(Buy the Pocket Guide to American Freeform here!)
Well, perhaps “introducing” isn’t the right title for this post. American Freeform has been percolating around the scene for years. In recent times, though, some folks on the scene have claimed this label, both as a way of helping players identify what they’re getting and find similar games, and as a way to help designers share ideas and solidify the structures they’re working with.
All of which is to say: the meaning of this term is evolving and will doubtless continue to evolve as more designers contribute to the tradition. It’s also not meant to be a super-restrictive label; people who feel their work has a place within this tradition are welcome to use it. And “American Freeform” might fit under a larger label of “structured freeform.” (A term coined in 2006 by Jonathan Walton here.)
So what is American Freeform? Here are some of the distinguishing characteristics, culled from internet ramblings with various designers. Games in the genre may use only some of these techniques, or may use most of them. American Freeform games…
- …are semi-live. This means players physically embody their characters for at least part of the play experience. It’s not tabletop, but it’s not quite an unbroken larp either. There are hybrid forms that might sneak in under the radar, though.
- …feature intense, focused play. As designer Jason Morningstar put it, “There’s a single, compelling situation presented by the game, and the characters are variously pointed at each other in supportive and antagonistic ways.” The relationships are open to interpretation, which makes replay fun.
- …often uses scenes. Rather than one long dinner party, in American Freeform the organizer (or sometimes the players) sets scenes stipulated by the game materials and ends them when they are over. From scene to scene, time may jump forward or backward.
- …created by Americans. This is an imperfect way at getting of the Americanness of these games, which will probably deal with cultural elements important to folks on this side of the pond. It’s also a way of getting at our play culture here, which tends to be focused on player safety and respecting people’s trigger topics ahead of time. And yes, many of us have already had a G+ fight about whether it’s OK to add a tag to the freeform community that some people view as nationalistic. (Battles over terminology mean we have a robust community already!) In general, folks would like this to be as inclusive as possible, an umbrella that can extend to designers all over the continent of America, since it’s a big continent occupied by more than one country.
- …features transparency in game design. This means that, with rare exception, play doesn’t focus around the default of player secrets. If secrets are used in a game, to create suspense, for example, they’re using sparingly, like a spring of parsley garnishing a nice chickpea cutlet, not as the main meat of a scenario.
- …uses meta-play or metatechniques. This is another way of getting at transparency–it is OK to discuss play arcs ahead of time. This also means that some of these games use techniques to help players communicate with one another. Because if all the players know I’m in love with your wife, the unaware characters can play scenes that push on this tension to create a dramatic arc. If I say I love your new dress, and then give a monologue about how last season it was, that the players hear but the characters don’t, then this develops both my character and our relationship. And that can be very good for making interesting scenes.
- …don’t entirely dispense with the physical props we all love. Many American Freeform games use traditional elements of American roleplaying games, for example game mechanics that use physical things like pieces of paper and cards, co-creation, player scene-framing, etc.
- …are usually for a handful of players over a short period of time. There are exceptions, of course, but typically we’re talking about 3-12 people and four hours or less.
Wonderful designer Emily Care Boss assembled this great list of American Freeform games, listed in no particular order…and there are more in the works as we speak.
A Flower for Mara
by Seth BenEzra
An improvisational play about the family of Mara, a woman who has died unexpectedly, during the first year after her death.
Under my Skin (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Emily Care Boss
A group of friends simultaneously falls in love with other people.
Metropolis (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Evan Torner
Based on the classic Fritz Lang movie of the same name.
by Jason Morningstar
An illegal Himalayan expedition to an unclimbed peak goes awry.
Posthuman’s Progress (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Evan Torner
The Posthuman tries to overcome obstacles to achieve her goal. A love letter to Run, Lola, Run.
The Curse (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Lizzie Stark
Ever wondered why Angelina Jolie cut off her breasts? Now you’ll know.
by Emily Care Boss
Four women struggle with mid-life changes while remodeling a house.
by John Stavropoulos and Terry Romero
A class reunion reminds people about the terrible incident that summer. Strong horror elements.
