16 July, 2014

A Discussion on Australian Freeforming (Part 1)

There are many styles of roleplaying, from the traditionally understood tabletop variety, boffer LARPs, and Computer RPGs which seem to get all the attention among non-gamers, but there are plenty of other styles of play that draw a bit of interest because they aren't so easy to pigeonhole.

Ov the past few years, I've been asked many times on the story-games.com forum to describe the style of gaming known as the 'Australian Freeform', I've written articles and papers on the topic, and have responded numerous times for information about it. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have become a defacto source of information. (For an example article see issue 3 of Playground Magazine at http://www.magcloud.com/browse/magazine/452504 )

After a recent conversation on G+, I've decided to gather my conversation responses into a series of blog entries. This way when someone asks again, I can just point them to this series of posts and have the answers ready to go. I've had a few follow up conversations on various forums and Facebook groups with other people who are familiar with the format, and I'll provide those insights along the way as well.

For the moment though, here's where the conversation begins...

Lizzie Stark
I want to know all about the format, where it comes from and what defines it.

Michael Wenman
Quick answer...it started in the Australian East Coast convention scene in the early to mid 80s

It is defined generally as a gaming format 'not at a table', involving more than 10 players, with minimal rules (or no hard rules at all), and characters who are driven purely by in game motivations and agendas. Often an Australian freeform will have three or four page character sheets purely consisting of background information (one page about the character's history and future agendas, one about the other characters they know and what they think of them, one communal page shared by all characters about the setting, and possibly a factional page shared by groups who follow similar goals or similar histories). Australian Freeforming may be referred to as 'theatre-forming' in some circles because it is commonly associated with costuming, and improvisational acting as a method of conflict resolution. There are a few variants on the style, depending on the rules which are incorporated (such as the 'piece of paper freeform'). Generally there are few riles for combat and thus a freeform will be set in some setting where combat is frowned upon such as a royal ball, a political scene, a funeral...etc.

I've taken part in freeforms with up to 200 players, and have run freeforms with 80 players. 

A friend of mine, Kyla Ward, is considered one of the 'godmothers of Australian Freeforming' and was one of the originators of the style. 

I could write pages on this, and as Mattijs stated I've already done this for Playground (and a few other publications). If there are any more specific questions, I'll be happy to answer.

Lizzie Stark
Sure--I want to know a) is there scene spotlighting in these games? Or is it a larpy free-for-all?

b) what are some typical plots?

c) is there a tradition of script writing?

d) What is the role of the game master?

e) What sort of mechanics are typically used?

Thanks so much for writing back!

Michael Wenman
Lets go through those queries one by one...

a) there often is scene spotlighting. Quite often events will trigger at certain moments and these become pivotal twist points in the narrative. Almost like a 'tilt' in Fiasco. Unlike Fiasco, there may be more than one of these moments that occur when certain conditions are met through the unfolding ecosystem of play. A freeform writer may have a branching tree of potential storylines, with the probability wave collapsing along certain paths as the event's story unfolds and the players push and pull the collective mass in specific directions.

b) typical plots are highly convoluted, with every player having too many things to keep track of during the course of play. Players must specifically choose to focus on a subset of their goals, and typically the goals focused upon by more players become the key storylines for the session/event. 

An example plotline might include a smuggling deal, where one player has contraband stock to offload, two other players might be looking to acquire this stock, a third and fourth player might control suitable locations for such a transaction to occur, and a town guard player might be aware that the deal is on the agenda. Each player has different motivations and agendas toward this storyline.

c) scripting is used by a number of writers in their freeforms, often providing players with specific scenes to enact depending on where the narrative has driven the narrative ecosystem. Just as many writers will allow players free reign, not providing scripts at all (I fall into that latter camp).

d) game masters facilitate play. They don't tell the story in any way, they simple help to adjudicate when things get complicated. As I said earlier, a freeform is a narrative ecosystem with cross purposed stories driving social conflict between player characters, often bringing potential alliances and enmities between the same characters. Game Masters may provide specific knowledge to players whose characters should be aware of certain facts, or they might provide adjudication if fights/conflicts break out. The typical rule of thumb states that there will optimally be 1 GM for every 5 players, and one central coordinating GM (typically the writer). In my games, the GMs are typically identified by baseball caps or white armbands with the letters 'GM' on them, and the fact they wear radio headsets to communicate with one another. Since the story can evolve in a number of possible directions, quick communication between coordinated GMs is essential.

e) mechanisms driving play are typically appropriate to the scenario in play; if the setting was a casino, everyone might have poker chips reflecting money won and lost at different tables...GMs in this scenario might be dealers or attendants at different tables...players might trade information, goods, or services in exchange for the money/chips in their intrigues. I've played in games where all of the players are gods, unable to damage on another in direct conflict, but buying and selling souls in a virtual stock exchange. It is typically considered a 'pure' Australian Freeform if there are no meta-rules or numbers behind character interactions. Of course when players do decide a fight is inevitable (and such conflict is meaningful), sometimes numbers come into play. Typically a writer will give arbitrary rulings based on their understanding of the characters, the situation, and what might be most interesting from a narrative perspective, sometimes they might have predetermined values to consult if a confrontation between characters occurs. 

