The Freeform Writing Process

Steve Hatherley

A brief introduction to freeforms

One of the problems with “freeforms” is that not everyone understands what I mean when I use the term. So before I get started here are a few words explaining what I mean by a freeform.

Freeforms are a type of larp and tend to be defined by:

  • Self-contained. Freeforms aren’t campaigns. You play them once (usually at a convention, occasionally elsewhere) and that’s it.
  • Everyone is the star. There are no npcs in a freeform. 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.
  • Character backgrounds. Each character has a detailed pre-written background (provided by the game authors) 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. What rules they do have will be written specifically for the freeform.
  • Combat. Most freeforms have no combat whatsoever. Where there is combat, it’s more likely to be resolved using dice or cards than using replica weapons.
  • 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. (The GMs may have no idea of what’s going on.)

These aren’t fixed and I can think of freeforms that have broken all of these rules. But the general concept applies.

(By the way, don’t get too hung up on the name “freeform”. It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just the name by which they’ve become known. sometimes you’ll see them called “theatre-style” larps. Same thing. Usually)

If you want to learn more about freeforms, I’ve provided some links at the end of the article.

Writing Freeforms

When I started writing freeforms (and I’ve written, co-written, or edited over a twenty now) I didn’t really know what I was doing. Writing my first freeform was more than a little daunting – all those characters, rules and plots. Where should I start?

I remember asking people who’d written games I’d played in, and I didn’t understand their answers. Partly that was because I was asking the wrong questions, and partly the answers made no sense because I didn’t have the experience to understand them.

In the end I tried my best. Hopefully my early freeforms weren’t too awful, but over the years I’ve streamlined things. I now have a process that I follow when writing a freeform – and that process guides me from start to finish.

Here, then, for everyone who wants to write a freeform but doesn’t know how, is the process I use. (I’m sure that other people have their own process, but only they can tell you how they write their games…)

An aside. Most of my freeforms have been co-written with other people. Having a process to follow is even more important when you’re writing with other people as you all need to be pulling in the same direction.
Freeform Writing Process

Here’s the raw process:

  1. Choose a subject
  2. Themes
  3. Character basics
  4. Outline characters
  5. Character Sheets
  6. Structure
  7. Plots
  8. Rules and mechanics
  9. Background
  10. Finishing off

Here’s how this works in practice.

#1 Choose a subject

This is the easy bit. If you fail here, you haven’t wasted any time.

You can pick almost any setting you like – the sheer range of freeforms out there is testament to that. However, the things you need to consider are:

  • Characters – 20 to 25 characters is a good number for a three-four freeform. (More isn’t always better.) Make sure you pick a setting that lets you write enough good characters. As someone will be playing each of your characters, you need to make sure that they are all interesting. (Remember - everyone is the star in their own game.)
  • Sex – I try to be as flexible as possible when it comes to the sex of my characters. If nothing else, I don’t know where the game will be run, and I can’t guarantee who will turn up. I therefore try to include plenty of gender neutral characters.
  • Location – Most freeforms can be run in a single room, and generally that’s the way you want it as that means you will be able to run it more often. If your game requires three rooms separated by spiral staircases, you won’t have many opportunities to run your game. (Prawn, a game published by Interactivities Ink, requires a swimming pool. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never even heard of it being run, let alone actually played it myself.)
  • Interest – Why are your characters present? What stops them from leaving? Are you going to strand them somewhere so they can’t leave? Or do you set the game in a generic space (such as “Italy”) so that they can’t leave?
  • Duration – Freeforms usually come in one of three sizes – up to 4 hours long, up to 8 hours long, or weekend-long extravaganzas. Generally the shorter the freeform the easier it is to write, so decide now how long you want your game to be.
  • Repeatability – How often do you want to run your freeform? Given that you will probably put significant effort into writing your game, you may want to think about running it more than once. If so, you should make it as flexible as possible.
  • Mechanics and rules – I discuss these in detail below, but you might want to think about these things now. What sort of rules are you going to want? Combat? Romance? Pig breeding? Railway building?

You don’t need to know all the answers to these, but thinking about them early means that you can build them into the game as you write.

Generally, I try to be as flexible as possible. I want to run my games more than once, so I try and limit myself to a single room, no more than 25 players and a mix of genders – including plenty gender-neutral characters.

#2 Themes

By “theme” I mean whatever it is that you are going to include in your game. That includes plots, mechanics, character types and the like. Some of it may be colour; some of it may include convoluted plotting.

