member, 22 posts
 A small space
 to hide the Hysteria
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 20:49
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Hoping to get a bit of insight from experienced freeform GM's of RPoL.

I've been monitoring a number of freeform games I actively participate in for a few months now in hopes of finding smart GM moves and strategies that are being used in hopes of being able to further define the freeform game that I currently run. As with many games on RPoL, my game has currently run into the issue of lack of interest despite my efforts to guide and redirect characters to pick up on clues for a large plot in the game. My players are still active; they sign in often enough despite the very small number of characters that still post in the game. But I'm discouraged and wishing I could involve my players a bit more, especially where plot is concerned.

I've noticed that sandbox games are a 50/50: if the characters and players in the game have their own plots to run, they're more inclined to be active in the game whether the GM is there to offer a nudge in a certain direction or not. Generally, if the players are left to their own devices but are not able to build on a plot for their character or are left to wander without much purpose, they usually end up not contributing to the story as much, and therefore their characters sit in the background with not much involvement in the game itself. Eventually these characters either leave, or they slowly disappear from any real productive activity. Dead weight, essentially.

I've also noticed that if the freeform game begins by lumping all the characters in one place and having the GM literally create one singular tunnel/direction for them to go in, the game is generally much more active, and the players tend to engage a bit more. I suspect many dice games are this way as well, and it makes me wonder how I can utilize this strategy in something that is meant to be a bit more sandbox-y.

I'm wondering if there are any other experienced freeform GM's out there who can give me some advice about this: what strategies work really well for you? What doesn't? Are there things I should consider in order to re-ignite a bit more excitement for what is going on in the game? If one feels that maybe a restart might be warranted, what should happen to ensure that restart is more successful? If I like certain parts of my game and don't want to do a full restart, what should a soft restart look like?

Thanks in advance!

 member, 53 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 21:39
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Not a freeform GM but one with a weird semi-sandboxy thing: I found the major thing that made a difference (aside from making sure to use elements from characters' backstories - pick less predictable but purely personal elements, like the old kung-fu rival showing carrying jiang shi infection, and it'll work like a charm) was realising that a lot of players act more like baby chickens than cats.

Switching from just throwing many things in front of them in hopes they'd go sniff one to having a "mother hen" whom PCs can go back and report to/be given tasks by really helped me strike that balance between straight-line structured gameplay and letting uninspired PCs mill about and lose too much momentum. Time limits on things also help.
 member, 426 posts
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 21:48
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Just remember, most players can't, or don't, have initiative to create plots on their own. Inform them that they do have that ability, but screen their ideas first!

Create special events periodically that everyone can participate in. This is easiest for historical games; but there is no reason why historical ideas can't be transported to other genres.

Don't worry about ebbs and flows in posting. It happens in every game. Sometimes players just need to chill their characters a bit.
 member, 23 posts
 A small space
 to hide the Hysteria
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 22:04
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
Ahh! The mother hen bit makes a LOT of sense: now that I'm thinking about it that pattern does persist in some of the case study games I've been watching too! Good to know, I'm definitely taking that one down!

The interesting thing is that with the game I currently run, all the characters have really great backgrounds and in-depth stories that all lead to their own plots. I hand picked my players, so I assume that the people who join are folks who trust me as a GM and as someone who is capable of assisting them in building a story. I put in the work to talk with all of my players individually to give them prompts for their characters and to ensure they have all the right pieces to make their own plots work, all while also plugging in a major plot for those who would be more interested in interlocking relationships with other players that may not be a part of their own plots.

And yet...interest has waned on both the smaller plots as well as the main plot, despite myself as a character and a number of NPCs who are actively offering nuggets of information and tidbits of snacks to lure my players. I would be curious to learn more about time limits though, since giving players two weeks to play through a day, for example, could work for some but for others who still lag behind a little bit i a scene, it may still take time for everyone to be caught up. I worry this will keep players behind and eventually out of the game as a whole when I don't really want to be rotating characters and players in and out of the game every quarter.
 member, 54 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 5 Jul 2019
at 23:30
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I feel you...sounds like you could do with a bit more interweaving of plots, but also? If everyone is off on their summer holidays or something like that, physically distracted by real life, call a hiatus and use it as prep time to set up immediate, mid-distance and future Problems for your folk to deal with. Trying to push the plot along when people just don't have the 'go' to spare at that time just feels awful.

