Freeform is SO HOT right now, if contests like the Golden Cobra Competition are any measure. But there’s a lot of confusion about the word “freeform” and what it means. I’m here to dispel some of that confusion.
It Depends on Context
“Freeform” has several specific regional meanings, so if you run across it in conversation, it’s likely that what it means will depend on the background of who you’re talking to. Are they from the UK or in touch with UK larpers? They will likely use the UK meaning. Are they indie tabletop gamers or Nordic people? They will likely use a Nordic meaning. Are they from New Zealand or Australia? It means something different there.
Here is a quick and dirty index of how the word is used in different places, meanings I’ve gleaned from my larp hobo ways. If you’ve got corrections or know better than I, by all means, please post in the comments. Here’s what “freeform” means…
- …in the UK. Something like a one-shot theater larp. That is, a plot and extensive characters are written up and assigned to players, usually in advance. The larp runs for a few hours or a weekend, and often focuses on secrets and powers. That is, your character has secrets and powers and uses their powers to uncover the secrets of others. Typically, these are written by a single person or group, and are not continuing campaigns. In the US we often call games like this theater games or parlor larp.
- …in New Zealand or Australia. Here, freeform is linked with something called “systemless” or “diceless” gaming. I’ve had a couple larpers from this part of the world try to explain it to me–it sounds similar to Nordic freeform, but this may be a case of words failing us. I’ve played many games that sounded “similar to Nordic freeform” but ended up providing experiences so different that I’m not confident about what it’s really like. It seems like there’s less of a written tradition, and intentionally so, to keep the scene local and in the hands of facilitators who know what they are doing. In the absence of better, clearer, knowledge, just be aware that it means something different in that tradition.
- …in the US. In the US, typically the word refers to Nordic freeform, or its lovechild with the US indie tabletop and larp scenes–American freeform. We’ll talk more about this and Nordic freeform below.
- …in the Nordic countries (Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway). Depends a little on the country you’re in, but typically refers to Fastaval freeform or the Swedish scenario tradition, which I’ll explain in greater depth below.
While I’m not sure exactly what’s up in Australia, to me the Nordic description is the most useful because it describes a unique genre of game I didn’t have words for before, a style of game that opens up many design possibilities. Since that has heavily influenced the US tradition, that’s what I’m going to focus on in the rest of this post.
A Word on Definitions
In the beginning, people started using the word “freeform” to describe a lot of different stuff, and the various meanings of the word have arisen from that–I’m generalizing from what I’ve observed here, and from my experience as a facilitator, designer, and player. It’s not like the shadow council of the art larp mafia met in some secret tunnel and decreed that certain games with a narrow range of attributes would be called “freeform.” This is not a term with a neat definition–it’s messy.
What I’m trying to say is that while these generalities I’m about to make seem sensible to me, I’m just one person, and I’m piecing together the meaning from a bunch of different contexts. It’s very hard to make an iron-clad definition to describe a term that has arisen organically. Your mileage may vary.
The Larp to Tabletop Continuum
I once spent two weeks trying to figure out what “freeform” meant. I talked to dozens of Nordic scenesters, read games, and though I had started out with a simple question, I ended the fortnight with existential wonders like, “how can anyone know anything?”
Then I talked to Finnish larp designer and larper Juhana Pettersson, who asked me to imagine a continuum between larp and tabletop. Freeform, he told me, is the stuff in between. It was the most useful description I’d encountered, and from what I observed later, I think it’s pretty accurate.
In order to understand this a little more fully, let’s talk about the essential characteristics of the two poles. Essentially, as Pettersson explained to me, they contrast symbolic actions (tabletop) with embodied actions (larp).
In a tabletop game, the world of the game has a symbolic relationship to the real world. We use words to represent what our character does. Instead of drinking a mug of ale, I say “I drink a mug of ale.” Instead of walking to the dungeon for an hour, the facilitator says “You walk to the dungeon through the woods for an hour.” Even though it only takes her seconds to say it, we behave as if we’ve been on an hour walk. Words, cards, dice rolls, and game mechanics stand in for stuff the characters are doing. Tabletop games also move from scene to scene seamlessly. When the tavern scene is over, the facilitator can simply say, “OK, now you’re in the mountains,” and suddenly, the party is there.
In contrast, larp trades on having a one-to-one relationship with reality. We physically embody our characters. If Portia the cleric haggles with Malyc the magician, she actually haggles with him. If she and Malyc drink ale, they go to the tavern and drink actual ale (or a reasonable facsimile like cider) in a tin mug. If larp were a film, ideally it would consist of one take. We’d press play at the beginning of the session and stop at the end. A ten-minute walk to the dungeon would take ten minutes and there would be a real dungeon at the end of it. Of course, no larp ever truly succeeds in creating a fictional world (we’d have to invent magic, would kill our co-players with knives, etc etc) but for the sake of argument let’s say that there’s a Platonic larp somewhere where everything that happens in game also happens in the physical reality we live in. In many ways larp is the quest to approach this level of reality.
