This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering freeform games.
What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure. Freeform games incorporate elements from larp and traditional tabletop roleplaying. They feature a small group of players — usually less than ten — and may involve acting out scenes away from the tabletop as well as describing player action as in traditional games. The story doesn’t unfold in a single continuous scene, rather, the GM (and sometimes the players) may cut scenes like a director, moving the players forward or backward in time to advance or deepen the story. The Nordic Larp Wiki has also taken a stab at a definition.
For now, let’s pretend that we know what freeform is and get to the good stuff.
I asked a number of (mostly) Nordican freeform GMs to explain how they do what they do. Today’s question is: What’s the best way to cut a freeform game and why? And what sort of advice would you give to a new GM?
Settle in, friends: my panel had a lot to say about this thorny topic.
End scenes when they’re over, says Matthijs Holter:
A lot of people like to cut scenes when they’re “done.” You develop a feel for that very quickly, and it’s pretty easy to find the natural ending for a scene if you look for it. I look for one specific thing: The tension that makes you want to end a scene. I like to draw that out, to stay with the moment of grief or loneliness or disbelief for a bit longer – and then even longer.
If you haven’t tried to cut scenes before, go for it! Cut hard, cut often. Try to cut very early, before you even know what happens, and come back to the scene later. Just like with any new technique, be bold and crazy and have fun with it. Just make sure you have everyone on board with the idea.
Consider the scene’s purpose. Frederik J. Jensen:
The key point is to listen. Have lots of eye contact with the players and listen to what they say. A scene has a purpose. Once that has been achieved, staying in the scene will not drive the story forward. Find a point where a character has made a strong statement and cut the scene right there.
Sometimes players need time to warm up before they can get to the meat. A good scene can be full of pauses and have a strong emotional build up. If you cut too early, you kill that. More often, the scene states its point rather quickly and the players end up repeating their arguments and reinforcing their positions over and over. The extra time adds nothing.
Let scenes run so long as they are relevant. Peter Fallesen:
My rule of thumb is that as long as a scene holds relevance for the narrative — if it either drives the story arc forward or allows the players to develop upon their characters it can be allowed to keep running. That does not mean that it will be in the games best interest to keep a seen running, for example if it would mean that a character’s personal climax would be reached too soon.
Three things worth having in mind: 1) silence does not necessarily mean that nothing is happening – some of my most intense experiences as both player and GM have been during silence – this can be hard to pick up on as a GM if you are not very aware of your players. 2) If the scene does not bring the story forward in anyway, cut it. 3) Cutting after a great one-liner makes the scene more memorable.
When in doubt, cut short! I never allow a game to run more than 4½ hours including warm-up and loose talk before start. People – and myself – cannot deliver good performances if play-time run too long.
If players talk about the same stuff more than twice, cut it. Troels Ken Pedersen:
As a hard and fast rule for newbies (you can deviate when you’re no longer a newbie), always cut if the conversation covers the same ground MORE than twice. Or if you stay bored for more than ten seconds or so.
Also, cutting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When to describe and how much, when to ask and how much, when to throw in NPCs and how much of your own acting to do, are all relevant to both cutting and game mastering in general, and depend very much on the game, players and situation in question.
Fill your toolbox with different styles of cutting. Tobias Bindslet:
Different styles of cutting are tools you can use create different experiences. Sometimes tight scenes focused on conflict are best – for keeping play focused, players hungry or the pacing fast. Other times meandering scenes can let players grow into their characters, or leave room for more nuanced interactions. Note how this relates to genre as well. Realism, psychological drama and emotional immersion require a slower pace than action, comedy or melodrama. Finally – variety is always good.
HOW TO USE CUTS TO CREATE DIFFERENT MOODS
Interpret the game, cut during fights to frustrate players, and play it twice for clarity. Sanne Harder:
Freeform is an umbrella definition: It covers a whole host of different scenarios, each of them meant to be played out differently. As a game director (I’m not keen on the word ‘game master’, as it implies an asymmetrical relationship between director and players, whereas in actual fact it’s a collaboration), my most important skill is actually literary competence. I have to be able to decode how this scenario needs me to direct it.