I meant more in-game time limits, like "if you don't work out the Dastardly Plan of the Very Wicked Witch and break the curse before the Prince's 15th birthday, the Prince will become a dragon with no memory of his former life, ambitions, or desire not to roast the entire court like peanuts": so you have a goal, and if the characters don't concentrate enough to hit it in time, there are Consequences. It might be hours rather than days depending on how your game is paced, but the limit is there, clock ticking. Be ruthless in enforcing it and folk will realise they have to think of things and maybe even delegate, because if walking there takes three hours when you have to steal a horse, right? Shennanigans ensue.

As for people with different post rates, that's mostly down to experience in learning how to give the slower players things that can be done in less posts but realistically take longer, e.g. "take a jog to Gunderbad and get [important information], come back" and faster players doing more complex tasks/talking to NPCs you have to poke a lot to get information out of. On the theme of information, be aware that for those that need more guidance in PbP especially, you have to be plenty obvious and/or occasionally remind players what their characters know.
 member, 1508 posts
 Captain Oblivious!
Sat 6 Jul 2019
at 00:01
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I've found that having a sandbox style game only works so well.   I prefer having a carrot or two for the players to chase, in addition to the main story line; really works out well.
 member, 1574 posts
Sun 7 Jul 2019
at 00:34
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
First, I never run freeform, because rules are far too useful as communication aids, but I do run about as close to freeform as you can get while still using a full rules system, including sandboxes.

The biggest thing to get players moving forward is to give them an objective. Far too often do gms see two options, structured storyline or undirected sandbox. But those are mot actually the only ways to go. You can create situations, not plots, that inherently involve the players.

For example, the players have something that is wanted by other groups who try to kill the pcs to obtain.  Baulder's gate did this by saying the pc had a shard of a dead god's soul for example.

Another example is to attack the town where the pcs are, perhaos have a bbeg try to conquer it.

How are these different from a railroaded story? Simple, these are only what the bad guys do, and do not include any expectations what-so-ever about what the pcs do in response. There is no plot, no map of what happens next.

You should basically treat it like a game of chess between the antagonists and the pcs, with the pcs gaving free range to act as they desire about it, while the antagonists respond in kind.

What makes it become an interesting and compelling story will be conflict and mystery. Thus the key is making the antagonist's objectives come into immediate conflict with the players, to basically say that the antagonist can't leave the pcs alone without abandoning their objective, or dropping something obviously unexplained and weird in the pc's lap to hook them by their curiousity.

That will get your game going in general, but there is another possible issue that has nothinb to do with the game itself, and that is how you are running it.

For example, in one game I'm currently in, mission just ended, so my character has free time. Nothing going on right now involves her. No conflict, no trouble, nothing. So now ig is up to me as a player to fill this void, but I'm having trouble with that because of the structure being used. The game uses some sort of weird location based threads, so now I'm limited in where I can go, I am also expected to make up npcs to fill in and where am I supposed to describe my character going somewhere new?

Basically, that game is a sandbox without sand. The players are expected to do many of the gm's jobs, such as adding characters, events, locations, world data, etc. In other words, the game is a sandbox where the players bring their own sand. That can be good for certain kinds of players, but most players are looking for a sandbox that already has the sand filled in.

So you should make it easy and obvious for players to go from place to place, and to fill in detail in as much as you can, where-ever they go. Basically, let them enjoy exploring, and toppling, your sandcastle, instead of expecting them to build their own.

So, to recap, make the world dynamic and inherently in conflict with the players, and also, fill in detail for the players to explore, never expect them to fill in details themselves, yet don't discourage it (unless their additions are contradictory to established material).
 member, 962 posts
Tue 9 Jul 2019
at 17:00
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
The 'mother hen' is a good concept to keep things moving, but there is a danger of it backfiring.

