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 question I asked my (mostly Nordican) panel: What’s the best way to assign roles in a freeform game?
Of course, there’s no one right way to cast, but some through-threads popped up among the responses. Introduce yourself and the game and get to know the players; watch their first social interactions and the warmups carefully to distinguish introverts from extroverts, and consider whether you want to cast with or against player type.
First, we’ll tackle the issue of whether it is better to let the players cast themselves, or for the GM to do the casting. Here are some folks in favor of letting players cast themselves:
I’m not sure I’ve ever had to pick roles for people. In nearly all games I run, people create their own characters or collaborate on creation. I don’t see the point in picking roles for others unless you have a very specific point to make, or know them better than they know themselves. Otherwise it seems like an unnecessary thing to do.
Emily Care Boss:
Generally I prefer to let players self-cast. That’s likely due to my tabletop background. If at all possible, I prefer players to be part of character creation. This is more tricky to effect in freeform, though it’s been beautifully in A Flower for Mara and The Man with the Long Black Coat. Many freeform games give the players a simple pre-drafted character which is then fleshed out in play. A great joy of this style of play is, in fact, seeing the incredible variety with which people interpret what is essentially, a single role. As a game designer or GM those surprises are sweet.
That said, there are roles I look to cast with specific players in mind. I tend to look at the rigor of the requirements of the piece and look to match it with a strong player. Having someone who is experienced in this style of play in a key role can make all the difference. In a game style that is predicated on player interaction, the role a character plays depends on the player’s ability to carry through on it. For example, having a less assertive player in a role intended to put pressure on others could mean that the experience would be limp and easy, where the intent of the story was to put people through hell. Or having an uncertain player play the character who must stick to her guns on an issue in order for the game to move forward. Though again, these are interpretations of the role as seen by the GM.
Mara, the central character in A Flower for Mara, is woman who has died before the game and play surrounds her family’s attempts to move on. Mara is a ghost who interacts with each of them, living on in their memories. When cast as this character, I saw the intent of the role to hold on to each character as best she could, to torture both by criticism and care, but to try the family. I was so mean. A stylistic choice. In another game, Mara was so gentle, and so loving, the family had a terrible time letting her go. The same task is accomplished through different means. More of that endless variety of how the tales turn.
If you’d like to take an approach inspired by an experimental larp community in the US (New England Interactive Literature) you can allow people to sign up in advance, respond to a survey and then cast them based on their preferences and responses!
Anne Vinkel lets players cast themselves only sometimes. Here’s how she decides:
As a tentative rule, let the players choose if the really important part is what they like to play. If the important part is what they are able to play, you should probably do the casting as you know the scenario and the roles. If there is at least one character who must be cast with a player who is able to do something specific – take charge, put on a good show, be convincing as this particular character – you should probably cast the roles.
If you let the players choose characters it is important to describe the characters less in terms of who they are and more in terms of what the player of each character gets to do during play, and what makes each character fun to play. ”You get to plot and manipulate”, ”This character should be played by somebody who wants to pursue the plot aggressively”, ”This character is fun if you like your characters to suffer for their sins”, ”This character is fun if you want to immerse in the character” – all more informative than ”This character is a six foot tall baker who is divorced from his wife and dislikes fruit-eaters.”
Cast people as the characters they can play, not as the characters they seem most like. A confident male player will probably play the Femme Fatale role better than a shy female player, and an energetic female player will be better cast as the charismatic male charlatan than as the wilting female wallflower. The same goes for player characteristics other than gender.
Oliver Nøglebæk matches role complexity with player competence:
For convention games I usually start out with a quick introduction of the characters and ask the players if there’s of the roles they’d rather not play or really want to play. With that in mind I usually try to match the complexity and/or how crucial it is for the character to be played well with how competent each player seems to be. It’s always a nice thing to get a positive surprise out of a seemingly weak player stepping up, but absolutely disastrous if a central character isn’t played well.
In some games the roles that are important for the gameplay might not be the the main narrative protagonists, but rather the people around them. So be careful when planning the game.
Anna Westerling always casts the players to give them plausible deniability:
I generally cast the game due to two reasons: First, it gives the players absolution. They didn’t decide themselves to play the super-evil guy, or have that type of relationship to another character played by another player. I did all that. Secondly, as a player, I think it is hard to know what to play based on the limited information I know about the game. The group always gets quiet and slightly nervous when to choosing characters as well; it’s easier to eliminate that by choosing characters for the players. However, I do not mind when players have opinions; if I can fix it, I will, but in the end the decision is mine.
