Pocket Guide to American Freeform Launches

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Today my e-book monograph Pocket Guide to American Freeform launches! First created for the American freeform Bundle of Holding, this guide takes you through the history of the format, as well as offering instructions for how to play, write, and run games in the style quickly and safely.

The book contains an adaptation of several posts on workshops and debriefs from this blog, plus new material on the history of American freeform, safety in roleplaying games, and a guide for players and designers.

If you want to do me a mitzvah, leave a little review somewhere?

It’s available for $9.50 from online retailers such as Scribd and Smashwords, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.

 

Advance praise for Pocket Guide to American Freeform:

“If you are new to freeform roleplaying, the Pocket Guide to American Freeform is really useful. If you are a grizzled veteran who knows everything, it is a necessity.”-Jason Morningstar, creator of Fiasco, Bully Pulpit Games

“Lizzie Stark is a uniquely important figure in the LARP community, bringing Nordic design know-how to the American gaming experience. In this book, she shares her key findings from the experimental side of the American larp scene as well as the critical components to designing these kinds of games. If you’re a roleplayer looking to make the leap into less linear, more potent, and more original work, the Pocket Guide to American Freeform is the first book you should read.”–Nick Fortugno, Playmatics

“I’m a newcomer to larp and larp design,but I’m already finding Lizzie Stark’s Pocket Guide an essential go-to. Whenever I have a question, it seems like she’s already answered it for me.”
Vincent Baker, Lumpley Games.

A Primer on Safety in Roleplaying Games

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Credit: Raniel Diaz

Dreamation rocked, you guys. Seriously. It was an awesome con filled with rules-light Nordic and American freeform games and larps, and many new people playing and facilitating. Over the past few days since, my feed has been filled with <3 <3 <3 for the con and the co-players. It’s also overflowing with emotion, and with concerns about psychological safety in roleplaying games.

We are not the first scene to think about this, of course–I have been following the Nordic scene, where this style of game spawned, for years and have had a chance to observe many of their safety practices, with their attendant successes and failures. Recently, safety has been a bit of a hot topic over there, so there’s been a lot of discussion. I’ve written a little safety guide for players, designers, and facilitators as part of my Pocket Guide to American Freeform (soon to be available for download at an online retailer near you), but I wanted to go over a few things here, in hopes you might find them helpful. I don’t have all the answers or methods, but perhaps this can help serve as a starting point for other folks who are thinking about it.

Also, I’m talking here about emotional safety, not physical safety, since the latter is more clear-cut and the boffer campaigns over here have it pretty much handled. I’m more familiar with freeform games and larps than I am with tabletop, so while some of this stuff would probably work for tabletop, it’s not tailored to that.

First thing’s first, though: Eirik Fatland’s post on safety is really great. You should click on that link immediately and read it.

The Problem with Safety

There are a few obvious problems.

  • It’s hard to know what will be hard in a game. If we’re just sitting down at a convention together, I probably don’t know what pushes your buttons  and you might not feel comfortable sharing that. In addition, while I know some stuff about the scenario, I can’t possibly know what might come up in play and how you would react to it. More importantly: I don’t think I can reasonably be expected to guess.
  • It’s hard to recognize when you are in a bad situation sometimes. If spiders terrify me and they come up in game, my emotions might take over, making it difficult to shift between the mental space player and character. I may also feel social pressure to be hardcore and not ruin your play. This is why cut words, discussed below, are problematic.
  • We carry our experiences with us after game. In some ways, the game is never over. Sure, the scenario ends, but feelings and thoughts and impressions can linger for days or even longer. Sometimes you learn stuff about yourself in a game. Sometimes that stuff is stuff you’d rather not know.
  • Safety defeats itself. Safety measures can create situations where people take more risks, and are thus more at risk of damage. Don’t take it from me, take it from some experts on economics.

In other words: roleplay is not completely safe and there is no way to make it so. It is a risky activity. Furthermore, for some people the risk is part of the pleasure of it–it can be rewarding to play games that go deep and challenge you. It’s possible to manage the risks, yes, but not to completely eliminate them. It’s up to each participant to decide how much risk to accept.

That said, lots of people play roleplaying games all the time, and the vast majority of them find the experiences fun, and at times moving. Just like the risk of a bike crash is worth the pleasure of riding, so too do most roleplayers find that the pleasure of roleplaying worth the risks.

With that in mind, I offer up some of the classic safety techniques. A lot of them overlap, or are ways of getting at some of the same things. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list or even an exhaustive description–it’s aimed at providing a working knowledge in relatively little space.

Transparency

As with many of life’s social interactions, informed consent is the cornerstone of a good experience. The issue in roleplaying games is that it’s impossible to be completely transparent because the games all rely on improv on some level, and it’s hard to consent to an experience where you can’t control what will happen, necessarily.

There is no absolute fix for this. However, if you know something is going to come up in your game–if this is a game about ethnic violence–say that up front. That helps me, as a player, decide whether I want to play on those themes. Tell me what you know about the scenario and give me the opportunity to leave before the game starts.

The Door is Open

I stole this heading from Fatland’s post. But basically, this means that anyone can leave the game at any time for any reason. It means more than just telling players this–it means that everyone contribute to an environment in which people feel OK about leaving. It means not socially pressuring others to play or stay in a game they don’t want to stay in, even if that means the game won’t run. It means not bad-mouthing those who leave. It means trying to diffuse the attitude that the best hardcore players stick around for that waterboarding scene.

One way to do this is as a facilitator is that in addition to telling people they are welcome to go, you should also tell them that a game is never more important than their personal well-being and that it’s not a big deal to stop play, because it’s relatively easy to regain immersion.

Community

Out of game community helps with safety on several levels. For starters, if you are playing a jerky character and say something mean to me, I might think you’re mean, unless I know from talking to you before and after the game that you are not. Building community helps people deal with stuff that came up in game.

Community also sets the tone when it comes to safety. If I know that someone will care for me if I have a really intense game experience, then that makes it easier for me to share things in the way that I need to. It also means that instead of having one or two people looking out, you have five or ten. And that’s good.

It’s possible to facilitate community formally–with workshops and debriefs, for example–or informally, but encouraging mingling among players by starting “late,” for example. Or on a player level, by making effort to meet co-players.

Know Yourself

Basically, if a game is going to press on a hot-button topic for me, it is a good idea for me to think about whether I am up for that or not. Facilitators and designers can help me do this by budgeting a moment of time for this during the workshop, or maybe, in the case of really intense games, by talking it over with me in advance of the game. This dovetails with transparency–let me decide for myself if I’m up for a scenario that includes romance.

Safety Signals

Cut and Brake

“Cut” and “brake” are the most basic rules for a larp. Essentially, just as consent should be freely given, there should be a mechanism for people to freely withdraw it if necessary.

The idea is that if your boundaries have been or are about to be crossed, you call for a cut and game play around you, or in some cases, for the whole larp, stops. You make the person who cut comfortable and take them away from the play area. You don’t force them to talk about why they called a cut unless they want to. “Brake” is its gentler cousin. If you don’t want play to escalate, you call “brake” and your scene partners back off and give you a chance to play yourself out of the scene.

The problem with “cut” and “brake” is that in practice, it’s really hard to use them, in part due to social pressure and in part because when you are in the throes of something that might make you call for a cut, it’s hard to do so through emotion. That is why everyone has the responsibility to call a cut if they think someone else is in serious trouble. Also, simply having them there as tools communicates to players that they should feel aware of their boundaries, and that’s good.

There has been some suggestion that having strong players and facilitators call for cuts and brakes early in a game could set the tone and make it easier for others. That may be true, and the idea is floated a lot, but it seems to not happen in practice. I think this may be because it feels like there is a risk of cutting for no reason, which would feel funny. It may also just be that it is hard to see a scene and know when to cut, because emotions are internal, and I don’t know if you’re enjoying roleplaying an angry character, or if something has actually tripped your switch.

Other Methods

There are other variations on “cut” and “brake.” One is to find a diegetic topic to talk about that signals something to the other players. If I say, “when was that test?” and you say, “Tuesday” then I know you’re OK. If you say “Friday,” then I know you’re not OK. Another is to use a hand signal to check in, a small OK sign, or two fingers against the clavicle, or whatever the group decides. It sounds like my scene is about to start experimenting with these. I’ll be interested to see whether they work better or are subject to the same problems.

Go Words

Of course, cut/brake rely on stopping something, but what if we did the opposite and tried to use enthusiastic consent to heighten scenes? I have heard about the use of go-words, but they don’t seem to be a big part of most of the safety discussions. I suspect this may be because in a larp or feeform game, conflict and drama is good–that’s sort of the point–so people naturally go for it, rather than waiting to hear “yes, please.” But hey, it’s possible they have worked somewhere at some time. Worth a shot, right?

Discuss Boundaries Directly

Sometimes, it works to have a facilitator simply ask the group, “does anyone have boundaries or worries they’d like to get on the table?” If folks are comfortable speaking up, they can simply say, “I am not interested in having people gang up on me,” and then everyone knows. This tends to work a bit better in smaller games, since in a room with 30 people, if everyone has a major concern, that’s too much to remember.

This can also help with setting physical boundaries for a game that might involve touch. With big groups, a facilitator can ask everyone to close their eyes, and then ask questions about physical boundaries. “Who isn’t cool with hugging?” that then allow them to set a blanket boundary for the whole group without embarrassing anyone.

Meta-Gaming

Negotiation

I most often see this happen informally, but it’s also possible and a good idea for designers and facilitators to budget some time for negotiation before a game or during it. This is when I have a chat, out of game, with the person who is playing my arch-nemesis, and we agree a bit about how we will play it. I can say, “bring the drama” or “I’m cool with a few verbal insults, but I really don’t want you to even pretend to shove me.” It’s also a chance to say, “I’m thinking I resent you because my parents are divorced and I’m jealous that yours aren’t–does that work for you?” It makes me and my nemesis into out-of-game conspirators, angling to make a good story. It also means that we both have a sense of how far it’s OK to go during play, and it establishes that all-important community relationship between us, providing a foundation for aftercare.