Be careful that the players don't become 'hatchlings', constantly crowding round Mother Hen with their mouths open, displaying zero initiative and expecting the GM to spoon feed them:

"We've been on patrol, like you asked, sir, and some enemy troops started shooting at us, sir, what do you want us to do now, sir?"

"We met a traveller on the road, sir, and he gave us some intel, sir, but we don't know whether we should act on it, sir. What do you think, sir?"

Believe me, it happens...
 member, 56 posts
 ...Perhaps through words
 I'll find the answer
Fri 26 Jul 2019
at 18:41
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I really like this post. I've also struggled a bit with my major game. I've learned one very important thing about Hiatuses - Don't Hiatus too long!

I spent a year rewriting one of my games - making many interwoven plots, plus adding goals for the players to achieve, plus allowing players to have their own goal that they work to achieve. But, because I took so long to rewrite and rearrange it's been hard to collect all the players I need for the game. So my biggest advice is, if you're planning to hiatus for planning, don't wait too long!

I love the hatchling advice given as well. I do notice that sometimes it feels like my games cause paralysis for some players because I have too much going on.

Like the ideas for players going on vacation - I'll use that one. Have a character ask another character to go to the next town over for clues or something.
 member, 86 posts
 "Plays well with others."
 Talks lots. Reads more.
Fri 26 Jul 2019
at 21:22
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I haven't run any freeforms or sandboxes in a long time, so I don't remember all of the details. I have played in a bunch of successful ones, though. Here's what I remember:

One thing that really helped when I was running was to require a minimum of 3 paragraphs, about 2-3 sentences long, for the character's background. I suggested covering childhood, teenage/college years, and recent history, but folks could write about whatever; I remember characters with uneventful early years who left seeking adventure, and then characters whose lives started out chaotic and drove them to be hermits. If a player had trouble coming up with events or wanted to play the "ordinary person thrust into extraordinary things" kind, I asked them to tell me about the important relationships in their lives instead. Parents, friends, neighbors, enemies, heroes, pets, books, etc.

At least one or two sentences for appearance. Past the driver's license description, I suggested thinking about things like what clothes they usually wore, favorite colors, hairstyle, usual facial expressions, body language, identifying marks. Similar for personality; do they treat everyone the same way or some groups or individuals differently, and why? What are they like when they're alone? Do they express their feelings, or mask them? What do other people think of them? What do they like and dislike about themselves? What would they do if they won the lottery?

I also asked which person from their character's past would they like to see again and why, as well as which person they *don't* want to see and why. Using those as story hooks can require a little delicacy, though.

Another important question for me was what is the character's goal in life? Where do they want to be in five years? Twenty years? Do they have a plan for getting there? Is there anything they wouldn't do to achieve that? What's the biggest thing keeping them from achieving their goal?

And then: What do you the player want to see or do in the game? What do you not want to see or do? Are you ok if your character loses a fight or fails a task, or would you prefer them to be always successful?

All of those things helped me get a feel for the character and come up with quests that they might be interested in, or suggest storylines/remind them of their character goal if they got stuck. I also made it a habit to ask the player before bringing something from their past into the story; a character who misses their dead father would react very differently to Daddy's returning as a benevolent ghost or an evil lich. I also wanted to leave out things that would upset players or make them uncomfortable.

In freeform games I generally let the players decide whether or not their characters succeed or fail at a task, but to avoid the ones that win *all* the time and to make inter-character contests easier to resolve, I asked them to detail two or three things that they were really good at, and two or three that they weren't. Everything else was assumed to be average.

To avoid "mother hen" syndrome, if there was a central questgiver or boss character they were often impatient and short-tempered, and more interested in results than methods. The PCs are expected to act on their own initiative and solve their own problems, and there are consequences for failing or discarding the mission. Consequences could be as big as the End of the World, or as simple as their not being hired again. For a literary example, the Company's job is to get Frodo and the Ring to the Crack of Doom. How exactly they do that is up to them, but if they dawdle or don't plan well Bad Things will happen.