Every freeform is different, each is it's own self contained ecosystem of play. 

I hope this helps.

Lizzie Stark
It definitely helps. So a few more questions:

How many players in each game?

I just want to clarify what play looks like, as I don't think I was specific enough in my query. When I say "scene spotlighting," I mean that there are five people having a scene in the middle of the room, and any extraneous characters are watching them, or performing as extras.

I ask because it sounds like you're describing lots of simultaneous play, maybe with a GM shepherding a single group of players? (Just want to make sure I understand right here).

And it also sounds like most of the creation of the story comes from the way the characters are written? With competing desires and goals?

Michael Wenman
How many players? An Aussie freeform can have anything from 10 players to 300. Though the common sweet spot seems to be 25 to 40. Too few players, and plots can unfold too quickly. Too many players and there is a reduced likelihood of the right players meeting up to collaborate on common goals. 

Roughly 20% of the characters will be primary characters, each pivotal to a specific storyline (and ancillary to a couple of others).
40% of the characters will be secondary, each capable of changing the fate of two or three storylines depending on their choice of alliances or motivation direction (while often starting play completely unaware that there are other storylines unfolding around them, but inevitably being drawn in as they negotiate with others to achieve their ends).
The final 40% are tertiary characters, perhaps starting play with a vague awareness of a few storylines. These characters are rarely pivotal in themselves, but they can form blocs of power to shape the destiny of the events in play.

When a "spotlit" scene occurs, it typically involves the players of a single storyline...let's say one or two primary characters, a couple of secondaries, and possibly some tertiary characters who have been rallied to the cause. Such a scene may occur in full view of the other player characters, or it might even unfold in a side room unknown to the rest of the game. That's where multiple GMs come in. Players will often be aware that the are things happening in the game that make no sense to their agendas, or perhaps they see something unfold and realise that their character should have been involved in that side of play rather than the things they have been doing.

The idea of primary, secondary and tertiary characters may sound a bit mercenary and unbalanced from a narrative perspective, and to an extent it is. But you have to understand that most of these games occur at conventions or as one-off events where the numbers cannot be guaranteed. You want the key characters filled so the storylines can be driven effectively (primary), next you want the most capable contributing characters filled (secondary), and finally you want to fill in the gaps (tertiary). You write a game for flexible numbers, filling spots as you need them. 

GMing a freeform is a delicate balancing act. Sometimes a GM will be dedicated to a specific faction of players; a Game of Thrones freeform might have a GM dedicated to players of each house, a Harry Potter Freeform might have a GM responsible for Slytherin/Griffindor/Ravenclaw/etc. in this case the players from that group would always try to reach their GM first when they need assistance. In other games, GMs might focus on specific geographic areas; a Pirate freeform might have a GM in the ship's galley, one on the deck, one in the captains quarters, etc. In this case you'd go to the GM relevant to your current location. Another viable split might be to have specific GMs dedicated to specific storylines, but this one can get messy if it isn't handled very carefully.

GMs often vary their focus as the game ecosystem shifts, they rarely spend the entire game dealing only with their originally designated charges.

You are right in your last comment. Australian freeforms are highly charged situations, with carefully constructed predetermined motivations. Each game is a spider's web of conflicting tensions between multiple players. A good freeform is an ecosystem for the players to experience and manipulate, the GMs simply facilitate that manipulation and help guide actions within the context of a larger story. I haven't experienced a successful freeform where the players have been railroaded to certain conclusions (I have experienced several dismal failures where this has been attempted). The Writer applies motivations to characters, then sets them loose among the other characters they have written, they have no idea which players are going to interact with one another and therefore can't control the story once events have been set into motion, but a well written freeform will see certain events unfold, that may catalyse new events that drive the "next act" of the story. Sometimes these events may require a little prompting if things are moving too slowly, in-game political inertia often prevents events from occurring too quickly.

I'm hoping that this is clarifying things.

Lizzie Stark
Very much so, thanks!

Michael Wenman
It one of those things where the more you analyse it, the further you get from the spontaneous purity of the experience. You have to either take part in one, or have someone point out a series of experiences are similar to an Aussie freeform (then try to extrapolate the essence of those experiences to their commonalities). It doesn't help that many freeforms are often self contained systems and events run completely differently to others that form the genre.

I'll leave the conversation transcript there for the moment, but the conversation does go further.
Post a Comment