As the nebulous stuff in the middle of the continuum, freeform combines elements from larp and tabletop. Some stuff is embodied–maybe we physically enact our characters–and some stuff is symbolic–maybe we skip through the ten hour walk to the dungeon by cutting to another scene. Maybe we play physically up until a certain point of the game, and then we move into a metaphorical space where my character can talk to her darkest self, played by another player. Maybe we throw out the idea of one player per character, and we work together to play one person. You get the idea.
One major advance of freeform is the combination of discrete scenes with people acting out their characters “up on the floor,” as they say in Sweden. This revolution gives us the best of both worlds. Players get to portray a character, but skip over all the boring stuff the character does. As in a tabletop game, a strong facilitator sets the scene and says “cut” when it is over. Is this first date feeling kind of boring? The facilitator yells “cut” and says, “you’ve had two bottles of wine and now Jim is becoming a bit too honest,” and the scene starts again. The innovation of combining scenes and physicality gives players the emotional feeling of being connected to their characters, and lets the facilitator give players “just the good stuff.”
The Boundaries of Freeform
Freeform mixes larp and tabletop techniques, but as its own form, it has no hard boundaries. It’s a fuzzy term that refers to the fuzzy middle of the continuum. There are some established traditions of “freeform” and in general, those scenarios take that name. But it’s also possible for a larp to introduce certain elements of tabletop and still call itself a larp.
One example of this is the Swedish larp A Nice Evening with the Family (2007) by Anna Westerling et al. In this larp, the designers mashed up half a dozen Nordic plays and books. Imagine the cast of Hamlet meeting the cast of Death of a Salesman at a disastrous dinner party, and you’ll get the idea. Westerling had been part of the Swedish freeform scene, and she and her team imported some freeform techniques into A Nice Evening. Every so often in the larp, players would enter a “meta-hour,” an hour where they could go into a separate room with the cast from their play and play out individual scenes that developed the action during the larp. This laid the groundwork for the black box metatechnique. (You can learn more about this larp, and Swedish freeform from Westerling’s article in Crossing Habitual Borders (2014), free download.)
In a larp that uses black boxing, essentially, there is room furnished with lights, speakers, and simple props that players can visit, if they wish. In this room, it is possible to play out scenes from the past, possible futures, dreams, and other scenes that don’t fit into the timeline of the larp. Adding freeform techniques to a larp is a work-around for the limitations of larp–it allows you to break the rule of one-to-one correspondence in a selected setting.
My point here is that A Nice Evening used symbolic techniques inspired by the Swedish freeform tradition, but it wasn’t a freeform game, it was a larp. The boundary is vague and what, exactly, counts as “freeform” depends upon where a scenario skews on the continuum, what tradition inspired it and the speaker’s judgement. The question “what is freeform” is a little like asking, “how many grains of sand in a heap”? How many symbolic techniques does it take to turn a larp into a freeform? How many embodied technique does it take to turn a tabletop game into a freeform? Nobody knows.
Fastaval is a Danish convention and competition for freeform games that’s nearly 30 years old and has developed its own freeform tradition. Each year, numerous game designers pitch brand new games to Fastaval. A panel selects about 30 games to run at the convention. Each game is automatically entered in the Otto competition, to win a golden penguin statue, bragging rights, and some bubbly, presented at a Oscars-style ceremony with an MC. Designers also receive mentoring and feedback from players and judges during the process.
It’s no surprise that it’s developed its own school of design.
The quick and dirty history goes something like this:
In the beginning, there were tabletop games at Fastaval. And it was good. And then people started standing up during certain portions of these tabletop games and playing scenes physically. And it was good. And then people started designing for that experience, and Fastaval freeform was born. And it was good.
Because Fastaval freeform developed from the tabletop side of the continuum, many Danes and other Nordic folk refer to the format as “tabletop.”
Fastaval games have a defined style. Since Fastaval takes place at a school, the games are written to be played in simple classrooms. They last either 2 hours or 4 hours, and each game typically takes 3-9 players. Usually, that number is specific to the game–if a game calls for 3 players, then it needs exactly 3 and can’t take more or fewer. The Fastaval tradition holds that a good game is one someone else can run–so there is a tradition of script writing. (You can access these scripts, some in English, at Alexandria.dk). In addition, in a typical Fastaval freeform game, players might spend some time sitting around a table and narrating stuff about their characters, and some time acting out certain scenes. Most of the games prioritize a shared narrative over individual character arcs.
Scenario scripts usually contain detailed instructions on how to run a game, and detailed pre-generated character sheets. Most Fastaval games I have played take place in scenes where the situations have been pre-scripted, but the outcomes often have not. So I might know that in this scene my character is having a business dispute with Sam, and that the scene will end when one of us leaves. How we get there is up to us. Because designers are competing for awards, I believe there is a strong tradition of respecting the intent of the writer’s artistic intent. Unless something is really wrong, facilitators don’t seem to feel the freedom to change a game on the fly to fit the players, partially because the committee of judges weigh players’ feedback, and so it’s most fair to the writer if the experience has been standardized.
