Metropolis

Players enact the city of Metropolis during the Intercon 2011 run of my eponymous American freeform game.

Quiet waves of change have rippled through the role-playing community. On Monday of this week, Lizzie Stark posted an introduction to American freeform on her blog, an entry that codified design practices we’ve been using here in the States since at least the middle of the 00s. As one of the numerous designers whose work she listed, I am both honored and humbled by having my work mentioned in a public forum. My own blog post here is intended to continue that discussion, leading into my thoughts on the development and current state of what we’d like to call “American freeform.”

American freeform games are hybrid tabletop/larp creations that share the following set-up: 3-12 players in a 4-hour-or-less game act out scenes related to a single, compelling situation, having transparent access to much or all of the plotline information and altering the flow of the game using meta-techniques. The game format prioritizes emergent properties of a given scenario over someone knowing more-or-less what’s going to happen in advance. In addition to the games that Lizzie mentioned, one might add Marc Majcher’s game poems or Luke Crane’s InheritanceThere are probably plenty of such games floating out there in the North American scene, but rarely do they get collected together and examined seriously in terms of their commonalities.

What do I already have invested in this hybrid format? Those who know me may have heard me talk of a book-length collection of freeform games that specifically treat topoi of German cinema. Films that have already received the freeform treatment from me include: Metropolis (1927)Run Lola Run (1998), the cinema of Uwe Boll and Silent Star (1960) / In the Dust of the Stars (1976), with future games planned for Marriage in the Shadows (1947), Three Good Friends (1931), Hard to be a God (1990), and (2011). Such mature, odd games were only conceivable as of late, due to inspiration from the unique Nordic larp forms that have evolved over the past fifteen years through venues such as Fastaval and Knutepunkt, carried across the Atlantic by figures such as Tobias Wrigstad and Emily Care Boss. In addition, I have co-developed several “parlor sandbox” games BloodNet and The City of Fire & Coin, which emphasize player agency (working in concert with others) and gamemasters’ improvisation abilities. These freeforms I have developed owe much to indie tabletop games, such that some portions of them involve not-insignificant levels of pencil and paper action. But one might also say that American freeform elements in my design emerged from a critical eye toward current practices in live-action role-playing in the United States.

My expectations for freeform games have significantly changed over the years. In effect, I have subconsciously desired the mechanical/narrative fluidity from indie tabletop RPGs such as Fiasco1,001 Nights, or Shock in the larps that I joined. But compared with either the indie tabletop RPG experience or the Danish freeform experience, most American larps weren’t really delivering the goods. (Negativity alert: if you want to dodge my rant, skip to the end of the paragraph) Instead what I typically got for my long hours assembling my costume and “getting into character” were these awkward intrigue parties where players were sizing up each other to do rock-paper-scissors or play some card from their game-specific deck of fun. In such larps, the gamemasters were the Great Concealers of Plot, such that it was hard for me to get cues as to how to behave or what direction to push other players. What I really wanted were genre (i.e., ship crew, fantasy, steampunk) larps, comedic larps and serious/dramatic larps that gave the players the tools they needed to make the most out of the experience, rather than larps that had you read a 10-page backstory for a character who will then flounder around in an unpleasant social void for a Saturday night. By contrast, the Danish freeform larps I had played were all about playing your character to the hilt in a tightly constrained scenario, but with few rules that genuinely propelled the action along. American freeform, simply put, satisfies my demands as both a designer and consumer of larp-y games.

The American freeform community no longer wishes to be treated as the exception, but to be taken seriously. In my years as a writer for the Danish convention Fastaval, I received feedback that pointed out how much I was doing something relatively outside of the bounds of their expectation. See, for example, this Danish evaluation of The Posthuman’s Progress:

The game is a daring adaption that insists on a radical decomposition of the traditional gamemaster and as a result is highly collaborative. The game design is somewhat influenced by North American gaming culture – using an analytical approach to explicate the necessary game-elements – and somewhat by a Scandinavian approach to game design – insisting on the possibility for the participants to intuitively find common ground through play.

What I could have used here was a primer on the American freeform tradition that would let the judges know how to see my work. What Lizzie has done is given voice to our in-between-ness, so that we will in the future receive evaluations that accept what we’re doing as part of a certain culture, rather than as some continuously rolling role-playing “experiment.”