Play with Intent (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Matthjis Holter and Emily Care Boss
A flexible framework to help y’all make up your own awesome game.
A Garden of Forking Paths (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Susan Weiner, Vito D’Agosta and Nat Budin)
Inspired by Borges. A game about regret and life changes, exploring what would had happened if you chose differently.
10 Bad Larps (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment
The worst ideas for larps EVER, presented super-briefly.
DramaSystem live/semi-live rules
by Emily Care Boss and Robin Laws
Weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Larp and semi-live rules in Robin Law’s Hillfolk Companion volume Blood on the Snow.
Amidst Endless Quiet
by Ben Lehman
A spaceship, trapped in the void of interstellar space, is dying but not alone. Four of its human passengers will die with it, lost forever in senseless tragedy. One of them may yet survive. How will you decide who lives and dies?
by Luke Crane
Inheritance is a 2-3 hour game for 9 players. In Jutland in 1104, Grandfather has died. It’s time to read his will. Who will claim his inheritance?
Cady Stanton’s Candyland
by Kat Jones and Julia Ellingboe
A sex-toy party at a feminist bookstore in the 1970s.
Superhero Bakery (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Jason Morningstar
Superheroes and supervillains have escaped prison into this work-release program at a bakery, where absolutely nothing will go wrong. Great for kids.
The Road Not Taken (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Mike Young
Merges the format 10 Bad LARPs with serious psychodrama. When you are lost in the yellow woods of your life, which road will you travel?
1,001 Nights (larp version)
by Meguey Baker
Members of the Sultan’s Court wile away the sultry nights by telling pointed stories to advance their ambitions.
Ganakagok Jeepforged (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Bill White
Team-based competitive game set in a fantasy dark-ice world, where the Nitu people, a tribe of hunters and fishers live.
Sea Dracula (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Jake Richmond and Nick Smith
A humorous, competitive game about crazy animal lawyers prosecuting a landmark case in Animal City’s highest court.
The Jerkform Collection (FREE DOWNLOAD; DO NOT PLAY)
by Sex & Bullets
Jerkform is not meant to be played. It is meant to be grokked.
Resonance (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Susan Weiner, Vito D’Agosta, Nat Budin, and Phoebe Roberts)
An experimental amnesia/storytelling larp. The few people instrumental in the end of the world determine what will rise from it.
by Shoshana Kessock
A game about military service and the draft set in the US.
The Last Seder (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Vito D’Agosta, Susan Weiner, Nat Budin and Joshua Sheena)
A sci-fi parable. Live the myth of Exodus and the Last Supper as it is made by playing out a series of scenes across the ages.
by Thomas Russell
Stuck on a barge headed up the Missouri River, a disparate group of people reflect on despair, loss, transformation, and hope.
At What Cost
by Christopher Amherst
Spies try to uncover the traitor among them. How far will they go in pursuit of truth?
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife)
by Julia Ellingboe
Get your friends together, light some candles, play out creepy stories. Inspired by an Edo-period game.
City of Fire and Coin larp (parlor sandbox larp)
by Evan Torner, Emily Care Boss, and Epidiah Ravachol
Rogues adventure in a mysterious fantasy city packed with violence and intrigue.
Young Cultists in Love
by Thomas Russell
One part Adams Family, one part Evil Dead 2, one part Better Off Dead. The Stars Are Right — For ROMANCE!
Uwe Boll’s Christmas Special
by Evan Torner and Kat Jones
Infamous film director Uwe Boll miscasts actors in his action-packed Christmas special
Bloodnet larp (parlor sandbox larp)
by Evan Torner and Kat Jones
Cyberpunk vampires live in 2094 Manhattan, either eking out a living or trying to rule it all.Based on the eponymous 1993 MicroProse adventure computer game.
