New on Desk #11 — Structured Freeform

We ended up playing a structured freeform tabletop roleplaying game at RPG Club Hannilus this week, so let’s take a quick look at that side of the barn. I have my creative differences with the whole freeform thing, which I hope won’t be cause for flame wars in this post-ironic age.

What is structured freeform

The early ’00s in tabletop rpg land were defined by the rise of a visible counter-culture that contrasted with mainstream (or “traditional” as we like to call it) roleplaying on several fronts, such as commercial arrangements, the purpose of play, the perceived role of the game text, the rules, the Game Master… the questioning of everything taken for granted in roleplaying was pretty in-depth. A few different alternate schools of roleplaying identified themselves over this time period.

I won’t go into depths on this, but one of these alternate cultures of the ’00s was of course the Forge, a forum community dedicated to indie rpg publishing, critical theory and a certain sort of formalistic game design. Another one, just as vital yet limited to the Nordic countries, was Nordic freeform, a playstyle-with-manifestos that flowered into maturity around the same time; its foundational ideas related to shedding mechanical rules in rpgs in favour of character immersion and storytelling.

“Structured freeform” is a late ’00s hybridization of the former types of roleplaying games, developed and identified by a number of Forge alumni and Nordic designers. The style differs archetypically from the classical Forge game by lacking resolution mechanics and game state, but it’s not quite Nordic freeform either, as the name hints: while a traditional freeform game emphasizes naturalness and pushes most of the structural duties on a GM, a structural freeform game often has precise interaction rules that the players must follow. In other words, structural freeform breaks the premise that immersive play requires receding rules.

I’ve also seen this school of design called “American freeform” on account of how its main proponents are American. I’m no expert on the scene, but the names that come to mind as eager proponents and achieved designers of structured freeform are people like Emily Care and Matthijs Holter. Google it up if you want to know more, it’s a phenomenon that lives in the Internet.

Us playing “Haunted”

Anyway, RPG Club Hannilus last Tuesday: we’re in between games after finally giving up on ever managing to schedule another session of Tales of Entropy, so Paul suggested we try out one of these “new style games” that Vincent Baker has been writing. Vincent’s an accomplished designer with a foundational oeuvre of games of a Forgite-formalist bend, but he’s been leaning more and more towards structural freeform over the last decade, so this isn’t Lumpley games like you’re used to.

The specific game we tried out is called Haunted, and it’s written by Vincent’s son Elliot; I understand that the technical premise is based on some other similar games that Vincent’s written over the last few years, but the particulars are Elliot’s. The game’s about impressionistic horror storytelling, with each of the players establishing a character who’s ready for the horror to be revealed.

The playstyle of Haunted is focused on the players getting little dynamic feeds from the script that they then round out into a story. For instance, the game begins by having the players draw cards that turn into cryptic suggestions about the character’s backstory, which the players will then build up into a whole picture. Later in the game the core mechanic is having the players ask topical questions about the story from each other, with the answers building up entire scenes.

I was entertained by the quick little story we created. The game does a good job of encouraging impressionistic storytelling that leaves much ambiguous and the audience questioning. In fact, I think I’ll summarize what we came up with, just to give a sense of how it was. The following is a horror story, so the faint-minded may wish to skip it:

Sometime in the 1890s in Copenhagen, a happy-go-lucky young rake, Tomas his name, is desperately uncertain and confused. He has had an… encounter of most eldritch nature with a subterranean thing. It poked and prodded at him, and Tomas is only now getting into terms with the idea that it may have been rape. Certainly something alien swelled in his stomach, and upon bile was borne out a small something, even now mewling in the corner of his room.

Even worse for Tomas, an intrusive foreign private detective by the name of McCleod has been up in his business. Probably about the child, or whatever it is. The thing. The dick wouldn’t leave Tomas alone at the pub tonight, and he ended up outright assaulting the smug jerk. Who knows what he’ll get up to in retaliation, Tomas worries gloomily in his loft apartment.

