2011-04-08 : Freeform

I've been thinking hard and talking to my friends about this ever since Paul T. drew the distinction (perhaps inadvertently) here between principled freeform and structured freeform. Talking with Markus Montola (of Nordic LARP fame) and Sanna Koulu, who've been visiting around here, crystallized it.

Here's to start: designing a game means changing people's normal social system.

Luke and Jared call it mind control. When you design a game, you do it to supplant the normal, natural interactions, relationships and considerations of its players with new, unnatural, designed interactions, relationships and considerations.

I don't mean anything complicated or strange by this. When you play a game, you adopt its rules and objectives, is all. For instance, I don't normally, naturally compete with my 14 year old son. I value his best interests, normally, at least as highly as my own. Sit us down to play Zero, though, and within the bounds of the game I don't consider his best interests at all. Or say that Eppy and I are talking normally about a fictional character I'm creating. He's interested and curious, but he respects my creative integrity, he doesn't try to insert his own vision into my creation. When we're playing Human Contact, though, the opposite!

And then:

You can change people's normal social system with content. "Your character is the captain of a space ship; mine is her first mate."

You can change people's normal social system with principles. "Your right to say what your character does ends at my character's skin. You can say your character punches mine, but I get to say how it affects my character."

You can change people's normal social system with procedural cues. "We roll dice. If you have the highest sum, you get to say what happens." Procedural cues tell you how to interact, without reference to the content of the fiction you're creating.

You can change people's normal social system with mediating cues (popularly, mechanics). "When your character does something that would expose her to danger, stop! Roll dice for her 'I'm craven.' If the high die is 1-3, she's too craven to do it." Mediating cues DO refer to the content of the fiction you're creating.

The distinction between procedural and mediating cues may seem pretty fine, but it's been a lively topic of debate in indie rpg design since 2005 at least. Start a thread called "how do you play Primetime Adventures?" and watch this distinction bloom.

So then, freeform:

"Freeform" VS "non-freeform" means no mediating cues VS mediating cues.

"Freeform" VS "structured freeform" means content only VS content plus principles, procedural cues or both.

"Principled freeform" VS "structured freeform" - hereafter, "procedural freeform" - means content plus principles VS content plus procedural cues, with principles optional.

So "principled freeform" would mean a game - or a subsystem of a game - that changes its players' social system by using only content and principles. "Procedural freeform" goes one further, using formal structures like narration trading, time limits, counters, non-representational pieces on a board, improv games, and who-knows-what-else, but never crossing that line into mechanical mediation.

There's lots and lots of procedural freeform in indie rpg design. Screen presence in Primetime Adventures, the owe list in In a Wicked Age (except when you cash it in for a bonus die), all of 1001 Nights except when you roll to see if the sultan beheads you.

And that's what I've got! Questions or comments welcome.

1. On 2011-04-08, Vincent said:

For procedural vs mediating cues, compare Eat Poop You Cat with Pictionary. Eat Poop You Cat's rules tell you to draw; Pictionary's rules tell you what to draw. In Eat Poop You Cat, you interpret the drawing; in Pictionary, you try to guess from the drawing what's on the card. Eat Poop You Cat is a procedural game; Pictionary is a mediated one.


2. On 2011-04-08, Liam Burke said:

I wrote about this on the Knife Fight like five years ago! I like your distinction between procedural and mediating cues here.  I wonder, though, whether there's a continuum of mediation.  "We roll off if we disagree" is clearly procedural.  "We roll off if we disagree and our characters are both involved" is presumably mediating (we must refer to the fiction to determine its applicability); however, it seems closer to the first rule than to, say, "roll stat+skill to accomplish a task." I think there's potentially more to break down here.


3. On 2011-04-08, Paul T. said:

Thanks for posting this, Vincent. Very interesting!

I'm not sure about "procedural freeform": it sounds like some pretty heavily structured games could fit into this category by your definition (Universalis? Happy Birthday Robot?). I'm not sure whether the term "freeform" is useful there.