The Man in the Long Black Coat
by Kat Jones
A scenario about a God-fearing small community that’s full of secrets and the Man who arrives to judge them all. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat.
by Jason Morningstar
20-person political/military live action/board game hybrid based on the Lebanese civil war.
by Epidiah Ravachol
Sorcery + orgy. What’s not to love?
by Jason Morningstar
Adapts the tabletop game to a live action format with ill-advised, foolish results.
by Jason Morningstar
Pilots to a distant planet discover an isolated settlement of one family. A game about isolation, faith, family and the collision of cultures. Based on a true story from 1970s Russia.
by Lizzie Stark
Intrigue, gossip, and art at a selective artists’ colony.
by Lizzie Stark and George Locke
When a woman’s will is issued, her family must learn how to forgive one another.
by Emily Care Boss
John Milton’s life in England set against the plot of Paradise Lost.
by Kira Magrann, James Stuart, John Stavropoulos and Terry Romero
Larp version of the popular indie game by Joe Mcdaldno, about teen monsters in love.
Demons at the Door
by John Stavropoulos
Something’s outside. Eating. Watching. You can’t see them but they can ALWAYS smell you (you smell sweet). Something is here. Not Zombies. Worse.
M vs M
by Terry Romero
A mutant civil war inspired by the US Obama 2008 election.
Did we miss some games or elements? (Note: we definitely did). Feel free to post in the comments.
This post draws a lot from several G+ and email conversations, and doubtless to countless other people and conversations that have unfolded over the years. Special thanks to Jason Morningstar, Evan Torner, John Stavropoulos, A. George, James Stuart, and many many others for their thoughts, and to Emily Care Boss, who compiled the long list of American Freeform games and shared it with me.
Edit: for more on the background of American Freeform, see Emily’s post in the comments. Or check out Evan Torner’s excellent American Freeform manifesto, which talks about how American Freeform is in dialog with other traditions.
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We’re doing these monthly freeform gatherings, and it would be cool to sample some of the American goodness. Is there any chance of expanding the list of games slightly with some keywords about length, amount of players and core concept? So it’ll be easier to browse and find what you’re looking for?
Sure thing. I can do a couple of them off the top of my head; the others will have to wait until I hear from folks.
And thanks, Emily, for tackling the larger background of this category–it’s great to know some of the deeper history.
Another subset of what “freeform” means. For me this road took a major turn with Jeepform. It began long before, with the Ars Magica games with Meguey Baker, Vincent Baker and the Ennead where we embraced our intuitions rather than using the rules sets. And working with people like Jonathan Walton, Ben Lehman, Elizabeth Sampat, Shreyas Sampat, Jackson Tegu, Ross Cowman, Dev Purkayastha, Joe Mcdaldno, Ron Edwards and many others who pushed tabletop beyond even the types of mechanics that came from the reimagining of trp that happened at the Forge during its most active days. This kind of table top freeform, part of J. Walton’s structured freeform paradigm continues to develop and is in a golden age, now, really.
Then, for me, after playing with the jeepen.org folks, I again saw whole new possibilities for some of the game ideas I’d had. Particularly ones with with some intense human issues to explore. Playing live, but having access to techniques of tabletop–and going beyond it, to use internal monologue and flashback, things that connect us with the larger literary communication forms that rp can and should (and perhaps does?) take a place among.
I’m proud to be writing American Freeform games, and proud to be part of a larger structured freeform movement that has many origins and many brilliant minds moving it forward. I look forward to seeing many more games along these lines, both tabletop and live, and to hearing the names for their works, descriptions, analyses and insights that all these creators bring to bear.
John Stavropoulos and Terry Romero have a couple of other playtest they’re working on, including “Demons at the Door” and “Mutant Civil War”(working title I think). And with James Stuart and Kira Magrann, there is also “Monsterhearts”.
D’oh! Can’t believe I left those off, Ajit. Added now.
