Tales from the Rocket House #29: Seven Paths to Systemless Freeform Roleplay, Player's Guide
After a vibrant and informative discussion has led me to realize that “systemless” isn’t the best word, since the whole topic of the last two columns, effectively, an informal social system. I used the term “systemless” because I knew it would immediately convey my meaning quickly and effectively. But Sergio and M.J. Young clued me into a much better term, one that is both clear and more correct: “freeform.” So I’m going with that.
Second, I’m going to take a less authoritative tone in this column than in the last. I don’t know “what works” in all circumstances and for all people. Also, I know that what I’m talking about is only one kind of freeform roleplay. I know of others (such as rec.games.frp.advocacy luminary Mary Kuhner) who have actually run freeform campaigns, though I don’t know how they did it. I only know “what has worked” for me many, many times. That said, I know what works for me pretty well, so let’s begin.
The “Seven Paths” are just my way to detail the attitudes and trust that allowed us to have such a good time with freeform gaming. In order to have a good experience, the GM has to do her part, and you, as a player, have to do yours as well. The key ingredients are being cooperative, trusting, and trustworthy.
The player’s job in a game like this basically comes down to two things: creating appropriate characters and maintaining an appropriate attitude. I say appropriate because this isn’t a “good or bad” issue, it’s an issue of fitting your PC’s and overall approach to the type of game that’s being played. If the GM is constantly having to wrangle inappropriate character concepts (even though those concepts might be utterly fine for traditional, mechanically-decided games), the session is likely to fall flat, and be frustrating for all involved. However, the right kind of characters can make the experience a great one. Likewise, the players need to understand the kind of game that is being created and mentally be on board for that. To that end, I’ve written the Player’s Seven Paths…
Path One: Fine but Few Roll With It
Players don’t have to worry so much about the size of the gaming group or number of PC’s, so “Fine but Few” is mostly a GM’s concern. However, there is something players bring to the game that is absolutely vital: their attitudes.
To play successfully in a game like this, you have to overcome two of my own personal traits, the two that drive me to GM much more than I play: skepticism and the need to be in control. I’m constantly having to bite my tongue as a player and say “it doesn’t work that way!” As players, I’m urging you to do the same. These types of games are modeled after action/adventure movies more than anything else, so factual, medical, and ballistics errors are to be expected. Just go with it.
Besides, if the GM is keeping the pacing up, you’ll barely have time to worry about his gaffes.
Additionally, sometimes the GM will do something that at first glance looks like a real negative toward your character. Roll with it, but if it starts bothering you and isn’t resolved fairly quickly, feel free to call a time out and ask the GM what’s up.
An example: in “Five Swords Against the Darkness,” the PCs were empowered with the classical four elements to do battle against a Vampire Lord who was seeking to renew his thousand year pact with hell (giving him another 1,000 years of immortality, and most likely turning the city into a living nightmare). The “Water” character practiced a particularly fluid form of Kung Fu, and had become more and more able to “flow” with opponents’ attacks as time went on. In the climactic battle, she was duelling the Vampire Lord while her friends tried to rescue the child he wanted to sacrifice. I declared, at the high point of their battle, that the Vampire Lord slipped past her defenses and sliced his sword into her side.
The player gave me this look and said something like, “What the hell?” I held up one hand, mouthed “trust me,” and then finished my sentence: “The blade passes through your body as harmlessly as a sword thrust into a river.” It was the right time, and the right point, for the PC’s to triumph, and what at first looked like the GM being a jerk, turned out to be the PC’s triumphant moment.
Because the player trusted me, the moment wasn’t ruined, but instead was quite cool.
Path Two: The Heart of the Story
The GM has to make sure your characters are the heart, or focus, of what’s going on. Cut him some slack, and make characters that are easy to bring into the game. Communicate with the GM and see what will help. This game could be about relatively normal people who are magically gifted with the power to fight a great evil. In that case, don’t make a character who’s first response is to skip town and hide at his mother’s house in Pensacola.
Further, these types of stories work best when the PC’s are heroes, at least in the movie-esque sense. This doesn’t mean you have to be Lawful Stupid, in fact, you should do everything you can to avoid it, and having different “flavors” of heroism in the same group can make things more interesting (part of what makes the Justice League interesting is seeing Batman and Superman work together, arguments and all). No one is suggesting that you play a “Boy Scout” caricature, but your character should be the kind that steps up and does what is necessary.
Path Three: Every One a Special Snowflake
Because there are no mechanical descriptions of the characters, it’s important to make a character who stands out from the other PC’s in some other way, such as theme, powers, and personality. Generally, the more colorful the character, the better. For an example of how to do this well, watch the recent Teen Titans animated series.