There are many different ways of cutting a freeform. Which one I would use depends on the story I’m helping bring to life. For action scenarios, cutting in the middle of a climax generally works well. In a chamber play about relationships letting the awkwardness accumulate might be a good idea – however, I’ve also cut people off in the middle of a big fight. It works like a charm, because the players are left just as frustrated as the characters would be!
I would like to mention another alternative to cutting scenes: You can ask players to repeat the scene they have just played. Often the result is a much more direct, crisp rendering the second time around. You might think that it would ruin the players’ immersion, but on the contrary.
Cut hard for drama and slow for poeticism. Troels Ken Pedersen:
If you’re going for rising drama, cut fast and hard. Let the players get to the point of the scene, let them lay it out, but cut before they get into negotiating and resolving. That racks up tension and frustration, useful as (emotional) fuel. You can spice it up with other means as required, like asking, right out or bird-in-ear-whisper, provocative questions at players who aren’t going for the drama.
If you’re going for slow paced (whether miserable or poetic), let the scene play out until it feels done or gets boring. When that happens can be rather subjective, though, I’ve cut scenes and later it turned out the players thought they were just getting into it.
Of course you might find yourself going for different mood and pacing at different points in the same session.
Cut long for awkwardness; cut short to create tension or to give players time to think. Morten Greis Petersen:
Most often I cut on a high note. This tends to increase the dramatic tension, and curiously it can shape how the players play, as they sometimes begin to focus on presenting sharp lines, which makes cutting easier. Sometimes, however, I cut before a reply, so just as one player wants to reply to a comment from another, I cut, usually a jumpcut to some other situation. And then there are times, when I cut for just the exact opposite reason, when a player needs time to come up with a comeback, I cut to some other situation, letting the player have time to think about his or her reply.
In the opposite end of the scale, there are the times when I let things drag out – and I do it on purpose to create or enhance awkward situations. In a sense I refuse to cut the scene forcing the awkward situation to last. Sometimes it creates moments of silence as the characters remain in the situation, and as the situation won’t end, it forces one of them to begin saying something again, or it simply creates a room of silence, and silence can be potent.
Cutting can also be done on behalf of the story if there are multiple storylines running at the same time. So you cut just before a player’s character is about to reveal something, so you can show what is about to be revealed instead.
Basically I cut to create tension (by either cutting sharply to increase tension and emphasize oneliners or drawing out cuts to emphasize for instance awkward silences), to assist the players by giving them time to think or sometimes before they get to reply in order to leave a situation unresolved.
Cut hard for horror and humor, and longer for character drama. Emily Care Boss offers some jeepform case studies:
In a character-driven game like Doubt or my game Under my Skin (heavily influenced by Doubt), which both deal with relationships and possible infidelity, it’s important to allow enough room for the players to develop the dynamic between the characters, and for the other players to begin to understand how the characters in the scene relate. Since everyone will build on these scenes in later events, even little things that happen can be critical and create material for play that will enrich the game for everyone. Also, since what’s important about these scenes is simply to learn about the characters’ lives, allowing them to interact naturally is fine, and may play more easily for the players than if there is a need for drama or suspense.
Games that call for a more heightened emotional states benefit from sharper editing. Both horror and humor come to mind, found in the games Previous Occupants and The Upgrade.
In Previous Occupants, a ghost story about guilt and murder, stopping at a pregnant moment is key. Stopping when tension is high escalates the fear and anger expressed by the players. This game has an interesting mechanism that encourages tight cutting. The ending of a scene is opened up to the group. Anyone can signal when a scene comes to a close by ringing a bell, so as soon as anyone thinks it should be done, you move on. The scenes alternate between two parallel timelines, with the tension and stakes ramping up and culminating in a climax–literally in one storyline, figuratively with a murder in the other.
