2011-04-25 : We are creative equals

Here's the first and fundamental principle that Meg, Emily and I explicitly adopted for our 6-year freeform Ars Magica game:

The moment of creation is the moment of collaboration. At that moment, we are all creative equals.

Here are a few of its important immediate implications:

There is no GM, and can't be one.

Owning something - a character, a setting element, a situation - means taking responsibility, not holding authority. It means that you portray it, but that you answer to us for your portrayal, not that we accept your portrayal sight unseen as given.

When we roll dice, we do it to inspire and provoke ourselves, not to bind ourselves to an outcome we've preconstructed. We answer to one another, not to the dice. No die roll is binding; the best a roll can hope for is to inspire us to act on it.

Prep if you want, but do it knowing that you'll have to win us over at the moment of collaboration just the same. All prep is always uncertain.

I may hurt Meg and Emily's feelings here, but playing this way is an awful lot of work, and compared to playing well-designed games it's not unusually fulfilling. You can get some things out of it that are difficult or impossible to get otherwise, but they aren't unusually great things. They're just fun. These days, there are things that are more fun that are also much easier to come by.

It also positivively defies any more game text. The principle IS the game text. Everything else is the live, vibrant, ongoing, mercurial working creative relationships of the people themselves.

If you want to play this way, grab some friends to be your creative equals and go for it. Nothing's stopping you, and there's no sense waiting for a game text - it wouldn't help you anyway. Don't set yourself up, though! It's not the pinnacle of the medium.

1. On 2011-04-25, Vincent said:

This is in answer to David's comment here.


2. On 2011-04-25, ccreitz said:

Not the pinnacle of what medium? Like you say, you can get things out of that radically decentralized kind of play that you can't really get anywhere else. (I disagree with you about the desirability of those things, of course - for me, that's the summum bonum.) Isn't that very participation and collaboration, rather than the fiction as it would be experienced by a spectator, the art object of freeform play? To the extent that it is, isn't your principle pretty much the pinnacle of that (im)medium?


3. On 2011-04-25, Vincent said:

Lots to answer in that!

1. What's "immedium"?

2. Freeform roleplaying isn't the pinnacle of roleplaying.

3. I think that there are two kinds of play that could be called the pinnacles of freeform play. Our principle, yes, represents one of them. The other is the GM-is-all kind, radically centralized instead of radically decentralized.

I prefer our kind, but I don't see any reason to think it's any more a pinnacle than the other. They're both nuts and, take the gains and subtract the pains, unprofitable compared to well-designed games.

4. Oh holy cow, collaboration and participation are NOT the things that our freeform game gave me that well-designed games don't. A world of not.

There was a long-term creative intimacy that our freeform game gave me, that I miss. But a well-designed game fosters collaboration, even collaboration as equals, far, far better than playing by just the bare principle ever can.

5. Similarly, I don't really care about the fiction as it would be experienced by a spectator. A well-designed game is no more likely to give me good spectator-fiction than our freeform game was.


4. On 2011-04-25, Vincent said:

We're equal, not interchangeable

Here's a principle I used to guide my personal play in the game:

Use Meg's character's father to show how terrible Emily's character's father is. Whenever the latter does something unreasonable, have the former do something reasonable; whenever the latter does something apparently reasonable, have the former do something so obviously good that the latter suffers by comparison.

This worked very well, but don't be distracted by that. For our purposes here and now, it illustrates some important limitations when it comes to creating a game text:

System is rooted in content.

It's not an accident or arbitrary that the principle is about characters' fathers. Our game featured fathers prominently; yours might not.

System is opportunistic

The principle is possible only because, by happenstance, I owned both Meg's character's father and Emily's character's father. If I had owned one but not the other, I would have had to find some other principle to guide me.

We're equal, not interchangeable.

It's not an accident or arbitrary that Meg's character's father is the reasonable one and Emily's character's father is the unreasonable one. Could I just as well have made Meg's character's father the terrible father, and Emily's the good one? Oh my crap no. That would have been a disaster.


