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What is Free Play?

Editor’s Note: This post started as a result of a conversation with my friend Nem.

Messy thoughts first: I know a lot of people, mostly game designers, who absolutely love the rules framework known as Powered By The Apocalypse, or PBTA. Built on the foundation popularized by Apocalypse World by Meguey and Vincent Baker, the framework follows a pretty basic structure:

  1. Play freely until someone triggers a move
  2. Resolve the move
  3. The GM responds with a move of their own
  4. Repeat from step 2 until the story is over, until you move to a different phase, or until everybody decides it’s time to stop

Lots of people love the structure of moves; there’s a kind of poetry to how they’re written, it’s simple and elegant and makes moves a satisfying and…easy?…path of design, at least in comparison to some other possible systems.

A lot has been written about steps 2 and 3 in that workflow, and step 4 is also a handy shorthand for structuring a game.

For me, the hiccup comes with step 1. PBTA games typically start with the assumption that the players are already onboard with the story being presented, already know how to pretend their way through conversation and story. If you don’t know how to do that, your Game Master (GM) will have to help you learn. If your GM doesn’t know either, you have to figure it out for yourself, together with your group.

PBTA isn’t the only game system that makes this assumption. The biggest game in the industry, D&D, makes the exact same assumption, and expects players to either experiment or teach each other how to do the story part that everyone has heard is the fun part.

We play games because we want to tell and experience stories. A lot of games assume we already know how to tell stories. And for people who do already know, maybe that’s enough. But for people who don’t already know, or who need help getting started, we might be left with the following thoughts:

If you’re like that, I want you to know that you’re not alone, and that a lot of the games we play don’t teach us any of this stuff. Blades in the Dark talks about a whole phase of play called “Free Play” but never provides instructions for how to do that.

So how do? What is this “pretend” thing? How do we know that we’re pretending in the right way to play this game with our friends?

I can’t provide a good answer for every game, because the answer is going to be different for every game.

But because we’re talking about PBTA here, I’ll offer a PBTA solution as a starting point.

How to Free Play

In PBTA, a move is triggered when you do something in the story, and then either you or the GM says “this feels like a this kind of move” and then you do the move.

But how do we trigger a move? The solution I’d offer is: put the triggering event into the move itself. “Investigate a Mystery” is the one that’s at the front of my mind so let’s do that.

Investigate a Mystery To trigger this move, you’ll need to be in a place where a mystery is present. Talk with the GM or with the other players about what kind of place that might be. Describe the place by talking about where it is in the world of your story, who’s with you. Ask the GM to present you with a mystery. (insert some framing tools here for how the GM could come up with a mystery suitable for this move)

Advanced: You can improvise a scene where the above details are established through dialogue and scene description, if everyone is comfortable doing so.

When you’re ready to investigate, Roll +EYES. On a 6 or lower, the GM can make a move from the Bad Things Happen list. On a 7-9, choose one of the following; on a 10+, choose two:

(insert list of questions you could ask here)

Ask your chosen question(s). The GM can answer in any way they like. You’ll know this move is done when all your chosen questions have been answered. When you’re done, let someone else make a move, either driven by the needs of the story or according to your established order of play.

I hope that’s clear. The move–the full move, now–tells the player not just what the move does when they roll, but also how to build the scene where the move happens.

This is a lot easier for me to imagine at the table! And it also makes play a lot easier to flow through. Because now, the loop is:

  1. Establish a turn order, or agree to have the GM assign turns as needed by the story.
  2. Have the first player choose a move.
  3. Resolve the move.
  4. Repeat from step 1 with the next player in the turn order, and continue until everyone has had a turn.
  5. If you’re ready to move on to the next phase of the game, do so now. Otherwise, return to step 0.

I’m looking at this as a new player, and I’m thinking “yes, I can play this game, because the game is telling me how to play it.”

One thing I’m especially excited about here is the Advanced rule that says we can just improvise a scene if we want to. I like that it’s noted as Advanced. It tells me that if I don’t want to do it or don’t feel ready to do it, I don’t have to.

Advanced Move: Roll Whenever

If your game has stats that you can roll with, you could develop an advanced move that’s basically just “improvise your scene until you get to a moment that you want to leave up to chance, then roll + whatever stat makes sense to you. On a 6 or lower, the GM gets to make a Bad Things Happen move; on a 7-9, you get something good but something else goes wrong; on a 10+, you get something good and nothing else goes wrong. Tell us how it happens.”

I suspect a lot of advanced players would prefer using this move instead of the ones provided, and calling it an Advanced move makes it clear that not everyone should be expected to do it that way—and also makes it explicit that playing that way is allowed, if everyone’s on board.

Why is this an important move to make explicit? Because maybe the GM is new, or uncomfortable with improvisation. Maybe they’re good at following prompts and directing the narrative, but not so good at making things up as they go. If a player tells them “I want to do this thing that isn’t in the rules” the GM should have a framework they can turn to that they don’t have to invent wholecloth to help them navigate it. Because the GM is a player too. And the rules should respect that.

Wrapping Up

If more games included this kind of framing, it might be easier to get people to try playing roleplaying games. That’s all I got.