Klaus Meier never lets the players decide, and strives for a balance between player comfort and avoiding cliche:
I never let the players decide. Usually there is an asymmetric distribution of information and I know more about the game than the players and more about what characters suits what kind of playing style. I usually spend a lot of time talking with the players before I cast. Both about their preferences in characters and games and some more casual chit chat. I do this both to establish a feeling of safety – especially if the players are inexperienced or have not played with each other before – and to gauge the players personalities. Based on all the information I get I do the casting.
There are two caveats to this:
1: At Fastaval you sometimes end up with an all male group and a game with one or more female characters (the opposite happens as well, but I do not think I have been in that situation). If that is the case I specifically ask if anybody is comfortable playing a female characters. This is not because I think that female characters are harder to play or that you can only play chracters of your biological sex, but because some players do think that and therefore is not comfortable playing a female character. There is no need to make anybody needlessly uncomfortable.
2: If I play with players I have played with before I have two strategies. If the game contains a very difficult or important character I usually let the player I know play them (if I think they are able to do it well). This is about my comfort level and knowing that the an important part of the game is in the hand of someone I know and trust. Sometimes I like to challenge players I know, especially if they are usually cast in a specific type of role. I then cast them as something completely different to keep them on their toes and make sure that they don’t play the character as a routine they have done a lot before.
Casting is ultimately about finding the balance between making the players comfortable enough to trust each other and me and keeping things fresh enough to avoid clichés and repetitions of other games.
Lars Nøhr Andresen shares his Jedi mind tricks:
Never ever ask the players anything that they could disagree to. A typical mistake is to ask: “Should I just hand out the characters or do you want to choose for yourselves?” MEEEEB! We’ve just met each other and nobody wants to be seem bossy and put themselves in a position where others can disagree with you.
If you want to be a bit more sophisticated get the players to tell about a recent really good role playing experience. Or a type of role that they really enjoyed playing and why the role was satisfactory. Personally I think it’s to direct just to ask them: “What kind of character do you prefer to play?” Ask them easy questions at first and the slowly get them to reflect over the more complex issues. I would use about 15-20 minutes on the initial talk.
When the players have told about themselves then you can start telling about the game. Perhaps tell about the different characters if there are characters as such. Observe the players. With the knowledge you acquired from the initial talk and your observations from telling about the game I would say that you could do a good casting.
So if a GM does choose to cast players, what’s the best way to go about it?
Tobias Demediuk Bindslet considers the tone of the game:
An important part of game-mastering is setting the mood in the room, leading the way for which social atmosphere should frame the play experience – which starts a long time before casting or even actual play. If I want a tense, brooding atmosphere I’ll cast differently than if I want a safe and personal space or a light-hearted and playful place for improv. In general I consider two main options for the actual casting though: type casting people according to my feel for what they would play the most believably, or anti-type casting people in other to challenge them. Often I will use a mix of these two types while trying to guesstimate group dynamics based on warm-up interactions.
Peter Fallesen attends to social dynamics:
Never cast the loudest player in the loudest role, s/he will take up to much space. Also, it is seldom the main protagonist (if such a one exist in the game) that moves the story forward. Therefore, it is often best to cast the weakest player in that role, because the other players will keep him or her involved, while they also move the story forward. I often do my casting while talking to the players before we even start the warm-up exercises.
It is my firm belief that the roleplaying situation is not different from other “normal” social situations, so how people present themselves to others before the game is probably the best indicator you get for how they will act during the game. This especially holds for high status roles – status is not something you can take during a game, the other players have to give it to you, and you give status more easily to some than to others. You can of course be proven wrong during warm up exercises, which is another reason to always do some warm up with players pre-game.
Frederik J. Jensen identifies character skills and matches them to players:
When preparing the game, I identify the key characters that require special skills to play. Typically, leader roles requires active players with lots of drive. There can also be characters with complex issues or who can end up being alone against a group. These require strong players who can handle the challenge. Finally, there are often relations between characters that are key to explore during the game. These may work best when played by players on equal level.
Later when I pitch the cast of characters to the players, I make sure to mention the challenges for playing these key roles and try to influence where they end up based on my impression of the players from the initial socializing. However, I am often positively surprised by a player performing much better than I expected. If casting is very critical for a game, doing warm up exercises before casting can be a necessary tool to spot the right players for the key characters.
Morten Greis Petersen gets to know the players:
Not all scenarios require casting; some are structured in such a way that I all I have to do is present the characters, and let the players choose, but when casting is demanded, I strive get to know the players first.This is done in two ways. Firstly by talking with the players, asking them about their experiences, their favored play styles and types of characters, about their expectations and what they would like to play. Secondly through warm-up exercises (various kinds of impro-theater style games), which build up trust, mentally prepare the players for some quick thinking etc., and give me an idea of who they are and how they play, and the chemistry between the players.