5. On 2011-04-25, Ben Lehman said:

Why is it that creative equality necessitates no GM?



6. On 2011-04-25, Vincent said:

Because a GM is somebody whose word we have to take for some stuff.

At least, when you make me the GM, you agree up-front and sight-unseen to take my word for some stuff. Otherwise, no dice! Find somebody else to be your butt monkey.


7. On 2011-04-25, Emily said:

Shared world leads story

Here's an approach I took to work with collaboratively created world in our Griffin's Aerie game and prior:

Start with geographic and social landscape markers. Frex, a covenant and dependent village in Greece, a small group of young mages founding a covenant in mountains in the mountains of Romania, a tribunal dominated by the Tremere from long ago and way back. Then flesh them out with people and places we care about. Once we've experienced the world in play, look at the pieces and how they relate and use those dynamics to tease out where the story will head from there.

[By story I mean, the dynamic events that happened. These included conflicts (battles, politics, arguments), growth (building the covenant piece by piece, training apprentices, making friends and enemies in the world), and decay (the collapse of a covenant, corruption and unethical behavior).]

Collaboration means follow my lead

Use the material that you've created together. If your co-players are kind enough to create parallel situations (ie both have strong relationships with their parens), go ahead, play those characters, and use the material you are offered. But if you build a doll house of a world in the corner and don't share it until the end, don't expect anyone to be able to do much with it.

I f'd this up hardcore. Some stories I introduced that failed were grand schemes that came out dribbling piece by piece. They were thinly established and poorly implemented. If that information had been better shared, or based of things created by others, it would have been better intergrated and much more successful. And, yeah, we have rules that do that all over the place now.

Vulnerabilities are opportunities

Places where you see uneven power relations, weaknesses and potential problems are the levers you can use to create strong story flow. Use them! Vincent did so with wild abandon with my mage's abusive parens. But use them with caution. See we are equal but not interchangeable above.

Stick it out until the world is really shared

When ideas clashed about what the world was like, or what we wanted the world to be like, we fell back on our real world social contract of friendship to see us through. By which I mean that we talked it out until we were on the same page, sometimes going through being at odds with one another in emotionally uncomfortable ways.  A harrowing experience at the very best, and not one I'd recommend.


8. On 2011-04-25, Ben Lehman said:

But as a GM, I agree up-front to take your word for some stuff as well. Like, if you say "my guy is a warrior" and I'm like "no he's actually a chef" that's not me being a GM.

I guess I don't see anything in the basic GMing tasks that inherently unequal. Different, yes, sure.



9. On 2011-04-25, Meguey said:

No hurt feelings at all, Vincent. It was an awful lot of work. And, since Emily and you have shared your personal principals, here are some mine.

Everything is interesting

Most sessions started by one of us saying "Who's doing what?" and then we'd mentally look around the covenant and town and etc, and see what everyone we were responsible for was up to.

Shared GMing meant that no matter what was said in response to that looking around -  "The Duke [important NPC, I forget who had ownership of him] is meeting with a messenger from the South" or "Acanthus [a primary PC] is sitting on his roof, hucking rocks at whoever gets too close" or "There's a new batch of puppies in the stables, and the hold children are entranced" - that's where we'd go, because that's what was clear in our vision and where the story was.

The exercise in letting go of preconceived ideas about what was important and where the story lie was great.

Bounce off others until things back

This hits at why Vincent was able to effectively play my character's beloved parens. When I was looking around, I looked first at what was opposite the other primary characters. If Soraya was setting herself up for studying the fae, I was ready to play the fairies of the mountaintop. If Acanthus was going to do politics with the Duke, I was ready to play the Duke or his household. If I had a wacky idea that we should have a Griffin in the environs, in whose presence it was nigh impossible to lie, I played it to the hilt and let Acanthus get all babbling and silly, so unlike his normal self, in the Griffin's presence.


10. On 2011-04-26, Paul T. said:

Great stuff!

Two questions:

Why (or how) did your freeform game give you a sense of long-term creative intimacy that you think you wouldn't get from a well-designed structured game? (Post #4.)