It is also great to negotiate with scene-partners about physicality. If we’re playing lovers, maybe I’m cool with hand-holding, but a hug is a bridge too far–you won’t know until you ask!

Check-in

Check-in is something that happens during play. It’s possible to briefly go out of game and make sure someone is doing OK. Maybe I take a moment with my arch-nemesis. Maybe I see that Frank’s character is taking a lot of flack and I want to make sure he’s doing OK. Maybe I want to tell my nemesis to bully me more and request that we play a certain scene. Designers and organizers can help facilitate this by building off-game breaks into the experience, or providing a place where players can go to have such discussions during play.

Off-Game Space

Most commonly used in big immersive larps that last a long time, this is a place where you can go to be out of game. Fatland suggests that the existence of such a space weakens cut/brake by implying that it’s mandatory to be in game in the game space.

Game Tools

In freeform or tabletop games, it’s possible to use game tools to create safety without calling someone out. If I’m facilitating a game for Bob, Mary, and Sue, and I see that Sue looks a bit upset and I’m not sure whether it’s OK, I might cut to a scene with Bob and Mary to give her some time to recover without obviously singling her out. Maybe I use the pause to check in with everyone. Not a possibility in all games, but certainly, it is in some.

Soft Take-off and Landing

Essentially, this is a way of easing people in and out of game with music, meditation, ritual, etc. so that it’s not as jarring. For example, I might play a song to give my players some time to get into character. At the end of the scenario, I play the song again and give them a quiet moment to release their characters. You can also do it with other sensory cues, I suspect.

Sometimes this is combined with an end-of-game ritual. At the end of Mad About the Boy, for example, after the ending son, we placed one item of costuming onto the ground as a way of saying goodbye to the character.

Part of getting people out of character can include asking them to talk about their characters in the third person after the game is over, to underscore the difference between player and character.

Delegate

Some games have an organizer dedicated to looking after player well-being. Everyone is responsible for each other’s well being, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to have one person who is also dedicated to the job, since organizers get busy with other things.

Aftercare

Aftercare means that you don’t just send people off into the sunset after a game. On a group level, it includes at least a minimal debrief to get people processing their feelings. Talking about feelings usually helps.

For facilitators, aside from running a debrief, this might include

  • Assembling contact info for players and passing it along to connect people after game.
  • Checking on individual players who seemed to be having a tough time hours or days later.
  • Making yourself available in the bar or coffee shop after the game in case people want to talk informally.

For players, this might include:

  • Checking in with people you had intense moments with. Especially if you feel animosity toward them. Give Bill the opportunity to apologize for that thing he did in game, or at least talk to him about the way you feel. Sometimes this is really hard. Do it anyway.
  • Check in on people who had a tough time, particularly if you might be the cause of it.
  • Channel your feelings into writing in the form of feedback to organizers, social media, email or something just for yourself. Don’t keep those feelings bottled up!
  • Debrief with other players who need support.

For longer games, aftercare can also include assigning people a debrief buddy, a player you meet up with before and after the game to talk about what might and just did happen. They work better for some people than others, but at a minimum they serve as an additional point of contact. Facilitators or players can set this up, but it’s up tot he players to follow through.

Workshop and Debrief

I include these together, because while they are part of safety, they provide the structure for many of the other safety techniques. So during a workshop, a facilitator has the chance to be transparent and set the tone that the door is open and get players to negotiate with one another, just as during the debrief, the facilitator can ask players if they want to apologize for something their character did, and can suggest that people who had intense scenes together should talk to each other. Both of them build community.

They are also their own topics, and ones I’ve covered elsewhere on the blog. You can see my post on workshops here, and on debriefs here.

A Final Thought

I know this probably sounds like using a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack into a wall to many readers, but the bottom line is that you never truly know what is going to happen during a game, and that even the lightest of games can provoke an intense reaction in someone. I don’t think every safety technique has to be used every time, but I think it’s wise to use at least a couple in every game. At a minimum, safewords, transparency, a debrief and some community-building are probably wise.

I think that people at every stage of the process of making a game–organizers/facilitators, designers, and players–have the responsibility to be part of the practice of safety. Designers can do it by instructing their facilitators to do certain things. Facilitators can do it by creating social space where other safety practices can happen. Players can do it by taking initiative and applying some of these techniques–for example, negotiation and some of the aftercare stuff–even when not instructed.

Caveat

I am not a mental health expert and have no official accredations. I also did not invent any of these methods–they are things I have osmosed by being around a bunch of Indie gamers and Nordic larpers who care about safety. Your mileage may vary.

Have more safety ideas and quandaries? Let’s hear about them in the comments.

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Introducing American Freeform

(Buy the Pocket Guide to American Freeform here!)

Well, perhaps “introducing” isn’t the right title for this post. American Freeform has been percolating around the scene for years. In recent times, though, some folks on the scene have claimed this label, both as a way of helping players identify what they’re getting and find similar games, and as a way to help designers share ideas and solidify the structures they’re working with.

All of which is to say: the meaning of this term is evolving and will doubtless continue to evolve as more designers contribute to the tradition. It’s also not meant to be a super-restrictive label; people who feel their work has a place within this tradition are welcome to use it. And “American Freeform” might fit under a larger label of “structured freeform.” (A term coined in 2006 by Jonathan Walton here.)

So what is American Freeform? Here are some of the distinguishing characteristics, culled from internet ramblings with various designers. Games in the genre may use only some of these techniques, or may use most of them. American Freeform games…

  • …are semi-live. This means players physically embody their characters for at least part of the play experience. It’s not tabletop, but it’s not quite an unbroken larp either. There are hybrid forms that might sneak in under the radar, though.
  • feature intense, focused play. As designer Jason Morningstar put it, “There’s a single, compelling situation presented by the game, and the characters are variously pointed at each other in supportive and antagonistic ways.” The relationships are open to interpretation, which makes replay fun.
  • …often uses scenes. Rather than one long dinner party, in American Freeform the organizer (or sometimes the players) sets scenes stipulated by the game materials and ends them when they are over. From scene to scene, time may jump forward or backward.
  • created by Americans. This is an imperfect way at getting of the Americanness of these games, which will probably deal with cultural elements important to folks on this side of the pond. It’s also a way of getting at our play culture here, which tends to be focused on player safety and respecting people’s trigger topics ahead of time. And yes, many of us have already had a G+ fight about whether it’s OK to add a tag to the freeform community that some people view as nationalistic. (Battles over terminology mean we have a robust community already!) In general, folks would like this to be as inclusive as possible, an umbrella that can extend to designers all over the continent of America, since it’s a big continent occupied by more than one country.
  • …features transparency in game design. This means that, with rare exception, play doesn’t focus around the default of player secrets. If secrets are used in a game, to create suspense, for example, they’re using sparingly, like a spring of parsley garnishing a nice chickpea cutlet, not as the main meat of a scenario.
  • …uses meta-play or metatechniques. This is another way of getting at transparency–it is OK to discuss play arcs ahead of time. This also means that some of these games use techniques to help players communicate with one another. Because if all the players know I’m in love with your wife, the unaware characters can play scenes that push on this tension to create a dramatic arc. If I say I love your new dress, and then give a monologue about how last season it was, that the players hear but the characters don’t, then this develops both my character and our relationship. And that can be very good for making interesting scenes.
  • …don’t entirely dispense with the physical props we all love. Many American Freeform games use traditional elements of American roleplaying games, for example game mechanics that use physical things like pieces of paper and cards, co-creation, player scene-framing, etc.
  • …are usually for a handful of players over a short period of time. There are exceptions, of course, but typically we’re talking about 3-12 people and four hours or less.

Wonderful designer Emily Care Boss assembled this great list of American Freeform games, listed in no particular order…and there are more in the works as we speak.

A Flower for Mara
by Seth BenEzra
An improvisational play about the family of Mara, a woman who has died unexpectedly, during the first year after her death.

Under my Skin (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Emily Care Boss
A group of friends simultaneously falls in love with other people.

Metropolis (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Evan Torner
Based on the classic Fritz Lang movie of the same name.

The Climb
by Jason Morningstar
An illegal Himalayan expedition to an unclimbed peak goes awry.

Posthuman’s Progress (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Evan Torner
The Posthuman tries to overcome obstacles to achieve her goal. A love letter to Run, Lola, Run.

The Curse (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Lizzie Stark
Ever wondered why Angelina Jolie cut off her breasts? Now you’ll know.

Remodel
by Emily Care Boss
Four women struggle with mid-life changes while remodeling a house.

The Yearbook
by John Stavropoulos and Terry Romero
A class reunion reminds people about the terrible incident that summer. Strong horror elements.

Play with Intent (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Matthjis Holter and Emily Care Boss
A flexible framework to help y’all make up your own awesome game.

A Garden of Forking Paths (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Susan Weiner, Vito D’Agosta and Nat Budin)
Inspired by Borges. A game about regret and life changes, exploring what would had happened if you chose differently.

10 Bad Larps (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment
The worst ideas for larps EVER, presented super-briefly.

DramaSystem live/semi-live rules
by Emily Care Boss and Robin Laws
Weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Larp and semi-live rules in Robin Law’s Hillfolk Companion volume Blood on the Snow.

Amidst Endless Quiet
by Ben Lehman
A spaceship, trapped in the void of interstellar space, is dying but not alone. Four of its human passengers will die with it, lost forever in senseless tragedy. One of them may yet survive. How will you decide who lives and dies?

Inheritance
by Luke Crane
Inheritance is a 2-3 hour game for 9 players. In Jutland in 1104, Grandfather has died. It’s time to read his will. Who will claim his inheritance?

Secret Ante 
by Aaron Vanek
Exploring what it means to be a character. Bet parts of you, or your character’s soul in a game of poker.

Cady Stanton’s Candyland
by Kat Jones and Julia Ellingboe
A sex-toy party at a feminist bookstore in the 1970s.

