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Last weekend I went to my fourth Peaky freeform-writing workshop, and had an excellent time.

It was a bit more relaxed than usual, because instead of aiming to get a game completed by Saturday night in order to playtest on the Sunday, as is standard, I pitched the idea of a group that just researched, tested and developed some character-creation workshopping techniques that might be useful in freeforms. Enough other people were keen, so that's what we did: and, as it turned out, some of the stuff we came up with was strong enough that we actually were able to give people a playtestable game experience on the Sunday after all. So that was already a win all round, as far as I was concerned.

We started off by doing various bits of thinking around techniques used in Hillfolk, The Shab al-Hiri Roach, When the Dark Is Gone, etc – various tabletop RPGs that include character creation mechanisms which drive interaction and rapidly establish inter-character relationships. We even tried the Ball of Yarn technique, which we varied up by simultaneously using four different-coloured balls of wool to represent different types of statement or relationship – this was very pretty and worked fine for the five of us, but not sure it would have been practical with the 12 or so players we were aiming for. Along the way we accidentally created a Hillfolk variant set among the crew of a Star-Trek like space voyage. (No doubt someone's already done that, as part of the Kickstarter add-ons, but anyway we felt it worked pretty well.)

So the version we ended up carrying forward for the playtest was our own concoction, which doesn't yet have a name but can be thought of as the lots-of-coloured-cards system. Imagine a table with five sets of different-coloured cards on it. The blue cards each have written on them a role: your concrete role within the game. The red ones each have a character archetype. The greens have a personality trait. The orange ones have an emotional goal. And the yellows, which are folded over, each have a secret. The roles and secrets are of course specific to a particular game background, but the others are fairly generic and can be ported from game to game without needing much changing. The idea is that each player in turn approaches the table and picks up one of the cards. They continue, taking turns, until each has taken one card of each colour. Each player may pick colours in any order – ie. you could pick your role first, or your secret first, etc. So by the end of the process you might have chosen role = science officer, archetype = mentor/advisor, personality trait = pessimistic, emotional goal = get revenge, secret = strong affiliation (the concealed back of which says: you are a member of an extremist group of some kind, your choice what). This forms the skeleton of the character that you will play.

So once everyone's done that, we sit them all down around a table and get them in turn to choose a name and introduce themselves in a couple of sentences – conveying their role and also (either by role-playing or indication) an idea of their archetype and personality trait."I'm Fredericks, the science officer – I'm always ready to give the captain advice and guidance, although sometimes she finds what I have to say a bit gloomy". That gives everyone an idea of who they all are and what their basic functional interrelationships are.

The next step is to give everyone four glass beads. We then ask each of them to answer a question about another character. They must choose a different other character to answer about for each question, and, as they do so, pass them a bead. The idea of that is that people will tend to roughly even out the bead distribution if they can see someone hasn't had any yet, it's an incentive to even out the web. The questions are things like: what was your first impression of X when you met them? What do you envy, or admire, about Y? and so on. So everyone in turn answers the first question, then everyone in a different sequence answers the second question, and so on. They have freedom to invent stuff here, as long as the target player agrees it: differences can be settled by negotiation. (In the playtest we used four transparent beads, but we're thinking in some scenarios it might be better to use two white and two black – and thus force the player to make two of their answers/statements to be positive, two negative.)

And once that's done, we did one more announcement about the immediate background to the game start, and explained how the black box would work (a semi-out-of-game area which people could use to stage flashbacks, expound internal monologues, etc), and timed in.

So, that's all a bit of a rush through it, which probably leaves much unclear. We'll do a proper detailed writeup at some point, because it's a system we'd like other people to be able to use. And do ask questions below!

Anyway, the scenario we used at Peaky wasn't anything to do with science officers but was at a present-day normal-world pre-wedding dinner. The wedding was due the following day: the hag do had been the weekend before, in Blackpool. At which, some rather awkward things had taken place, which had cast certain aspects of the wedding (like: was it actually going to go ahead?) into question. Time to play: What Happened in Blackpool! (Ooh, that page has a photo of the coloured cards. Excellent.) Apart from that, we didn't write anything: no plots, no character backgrounds, no NPCs, nothing. The players would do all that!

So it turned out all the setup as discussed above took about an hour, then we had 45 mins of so of play, and 20 mins or so of debrief afterwards. This was not a Nordic-style 'exploring the feelings engendered in you by the game' debrief (although we should probably build in allowance for that, particularly for scenarios that are less light-hearted than this one): it was the players (who were all fellow-designers) telling us what they liked and didn't like about the game, etc. Fortunately they mostly liked it. The main issue was the physical one that the cards were too small and in some cases on too dark a paper to be easily read across the table. During the questions phase, players had to keep peering and asking to remind themselves of who people were and what they were like. Fortunately it should be pretty easy to fix that.

One playtester suggested an interesting way to lengthen the game, which was to, after the initial session of play proper, add an interlude during which players went back to the table and were asked two further questions about each other. This would help tie down things that had been improvised, spread good plot ideas around the table, refocus objectives, and other useful outcomes. Then you have another, shorter play session.

This proposed interlude, and the initial questions session, have an interesting status, it seemed to me. Not time-in in the sense of being fully in character, they were also not time-out in the sense of talking about your character in the third person. Instead they were what one of the team called 'time-ish' – somewhere inbetween. Of course this is commonplace in tabletop games, which generally are time-ish for most of their unfolding, and fairly common in larps, where things like meals and sleeping are often time-ish, but it's very unusual in freeforms which usually transition sharply from one state to the other.

Right, so, I've babbled on enough now. Suffice to say the whole thing felt very positive and creatively energizing: and that's not even talking about the two games that I helped playtest for other people, which were both great fun. Onward and upward!



3rd May, 2013 11:39 (UTC)
I suspect in practice similar effects often apply even to nominally prepless games

Mm, indeed. I think in prepless games players are almost always in practice drawing on a body of books, films, other games etc that they've internalized: and the solidity and consistency of such materials will be influential on the way the game comes out in play.