Why do you think you wouldn't get this sense from a more structured GM-less/GM-ful game that went on for years and years with the same three participants?

Second, you say that this principle "positively defies any more game text"... but I'm sure there are not only content-specific principles which were in play (as you have all contributed in this thread), but also larger-scale Techniques, like Emily's "start a session by asking who's doing what."

Is there some reason that you feel those specifics were not a significant part of your game? The "how" of what you did, I would imagine, would be a pretty significant factor. For instance, would the three of you have been just as capable of creating this game had you, say, tried to do it five years (or ten years) earlier, with far less life experience?

I can see that many of these principles flow logically from the "fundamental principle". But I don't think that means they are tautological: communicating them (as in a game text) hardly seems like a futile endeavour.

What makes you feel that way? (Or let me know if I've completely misread you, on the other hand.)


11. On 2011-04-26, Frank T said:

Hi Vincent,

Great topic. I feel tempted to bring the term 'System' into the debate and ruin it!

Seriously though, I think in any conventional RPG, when you portray something, you answer to your fellow players for your portrayal, and they don't accept your portrayal sight unseen as given. That's Credibility, no more, no less.

As for all participants being creative equals, I agree with Ben: I would see 'equality' as a qualitative question ('what are your contributions worth'), rather than a procedural question ('what means do you have of contributing'). But that, of course, is a matter of definition.

I remember pretty vibrantly the explanation you gave back in Berlin about how that freeform game worked. I guess the approach you took there was pretty extreme, trying for something very 'pure', where there was only human judgment of creative contributions and nothing else whatsoever. It sounded rather tedious indeed, at least in the late stages when you all were very involved with your creation and would not follow along easily. On the other hand, freeform-ish episodes or 'rules transcendence' as I once dubbed it can be a very fruitful thing.

In particular when a group is really 'in the zone', in my experience there are a whole lot of situations where no rules are as quick or as fitting as the shortcut you take when you interact as creative equals and just follow your hunch. My current path of game design is to encourage that kind of freeform-ish shortcutting, and lead players up to the point where they can easily do it and still find the rules as an option to fall back on in case of need. It does include a GM though.

- Frank


12. On 2011-04-26, Frank T said:

P.S.: Oh, here's a good question. What would happen if you took your freeform principle there, but replaced "you have to win us over" with the improv mantra of "don't block"? Responsibility is still emphasized, but how you live up to it is subject to your _own_ judgment rather than your fellow players', whose responsibility it is to roll along and build on your contributions as best they can. I imagine that would be an entirely different game.


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

Emily, Meg: Thanks! Please say more as you think of it. And if either of you would like to raise a new topic, I'd be happy for a guest post.

Ben: I think I see.

(a) You know I'm all about creative equality between GM and players in my game design. So that's not any kind of thing.

(b) This principle is, at the moment of collaboration we're all equals, meaning precisely that nobody has to take anybody's word for anything. It doesn't allow a GM in sight-unseen agreement terms, and it doesn't allow character ownership in sight-unseen agreement terms either!

Paul T, creative intimacy: I've been thinking hard about what I even mean by "creative intimacy." It doesn't come out sounding so good.

You know how, in Dogs in the Vineyard, sometimes there's a really irritating, drawn out conflict where nobody can quite get it together to give, and nobody can quite get it together to just win, and one player is bored and the rest are kind of frustrated, but damn it we're going to see this bastard through? And then you do, and it was a pain in the ass and you wouldn't prefer to do THAT again, but as a group you've come through something irritating together and it strengthens your creative relationships? It was like that A LOT.

6 years' play with a well-designed game would mean a lot more of the good stuff, but a lot less of the head-butting, and consequently I wouldn't know with as much intimacy just how hard Meg's head, Emily's head, and my own head can be.

Paul T, game text: I dunno. Why go through the effort?

If you wanted to play by this principle, you would.

Meg, Emily and I could write a book or an article or a series of blog and forum posts about how we did it, and that might be interesting, but it'd only be interesting, it wouldn't be a thing. (a) It wouldn't lead people in quantity to play this way, and (b) I don't care if people in quantity play this way anyway. It's fun enough, but I'd rather reach a bigger audience with something better. Apocalypse World, for instance, is both way more fun and way more accessible.