Sweden also has a long history of freeform scenarios. I’m not as well-acquainted with it as I am with the Fastaval tradition, but I’ve read Anna Westerling’s piece (full disclosure: she’s a friend) “Naming the Middle Child” in the book Crossing Habitual Borders, and I’ve played some Swedish freeform in my day. According to Westerling, the Swedish and Fastaval freeform scenes cross-pollinated in the 1990s. There was a key difference in what each scene chose to reward: Swedish conventions offered prizes to facilitators who managed scenarios well, and the Danish Fastaval, starting in 1992, introduced the Otto prizes for game designers.
This created problems for the Swedish scene–it motivated people to become slick game masters, was great, but the scene, based on one-shots, relied on a steady supply new games. In contrast, in Denmark, the Otto awards served as incentives to get people to write new games. The Danish scene thrived, developed theory and rhetoric around game design, and produced a lot of innovation. The Swedish scene had some strong individual writers, but as a scene it dwindled. Anyone who wants to start a freeform scene near them should take note: facilitating a thriving culture of scenario writing pays off.
Westerling and her many amazing Swedish cohorts are now rejuvinating the freeform scene in Stockholm with the Stockholm Scenario Festival, a convention that will run for the 3rd time in 2015. It offers re-runs of freeform and blackbox classics, as well as fostering new writers and providing mentorship. You can find lots of scripts for freeform games, both old, and new there, and you can read about my experience visiting that convention here.
As I mention above, I’m not as familiar with the Swedish scene as I am with the Danish one–but to me there is a difference in attitude between Swedish and Danish freeform. The Danish freeform I’ve played and run is very procedural–there are scripted scenes, long character sheets, and an instruction list the facilitator is supposed to follow to a T. Swedish freeform, on the other hand, feels more “free” and improvised.
The Swedish scenario formats seem to provide loose structural scaffolding that the facilitators interpret. I might know that we’re going to play a scene about an unhappy relationship, and as a facilitator, I’m able to ask people to play it a couple times if we’re not getting it right. I might give the players some extra setting, “you’re meeting at a bar, but he’s late, and it’s the last straw for you,” that is not in the script. Or I might be able to insert many different scenes depending on what I think the narrative calls for. In Swedish freeform, the artistic vision of the game designer doesn’t seem to be as important as the experience of the players, and the facilitator is given the freedom to alter and adjust the scenario in order to make things more intense for the players.
Other Styles of Freeform
If freeform is simply the mixing of larp and tabletop elements, then it is a wide umbrella indeed. Here are some brief descriptions of other terms and styles of scenario that seem to fit into the freeform rubric, since they’re hybrids of larp and tabletop, though they typically go by their own names.
A Nordic term for a game that makes good use of masking tape on the floor. Slap some tape on the floor and write on it to create different areas and zones for play. Rather than using actual space, you use the symbolic space denoted by the tape. Typically one-shot games for not too many (3-20) people.
A collective of mostly Danish and Swedish people from the Danish and Swedish scenario tradition who make games in a particular style. Jeepform games are about real people and problems, not vampires on spaceships. They use metatechniques, and many of them are designed to give you some personal insight and/or push your boundaries. I cover jeepform in greater depth here.
Black Box Larp
Don’t confuse this with the black box metatechnique above. Basically, a black box larp takes place in a black box theater. It might use tape on the floor, or simple furniture to dress the set. Its setting inside a black box theater means facilitators and designers can use lighting, sound, and other theatrical effects to paint scenes or start and end them.
(The black box metatechnique essentially takes the concept of a black box theater room and puts it inside another larp, allowing players to access it when and if they choose.)
Larp Factory Larps
The Norwegian larp factories were independent collectives of larp designers located in Oslo and Bergen. They produced monthly one-shot games that required little prep on the part of players, and were designed to be run in homes or other easily available locations. Typically, these games last 2-6 hours, require 9-20 people, but not an exact number of people, and skewed toward the larp end of the spectrum. Commonly, the facilitator runs a pre-game workshop and then participates as a player. Twenty scripts for these larps have been collected in the book Larps from the Factory, which I co-edited with Trine Lise Lindahl and Elin Nilsen.
In recent years, pockets of designers in the US and Canada, (and, we hear, Brazil) have been influenced by Swedish freeform, Fastaval freeform, Norwegian larp factory games as well as the indie tabletop scene. These games add an American cultural context to the freeform toolbox, and combine it with some of the design savvy of the story-game/indie tabletop scene, including the insistence on mechanics as driving play, and the love of nicely-designed materials, player co-creation, GM-less play, and so on. You can read more about American Freeform here.
Can’t Get Enough Freeform?
Over the past couple years, I’ve developed a set of in-depth instructions designed to help new and beginner players and facilitators get into freeform. Some of them are how-tos penned by me, some of them are posts offering advice from folks more expert than I. Here’s a selection:
Graphic in today’s post by George Locke.
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