I've been thinking of posting an article about "freeform mechanics" in RPGs, and I still might. But the basic idea is "resolving stuff in the game using your imagination and judgement rather than actual rules or mechanics," but, like, to the extreme. Like, say, maybe you want to run a war between two armies. On one end of the spectrum, you'd have a military simulation board game that defines each of your assets and unit types and whatever kinds of fictional resources you spend like "action points" or something, and it has a list of moves you can take and blablabla. Nothing freeform about it. On the other end of the spectrum, you'd ask the players to describe what they command their army to do. Just, like, from their creative thinking skills. Intimidating, right? But liberating. Exciting.
[EDIT: I was provided the source for this story so I'm re-writing this chunk to be accurate]
I've been reading a truly ridiculous amount of literature on the subject and I want to share this anecdote from Gundobad Games:
My favorite example so far: from Tony Bath's old Hyboria campaign - one player was concerned about a potential rival's construction of a naval fleet, but didn't want to openly provoke hostilities. So he asked Bath whether he could arrange an 'accident' - merchant ships sinking [scuttling!] right at the mouth of the rival's harbor, blocking their port for the near future! Bath agreed, came up with a range of likely results, and then rolled the dice...
I love that. I love the freeform potential of RPGs and I keep finding myself drawn to that direction of design. But it's a double-edged sword. Because of the "tyranny of the blank canvas," many players find freeform gaming to be really unintuitive. When you ask them what they want to do, they don't have an answer. They're more comfortable if you give them options to pick from.
So here's something I've found in the middle that I'm working with and I'd like to share. I'm going to give three examples that illustrative something like what I'm approaching. These are all examples of "freeform but with a little bit of structure, just, like, for help."
Engle Matrix Games
I first heard about Engle Matrix Games from the writer of Gundobad Games, who gave me some good direction on where to take my reading. Here is the official website of Chris Engle, where he explains it himself. Tom Mouat does a better job of it on his website here. Engle's original intention was to create a model for imagination-driven gaming that was really improv-heavy and used each players' creative thinking. It could apply to all kinds of game contexts. The two main ones he delves into are 1) a game about controlling and developing an entire society, kind of like Sid Meier's Civilization, and 2) a wargame about controlling armies who are campaigning against each other. But of course, the model could apply to nearly any context. The main thing his explanation suffered from is that he attempted to describe a visually complex tool necessary for the system (the titular "matrix" of the Matrix Games) but didn't provide any pictures. I have attempted to create a visual for each of these examples, based on his descriptions. Let's go through the idea, shall we?
So in a Matrix Game, the entity you are controlling is defined by 1) its Needs (i.e. the qualities/things it needs to have in order to be that thing) and 2) its Institutions (the ways in which it satisfies/supports those needs). Part of setting up a Matrix Game is having the referee define what everyone's starting matrix looks like. So in the civilization game, here is everyone's starting society matrix:
Action consists of some executive order given through an institution which would alleviate the problem. The player presents it in the form of an argument as to why the action would solve the problem. The outcome of an action is decided by a referee (or agreement of all the players if there is no referee). For example say the problem is a shortage of materials for the individual craftsman; the action might be the hunters supply craftsman with materials from their kills (an action in the institution hunting). This argument might work well. The referee needs to take into account the interconnectedness of institutions (more interdependence and greater strength) and the interconnectedness of problems (more difficulty). If the argument is well-made, fits the institution, and is logical, then it should work. In some cases the player will not have a pre-existing institution to deal with a problem, in such cases the player must innovate an institution or create a new one to meet the challenge.
I think that's a pretty neat sounding system. Now let's look at his military simulation game he came up with. After all, his main audience were wargamers, so he tried to see how he could recreate the context of a wargame with his system. Here is the basic starting "army matrix" he came up with for his players:
Obviously this is way more complicated right off the bat. However, there is no creation or evolution of institutions in this game. Your matrix will always look the same, and it's going to last you the entire battle. Play instead focuses on the part where complications are introduced and solutions are thought up. Something interesting about his proposal that I wouldn't have probably done: instead of players taking turns coming up with complications to target their rivals with, they instead just come up with a list of complications before the match begins and turn them all in to the referee. Then, at the referee's discretion, those complications are introduced throughout the game whenever they need to shake things up. Even worse, they can give those complications to any player, including the one who originally thought it up. Again, it's important to emphasize that, within the context of the game's story, the complications aren't necessarily coming from each player army, but more from, like, the universe itself.