14. On 2011-04-26, Paul T. said:


That makes total sense to me! Thanks.

As for the "book", well, it's clearly not a priority if you feel you have better alternatives. And particularly if you feel the working-out-of-problems was a significant feature of this style of play. I can see how a really slick ruleset, which circumvents the need for negotiation and agreement with smooth procedures might actually reduce the extent to which the players get to know each other as people: the purpose, after all, is to focus more on the fiction and/or gameplay.

Still, I'm sure there are a lot of people who would enjoy a "Guide to Freeform Roleplaying", kind of like the "Play Unsafe" book.


15. On 2011-04-26, Ben Lehman said:

Yeah, that's the thing. To me it feels like the fundamental principle seems like it is not "we are all creative equals," but "no one gets the final say," which I'm looking at and going "well, that's ... a thing."

Paul: I once threatened to write that, and was asked not to :D



16. On 2011-04-26, Simon C said:

If I tie my leg up, and you wear a blindfold, and then we hike across the country, by the end of the trip you and I are going to know each other really well. If we're still friends, we'll be really good friends. If that's our goal, cool.

But if our goal is to actually make it to the other coast in one piece (each), best to go at it with all the resources available.


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



18. On 2011-04-26, Emily said:

This gm/no gm thing seems a bit quibbly to me. Esp. since when we actually did all this, we (or I at least) called it fully co-gm'd play.

And, re: blindfolds, yeah. I've been on at least one trust walk where we were all blindfolded that did bond us all for a long time. But that was a very short walk after all.

I think it was a bit like we were going into territory with no map. Pioneering is all romantic, but you are as likely to die from scurvy as not. Nicer to travel the same ground with good maps, plentiful supplies and easy amenities.


19. On 2011-04-26, Ben Lehman said:

I'm not trying to quibble. It just seems to me that there are a lot of ways to be creative equals—at the moment of creation no less—which involve very different distributions of authority. The way Vincent has phrased it makes it seem like your particular set of principles/rules is necessarily the outgrowth of creative equality (at the moment of creation) and I'm pretty sure it isn't necessarily the conclusion.



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

You might be right. Can you show me?


21. On 2011-04-26, Ben Lehman said:

Good question!

I'll try but it's going to take some time.



22. On 2011-04-27, Emily said:

The agreement we had was to have all the same powers with respect to the fiction, though we did carve off areas of control. This of course doesn't account for the different interests and skills we brought to the table.

I'll be curious to see what you come up with, Ben.


23. On 2011-04-28, Josh W said:

There's one way to talk about creative equals, and that's in how much you value each others contribution etc etc.

Nice, but not what your talking about (to be picky, it's not the quality you're saying is characteristic).

Instead, you seem to be playing on the basis of:

"Everyone has veto, and using it is not a bad thing, and any disruption of flow that happens because of it is something we're totally ok to loose."

Then there's the stuff about why you veto, what your aiming towards; I get the impression that all service to other players is in the context of a world you've committed to, it's not "That's not good enough, entertain me more!!", rather you commit to making it fit the world in a complex way and then other players commit to finding out how that could be interesting.

So it's very humanist, even soap opera-ey in it's focus on people and their relationships, always placed above action and poetic flow. That something fits is more important than that it is dynamic, and the drama, suspense and so on comes primarily from building those resonances and layers of meaning, not from the rush, although there can be that too where it fits.

In an alternative model, you'd play faster and looser with character, so long as the events built up in the right way, and there would be a lot of staging where people are standing and how things are moving. It would be much closer to a pointless but cool action film than a human drama.

In a further alternative, you'd take keeping things moving as being more important than each moment being right, and blur through stuff to see where you end up. You take what someone says as how things are, but commit to working with whatever has already been produced.

Or you could even commit to divying up what parts of the world you deal with, taking the other person's attitude on that matter as final, and shifting things about so everyone has enough stuff to work with. You all work towards the same goal, but you take what people give as their slant on the thing you're creating.