All that said, I think the most important thing in a successful freeform or sandbox game is holding the players' interest, which is why I asked what they did/didn't want to do. If the player just wants to kill monsters and take their stuff, they're not going to participate much in courtly intrigue plots. In my experience, if a player's interested in a quest or storyline, they'll come up with a justification for their character to be there.

Hope that helps.
 member, 59 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 26 Jul 2019
at 22:00
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I reckon that anyone running a freeform will be asking for decent backstory already, but on the theme of plot hooks, asking for one secret kept by or from the PC is useful, since it gives the character a built-in personal motivation to protect that secret/to explore consequences when it's found out.

As for 'feed me!' PCs, remember that "hen" characters are human(oid/-like, mostly) beings and have their own agendas, and that in a worst-case scenario, "revenge on the mentor's murderer" is a classic plot, and one that would bind a party together, so...

This message was last edited by the user at 22:01, Fri 26 July 2019.

 member, 76 posts
 Survival of the fittest.
 We're all gonna die.
Thu 1 Aug 2019
at 17:12
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I exclusively run and play freeform games. I tabletop rp, so I'm familiar with systems and the like, but I've just never really enjoyed how it translates to a literary roleplay.

I've experienced all the ups and downs of freeform, had games entirely peter out, restarted, rebooted, revamped, etc. Unfortunately, I don't think there is any way to completely mitigate this. However, there are some things I've found help.

The Mother Hen idea is a good one, I sort of expanded on this in what is probably my most succesful freeform game. It was an Urban Fantasy, and I had an entire team of GMs, people that I trusted and am very familiar with. Every GM was essentially given a group to govern and deal with, in regard to NPCs, plot hooks, random incidents, etc.

We would round table spitball ideas and plots, and figure out how to weave them into the game in a fashion that hooked the players and drew them into the plots. Through the use of specific GMPCs and GMNPCs, we could help steer or incite the plots and incidents more naturally, so it didn't look like an obvious plot hook.

We also all created a GMPC character whose entire intention, was to die in some spectacular and evocative fashion. These characters were designed to integrate, and form bonds and attachments with the PCs, so that when they died, it had impact.

At that point it's just a matter of finding the balance of when to nudge, or introduce a plot hook, or even just an isolated incident. You want to give your players room to sandbox and socialize, but look for those signs that interest might be flagging. Tying plots together, or coming up with some far overarching plot that all these smaller plots tie into and lead up to can also be extremely rewarding. It makes the players feel like they're actually building to something really exciting. Though it's obviously more challenging to do. Again, having a team of GMs that I had played with for years really aided in that regard. And then you have extra people to run those smaller plot arcs, so you're not shouldering the weight of it.

The other thing I've done, was in an alternate history fantasy, which lent itself a little more to political intrigue. And really the main thing there was crafting a really twisty overall plot and story, and working the players into it as they joined the game. You need a pretty solid knack for crafting a story, but if you're good at it, you can create a really compelling story. The key there, was creating this convoluted plot full of intrigue, and that deciding which bits the players themselves got to know, because I wanted the end result to be surprising for all the players, at least to some degree. So character A might know that he was going to the city to find out who his birth father really was, and he might have a suspicion, but he wouldn't know that that there were four more layers of unforeseen circumstances tied around the mystery of his birth. And every individual hook like that, was linked to and affected another players story and arc, and the only way to uncover those revelations was to advanced the plot.

It was a far more challenging GM experience, to be certain, and unfortunately that game did die prematurely, but it wasn't for a lack of interest, so much as it was due to my own burnout.

Ultimately, I would say going into it, you need a bag full of plot ideas, especially if you can weave them together. You also need a bag full of 'encounters'. And then you just need to figure when to dole those out. If you can tie specific character backgrounds into either the plot, or those encounters, even better, because then they feel individually engaged.

You can always run a directed game, freeform, as well, it doesn't have to be sandbox unless that's specifically what you want it to be.

If you notice a specific character's interest is waning, see if you can come up with something that directly impacts that character, and pulls other characters into the event. Everyone likes to feel like the center of the story now and then, and it doesn't hurt to pass that experience around.