Ultimately Tomas decides to get rid of the evidence. It’s better for him, and for it, it he gives it to an orphanage. He can barely stand to look, or touch, the thing. Almost considers dropping it into a sewer, back to whence it came. He is clearly distressed and is probably not thinking quite straight.

Years pass and Tomas continues in his rakish ways, if ever more pitiable in the way only an old debauchee can be. Gets married in his middle-age, too, which only makes it worse when one of his by-blows, a young man by the name of George, comes to visit. The boy’s visibly upset at finding his father, and even more so when Tomas refuses to speak a word of his “daughter”, the sister the boy is insistent on finding. Not that Tomas truly knows what the boy could mean, for he has set aside that part of his youth quite entirely. He won’t allow himself to worry overmuch: as a true child of fortune Tomas is capable of forgiving himself for his past misdeeds, shedding the sins he has fathered.

We follow George to Copenhagen in the 1920s where he discovers what he believes to be the track of his sister, who apparently has escaped into the catacombs beneath the city. George, the Call of Cthulhu investigator that he is, partners up with old man McCleod, and heads underground to seek the source of his obsession. Eldritch darkness test his sanity and leaves him stranded alone before George discovers a weird tomb built beneath rainwater grating, covered in rose petals.

The gothic imagery is interrupted by the sister George has been looking for, hiding there in the sewers. However, something about her is wrong, horrifyingly so, causing George to escape in blind terror. He gets away from the disgusting creature, but the damage is done: not soon after George will be committed to a an asylum as his frail worldview unravels, all apparently due to his unfortunate encounter in the sewers.

Finally, the story moves to America in the 1990s, a few years after the first Gulf War. A John McCleod, the great-grandson of the detective from before, is concerned about his war-vet brother in arms Elliot, who may be suffering of PTSD, and has certainly gotten into New Age occultism to succour whatever it is that bothers him.

John surveils Elliot on his business around town and ends up saving him from an assault by hostile townsfolk, characterized as “white trash” by the narration. The local sheriff intervenes, but clearly in a biased way, arresting John for the disturbance.

Later at night John is searching the local woods for the source of Elliot’s distress; he suspects that it is something that Elliot told him about during the war, and he dreads the discovery. The sheriff, accompanied by some of the men who attacked Elliot, is trying to find John in the woods, but he hides from them in the undergrowth. They have somewhere to be.

Finally John discovers the place, a hut deep in the forest. It is morning by now, and John sees a young girl come out of the hut.

Elliot’s hair has been dropping off, he’s been using a wig to cover his baldness, now grasped in his hands. The girl is of mixed blood, her skin betraying her, and the same is true of her swarthy mother. John, covered in blood, that is red, is uncertain of whether he did the right thing here.

The above story seems relatively straightforward (if implicit) laid out like this, but now imagine experiencing that story in the order it was created: each of the three protagonists got a scene in turn, going round the group, with us discovering the connections between the characters only as the story went on. The individual scenes were not in chronological order even for the individual character. I found the mystery enjoyable, and solving it was fun; I realized at some point that what we have here is an unreliable narrator forcing us to choose between a rape story and a hate crime story, so I did my best to encourage the story to emphasize the ambiguity. Either way you go, it’s an awful story, perhaps the most due to how Tomas could just… forget about it. He became a lighthouse keeper in his old age, I think, smiling contentedly at the crashing waves and screaming gulls while the debt of blood he’d engendered continued on through the coming century.

I’ll note that the game text of Haunted could be better in that it’s one of those light-weight script things that doesn’t explain much, and this left me at loose ends at times. For example, the game doesn’t task me very carefully when it’s asking me to perform things: it’s left vague whether I’m supposed to strive for character fidelity or story cohesion, for instance. We were forced to guess at things like how much of character backstory the players should develop and communicate to the other players. Makes for a somewhat bumpier ride than it needs to be. Aside from that it’s a perfectly acceptable little structured freeform game.