All of these give some form of creative equality, both in the lovey dovey way, and in the "we basically react to everyone's contributions according to the same scheme" way.


24. On 2011-04-29, David Berg said:

Vincent, thanks for starting this thread.  At this point, I think I have to rescind my earlier comment about wanting to play this game the way you did.  I'd like to play this game with you guys, dealing with the content you dealt with, valuing the social principles you valued.  But from this thread, your system for establishing what happens moment to moment sounds very impractical to me.

I can see why you're telling people, if they want this experience, to just go for it, without any sort of textual guidance.

I just think that a better experience is possible with textual guidance.  I'm positive that if I could go back in time and show my cartoons to my teenage self, my teenage freeform gaming would drastically improve (the principle that "plausible is close enough," for example, would cut down on the frustrating/difficult portion of play a good 30% on its own).


25. On 2011-04-29, David Berg said:

...or maybe you're being hard on what you did, and so I am too.  It was fun enough to do for 7 years, right?  Were there additional principles for ensuring a smooth flow to the narration?  "First person to get excited about a setting feature gets to define it," for example?


26. On 2011-04-30, Vincent said:

I don't know what to tell you. Textual guidance can take you so far. To go farther, you need real game design. You need something more compelling than instruction and tools to overcome a person's or a group's best interests.

I need to talk to you about real game design more, I guess. It'll take some doing, though, if "when we want to let our characters off the hook, we need rules to threaten them; when we want to kill our characters, we need rules to protect them" doesn't already communicate it to you.


27. On 2011-04-30, Paul T. said:

I don't want to butt in, but it seems you two might be talking past each other because of vague concerns like the term "freeform" and "game design". Can you "design" a "freeform" game?

Can either of you define where textual advice turns into game design?

Play Unsafe is a collection of advice that would unquestionably improve the gaming of a person open to the ideas in that book but not yet exposed to any of them. But it's also clearly not a game, not an activity, but a collection of advice.

From what I know of Dave's game Delve, all the "advice" does fit together into a coherent whole, a focused set of procedures or techniques very much in the "Forge mold" of game design.

Vincent, in your terms, however, it lacks defined "mediating cues". (Dave, I know there are some, but they seem to very rarely come up in play.)

I don't know if I'm helping or just getting in the way. But I'm reading along with interest, so please do keep on it, if you're both so inclined!


28. On 2011-04-30, David Berg said:

Vincent, I'm with you on the fact that real game design can do stuff that simple written guidance can't.  I just feel that the issue of how much written guidance can do is an open question.  And I'm inclined to believe that it can impact roleplaying in extremely powerful ways.

"Plausible is close enough" is something I slowly learned over years of play, and can now easily impart to any group I play with in a few minutes.  I'd like to think that a few minutes of reading that principle in text form could also work, though I don't have any proof of that being the case.

It's understandable to ask, "Dude, why bother?  Just make rules."  I think the answer is largely a matter of taste.  I don't claim that there's any objective reason why employing mediating cues is bad; it's just a different flavor of experience without them, and I know I'm not alone in hankering for that flavor at times.


29. On 2011-05-03, Josh W said:

As one of the nitpickers, sorry if I'm making a grind out of this.

I was going to hold it back until you said "If you wanted to play by this principle, you would." and the original version of that post more explicitly called you on that.

Ok in the literal sense that's true; anyone can shoot off in some random direction, but if we're talking about someone following that principle to get to a game a little like yours, then a bit more of the path would need filling in.

There's a big gap between good ideals and functional or semi-functional play, and even before you get to the details of techniques, your play seemed to have certain sacrifices being made to produce it's awesome bits. Flag that up, and people can choose if they want to make those sacrifices.

Seems to me that's pretty important but implicit; what you don't care about is almost invisible, but it might matter to anyone following. It seems to me that your play (maybe all types of play) can be tagged with what is important to play, but also what is able to be lost during play. Even better if you can say what you did find you did lose and didn't care about.