At this point you need to list all the themes that suit your setting. This list will give you a reference point to return to when you are writing. (The list of themes is more important when you are cowriting a game, so that everyone stays on topic.)

For example, when we wrote Railways and Responsibilities, we brainstormed the following themes that we wanted to include in our game:

  • Railway companies
  • Canals
  • Army/Navy
  • Politicians
  • Royalty
  • Secret Societies
  • Engineering
  • Jane Austin-style social climbing
  • Religion
  • Highwaymen
  • Duelling
  • Masons
  • Romance
  • Poetry
  • Temperance Movement

Most of them ended up in the game, but some of them were cut as they didn’t really fit in with the game as it developed.

If you can’t develop a long-enough list of themes (and I try to aim for at least the same number of themes as characters), you might need to change your setting. The themes need not all be original – many freeforms use the same themes.

#3 Character Basics

Now you need decide roughly what sort of characters you want in your freeform. It’s best to fix your characters as early as possible as that helps when it comes to writing plots.

At this point you don’t need names, just character concepts. Although if you have names, that’s fine too.

So for Railways and Responsibilities, this is the list of characters we decided we needed:

3 railway company owners
3 politicians
1 Prince Regent
5 Route advocates – one for each route
1 Engineer
2 Landowners
1 Young Highwayman

(We knew we were going to have 16 players for its first run when we started writing, and knew that that included four women and one ten-year old boy.)

I find that giving myself constraints at this point (such as fixing the number and sexes of the characters) helps me write better characters. If I don’t have any constraints and can add characters and change sexes all the way through, I find that characters can end up very uneven.

Once you’ve listed out your characters, start linking some of the themes (from stage 2) to them. So in the list above, one of the politicians might be a religious fanatic, another a member of a secret society. The Engineer could be a poet, and so on. Make sure that you spread the themes around and that the characters aren’t unbalanced.

This gives you the basics for each of your characters.

You might have noticed that so far you haven’t done any serious writing. That’s about to change.

#4 Outline characters

At this point, before you start thinking too deeply about plots, you need to know who your characters are. You need this for two reasons:

  • You need some knowledge of your characters so that when you write a plot, you don’t put someone in an inappropriate role. So decide now who your heroes and villains are.
  • You want to avoid creating favoured characters – characters that get all the best plots at the expense of the rest. Outlining your characters now means that you reduce the risk of giving all the best plots to any one character.

With that in mind, at this stage you are writing four things for each character:

  • Their public face – how they generally present themselves to others. If you’re wise, you’ll write this as the paragraph that goes in the cast list (so that you only have to write it once).
  • Their private face – what the character is really like.
  • Notes on plots they might be interested in.
  • The opening paragraph on the character sheet, establishing in fairly general terms, who the character is and why they are present at the freeform. This will set the scene for the rest of the character sheet.
  • I usually decide on names for my characters at this point as well. Some examples:
  • Bruce Wayne (Batman)
  • Public face – Millionaire playboy
  • Private face – Likes dressing up as a giant bat and fighting crime
  • Plots – Fighting crime, preventing secret from coming out
  • Opening paragraph - You are millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and you live in Wayne Manor with your trusty butler, Alfred. Secretly, you are also the vigilante known as The Batman, and you spend much of your considerable fortune on crime-fighting gadgets and gizmos. You are here at the Embassay Ball tonight because you were invited - and you also suspect that the Joker won't be able to resist such a tempting target.
  • Bill Mitchell (Dave)
  • Public face – President of the United States of America
  • Private face – Is really an impersonator
  • Plots – Running the US government without getting caught, falling in love with the First Lady
  • Opening paragraph - You are Bill Mitchell, the President of the United States of America and the most powerful man in the world. Actually, that's not strictly true - your real name is Dave Kovacks and you are a look-a-like. The real President is off doing something Top Secret, so you're standing in for him.
  • Lester Burnham (American Beauty)
  • Public face – Telephone salesman and family man
  • Private face – Has a crush on one of his daughter’s schoolfriends
  • Plots – Quitting his job, dysfunctional family, homicidal neighbours
  • Opening paragraph - You are Lester Burnham, a telephone salesman and you are here with your wife and daughter. You're currently going through a midlife crisis, and you have a huge crush on your daughter's best friend.

If you’re writing a freeform with someone else, fixing your characters at this point is essential so that everyone is writing about the same things. (I’ve learned this the hard way – and if you don’t do this you can expect to do a lot of editing later on.)

