the Fairgame Archive

2006-03-31: A Form of Free: Ennead Style
by Emily

This post is part of a series I'm doing to describe different free-form play I've been involved with and nail down some techniques used in play. The first one I did was Pretend with Sebastian & Elliot.

Warning: This description of play has singularly non-family oriented material. Read at own risk. Also, the archive for the game isn't accessible right now, so some of the links here are broken.

Last summer I got the chance to sit in on a session of play that the Ennead ran. They are a group of friends who introduced me to role playing long ago, though they live across the country from me in Portland OR, now so I'm not a current player in their games.  One of the major types of games they do is free-form, co-gm'd table-top play using a setting they've collaboratively developed over the last 15 or so years.  They've got a tremendous history of play together, and have strong social bonds among the players. Frex, the majority of the players have lived or currently live with with one another, and all are good friends and creative collaborators.  I'm going to describe their style (or my understanding of it) a bit in general and that session of play in specific.

Setting and Cues

The kernel of the setting is Ars Magica (an order of mages in a medievaloid world), but placed in a world made from whole cloth rather than an alternate history Europe or other real world area. People have coordinated their world development by writing, drawing and discussing various cultures, organizations, characters and the physical characteristics of the world.  How I learned about the world was through long out-of-game conversations about the world, characters, history and social structures with the players. Living together facilitated this greatly. Written archives for material written about the world is now online here. There are many maps and illustrations of characters that have been created over time.  And once, I wore handcuffs when my character was shackled, but largely it is simply word-based and descriptive.

The current campaign is taking place in a corner of the world that had been little developed prior to play. A group of mages is founding a covenant in a region with a divergent religious tradition from the main area where the order resides.  Some of the mages are engaged in politicking with the local aristocracy to invade other parts of the region and to assimilate this people into the order's religious tradition.  The mages in the covenant are dealing with culture clash with the locals and magical/religious attacks by certain antagonistic priesthoods.

One person "owned" this part of the world (ie he made it up and had been primarily responsible for it) but as time has gone on, input has been been elicited from the other players, about the local religions especially. There is a lexicon game to populate the covenant library. Things are established in play many times through character actions and player interpretations of events.


Everyone plays (or may play) multiple characters. As in Ars Magica, most players have a mage and a non-mage character, but instead of then having a gm who plays all the rest, everyone runs a gaggle of the characters in every area of the world: local priests and fisherfolk, mages from other covenants, soldiers, servants, local aristos, etc, etc.  The Ennead has only officially been running fully co-gm'd for the last few years, but from when I first played with them, it always struck me as being thus, in large part because of the prevalence of playing multiple characters. Because of this the plot is complex—characters are constantly pushing forward their agendas, having conflicts with other characters and so on. When there was a gm, that person was responsible for the major threats and complications faced and often played primary opposition characters. I can't say if they also had final say about what was in the world—since everyone can add things, and people rarely say "no, that's not there", but the gm would have been looked to to describe more than others, most likely.

Orchestrating Adversity: the example of play

In this particular game session, one player came up with the general situation that would be dealt with that night: the covenant had set up a brothel in the town for their soldiers. This was a source of contention since the local culture has a priesthood, the Lover Priests, that practiced sacred prostitution along with various other rites, like marriage, counseling and so on. The secular brothel was settled in a place of centrality and honor in the town, compounding the insult.

In the current events of the game, a large festival had taken place. Someone or various people framed the scene to be in a beerhall following the festival. The secular prostitutes were present, as was the local Lover Priestess and one visiting from another town. The prostitutes argued openly with one another about how much they should be paid. The Priestesses chatted about and insulted the prostitutes.  An altercation occurred involving a mis-communication (they speak different languages) about what one prostitute had said about being paid for her services with a whole pig, and the Priestesses started calling one of the prostitutes a pig-fucker. Children were paid to throw mud on the prostitutes when they tried to leave & a mage intervened to help the prostitutes leave with dignity.