So in the pre-match stage, you're just brainstorming a list of possible problems for the referee to dish out. During the match you'll be trying to brainstorm solutions to the ones you're handed. "Peasant soldiers rise up against the upper class officers" gets thrown at you, so you solve it by maybe invoking a few of those Morale institutions, or maybe by having the officers forfeit their own food supply and pay in order to bribe the peasants into compliance.
He introduces lots of other rules like movement and attacking and stuff but this, the meat and potatoes, is what I want to focus on. I really like this idea of modeling something like an army not by listing individual units or groupings of units, like you might see in a traditional wargame, but rather by each idea that plays into it. Some of those ideas are indeed units, yes. But some of them are intangible things like social values or practices and methods. And even the tangible "unit institutions" are never very specific or granular, like "4 battalions of cavalry." It's more important to know that they have cavalry than to know how many or how strong they are.
The last thing I'll explain about Engle Matrix Games is that, as originally conceived, they're very "argument heavy." As in, the primary method of resolving questions at the table is by literally debating on the outcome and judging who has the strongest argument. So the "core mechanic" of any Matrix Game is to not just brainstorm an event that occurs, but to come up with three reasons why you believe it makes sense and is likely to occur and is of meaningful consequence. Then, to defend against an event, you make a counterargument of reasons why it won't work. And so on. Alternative systems are having each player make a "pros and cons" list, or even something described as the "simple narrative" system: literally just tell the story of what happens as best you can, and the referee will decide if it makes sense.
I'm not necessarily advocating that D&D be turned into this sort of thing, but I like the focus on using guidelines to drive players to think in this way. After all, most Dungeon Masters are in the practice of rewarding players who can justify their ideas with good reasoning, often granting bonuses/advantage or outright success for that kind of thing. Engle just made an entire game genre out of that.
Powered by the Apocalypse Fronts
Pivoting waaaaay over to dear ol' Powered by the Apocalypse games, we have the "front" system introduced in the original Apocalypse World and popularly expanded on in Dungeon World. PbtA is a very, very different kind of game from wargames, Engle Matrix Games, or the old-school type of D&D I normally play. But it's a good and interesting kind of game that everyone can learn from, you know? So "fronts" are how they recommend the GM model large-scale threats to the PCs in the story. More like factions or trends than individual beasts and villains. To be blunt, they definitely put too many constraints on this system for my taste, but it's still useful as-is. We're gunna be looking at the Dungeon World iteration because it's closer to the context of classic D&D.
This is the "faction" system of the game, yes, but it also assumes that the faction in question is 1) villainous or oppositional to the PCs, and 2) dynamic, active, and seeking specific, destructive goals. Interestingly, the way it's described in the rules makes it out like it can model adventure scenarios themselves as well as groups of people. You could model a dungeon as a "front," sort of. Here's a front template with some of the stuff already filled out, which we'll walk through:
So of course you come up with a name and a basic description. You define the core cast of important people involved and then you define the "stakes": these are the important questions that this front's existence poses, the things that'll have far-reaching implications for the campaign. Stuff like, "how will the front accomplish X?" and "who will be hurt by the front's plans?" and bullshit. It's a very narrativist game, okay? They need help with that kind of stuff.
The "campaign" vs "adventure" boxes in the top right are interesting. The game says you should think of fronts as being modeled in one of two scales: either you're talking about a large-scale, campaign-long threat, or you're talking about an immediately interactable, single-adventure threat. Then, you should nest the adventure fronts within a greater campaign front. So, for example, the "campaign front" might be "the evil wizard's forces," which is comprised of sub-fronts like "army of the undead," "dragon lair defending magical secrets," and "ruthless merchant's guild controlling all the nobility." Then, each adventure session, the players tackle one of these "adventure fronts" and take them out, which systematically damages the greater campaign front over the long-term.
Which brings us to the big section taking up most of the middle-to-bottom. The "dangers" you define for a front are the important components that act on their own and which the PCs will be targeting. Each danger has a name, defined type (the rules provide a list of types but, again, I think you should be as creative as you want since the types don't actually have mechanical consequences), the impending doom they present (which you should probably just replace with "end goal" if you don't want to be too melodramatic or "high fantasy"), and the terribly-named "grim portents" (the sequence of steps in their plan that will advance if the players don't stop them). You could advance each danger's grim portents by one step every session, perhaps, or maybe per hour (if it's an adventure front). I actually like the idea of randomly advancing them, inspired by Magical Industrial Revolution's "innovations" system: each session/hour/whatever, roll 1d6 for each danger: if you roll higher than the current portent number, then it advances to the next portent. So if Danger A is on portent 2, then a roll of 3 or more will advance them, but if Danger B is on portent 5, then only a roll of 6 will advance them to completion. Or something like that. Something important is that the grim portents are visible to the PCs. These are known indications that the danger is advancing towards its goal, signifying to the players that the clock is ticking. It keeps the world's threats autonomous, independent of the players' actions.