Some observations on the preceding

First, I’ll share a theoretical observation on freeform, and structural freeform in particular: I think that the most distinctive feature of these games is not the lack of resolution mechanics or stuff like that — that’s all just mechanics, ultimately a merely utilitarian concern for games. No, what again and again characterizes these games when I face them is the linear scripting, or even more fundamentally, the trivial game-state. Let’s define the terms a bit more explicitly:

Linear Scripting: A game that proceeds from a beginning to an end, with prepared waypoints on the way, is linearly scripted. It is a property shared with traditional narrative arts, which are always linearly scripted. Note, however, that what gets scripted is not always the same.
Game-state: Players in a game make interactive choices (as per definition of “game”). The game state is the system that determines what those choices are, a combination of where prior choices and static game procedures have left the game until this point. A game with a trivial game-state specifically doesn’t have a lot going on in this regard: the game is mostly in the same state all the time, and does not change or develop during play.

I believe that most would agree with me about freeform games generally being linearly scripted. The game-state claim is theoretically much trickier because it gets straight into what the game-state of a roleplaying game even consists of. It’s simple to say that the board position of Chess, plus knowing whose turn it is, plus tracking the draw conditions (threefold repetition, 50 move rule, etc.), is an exhaustive description of the game state. In a roleplaying game, though, what is “fluff” and what is game state? The determining factor is whether you think that a player making an aesthetic choice is being constrained by game state or inspired by incidentals, which is a pretty deep topics.

Setting that particular rabbit hole aside, though, what I really wanted to say is that I am generally disinterested in both Nordic freeform and structural freeform games because I find linearly scripted games to be boring, too hand-holdy. The fact that the game-state of these games is so trivial (or entirely existing in the “fluff”, if you prefer) doesn’t help; there simply isn’t very much going on in these games gaming-wise at any given time. They’re all about the feels and the joy of storytelling.

Which brings me to a second theoretical point: while Nordic freeform games may be about e.g. character immersion, structural freeform games are almost always “about storytelling” in the sense that what goes on in the game is structurally supported conch-passing: the players are challenged to maintain story cohesion despite other players having their inputs as well, and that’s pretty much the game. Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t impress me much.

(Let’s define conch-passing as well while we’re here, I’m perfectly well aware that rpg theory terminology is not very universal and well-known.)

Conch-passing: Oft considered one of the two most basic forms of storytelling game, it’s the one where one of the players begins telling a story and then another player continues ostensibly the same story, all without storyboarding it in advance. It’s called “conch-passing” because the players may have some sort of an item that the current storyteller holds and then gives to the next player when their turn is over. The turns may end in different ways, but the simplest is that the player chooses to stop and pass. Conch-passing is mostly relevant to rpg theory as a critical challenge for various games: is your game actually something more worthwhile, functional and relevant, or is it just a dressed-up conch-passing exercise?

A quick conclusion here: while I enjoyed our particular couple of hours of Haunted together with Club Hannilus, I feel that this was mostly accidental, and not on a creatively firm basis for me: much of my enjoyment came from my seizing high-level creative decision-making from the other players (not contra-textually, but rather in a way not commented upon in the text at all) when I grew interested in the story and wanted to see if it could be brought out in spite of the structural rules system. Being allowed by my co-players and a liberal reading of the rules-system to tell the story I wanted to tell was fun, but if I want that kind of fun regularly I should get it in a way that doesn’t rely on being a prima donna in an ostensibly egalitarian creative writing exercise.

Which is what I usually end up saying about structural freeform games: if I wanted an activity like this, I would do prose writing. Framing it as “play” is less interesting for me, regardless of whether there’s a team working on the story or not. Mostly it’s the same exact kind of thing that I would do in creative writing, and not very game-like at all. I think that this is because of how linear these games are, and how trivial the game-states are, such that there just isn’t much in the way of surprise in there. The players need to be hella passionate to make up for the game itself being trivial, but if they are, then many of these games don’t really have any real procedures for refereeing the process; Haunted, for instance, did not have anything useful to say about a situation where one of the players grows excited about finishing the story while the others are still at exploration stage.