How did this all occur? The scene was framed, the conflict inherent, the characters' motivations were fleshed out by following through with the introduced situation and with some in the moment inspiration.  The secular prostitutes were all created on the fly. One player introduced his character as being jealous of another's pay rate. This gave great conflict between that group, which got nested into the rivalry with the Priestesses.  The player of the madam established some excellent things about the precariousness of the position of the Lover Priestesses in in-character discussion with the prostitutes, which further developed the groups in the setting in a larger way.

Escalation and Looking for Openings

This particular session ended up in a bloody conflict that set up a good chunk of the next arc of the game.  The prostitute called a "pig-fucker" was brutally attacked, nearly killed, and placed in a very compromising position with a dead pig. Bloody graffiti with the epithet on a wall nearby finishing the picture, and all pointing toward the Lover Priesthood as having incited the crime.  How did this come about? As we played out the aftermath of the beer hall situation, one player (the player of the maligned prostitute) asked if anyone thought there might be some Monkey Priest activity going on. The Monkeys are another, somewhat scurrilous and dangerous group that had been antagonizing the mages.  No one said they had any ideas about this.  That player then took the character he'd been playing and framed her in this situation. Another player's mage came up on them before she was quite dead. I cannot remember how the timing was decided up on. I'd be interested to be reminded.

A conflict then ensued where the prostitute was healed & a chased occurred for the second of the assailants.  Magic was used (via narration, not fortune or other mechanics, I believe) to find the escaped Monkey Priest, but the player who had introduced it all didn't know who would be the right person.  So, he asked if anyone had any ideas about who it would be, it should be someone fairly new to the covenant, in a humble position.  Another player suggested a certain servant, one who had been described as being odd in some way, but that had never been suspected of being evil etc.  In fact, I believe, he'd been at the scene of another mysterious incident, so could then be tied in to that as well.  The mages tracked him down, and they were taken into custody (and then tortured, but that is another story).  One of the Lover Priestesses was on hand and helped the injured prostitute—as well as having the Monkey Priests apprehended—so the increased conflict between the groups was not successfully created.

Yes and No's

Overall, it was an exciting and satisfying (if disturbing) session. It was fascinating to see the player who started the Monkey attack carve out space for it by asking if anyone else had something similar in mind, thereby claiming it as something he was going to do.  And also to see the way that space was made for others to provide the final details, which made it richer with connections to other aspects of past game events.  By far and large, things were introduced and accepted in an additive way which is characteristic of their gaming style.  In play, people make characters act and say things and setting is described by everyone, and things happen in play with few questions or denials.  There was some aspect of the events, though that wasn't accepted at face value. Perhaps it was about whether the assailant got away? Someone said they didn't think that was right, and so it was negotiated: a counter suggestion was made and finally something was accepted.

2006-04-01 10:19:48 Charles S

Nice description.

The write-up on the knownworld site (which complete ignores procedure) seems to be up and down the past couple of days. When it's up it can be found here

The timing on the pig incident was decided by Kip's narrative fiat. He introduced some stuff suggesting that something was up, and when that led a character to go near the location of the scene he wanted to have, he narrated that character encountering the scene. There was no way for a character to arrive late or early on the scene of the crime, except Kip's preference for how the scene should fit in.

One very noticeable difference between your write up and the write up on the site is exactly how many minor side scenes there are in the longer version. Our play is extremely rambling and loose/un structured, which may be related to being very additive, with very little blocking. If someone expresses a desire in having a particular scene, then that scene almost always happens.

Three other interesting notes to my mind about our game:

We have eight players. This seems like a lot of players to me, particularly for free-form.

One of the players has only been playing with us since last July (actually, since the session Emily describes), and only knew two of the players before her first session. She has taken to the game style swimmingly and without hesitation. I believe her previous gaming experience was a small amount of White Wolf. However, she has extensive writing experience.

Our newest player, added even more recently than Dylan, is still struggling to get a good handle on the play style. Most of his previous gaming experience is extensive D&D and bad home-brews (plus some DitV).

2006-04-01 13:51:50 Emily

Thanks, Charles.

