theatrical and dramatic. A good game will have an easily understood, or easily researched setting, then take a twist on it so that the obvious ending isn't necessarily the best path taken.

In most Australian Freeforms, there are no statistics for the characters, so players aren't skewed in their preferred path of action due to attributes or advantages in a particular area. The whole essence of these games is the story. That really seems like a conflict of terms when it comes to Vector Theory, because the theory states that story is a straight path, and game is a node where that trajectory deviates due to some interaction.

But Australian Freeforming does have rules...it follows the rules of social convention. If you want something to happen, you can't do it on your own, so you need to talk to someone and find an ally to complete your agenda. But there will be people out there who don't want your agenda fulfilled, and you can't tell who will be favourable or unfavourable until the issue is raised carefully in conversation.

It's a delicate art, just like workplace politics (or any other politics) in real life. Different people want different things, and different people will be willing to break their own moral codes to different degrees in order to achieve their objectives.

In some games you'd call this a fruitful void. It's an area where the rules explicitly don't apply, but it's where the meat of the story derives itself. Once you impose rules there, it starts to feel forced.

So let's look at each of the players in an Australian Freeform as a narraton. They all have the same wavelength, they interact with one another on an equal footing. None is better at combat, none is better at the arcane arts. But they do all have impetus and direction.

Each character steps into the scenario with a number of objectives, and the controlling player needs to prioritise those objectives in the aim to complete as many as possible in the allocated session time. Let's say that left is a peaceful outcome, and right is war. Up is a power shift toward the church, down is a power shift toward the state (this is a purely hypothetical scenario, and many games will have three or more axes of potential outcome). If one player is following a character priority that takes them to the left, they'll find allies among those other players following objective aiming leftward, and they'll come into conflict with characters heading to the right. Similarly for up and down.

If a player finds an ally heading in the same direction, suddenly there are two moving that way and their combined force will overwhelm a single opposing player. But that single opposing player might still provide enough of an obstacle to stop the momentum of the allied players. It might be enough to stop them obtaining their goal before the session time expires.

An Australian Freeform is set up with a web of these agendas, some players coming into conflict due to one objective may find that they have a common goal in another objective. Let;s consider a twenty player Australian Freeform using the axes of potential outcome described above.

Ben heads upward (church) and to the left (peace), but for the moment he's focused on the left.
Mark heads upward (church) and to the right (war), but for the moment he's focused on the right because he has an ally headed that way.
Sally is Mark's ally, she is headed purely to the right (war).

Ben and Mark come into conflict. Ben wants peace, and Mark is a warmonger...but in their discussion they realise that they both want more power for the church.

Sally doesn't care who comes out on top, church or state, but she wants war.

Ben and Mark decide to join forces. Ben decides it might be worth a bit of war after all if the church gets enough power in the end. They both head over to Sally and see if they can turn her warlike tendencies toward the church's goals.

In the end, Ben has had to make a moral decision regarding his character's choices. Sally has had to consider which side should benefit from her input, and Mark has come out generally on top, still heading towards war, and still improving the power of the church. The three of them make a powerful force...but they don't know what the other seventeen players in the room are up to.

It's dramatic, it's challenging and there are no dice (or other randomisers) to fall back on. It's all about who you talk to and how you handle yourself.

Factions ally players at the start of play, and these are often used as a convenient method of determining who is aimed in what direction when the scenario begins, but by the end of a session, the directions can have shifted radically. A GM can't predict the outcome of a scenario with 100% certainty, they basically sit back and facilitate the actions of the players. Nothing more.

As I look at the computer encoding of Otherkind Dice for my FUBAR based browser game, I can see that there is something similar here. In an MMORPG, there is no specific storyline. There may be quests and general intentions of levelling up, but these styles of games become even more open in their storytelling opportunities. Players come in with their own ideas of what their characters should accomplish, GMs are merely administrators of the world and the best they might be able to impact the overall storyline is to introduce global effects (everyone bearing trait X suffers a point of damage...) then hope that one or more players might look for an in game reason for why this is happening. Or they might specifically take on an avatar in the game world to personally present quests to promising players. Beyond that they have to work on the background mechanics of the game in order to intiate the kinds of storytelling we often see in roleplaying games, and this gets really fiddly and temperamental when dealing with a server handling hundreds (if not thousands) of players.

Thus, in the online game, I'll be incorporating the idea of "faction heads" as sub GMs. Those who ascend to lead factions will gain a responsibility of giving quests to those who belong to their faction. They will gain a heightened ability to influence stories and create storylines of their own.
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