American Freeform: A Transatlantic Dialog

Players enact the city of Metropolis during the Intercon 2011 run of my eponymous American freeform game.

Quiet waves of change have rippled through the role-playing community. On Monday of this week, Lizzie Stark posted an introduction to American freeform on her blog, an entry that codified design practices we’ve been using here in the States since at least the middle of the 00s. As one of the numerous designers whose work she listed, I am both honored and humbled by having my work mentioned in a public forum. My own blog post here is intended to continue that discussion, leading into my thoughts on the development and current state of what we’d like to call “American freeform.”

American freeform games are hybrid tabletop/larp creations that share the following set-up: 3-12 players in a 4-hour-or-less game act out scenes related to a single, compelling situation, having transparent access to much or all of the plotline information and altering the flow of the game using meta-techniques. The game format prioritizes emergent properties of a given scenario over someone knowing more-or-less what’s going to happen in advance. In addition to the games that Lizzie mentioned, one might add Marc Majcher’s game poems or Luke Crane’s InheritanceThere are probably plenty of such games floating out there in the North American scene, but rarely do they get collected together and examined seriously in terms of their commonalities.

What do I already have invested in this hybrid format? Those who know me may have heard me talk of a book-length collection of freeform games that specifically treat topoi of German cinema. Films that have already received the freeform treatment from me include: Metropolis (1927)Run Lola Run (1998), the cinema of Uwe Boll and Silent Star (1960) / In the Dust of the Stars (1976), with future games planned for Marriage in the Shadows (1947), Three Good Friends (1931), Hard to be a God (1990), and (2011). Such mature, odd games were only conceivable as of late, due to inspiration from the unique Nordic larp forms that have evolved over the past fifteen years through venues such as Fastaval and Knutepunkt, carried across the Atlantic by figures such as Tobias Wrigstad and Emily Care Boss. In addition, I have co-developed several “parlor sandbox” games BloodNet and The City of Fire & Coin, which emphasize player agency (working in concert with others) and gamemasters’ improvisation abilities. These freeforms I have developed owe much to indie tabletop games, such that some portions of them involve not-insignificant levels of pencil and paper action. But one might also say that American freeform elements in my design emerged from a critical eye toward current practices in live-action role-playing in the United States.

My expectations for freeform games have significantly changed over the years. In effect, I have subconsciously desired the mechanical/narrative fluidity from indie tabletop RPGs such as Fiasco1,001 Nights, or Shock in the larps that I joined. But compared with either the indie tabletop RPG experience or the Danish freeform experience, most American larps weren’t really delivering the goods. (Negativity alert: if you want to dodge my rant, skip to the end of the paragraph) Instead what I typically got for my long hours assembling my costume and “getting into character” were these awkward intrigue parties where players were sizing up each other to do rock-paper-scissors or play some card from their game-specific deck of fun. In such larps, the gamemasters were the Great Concealers of Plot, such that it was hard for me to get cues as to how to behave or what direction to push other players. What I really wanted were genre (i.e., ship crew, fantasy, steampunk) larps, comedic larps and serious/dramatic larps that gave the players the tools they needed to make the most out of the experience, rather than larps that had you read a 10-page backstory for a character who will then flounder around in an unpleasant social void for a Saturday night. By contrast, the Danish freeform larps I had played were all about playing your character to the hilt in a tightly constrained scenario, but with few rules that genuinely propelled the action along. American freeform, simply put, satisfies my demands as both a designer and consumer of larp-y games.

The American freeform community no longer wishes to be treated as the exception, but to be taken seriously. In my years as a writer for the Danish convention Fastaval, I received feedback that pointed out how much I was doing something relatively outside of the bounds of their expectation. See, for example, this Danish evaluation of The Posthuman’s Progress:

The game is a daring adaption that insists on a radical decomposition of the traditional gamemaster and as a result is highly collaborative. The game design is somewhat influenced by North American gaming culture – using an analytical approach to explicate the necessary game-elements – and somewhat by a Scandinavian approach to game design – insisting on the possibility for the participants to intuitively find common ground through play.

What I could have used here was a primer on the American freeform tradition that would let the judges know how to see my work. What Lizzie has done is given voice to our in-between-ness, so that we will in the future receive evaluations that accept what we’re doing as part of a certain culture, rather than as some continuously rolling role-playing “experiment.”

