Saturday, September 03, 2005

Swedish Freeform and the Forge

It struck me

One thing that has struck me many times is the similarities between the Swedish/Danish brand of freeform (admittedly the Danes seem to have developed things further than we up here, but we will do as the Japanese in the industrial revolution, trust me) and the narrative games from Forge-associated creators.

Even more frequently the differences have been on my mind. The differences are very obvious, but that makes the similarities even more interesting. Hang on I will get back to this in a couple of paragraphs.

There is this wiki

A couple of months ago Martin Svahn from FriSpel started a wiki about friform, the Swedish/Danish style of freeform roleplaying. Very recently debates have started to abound there, although still by a quite small number of people. A little while ago Olle Jonsson started a review section and started by asking for reviews of Jason Morningstars game The Shab al-Hiri-Roach. The game is obviously written in the Forge-tradition and was created for the Iron Game Chef competition of this year. An evidence of it's worth in those circles is what the big man himself, Ron Edwards has to say about it.

When Olle started the review page (in Swedish) he presented the game as a scenario and wrote that in Game Chef all scenarios have to fullfill certain criterias. What kind of comments this would sparkel wasn't very hard to figure out. Role playing discussion is a very reliable black box. "This game is not a scenario and thusly not friform" is a given tagline for the opposition.

Friform and everything about it

Firstly, what is this friform? As always there exists no good definition. Often the word (as freeform) is used about games where simply no dice or traditional game mechanics are used (I guess traditonal is a keyword here). Most people who actually dabble with these things beg to differ. This has of course been discussed at the mentioned forum (here, actually). The people at the forum represents quite different practices, but the wording that seems to please most people simply states that friform games are role playing games where the rules are constructed to fit the scenario at hand. An additon to this tells that dice could very well be used, if this for some reason is of great of importance to the story at hand.

Right, that is a loose definition, has there ever been one. But it's to my liking. To make you (I always picture myself writing to American gamers, although most of my readers probably are Swedes with more or less my own views) understand the practice of friform I will tell you a few more things.

We talk about scenarios rather than games. A scenario consists of a number of (always pre-created) characters and often a number of more or less pre-determined events or scenes. In many cases these scenes are quite well scripted. Some brands make use of a very physical style of play, where you really play with your whole body and never sit at a table, unless your characters do so. Your tool in this case is an empty room. Other brands have a more traditional table-top setup with a table between players, ontop of which handouts can be read during the game.

In most cases you are supposed to play one scenario only once. Vi Åker Jeep claim that their scenarios are good for playing several times. I believe them. It depends all on where in the game the interest is supposed to be.

Finally: Forge and freeform

I promised similarities. Well. The whole tagline for the Forge has been "Rules does matter", which should be interpreted as that rules should be made to fit the story and theme at hand. If you want to talk about war and forfeit; make rules about this. If your interest is domesticating animals; do rules describing this. All this is said much better by Ben Lehman in his most recent post. (Reading this is really a very good way to understand the Forge way of games.)

This way of thinking has resulted in very specialized games, (not all games emanating from the Forge are like this, but a great deal of them) where big parts of the game flow is predetermined. The characters are player-created, (in oppositon to friform) but the sort of questions asked to players and many of the the situations they are put in during play are detirmined by the game text (in opposition to most traditional table top games).

The play of The Shab al-Hiri-Roach is made up by a number of predetermined scenes, like Chancellor’s wine and cheese social and Homecoming football game, which is really more than enough to make it work as a scenario in friform. Around this you have mechanics to help to describe the characters struggle with evil roaches and the quest of gettin renown in science.

Just a little more

My usual view of all this (which I haven't really been addressing above, if someone ask I might do just that) is that friform and this type of narrativistic game have identfied many of the same problems in table top role playing, but have solved these issues very differently. In practical play friform and typical narrativistic play are usually further from each other than either is from ordinary table top. At least according to my experience and understanding.

It should be mentioned that the recent and on this blog already mentioned article shortly mentions these similarities (even if it doesn't say, I imagine the article to be written mostly by Tobias Wrigstad and Olle Jonsson).

BTW the game itself really intrigues me, although I have to admit I am seldom able to enjoy this typ of game mechanics. But it can happen. I would love to play the game, especially the theme with getting renown in the academic world has been very dear to me since I had some (admittedly small) experience of that last year. Friends, it's ugly.


Anonymous Jason Morningstar said...

Thanks for posting this, and thanks for your particular comments on the Shab-al-Hiri Roach. I'm intensely interested in the convergence/divergence of friform/Vi Åker Jeep and "Forge-style" play.

Would you find the Roach more palatable (pardon the pun) if there were no mechanical resolution? Take away the dice, and it seems like the cards would fit into a freeform scenario without difficulty. I can't see any reason you couldn't play this way, although it had not occured to me until reading your post.

2:31 pm  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

Nice to see posts here by a non-Swede. Unusual occasions these.

About your question, I just don't know. I would have to play it first. When I think of these stuff I can think that the dice don't need to be a problem. But when I play I mostly feel they are.