Thanks for the mentions! I too am proud to be writing American Freeform games, and also proud to be in such good company. 🙂
If anyone is interested in trying any of the Alleged Entertainment games mentioned above, please ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to help.
Interesting, I’ve never heard this genre referred to as “freeform” games before. When I started reading your article, I wondered where I might be able to try some of these LARPs, then realized I have been playing them. Ten Bad, Garden of Forking Paths, The Road Not Taken, The Last Seder, The Passage… (technically, I’ve even made a minor contribution to one of the 10 Bad LARPs.) Perhaps Across the Sea of Stars and Tales of Pendragon count as well? Many of those are referred to as “tale-telling” or “story-telling” LARPs. Based on your description, I think there might be a lot of overlap, but “tale-telling” LARPs and freeform might not mean the same thing. I’m not entirely sure.
Freeform is the squishy stuff in between larp and tabletop. There’s a lot of leeway and the boundaries are fuzzy. That is part of this genre’s charm. I think there’s a lot of crossover influence here, and the games on the list come along a spectrum of their own. Many of these games come out of the Intercon tradition, and many come out of the indie tabletop tradition, influenced by way of Danish freeform. In some way, it feels like they are designing toward a center point on that spectrum.
We want this to be a big umbrella.
Some of the Intercon Storytelling Larp games were specifically influenced by Nordic games in their development (Garden of Forking Paths and the Passage). Others are more parallel development that is really in dialogue with and is and will more and more come to be an influence on all the other games. The Last Seder and The Road Not Taken for example. Scene-by-scene play, playing inner voices, and knowing the outcome of a scene at the start are elements in common. Though, the NEIL community has been in contact with the Nordic scene longer than most. There have been years of interbreeding, I am sure. 🙂
I’d love to play Across the Sea of Stars someday, and see it as something that is in the same realm, but wasn’t in contact with the authors to check with them about it, so didn’t presume to include it here.
There is also a Parlor Sandbox Larp system that ties together BloodNet and the City of Fire & Coin larp. This blog post is a good kick in the butt to present that to a wider public. Thanks, Lizzie!
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Hey there – I’m also working on a freeform that folks got to try at Metatopia. It’s called SERVICE – my first try at freeform, using a single metatechnique, about military service and the draft in the US.
Hi! I was a player in Jason Andrews’ delivery of SERVICE at Midwinter Gaming con in Milwaukee this past weekend.
I gotta say, as a longtime LARPer, this was one of the best and most interesting experiences I’ve had in decades. As a prior military service member, it brought back a lot of old feels, and provoked some amazing thought and emotional intensity.
Thank you for the outstanding game! It has inspired me to look deeper into freeform LARP, with the aim of delivering this style of game locally!
Maybe the Shifting Forest parlor larps fit in here?
And maybe consider my 2013 Larpwriter challenge larp “Secret Ante” (aka “Soul Strip Poker”).
Oh…if freeform is the area between larp and tabletop, then DEFINITELY please put in “Gatsby & the Great Race”, which was written by Paul Fricker (UK) as a tabletop Call of Cthulhu game, but which I sorta half-larped (freeform, I guess) for Wyrd Con II. It went over very well.
Also, if American freeform can combine video games and larp, STEEDS is a first person shooter larp (combo of FPS video game and larp). But maybe that’s too far of a stretch.
Damn, sorry for multiple comments.
Gatsby & the Great Race link: http://catalog.chaosium.com/product_info.php?products_id=766
Note that that’s for the tabletop CoC scenario. However, I think any larper reading it could easily see how to make the conversion. If not, ask me.
Folks are welcome to self-apply the label if they wish. For my part, on this list I’m keeping it to semi-live games with formal sets of guidelines on how to run them, and with writers who have consented to be on the list. If you feel STEEDS and/or Secret Ante fit into the design tradition, I’m happy to add them, Aaron. Just email me a short description, and include a link to the game if possible.
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