The Upgrade is a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at reality television with couples essentially on Temptation Island, swapped for two weeks. The question to be answered at the end, will they stay with their original mate? The game uses the tropes of this visual genre to frame scenes of all types: confessional scenes, flash-forwards and flash-backs, even meta-level scenes where the players–in the role of the producers of the show now–brainstorm ways to increase the tension on the various characters to help the show’s “ratings”. A stacatto, at times rapid-fire scene cutting style is ideal. Improv instincts and techniques of cutting a scene on a funny beat, or when some one has capped a scene with the “button”, a funny comment, cut down or re-incorporation of an earlier element all come in handy here. The game is meant to throw the characters into situations of stress and duress, so if it’s not working that way, better to end the scene and move on to something else that does a better job. Those quiet moments would likely have been left on the cutting room floor in making the television show.
But, there’s no right answer here. Developing your own aesthetic sense of what communicates well is the most important thing. You are always experimenting, and it’s good to try something, to take a chance. In general, the deeper, more personal the experience you want to have, give more room and time to the players to experience the roles. For strong effect, briefer scenes may be harder hitting. But, as always, variety is important. A momentary scene may change the way the players see a character forever. Or a languorous scene in a humorous game could set up characters for a harder fall later on.
PACING IS IMPORTANT
Cut fast all the time. Klaus Meier:
I always cut very hard. I comes from my own preference as a player as there is nothing I hate more than trying to keep a scene going after it has played itself out. Why play a so-so scene for five minutes, when you can play a kick ass scene for 30 seconds and move on to the next?
As a GM I try to cut the scene when the tension is high. I usually try cutting the scene at a poignant quote from one of the players. By doing cutting before everything is resolved and leaving the scene with a great line from one of the players we have both the freedom to pick it up again later – as it is still ambiguous and can go in a different direction as we pick it up again – and a point of reference for the next scene and where the characters are with the exit line. Even if the scene is never picked up again the exit line creates scenes that are a lot more memorable than when they are just cut because they are starting to repeat themselves.
When using this type of cutting it is supremely important to let the players know before the game starts. If they know that the scenes will be cut hard they are more likely to infuse them with drama from the start instead of beating around the bush. This is once again a personal preference as I both as a player and a GM hate playing when there is nothing at stake and the scene is just about portraying the character. Give me drama or cut the scene!
I think I represent quite an extreme in how hard I cut, as I usually run games almost twice as fast as other gms at Fastaval. Normally I point this out before the players are distributed so that players know what to expect if they choose to play in my session of the game.
Consider cutting long in the beginning and shorter at the end. Oliver Nøglebæk:
Pacing is an area of gamemastering that you can always improve at. I tend to cut late at the beginning of a game and progress towards shorter and shorter scenes. At first the players usually need more time to find their characters and feel of the game, so no rushing! As the game moves on, you need less time and fewer words to communicate each scene and then it’s better to cut short and sweet to keep the energy flowing. If the scenes don’t include every player, it’s even more important to cut short so everyone is part of the game. If you cut right before a major outcome in a scene, you leave the players with a cliffhanger, which gives them time to think out their next move and at the same time heightens the tension. Those moments can be pure gold, if cut right.
Sometimes, all you need is one word. Anna Westerling:
Sometimes you see that magic could happen if you just let the players continue a bit longer, but make sure your game doesn’t turn out as a wait for that magic moments that didn’t happen. You can also cut really quickly, just after a word, because often that word says it all. For example the GM asks a character: “Did you like the date?” The character answers: “ehm.” and you cut. The “ehm” really says all we need to know.
Of course this depends on what type of game you are gamemastering – I was GMing a game about the intensity of silence, being miserable and going towards an inevitably bad ending, and in that type of game, as a GM, I took a distanced position and cut very little and carefully. If you are cross-cuting between two scenes that affect each other, then try to cut when one scene has delivered something the other scene can put into play. For example if one scene says “and that dog was hysterical” and then you cut and the other scene gets to tell the story of the dog.
Cutting is also something you learn through practice; you will make mistakes, but that’s how you learn. But to me the risk is more often that the game is slow and boring rather than quick and to the point – therefore cut more than not.