I think it has to do with how you automatically start to play when dice are on the table, people (I) tend to get thrown back to how they played dungeon bash as kids.

So my mission now is to play the game over here and see what I really think.

Have you yourself played Jeepform or similar games?

3:43 pm  
Anonymous Jason Morningstar said...

No, I've not played Jeepform but I've prowled the English language Vi Åker Jeep materials for some time, as well as talked it over with Olle.

If you get a chance to play, in any form, I'd love to hear about your experience and reflections. I definitely intend to publish the Shab-al-Hiri Roach and I'm considering adding a section supporting freeform play.

By the way, I also linked to your post from the Forge "RPG Theory" section, where I hope it will generate some interest and conversation.


5:09 pm  
Blogger munkholt said...

Coming from a tradition of Danish freeform: Reading Dogs kicked my balls, and I've jumped the Forge-wagon. But it seems to be a hard sell around here:

The Danish freeform tradition rewards the Author for his written presentation, including characters, handouts, secondary characters, locations, story flow, development of mood and themes, how - and to what extent - to use rules etc. The Game Master communicates the scenario. The Players immerses themselves in their characters and meta-discussion is discouraged. People will come up and tell you how that they sat silently for 7 hours, just being their character - and they liked it! Because of the depth of the write-up of the character and how everything was orchestrated to fit together.

Of course dice are going to get in the way of that, not to mention stepping out of the shared reality as with Director Stance. So, when I tell them that Forge-inspired scenarios are coming, people are still rolling their eyes, but I'm certain about it.

I believe several Game Chef entries could be run as Nordic convention scenarios (whether qualifying as freeform or not I'll leave to others), The Roach being one example. 1984 Prime or City of Brass as well. Actually, In a Grove is an almost exact duplicate of Danish classic, Jisei (it had extensive characters and was told freeform, but it was the same story: Rashamon).

But the we've already seen examples of scenarios strongly driven by a mechanic (whether to drive the story or the characters). And next year will have more (including mine ;D)

8:33 pm  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

The kidn of friform you are describing here is of course common in Sweden to, actually a very large part of the scenarios I have seen are similar to this. First of all I think that these kind of scenarios can be very fun to play, if they are really well made.

But it's definitely not the kind I prefer myself, as would be obvious by reading my blog. The documents by Vi åker Jeep are radically different and some of the scenarios by ASF and FriSpel too (while many scenarios from ASF, FriSpel and maybe also the Jeepers (they have said so any way) fit your description well). In ASF it seems like the scenarios by Gustav Edman differ from this model (at least his Töreboda and Under sommaren.

I'm trying to organize a play of Roach now. I want to try to understand this type of games, so I can talk better about it. I think there are things to learn, I even think I kno0w what.

11:44 pm  
Anonymous Jason Morningstar said...


I'd love to get your comments from a test run of the Roach, but be advised that for exploratory purposes, other, more polished games may be a better choice. I'm afraid that the Roach may still have some problems that my own testing has yet to reveal, so the experience may be uneven at present.

Polaris, from Tao Games, might be one to look at - it relies heavily on narrative ritual and has no game-master.

5:36 pm  
Blogger Sven Holmström said...

I was very close to buy Polaris, I was just about to send away my order, but hesitated for some reason.

But Iäm sure I will buy it sometime.

7:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, I should tell you that I'm the one who sort of protested the definition of roach as freeform. The reason for this was not that I claim to have some kind of authority on what can be defined as what in the roleplaying community, but to point out what i expreienced as either an inconsistency in the usage of the term on the wiki itself, or a confusing and possibly even pointless basis for reviewing tha game.

I cannot reach it now, but from what i remembered the short section on dice usage was something like "dice can be used to determine the outcome when the nature of randomness is a heavy theme in the story", which sort of implies that it is not a good thing to use dice in a strictly "metagame" context to determine what happens in a conflict when there are more than one (equally) desirable outcomes. And since that is usually the case in conflict resolution mechanics in games that are based on forge-theory, I didn't feel it was fair to review it from a point of view with a different set of goals than the actual design of the game itself. Just like it would be totally unfair to let a guy who likes first person shooters review a sports game in a computer game magazine. "I don't understand the point of trying to kick that ball into the net instead of just killing the other team, it's unnecessary and doesn't do what I want a game to do."

The reason I chose to actually post my gripes with the whole thing was that Martin (Svahn) reviewed the game (scenario, whatever) and criticised (among other things) the use of dice, this did lead to an interesting discussion where I think the both of us gained some understanding of the problem. Initially, however, I got (and in some aspects, still have) the feeling that lots of people in the "freeform scene" (which I am also a part of myself) have a hard time dealing with the use of dice and numbers in any game because it reminds them of a way of playing the did before they started freeforming and don't want to explore again. The important point I want to make I think, is that you just have to be able to see beyond old baggage and see the dice and numbers as a tool of story creation and not just a neutral referee for people who can't get along.


1:18 pm  

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