Freeform Roleplaying

I was nattering over New Year with some University chums, and the subject of roleplaying games came up.  Back in the day, we used to run these gigantic freeform entertainments.

“When was this?” Martin Ellis asked.  “Were you the first?”

I can’t believe we were actually the first, but we must have been in that mix.

“It’s all written up in inter*action or whatever that games journal Andrew Rilstone edited,” I replied.

“Freeform games are a sub-category of live-action role-playing.  They appear to have been invented independently in several gaming groups in Britain, America and Australia in the middle of the 1980s.”

Inter*action, Issue 1 (1994)

But it wasn’t a sub-category of live-action role-playing.

At Birmingham University, it all started with people playing Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest, but there was a gradual split between those collecting the various supplements to study at all hours and those of us who began to create our own systems.  I was particularly proud of one that used every dice I had: it was superb at simulating machine guns, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, more than makes up for it being unsatisfyingly cumbersome and overly complex at everything else.  Our freeform, you see, came from tabletop gaming.

I remember James Steel’s furiously consulting notes and rolling dice behind his GM screen as the adventure continued.  I was there to observe (mostly likely waiting for them to finish so we could all go to the bar), so I walked around to see what he was doing: his notes were blank, he was ignoring the dice rolls; the players had ‘gone off the map’.

He was just making it up.

This clearly was the way to go and I soon dumped all the rules in the games I ran.  (Or rather, I had rules that were ignored, players seemed to need the reassurance of the props, much as James had been doing with his notes and dice.  They wanted to be playing a game, not just making it up as we all went along.)

The ‘systemless’ system eventually boiled down to the following:-

Character Creation: pick a major and minor skill, anything.

Game Mechanics: ignore the skills and use ad-hoc mechanisms for any adjudication.

Campaign Background: what you’re in, e.g. a spaceship in orbit around… etc.

I do remember one player, at a particularly sticky moment in the game, suddenly shout: “Wait!  I have ‘spider sense’ as a minor skill.  What does it tell me?”

“Hmm…” I replied.  “Your spider sense tells you that you are in great danger.”

“Oh… great.”

I think that was the only time that game mechanics reared its ugly head.

These games became popular, expanded and collided with Mike Ibeji’s games, and the two of us ended up co-running these massive games for 30+ people.  We sort of stepped away from the table and started running about.  We took this to a gaming convention a few times.  Andrew Rilstone described it quite well in the quote I’d been looking for, which wasn’t in Inter*action (or Interactive Fantasy as it became) at all, but in his fanzine.

“The other excitement arose when I bumped into a group of people from Birmingham University.  Imagine my delight at finding myself in the middle of a group of people who have been independently experimenting with very much the same types of games we were describing in the ‘Real Life Roleplaying’ supplement, last issue.  Indeed for me the highlight of the whole convention was playing this group’s live action Star Wars game.  I don’t know what the opposite of Limited Environment Gaming is, but this was it.  The game started in the Millennium Falcon, hastily constructed out of chairs in a corridor, and shifted to the college grounds when we landed on Endor.  At this point, we appeared to be acquiring an audience… most of whom were hastily written into the game as ‘extras’.  The game was full of clever ideas, like the players playing (alternately) both the rebels and the stormtroopers; and combat being resolved on the basis of the players reflexes (if you have ever tried to pilot a TIE fighter through an asteroid field, simply by saying ‘up’, ‘Down’, ‘Left’, ‘Right’ or ’Forward’ as the referee describes where in your field of vision the various large hunks of rocks are, you’ll know it isn’t as easy as it looks.)  Resolving combat against Darth Vader with rubber lightsabres is also fun.  Very, very silly, and an awful lot of fun: I certainly hope to see this group running a more serious game at some time in the future.”

Aslan, Issue 10

I do miss it.  I’ve not role-played in an age and I’m put off joining groups for the same reason as was before: I can’t be bothered learning a lot of irrelevant rules.  I do occasionally go to Box of Frogs, an Improv acting group that meets on a Tuesday, opposite the pub were the writing group meets at the same time.  An Improvisation instruction (possibly from the audience) like, say, ‘you’re a businessman with a secret’ could easily be interpreted as a rolling-up a character.

Strangely, in the first issue of Inter*action there’s an article: Improvisation in the Theatre by the one and only, Michael Cule.  He and I have acted on stage and talked about gaming.

But maybe I’m still doing it.  After all, what’s writing, if it isn’t rolling up a bunch of characters and playing all them in your head.

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One thought on “Freeform Roleplaying

  1. Never played games like that – too busy with grad school etc. in the 70s, but we did play board games (Squad Leader) with dice on someone’s dining room table (game was never taken down), and it was fun.

    Yours sounds like a lot MORE fun.

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