I'll be thinking on this further!


4. On 2011-04-08, Josh Hall-Bachner said:


That's the beauty of it. Lots of pretty heavily structured games are in this category.


5. On 2011-04-08, Chris Chinn said:

Fun insight- the big number of folks who treat every game they buy as Principled Freeform, with the assumption that it is the only way to "good roleplaying".


6. On 2011-04-09, Larry said:

I like it.


7. On 2011-04-09, Simon C said:

Principles and mediating cues kind of blur into each other, yeah?

For example, the Savvyhead's workspace rules: Principle or mediating cue?


8. On 2011-04-09, Emily said:

The importance of content in traditional games (ie setting, character, genre conventions) is huge. All fictional games, really.

I'd argue that procedural really doesn't capture the structure in structured freeform. Many mechanics that are mechanics free still mediate the fiction. (Drinking from the bottle in Drunk to see what next event happens, taking the hand of the angel or devil in Under my Skin).

Like you said, indie games are all about procedure beyond mediation. It may be a dividing line between trad and nar indie, since the things it deals with are things that traditional games don't have to deal with (narration rights, scene framing, content creation) because who does them is clearly defined and doesn't vary. When you have more variation, that kind of mechanic is more important. You need tools that help you not only form the fiction (like the mediating cues in trad), but to form the flow of who says whatness for creating the fiction.

This is also not so useful in immersive flow games like jeep or larp. You don't want to drop out in order to talk about who gets to say what.

Improv exercises seem like low initial content principled freeform. Ex. Base your scene on the positions you're in, one person acts out what another person says, play the scene but one person must always sit, another stand, etc).  I find low content games like that hard! It's much easier when you've got a meaty situation to help you all pull together. Improv'ers are like decathlon athletes.


9. On 2011-04-09, Ben Lehman said:

Hi Markus! Are you going to be on the west coast?


10. On 2011-04-11, David Berg said:

I like the category breakdowns.  I find the labels a bit confusing.  I might say "table cues" and "fiction cues" rather than "procedural" and "mediating".  What kind of procedure and what gets mediated are the real keys to the categories, right?

I grew up playing a lot of games whose position on this scale is hard to pin down.  My D&D2 games were a mix of seeking and fighting.  The fighting was all mechanics-use, the seeking was all principled freeform (as Vincent's defined it).  Some sessions were all about the fight game, others were all about freeform exploration and social interaction.  In my group, we all did our best to get good at both, and fantasized about games designed to support both.  I'm still eager to see how viable that is.  Maybe I need to play some more purely principled freeform games...


11. On 2011-04-11, Vincent said:

Emily and I sat down and grappled with this stuff for a couple of hours yesterday. You should see the state of my notebook, what with the diagrams upon diagrams and scribbles upon scribbles. It's like a bomb went off in there and the bomb was a green felt-tip pen.


12. On 2011-04-12, Simon C said:

I got all excited writing about how obviously it was like this, but the more I wrote the more exceptions I started to find. It got pretty convoluted and weird before I pulled the plug.

I'm thinking it might be more useful to describe the core of the categories rather than the boundaries.


13. On 2011-04-12, GB Steve said:

Have you been following the Laws Programme for Drama in Roleplaying? Hamlet's Hit Points is part of the analysis to get drama beats into gaming. It's all about cues really and you seem to be touching on similar things.


14. On 2011-04-12, Ron Edwards said:

This also goes back to the Infamous Five in which I argued that purist freeform required the maximum points of contact with system ... which is to say, "how do we do this" moments, not merely system use ... of any kind of role-playing. It's also why I claimed back in the Gaming Outpost days that Drama-heavy systems (using Tweet's terminology) are genuinely system rather than system-less, as frequently claimed during the 1990s.
Best, Ron


15. On 2011-04-12, Alex Abate Biral said:

Vincent, I just want to make sure I am getting this right. So, are principles are just rules that don't require an external input (like a dice or a card) whereas cues do? And the difference between procedural and mediating cues is that procedural ones are meta-rules, whereas the mediating ones aren't? Is that right or am I oversimplifying?