Something oddly not listed on this sheet is another quality the rules say you should give each danger: an "impulse" (another bad name), which is basically their motive or instinct they fall back on. If the DM isn't sure what the danger would do at any given time (such as if things aren't going according to plan due to the actions of the PCs), then they can just rely on following the danger's impulse. Some examples they give:
- A danger of a thieves guild has the impulse to take by subterfuge
- A danger of a corrupt government has the impulse to maintain the status quo
- A danger of a god has the impulse to gather worshippers
- A danger of an ancient curse is to ensnare
- A danger of a plague of the undead is to spread
- A danger of a Place of Power is to be controlled or tamed
Something that really attracts me to the fronts system is the long-term 5E campaign I've been a player in for the past few years. We started at 3rd level and we're currently around 16th on average, and it's definitely been a very linear, combat-heavy high fantasy game. I like it a lot and my DM is very good, so this isn't to knock his style or anything. It's merely to contrast possibilities. See, the basic plot of the campaign goes like this: we all live on a prosperous peninsula of independent but loosely-aligned city states, all of which had earned their freedom together in a rebellion against the mainland a few centuries ago. The mainland is mostly comprised of an evil authoritarian empire that has a bunch of client states, and has been pissed off for centuries that our peninsula has been living under its own autonomy for so long. So of course, they're planning to invade and re-conquer us.
Thus, it's up to the players to be the special forces team doing all the cool missions necessary to combat the empire's schemes and sabotage their resources and just generally push back. There've been a handful of small open battles but we're mostly in a cold war stage right now, with forces mobilizing on either side. Just as frequently as we fight against the empire, we also find ourselves on diplomatic missions to either win over those client states or try to convince some of the peninsular city-states to join the cause. We recently had to prevent a Brexit situation with one of our city-states near the imperial border, since we couldn't afford to lose access to their fleet. This should all sound like fairly normal but fun high fantasy stuff, I think.
But we're always told what our missions are and how we're going to generally go about them. Of course, once we actually arrive at a location, we usually have a lot of freedom to plan our approach. But leading up to that, the DM simply dictates what the quest of the week is and how we're getting there. Now I need to stress, I think this is an acceptable constraint for the purposes of the DM retaining a level of control he's comfortable with. If I felt it were too restrictive, I wouldn't play. But I do like games that have more player agency than this. I would be interested in getting to participate in the moments where the operations themselves are thought up and planned. But as it is, we, the players, have no concrete image of what the Empire "looks like" from a strategic point of view. I don't know their population, military makeup, industries, geography, or much of anything else. We've certainly gotten used to a few recurring enemy types and we've gotten a rough idea of their level of technology from all our missions, but from our perspective the Empire is basically a plot device. It's this nebulous entity that we could never make an informed decision about how to combat. Missions are designed by the DM on the basis of plot, not of some actual simulation of strategic competition. If you asked me whether it'd be more effective to target the Empire's food supply or their trade routes or their arms manufacturing, I wouldn't know. If you asked if a full-scale attack and invasion against them were viable, or if a naval blockade would be more effective, or if they'd be open to peace negotiations, I wouldn't have any idea.
But maybe you can see how, if they were modeled as an Engle-style Matrix or as a PbtA front then I'd have a loose framework of important components to feed my considerations. I could see the most important moving parts comprising the empire, the key elements to manipulate. Again, I think allowing players to approach things in a freeform, creative fashion is definitely preferable to creating a "board game-y" faction system, but at least presenting the PCs with some notable info to get the ball rolling would be helpful.
Lastly, I'll talk about...
Blades in the Dark Crews
Blades in the Dark is a game that's based on Powered by the Apocalypse rules but it honestly has enough of its own thing going on that it's basically a game engine of its own. It's an RPG about playing as thieves, spies, assassins, and other rogue-types in a dark urban fantasy setting where you do heists and stuff. You know, cool noir crime-movie kinda things. A big part of the game is that the party creates and shares a crew that they run together, and the main motivation driving the campaign is the party's efforts to improve on and expand their crew. Sounds like fun.