I remember having a long inculturation process when I began playing with you. Having a handle on the background is important not only so that you know who is who, but also so that you can understand what the relationships are between groups and how one can enter in to adding meaningfully to it. Having the online archive is a boon.  But may be a bit daunting. :)

Our play is extremely rambling and loose/un structured, which may be related to being very additive, with very little blocking.

The rambling structure is one of the joys of this style of play. So much of a character's life can be delved into, their relationships with other characters established and portrayed, and also, a tremendous amount of world & further "plot" developments derive from the small moments and interactions that occur. This session was a case in point. Although, I do not know if Kip had anything like this in mind prior to the session start. Kip?

Charles, would you mind saying a bit about what may have changed since your group chose to no longer have someone be designated as gm? I have also omitted talking here about the formal mechanics that you do use.

2006-04-03 14:23:50 Emily

As a side note, Jason, Remi and Clinton talk here about the "yes, and" principle used in improv. Reminds me greatly of a lot of the way you (and we) build narrative & world in freeform.

2006-04-25 15:54:08 Emily

I'm sad that the time I finally got around to writing this has coincided with a long outage of the Known World site. Bad timing on my part.

2006-05-14 03:28:07 Charles S

And, after a 6 week hiatus, we are back up.


2006-05-23 16:20:28 Matt S

We have begun to use more mechanics (high good, low bad) and at times I believe it has been beneficial to our storytelling though not always.

Dylan has certainly taken to our gaming style with gusto, while Jake brings a different flavor of playstyle.

The difference I've seen between previous GM'd and our current gaming style is we lack the singular over arching at times complex and always with great detail plotline. Instead our large plots move in and out of the spotlight and the atmosphere of them can change as well from one persons telling to another. It sometimes eliminates expecations both of where the plot might go as you are never sure who will pick up that plot thread and spin it out a bit further.

This might sound unpleasant, but the contiual surprise and not being held to that one story arc that really needs to get resolved allows some extra freedom for characters. To use what is no doubt an awful analogy, a GM'd game for us was more like a book, it had subplots but that main plot was a framing device for many scenes if not always most of the characters. Our co-GM'd is more like a TV show, where plots and subplots ebb and flow depending on the interest of the group of writers.

I think what has had a larger impact on our style of game is the documentation style of the game. On the one hand it is amazingly useful and a pleasant read to have the written record after (often immediately following) playing through a session. However back in the day with the numerous microphones (of which only a portion of the tapes were ever transcribed because it was a crap load of work) it allowed us to have more of the day to day conversations that let us fall in and out of minor characters. This allowed us to keep the feel of a living covenant going, flesh out our minor characters, and I used it often to block out information from an important scene that was otherwise taking place right next to me, so then I could react with genuine surprise when I learned of it in character later. This maybe just my point of view, but I think this has contributed to why we don't feel as familiar or intimate with many of the minor character towns folk.

2006-05-23 19:27:39 Emily

Hi Matt!

I suspect time is a factor too. We used to play long, long sessions, and then spend time in between talking about the events and characters.

To use what is no doubt an awful analogy, a GM'd game for us was more like a book, it had subplots but that main plot was a framing device for many scenes if not always most of the characters. Our co-GM'd is more like a TV show, where plots and subplots ebb and flow depending on the interest of the group of writers.

Sounds like a good analogy to me. Single author vs. group scripting.  Though a gm never does it all on their own, but there is that thread of the plot that they hold. Having one person do so seems likely to keep it more focused.

2006-05-24 04:34:50 Charles S

I often think about recording our sessions. I suspect the equipment to do it well would be moderately expensive (particularly to deal with the problem of recording small children mixed in, I'd love to lapel mic each player with a wireless mic, and then record everything into 8 tracks (1 per player) of digital recording, but I expect that that would be expensive equipment).