16. On 2011-04-12, Josh W said:

Emily, I'm reading a lot into your opinion to get this, but is this anything like what you're talking about?:

Vincent talked about content shifting people's social stuff round, but was mainly referring to the fiction your imagining together.

Are you talking about bringing new stuff alongside that?

Like there's some family scene and then someone flips over a card that says "why bring that up now after all these years".

It's inspiration, and the rules system says "think about this now and be influenced by it" so it's got some topical/tactical punch, it influences the rhythm of the game. It's not stated how you should bring it in, so the rules don't concretely change what's going on, just skew how you approach it by juxtoposition.

That the sort of thing you're talking about?


17. On 2011-04-13, Jaywalt said:

Now I wanna hear about your conversation with Emily because, yeah, your take on "structured freeform" and mine are pretty different.

A lot of my designs, like my freeform AW hack Ghost Opera, still use mediating cues that involve the fiction.  The "freeform" comes in having unexpected situations arise from the interacting intentions of the players, rather than those + randomness (fortune-based mechanics), as in not-freeform games.


18. On 2011-04-13, Vincent said:

Oh, we didn't talk about that. We talked about the kinds of rules that freeform games give us, to learn from and use in design. We didn't talk at all about what "structured freeform" could, does, or ought to mean as a categorical or marketing term.

Ghost Opera provides some fantastic rules to look at, and reminds me of a thing or two that I've forgotten, too. Thanks for linking to it! It's very cool.


19. On 2011-04-13, Jaywalt said:

Glad you think it's cool.

I don't care about marketing terms. Bleh! I was just getting uppity about yet another attempt to redefine a term that I really like and find useful to make it more restrictive. Like what happened to Clinton's "story games." Am I gonna be stuck having to use "games with deterministic resolution" instead? That's a mouthful :) But that's a selfish "don't change my terminology!" thing and not a real objection to what you're saying.

I mainly think it's important to note that you can have procedural and mediating cues without dice or other randomizers. People often forget that, even when they're doing freeform design work. Some folks even think freeform design solely consists of content and principles, which is unfortunate given the diversity of possibilities there.

Really, a lot of the problems people consistently have with the AW move "An arresting skinner" is related to that. It's a deterministic mediating cue and that can drive people crazy. "You mean, it just happens? Like that? That's so unfair!"


20. On 2011-04-13, Simon C said:

Ghost Opera is freeform? My gut reaction says "no it's not!"

I think that because it's got explicit conflict resolution that's cued by events in the fiction, it doesn't feel like freeform to me. It's just diceless.

When I think freeform, I think of games that have no explicit cued rules - or the only cued rules refer to real-life things, like "It's the Winter phase now, so people can die" or whatever.

That's just my gut though. It should probably stick to making poops.


21. On 2011-04-13, Vincent said:

Not on topic! Please don't anybody go chasing after what "freeform" could, does, or ought to mean. This is about learning from games by examining how they work, not about categorizing them.



22. On 2011-04-13, Simon C said:

It's a fair cop.

Back on topic:

I think what I'm thinking of is how some rules are like "no takebacks" - you only know how something is going to work out once you've committed to doing it, while other rules are like "takebacks are ok" - you know how something is going to work out before you commit to it. I guess that's just IIEE, but I think there's a marked difference between games that are all *IIEE and games that put resolution anywhere else. Come to think of it, Ghost Opera is all *IIEE, so maybe I was wrong?

But it's not just IIEE, because it's not just about what people say their characters do, it's about everything they say.

Maybe this diagram I made a while ago is relevant?


23. On 2011-04-13, Jaywalt said:

Simon, I love you dude, but I have no idea what you're talking about. What do take-backs and IIEE have to do with freeform? I lost your thought process a few moves back.


