The Freeform Business

Steve Hatherley

Can you make a business out of freeforms? And if you can, what sort of business?

There are three different aspects to freeforms – running them, selling them and (of course) writing them. I’m going to discuss all three – but I’m mainly going to concentrate on the business of selling and writing, because that’s what I know.

Freeform not Larp

A quick aside - what do I mean when I say “freeform?” And why don’t I say “larp?”
We’ll do the easy one first – I don’t say larp because here in the UK “larp” usually refers to the rubber-sword style of games. And I don’t really know much about that.

So what’s a “freeform” then? In my mind, a freeform has the following features:

  • It’s self-contained. Freeforms aren’t campaigns, you play them once and that’s it.
  • Everyone is the star. There are no npcs – everyone has a full character (or maybe several characters). There’s nobody running “monsters” or “npcs.” If there are bad guys, then they are players too.
  • Detailed character backgrounds. Each character has a detailed pre-written background with goals and links to people they already know.
  • Plot overload. Freeforms have lots of plots all crammed together – and when the game starts there’s no telling which way things will go.
  • Rules light. Some freeforms don’t even have rules.
  • GM are enablers, not directors. Plot is driven by players, NOT the GMs. The GMs exist to help the players achieve their goals - that’s all (GMs often have no idea of what’s going on).

I mean games such as Last Voyage of the Marie Celeste, Midsummer Mischief or Miskatonic Reunion.

Larps, on the other hand, feel to me much more like a table-top game without the table. (And yes, I’m sure they’re not all like that.) I’m not saying that larps are bad. Far from it – I’m just making sure that when I say “freeform” you know what I mean.

And when I say “freeform” I am using the term fairly precisely. I’m not talking about running or selling or writing any other form of larp. Just freeforms.

Who are you selling to?

Before we get into the detail, you need to think about who you’re selling to.

I really didn’t expect to start a business to sell freeforms, but that’s what I ended up doing.

I played my first freeform in the summer of 1992. I’d read about them before that, but that was the first one I played in. It was a revelation.

What I remember most clearly was the fact that it was blindingly obvious that anyone could do this – not just gamers. Freeforming really was roleplaying for the masses – this really was a slightly more structured version of “let’s pretend.” Anyone could do it.

I was so convinced that I wrote a small freeform, and I waited for a company to come along that I could sell it to. I finished Death on the Gambia in the late-1990s, but it wasn’t until 2001 that I eventually realized that I would have to set up the business in order to sell it. Thus Freeform Games LLP was born.

When I wrote that first freeform, I made a conscious decision to write it for non-gamers. There were (and still are) two significant reasons for this:

  • Numbers: In short, there are more non-gamers than there are gamers. I know many more non-gamers than I do gamers.
  • Wealth: On the whole, gamers don’t like spending money. Gaming is also something we tend to do at college – when our income is minimal at best. Why would I want to target that market? I’d much rather pitch my game at people with a steady paycheck.

But how do you sell a roleplaying game to the public at large? Don’t the public think of us as geeks and weirdos? Well, yes they do (some of them). So the trick is not to tell them they’re playing a roleplaying game.

And what about the games themselves? Surely they won’t appeal to the general public? True enough. Most tabletop roleplaying games are too complex, involved or rooted in SF or fantasy for ordinary folk. Many freeforms suffer the same problem – but not all of them. In fact, while my mother doesn’t play roleplaying games I can quite easily imagine her playing a freeform – if it was done right. (And sure enough, she has.)

Besides, many people already role play – they just don’t know it. Decipher’s How to Host a Murder sets are extremely popular (even if many of them are given as presents and never used). It’s only a short step from Decipher’s sets to a true freeform – if people will go to a murder mystery party, they will play a freeform.

Happily, the term “murder mystery party” has slipped into general use – almost everyone knows what one of those is, even if they haven’t done one. So that’s how I wrote my freeform – as a murder mystery party.

I’m not saying you can’t sell freeforms to gamers, but that seems like hard work to me.

Running freeforms

I don’t really know much about this, so I’m going to cover the topic very briefly. I don’t know much about it because it seemed to me like a terrible idea. Events over here have generally been non-profit making and the games themselves have been labours of love. As soon as you think about how much you would have to charge to make a “reasonable” profit your prices rocket skywards and you lose your target audience (gamers).

A business running freeforms therefore requires simple repeatable games that are easy to run and appeal to everyone - not just gamers. And to me, the obstacles just seemed horrific:

  • Sourcing suitable freeforms
  • Employing actors
  • Finding venues
  • Catering
  • Insurance.

And so on. It seemed to be an awful lot of work for not enough reward. (And it isn’t work that appeals to me, which is perhaps the point.)

I do know of companies who run this kind of event – such as the UK's Initiative Unlimited. They organise murder mystery events and team-building events that are little more than simple freeforms. They don’t market to gamers – while I have played in a couple of their games at conventions, the one I played in that was marketed to the general public cost over £20 a head. Gamers aren’t normally prepared to pay that kind of money for a four hour game.

There are other murder mystery companies - but many of those simply present a murder and ask their guests to solve it. That’s not what I consider to be a freeform.

