GMs Spill Their Greatest Freeform Game Disasters

This new series delves into the complexity of game mastering a freeform game.

What is a freeform game? No one knows for sure, so let’s say that it’s somewhere between a larp and a tabletop roleplaying game, with some scenes acted out, and with a variety of scenes enacted, rather than just one single long one.

Most of this series has offered positive advice on stuff you can do to be a better GM. But it’s also nice to understand the classic blunders so you can avoid them — as someone, somewhere, probably said, “failure is an opportunity to learn.” Today, in the last of the freeform posts, the panel ‘fesses up to their biggest GMing disasters.

Thou shalt remember that the GM controls the game. Anna Westerling:

It was my first game at the big Nordic convention Fastaval, and I was so nervous. Then the players suggested they could swap roles with each other during the game. That was not how I had planned it, but I said “yes, ok, it doesn’t matter”. But of course it did. And from there it went downhill. As I GM I need to be in control of my game. I need to make the decisions; I can’t leave that to the players.

Thou shalt explain the style of gameplay before the game begins. Sanne Harder:

Well. The very first time I ever ran a freeform scenario was a real disaster. Basically I attribute my fiasco to a culture clash, but truth be told, I think I would have handled it much better today, having accumulated more than 15 years of experience in the meantime 🙂

I was running a famous Fastaval freeform scenario, called Arken, at another Danish convention. This guy who had experimented with improv in his spare time had brought his Dungeons & Dragons group with him to show them alternative ways of roleplaying. Whilst I was jumping around and trying to direct them, blinding them with flashlights and making funny voices, they stoically kept asking me when to bring out the dice!

This underlines my initial point: The most important skill in roleplaying is to recognise the genre of the scenario, and understand what the scenario needs from you.

Thou shalt not ask leading questions about game mechanics. Lars Nøhr Andresen:

I assumed that the players were confident with playing freeform. Asking in a forum with five players if everybody is ready for this is not the way to do it. The two players that hadn’t played freeform before didn’t feel comfortable stepping forward thanks to my bossy demeanor. I asked the question in a leading way – everyone could feel that I wanted to get on with it. And I asked if they were ready for this. Of course they were ready. What I meant was if they had tried playing freeform before. If they were comfortable with the methods being used in freeform.

The consequence was that one of the players never got to be part of the game and basically he asked to be excused.

I didn’t handle the situation but I learned my lesson.

Thou shalt not be too mean to characters; thou shalt be sensitive to the emotions of the players. Matthjis Holter:

Many years ago I experimented with distributed narrative control. We were immature, had typical teenage social dysfunctions, and lacked the necessary skills and structures to keep things fun for everyone. One of the characters was robbed, raped, accused of theft, put in jail and had her child taken from her. It was crap for the player, and we didn’t understand it while we were doing it. Luckily that player is still fond of games, but it was an experience none of us remember fondly.

Thou shalt respect the genre intentions of the writers. Frederik J. Jensen:

I once let a horror game turn into a comedy. This is a classic. It was a fun session – but it was not the game intended. Especially horror games can easily slide into irrecoverable slapstick from a few mistakes early in the session. Comedy is a healthy reaction to an unpleasant situation. However, it can also prevents us from taking our games to some interesting places.

In a game I ran late in a convention this year, I called for breaks when the tone began to be too light. When people came back, they were much more focused and could play serious scenes again.

Thou shalt GM the game with confidence, and if thou dost not feel confident, thou shalt fake it until thy makes it. Oliver Nøglebæk:

I’ve never really had any disasters with freeform, the worst is just a game falling flat for one or more of the players. The worst has definitely been due to lack of confidence on my part. If you don’t believe that the game is going to work, it probably won’t. It’s a lot harder for players to put in effort if the gamemaster is confused about the game or the experience of it. On the other hand, a gamemaster who is cheerleading the players can take the game up to a new level, even with tired or suspicious players.

Thou shalt not GM whilst hung-over and sleep-deprived. Peter Fallesen:

In so many words: Second day hangover, underslept, complete train-wreck, all my fault. And it was my own game. There is only one way to handle such a catastrophe: apologize to the players, and learn from your mistake. Players and the game deserve at GM that is on the top of his and her game.

Thou shalt do thy best to deal with problem players by intervening. And have we mentioned that hung-over thing? Troels Ken Pedersen:

You don’t ask half much, do you? I had a late-stage playtest end with a player leaving on account of sexual content (the game  My Girl’s Sparrow was explicitly about sex). That was a test, so, useful information to be had from that experience! Um, I had a slightly too young player breaking the scenes and context in a game about the consequences of torture for human relationships. I kept shutting him down with hard, tyrannical game master authority, he thought it was great while I was pretty frustrated, although I kept the game from actually falling apart and failing.

Really, my worst freeform gamemastering disasters have been brought about by myself, when I have tried running games tired and hungover. That’s just near-unsalvageably bad, and I endeavour to never put myself in that situation again. The closest I’ve come to handling that with a shred of dignity was identifying a couple of players with energy and initiative, and letting them run things with as little interference from me as possible. But oh, the cringeworthiness and I’ll never go there again!