For example, in “Five Swords Against the Darkness,” each of the PCs was related to and empowered by one of the classical four Greek or Buddhist elements (since they share fire, earth, air, and water, and both have a fifth element that is metaphysical in nature, you can pretty much use them interchangably for something like this). That helped to differentiate them, but the players went further. The scenario had pre-made roles for the characters: “Earth,” for example, was Jack Duggan, a mountain of a man who worked as a bouncer. The player added a unique sense of humor and the dream of running his own restaurant, with his own heavy, home-cooked recipes. “Water’s” player added a reverence and regard for Buddhist ceremony that likewise added more dimension and uniqueness to the character. “Air’s” player had a practical, almost ruthless side that balanced the other two well (because we had only 3 players, “Fire” was an NPC, and thus less important than the PCs).
In another game, the players essentially played fictionalized versions of themselves (new names, but based on the same general concepts), recently turned into vampires, trying to help some good vampires who were searching for the way to return to mortality to defeat a powerful evil vampire and her minions. To differentiate themselves, aside from the personality differences, they each emphasized different areas of vampire powers. Matthew was fast and had some basic partial shapechanging (claws, for example), Peter was amazingly tough (almost indestructable), and Alex was both strong and agile. If you’re called on to create knights (or ninja, or whatever), and you don’t have any powerful-in-game physical differences, you’ll need to make the pesonality differences even starker. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird did an excellent job of this in their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. I’m sure we’ve all read the comics or seen the movies and/or cartoons, so to make a long story short, having Leonardo be a levelheaded leader, but perhaps too willing to take on too much responsibility, having Raphael be (relatively) ruthless, aggressive and uncompromising, Donatello being a laid-back mechanic, tinkerer, and inventor, and Michaelangelo be the goofy, fun-loving kid worked great. Despite having the same abilities (and looking identical), it was obvious which one was which, in every interpretation.
Path Four: The Path of Partial Success
Without dice, it isn’t a good idea to try anything that “would require a really good die roll.” Trying to make an extremely difficulty “instant kill” shot on the game’s antagonist is just begging for the GM to have it miss, especially if it happens to early or would be anticlimactic.
Typically, it’s much better to have characters set up so their main actions are amenable to partial successes. A boxer or “normal” martial artist is better than a “dim mak death touch master,” whose attacks generally either take opponents out instantly or do nothing. Likewise, a gunslinger is better than a sniper, especially in a game with vampires or other characters who could be dropped with a high-powered rifle shot to the brain pan (not to be too gross, but that’s practically decapitation), but are merely slowed by “average” gunfire. A mage whose spells can hurt or inconvenience an opponent (elemental attacks, nets, stunning attacks) is better than one with all-or-nothing spells (power word: death, transform opponent into a newt).
If you do have an “all or nothing” attack, it may be best to have it be the kind that can be set up by partial successes. One character, a vampire, had high-tech propane-powered flaming morning-stars. It was very hard to adjucate, and the way he used them made it almost certain that he’d whiff a lot. If, instead, he’d started with the weapons turned off, goaded his enemy into a grapple, and then ignited the flame, the enemy wouldn’t have been able to evade or react, and would have been burned through and utterly defeated. But igniting them from the start led to the enemy doing everything in his power to avoid the fire balls (and cut the cable attaching them to the propane source).
Path Five: It’s Just a Flesh Wound The Last Action Hero
These games are going to be very much like action movies. So if you want to be involved in them, you’ll need to make a character who is appropriate for the genre. The character may not necessarily be powerful to begin with, but something will have to happen, and fairly quickly, to make that character powerful enough to fit the genre.
This could be the return of repressed memories (an anime staple, being used in Blood +, Elfen Lied, and Solty Rei that I can name off the top of my head), being turned into a vampire, being empowered through some magic or McGuffin (Ben Ten, anyone?), or what have you. This means you’ll have to be a little more flexible about your character (and how that character changes) than usual. In an ordinary game, it would be very bad form to have a PC’s character concept significantly change (without previously consulting the player) is generally inexcusable, and can be a game-breaker. However, these types of transformations are to be expected in action movie freeform one-shots.
Just make sure that your character’s personality is such that she will dive into whatever adventure comes her way. And make sure that your mindset is such that you’re ready to play an ensemble-cast action hero. You can brood like Raven from the Teen Titans or Raphael from the Ninja Turtles, but brooding like a Soprano or a Kafka character isn’t going to work very well, for example.
Path Six: Alacrity! Celerity! Rapidity!
Pacing is as much the players’ responsibility as the GM’s. Though the GM can try to push the pace, the players have the power to slow things to a crawl. Please don’t. While spending all session haggling with merchants in the marketplace may be a legitimate way to do things in a campaign (assuming all the players are okay with it), it’s not going to work in this type of freeform game. Try not to over-analyze situations, try to “roll with it,” as best as you can, and try to keep things moving.
If you’re unclear about something, ask the GM for clarification, but do it as quickly as possible, and get things moving again ASAP. And try not to argue about anything. Roll with it.
Path Seven: “The Rule of Cool,” and Then Some
This is where the PC’s really shine. You can take the wheel here and narrate the most exciting stunts, tricks, and actions you possibly can. The dice won’t provide you with any “awesome” or “unlikely”moments, since there aren’t any, so you’ll have to do this yourself. Try to support other players’ ideas, too. If you can work together to coordinate a “big group” stunt, that’s even better.