Margin Commentary: The Commoner’s D&D

I don’t really read many blogs or forums or whatever nowadays, which as an aside is something you could help me fix by recommending something relevant to my interests. I won’t promise to read forums (I’m pretty happy not doing that for a change), but maybe there’s something less intense out there that I should add to my palette.

There’s one exception to the state of the affairs, namely the blogs of my friend Sami; I’ve helped him set those up back in the day at WordPress, and subscribed to them, so I get email alerts when he writes. Keeps me posted. (And yes, it’s a sad state of apathy when the only reason I read any blog at all is that I’m accidentally subscribed. Not very social of me.)

Anyway, Sami got up and published his Commoner’s D&D, a streamlined version of D&D 5th ed. intended for play with beginners and such. There’s rules, GM advice, ready-made adventures, print-outs, everything! This isn’t the first effort along these lines out there for 5th ed., but it’s now my favourite, as Sami’s rather ruthless in crafting his presentation into something that actually, genuinely passes for a lightweight beginner’s fantasy adventure RPG. It’s a different subgenre of fantasy adventure rpg from D&D, particularly what’s it become in modern times, so not a trivial thing to do. Probably my favourite details are that Sami dropped the traditional Ability range (using only the Ability modifiers, so your Dex is “+1” instead of “14”, and so on), character classes and PC-facing magic altogether, leaving a rather clear feel of playing, well, commoners — the PCs are country pumpkins differentiated by their backgrounds and attitudes. This would probably be a much better game for playing say Elhendi (a legendary Finnish beginner-friendly fantasy adventure rpg) than Elhendi itself is.

Commoner’s D&D is, by the way, entirely compatible with the full game of Advanced D&D 5th edition (as I’m obligated to call it in comparison) as far as I can see. The way I’d do it would be to start a campaign with the commoner characters, with Sami’s advancement rules and all; the commoners can’t accrue experience points, but should a commoner have a heroic moment in play, they could choose to assign themselves a background-appropriate character class, thus becoming a 1st level character. I could see this as a pretty neat slow start for a more middle-school D&D campaign for a GM who wants to give the players a softer landing into the rulesmire that is modern D&D. I’m particularly fond of the idea of brutally gating the players from actually starting their infinite charop race until they manage to take an individual, situation-appropriate heroic action to start with; I love pissing on turtling passive players who never speak up in even the most basic ways 😀

If I were to add anything to this, it’d probably be some Alignment rules: to me it seems clear that the intended use case would be helped by the players picking a characteristic for their character, something like “Greedy” or “Loyal” or whatever. Just a little something to inspire roleplaying activities and cause emergent surprise developments. As it is, the game relies upon character backgrounds (race or occupation) to provide this sort of provocation; there would be room for just a bit more, I think, what with low-tension intra-party roleplaying being such an important virtue in this kind of roleplaying.

The Commoner’s D&D is unfortunately in Finnish only, so no gaming outreach tools for the plebs out there. I don’t know of an English-language equivalent that would be quite this sleek and 5th edition compatible, but Dragon Union is available, excellent, and a bit in the same ball-park.

Gentlemen on the Agora

The other red meat of online rpg clubs, the theoretical gentleman’s club of choice, Agora, had a slow week. There were no doubt worthy discussions, I just only happened to visit during one of the interminable corona pandemia news reports. One exception:

  • A contributor was interested in any good GMing guidebooks that Agora could recommend. We did come up with some, such as Robin Laws’s Robin’s Laws and Gary Gygax’s Master of the Game, but the main thrust of the discussion was to pick apart the concept of the GM guide: I myself posited that the traditional GM guide is an inherently flawed concept due to the implicit assumption that GMing is an universal task, when in reality every game has subtly different requirements. Stealing Cthulhu should be the model, and there’s definitely room for books like that: books about how to play a given game better, written from an actually informed standpoint.

State of the Productive Facilities

I wrote a self-propelled article earlier this week, a piece you didn’t want or deserve on my upcoming Blood Bowl rpg campaign. It’s an attempt at using the blog as a productivity vehicle; instead of sorting things out in my cranium and producing some handouts as needed for the actual play, I wrote up the big picture well in advance. Got it off my chest for now, and I can reference the treatment later when I actually need it.

