8 Tips For Freestyle Gaming
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #584
When PCs adventure together they spend most of their time as a group, and you might go out of your way to avoid splitting them up.
But imagine a game that actually encourages splits and spotlights one PC at a time.
Each character is involved in his own personal story, has his own network of NPCs, and may be an ally or enemy of the other PCs.
You switch focus from one PC to the next throughout each session, much like a movie switches scenes to follow different characters.
This type of game offers more character development than a group based game. Each PC gets personalized attention from you, and can focus on personal goals, like ascending the ranks of the thieves’ guild, or hunting down the orc that slew the PC’s father.
Freestyle games require a different set of GM skills to make them work, so here are 8 tips to keep in mind when you run one.
Focus On Story Over Combat
When PCs work independently they don’t have the same amount of power as when they are in a group.
So brute force campaigns won’t work as well.
Instead, focus on things like role playing, puzzles, espionage, mysteries and character development.
If you want to add tougher battles, feel free to let them work with NPCs temporarily.
For example, they could hire a mercenary or team up with members of their guild.
Use Well-Rounded PCs
Normally, PCs get the most benefit when they specialize because they are part of a well rounded group. But in a freestyle game they can benefit from being well-rounded, such as by multi-classing, developing different skills, or purchasing items to compliment their main abilities.
Imagine a warrior getting injured in battle with no healer around to help. He may want to carry a few healing potions or learn how to heal himself.
Building versatile PCs who must struggle through on their own much of the time will also be a great new challenge for your players.
Freestyle games are a great opportunity to personalize the game to each PC’s skills and goals.
To focus on skills, you could have the rogue infiltrate a castle using stealth since he doesn’t have a clumsy fighter following him around in plate armor.
Normally, goals need to be something the whole group can agree on, like finding treasure or helping a town in distress. Now you can focus on personal goals, such as having the cleric quest for a holy relic for his temple, or having the wizard search for spell components to make a new wizard staff.
Decide How The PCs Know Each Other
For a good mix of traditional and freestyle gaming, you could have the PCs group up when they’re out of the city on adventures, and work independently on their personal goals when they’re between adventures.
Also, they could be working together from different angles towards the same goal.
For example, the group may need to get rid of a large group of bandits. The bard could infiltrate their organization and sow dissent among the bandits. Meanwhile, the warrior could be organizing a group of mercenaries to launch an assault on the bandit hideout.
Making the PCs enemies of each other could be a nice change of pace. This works well if they aren’t physically fighting each other, because you’ll have lots of dead PCs and angry players.
Have them compete in non-lethal ways, such as through political maneuvers or working with opposing organizations.
Maybe the wizard guild and rangers guild struggle for more power in the city. Each PC is a member of a different guild and must gain favor with the political leaders of the city to empower their guild.
To get the most out of freestyle gaming, you could have the PCs start out as strangers and work mostly independently throughout the game. Give them opportunities to cross paths and work together if they choose, but don’t require it.
In this case, their missions may be completely unrelated. For example, one PC may be searching for lost rituals for the Pale Wizards, while another is infiltrating the ranks of an evil cult known as the Watchers.
Give Players Equal Play Time
Keep in mind when it’s one player’s turn in the spotlight, all the other players will be sitting around waiting for their turns.
Therefore, it’s important to give each player an equal amount of time to play and to switch scenes frequently. Try to limit each scene to 10-20 minutes depending on the size of your group. The larger the group, the quicker you should switch scenes.
It’s best if your group size is 2-3 players, so players don’t have to wait long for their turns. You may want to use a timer so you don’t lose track when GMing.
Each player should get the same amount of playing time as when they are in a group based game. The difference is their turns are longer, and thus time between turns is longer as well.[Comment from Johnn: Also try to get PCs’ stories and actions crossing each other as much as possible.
The more factions and game elements you introduce, the larger the “game sprawl”, which reduces potential PC combo scenes.
For example, if you have a group of 4+ players, change the setting from city to village. The reduced setting scope will guarantee more scenes where players share the spotlight as friends, neutrals, competitors or enemies.]
Switch Scenes At The Right Time
Do you want tension to stay high? Leave the PC at a cliffhanger.
For example, Eza the rogue sneaks into a room when suddenly the gate slams shut behind her and the room starts filling with thick blue smoke. Now switch to Kon the barbarian.
This keeps the player wanting to find out what’s going to happen.
To relieve the tension, switch after the conclusion of some event, such as after Kon slays the assassin that tried to kill the ruler of his tribe. This gives a nice breather after some intense scenes.
Also, when a PC does something unexpected and you’re not sure how to react, go ahead and switch to another PC to buy yourself time to think.
Handle Private Information
Keep all the players entertained by letting them listen to the action when it’s not their turn. If it is important they don’t know about something that happens, then take the player who’s turn it is into another room to run the scene in private.
Only do this when it is important to keep the information secret. Most of the time let the other players watch so they stay involved. Just be sure they don’t use any information their characters don’t know.
There are times you might just need to keep one small bit of information secret from the other players. In this case, just write a private note.[Comment from Johnn: 10 Tips On Passing Notes During Games.]
Let Idle Players Control NPCs
Have players control NPCs when it’s not their turn. If you do this, limit it to non-critical NPCs, such as random innkeepers or mercenaries.
This gives players who like to role play a chance to be involved when it’s not their turn. If you have an important NPC like a villain or king, or that NPC requires secret GM knowledge, then it’s best to play those NPCs yourself.
Freestyle games have a very different feel to them and allow for more character development.
Everyone gets more time in the spotlight, which lets them do things they wouldn’t get to do otherwise, like utilize certain abilities, or focus on personal quests.
However, it takes a different set of skills from the GM to run a game like this, so keep these tips in mind when you run your next freestyle game.
Brian A.C. is the founder of QuestKick.com, a simple and powerful web app that streamlines campaigns and gaming sessions for GMs.
He enjoys story-driven, freestyle, and homebrew campaigns, and his current favorite system is Pathfinder.