Now, this game is really, really fiddly and has tons of rules and systems and none of them are intuitively named and it's all designed to piss you off but that's okay. It won't get in the way of the part I want to show you. The most interesting thing to me about this crew system is a little visual element on the "crew sheet" that'll probably jump out at you. Here's an example below:
If you give the sheet a good once-over, you'll see some stuff I think you'd expect. The players get to define their group's name, their lair, and some qualities of their lair and stuff. They track their reputation, money, contacts, and how much heat they're getting from the cops. You can spec into some upgrades and get something called a "cohort" or whatever. But you already know the part I'm interested in.
Okay, so that matrix-looking thing with "lair" in the center? That's not actually a physical map. It's just a list of cool assets the party has gained from each mission they do. That's the primary reward of many missions: get a new "claim". So the process is 1) the players choose a claim they want to seize, 2) the GM sets it up as a quest to be played out, and 3) if the party succeeds in the quest, they get that claim and now have the bonus it says. You see there are some connections already drawn, but this isn't actually a strict roadmap. The players are free to attempt to seize any claim on the matrix, it's just that claims which you aren't already connected to will be more difficult to seize and will likely require some investigation. So, for example, if you already have the Gambling Den, then going after the Tavern should be pretty simple. But trying to skip straight to the Secret Pathways without getting the other claims along the path will be trickier.
Notice how the assets here are, once again, sometimes tangible and sometimes not. Turf is a common type of claim, but something like a network of informants, a broker who'll work for you, a favor from the cops, and so on are also claims with benefits. Having more muscle provides an obvious benefit, but it might not have occurred to you how much easier your life could be if you had a dedicated, inconspicuous "interrogation chamber" decked out with lots of torture stuff. Every crew type has its own unique matrix, and if you make a custom crew then the GM will design their own. Here's another example for a vice-dealer crew:
It makes sense that they'd benefit from different types of assets for the type of work they do. Turf is always helpful, yes, but the Cover Operation lets you lie about your strip club and claim that it's actually an innocent flower shop, which will keep the heat away. One claim I really liked was "score trophies," i.e. now your crew indulges in the timeless practice of taking a trophy from every successful heist/assassination/drug deal/whatever so they can get a bonus to their reputation score afterwards.
So what draws me to this system is that it's player-focused, quite unlike the front system from Dungeon World. It understands that it could be fun and rewarding to command a faction rather than just fight one. NPC crews in Blades in the Dark kinda function similar to the PC ones, but it's not totally symmetric. I would prefer to create a system that is. And of course, Blades in the Dark is pretty steeped in its own setting and mechanics, so something that would "adapt" this crew system for a more generalized purpose would have to be pretty open-ended. What if the party commands a cult, or an artisan's guild, or a mercenary company, or a pirate crew, or a bank, or a crusader horde, or a logging company, or blablablabla? I'm not sure I could provide an exhaustive list of possible factions to control or oppose, each with a unique matrix of assets/dangers/institutions. But embracing the creative potential of a freeform game is going to be key.
Toying Around With This
I was already working on something that looked similar to these systems which would model large-scale threats and institutions in a campaign. I wasn't even thinking of something very complicated or anything, I was basically just imagining making a map of different holdings possessed by a faction. Like, let's say a tribe of goblins is terrorizing a region. You could make a network of each lair they control and their strongholds, and then key them each to a local area's random encounter tables. If the PCs ever clear out one of the lairs, then the goblin results are removed from the encounter tables there. Clear them all out and there are no more goblin raiders causing trouble for folks. But leave the job unfinished and they'll come back to reclaim lost territory. Maybe seed the region with multiple factions and have them push and pull for control over lairs and strongholds. You can keep reusing the same dungeons but stocking them with new monsters and traps and treasure every time a new faction takes over.
To make it more sophisticated, create a meaningful quality for each component of the network. For example, let's say one of the locations under goblin control is their Moon Magick Academy where the mystically-inclined goblins go to do fire rituals and stuff, and they learn spellcasting. Well, if you knock that location out then you can remove goblin mages from the rest of the faction, since their source is gone. Maybe leave a handful remaining but otherwise that's it. Or let's say one of the locations is their breeding grounds for carrion crawler grubs. Knock it out and no more gross grubs to deal with. So each victory doesn't merely shrink the organization, it takes away something interesting. Or at the very least, they can change the faction. Like if you knock out their lair where they keep their big stash of food and water, many of the nearby tribes will possibly relocate to find somewhere else that can sustain them. Or if you kill a major leader, then it'll disperse many of the goblins so they aren't concentrated in one area (since they've lost their common, unifying element).