And if you're good at steering characters, mother hen, or faction leader GMPCs can be great. In the Urban Fantasy game, most of the leaders of the various groups (vampires, werewolves, etc) were run by GMs, not all, but most. This allowed for utilizing plots that impacts an entire group, which could then be steered by the GM run leader of that group, to be effect.
 member, 25 posts
 A small space
 to hide the Hysteria
Thu 1 Aug 2019
at 19:00
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I just wanted to take a second to mention that as the OP of this thread, all the insightful strategies are so greatly appreciated, and I'm finding I get excited-curious to see this thread come back to the top of the page every few days or so!

So thank you, and keep all the good advice coming! :D
 member, 830 posts
 Wayfarer of the
 Western Wastes
Sat 3 Aug 2019
at 21:47
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
This topic has been good reading.  I don't referee free-form, but I do currently play in a free-form game, and see where it can be a great medium for intense games where interpersonal interaction is the focus.

Strategies and best practices?  I'm learning some here that could easily also apply to non-freeform games.

I've noticed something about my own GM-ing style (if I can dare to call it that):  I tend to unfold events via NPCs rather than to dump great expository lumps o' plot on the players.  This leads me to play a wide variety of roles in the running of a game, while also making these events seem more organic to the setting.

Once in a while I might post a "news flash" or circulate some vague rumors, but mostly characters learn things from interacting with NPCs.
 member, 87 posts
 This is awfully small.
Fri 30 Aug 2019
at 02:53
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
I really just wanted to say, I've only read a few ideas on this thread--but already I feel like it has breathed new life into me. This thread is really awesome. I'm "sprucing" up the game I GM currently--and will do my best to try out at least one of the ideas here.

The one I'm liking currently is using NPC's to bring randomness into play to get the ball going--as I have noticed that leaving things up in the air--doesn't really get things going as fast as I thought they would.

Of course, I may crash and burn--but I'll learn and aim to do better next time.
 member, 64 posts
 Hopepunk with a shovel
Fri 30 Aug 2019
at 07:49
Freeform GM-ing: Strategies and Best Practices?
If you're quite confident with the portrayal of such things, an NPC animal or child (or nonhuman not adjusted to human cultural norms or needs) very carefully introduced into the party as the "smallest chicken" in your brood is a useful and blameless way to add chaos and/or lead players to trip over plot as needed.

You need to know the motivations of such characters absolutely, though, since it's immediately apparent if something has a cute label and no soul, or is a walking plot device/extension of an adult/human PC. Still, done right, the fact that PCs need to put effort into bonding with, say, the niece you're now in charge of because your brother was eaten by vampires/the generic pack pony you've identified as being so dang vicious due to previously being beaten about the head/the goblin that decided your fighter might be an avatar of a generous murder god and would let her scavenge in the party's wake in exchange for offerings of shiny because she's carrying twins, great one, she won't survive without more food etc. tends to make them fond of said NPCs and pleased rather than annoyed by their shenanigans. That said, "smallest chickens" should always have some use that they will demonstrate themselves, even if the party hasn't realised that the niece is very good at listening to things when adults forget she's there, or the grumpy pony will kick and bite to defend that one person she trusts, or that even a very pregnant goblin can get through gaps a human can't and pass freely through other mobs.

They're a kind of NPC that explicitly bring their own personal socially-focused task (get child to listen to me and grieve properly even though I'm not Dad/get pony not to bite everyone/make sure our weird little fighter-worshipper keeps a healthy body weight so she doesn't die of or eat her babies) as well as any external quests they might be caught up in, e.g. niece is vulnerable to kidnap because your brother never mentioned owing the mafia, pony would recognise the scent of the infamous bandit that beat her anywhere, even if he's well-disguised or invisible, goblin draws conflict and potential attack from other adventuring parties, because what do you mean you're letting it make more goblins?

You can't ever force one on a party, but if you can slip one in they're very useful, since children and nonhumans can be direct or throw wild tangents into the mix and both are in character for what they are.