When talking to the players, I begin by presenting myself. What have I played, my favorite styles and such, then we take turns listening to the players presenting themselves. Afterwards I talk about, what we are going to play, expected play styles, and we talk about what the players expect from the scenario. Finally before dealing the characters out, I ask if there is anything, they would prefer to play or not to play – for instance do you mind playing opposite gender, a character in charge, a quiet character etc.?
Warming up using various kinds of impro-theater exercises builds trust among all of us, and it prepares the players for quick thinking and expressing their roles. Also it reveals some of their skills and personalities, which I use to gauge what character, they should be playing.
Sanne Harder casts against player type…but not always:
Somebody once told me that every person has a limited amount of ‘role types’ that they can play convincingly. I think there is some truth to it. One of them is usually a default role – the one role where the players feel most at home, and which they have tried out in many different scenarios. However, some players (myself included) like to challenge themselves by playing roles that are out of their comfort zone.
At a convention you are most likely directing a bunch of players who have never played together before. It’s a difficult task, because they have no idea of each other’s limits or abilities. So I play it safe: I make the decision. In a situation where you are feeling a bit uneasy, having decisions made for you actually feels more comfortable.
I usually do some warm-up exercises, or I might just have a chat with the players about what they have played before, what they do in real life, etc. This gives me a fairly good idea about who will be able to do what, and I do the casting based on what they would be best at doing.
However, at home with “your own” roleplayers, it’s a different situation. Here you have the option to let players experiment. Sometimes I let players cast themselves, or at other times I might go with a completely counter intuitive casting, where the introverted girl plays the scheming femme fatale, and the clever geek boy plays the sports jock.
Troels Ken Pedersen scrutinizes the warm-up and talks cross-casting:
How to cast for freeform depends on the nature of the game. If it’s very jeepy, going for bleedy close-to-home characters by deliberately using the players as material for the characters, casting can matter less …they’ll be playing themselves anyway. Unless the game has specific functions in mind for particular players, in which case see below.
If the game has specific characters or functions, and it isn’t a short game, I like to do warmup exercises because they give me a body of observations on which to base casting. One of my favorites is a brief association exercise (you start by saying a word, the player to your left says the first word that springs to mind, you let it go around the table three or four times, sneaky gamemasters will pull the exercise back towards the theme and mood of the game on their turns), and it’s really useful for spotting player initiative vs. perfectionism.
If you specifically need a player to drive the game forward with strong initiative, be sure to pick one who delivered without hesitation in the association exercise. This is seriously the most important casting tip I can share. Players who hesitated to come up with something “good” can be good for roles requiring exploration of the character’s feelings, but you can’t count on them to be the source of shenanigans. At least not today, that is.
Use warmup exercises and pre-game chats to size up who’s where on the introverted to extroverted scale. Hitting somewhat extroverted players with somewhat introverted roles can be fun in moderation, too introverted players shouldn’t be given roles where they’ll fail if they don’t put on a loud show.
Casting “off” can be good. If you have a player who looks like a perfect fit for the role of scheming “bitch” or suave lover, don’t go for it. If possible (as in, it doesn’t go against what the association exercise gave you) give such stereotypical roles to players who seem capable of pulling it off but who aren’t the most obvious fits. If the game called for a sceming “bitch” type AND a suave lover, and I had a good match for each, I’d very seriously consider reversing, that is casting the “bitch” fit as the suave lover and the lover as the “bitch”. That challenges the players and doesn’t throw them into too-familiar ruts.
Which brings me to gender. There are schools of thought regarding casting and gender. Some like to be pretty strict about casting women for female roles as far as possible and to a lesser degree, men for male roles. I say fuck that noise, even for a game dealing with sex and romance. Actually, especially for a game dealing with sex and romance, like my own My Girl’s Sparrow. I make it a point to cast on the basis of other psychological/social traits, as detailed above. Gender isn’t irrelevant as such, but I find it a shame to let it get in the way of more important qualities (as far as roleplaying and a number of other things are concerned), and anyway it’s fun to mess with a bit. Messing with the players a bit, gently, through casting and other means, makes for good gaming in my experience.
Read more from the series on how to GM freeform games.
Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.
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 1244because 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 Familybased 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.
Lots of great stuff! I find the ways in which we disagree especially informative.
Emily said something with which I more than agree:
“Many freeform games give the players a simple pre-drafted character which is then fleshed out in play. A great joy of this style of play is, in fact, seeing the incredible variety with which people interpret what is essentially, a single role. As a game designer or GM those surprises are sweet.”
I’ll add to that: Even with apparently richly textured roles that lay out the character over several pages of description, the players will surprise you. I love that so much. No matter how richly written, the characters never quite come alive until they’re played and interact with each other. And so, different groups can get quite different stuff out of even very tight scenarios.
…err, which is why I love running the same game with different groups, if it’s good.
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