#5 Character Sheets

Once you’ve got the characters straight, don’t do anything else until you know how you are going to lay out your character sheets. Yes, you can let your character sheets evolve as the writing progresses, but I prefer to have a fixed idea of what’s going to be on my character sheets at this point.

Character sheets vary, but generally they include the following sections:

  • Background – A background story section consisting of a few paragraphs explaining who that person is, why they are here, and what they are trying to achieve.
  • Other people – A list of other people this character knows. These may or may not have already been mentioned in the background. I like to include information here that this character knows to help the player strike up a conversation.
  • Goals – Even though the character background provides a character’s objectives, I like to see a list of goals. This list acts as a memory jogger – as a player I haven’t got time to read through my character sheet during the game to find out why it is I am trying to do what I’m trying to do. For the same reason, I prefer goals with a few lines of explanation to simple bullet points.
  • Other Information – These may be assorted facts and rumours that the character needs to know. If you can’t work them into the background without it being too contrived, it might be better to put them into their own section.
  • Secrets – The main reason for having this section is so that you can have rules and mechanics (such as ability cards) that force characters to reveal their secrets. Freeforms usually work better if secrets become public during the game, and having a mechanism to do that can help.
  • Other stuff – Your freeform may require other sections, only you will know that.

The reason for deciding what’s going into your character sheet at this point is because I’m a lazy writer. I don’t want to do anything more than once. I write the plots so that I can just cut-and paste the details straight onto the character sheet, and that only works if I know how my character sheet is constructed before I start writing.

A word of caution: character sheets need to be clear and concise. They are a tool to communicate to your player everything they need to know to play the part. They are not outlets for literary ambitions…

(I've written quite a bit more on the structure of character sheets here.)

#6 Structure

Before you start writing plots, you should think about the structure of your game. By structure I mean “what goes on” – a timetable of events and things that are going to happen.

Short games often don’t need much of a structure and you won’t always need one. However, at the very least you need to think about the following:

  • Preparation – How long your freeform takes to set up. (This is more critical if you are running the game at a convention where you may have a limited amount of time to set up.) You may also need to factor in any time for your players to read and digest their character sheets (you can’t always send them out in advance).
  • Start – How your game starts. Is there an event that starts everything off?
  • The Middle – How much structure (timed events, and so on) you need depends entirely on your freeform. If you do have timed events, you should have a full timetable that details what happens and when. Your plots will, naturally, amend the timetable as you write them.
  • End – How your game ends. Is there something you can do to finish off the game, or do you simply end the game when time is up?
  • Game Wrap – What kind of wrap are you thinking about? Do you ask everyone to explain who they are and what are they doing, or do you just answer a few questions and retire to the bar to swap war stories? How much clearing up time do you need?

#7 Plots

Writing plots is the most time consuming section of the process. Here’s how I write plots.

First I decide which plot I’m going to write. By this point I’ll have an idea of several plots from the themes and the characters. Then I write the basic plot details – the overall plot as I know it. (This overview helps if someone else has to run the game instead of me.)

Then I take each character, and write what they know from their perspective. I write this so that it can be cut and pasted directly onto the character sheet – including background, goals, “other people” and whatever else is on the character sheet. (So now you see why I decide the layout of my character sheets in advance.)

Plots must have conflict, so you need to ensure that characters in a particular plot have conflicting goals.

Quite often, some of your characters will have similar perspectives on the plot, so you can just cut and paste sections and just change a few names and other details. However, don’t do this too much – you should try and make sure that everyone has a unique view on events.

Here’s an example. This is “The Council of Elrond” plot for a freeform set in Rivendell, Middle Earth. I’ve just done part of Elrond’s character here — I would do the same for all the other characters in the plot.

The Council of Elrond – GM Information: Frodo Baggins has brought the One Ring to Rivendell. Elrond has called a secret council which includes Gandalf, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, Strider and Frodo. The purpose of the council is to determine the fate of the One Ring. It should take no more than 30 minutes.

Elrond – Background: Frodo Baggins, a hobbit from the Shire, has brought the One Ring to Rivendell on the instructions of Gandalf the Grey. The ring cannot stay in Rivendell and must be destroyed, and can only be destroyed by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor.

However, the journey will be perilous and as the time of elves is passing, others must take on this burden. You have therefore invited representatives of the other races to a council to decide the fate of the ring.