Aside from that, I’m still scheduled to publish on C2020 Redux and pointbuy games this month, so it seems that the month of four articles might become reality. I’m pretty busy with upcoming gaming projects, though, so we’ll have to see how that goes.

As for next month, I’m not seeing much relative movement in the polls: C2020 and GNS theory reign head to head while Ars Magica keeps pace. Unless something changes, this seems to be my life now: C2020 and rpg theory. I clearly need new voters, so if you know any, I don’t know, freeformers or something, please tell them to come in and vote against C2020. Make those ‘punks earn their feed.

[March 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Observations on GNS Simulationism (20%, 28 Votes)
  • [design]More C2020 Redux (17%, 25 Votes)
  • [design] Many Faces of Ars Magica (16%, 23 Votes)
  • [design] Subsection M3 rules drafts (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [theory] Musings on Game State in RPGs (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Xianxia with Mentzer Immortals (8%, 11 Votes)
  • [theory] Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (7%, 10 Votes)
  • [design] My Blood Bowl RPG notes (6%, 8 Votes)
  • [writing] Magical Swordsmen Versus Fight Club (3%, 5 Votes)
  • [design] 007 by the way of CRedux (3%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Ecological '80s Superheroes, the setting (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Something else (specify in comments) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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10 thoughts on “New on Desk #11 — Structured Freeform”

  1. Pelitilanhan voi määritellä joko niin, että lähtee liikkeelle sääntömekaanisista valinnoista, ja sitten laajentaa sitä iteratiivisesti kaikkeen, joka rajoittaa näitä; tai sitten ottamalla pelifiktion tilanteen suoraan mukaan siihen tai peräti määritelmän juureksi.

    On olemassa erilaisia yritelmiä formalisoida pelejä. Mikään niistä ei tietääkseni kata roolipelejä, mutta sieltä voisi saada vauhtia, jos asiaa haluaisi miettiä tarkemmin.

    Siinä määrin kuin peli olettaa fiktiolta esimerkiksi sisäistä ristiriidattomuutta, asettaa aiemmin määritelty fiktio kyllä rajoja uusilla lisäyksille ja tämä tapahtuu sekä tarinankerrontapelissä että vanhan liiton luolastokomppauksessa.

    Vaihtoehto olisi yrittää sitoa pelitila suoraan pelin (luoviin) tavoitteisiin, mikä tuntuu väärältä, koska järjestelmillä on tila ennen tavoitetta. Toisaalta taas voisi ajatella, että pelitila ei tarkoitakaan todellisen pelin tilaa, vaan jonkun peliä koskevan mallin tilaa. Tällöin mallin voi luontevasti ajatella riippuvan pelin tavoitteista tai ajattelijan kiinnostuksen kohteista. Ajattelun ja kanssakäymisen selkeys vaatii tällöin mallin täsmentämistä pelitilasta puhuttaessa.

    1. Näinhän se on. Kelailimme tuolla #ropeteoria-kanavalla eilen läpi juurikin näitä pelitila-asioita, ja miten koko käsite ylipäätään jäsentyy suhteessa roolipelien osin virtuaaliseen substanssiin. Tule käymään joskus, siellä pääsee inttämään.

      Tässä nimenomaisessa strukturaalisen freeformin tapauksessa sanoisin että se on varsin tärkeä osa sitä että Hauntedin tapaiset pelit ovat ylipäätään pelattavia, että pelin pelitila on melko triviaali. Jos se mitä pelaajat ovat sanoneet aiemmin tarinaa kertoessaan olisi oikeasti osa pelitilaa pelaajien tulevia toimia rajoittavassa mielessä, sen sijaan että se on vain esteettinen arvovalinta pelaajalta inkorporoida aiemmin höpötettyjä, niin tuokin peli tukehtuisi omaan näppäryyteensä – ei siinä mikään oikeasti koordinoi satunnaisia hahmonluontifaktoideja ja pelaajien päähänpistoja niin, että niistä tulee koherentti tarina, paitsi pelaajien oma editoriaalinen valinta siitä, mitä korostavat ja mitä eivät.