Superhero Bakery (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Jason Morningstar
Superheroes and supervillains have escaped prison into this work-release program at a bakery, where absolutely nothing will go wrong. Great for kids.

The Road Not Taken (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Mike Young
Merges the format 10 Bad LARPs with serious psychodrama. When you are lost in the yellow woods of your life, which road will you travel?

1,001 Nights (larp version)
by Meguey Baker
Members of the Sultan’s Court wile away the sultry nights by telling pointed stories to advance their ambitions.

Ganakagok Jeepforged (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Bill White
Team-based competitive game set in a fantasy dark-ice world, where the Nitu people, a tribe of hunters and fishers live.

Sea Dracula (FREE DOWNLOAD!)
by Jake Richmond and Nick Smith
A humorous, competitive game about crazy animal lawyers prosecuting a landmark case in Animal City’s highest court.

The Jerkform Collection (FREE DOWNLOAD; DO NOT PLAY)
by Sex & Bullets
Jerkform is not meant to be played. It is meant to be grokked.

Resonance (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Susan Weiner, Vito D’Agosta, Nat Budin, and Phoebe Roberts)
An experimental amnesia/storytelling larp. The few people instrumental in the end of the world determine what will rise from it.

Service
by Shoshana Kessock
A game about military service and the draft set in the US.

The Last Seder (AVAILABLE: See Nat’s post in the comments)
by Alleged Entertainment (Vito D’Agosta, Susan Weiner, Nat Budin and Joshua Sheena)
A sci-fi parable. Live the myth of Exodus and the Last Supper as it is made by playing out a series of scenes across the ages.

The Passage
by Thomas Russell
Stuck on a barge headed up the Missouri River, a disparate group of people reflect on despair, loss, transformation, and hope.

At What Cost
by Christopher Amherst
Spies try to uncover the traitor among them. How far will they go in pursuit of truth?

Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife)
by Julia Ellingboe
Get your friends together, light some candles, play out creepy stories. Inspired by an Edo-period game.

City of Fire and Coin larp (parlor sandbox larp)
by Evan Torner, Emily Care Boss, and Epidiah Ravachol
Rogues adventure in a mysterious fantasy city packed with violence and intrigue.

Young Cultists in Love
by Thomas Russell
One part Adams Family, one part Evil Dead 2, one part Better Off Dead. The Stars Are Right — For ROMANCE!

Uwe Boll’s Christmas Special
by Evan Torner and Kat Jones
Infamous film director Uwe Boll miscasts actors in his action-packed Christmas special

Bloodnet larp (parlor sandbox larp)
by Evan Torner and Kat Jones
Cyberpunk vampires live in 2094 Manhattan, either eking out a living or trying to rule it all.Based on the eponymous 1993 MicroProse adventure computer game.

The Man in the Long Black Coat
by Kat Jones
A scenario about a God-fearing small community that’s full of secrets and the Man who arrives to judge them all. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat.

IN PLAYTESTING

Sarai
by Jason Morningstar
20-person political/military live action/board game hybrid based on the Lebanese civil war.

Sorcergy
by Epidiah Ravachol
Sorcery + orgy. What’s not to love?

Fiasco Larp
by Jason Morningstar
Adapts the tabletop game to a live action format with ill-advised, foolish results.

The Maroons
by Jason Morningstar
Pilots to a distant planet discover an isolated settlement of one family. A game about isolation, faith, family and the collision of cultures. Based on a true story from 1970s Russia.

In Residency
by Lizzie Stark
Intrigue, gossip, and art at a selective artists’ colony.

Strings Attached
by Lizzie Stark and George Locke
When a woman’s will is issued, her family must learn how to forgive one another.

In Darkness
by Emily Care Boss
John Milton’s life in England set against the plot of Paradise Lost.

Monsterhearts
by Kira Magrann, James Stuart, John Stavropoulos and Terry Romero
Larp version of the popular indie game by Joe Mcdaldno, about teen monsters in love.

Demons at the Door
by John Stavropoulos
Something’s outside. Eating. Watching. You can’t see them but they can ALWAYS smell you (you smell sweet). Something is here. Not Zombies. Worse.

M vs M
by Terry Romero
A mutant civil war inspired by the US Obama 2008 election.

 

Did we miss some games or elements? (Note: we definitely did). Feel free to post in the comments.

This post draws a lot from several G+ and email conversations, and doubtless to countless other people and conversations that have unfolded over the years. Special thanks to Jason Morningstar, Evan Torner, John Stavropoulos, A. George, James Stuart, and many many others for their thoughts, and to Emily Care Boss, who compiled the long list of American Freeform games and shared it with me.

Edit: for more on the background of American Freeform, see Emily’s post in the comments. Or check out Evan Torner’s excellent American Freeform manifesto, which talks about how American Freeform is in dialog with other traditions.

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Stockholm Scenario Festival: Super-Nordic Roleplaying

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During my recent Nordic trip, I finally made it to Sweden, the last Nordic country I had to check-off my list.

I visited the Stockholm Scenario Festival, a brand-new convention that brought classic and new freeform games and blackbox larp to the Stockholm community. With perhaps 200 participants and numerous games, the convention felt small by US standards, but with intimate size comes cosiness. In contrast to Grenselandet, which I’d visited the weekend before, the SSF lasted three days and packed them full of games.

The Scenarios

This convention is definitely a festival in the model of Fastaval, with an emphasis on games about serious topics, from adult bullying to cancer to love and relationships and so on, with a few lighter scenarios sprinkled in for contrast.

In addition, designers wrote six brand-new scenarios for the convention and received mentoring as they went about their creative process.

But the very coolest thing is that head organizer Anna Westerling required most of the scenarios–both old and new–in written form. This means that THERE IS A WHOLE NEW BASKET OF GAMES AVAILABLE FOR FREE DOWNLOAD AT THE SSF SITE, IN ENGLISH! Simply click on the scenario in question and download away.

Black Box Larps v. Freeform Games

Did you know that black box larps are totally a thing? I have just become aware of them in the last year or so, and I played my first official black box game here in Stockholm (more on that later). Someone has probably defined such games better than I’m about to, but here’s my take: black box larps take place in a black box theater space, a dark room that has the capacity to be rigged with lighting. They seem to involve elements that are traditional aspects of theater–symbolic props or furniture, lights that help set the mood and that game masters can use to control elements of the production, mood music and other sounds, etc.

In short, black box games strongly use elements of theater, even though there is no audience. The one I played was evocative and poetic rather than realist, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a facet of the genre.

Freeform games, in contrast, utilize a game master that has strong control over a scenario by setting scenes and giving directorial input to players by whispering inner thoughts to them, calling for monologues, telling players to play scenes over and over again, or physically manipulating them to enhance mood, by pressing down on someone’s shoulders or directing their gaze, for example. Freeform scenarios typically include a number of scenes set by the game designer, that the players play their way through.

Freeform games are about story sequence; black box games are about using theater techniques to set atmosphere and enhance play. I’m sure the categories aren’t as discrete as I’ve made them sound, but you get the idea.

What I Did

I ran a bunch of classic jeepform scenarios–Previous OccupantsDoubtand Summer Lovin’all things I’d run and played before, sometimes with a few extra time limitations or additional players. I also ran my own game, The Curse. And I played in the excellent scenario The White Death. More on this later.

GMing for Nordic Players

The Nordic roleplaying scenes come with very high expectations for quality, in terms of writing, playing, and GMing. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the more communal culture there or what, but I’d say the pressure to be “good”–whatever that means–is fairly high and this both enhances the quality of game experiences, since if I’m nervous about something I prepare more, and shakes my confidence.

I find it hard to GM for Nordic players. Firstly, when they play with me they’ve got to speak in English, which isn’t their first language. They always do a great job, but it can make the scenes a bit slower, as people mentally translate lines in their head, or occasionally, search for the right word.

There’s also a layer of player culture between us. I am used to GMing for Americans, who tend to play fast and hard, cutting to the chase quickly and obeying GM suggestions immediately. They often need to be pushed to go toward the interesting, psychologically intense material. I feel like I don’t have a grip on the boundaries of play culture for Nordicans–I don’t know what their “normal” is. It tends to be, I’d say, more emotionally intense? They are not at all afraid to touch each other or really really seduce one another, so scenes that might involve either of these activities escalate quickly. They have different expectations about immersion and are used to GMs using inner monologue techniques in slightly different ways. Monologues need to sounds more poetic for Nordic players, I think, and they expect the GM to do atmospheric stuff supporting and enhancing their emotional paths (maybe) compared to Americans, who expect the GM to push them to the place they want to go but are too afraid to enter. Nordic players also tend to do just what the scenario writer says, and seem to have a slightly harder time inventing (or maybe just vocalizing) ideas for new scenes. Americans tend to invent new material easily and have a tendency to test the boundaries of scenarios in ways that can break them.

If you do a great job or a mediocre job in America, people praise you afterwards, and if they have critique, give it much later in compliment sandwich format. Whether you do a great or a mediocre job in Nordica, people will give you constructive criticism in plain language immediately after. So there’s a validation gap too.

So anyway. Running games for Nordicans makes me anxious, because there are high expectations and I always feel I’m doing it wrong.

Danish People and Swedish People

Both in Norway and here in Sweden, it was fun to hang out with Danish people. Normally, at places like Fastaval in Denmark, the foreigners develop a special bond as the outsiders together. But since I keep going to Denmark, I’m always developing this bond with Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. It was fun to see some of the Danish crew relaxed, without many obligations, and ready to be trolled.

The Danes, of course, delight in pushing boundaries and are all over all the crying and bullying scenarios, so it was fun to come up with ideas that might actually offend Danish roleplayers. Incest games? Why no. Their scenario tradition has casual surprise incest and rape aplenty. One night, though, they told me the secret weakness of Danish roleplayers: genuine compliments. Or else they were just trolling me for praise.

One cool thing I did at the SSF was get to chit-chat with a larger variety of Swedes than I’ve seen on the Knutepunkt scene. I talked game design with several bad-ass creators and learned a bit about the history of larp in Sweden. And of course, I got to experience the famous Swedish feminism. Rock on!