American freeform is European-style freeform with American-style indie game mechanics. The word “American” is there to orient ourselves toward the international freeform scene, rather than colonize/exclude certain scenes that are within or outside our borders. The word “freeform” is there to say that these games are hybrids between tabletop and larp, such that we steal from both formats with equal aplomb. We want narratively rich games that let us rise up from the table and use our bodies to communicate things our voices and paper cannot. We want to welcome gamers of all backgrounds and identities to explore themselves and their emotions in a safe and supportive space. At the same time, we do not want to uncritically import the baggage of older larp traditions into our format, with their emphasis on player scheming and gamemaster-centric plotlines, though we do acknowledge our fundamental debt to these traditions. At the core of our game design lies the active emotional experience of the player, and the mechanics we design place the player experience at the very center of the game.

We have seen our fair share of criticism. There have been some long-term disputes in the online RPG community about what freeform is and how we should employ the term. Naturally, these debates were primarily about according proper credit to certain individuals for their artistic contributions and about the annoying properties of labels like “American freeform” or labels in general. There has also been a reactionary strain in discussions among larpers that this format has existed for a long time, and that they have already been generating games like this for decades. To these points, I would like to say that American freeform constitutes an inclusive community that neither stops at the borders of America nor seeks to co-opt other play cultures. Lizzie simply put words together to describe what characteristics a certain set of games share. Nevertheless, American freeform is in some respects definitely a set of a few individuals, mostly located in the American Northeast, and they appear from the outside to have a kind of hipster/scenester aesthetic. Do such attributes make the movement a worthy subject of attack? I don’t think so. I would like to remind the movement’s critics of the significant presence of women among our ranks. The typical American freeform creator is female, which makes me (perhaps unfairly) suspect patriarchal impulses behind some of the “controversy” we’ve experienced. There is a mass of gamers that would like to control what we create and play, and its designs are conservative and status quo. American freeform attempts to push beyond the status quo without sacrificing the player on the altar of our creation. Finally, the supposed monopoly on innovation that older larp communities presumably possess has not appreciably shifted the American larp culture into the space that American freeform games now occupy. The average U.S. larp still employs drawn-out combat mechanics, has no mechanical exploration of human intimacy, uses player/GM secrets as the primary narrative engine, and holds task resolution to be the focus of its rules. Little experimental larps here and there do not. a movement. make. What I’d really appreciate is if our critics were to actually play at least one of the American freeform games in question, rather than dismiss a whole format out of hand because they don’t “play that kind of game.” Trolls and jerks follow the road of dismissal; constructive critics do not.

Where are we headed? Well, looking at Lizzie’s list, American freeform currently appears to have its hands full adapting indie tabletop games to semi-live play. We’re concerned not only with expanding the scope of genre larps, but also with making space for larps to express the unconventional. Nevertheless, as awareness of the meta-techniques and philosophy of the American freeform movement spreads, we imagine we’ll see effects in not only established U.S. larps like One World By Night or Dystopia Rising but also across the Atlantic in Europe, where we now will be seen as coming from a distinct tradition. The point of the movement has always been to design and play more games, and not to waste time navel-gazing about what our collective goal might be. But I do fantasize of the day when I can walk into any larp in the States and see our holistic design ideals at work. Maybe that’s what American freeform is about for me.

So don’t be shy – play one of the games on Lizzie’s list, and let us know what you think!

RealityStrange Clock

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The days seem like hours now, so short they are in my perception.  I fly to Chicago on July 14th, where I will be picked up and delivered back to Iowa, where I’ll be until early August.

Yes, that means no more Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin in less than a week.  Egal – I’ll switch the name to Guy in the Black Hat Meets [Wherever My Permanent Residence Happens to Be at the Time].  I figure anywhere I go will provide me with interesting encounters to post on the Internet.  Long live Guy in the Black Hat Meets Northampton!

Berlin has been more than kind to me:  I have never felt as cosmopolitan before in my life.  I met filmmakers, drank in nice places/dives, attended a few concerts, saw a lot of movies, rummaged through archives, churned out articles and essays, visited Prague, Aarhus, Venice, Bremen and Göttingen, spent some time in an artificial tropical rainforest at Brand (Niederlausitz), saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit, experienced the elation of the Germans as Lena Meyer-Landrut won the Eurovision 2010 contest in Oslo, hung out with people from around the world, and managed to get plenty of much-needed sleep in the midst of it all.  All in all, I should not be complaining.  Still, a small update is necessary:

Just as my article and blog post on Uwe Boll came out, I discovered he was coming to the HFF on June 24th.  So I decided to audio-record the entire speech, which is an enjoyable 2.5 hours if you understand any German.  In fact, it was one of those instances in which understanding the German language quite literally gave me a better level of access to information about how the world works, which is why I am continuously baffled by why universities think cutting back on German is a great idea. Understanding German connects you with a whole next level of cultural production that, well, needs to be situated within its context.