      1. Pitäisi varmaan joskus tulla irkkiin, mutta varsinkin nyt se on haastavaa: vaimo on enemmän tai vähemmän jumissa Suomessa, 5-vuotias lapsi on kotona kaikki päivät ja teen töitäkin kotoa. Vapaa-aikaa jatkuva-aikaiselle keskustelulla on vaikeaa löytää. Luettavaa on muutenkin tarpeeksi myös ylimääräisen korona-aikapaineen joskus hellittäessä.

        Pelasin loppuvuodesta Fiaskoa ensimmäistä kertaa. Tunnetason reaktioni oli, että millään pelin tapahtumilla ei oikeastaan ollut mitään väliä; tässä nyt vain keksitään jotain tarinaa yhdessä, toisin kuin kiinnostavissa roolipeleissä. Vaikka onhan siinä periaatteessa niitä hyvän ja pahan kohtalon noppia, mutta itse ainakin tulkitsin ne päälleliimatuksi koristeeksi enkä antanut niille pakollista enempää painoa.

        Kuvittelen, että tämä Fiasko-kokemukseni vastaa sinun kokemustasi rakenteellisista (epä)vapaamuotoisista peleistä. (”freeform” on uskomattoman väärä sana jeeppisukuisille peleille, ainakin; eihän niissä pääosin ole mitään vapaata peleinä.)

        Minulle ei ole kuitenkaan millään tavalla selvää, että pelitilan karuus olisi oikea tapa hahmottaa tämä ilmiö.

        1. Fiasco on tosiaan strukturoitua freeformia sekin. Vähän samoissa fiiliksissä olen, vaikka en ole pelannutkaan.

          Ei tuo itsellenikään ole mikään uskonkappale tuo ajatus pelitilan yksinkertaisuudesta, se vaan oli se mikä nousi tuossa viime viikon pelikokemuksessa pintaan itselleni. Kuvittelen, että jos olisi olemassa peli jossa tehtäisiin jotain samantapaista strukturoitua tarinankerrontaa, mutta se olisi pelimäisempi, eli omaisi monimutkaisempia interaktiivisia rakenteita, niin kiinnostuisin siitä eri tavalla. Sanotaan vaikkapa jonkinlainen elokuvastudiosimulaattori; se voisi olla juurikin minun pirtaani, vaikka siinä tehtäisiinkin juuri tällaista yhteistä strukturoitua tarinankertomista. Ei se ole se strukturoitu tarinankertominen joka minua näissä nyppii, vaan se rakenteellinen yksinkertaisuus joka ei tarjoa mitään yllätyksiä tai variaatioita.

  2. An interesting installment. I really enjoyed the thoughts on “structured freeform”, which now makes far more sense to me, and the Commoner’s D&D sounds quite appealing, as well. Perhaps a good way for a person like me to get their feet wet with 5e, should they have some reason to do so.

    I couldn’t quite follow the discussion above (in the comments – perhaps someone could summarize?), but I agree that Fiasco gives me some of the floundering freeform feeling, as well. Such games create a sense that there is nothing tangible to push against, and that often takes the wind out of one’s sails. Freeform storytelling, as Eero describes it, is one thing. Consensual/collaborative making stuff up, as Fiasco does, can become similarly banal, where the least objectionable ideas are the ones that make it onto the final canvas.

    I do find that I enjoy some highly freeform games that nevertheless have powerful dynamics and put strong pressures on the players, however, like Dog Eat Dog.

    1. Tommi was just questioning the idea of the trivial game state being a crucial issue in enjoying structural freeform. I readily admitted that it was just a quick thrust at the issue, inspired by last week’s gameplay. Maybe it’s actually something else that bugs me about these games.

    2. I have played a game of Burning wheel, of all games, where I had the feeling of having nothing to punch against. It was more a better of the game master being very soft and world being very malleable than a feature of the rules system, among which BW is not among the softest.

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