Thou shalt discard the narrative frame if the players really don’t get it. Morten Greis Petersen:

Some years back, I ran this story-heavy game, where the players were expected to tell parts of the story and the events. However none of the players had any experience with this type of play, and they had expected something completely different, and they wanted to play a completely different scenario, so one player ended up saying not a single word during the whole game, and I had to drag the rest through the story narrating more or less everything. So basically I decided to be in charge of those elements, that the scenario intended for the players to play, thus leaving them more or less with the kind of play, that they wanted.

A few years back, I ran a scenario whose authors hadn’t had playtested it. They were inexperienced authors, whose idea was interesting, but poorly carried out; it forced us into a situation, where we had to stop. It then told the players, what had gone wrong, and what had been assumed, we would be do, and then I asked, if they wanted to continue playing – which they did – and then I led the situation back on track, so we could continue the story.

Thou shalt eat crow pie sometimes. But learn to live and GM another day. Anne Vinkel:

My worst experience had excellent players and a lovely scenario and nothing went right. There was a particular mechanic where the players were supposed to ramp up aggression when the GM touched them – and that just didn’t work. I was trying desperately to steer and heading straight over the cliffside and we all ended up in a total mess where there was no way to get the players to the stated end point of the scene, where one character was supposed to murder the other, because they just wouldn’t get the aggression to that level. It was awful.

So how did I handle it? Well, I tried my best, failed miserably, said thank you for playing and knew that the players were thinking that, well, she really didn’t handle that very well. And I tried to learn something from it, but mainly I just failed and lived with it. You don’t learn GM’ing without being totally rubbish a few times.

Thus spake the book of freeform disasters. And now, we conclude with a brief, instructive tale illustrating a litany of errors, bravely brought to by Klaus Meier:

On a general level I am not very good at dealing with bad players as a GM (or to be more PC: players with different expectations of the game and how to play it than what is the consensus in the rest of the group). Some GMs can get them more in line with the playing style of the game, but I am very quick give up on them and just try to minimize their screen time in the game.

So with that in mind it’s war story time.

I ran a game called The Fire of the Burning Wind which is a kind of Indiana Jones/1001 Nights game, where the characters are action archeologists that find a magic lamp that grants wishes. Before they can get their wishes the genie of the lamp tells three tales of how it has been used before and how the wishes always turn on people. The players create these tales themselves and the whole action archeologist part is more or less only there to get them to find the lamp and tell the stories. The 1001 Nights stories are that meat of the game and I made sure to tell the players that before we started playing.

One of the players did not get it. At all. She might have been the proverbial worst. Player. Ever.

Before they found the lamp there was a scene between her and another character. She was his stepmother and there was a lot of latent conflict between them. The stepson brought the conflict into play be escalating a discussion by hissing through clenched teeth: “Don’t tell me what to do. You are NOT my mother and you never will be”. Her answer? “Oh my god! You are a stupid head! Totally stupid in the head!” Conflict dead. The atmosphere as well.

This was where I started messing up as a GM, because I did not do anything. I should have tried to get her on the right track and playing the same style and game as the rest of the group and as the game were designed for. Instead I just rolled my eyes and tried to ignore her. Big mistake as a GM. When we took a break to go out and smoke I started bitching to the other players about her as soon as she left (she did not smoke). Horrible, HORRIBLE mistake as a GM. Yes, she was terrible, but instead of trying to make her less terrible I just pointed her flaws out to the rest of the players and did not do anything else. Any motivation the other players had was now gone as well. As a GM you should create an atmosphere of excitement for the game. I created an atmosphere of “let’s just get this over with”.

Before the telling of the last 1001 Nights tale she made her crowning achievement in a long line of horrible play. I was setting the players up to create the last tale and she suddenly looked at me (she was still playing the stepmother) and said “I take the lamp and I hide it!”. With the lamp hidden they could not tell the last tale, which was the meat of the scenario as they had already been told. In that one act of hiding the lamp she showed that she either did not get what the game was about or that she simply did not care about it and about the experience of the other players. The other players looked in bewilderment. What the hell now? I panicked and said with the sternest voice I could muster “No you don’t! I am speaking to you as the GM now and you are not doing that!”. She did not hide the lamp. We finished the last tale. It was not a good experience for anyone. Big surprise.

I made a whole litany of GM errors in the handling that player. Was she that bad? Yes. Was I the only one who thought so? Not at all. She was ruining the game for the rest of the players. The problem is: I not only let her, I kind of helped her do it.

I should have kept trying to get her on the same page as the game and the rest of the players. I should have stopped the game so we could talk about the premise. I should have kept the excitement for the game. I should have handled the whole lamp hiding in a less desperate control freaky manner and let the players resolve it within the game. I did not. I made every mistake possible in dealing with a player gone rogue.

It was one of my worst role-playing experiences ever and a lot of it was my fault.

The only bright side is that the phrase “He/she hid the lamp” is now used by some GMs to describe when one player just did not get the premise of the game and kept not getting it no matter what. So at least my failure as a GM will live on as a catchphrase…

More from the freeform series:

How to Cast a Freeform Game
How to Cut a Freeform Game
How to Debrief a Freeform Game


Lars Nøhr Andresen is a Danish roleplayer and designer who has been writing Fastaval scenarios since 1994.

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 writerTroels 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.

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