Elrond – Information: The One Ring was forged by the dark lord Sauron as a master ring that controls the other rings of power. The One Ring is constantly trying to find its way to its master, and can corrupt the weak-minded.

Elrond – Goals: Chair the council and ensure that the One Ring leaves Rivendell in the possession of someone who will take it to Mount Doom and destroy it.

Elrond – Other People: Boromir – you have invited Boromir from the realm of Gondor to represent men on your council. However, as you know from experience, men are weak and no doubt Boromir is as well.

Other characters might have similar information about the One Ring, and they might have goals such as “Make sure that the One Ring does not end up in the hands of elves”(Gimli) or “The ring is a great weapon of power and should be used against its master” (Boromir). I copy plot information across to each character once I’ve completed each plot.

Some editing is inevitable, so that it all makes coherent sense. For example, Elrond might know the following about Strider: “Strider’s real name is Aragorn, son of Arathon – he is Isildur’s heir and the rightful king of Gondor. Strider is in love with Arwen, your daughter.” The first sentence might come from “The King of Gondor” plot, while the second is from “Aragorn and Arwen.”

The plot matrix

I find that the first few plots are easy, but after a while it becomes important to concentrate on the characters who have less plot than others. To do this, I use a plot matrix. I think most freeform writers use something similar – this is how I do it.

I create a simple table with characters down the side and plots across the top. For each plot, I then take each character and score their role in that plot as follows:
5 – The character is likely to spend a significant amount of time in the game dealing with this plot.
3 – The character has some involvement in the plot and is likely to spend some time involved with it.
1 – The character has some knowledge, but no real involvement.

For each character, this then gives you an overall score which indicates that character’s overall involvement in the freeform. The important thing is that everyone has a similar overall level of involvement – the actual scores themselves are meaningless.

For characters with low scores, the simple way to bring their involvement up is to write more plots involving those characters. The hard way to solve this problem is to change existing plots – I prefer the easy way, and if you create the plot matrix when you start writing plots, you can avoid the problem altogether.

For more detail on writing plots (much more detail!) see here.

#8 Rules and Mechanics

My guiding principle when it comes to rules and mechanics is to use as few as possible. Freeforms are primarily about roleplaying – and mechanics are rarely that.

Having said that, freeforms do usually benefit from a handful of mechanics. I have played both rules-less games that could have done with a mechanic or two, and rules-heavy games that could have been a bit lighter.

However, it’s a rare case that everyone needs to know all the rules and there’s a lot of merit in only giving the rules to those players who need to know them.

Rules serve several purposes:

  • They can be used to add structure to a game. For example, I’ve played games where voting a new Prime Minister or Emperor is a key part of the game. The whole election process then becomes part of your structure. Similarly, in Death in the Fast Lane (a murder-mystery motor-racing game), the last three races of the season are played out during the game and form the backbone of the game’s structure.
  • Rules can emphasise the setting. For example, Midsummer Mischief is set in the world of P G Wodehouse’s leisured upper class. In the game we wanted young men to inadvertently propose to young women, much as they do in the stories. So we designed the romance mechanic to do that.
  • Mechanics can strengthen some characters. I have an unwritten rule where I try and give weaker characters (and there are always some) the best abilities.
  • Mechanics can pad out a game. It’s true, mechanics do take up playing time and if you’ve got a very light freeform you can pad it out with mechanics. This isn’t something I recommend…

The best rules are self-governing and require as little GM input as possible. I find that as a GM I am usually very busy – and that’s without having to spend time adjudicating rules.

While there are a number of standard rules and mechanics that I tend to see time and again (such as contingency envelopes, ability cards, scissors-paper-stone) there is also a standard rule set published by Interactivities Ink called Rules to Live By. However, Rules to Live By isn’t for everyone (I personally don’t think it’s particularly well suited to a stand-alone game), and here are some example rules and mechanics:

  • Combat – freeforms are better suited to political games that don’t have combat, but some do. Combat tends to be very abstract and uses scissors-paper-stone or playing cards.
  • Ability Cards – these are specific abilities or tricks printed on perforated business cards and torn up or marked off when they are used. They can be used to cover a wide range of situations and I use them in almost all of my freeforms.
  • Contingency Envelopes – These are envelopes with “Open if you see an item with a red crescent” or “Open when you meet character #17” written on them. Contingency envelopes can be used to stagger information, and they can also be used to provide information as a game progresses and a character achieves something. I like contingency envelopes, but I don’t like opening them when they have little of value in them – so generally I try to ensure they contain something worthwhile.
  • Romance – Romance as a mechanism forces different people to interact who otherwise might not. A typical romance mechanic works so that characters who fall in love must share goals. I’ve played in games where some of the romances have been prewritten (Romeo and Juliet type characters, for example), and games where they are all random. Random romances can have unexpected consequences as unlikely characters can fall in love… I don’t usually include romance as a mechanic in a short game – it seems to suit the pace of a longer game better.
  • Boardgames – Some freeforms I have played in use boardgames for specific mechanics. For example, I’ve played Ave Caesar when trying to simulate a chariot race, and the revolution bit of Junta when playing out a revolution. If you’re writing a long game, using (or adapting) existing boardgames can be a quick way to write mechanics.

In general, however, keep rules and mechanics simple. Freeforms are supposed to be roleplaying games, after all.

#9 Background

At some point you will need to write background information for your freeform. The most important thing about writing backgrounds is to make them accessible (but more on that below). While you will create some background information for your plots, you will also usually need some general background about the world in which your freeform is set.

There are broadly two types of information you will need:

  • The general background that is available to everyone. This can often be included in the pre-game information that is available when players to sign up to your game.
  • Background specific to certain groups and individuals. For example, members of a secret society will need to know how the society functions and its objectives in the game.

The second type of background can be written as separate sheets, which can then be given to the appropriate characters. Organising the information this way (rather than including it on the character sheets) means that you only have to edit it the once if a change is needed. It also means that if you are careful, you can add more members to the secret society (for example by just giving other characters the appropriate information sheet).

These information sheets are sometimes known as "blue sheets" (particularly in the USA) as they were originally printed on blue sheets of paper to distinguish them from the rest of the character information. If you decide to refer to them as blue sheets then please make sure that you do print them on blue paper to avoid confusion.

My preference as both a writer and a player is for an easily digestible background. This is particularly true for a four-hour game where I don't have the time to memorise a deep and intricate background. I don't mind spending time to learn about the world for longer games, however.

When writing a background, keep in mind that it only purpose is so that the game can be played – not to explain every last detail of history. Very few players need to know minutiae – most just need a broad understanding. Or in other words, make it accessible.

When writing a game set in a recognisable world (such as for Star Wars or Middle Earth or even just the modern day) you should be aware that not everyone will know the background as well as you. Fans will know the detail – but you can almost guarantee that at least one of your players won't know the background (or won't know much about whichever aspect of modern life that your game is centred around). So make sure that your background information contains enough information for someone who knows nothing to play the game.

My aim for a freeform background is to summarise it on a side of paper – about 500 words. Longer games might need a bit more, but 500 words for a four hour game should be about right.

#10 Finishing Off

One of the arts of writing freeforms is knowing when to stop. How do I know that I've written enough? Do I need to write a bit more – just in case?

This isn't an easy question to answer, but I can offer the following guidance: In general, I prefer games where there is too much going on rather than too little. So if there's any doubt, add a bit more in. (It's not the end of the world if not everything in your freeform isn't used – and that’s certainly better than players standing around with nothing to do.)

Think about the games you've enjoyed playing the most. How much information did they have?

Once you have decided that you have done enough, there are still a few tasks that you have to do:

  • Read through each character and ask yourself “Is this character fun to play? Do they have enough to do?” If you're not 100% sure that the answer is “Yes”, then you will need to make a few changes. The easiest change to give the character a few really good abilities so that they will have fun things to do even if they are a little light on the plot. At worst, you might have to rewrite certain plots. (See here for more on writing characters.)
  • Carry out the “I'm from the Netherlands” test. This test involves reading through the game pretending that you are from the Netherlands (or Uganda, or Vietnam, or wherever). This test checks to see that you're not making too many assumptions about culture and history. You can skip this if you're playing with friends.
  • You can't proofread your own work so get someone to do that for you. You will be amazed at how many inconsistencies proofreading picks up.

Once you've done that, you're ready to print. And once you've printed it all out you're ready for your first run. But that's another topic completely…

Freeform Resources

If you want to learn a bit more about freeforms, here are a few good places to start:

  • The uk-freeforms yahoogroup is where a lot of friendly freeform enthusiasts hang out. Their wiki is at and contains resources and details of games.
  • If you want to try a freeform, one of the best places to try is a convention. Consequences and Continuum are both known for their freeforms.
  • And Peaky is a freeform writing weekend where three freeforms are written on the Friday night and Saturday before being run on the Sunday.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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