So I don’t fancy starting a business to run freeforms.

Selling freeforms

Is it possible to sell freeforms to gamers? I don’t know. I’ve seen a couple of companies try, but they don’t seem to last long and I haven’t really investigated the idea of selling to gamers.

One of the reasons I’ve never really looked into selling freeforms to gamers is that I started doing this as an affiliate.

I first came across affiliate programmes via Amazon. The idea is that you create a web-site and add a link to Amazon (or whoever). That link contains code that identifies your site, so that when a potential customer follows the link Amazon knows that they came from your site, and if they buy anything then you are credited with the sale and earn commission.

So I started out as an affiliate for Murder Mystery Games Ltd (who are the same guys as Initiative Unlimited, so I knew what their games were like) and set up a dedicated website selling their games.

It took a while for the site to get going. I spent three months learning all about the arcane world of search engine positioning and rewrote my site to make it search engine friendly. I’m by no means an expert (and it’s a constantly changing field) but I’m better than I was. And sure enough, as the site was recognised by the search engines, I started to generate sales: I was selling freeforms to ordinary people.

There’s nothing special about being an affiliate. Anyone can do it – you don’t even need a website (although these days most do). And you can be an affiliate for pretty much anything these days. You don’t even need to know anything about the arcane world of search engines if you buy Site Build It! – as I did for my second (and current) site


Before I go further, a word of warning about selling your own freeforms: liability.

I remember running an exercise at work which went along the lines of, “Imagine the lawsuits that would be flying around if there was an accident involving a busload of children on our motorway network. And imagine they were the sons and daughters of rich lawyers. Have we done everything we could reasonably expect to do to prevent such an accident and minimize our risk?” (The company I worked for managed parts of the UK motorway network.)

Now do the same thing with your freeform. What’s the worst that could go wrong? Now imagine that incident occurring when your freeform is being played by lawyers.

And if you think that something bad won’t happen (and I do occasionally meet people who don’t appear to be aware of the litigious society we live in) I was contacted in January 2002 by a reporter doing some research on a double murder in the US. Apparently there was a rumour that the murders took place while they were playing a murder mystery game. I don’t know how that eventually panned out (I couldn’t actually help) but it was a sober reminder not to take anything for granted.

(Then there’s the whole “five reported shootings in Bradford” incident that I mentioned in my Guns and Death in Tombstone article. Some people lose sight of any common sense when they start playing games.)

Writing freeforms

Once you’re an affiliate, there’s no reason why you can’t sell your own freeforms via the same channels…

Freeforms for gamers can be bizarre, off-the-wall games with strange rules and arcane backgrounds. Freeforms for ordinary folk are different in one fundamental aspect: they’re simpler.

There’s more than enough advice about writing freeforms, so I’m not going to go into that here. I’m just going to highlight some of the points that you should remember if you decide to write a game for non-gamers.

The man in the street: Always keep in mind who you are writing for. You don’t know who will be playing the characters, so you can’t assume that they know any special knowledge.

Simplicity: Write the game so that it can be run by a single person. That means several things – don’t include lots of complex mechanics that require constant GM attention. Make everything as self-contained as possible. Write the game so that under normal circumstances the players never need to talk to the GM.

The bigger the game, the simpler it needs to be.

And a single GM? Why not write it for two or three GMs? The simple answer to that is marketability. A game that can be run by a single person is more appealing than one that requires two or three. Sure, a customer may choose to host the game with more, but you should write it so that it only needs the one.

Accessibility: Keep the game rooted in reality. Most people don’t read fantasy or science fiction. Most people do have knowledge of current affairs, and most people know a little about history. Don’t expect anyone to read pages of detailed background either. Ideally you’re looking at about three pages: one for background, a second for character story, and a third for goals, “what you know” and similar. And that may be a page too many.

Make it readable. Lay the pages out so that everything is clear. Don’t use a tiny font.

Flexibility: Don’t write the game for an exact number of players – be flexible. All at Sea is for anywhere from 16 to 33 players. The more flexible you are, the more marketable your game will be.

Marketability: Aim for a great concept that you can get over in the title of the game. For example, in 2001 The Auction outsold its nearest rival by 2:1 on my first website. I presented the games in exactly the same way – I can only figure that The Auction is a strong concept and a great title. I wish I had more.

Licences: Don’t write a game for anything that requires a licence. Or at least, don’t sell it without acquiring a licence first!

Murder mystery: The game doesn’t have to feature a murder mystery, but you’ll probably find it easier to market and sell if you can call it a “murder mystery game.” Death on the Gambia doesn’t start with a murder, for example, but it is set in 1939 and is packed with shady characters so it certainly fits the genre.

A rule of thumb: A simple rule of thumb I use for these games is whether or not I think my mother would enjoy it. If so, I figure I have a winner.

But other than that, writing these games is just the same as any other freeform.

My ulterior motive

Now you’ve got this far, I admit that I have an ulterior motive. At Freeform Games we are looking for two things:

  • Affiliates who will sell our games for us.
  • Writers who will write us freeforms in a murder mystery style. We have fairly high standards, but we’ll work with you and we pay generous royalties.

If that’s you – please get in touch with us at

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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