24. On 2011-04-13, Alex Abate Biral said:

I think Simon's point is that "no takebacks" and "takebacks are ok" are two possible principles. As principles, they can affect a lot of the techniques that are actually used during the game. For example, in "takebacks are ok" games, you have an IIEE with "look ahead", the scene framing may be discussed before one specific idea is decided and how the players commit to what happened off screen. Is that right, Simon?


25. On 2011-04-13, Simon C said:

Oh no! Communication fail!

So, in some games, Apocalypse World, for example, or D&D, when you say what your character does, that's what they do. You roll the dice to see how that turns out. If it turns out against you, you can't be like "oh no! I take it back!". What's done is done. There's a clear boundary where we're no longer negotiating, and what's in the fiction is settled. You have to commit to what your character is going to do without knowing how it will turn out.

In Ghost Opera, that's not the case so much (and there are better examples than Ghost Opera). You know how things will likely turn out before you say what your character will do. Resolution has happened before you state your intent, because resolution is based on static facts about the characters (what they're doing, what they're willing to do, who they are) rather than decisions made in the moment, reference to real-life resources or dice rolls, and so on.

Is that clearer?


26. On 2011-04-13, Vincent said:


I think it's 2 variables: do you know in advance what will come of your characters' actions (and to what certainty), AND can you take it back afterward if you don't like it?


27. On 2011-04-13, Simon C said:


Takeback rules also often have the same certainty thing, like, usually there's a "zone" of takeback. You can see it in the freeform play you describe, Vincent:

"So he draws his sword, cool?"

"And then he's like, advancing towards you, right?"

Those "checking in" moments are signalling that something is entering the fiction in a more concrete way, becoming harder to take back. The more everyone has assented to something, the harder it becomes to take back.


28. On 2011-04-14, Jaywalt said:

Simon, okay, I get the "take-back window" concept. But I don't think Ghost Opera, by default, has a take-back window. You decide what you're gonna do, and then the GM or other player decides how to respond. It's definitely about choices made in the moment! I don't necessarily know what you're going to do and you don't necessarily know what I'm going to do.

Here's an example of deterministic resolution in Ghost Opera, which I wrote a while back.  In the example, I wrote John as pressing really hard for his goal, showing how the GM could respond to that and make it cool.  But John could have made other choices and led to a more complex encounter. Maybe the shaman heard his character coming. Maybe the whispering of his character's childhood names disturbed him enough to make him hesitate. Also, I as the GM could have done wildly different things too. Maybe the shaman could have tried to run away deep into the bog.

In Ghost Opera, at least in my mind, is still "to do it, do it," with no takebacks. The uncertainly in resolution just comes from the choices made by other players (and, really, yourself too, since you can always surprise yourself by the choices you end up making).

That said, you can always create a take-back window, in my experience, by phrasing your statements as questions or options and asking for confirmation from your fellow players. If John said, "So I sneak up with him from behind, yeah?" Then, I have a chance to intervene and say, "Well, his back's to an ancient stone wall, but you could drop down on him from above, maybe." We're making hypothetical statements now, not assertions or statements of what's happening.

Does that make sense or are you talking about something slightly different?


29. On 2011-04-14, Simon C said:

Yeah, that makes sense to me. I think you're right about Ghost Opera not really allowing for takebacks, at least as written.

But! I think it's maybe a characteristic of no-fortune games that you end up with a lot more negotiation, bargaining, and takebacks. That's been my experience, anyway. Rolling a die is like crossing the Rubicon (see what I did there?).


30. On 2011-04-14, Jaywalt said:

If you say so; I'm not convinced. I dare you to come play Ghost Opera with me at GoPlay NW or PAX and find out!


31. On 2011-04-14, Simon C said:

Bit of a drive from New Zealand, I'm afraid. Otherwise I'd love to. One of these days.


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