So let's go back to those examples from before. Say the main villains of your campaign is a criminal organization pulling all the strings in the city. You can model them much like a powerful crew in Blades in the Dark. Each quest the party undertakes could be targeting one of their "claims" and removing it from them. Taking back turf always helps because it makes the moment-to-moment navigation of those areas of the city safer, with no random encounters to worry about anymore. But something cool about Blades is the more intangible assets, too. Exposing their cover identities, sabotaging their surveillance network, getting their most reliable fences arrested, making a better offer to their drug supplier to start buying them off, and performing a heist against their primary bank can all cripple the organization in other ways. You didn't "clear out" their locations and strongholds, but you damaged them nonetheless.
Another source of inspiration for this comes from criminology, which is probably why I'm so inclined to think in "urban noir" contexts. See, when cops try to combat a criminal organization, they do it in pretty much exactly this way. They set up a network diagram with all the major players and connect them with red string and slowly try to figure out who's at the top and who you have to go through to reach them. You arrest a few enforcers at the mid-level on murder charges and you get them to make a plea deal to flip on their boss so you can secure a higher-level, more valuable arrest. In tabletop games these days they're calling that a "conspyramid," as described by the Alexandrian here. But an important distinction is that Alexander is usually thinking of this system in terms of organizing your campaign's plot. Like, you design your network as a connected series of episodes for how the party will progress towards the climax. It's a tool for gamemasters first.
I, on the other hand, don't want to provide that much guidance. Rather, I think this kind of tool for mapping out a faction is most useful for players to get an idea of what their best options are and how they should plot out their approach themselves. And it's not even necessarily an intrinsically adversarial system. Like, these kinds of networks can be valuable to PCs who are interested in joining an organization, or perhaps allying with them. Maybe their interest is in having a well-placed agent in every major institution in the kingdom, so they need a separate faction network for each one so they can figure out the optimal way to infiltrate them all. And, as stated before, this same type of model could be used for factions controlled by PCs. So for it to serve so many purposes, there have to be less and less rigid mechanics involved. The information defining a front in Dungeon World only makes sense for a villainous organization. The information defining a crew is likewise limiting. This is why I still think an Engle-style Matrix is closest to what I need.
Let me put in another way: there is a wonderful sci-fi RPG by Kevin Crawford called Stars Without Number. I've praised it before, in particular for its faction rules. But in that game, all factions are built to use either "force," "cunning," or "wealth," which are each stats in the game that are affected by certain mechanics. And when you construct a faction and begin building it out, you have to buy assets off of a list. The book contains its own full library of every last thing a faction could have at its disposal and what mechanical benefits they grant. And while that list is pretty impressive and can definitely serve a wide variety of purposes, it's still limiting. Crunchy systems pretty much always are.
So I think I'd be most comfortable with that in-between position of both providing a list of faction assets and explicitly saying that players and referees alike are free to use as many more as they can imagine. A starting list, not an exhaustive one. Remember, this is just to combat the blank canvas problem. And in order to not introduce gameplay issues by leaving it so open-ended, I honestly feel like the "fiction-first" freeform approach might be the best way to define what an asset offers. Rather than saying "having an inside man in the police station reduces heat by 3 at the beginning of each adventure" or something, just say "you have an inside man at the police station. Do with that what you will" and let the players figure out how it could logically benefit them. Sure, they might use that guy to keep other cops off their back. But maybe they'll use him to smuggle them some evidence, or maybe contraband like weapons or drugs. Maybe they'll use him as a spy to keep tabs on the police chief. Maybe they'll feed him false info to pass along so they can trick the police chief. Maybe they'll call on him to keep them safe during a riot. They could do all sorts of things with that asset, so why let rigid mechanics get in the way?
Here's some of the stuff I had previously been working on while thinking about factions. First, let's model up a dungeon with one (something I've alluded to before but have never demonstrated). Lots of OSR folks think that good dungeons need factions, and the push and pull of competing NPC factions in a big dungeon can make it a really interesting, dynamic space. So below I've drawn up a simple diagram of a megadungeon that might span a mile or two. You can see the major chunks and how they each connect, and how they're all tied into their surrounding landscape (e.g. controlling the burrows beneath the farms gives you access to crops, controlling the sewers is the best position from which you can influence the city, having the gold mine gives you a source of capital, etc.).