White Death by Nina Runa Essendrop and Simon Steen Hansen

The highlight of my experience was playing White Death, a short black box larp about a group of pioneers who goes up into the mountains to make a new life for themselves, and end up dying during the winter.

The game does not use any language, rather it’s played out poetically with a minimum of props and set. As players, we would all portray two characters, a human and a white one. The humans inhabited a lit portion of the stage and the white ones inhabited the dark. White ones might be angels or spirits of the snow or something else entirely. Over the course of the game, all the humans would gradually die off and become white ones.

Workshop

We started out by moving around the space in different ways, trying out hard movements, sudden movements, light movements, heavy movements, etc. Then we gradually combined several of these movements until we were moving like the humans, who move hard, heavy, sudden and violent. The white ones moved lightly and fluidly, and…with one or two more adjectives. That done, we began character creation.

Character Creation

Our human characters all received a physical restriction that would govern how we moved. Mine was that my head had to loll to one side, but never rested in the middle, and my fingers had to be pointing at the ground. Another person had that their hands and gaze had to follow each other. Some people had magnets between their hands and head, or moved like marionettes, and so on.

We practice moving like humans (hard, heavy, sudden, violent, etc) with our new restrictions. Then we got slips of paper that defined our relationship to the group. For example, my character thought she was better than people who were taller than she was. One guy wanted to be cared for my someone with smaller feet than his, and so on.

We milled to find an enemy and a friend and defined those relationships a bit through play. Sounds would be allowed during the game, but absolutely no language, sign language, or gibberish mimicking language.

Game Structure

The game had two halves. In the first half, we would experience being human, occupying the human side of the stage. Gradually, during the first half, the game masters would introduce three sets of props in a spotlight on the dark side of the stage. They were: white balloons that represented dreams, cups of sugar representing sustenance and survival, and white paper representing faith. We could play with the props as we chose.

During the second half of the game, storms would arrive, cued by the sounds of bells and then whirring wind. There would be four storms. During the first storm, some of us would transform ourselves into white ones. The white ones can always see the humans, but the humans can only see the white ones during the storms. During the storms, the white ones could reach across, pull humans across the boundary, and transform them. This consisted of closing the human’s eyes, and helping them move their arms to remove physical restrictions, and putting a white ribbon around their necks.

The white ones had some props to play with too–sheets, and bubble stuff that they could blow over to the human side if they wished.

The game had a variety of music playing the rest of the time–a series of songs. The workshop lasted about two hours, followed by about a one to one-and-a-half hour game. The rest of the time–half an hour to an hour–was spent on breaks and debrief.

Play Report

I was surprised at how far physical interaction got us in terms of defining our characters. It did, indeed, feel quite oppressive to be a human.

The props were pretty cool. Balloons blown up to various sizes were variously easy or difficult to pop. And if your wrists have a pretend dowel between them, well they might be hard to hold on to. The sugar immediately went all over everything, having a nice gritty surface that made you feel sticky once the sugar melted on your skin. I didn’t really want to get sugar all over myself, since I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, so that affected how I interacted with it, but many people writhed around on the ground, tried to lick it off the balloons, sprinkled it in the air, and so on. I swear I’m still finding sugar in my bra three days later. The paper was fun because it could be ripped and combined and fluttered and stolen, and put in the sugar cups along with the balloons representing our broken dreams.

At one point, when the music was pretty harsh, and I was standing over someone else who was writhing around in sugar and making incoherent shrieking noises, I looked around a bit at the chaos around me and thought “Whoa. This is some truly Nordic shit.”

As we became white ones, the light props on the dark side of the room–where we billowed the sheets up and down, blew bubbles, hugged each other and giggled while dancing, provided a nice contrast.

In terms of my own play experience, I felt mixed. The game and its mechanics are truly fascinating and thought-provoking and say a lot about what you can do with minimal stripped-down tools. The design of the whole experience was pretty ace. But during the debrief, I couldn’t help but think that I don’t know how to make the most of an experience like this. Other people talked about their stories, how they’d established relationships with other people during the game and had real story arcs. That didn’t happen for me, exactly. I had some interesting moments with various players, but I was mostly contorting in the sugar-covered dark thinking about how out of the box this seemed to me. I sometimes find it hard to make my own fun in a game, to make my own story, and this game was so far outside of what I’m used to that it was doubly difficult. Still, that’s not the game’s fault, it’s mine, and I know I’ll be mulling over the possibilities the design opened up to me for a long long time.

So What?

Fascinating games and good people. As I told Petter Karlsson, I love the idea of having a classic scenario track at a convention where I can play the awesome games of yesteryear that I missed the first time around. Maybe just a few more opportunities for chatting over beer next time around? Since this festival is only in its first year, there are plenty of times to make adjustments. Would definitely larp it again.

Read and watch more about the Stockholm Scenario Festival on Swedish larper Petter Karlsson’s blog.

The Curse: A Freeform Game About BRCA

family

At long last, I’ve finished The Curse, a freeform game about hereditary breast cancer, the BRCA mutations, and making decisions around these issues.

It premiered at the Danish gaming convention Fastaval in 2013, where it nabbed an Otto nomination for best larp script.

I wrote The Curse in the Fastaval style. This means that it features a strong game master who cuts together the scenes like an improvised play. The game attempts to tackle a serious topic — BRCA mutations and the decisions they spark — with nuance. It’s not meant to be fun in the funny ha-ha sense, but it’s meant to be interesting and provide insight into a situation that many women face.

It’s free to download and distribute so long as you don’t try to make money off it. If you run or play it, I’d love to hear about your experience at LizzieStark@gmail.com.

FREE DOWNLOAD (PDF) OF THE CURSE  HERE.

 

THE CURSE AT A GLANCE

Would you cut out healthy body parts if you thought it might save your life?

Rita and Elle bear a heavy legacy: a mother who developed breast cancer at 30 and died of ovarian cancer 20 years later. When it comes to their family tree, that’s just the tip of the tumor. There’s a BRCA mutation lurking in the family DNA, an inherited genetic error that dramatically ups a woman’s chances of developing aggressive breast and ovarian cancer at unusually young ages. After Rita and Elle test positive for the family mutation, they can choose to live with their fear or cut it out with a scalpel.

Will they mutilate themselves to avoid their mother’s fate, or stay strong and face down dread? How should the men in their lives deal with the news? Will this condition mutilate their romantic relationships as well?

This freeform game is about making life-altering decisions in uncertain circumstances and passing on the horror of that choice to the next generation. A scenario about fear of death, vanity, and relationships under pressure.

Factfile

Time: 4-5 hours.

Number of players: 4 +1 game master. Preferably two women and two men.

Genre: Cancer narratives, relationship drama, realism

Player type: You want to explore some challenging emotional territory, including cancer, unclear consequences, and amputating body parts you’re fond of. And you don’t mind talking about breasts. 18+ only, please.

Game master type: You’ll be the players’ guide and teach the techniques of the game. You’re equally happy pushing the players when they need it, or standing back and watching them twitch like fish on hooks.

Fastaval 2013

You can always tell which Americans have been to Scandinavian roleplaying conventions, because they have the look in their eyes of having dropped acid or shot heroin. That’s a little how Scandinavia feels to me – like a vivid waking hallucination, perhaps because Nordic gaming conventions are an exercise in sleep deprivation. This year, I alleviated that a bit by arriving a day early, which gave me an extra 24 hours to adjust to the time zone, before committing to a serious regimen of partying and watching the sun come up. And then there are the games, thought-provoking entries into experiences you might not otherwise encounter. I’m obviously hooked on Nordican games, and last week, I had my new fix at the Danish convention Fastaval.

FASTAVAL

For those who aren’t familiar, Fastaval features juried selection of about 30 freeform games, which are then entered into an Oscars-style competition called the Ottos, where participants have a shot at winning a coveted golden penguin. Although the convention also features larps and board games – the latter of which earned its own awards this year – it’s mostly about the freeform scenarios. Freeform scenarios are short (2-4 hours) roleplaying games for between two and ten un-costumed players, featuring a strong GM who cuts together scenes, sort of like the director in a movie, and uses the tools selected by the scenario writer to push the characters.

This year I had a scenario in the running called The Curse, a short game about hereditary breast cancer and relationships, and I’m pleased to say it received an Otto nod for best writing. I have a few tweaks I’d like to make based on the feedback I received, but then I’ll post it up soon.

For more on Fastaval, check out my report from last year’s convention, or last year’s list of 5 Things US Conventions Could Steal From Fastaval.

 

THE SCENE

Fastaval takes place in a school rented out for the occasion, and all the participants pitch in with a work shift to help out the staff who spend the convention making things awesome for everybody. It also means that unlike conventions in the states, there are no non-gaming outsiders around. In addition to running a boatload of games, the convention is set up for socializing. Inside the venue there is a participant-run café that sells food and cocktails, and sometimes has performers, both burlesque and guitar-and-singer style. It’s a great place to hang out and have a chat, and it’s populated with an older crowd. The bar is just down the hall, stays open much later, and has a beer, shots, and death metal vibe. The Danes definitely believe in alcohol as a social lubricant, and the drinking age is younger here, though there is a separate booze-free lounge provided for the youth.

In addition, there’s a TV crew running around shooting little amusing sketches about the convention and its culture that get edited into an episode shown each night in the bar at 4am. If you think you can’t stay up that late, you’re wrong.

The Dirtbusters, a pervasive larp about fighting the forces of chaos (read: cleaning) runs alongside the convention and provides much-needed cleanup services. They have their own culture, and rumor has it, a beer-and-porn laden command center somewhere on the premises. They provide a vital service to the convention, and seem to be in the midst of an important cultural transition – in recent years, as women have become more vocal on this scene, there has been some tension around issues of sexism and Dirtbuster culture. While the situation hasn’t entirely resolved itself, most of the chatter I heard suggested that things have been improving at a fast clip.