American freeform is European-style freeform with American-style indie game mechanics. The word “American” is there to orient ourselves toward the international freeform scene, rather than colonize/exclude certain scenes that are within or outside our borders. The word “freeform” is there to say that these games are hybrids between tabletop and larp, such that we steal from both formats with equal aplomb. We want narratively rich games that let us rise up from the table and use our bodies to communicate things our voices and paper cannot. We want to welcome gamers of all backgrounds and identities to explore themselves and their emotions in a safe and supportive space. At the same time, we do not want to uncritically import the baggage of older larp traditions into our format, with their emphasis on player scheming and gamemaster-centric plotlines, though we do acknowledge our fundamental debt to these traditions. At the core of our game design lies the active emotional experience of the player, and the mechanics we design place the player experience at the very center of the game.

We have seen our fair share of criticism. There have been some long-term disputes in the online RPG community about what freeform is and how we should employ the term. Naturally, these debates were primarily about according proper credit to certain individuals for their artistic contributions and about the annoying properties of labels like “American freeform” or labels in general. There has also been a reactionary strain in discussions among larpers that this format has existed for a long time, and that they have already been generating games like this for decades. To these points, I would like to say that American freeform constitutes an inclusive community that neither stops at the borders of America nor seeks to co-opt other play cultures. Lizzie simply put words together to describe what characteristics a certain set of games share. Nevertheless, American freeform is in some respects definitely a set of a few individuals, mostly located in the American Northeast, and they appear from the outside to have a kind of hipster/scenester aesthetic. Do such attributes make the movement a worthy subject of attack? I don’t think so. I would like to remind the movement’s critics of the significant presence of women among our ranks. The typical American freeform creator is female, which makes me (perhaps unfairly) suspect patriarchal impulses behind some of the “controversy” we’ve experienced. There is a mass of gamers that would like to control what we create and play, and its designs are conservative and status quo. American freeform attempts to push beyond the status quo without sacrificing the player on the altar of our creation. Finally, the supposed monopoly on innovation that older larp communities presumably possess has not appreciably shifted the American larp culture into the space that American freeform games now occupy. The average U.S. larp still employs drawn-out combat mechanics, has no mechanical exploration of human intimacy, uses player/GM secrets as the primary narrative engine, and holds task resolution to be the focus of its rules. Little experimental larps here and there do not. a movement. make. What I’d really appreciate is if our critics were to actually play at least one of the American freeform games in question, rather than dismiss a whole format out of hand because they don’t “play that kind of game.” Trolls and jerks follow the road of dismissal; constructive critics do not.

Where are we headed? Well, looking at Lizzie’s list, American freeform currently appears to have its hands full adapting indie tabletop games to semi-live play. We’re concerned not only with expanding the scope of genre larps, but also with making space for larps to express the unconventional. Nevertheless, as awareness of the meta-techniques and philosophy of the American freeform movement spreads, we imagine we’ll see effects in not only established U.S. larps like One World By Night or Dystopia Rising but also across the Atlantic in Europe, where we now will be seen as coming from a distinct tradition. The point of the movement has always been to design and play more games, and not to waste time navel-gazing about what our collective goal might be. But I do fantasize of the day when I can walk into any larp in the States and see our holistic design ideals at work. Maybe that’s what American freeform is about for me.

So don’t be shy – play one of the games on Lizzie’s list, and let us know what you think!


11 responses to “American Freeform: A Transatlantic Dialog”

  1. Matthijs Avatar

    How do you (Evan, Lizzie, others) see American freeform as different from Nordic/European freeform? I think your definitions/descriptions could fit a lot of the games at Grenselandet, for instance.

    I believe you (Evan, Lizzie, others) get to see a lot of criticism that isn’t visible to outsiders (me). What are the reasons people criticize this movement/its participants? Who are the critics?

    1. guyintheblackhat Avatar

      Hey Matthijs,
      I think we’re heavily inspired by Nordic/European freeform, a fact that we continually acknowledge. In fact, we would have probably assimilated ourselves into Nordic/European freeform long ago, were it not for consistent messages from the Nords/Europeans that what we were doing was “weird” or “American.” I remember running a playtest of The Screenwriters’ Panic at Mittelpunkt and finding the players alienated by the fact that they themselves had so much knowledge when their characters had so little. Same goes for my Fastaval submissions, which have always been seen as “very American.” So it’s partially _not_ our own label, but owning what has already been ascribed to us.

      After having read the Norwegian Larp Factory material, I would say that many American freeform games don’t put as much emphasis on the pre-game workshop, but rather build in introductory scenarios or scenes that let the players feel out their characters and/or the situation (The Climb and Bloodnet have these, for example). By the same token, there are also more tabletop elements (pencils/paper/folders) that are used in our freeform play than in your typical Nordic freeform game.

