Thin Slicing Challenge - User: Hans Chung-Otterson - Initiate! Flow Cost: 11 Review - Freemarket, by Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen • • •
Hello, User. Welcome to Freemarket Station! This is a Science Fiction Roleplaying Game, and all four of those words are at the deep center of it.
First, it’s science fiction, of which arguably the three pillars are Space, Time, and Identity. On the station, all of your meat-body needs are taken care of: hunger, thirst, shelter. Death is reversible, because your identity is backed-up digitally and Flooded into a Printed copy of you should the unfortunate happen. What do you do when the driving concerns of human existence across its span are no longer your concerns? What does it mean for death to be an inconvenience? Or is it–is that copy really you? There’s Identity, and Time. Space is more subtle in Freemarket, and not as central. The Donut (the station is the Donut like New York’s the Big Apple, see?) exists way out, sitting suspended between Saturn and a moon due to the science behind something called a Lagrange Point. In any case, you’re not on Earth, or Mars, or Liberty Station. You’re on the fringe, both of human space and the definition of human.
Second, it’s a roleplaying game. Much of the structure of Freemarket is that of a conventional roleplaying game. There are players, and there’s a GM. Well, okay. There are Users and a Superuser. Freemarket wants you to know right up front that while it has a familiar framework, it’s different. And that’s true. It doesn’t go the route of great, weird games like Fiasco or Silver & White or My Daughter, the Queen of France: it doesn’t junk the framework and build its own. Freemarket uses an established, familiar setup and subverts the expectations that the setup invites.
Scarcity and the Donut
Roleplaying games, since the first D&D, have fundamentally been about scarcity. I don’t mean the fiction is about scarcity, I mean that the play of the game is. You fuck up the dungeon with your bastard sword because you need the gold, man. The eeps, too. The cycle of gaining experience points and leveling up is about overcoming the scarcity of your situation. You grow stronger, from a Rootless Wanderer to a Powerful Adventurer to the Lord of a Domain and maybe all the way to a God. You level up because you can. You get more gold because you want to buy better stuff. You accumulate, because why? Because that’s what humans do to beat back hunger, thirst, danger, death.
Not in Freemarket.
A lot of things in Freemarket invite you to make the same assumptions that you have going into D&D. You have a complicated-looking (but smooth as butter to use) character sheet. You have scores in things that look like stats and skills. You have the User/Superuser role divide.
Let’s look at the “stats and skills” thing first. I use quotes because those really don’t exist in Freemarket, but the similarity is there. You have a Geneline, and Experiences. Your Geneline is who you are, inherently; what might have been called a bloodline in other times. It’s not just inherited by birth though, as the name implies. Maybe you’re a remix, a printed human: a Blank. Identity is loose.
Anyway your Geneline has a number attached to it, like one, two, or three. The higher the number the more card draws you get in Challenges (which we’ll get to). It also has a name, and tags. Tags tell us how your Geneline helps you in Challenges, if it’s appropriate. Are you Smooth-Talking? Witty? Sarcastic? Fast?
Then there are the fourteen Experiences of Freemarket. When you want to change something on the Donut, which engages the Challenge system, you use one of these. You can Print (use matter printers to create, well, whatever), Break (hack or destroy; software and hardware are the same thing on the station), Flood/Bleed (suck out or implant memories), Recycle (repair and combine Tech), Mob (implant cybernetics; Modification Of Body, get it?), and, well, you see. There are more.
Each Experience also has a score, from zero to three, which again corresponds to card draws. As you play the game, you get better at certain Experiences (how that happens is another whole thing entirely; it’s really fucking hard to talk about Freemarket’s bits and pieces divorced from the whole picture, but as Ira Glass says: Stay. With us.). Improving Experiences gets us back, finally, to the topic at hand.
Isn’t this just leveling up? Getting better, doing more? Not really. You do get better at doing things as the game goes on, but what does that mean in the larger context of play? In D&D and the games that slavishly copied its structure, leveling up and getting more scratch means delving into bigger and badder dungeons to get bigger and badder loot and eeps. You do it for its own sake, because that’s the point of the game. This isn’t bad, but the extreme end-point of this design is Diablo and its sons. Whether that means “fun” or “soul-draining a click at a time” is a matter of opinion.
In Freemarket, getting better for its own sake (in fact, getting more of anything for its own sake) is pointless. There is no scarcity of the things you need, but there is scarcity of the things you want to do, and scarcity of time. The setting and fiction you make in the game is shaped by the fact that the people in the game are functionally immortal, but you, User, you do not have forever to play this game. Each Experience you engage during play means ignoring the others. It’s a true play-in-this-sandbox game. I’ve played and Superused about 11 sessions of Freemarket, and I don’t think I saw one Cultivation (growing/making) Challenge, and maybe two Printing Challenges.The group I Superused a nice 7-session arc with did a lot of Flood/Bleeding and Ephemera (giving people Memories through creating art). Freemarket works that just fine; the game doesn’t break down if you ignore Printing or Wetwork–that’d be killing–any more than if no one plays with Memories at all. It’s both broad and deep, and all of a sudden I’m interested in seeing what a game focused on Gifting Cultivated goods would look like.