At the same time, the convention consists of only about 25 percent women – far less than other conventions I’ve been to – and you can see those demographics (or sometimes more skewed ones) reflected in the organizing committee, who ends up writing scenarios, the Otto awards etc. As a woman, I sometimes found it intimidating to talk to the other writers and participants, for example – watching ten tall dudes who all know each other well standing in a circle having an important-sounding discussion in another language – made me hesitant to approach. At the same time, the women I’ve met at Fastaval have been highly highly awesome, so it seems like it’d be in everyone’s interest to increase their numbers.  One thing I learned from running the all-women larp Mad About the Boy is that often women don’t feel comfortable taking space, but rather need to be invited in. Having women in a space also often “proves” that it’s safe for other women. I wonder if Fastaval could benefit from a “get women gaming” initiative of some sort.

In the cafe with game designers.

In the cafe with game designers, sporting mad Fastaval steeze.

International participants felt particularly welcome this year, with a host of nods to our presence — the usual games in English, typically with a few locals mixed in for flavor; subtitles for the awesome Otto Channel TV series; and translators available during the award ceremonies. In addition, most people speak pretty kick-ass English, even when  tired or inebriated.

The crowd represents an interesting mixture of the usual gamers, present at every convention I’ve been to in any country – black t-shirts, long hair, relaxed attitude – and then folks sporting some pretty serious style. Of course, go anywhere and you’ll find women with sharply honed senses of style, but here there are many men working a specific look – certainly many more than I am used to. Yes, Fastaval, I am complimenting the outfits of many of your dudes. Here are some things that appear to be “in”: waxed moustaches, bowties, ties of any sort, blazers, interesting hair (long, short, dyed), suspenders, squarish glasses, monochromatic anything, newsboy caps, pocket squares, lots of facial piercings. And of course beards. Always beards.

 

THE OTTOS

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

Otto, Vincent Baker, and me.

This year, I learned a lot about the Otto awards, both through doing, since I wrote a scenario, and by way of research – I spent quite a bit of time talking to former judges about how they do their thing, since there’s some interest stateside in getting up our own competition, and we like to do our homework. Here are the most surprising things I learned:

  • There are no hard guidelines on which scenarios are able to be submitted to each year’s Fastaval. In general, they want new scenarios, and good ones. What does “new” mean, you might ask — like, written in the last year? Or not played at other conventions? what about edge cases? The answer is unclear, perhaps by design. Two folks who organize the convention use their discretion in picking scenarios.
  •  The committee of six judges agrees on all nominations and winners unanimously. As you can imagine, this means a lot of long meetings and therefore, presumably, arguing. People sometimes refer to this as the “judges’ larp.” I’ve heard that it sometimes turns into its own sleep deprivation competition, as judges passionate about certain scenarios out-argue and out-last their fellows into the  night.
  •  The judges spend most of their time reading scenarios, as opposed to playing them. This supposedly gives an edge to scenarios that are well-written.
  •   In addition to reading scenarios, the judges look at feedback forms written by players and GMs. The questionnaires, handed out after every run, feature questions like, “how did your group function?” “what was the best thing about the scenario?” “What could have been improved?” “What do you want to tell the writer?” and so on, along with a numeric score. Finally, each judge spends some time hanging out in the café and bar and so on, listening to people talk about their game experiences. Interestingly, the judges are also assigned a couple of authors to talk to informally during the convention. I found this very low-key and nice.
  •  The Otto categories include things like Best Characters, Best Story, Best Scenario, Best Mechanics, Best Presentation (writing), and so on. Rather, the committee interprets these each year. When a judge retires, someone with a similar perspective to that judge is invited to fill in.
  •   In addition, a separate committee awards an honorary Otto to a person who has contributed a lot to the scene. And of course, there’s an audience prize too.

As a writer, it’s pretty cool to have the scenario you labored over read with such care and attention to detail. It’s a little scary of course (is there anything worth doing that isn’t?), but typically writers write because they’d like to be carefully read. I’m looking forward to the feedback that the committee offers.

 

WRITERS’ CULTURE

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

My sparring partner, Troels, and I.

Fastaval supports scenario writers. I understand that for folks local to Denmark, there are weekend retreats and scenario workshops designed to nurture both experienced and new writers. Although writers are spread out across Denmark, I believe there are activities in a few different cities to help folks connect, play test, and get feedback on their writing.

In addition, there’s the option of a sparring partner, which is also available to international participants. Sparring partners help improve your scenario by offering pointed feedback and challenging design ideals. Often, they seem to specialize in something particular. I wanted special help with play testing, since I was new to scenario writing, but my sparring partner ended up reading a truly sick number of drafts, discussing structure and format with me, and working as a general sounding board for new ideas. Super super helpful.

The culture at this convention – or perhaps it is a facet of Danes in general? – has a marked absence of bullshit. Feedback is direct and honest, and there wasn’t the veneer of fake praise and excessive politeness over everything that so often marks gatherings of writers. I found this in turns refreshing, exciting, and intimidating.

 

THE GAMES

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

Dulce Et Decorum had lovely packaging.

I played two scenarios and ran two scenarios this year. My best experience was running Dulce Et Decorum, a tabletop game about the trenches of WWI, written by my sparring partner Troels Ken Pedersen. Since the game ran long, I had a fun time cutting viciously and controlling the spotlight of the scenario. And from the feedback sheets I collected at the end of the scenario, the players enjoyed themselves too, which is the whole point.

I wish I’d played more scenarios this year, or perhaps played them in a different order. The convention starts on Wednesday, with most play wrapped up by Sunday morning. Stateside, the best stuff usually runs on Fri/Sat night of conventions, so that’s what I signed up for, but here, it seems the opposite is true. Conventional wisdom among participants suggests that the best stuff happens on Wednesday night, and Thursday and Friday during the day, mainly because as the convention wears on and the parties stretch out into the night participants and GMs alike become more fatigued and hung over as the convention progresses.

 

PLAYERS

Recently, renowned Swedish person (and bad-ass GM/designer) Anna Westerling visited the US, and we all ran freeform games for Americans. She observed that Americans tend to follow directions really well and quickly — if the point of this scene is for A to flirt with B, then they get right in there and make it happen quickly. This can make cutting easier, and often means that emotions for players escalate rather quickly.

With her observation in mind, I found the Nordic players fascinating. Their style of play seems more subtle to me; rather than cutting to the chase many of them approach the point of the scene sideways rather than head on, and they layer tension slowly and often rather quietly. This approach has advantages, of course — it’s more realistic, and often the conflicts created felt quite intriguing. Not better or worse; just different.

This makes me wonder having both sorts of players in the same game would make things mismatched or perfectly matched. I’d imagine that the Nordic way of playing would add richness and detail, where the American style of play drives the plot forward and raises the stakes. I’ll be watching future games carefully to see how it works out in practice.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The hotel's brass tiger.

Here’s Claus Raasted on a brass hotel tiger.

Some of my best Fastaval fun took place in the café, talking design and American culture with guest of honor and new freeform convert Vincent Baker, and chatting with other designers and folks I feel I’m starting to know now that I’ve been to a few international conventions.

I also happened to stay in a pretty pimping hotel room with an international crew. In addition to two small rooms for sleeping, we had a large common area decorated with animal skulls and preserved deer heads, a set of elaborate golden couches, and a long baroque dining room table. The room opened out onto a little terrace with a view up a wooded hill, perfect for watching the sun rise.

 

 

THE FASTAVAL CHALLENGE

Need some Fastaval, but live outside Nordica? Many of the scenarios are available in English at the Alexandria project. I know that my local scene would love to see many more sets of GM instructions translated into English, and so I offer this incentive: if you translate your scenario, my GM crew, Sex & Bullets, will make sure that it runs at least once at a con or private gaming event.

(Caveats: we can’t play some topics here, though, and we’ll be the final arbiters of what those are. When in doubt, ask! lizzie.stark@gmail.com We’d love both traditional sad-sack scenarios as well as ones that are a bit lighter and more fun. And we can only promise for scenarios with 1-15 participants and a minimum of set/costuming)

 

 

American Jerkform: There’s No Negotiating with Bees

My friends, the jerkform revolution has begun. And it comes to you in the form of….

bees

Those of you not familiar with American Jerkform (catchphrase: “There’s no negotiating with bees.”*) may wish to read the original manifesto. Simply know that jerkform is for everyone and no one. It loves babies and alligators, sometimes together. And when the moon is full and the scent of jasmine fills the air, or when the bird is upon the wing and the sun beams with all the beatific perfection of Steve Buscemi, simply whisper its name onto the wind, and a swarm of bees will sweep down and render justice upon you.

Jerkform is not meant to be played, it’s meant to be smeared all over your body, like poisonous berries, or stared at intently until one of you spontaneously combusts. Seriously, do not attempt to play jerkform.

Here is a new collection of games written by about fifteen people, working singly or in groups.

 

LONDON BURNING by Sex and Bullets

Burn yourself with a cigarette. Tell the cigarette how it feels.

 

HAUNTED BY BEES: An American Jerkform/Beeffor LARP by Terry Romero

You’re trapped (as in actually locked into for a week) in a post-apocalyptic warehouse on the edge of town populated by hungry slow moving zombies and even hungrier freegans. Each team of two and a half people gets a 10 hour supply of extra spicy jerky and 5 hour energy drink.

You must defend your turf and loved ones and crap armed ONLY WITH BEES. Throw some actual f***ing bees! They can be real live bees, handfuls of dead bees, or a sock full of d4s.

  • If you’re hit with one bee you die.
  • Two bees, you die in real life.
  • Three bees, you die and come back as an emo ghost.
  • Eat all the bees, and you become the Beelzebub.

Last player standing marries Beelzebub, then breaks it off due to overwhelming guilt of being responsible for the death of thousands of bees.

There is no bleed in this game because you have chosen in real life the most dangerous game of all!

 

THE NORDIC LARP COLLECTIBLE CARD GAME by James Stuart

Each lovingly hand-painted card contains the image of a Nordic larpwright, a catch phrase, and a function (+3 bleed, +2 theory burn!, +5 historical accuracy). Gotta catch ‘em all!