      As for our critics: I did not want to name names on this post, because our labeling ourselves isn’t meant to exclude or marginalize extant people in the community. That’s not my intent! The “issues” are pretty simple: what we’re doing is not at all unique, and why would we want to self-identify as a unique movement in RPG design when we’re not unique? I already addressed them a bit in the post, but I can summarize. We’ve had critics ask “Why can’t we just call them ‘games’?” Well, no one is disputing whether or not these are “games,” but that it’s very hard as a larper or tabletop-gamer to know if one should sign up for a game, such that the label helps encapsulate a specific set of values in a short amount of space. Other critics have said that what we’re doing has been going on in the U.S. larp community for decades (cf. Amber larps, Shifting Forest, etc.), but that somehow people aren’t stepping up to talk about their design/praxis. In that case, it appears to be about shutting down the discourse and discussion of new-ish design methods. I see very little evidence of these earlier games’ long-term impact in our play culture, so they can’t have been doing _that_ many of them. Reading the Shifting Forest games again, for example, I am reminded of how much of their rule-set is informed by expectations of player competition from games like Vampire, etc.

      Does that help?

  2. Sarah Lynne Bowman Avatar

    Great post, Evan! I loved your commentary about inherent patriarchal values potentially informing some of these kneejerk responses. On the topics of lack of intimacy mechanics and experimental design creeping its way into mainstream games… I totally ran an IC Ars Armandi workshop at Dystopia Rising last game 🙂 Well received and enhanced the role-play for all involved.

    1. guyintheblackhat Avatar

      Thanks, Sarah! I think we can learn a lot from each other, and that our play culture is more of a philosophy of trying new techniques than a rigid set of practices.

      For example, my upcoming ship larp at Intercon N ( draws on experiences I’ve gleaned from ship larps over the years, but then incorporates player control and intimacy mechanics in a way that’s different. So DR certainly benefits from having folks like yourself in their ranks.

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] American Freeform. Evan Torner has a great description of the genre up, a manifesto of sorts, that talks about how American Freefo…. […]

  5. Lizzie Stark Avatar

    Matthijs: one personal answer is because once in a UK newspaper I got called a Danish Designer since I the game I’ve written was written in the Fastaval style. But I’m not Danish, nor am I Finnish, Swedish, or Norwegian.

    I think the Nordic label is preventing some US folks from fulling owning our own related design tradition, a tradition I think has the potential to evolve divergently from the Nordic freeform.

    In addition, individually, in the states, many of our local designers are viewed as those weird people who are interested in that weird Nordic thing, instead of one of many Americans making games in a similar style. Naming the tradition can help bring us together.

    I also think that the types of topics we write about, as well as the attitude toward safety is fundamentally different from many of our Nordic counterparts, in ways that are evolving as we discover that we needn’t reinvent the wheel.

  6. Oliver Nøglebæk Avatar

    Congratulations on constructing a cultural transmission tower we can tune in to.

    I for one look forward to seeing new games full of flags and eagles and other americana. Or just, you know, take larp new places. Either is good to me.

    There’s a surprising amount of hidden, unspoken assumptions about how to design and play games in our different cultures. I’ve seen lots of games run less than smoothly due to these factors, if not crash and burn. I’ve tried to uncover some of them via comparing the indie playstyle with Fastaval. I look forward to seeing what comes up when you get the style rolling, there’s a lot of fascinating potential.

    One point I’d like to raise, is your thing with not having your style recognized in the Fastaval feedback. It’s not about how you see your work, it’s not about you having written it in an american style. It’s the fact that Fastaval is judging based on it’s own culture and style. I would always expect a game I run in a foreign culture to be judged on the merits of their way of playing, rather than my intended one. The players always have the final say in how a game is going to run, even if they think they’re doing nothing special.

    Good luck with playing up your own culture!

    1. guyintheblackhat Avatar

      Thanks for your reply, Oliver!

      I actually meant to say that Fastaval scenarios were such inspirations for me as a designer that I was then disappointed when my games were received as something alien (which I should have otherwise expected). Naturally, the onus is on the players to actually make a real game sing, and they will do so in accordance with their custom.

      What I really want to do is just note that our culture – rather than draw boundaries between “us” and “them” – simply has been described as “different” by so many parties that we want to catalog that difference somehow.

  7. […] to those who espouse that “true larp” is immersive and continuous while in game. Read Evan Torner’s manifesto to learn even […]

  8. […] 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 […]

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