The Beginnings of Structured Freeform (Draft)

2006 Mar 8

These conversations are finally starting, which is terrific, but I wanted to write a substantial post to try to bring a bunch of disparate elements together. Over at Story Games, a portion of the slowly emerging post-Forge indie community seems to be getting serious about trying to do design work specifically aimed at two communities that have traditional been under-supported. One of these are players who see immersion in character as one of the chief goals of play, but that’s not the group I want to focus on here.

I want to talk about another group which has a fair bit of overlap with players who love immersion and so is often conflated with them. I see them as pretty distinct, however. The following description of them is a generalization which won’t perfectly fit everyone in this group, but I hope it is not an unfair or inaccurate one.

The group of players that I’m personally most interested in designing for wants to see more “low-impact mechanics,” game rules that don’t require players to deal with many meta/OOC issues once play has begun: including managing game resources, thinking strategically about how best to use the rules, negotiating or competing with the other players to determine “what happens,” setting stakes, narrating outcomes not directly related to their character, comparing numbers or fiddling with math to determine results, and the like.

These players want the feeling of being in an interesting story. In fact, among them, there tends to be quite a fetishization of “character” and “story” as high ideals. Many are excited to play every week mostly “to find out what happens next,” either to their character or in the overall story as a whole. They are prone to My Guy, not wanting to break their own standards of consistent character behavior even to create more interesting situations. They live for Color. They can often be satisfied with simply being participants in the GM’s story as long as they are entertained and are frequently given the opportunity to shine. They thrive in online freeform games, whether play-by-post, PBeM, or chat.

As far as tabletop goes, they have traditionally contented themselves playing games like Amber, Ars Magicka, Changeling, and, in more recent years, Nobilis, Buffy, and Exalted, though you can find them playing anything. In America, quite a few of them have been involved in Mind’s Eye Theater at one point or another and, in my experience (though Jere has already disagreed) a large number of them seem to be female, though there are quite a few male adherants too.

They are not necessarily into immersion, but can be. Many simply don’t like the idea of breaking the fantasy/daydream to deal with mechanical issues, because this distracts from their experience and enjoyment of the story. They roleplay to listen to and be a part of a story. The fact that they’re playing a game is secondary at best. This is often why they end up ignoring most of the rules and largely playing freeform, because the story is more important than the game.

This is the group that White Wolf often tries to play to, with their fetishization of story and storytelling, and their Golden Rule to ignore the rules. Often, game companies play to this audience as a way of targetting female players and mistake their dislike of fiddling with mechanics as a kind of “Barbie says: ‘Math is hard,'” and try to streamline or dumb down the rules of existing games, as with Blue Rose. This doesn’t really do much to help these players, however.

This group understands that most mechanics can be replaced by a solid social contract, playing with the right people, and building a strong shared history of play with the others in the group. They are less interested in mastering the rules of the game and more insterested in forming a community of practice, most likely with their own idiosyncratic standards and ways of operating.

Many indie designers, even ones that I respect immensely, are frustrated by players with these sorts of desires, because they seem to reject most traditional design work, not appreciating the neat little rules that designers develop to make play more interesting. And they do this from what can seem to be an “allergy to mechanics.” Often, to this type of player SYSTEM DOESN’T MATTER and this is antithetical to the soul of the indie design movement. Designers throw their hands up in the air and storm off in a huff. How do you design rules for people who tend to just ignore most of the rules?

I have spent the past year or two trying to answer this question and have had some help along the way from several individuals who’ve provided exciting insights.

Thomas/Langellier & Peterson: Constraint

Mo: Pull

Me: insights from my 2-player games

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