 

THE RULE OF PHILOSOPHY CLASSES by Lizzie

Just like every party has a pooper, every philosophy class has an a**hole. Sometimes, it’s you. Deal with it.

 

FAT MAN SITTING DOWN by George

A game for 11 GMs, and a large ensemble of furniture.

The largest chair in the room — preferably a sofa if one is available — is the fat man. Arrange all the side tables and chairs in the room in a circle around the fat man. Tell everyone there is a fire extinguisher.

The GMs form a circle around the furniture and yell at it, forcing it to be meaner to the sofa. The game ends when a dining room chair breaks and sets the sofa on fire.

If anyone asks about the fire extinguisher, laugh maniacally.

 

FAT MAN DONUT by James Greenan and Sara W.

The largest member of your gaming circle is assigned the job of “driver.” He drives you an hour from home to a discreet artisanal donut shop in Brooklyn. There is no parking. Fat Man Donut must sit in the car while the rest of your party enjoys donuts from behind a plate glass window. Once donuts are consumed, Fat Man Donut is told how he feels by each donut-eating individual.

Actual play report: We’re now at the idling part of Fat Man Donut.  This game sucks, I wish there were more bees. — The Fat Man

 

WE MUST IMAGINE SISYPHUS HAPPY by Lizzie

Mention X. Try to convince Y you haven’t just insulted them. Pick up a bronze statue of Foucault and beat the opposition with it.

There are many play sets. Post them in the comments.

 

GAME THEORY THUNDERDOME by Sex and Bullets

Two game designers enter. One interpretation of GNS theory and/or the “magic circle” leaves. Flamethrowers.

 

MAGRITTE by Megan J.

Put some props on a table.

 

TALKING STICK by Sex and Bullets

Agree to use  a talking stick. But who gets it first? Whoever yells the loudest.

 

ANGSTY HANDF*** by Graham

You are attracted to various people. While you work out who you are in a relationship with, rub hands with them and pretend to have sex.

 

NOIR by Joanna Charambura

Sit in a dark room until one of you decides to switch the light on.

 

UNIVERSAL BLEED MECHANIC #2** by Sex and Bullets

Knives.

 MANIFEST THIS MOFO by Bryant Johnson

1: Walk into a room where people are larping; preferably something introspective or foreign. (Listen at the door; if you hear the word “bleed” and it isn’t preceded by the phrase “stabbed in the stomach with a scimitar” you’re probably in the right place.)

2: Kick over a table, or a chair, or someone with small fashionable glasses.

3: Yell “MANIFEST DESTINY!” as loudly as you can. (You may also help yourself to any drinks you spot.)

4: Repeat. (I find conventions work best for this.)

5: Skip any attempt at a debrief. You need to let that s*** simmer.

 

FORTHCOMING JERKFORM GAMES

Manic Pixie Dream Girl Prostitute by Sara W.
Catch Me if You Can: A child’s first story Christmas story with cannibalism by  Terry Romero

 

*We know this first-hand thanks to cohort A.A. George, who was once attacked by a swarm of bees, thus proving that there is no negotiating with bees — only screaming. Seriously. Buy M- George a beer sometime — a bee attack renders you in permanent need of sympathetic beers — and ask to hear the story. And the audio.

 

** We’ve recently learned that game designer JR Blackwell has previously designed a game that employs this mechanic.

GMing Nordic Freeform: A Beginners’ Guide

Photo Credit: Flckr user TrippChicago

 

Though I’ve run dozens of Nordic freeform games for Americans in the last year or two,  I’m probably still a rookie GM. But, as the saying goes, “You don’t need Santana to show you how to hold the guitar.” I suspect it’s true for GMing Nordic freeform too. There are many ways to run freeform for Americans, and mine is just one of them.

To me, the key component of GMing freeform for Americans is creating the right sort of atmosphere, letting people know what to expect with verbal and non-verbal cues, and explaining what will be expected of them.In the Nordic countries, the heavily collaborative style of play is already out there, and it’s supported by a communitarian culture. In the states, we tend to view things more individualistically and competitively — in roleplaying games there’s often a sense of waiting for your spotlighted moment and wanting to make it totally, totally, awesome — and that is the expectation that many players arrive with. So it’s important to support players and to engineer them to collaborate with one another.

Most of my advice is geared toward trying to create the right set up — setting the tone, explaining certain things, helping people understand what the play style is — rather than the act of running the games, which is pretty intuitive once you’ve tried it a couple times. And of course, since some of these games can hit unexpectedly hard, especially for an audience that may not be used to them, debriefing is key.

I think Nordic freeform is great because it’s so easy to run — no costumes, no set, just a handful of people together in a room for a few hours. You can find free downloadable scenarios in English at Alexandria and Jeepen.org

 

THE GM SETS THE TONE

Always and forever.

 If the scenario is serious, act serious.

The attitude of the GM sets the tone for the game. I think this is particularly important when running games for Americans, because our cultural context for play is different.

If you act seriously, people will bring their realistic a-game. If you crack a lot of jokes, in my experience, they won’t. Your attitude sets up the players’ expectations about the game, so act accordingly.

 Use as few words as possible.

Don’t waste people’s time: explain the scenario in as few words as you can. And try to keep the focus on the players and what their experience will be like, rather than jetting off into anecdote. If you don’t waste words, they’ll be less tempted to as well, and that will serve the game.

Make it clear you care about the players’ well-being.

For me, setting the tone also means making sure people know that this space is a safe space to enact intense emotion, whether the game rises to that intensity or not. This means asking everyone about their physical boundaries, giving people cut words, and making sure that people know you’ll take their concerns seriously.

I often tell people beforehand that we’re going to use “writer’s workshop rules,” in other words, that if someone lets something heavy drop during the game or the debrief, it stays within the group and doesn’t get spread around.

I also tell players that if they are comfortable getting a bit physical with each other — shoving each other during a fight, for example — that’s fine with me, but they should keep it playful, since I don’t ever want to feel that anyone is in real danger during a game. The physical boundary talk isn’t just about fighting — it’s also about how comfortable people are with strangers touching them. Some people are fine with a casual arm around them, but no more. Some people are comfortable with the “bikini limit.” Some people don’t want to be touched at all. Getting this on the table at the outset settles some unrest, and gets people thinking about their own limits, which is good.

One time we skipped this physical boundary talk, and unbeknownst to me two of the players dating each other were stage combat experts who love sparing with each other. They had a very serious-looking physical fight during the game, and it freaked everyone out, since we didn’t know about their agreement. Other players thought, “If they can do that to each other, can they do that to me too?” I’ve never forgotten to have the boundary talk since.

Tip: Choose an enclosed room that’s not too big — four people will be dwarfed by a ballroom. And make sure to hang a sign on the door asking people to stay out. Absolutely no spectators. Just trust me on this.

 

GIVE THEM CONTEXTUAL INFO

This lets people know what to expect and what is expected of them.

Tell them where the games come from.

Since this style of play is new to many American gamers, I usually give a little thumbnail sketch of the style’s history.

“Freeform is a style of game that comes from the Nordic countries and incorporates larp and tabletop techniques. It arose when tabletop players decided they wanted to start acting out scenes, rather than just describing them, and eventually they lost the table completely. These games use tabletop techniques — like fast forwarding through the boring stuff — and larp techniques, like acting out your character.”

That’s the cliffs notes version, though sometimes I’ll go into a little more detail.  If I’m GMing jeepform, I am careful to explain that jeepform is not identical to “Nordic larp,” which is a misconception many people have — you can explain it as a type of freeform that uses metatechniques which are ways of breaking the narrative to heighten the drama, or ways to let players communicate with one another when their characters cannot.

I try to keep this explanation to 1-2 minutes.

Tell them about cutting and about the rule of yes.

“Instead of playing out one long, continuous scene, this game is more like a movie, where I’m the director, cutting the scenes together.

“Also, this game is sort of like an improv exercise. Try to adhere to the rule of ‘yes and…’ This means that when someone gives you a suggestion, ‘Do you remember that time we went to the Waffle House together?’ you add on to it. ‘Yes, and you were wearing that totally dumb hat.’ “

You can also note that the rule of ‘yes,’ doesn’t always mean saying ‘yes.’ “‘Do you remember that time we killed that guy?’ ‘No, I think I was too far gone on Quaaludes…’ also advances the narrative. The important thing is not to deny what other people have made up, what you don’t do is say, ‘No, we never killed that guy.’”

If the game is bleedy, explain the concept of bleed.

Bleed is what happens when character emotions and player emotions get mixed up, and in many gaming communities in the states, people try to avoid this. Some freeform games are designed to facilitate bleed.

Some people aren’t prepared for games to address their real lives and real emotions so directly. Let people know that it’s normal to have strong feelings (or not!). Explain that there will be a debrief afterward where we’ll talk about the game and anything that came up.

Explain the bare bones of the scenario and any meta-techniques used.

Do it with few words and do whatever else the scenario tells you to do before gameplay begins.

 

WARM THEM UP

Warming players up emphasizes that they are part of a collective team that is working together to create an interesting experience for everyone. Warm-ups also get people comfortable with one another and start the creative juices flowing. I usually try to include:

A physical warm-up or other energy-raiser. 

Make people do the hokey pokey or sing heads, shoulders, knees, and toes. Doing something silly in front of other folks breaks down some boundaries. Alternately, say short phrases with various intonations and make everyone repeat after you as a group. Or come up with your own.

A mental warm-up.

Get people’s minds lubed up for the game by saying a word and asking the player to your left to say the first word that comes into his or her mind. Go around in a circle enough times that people are speaking quickly. I’m told that great GMs say words that bring back the themes of the scenario.

You can also pass a sound and a motion around the circle, and even get more than one going.

A teamwork/focus warm-up. 

Part of running these games is getting people to work together as a team, and this can mean making them sensitive to the emotions, boundaries, and moods of other players.

Make a face at the player to your left, they mirror it back to you, then make a new face to the next player.