And a final word from Anne Vinkel:
Cutting is hard. There seems to be general agreement that the time to cut a scene is before you think you should, even when you really want the scene to continue a bit longer because everything is going so well. If you sit down and wait for everything to be said, the scene will run out of steam. (I do have a mean theory, though, that part of the reason for this piece of advice is that a GM who cuts early gets to exercise more authority and the GMs who like to dispense advice tend to be the ones who like having authority.)
A dirty trick: If you (like me) tend to cut way too late, get your players to help do the work. Tell them up front that, hey, you’re no good at cutting so they are welcome to signal when they want you to cut – or to cut it themselves. (This doesn’t work with all scenarios, of course.)
Tobias Bindslet is a roleplayer with one foot in the Danish freeform scene at Fastaval and the other in the Nordic larp scene (Knudepunkt). At Knudepunkt in 2011, he co-organized a “de-fucking” workshop on how to handle difficult experiences in roleplaying and another on the ritual and play style of the collectively organized larp campaign Rage Across Denmark. Recently, he’s also been involved in a number of smaller projects to help make local games and methods available in English.
Emily Care Boss is an acclaimed American game designer and theorist who owns the trademark on romantic role-playing games with Breaking the Ice, Shooting the Moon and the jeepform-y Under my Skin.
Peter Fallesen, 27, is a sociologist who knows stuff about crime, and who tries to make a living in academia. He started roleplaying and larping in the mid-nineties. He wrote his first freeform game in 2003. It sucked royally. The next one was better. At present he is working on two games about loss, trauma, and the things players don’t say to each other during the game.
Sanne Harder is an experienced scenario author, who has contributed scenarios for the Danish freeform scene for the last 15 years or so. She has had the pleasure of having several of her scenarios published, and even translated (into the Finnish language). In real life she works as a teacher at an alternative school, where she uses roleplaying as a teaching method. She also writes a Danish blog about roleplaying.
Matthijs Holter (b. 1972) is a Norwegian roleplayer and game designer. He’s fond of throwing random things at groups to see what happens, and believes friendship is magic. He once wrote the Hippie Method Manifesto. Currently working on Play With Intent with Emily Care Boss.
Frederik J. Jensen is a Dane living in Sweden. He enjoys taking chances with new games but tends to have a weak spot for GM-full story games. Designed and published Montsegur 1244 because nobody else did.
For the past three years Klaus Meier has been in charge of the games at Fastaval and is now moving on to become head organizer of the whole shebang. He has been writing free form games since 2000 and quite good free form games since 2004. Klaus has won numerous of Fastaval’s Otto awards, been the editor of a book of Danish freeform games and given lectures on the Fastaval style of games at conventions in Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
Oliver Nøglebæk studies interactive landscape architecture, which influences his view on larp. He’s been attending Fastaval for nearly ten years and game mastering much longer than that, though mostly indie games and traditional systems. He writes an English language blog on Nordic larp.
As a game writer, Troels Ken Pedersen does both off-beat action and drama games about grownup subjects. He believes fiercely in roleplayers as co-creators, and is headmaster of the Danish School of Game Mastering, found at conventions and online. An all around anti-authoritarian dirty f*cking hippie, both as regards roleplaying and other things.
Morten Greis Petersen is an experienced roleplayer, who blogs about roleplaying on his personal site, Stemmen fra ådalen, at the blog collective, planB, and sometimes at his third blog, Roles, Dice, and Fun. Presently he is involved with several scenario-projects for Viking-Con, participates in projects on game mastering and scenario-writing, and is developing an alternate history-setting in which roleplaying developed late 18th century.
Anne Vinkel Anne has GM’ed about 17 conventions scenarios in her life – some of them more than once, two of them written by herself. She still gets nervous before GMing, but in a sort of good way. The things about freeforming she does worst are cutting and exercising authority. The things she does best include being a fan of her players and creating a good atmosphere for play.
Anna Westerling is game designer and producer on the Nordic Scene. Anna has written several freeform games and is a member of the writter collective “Vi åker Jeep.” Also a larp-creator, she designed the cross-over larp/freeform/theater hybrid A Nice Evening with the Family based on plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. She also produced the Nordic Larp book and Knutpunkts 2006 and 2010. You can find some of her games here.