Gaming Freeform (LARP)
By Kyla Ward
First appeared in Australian Realms#17, 1994
On the fourteenth of August, 1993, I ran a fifty-player freeform, entitled The Masquerade. For six hours, our venue was transformed into a palace in eighteenth century France, hosting a masked ball. For six hours, gamesmasters and players created a spectacle to confirm that, for me, this is one of the best kinds of roleplaying.
A freeform, as the name suggests, is a game which has a setting, characters and an adventure; all the usual things, but no system. There may be rules to handle the usual antisocial things like killing people and casting spells; but the one indispensable piece of freeform equipment is the character sheet. The action of any freeform is people taking on the roles of these characters in an almost theatrical way. Bearing this in mind, freeform anecdotes tend to be very complicated!
In some way or other, you have heard of freeforming. The popular commercial versions are the How to Host a Murder games and White Wolf's "live" variation of their tabletop games such as Vampire: The Masquerade. But the style has been around in Australia for years and as far as I have been able to determine was generated here independently. The first freeform on record was run at Octocon in 1981. Freeforming has become very popular at Australian gaming conventions because of the numbers it can cater for.
The Masquerade was run independently, as a fund raising event for charity. The best way I can think to explain just how a freeform works is to use it as an example. Bear in mind, however, that it is only one example. Freeforms can be written for anything from eight players to a hundred. They can be run anywhere from the Masquerade's manor house to Science Room C12. And of course, they can be set anywhere from, as I have experienced recently, an orbital satellite under the control of a belligerent AI, to a twelfth century Welsh banqueting hall and a contemporary library where the clerk is trying to summon Azathoth.
The Masquerade was an excursion into decadent and romantic French Gothic. It was the world of Dangerous Liaisons and the works of Alexander Dumas. So what would you expect to encounter? All characters were, to some extent, involved with the unsolved murder of the Duc de Champielles who had died a year ago, this very night. But then there were the Ambassadors, competing to win French support for a continental war; we had the Smugglers, the Purloined Letters and a number of Missing Heirs -- some of whom had very good reasons to be missing. There was the Unmarried Heiress with an unscrupulous guardian, the Curse of the Paris Opera and of course the Vampires, who were not responsible for as much of the above as you might think.
All roleplaying games to some extent are creatures of genre. But in a freeform it is particularly important, as your cue to how to act. If someone has spoiled one of your plans, how do you get even? What if someone insults you? In The Masquerade, you call them a fop and a cur and demand the satisfaction of a duel -- and your opponent will know how to react. You will find yourself in the middle of the room playing out the scene; you can not be shy in a freeform! Freeforms work by expectations. The constraint is that some genres and situations -- mass battles, cyberpunk fire fights etc. -- can not be handled this way. So most freeforms are thus based on situations like balls and dinners parties, or alien peace conferences, or being trapped in a church overnight. Not exciting enough? With hoards of ghouls howling outside and scratching at the windows? More about this when I talk atmosphere.
When you receive a character sheet for a freeform, you should note certain things and this goes double when you write one. Firstly, who the character is and who she knows; this may sound commonplace, but I once played half a game before realising that there were three other claimants to the throne. The first half-hour of freeforms inevitably consists of people wandering around finding their relatives, superiors, arch-enemies; a device I put into The Masquerade was a formal presentation of all guests to the Hostess at the start of the evening.
Secondly, note what the character is doing. Every character should have enough "objectives" to keep them busy; that is, they should be tied into enough genre plots. We've been through some examples! Objectives should be achievable, affect the game as they are achieved, and be relevant to the character. These criteria do make some types of character difficult to write, such as the naive young innocent and the psychotic maniac. But if they are not well-written they will turn out dreadfully boring to play.
The third thing is what items the character may have; objects, money and information and gossip, things that can be exchanged. Objects may be mentioned on the character sheet or represented, by a piece of paper or some actual simulacra. All this information, together, creates the freeform world.
Then you start playing. It's about this point that the anecdotes begin. They usually sound pretty much like; well, first of all it said on my character sheet that I was a member of this secret society and I knew some of the other members, but there was this Comtesse who kept walking by making the secret sign, so I went up to her and started talking about it but later I saw her talking with the Duc, who I knew was trying to wipe us out; so I told the others and the Viscomte said he knew this opera singer who worked as an assassin, but then we met a doctor who said she was actually a vampire and etc!
That is how a freeform runs. There will be a Gamesmaster or masters to handle the rules and to provide background information and clarification as needed. When there are abilities such as "pick pockets" or "read minds" involved, a Gamesmaster is clearly required to mediate, or roll the dice or whatever. You can invent or adapt whatever rules you decide you need. The Masquerade combat rules were borrowed from YSEDA live roleplaying -- along with the rubber swords and daggers. The Gamesmasters, in this case, acted as referees.
A good freeform is one which runs smoothly and manages to generate an atmosphere. That is what you are playing or writing for; that is what you want. Good writing and good playing will achieve this, but there are things that help: this is why the Masquerade was held in a manor house and why full costume was compulsory. The Masquerade also spread over several rooms -- having areas where the conspirators could withdraw from public sight assisted things greatly.
Then I added some staged sequences that happened at pre-set times during the freeform and some special effects. We had several horribly made-up dead bodies that Something was responsible for and a big surprise for everyone at midnight. I like to stage a climax because a common problem in freeforms is that the end-point is arbitrary, dictated by time or lack of resources; in any case unsatisfying. A good method is write an end point into the game from the start, ie. a bomb set to explode in three hours, nightfall or dawn or, on one memorable occasion, the arrival of Darth Vader, (See? You can write a freeform about anything -- with due respect for copyright).
A freeform game is a communally produced play or movie, as tabletop games are often described as being communally produced novels. Perhaps one of their most interesting and challenging features is that you cannot leave your villains and your monsters as ciphers -- they have to be playable, characters. This article can in no way fully describe how to write a freeform game, or do more than hint at possible permutations. The only way to learn is to experience and experiment. Pre-written freeforms are difficult to find, but as stated, freeforms are popular at Australian Conventions -- it is a rare Con' that will not feature at least one -- and some gaming clubs have been known to stage them off the Convention circuit.
Freeform gaming seems to have a very wide appeal. It is the style that non-gamers tend to find easiest to understand; there have even been examples of freeforms being run for educational purposes when set in a particular historical period or at a particular event. I had regular roleplayers bringing relatives and friends to The Masquerade, "to see what it was all about". And while I don't pretend that, freeforming does seem to serve as a good introduction to gaming, as well as being an interesting and adaptable style in its own right. Try it. You may surprise yourself.
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