Kat left for Iowa on the 29th, and I don’t think I’ve actually had a phone conversation with her since then, on account of her not having a cell phone but being on the road up in the Twin Cities and the time difference and all.  This makes me sad. 😦

All the more sad beyond having to leave Berlin and doing so alone is the fact that I missed the very wedding I didn’t want to:  that of Preeti Gupta and Seth Bacon.  These are two exceptional individuals with whom I’ve spent many a fine day, and whose wedding I knew was going to be awesome.  And then it was scheduled to take place within my last two weeks here, also on the very weekend I had a conference in Bremen.  So to all my Grinnellian alumni friends that were there (Taylor, Megan, Eve, David, John, Katie, Aaron, Ann, Sean… oh, the list is too long):  I missed dancing, gaming and reveling with Preeti and Seth.  And to Preeti and Seth:  the present’s on its way, but my well-wishes now will have to do.

So: the Bremen conference.  It was my first official conference paper delivered in German to a German audience on German soil, and I think it went fairly well.  The topic was “Turns und Trends in der Literaturwissenschaft,” and was designed to gather young scholars into debate about the field of Germanistik via papers delivered. I dealt with material pertaining to a racist “geopolitical fiction” science-fiction novel – Pereat Austria! – from 1907 written by a right-wing self-help author Marie Carola Freiin von Eynatten.  My paper was described as the “postcolonial turn” of the conference.  In any case, it will be published (with revisions) in German in October.  I’m psyched.  But I was even more psyched to by chance visit with Sarah, a former UMass professor, and her coterie of German exchange students to Dickinson College.  It was like being back with Grinnellians for the evening – interesting liberal-arts college types – and I felt suddenly at home amidst an otherwise somewhat alienating conference experience.

Naturally, we stopped our final discussion on Saturday as Germany trashed Argentina in a World Cup quarter final showdown.  Though it didn’t pan out for Germany in the semi-finals against Spain, the victory celebrations for the quarter final were extremely intense in Bremen, with cops and smoke bombs and yelling people and vuvuzelas and (enough booleans) such.  I remember exiting the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin and asking myself: “Is this a warzone?”  Men were hauling up random people off the street and stuffing them into a van to drink.  A couple in Tiergarten seemed to be celebrating with a deliberately heavy amount of heavy petting.  Bottles flew, music blasted, Germans yelped for joy.  Well, at least they made it to the semi-finals.

For reasons I’ll not state here, I was back early from Bremen and found myself in Berlin for the Fourth of July, which was celebrated at Tempelhof Park by the Young Democrats Abroad.  Hilary Bown ’02 and Justin Torrence ’03 were present and made me feel at home there.  We had a cherry pit spitting contest, and some guy named Jerry impressed me with his deep knowledge of Cold War history as an American ex-pat who lived in Kreuzberg.  Then Kira and I commiserated and had ice cream.

Monday night was a BBQ in Prenzlauer Berg in one of the older houses along Husemannstr.  After exactly one beer, I was repeatedly told by the Germans that I was “zu laut,” leading me to believe that I project my voice much better in the foreign language…

And now Peggy, my landlady, has come and inspected the apartment.  I am most definitely leaving, and the sparseness of my surroundings bears testimony to that fact.

But what’s life without melancholy, bittersweet endings, or the sending off of old friends to new places?

Fantasy

Die Liebe und die Königin (1976)

Based on Viktor Hugo’s novel Maria Tudor, this film stars Gojko Mitic as the dashing Fabiano Fabiani, an Italian nobleman who murders a Jewish loan-shark plotting to overthrow the throne, starting a whole chain of events.  The first time I’ve ever seen Mitic play a villainous role, though it looks like he’s still only got about two possible expressions.  It supports my argument for my GSA paper in the fall anyway…

Die schöne Lurette (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, 1960)

An adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s operette by the same name.  Best watched on fast-forward, I think – then you see fast-moving soldiers and peasants weaving in and around each other, occasionally donning masks and kissing.  Much better than its awkward Powell/Pressburger aspirations.

Echo Bazaar

I took the (loneliness-fueled) plunge and joined a choose-your-own-adventure Twitter app called Echo Bazaar.  The premise:  you are a quasi-damned, quasi-deceased soul in Fallen London, an underground version of the same that happens to share a border with Hell.  Quite addictive and quite well-written (because it’s British), my character has already done any number of dubious tasks, such as fed a hapless drunk to a demon and composed an ode about a fungal creature.  Fun times.

Shifting Forest Storyworks

A LARP community in California, Shifting Forest Storyworks, has been so generous as to offer many of their written parlor LARP scenarios for free.  I took a gander at several, including the Mirror Room, and was pleasantly surprised with how tightly structured and playable they all seemed.  It made me excited to run several upon my return.  Any players willing to have a go?