However, the recordings can't have been that important of a part of getting to know minor characters, as they were very slowly transcribed. More important is the shape of the play space. The old play space (in Amherst) spread across two rooms, with the main room being relatively narrow. This afforded multiple play areas, allowing simultaneous conversations to occur. For example, the amazing conversations between Stellan and Rig generally took place in the corner near the stereo, and routinely went on while everyone else was playing something completely different. Our initial play space was cramped with only a single central area and cross conversations were very hard to follow. Our current play space is larger, but still essentially one play area.

Also, the continuous flow of plot means that there is less of a concept of between major plot times, when minor characters get emphasis.

However, it may also be important to note that we have played only about 150-200 hours of play (50 sessions of 3-4 hours), and that the strong minor characters in Isrillion only really came into their own in the third and fourth campaigns (after probably 200+ hours of play in the first 2 campaigns).

2006-05-24 13:58:41 Emily

However, it may also be important to note that we have played only about 150-200 hours of play (50 sessions of 3-4 hours), and that the strong minor characters in Isrillion only really came into their own in the third and fourth campaigns (after probably 200+ hours of play in the first 2 campaigns).

It's amazing to see that quantified. Now that is commitment. : ) There really is no substitute for the time spent. The level of development of minor & major characters in these campaigns is unparalleled imo.

2006-05-24 19:37:41 Matt S

It also could be that I came into the Known World games late (months after Emily)had for quite a while no mage character like Jake and , so I entrenched myself more into the world of the average covenfolk or slightly above average visitor as opposed to having a character firmly entrenched in the political heirarchy who had to deal with The Plot, well my above average visitor had to deal with it.

2006-05-26 06:28:55 Kip Manley

Right. Kept meaning to get back over here and say something, but the site being down during the long hiatus kept me from the write-up, and I didn't really trust my memory, but now it's back and I go to look it over and I don't really find much regarding the questions at hand beyond my memory.

  • I had nothing like the bloody Monkey-capades in mind before this session of the game began. I just wanted (like most of us) to finally finish off the Day of Passion, which we'd started playing two sessions (and two months) before.
  • While I was checking to see if anyone had anything in mind to a) cap the Day of Passion or b) cap the simmering Monkey-plots we'd been dealing with, the more important thing I was trying to establish was whether the Monkeys would in fact get as brutal as I was thinking they'd get.

I wasn't entirely sure about how the Monkeys worked, or what they'd do in a situation like this. And even if we knew how the Monkeys in the past had always conducted themselves, we're in a region of the country that was brutally invaded a dozen years ago, where the traditional religion is under assault by Love and Reason. How would Monkeys - 'the left-hand path, the fire-path, the hand that gets things done; the 'form of religious deviance whereby individual or social goals are sought by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution'; you know: cunning-folk - how would they react to this rather apocalyptic situation? Who cares what they'd've always done in the past, how far would they go now, in the teeth of their enemies?

I didn't know, so I asked.

The idea, as I recall it, came on me rather suddenly and all of a piece: I remember afterward saying something about how I must've known something was going to happen, since I did not have Meretine join the rest of the whores in the Scarecrow King; I rather serendipitiously left her vulnerably alone. I didn't know what would happen when I decided that; somewhen shortly later I said oh, hey, wait a minute. The heat, the pressure, the way the Monkeys had been nipping at us since the Salmon festival, the desire for a big cathartic blow-out, that screaming argument about 'pig-fuckers,' it all suddenly built this image of Something Bad that might well happen. But the Monkeys before now had been mere nuisances, leaving shiny things behind that made people do bad things to each other, not doing the bad things directly themselves. So I asked: I've got something in mind for the Monkeys. Anybody else got anything? And it's pretty brutal and direct. Anyone see a problem with that?

And then we went with it. 'I would quibble slightly with Charles' estimation that '[t]here was no way for a character to arrive late or early on the scene of the crime,' as I'd like to think I'd avoid excessive Schroedingering (ha!); had not one of the characters run out the front of the Scarecrow King right away, I think Meretine would have perished and the Monkeys scarpered, but since there was no way no one wouldn't, I didn't have to deal with that possibility.