Have people stand in a circle, with their arms around shoulders (which gently breaks the touch barrier), everyone closes their eyes, and counts to 20. Using a pattern to do this is forbidden. If two people talk at the same time, you go back to zero. This is one of my favorites, as it makes people sensitive to the energy of the group and even the breathing of other players.

Tip: Build the group’s confidence by complimenting them on how they do the warm-up exercises. Saying stuff like “We’re going to have a great game” can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the scenario calls for pre-game collaboration among the players, a heartfelt “thank you” after each person’s contribution has a similar bolstering effect.

 

CAST AND PLAY THE GAME

Like it says in the game materials.

Co-creation

Some games involve co-creation, in which the players get together and decide some stuff about how the narrative will go before the game starts. Often, the GM moderates these discussions by asking questions and so on. In these cases, it’s really important to get buy-in from each of the players, and to make each of them feel that their contributions are being heard. So if one or two players are dominating the conversation, it’s really really important for you to step in for the silent types and make sure their contributions make it into the game.

Festering resentment between players makes for a terrible game.

Casting

The best casting advice I’ve gotten is to never cast the loudest player in the loudest role, because they’ll take over the game. Casting introverts in extrovert roles and vice versa can help quiet the loud and louden the quiet. The game is best when everyone participates equally.

It’s hard to give blanket advice, since casting depends on the individual scenario you’ve chosen. Use your observations of the players from the warm-up to help you make good decisions.

I try to think about the dynamics between the players, rather than who most resembles a given character, because the dynamics make the game. If Sue and Joe don’t like each other all that well, casting them in a romantic relationship probably isn’t a good idea (unless it’s supposed to be unhappy!). If Bob hates public speaking, maybe I won’t cast him in a part that requires being super-eloquent, because I want him to feel comfortable.

If you’re playing relationship drama, the chemistry between the couples is obviously important. You can also be sneaky and cast people according to the roles you think might help them grow. Maybe I will give Bob the role of mayor so he’ll see that he can be eloquent. Sometimes it’s fun to play against type. Gender is often not as important as you think it is in casting.

That advice, and more on casting here.

Tip: If someone looks lost during a scene, you can ask them to monologue about the action to draw them in, if rules permit.

Cutting

It can be hard to cut scenes as a first-time freeform GM. There are a bunch of different schools – cut before the tension peaks to frustrate the players, cut when stuff gets boring, cut slow to draw out awkward situations– but most of all, when in doubt, cut fast rather than slow, because cutting fast keeps up the tempo and energy of the game.

It also depends on the game. In some games, I like to cut long early-on, to draw out the core dynamic of the scene, and to give players time to happen upon something wonderful. But if you cut long, you also risk slowing the energy of the group and letting it peter out.

Lots more advice on cutting here and here.

The main thing to remember: the more you cut, the more you’ll get the hang of when to do it. There’s no wrong or right here, so don’t worry about it too much. As you GM more, you’ll develop your own style, and that’s good.

Tip: Silence can be pregnant with meaning, and it’s OK to let it lengthen awkwardly.

 

DEBRIEF

Always hold a debrief. A five minute debrief is better than no debrief. A fifteen or thirty minute debrief is better. A rule of thumb is: the more intense the game, the longer the debrief should be. And games don’t have to last long to be intense.

The most minimal debrief is for everyone to go around the circle and say one thing that stood out to them about the game.

The most important part of the debrief is that everyone should talk and no one person should dominate the conversation. Some people are naturally more talkative than others, of course. So watch for the quiet ones and try to draw them out. If they really don’t want to talk, don’t make them, but maybe go up to them casually later and make sure they’re ok.

Of course, people will tell some war stories, and that’s great, but you also want to cut to the heart of the matter and ask people to talk about their feelings. If something seemed problematic or could have been problematic, but wasn’t, now’s a good time to talk about that.

You should ask questions, but know that the questions you ask also set the tone for the debrief and therefore for the experience that the players leave the game with. Neutral questions, “What did you think of X?” are better than critical questions. At the end of a decent but not great game, I once asked “What were the problems with this game?” People left nitpicking the game design and GM style, instead of talking about the impact of the experience. If you want GM feedback, get it later and privately.

You may also find that players want to talk to you solo after the game down at the bar or in the lobby, or whatever. This is natural and good, so let it happen.

And a reminder: as the GM, your job is to listen and not talk during the debrief.

Lots more advice on debriefs here.

 

TIPS, TROUBLESHOOTING, AND LEARNING FROM LIZZIE’S MISTAKES

I’ve tried out a bunch of stuff. Here are some miscellaneous things I’ve learned:

  • During my first few games, I looked at players and thought they were miserable, bored, etc. In the debrief, it was plain they’d had a great time. Players look serious while playing serious games. This is normal, so don’t freak out about it.
  • It’s up to the players to make the game good. Sometimes they’re just not in the right mood, or the group dynamics are wonky and the game is shallow in a boring way. This isn’t necessarily your fault.
  • Not every person is a good audience for every game, or even for freeform in general. Just accept that not everyone will be into it.
  • People play better in the afternoon and evening.
  • If a game tanks, it’s better to end it early and talk about it that then to let it drag on. Sometimes admitting this hurts your ego. Suck it up and do it anyway. You’ll learn a lot, and the players will respect you for not torturing them.
  • I experimented with “enforced sharing” during warm-ups, asking people to share a fear or hope, for example, as a way of bonding the group and making them comfortable bleeding. I found that instead of driving the players closer and facilitating bleed, most of the time this made it more difficult for players to play hard; it sort of pointed at issues players might want to explore, and in doing so, made people feel self-conscious.
  •  It’s normal to flail around for the first two-thirds of a freeform game – people are still finding and focusing in on the story. The magic seems to happen in the last part.
  • It’s OK for you to have feelings about the game too, but it’s probably best for you to share them with an external party.
  • Confidence. If you don’t have it, just larp it; like dogs smelling fear, players can sense when you feel weak and that weakens the experience for them.
  • If the game isn’t perfect, or if it fails, no one will arrest you. So get out there and try new stuff.

So there you have it: set the tone and let the game unfurl, and use your GM tools to manage the interpersonal dynamics between people and make sure no one is left out.

Happy adventuring.

And for the comment crowd: What games would you recommend for a first-time freeform GM? What tips did I miss? Share your experience with us, or come ask questions!

___

PS. You know what still makes a great Christmas gift to relatives confused about your hobby? Leaving Mundania.

American Jerkform: A Manifesto

by Elizabeth Snark and George Flocke

Mr. Humveeform (a/k/a http://brooklynindiegames.com/) will make you WEEP. With gasoline fumes. Credit: John Stavropolous

Jerkform

Bigger. Badder. More dice.

Playing games is so 1990. American Jerkform is part of the new wave of unplayable games. (Note: Do not attempt to play any of the following games.)

No one knows exactly what American Jerkform is. Don’t mistake it for the similar Libertarianform games (not to be mistaken for freeform), or the newer, spankier Humveeform. They are both subsets of its marvel.

American Jerkform cannot be defined. Literally. By definition. Its intensity is so intense that if you even think about trying to pigeonhole it with a definition, Jerkform will imagine itself into being like the Greek God Gaia and burn down your house.

American Jerkform is too intense to be played. It’s meant to be ridden, like a motorcycle through town, stereo cranked up, moustache hair tangling in the hurricane of emotion oozing off you like cheap cologne as you belt out Bon Jovi with your dude-bros in a dive bar because Jerkform does not CARE about mixed metaphors, continuity, or consistency.

All Jerkform wants out of life is for you to love it.

Jerkform is not meant to be understood. It’s meant to be grokked.

THE HANDBOOK FOR DUCHAMP SCOUTS

Collect 3-5 friends and head to the men’s room. Everyone puts two found objects into a bag. Stand several standard stoppages apart in a big circle. Ululate and call the spirit of the great artist Duchamp into you.

One by one, each person grabs one or two objects from the sack, joins them into a readymade and tags someone else to perform a short skit around that object. At the end of the skit, decide what Duchamp Scout motto has been uncovered and write it down into a little book.

Eat the book.

WAITING FOR BECKETT

Grab a friend and head to the local Cheesecake Factory. Tell the hostess that you are waiting for your friend X. Drink at the bar until you are broke. Stand outside and talk with your friend until you realize that X isn’t a person at all — X represents an abstraction, like the futility of life, or your own inability to score a date under honest pretenses. Roll for bleed.

HIPSTER GOLF

This is a pervasive game meant for a several-day conference event or other large social gathering. It discourages hipster behavior.

Prep
Give each player a false moustache, or teach them how to make a finger moustache, by placing a finger on their upper lips. Hand out the scoring cards, which should have the list of banned strokes on the back. The goal is to reach the end of the event with as few points as possible.

Banned strokes

  • unnecessarily introduces Foucault (or a similar intellectual figure) into conversation (+1)
  • unnecessary or irrelevant introduction of technical terms, esp. without explanation (+1 or +2)
  • referencing having liked people or cultural trends before they were cool (+1)
  • references a small band, author, or other cultural object as if you should have heard of it (+1)
  •  exuding apathy about political, social, or moral outcomes. (+2)
  • <insert your own>

Game Play
When a player executes a banned stroke, everyone around him or her simultaneously lifts false moustaches to their noses and solemnly intones “their first album was better.”

You may wish to handicap anyone wearing skinny jeans, plaid, or natural facial hair.

MURDER, SHE COMMITTED. (MURDER, SHE WROTE MY CONFESSION?)

Collect 6-10 friends and reenact an episode of Murder, She Wrote. One person plays Angela Lansbury, everyone else plays her web of “friends” in Cabot Cove. The rule is that everyone fears Lansbury’s rage, since she’s a sociopath masquerading as a kindly old mystery writer who solves crimes. She kills at random, and no one is safe. She’s skilled and fearsome enough that even the police try to cover up her crimes with their own ineptitude. The game ends when the killer she’s framed confesses, and the player of Lansbury mimics her classic face of disgust and horror/contempt.

