This post was originally published on the blog of Lizzie Stark, the author of Leaving Mundania, a narrative nonfiction book that examines the complex world of larp, or live action role-play. She’s written for The Today Show website, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, io9.com, Good Men Project and elsewhere.
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.
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.
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.
Tip: If someone looks lost during a scene, you can ask them to monologue about the action to draw them in, if rules permit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!