2006-05-26 14:57:23 Kip Manley

As far as our game's system goes, I think the most interesting session recently has been the 14th of May. (Write-up here.) —The set-up: the Wolf Priest had stepped down, and the Wolves had to choose a new one. (Wolves = outlaws, outcasts, antinomials; people what don't like living in towns, or baths.) Thing was, none of us really had any idea what the socio-anthropological mechanism whereby the Wolves would choose their priest. We knew there was a "challenge circle," and that candidates would step into it to challenege each other, but how? —More than one person was more than a little serious when suggesting a last-man-standing donnbrook.

We sort of hit on this people would suggest challenges and part of judging how the challengers did would be seeing how they responded to and led the crowd's enthusiasm for this suggestion or that. Which led to the inevitable "What's the first challenge?" "Suck my dick!" call-and-response. —There were five challengers:

  • Imálhlhi, son-in-law of the previous Wolf Priest, played by Dylan;
  • Nakni, a "hippie" Wolf, who stumbled into the challenge at the end of a vision quest, played by Barry;
  • Ishkish' ("assface"), a devious Wolf soldier who hates Imálhlhi, played by Matt;
  • Mitahafi, a not-terribly-serious Wolf soldier, played by Jake;
  • Imilonhochi. a Wolf soldier, and the odds-on favorite annointed by the creepy grandson of the previous Wolf Priest, played by Charles.

And someone suggested running a gauntlet, which they did, which didn't really decide anything, and an old man in the crowd said there was this bear out by his place, killed his kid last week, only he's been complaining about this bear almost as long as he hasn't had kids. Imálhlhi tried to get his creepy son to hide so they could find him, but his creepy son wouldn't hide.

So we were all sitting around (the players), grinning a little sheepishly, each of us with bits of agendæ that we couldn't figure out how to put into play, as our characters each with their agendæ stood around waiting for the next challenge, when Jenn, who didn't have a dog in the Wolf fight at all, says, "A red stag leaps into the circle."

It was sudden and startling and complete. She stepped in to GM the next round of the challenge, marking four of the five (knocking out Jake's character, who'd never been serious to begin with) and leading them on mini vision quests, each with a hastily chosen totem, and knocking another challenger out (Matt's) in the process. Which winnowed things down to three. And while we were back in the circle and waiting for the next challenge to present itself, still, the momentum was finally there.

That's about as pure an example of push as I can think of from our recent gaming, and it wasn't push from the point of view of "my guy does X." It was, we're stymied, I have an idea, I throw the idea on the table, and everyone else lights up and says hey, yeah, cool, let's go. But having taken that initiative, Jenn also took responsibility: that sequence was a very tight GM-players relationship, unlike most of our scenes.

The resolution was something else entirely, but I can't remember the precise dice mechanics beyond high-low: Nashob, Kim's character, wife to Imálhlhi and daughter of the previous Wolf Priest, was talking up her husband and trash talking the others; I leaped in as one of Ishkish's (many) ex-girlfriends and marched right up to Nashob and gave her the back of my hand; Nakni, Barry's hippie, the dark horse candidate and rapidly becoming a favorite among the players as a neat possibility for the next Wolf Priest, saw the brewing fight and stepped in to mediate as Nashob picked up a heavy pot and swung for the ex-girlfriend's head. —Like I say, I can't remember the exact stakes or who rolled (Matt? Charles?), but the upshot was Something Bad. And several of us leaped in with ooh! ooh!; we'd all had the same idea: that Nakni got in the way of the swing and Nashob took him out, instead; had, in fact, killed him dead with one blow.

This was a push coming from several vectors, and the only pushback was from Kim, alarmed at the idea that her pregnant character might be run out of town. Assured that she wouldn't, she agreed, and so we had one candidate, Nakni, dead; one candidate, Imálhlhi, disqualified on account of his wife having done such a horrible thing; and one guy left standing, Charles's, Wolf Priest pretty much by horrible default. (Nakni's ended up his ghostly spirit guide, which is nice.)

It was a completely unexpected but utterly right resolution to the whole shebang. So.

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