This game can also be played by adding Lansbury to any boxed murder mystery dinner party.

COOLNESS ABOUT COOLNESS

Coolness is a morally bankrupt currency. Take a minute and think of all the things you’ve done to seem cool. Do you feel bad yet? Good. This pervasive game teaches you how to overcome your natural tendency toward coolness by forcing you to do un-cool things like:

  • talking to people whose relative coolness level has not yet been established.
  • listening to people whose coolness score is equal to ½ of your own or less.
  • singing along to a pop song in public.
  • dancing without inhibition
  • caring about anything.

AMERICAN SAUNA WORKSHOP

Everyone meets in the sauna wearing a bathing suit and an overcoat, and feeling a decent, God-fearing sense of shame about the human body.

The winner is the person who studiously ignores everyone else’s bodies, and/or  pretends that this situation isn’t totally awkward for the longest continuous time.

AMERICAN JERKYFORM

by Terry Romero

We play for the bleed. We play to be chewy, salty, and richly seasoned by fear, loathing, and nitrates.

There is only one game we play: close your eyes, chew on some jerky. Don’t care if it’s meat or soy or a doggie toy. Imagine the following, in no particular order

  • It’s your left arm
  • The first time you realized you are dead inside
  • The cat
  • The sweet taste of freedom

Trade your jerky with the person to your left. Repeat until all the jerky is gone.

Humveeform

Humveeform is a special subset of Jerkform so avant garde, that not only are the games unplayable, they are uncreated, intangible, and existing only in the deepest, darkest, most gasoline-inefficient corners of your mind…

But that is only how we define Humveeform. For each Humveeer defines the genre differently.

Humveeform is aimed at making you cry. Most of the games utilize a universal bleed mechanic designed to ensure that you do.

The bleed mechanic tells you how similar you are to your character and how bad you should feel about that.

Remember:  not every Humveeform involves a bleed mechanic, and not every game with a bleed mechanic is Humveeform.

Bleed Mechanic 1

Roll a d-20. On a:

1: You’ve forgotten what sort of game you are playing. Get the powerup and win the game.

2-3: You don’t feel very bad at all. Feel ashamed about your inability to commit to the role.

4-5: Is someone cutting onions nearby, or is this room just dusty?

6-8: That thing you really hate about your character? It’s true of you too, but everyone’s been too polite to say it until now.

9-12: You aren’t just bleeding now, you’re hemorrhaging. Put on a headband (size, shape, and color corresponding to your race and class) soaked in red Kool-Aid.

13-15: Break up with your significant other.

16-19: Make the sound of ultimate suffering.

Crit 20: Total success!  Kill yourself.

 

We invite you to add your own Jerkform or Humveeform games to the comments.

 

*Marc Machjer’s Twenty-Four Game Poems, an awesome book of completely playable super-short, almost prep-less games that you should immediately buy, inspired this post, as did the collective of gamers that attended a recent jeepy weekend in southern NJ.

** Also: have you bought my book? You should probably buy my book. It is journalistic nonfiction about larp.

Jeepform for Noobs

Featured

Jeepform games have a mysterious rap, perhaps because the Nordic games in general defy neat taxonomy, and this is the most definable word that’s made it over here. In the course of my travels, I’ve heard gamers drop “jeepform” to describe any roleplaying game  that comes out of the Nordic countries. For indie gamers, dropping the neologism works a bit like mentioning Belle & Sebastian did back when I was in college — it identifies the hipsters to one another; it functions as a code word for people who are in to serious roleplay, even if they aren’t quite sure what it means.

Well, my beloved gaming hipsters, I’m here to explain what the #$%! jeepform is to you…at least what I’ve gleaned during my travels.

Jeepform is a style of freeform game.

What in tarnation is a freeform game? That’s a good question — ask three Nordicans and you’ll get five answers. More or less, the freeform scene developed out of the tabletop gaming scene and now centers around the Fastaval convention in Denmark. Basically, people started standing up and acting out their characters during tabletop games, and things progressed until suddenly there were no tables at all. Freeform games use some techniques from larp, like acting out your character, and some techniques from tabletop games, like fast forwarding through the two-week trek you take to the dungeon.

Here’s a handy chart:

Think of it this way — in a platonic larp, there’d be a one-to-one relationship between reality and the game world. So if I bought you a mug of ale, we’d go to the inn and I’d buy you a mug of ale. In a tabletop game, there’s a symbolic relationship between the real world and the game world. So if I stab your character, I represent that by saying “I stab your character.” Freeform games use some one-to-one correspondence — if I shout at you in real life, I’m shouting at you in the game — and some symbolic relationships — I can make my pen into a sword if necessary.

Because freeform games (and by extension, jeepform games) came out of the tabletop scene, folks refer to them as tabletop games. So jeepform is not larp, even though you act out a scene physically.

Most of the games are for 3-8 players and can take place in any room with a reasonable amount of privacy and space. No set or costumes required.

Jeepform is whatever the collective of (mostly) Danish and Swedish people say it is.

The jeepers get to decide what counts as jeepform. Inducted jeepers make jeepform games. Other people can create jeepish games, but really, if it’s not on the Jeepen.org website (with rare exception, as pointed out in the comments), it’s not a proper  jeepform.  This is sort of like how if I made a phone with a touch screen it wouldn’t be an iPhone unless Apple said so. Or how if I slap LV logos over a kicky purse I designed, it’s not Louis Vuitton unless the company says so.

Certain themes characterize jeepform games.

For the most part, they’re set in the real, mundane world. No dragons here, just ordinary people having ordinary problems with their relationships, jobs, and personal lives. Linked to this is the idea of playing close to home — playing characters with whom you have something in common.

Playing close to home also means making the story emotionally relevant for yourself by bringing your real life into the game. If I’m playing a relationship game and choose to riff off of that fight I had with my husband last week, that creates a very different play experience than playing on an issue that’s alien to me. Playing close to home can cause bleed, which is what happens when player and character emotions get mixed up. In the US, we often think of bleed as something to be avoided, but in many Nordic roleplaying games, it is encouraged and managed by the game formats. Playing for bleed can lead to insight about oneself and the world, and it creates intense emotions that some players crave.

Since these game experiences are more about the emotion (the inside story), and less about the plot (the outside story), their surface stories often don’t have a lot of bells and whistles. For example, a game might be about a Mother’s support group that turns vicious, or a relationship where at least one of the partners experiences temptation and doubt, or about a drunk guy dying from alcoholism. It’s not uncommon to know how the story ends before the game begins, because the point is not really to discover what happens, but rather, to explore the themes and emotions suggested by the scenario.  Similarly, because many of the jeepform games — but not all — encourage bleed, character sheets are minimal or nonexistent. If all I know about my character is that she’s an actress,  then during the game I’ll necessarily fill in from my real-life experience, creating a character relevant to my life.

While bleed can sneak up on you, it’s important to remember that players have some control over how close to home they want to play it — you can choose to create a character, a mask, between yourself and the game, or you can try to play it as if you were in the game situation.

Jeepform games are highly structured.

Rather than letting one scene unspool continuously, most jeepform games are cut together more like a movie, with a series of scenes. The GM serves as the director of the movie, cutting scenes at points of tension by saying “cut,” helping set scenes, keeping track of time, and introducing other elements to help heighten the tension. Sometimes, the GM can call for scenes to be replayed — if a scene is dragging on or not escalating the drama, the GM can say, “do it again, but this time talk about your relationship with his mother.”

Most scenes focus on a couple of characters. Anyone who is not playing in a particular scene either watches the drama unfold, or perhaps enters as an NPC to help the spotlighted characters explore their emotions.

Jeepform games use metatechniques.

Metatechniques break the flow of the game narrative and heighten the drama. There are many different metatechniques; some games use more, some games use fewer. Here are a couple of the most commonly-used ones:

Monologuing. During a scene, the GM can demand a monologue from a character by pointing and saying “monologue.” The character delivers a soliloquy about what’s going on in her head. When the monologue is over, game play resumes as if no one on stage has heard it. Monologues help flesh out characters and relay important information to other players. If I mention my character’s infertility during a monologue, then later perhaps my co-players will push me to address this by repeatedly bringing up children.

As jeeper Emily Care Boss once told me, monologues and several other metatechniques often create dramatic irony between players and characters. This can be played for laughs — for example, two characters are flirting and one delivers a monologue about how repugnant the other’s breath is — and also for complexity/tragedy — for example, when a character delivers a monologue about how he’s thinking about cheating and then returns to a lovey-dovey scene with his wife.

Bird-in-ear. The GM whispers stuff into the ears of characters to push them, either by offering direct suggestions or simulating thoughts that might be winging through the character’s mind.

Telegraphing. You can bring any object you need into the game through the power of your imagination. The best way to do this is in-scene, for example, by saying, “I bought you flowers” when presenting someone with a pen. The phrase telegraphs to them that the pen now represents a bouquet. It’s also possible — but less elegant — to do out of game, by saying, “this pen is a knife,” and using it appropriately.

Temporal play. There is probably some more official-sounding word for this, but many jeepform games play with time. GMs can fast forward a scene to two beers later. In some games, it’s possible to play flash backs and flash forwards, often using different physical locations in the room to help everyone keep track of the present.

Character nonmonogamy. Several people may play the same character. For example, if two players are on stage and the GM calls for a possible future, two other folks might get up and play it out. Or we might play different aspects of the same character, as in the game Doubt, where two player portray actors in a relationship, and two players portray the characters in the play that they’re performing in.

Where does the name jeepform come from?

The jeepers put out many apocryphal stories about the term’s origins. The best way to hear one is to buy a jeeper a beer.

Further reading:

Interview with jeeper Frederik Berg Østergaard
Vi åker jeep! (includes free downloads of games. Previous Occupants is a good place to start for new GMs)
Nordic Larp Wiki on jeepform
Emily Care Boss and others ask Tobias Wrigstad questions on StoryGames.
Tobias Wrigstad on designing jeepform games on StoryGames.
How to approach a jeepform game on StoryGames.