Putting my earlier post into nicer form, and more like a direct quote, perhaps your game was "We will treat each other as creative equals, even if that means stalling the flow of play to make things satisfactory to all of us"

Finding the "price" of a kind of freeform in these terms helps everyone who's enamoured with it see the advantages of their current games, possibly skipping hassle, and allows those who make mechanics to design to complement the flaws that kind of free play has.

I can see you're really not that interested in helping people pick up a kind of play you feel you've moved beyond, and probably not keen on tearing into a pretty fun part of your memory to produce it's flaws.

But in between that, having a sort of "beautiful within it's limits" approach, you can give that game's magic it's place cognitively/structurally as well as historically, "that was that" rather than just "then was then".


30. On 2011-05-03, Vincent said:

Josh: Good comment! Thank you.

My middle ground so far has been writing forum and blog posts about it. Moreso when it was fresh in my mind, naturally.

Let's see if I can talk about this. There are a bunch of subtle things I pay attention to as I talk about things online, as a publisher. I need to be able to tell how people are receiving what I'm writing, because I need to be able to tell how they're receiving my games, right? I need to be able to judge how much market there is for a game I'm thinking about, and what I'll need to say in order to communicate a tricky idea, and when I've reached my audience and when I haven't yet. I need to judge who disagrees with me, and why, vs who doesn't understand me, and why.

Talking about freeform doesn't pay off well, in those terms. It's very practically unrewarding. Look upthread and you can see it plainly: Emily's and Meg's principles are clear, insightful, a little provocative ... and they dropped like pebbles into a well. That's how it always is.


31. On 2011-05-11, Vincent said:

I've split our conversation about the unwelcome up to the front page: The Un-frickin-welcome.

If anybody wants to keep talking about the principles of our game, or the book you hope we'll create but we won't, please carry on here!


32. On 2011-05-11, Emily said:

Chapter 1: Creating a World from Scratch
Chapter 2: Playing Freeform with your Friends without Scratching your Own (or somebody elses) Eyes Out
Chapter 3: Getting Beyond Boring
Chapter 4: Conquering Conflicts


33. On 2011-05-12, Josh W said:

Linking to those points where the two threads overlap:




It occurs to me that writing principles by themselves as some set of kantian maxims or ten commandments may be easy to misunderstand. A bit of storytelling with example situations or even structured problems for the players to play out might be needed to communicate them clearly.

But that's not the only way to introduce them to people; I think it quite likely that many people only properly learn the principles of apocolypse world or burning wheel because of how they rub against systems designed to work with them. Perhaps you can make a game that embodies all of those principles with a mechanical support structure that easily swaps out.

In other words you make a game with a mechanical structure that is intended to only be fixed for four sessions or so, and then helps people channel their experiences within those four sessions to change the rules.

(Although that is a surreal way round; make an rpg to teach principles to help people to make their own rpg!)

Also considering gauging reactions, if the marginalia function was still working on this blog I probably would have given some little thumbs up or something to some of the ones I didn't comment on, but that's not the thing to be looking for, because really responding to principles like that is something that you do over a space of 2 months, writing an actual play report and saying "we decided to go with Emily's principle on this [] thread, and it worked like this....".

It's a slow burn thing.

I've still got the "start with "what are people doing" then story comes after" thing ticking round my head, I suspect that has some relationship to good storytelling practice and building a sense of place/life.

Did you have any principles/tips about doing prep research?

In games like that I tend to get to points where I don't really know what it's like to live there, empathy/imagination blocks. I spot that gap as we're drawing things up, so between games I sort of vainly hunt out historical novels or something, but mainly I just blunder through it in play till something clicks!


34. On 2011-05-12, David Berg said:

I really want to express that the principles from this game are interesting to me, but the only way I can think to interact with them is to (a) delve into what y'all were hoping to get from play, (b) analyze how these principles succeeded or failed in that context, and (c) ponder improvements and instruction for future games and play.  Which sounds like an epic undertaking, and I suspect y'all may be even less into it than I am.  If I'm wrong, though, just say so!  I'll contribute what I can.


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