Updating Old Freeforms

I recently updated All at Sea (now renamed Murder at Sea - blog post here) for Freeform Games. Murder at Sea is one of Freeform Games’ oldest games and was written by Chris Boote. We’ve changed formats since it came out and I’m bringing it up to date - and in doing so I’m taking the opportunity to improve it a little here and there.

Some of the changes include:

  • Giving everyone a consistent number of abilities - three in our case. We’ve also standardised our abilities.
  • Giving everyone a Secret and a Clue - previously the characters all had Secrets but, unusually for one of our games, no Clues.
  • Adding artwork to the items and money.
  • Adding a detective character to the game.
  • Adding a solution to be read out by the detective.
  • Tweaking some of the other characters.

Our games have evolved over the last few years, and just from reading through Murder at Sea I can see that the characters are uneven. We’re not getting complaints from our customers, but even so I can see room for improvement.

So that I don’t miss anything important, I’ve created a system for identifying the weaker ones so that I can improve them a little. In quite a few cases I didn’t need a system to tell me that - but it’s useful to spot the ones that aren’t so obvious. And what the system did tell me is what changes I should make.

I haven’t used a plot matrix partly because we didn’t use one for Murder at Sea, but mostly because while I find a plot matrix to be excellent when writing a game, I don’t find them so useful when editing an older game. (And my experience of back-fitting a plot matrix into an existing game is that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.)

I think even if I had a plot matrix, it would still be worth making a different assessment. Looking at the game through a different lens throws up different problems - and the more ways you do this the more problems you catch.

So I’ve created a table that ranks each character on the following:

  • I’ve judged the length of the character background text. If it’s over a page (I’ve put all the characters into our standard booklet format), it scores 5. If the text is somewhere between three-quarters and a page long, it scores 3. If it is less than that it scores only 1 (and some characters did).
  • I’ve scored two points for each goal.
  • I’ve scored one point for each “Other Person” listed on the character sheet, to a maximum of five points.

(Note that this doesn’t address the quality of the writing - a page of waffle shouldn’t really score the same as a page of plot. I’ve dealt with that by removing as much waffle as possible before scoring. I could have added a score for “overall quality”, but I’m pretty happy with how things turned out so I’m not sure that was necessary.)

Name - DW DW2 CY BC RT
Background text - > 1 5 1 1
Background text 0.75 to 1 3 1
Background text - <0.75 1 1
Goals 2 5 6 6 5 4
Other People (max of 5 points) 1 5 4 5 5 5
Total 20 19 22 20 14

Here’s an extract from the table, showing clearly that “RT” clearly needs some work.

As I’m updating the characters, I updated the table as well, which helps me track my progress.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that characters with few goals often have very short character background text - and in giving them goals I often give them more text as well. (This may mean I’m not doing enough, but my instincts tell me that this isn’t a problem.)

In giving the characters new goals, I’ve used a few techniques which I’ve talked about here. I also used some of these tricks to improve the characters.

In terms of scoring, I’m interested in relative scores rather than absolute scores. I’ve decided that a score of 18 is good enough, and that anything below that has to be addressed. There’s not a lot of science in choosing 18 - it was a judgement call.

Obviously the system is a guide, not a rule. I’m happy to ignore it where I feel that a character is good enough.

We also got some criticism that All at Sea was too hard to solve, so one of the things I did with Murder at Sea was list out all the Clues and make sure the trail was solid enough. It’s still not an easy murder to solve, but hopefully it’s not quite as impenetrable as it was before. (The new detective character may help that as she has an ability that lets her see each character’s Clue.)

And the rest was formatting and proofreading.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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