Freemers Work Together Because…
There’s a tension between going after your individual goals and helping out the group. That group is your MRCZ (“mercy”), created at the beginning of play, made up of all the Users in the game. Significantly, you create your character before you all make your MRCZ, which bakes in the tension of being an individual in a group, and not just a nicely fitted cog in your MRCZ’s works. This tension is real because you don’t have to stay with your first MRCZ. Any User can split off of a MRCZ at any time to join another or make their own (if you can get some people to found it with you).
The reason you have a group at all, though, cuts to another subversion of the conventional setup: Freemarket rewards you for making friends, cooperating, and giving things away (or Gifting, which I mentioned earlier). You are on a donut-shaped space station squeezed to capacity with 80,000 undying personalities. Working together is good! That is less a platitude and more a law, in a land with no laws. And deeper to the bone than a law, really: it’s a cultural trait, as much as valuing rectangles of green paper is a U.S. cultural trait.
“Work together” is at the cultural-trait level of station life, which is more than just a setting concern. Or rather, it’s a true setting concern, emerging from the mechanics of the game and not just its flavor text. I’m going to speak as if I’m tweeting right now because my most cherished social network is reaching out to strangle the soft baby-like neck of my attention as I write: FREEMERS WORK TOGETHER BECAUSE FLOW.
I bought Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience because I played Freemarket. I also bought Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Schismatrix, and Everyone in Silico. I have yet to read Schismatrix or Flow, but with Freemarket I have acquired the new habit of reading the source material for roleplaying games before, during, and after I play them. I have been unable to grasp the totality of Freemarket, which is perhaps why I exploded out in every direction, grabbing at more fiction and science so I could keep thinking about the game when I wasn’t playing. It is also maybe the reason that I wrote and then torpedoed four long beginnings to this review before being able to actually start. As much as I intuitively get how to play Freemarket, and why, it’s still flitting around my brain like seizure activity.
Flow is the thing that I have most often seen send people into Tonic-clonic fits. It’s Freemarket’s reputation economy. Remember: no scarcity of food, water, shelter, life. But yes scarcity of relationship, yes scarcity of connection, yes scarcity of the resources and experience to accomplish your goals.
To do anything meaningful in the game (and on the Donut–everything in the culture of the setting is a part of the game and vice-versa) you have to spend Flow. It’s just a number, on your character sheet and in your character’s Key ID, information any character in the game can call up into their floating feed with a thought. Urlo, A User-character in one of my games, liked to do morbid performance art that commented on the tyranny of the Flow system. It seems that players often like to do this stuff in-game, commenting on what they don’t like about the culture of Freemarket using the tools the game provides (personally, I just like to buy into it wholeheartedly and see where that takes me), and that’s a very interesting way to play with the themes and setting. Still, players must use the system of the game, and that means Flow. For his performances, Urlo would have to spend a certain amount of Flow. If he didn’t have as much Flow as the performance required, he could go negative–which risks getting you booted off the station for good. Flow is a measure of how useful, helpful, and liked you are. You can be hated and have Flow, but you had better provide a damn good service or product.
After he spends his Flow to start his Ephemera Challenge, we go to the cards, the meatiest game-part of the whole game. In an Ephemera Challenge, Urlo is trying to communicate an idea or experience to the people who witness his art. In the terms of the game, he’s trying to give people a Memory. Making art is the only way in the game to give someone a real Memory, a genuine experience. You can Flood a Memory into someone, but to an Ephemerist, that’s bullshit. They have a beautiful, or intellectual, or sublime experience to convey, and they want you to get it in the old-fashioned authentic way. Urlo’s User and the Superuser draw cards from their decks and use their Geneline, Experience, Interface (those body mods), and Tech (stuff; everything from a pie to a gun is Tech) to try to win the Challenge. This is a back-and-forth strategy game, playing cards to win points, using advantages gained from losing previous Challenges, and trying to end the Challenge when you’re ahead enough to accomplish your goal. When you take your turn, as you lay down cards, you narrate what’s going on in the Challenge, giving us context for the result of the Challenge when everything finally shakes out and someone Calls it.
At the end of a Challenge, the winner is whoever has scored the most points. There are three levels of victory that can be bought depending on the point difference between winner and loser. Spending the full three points guarantees an unmitigated success; spending one or two is always a compromise. You, User, will very rarely get everything you want, though you’ll often get some of it. Points can also be spent on doing whatever you’re doing efficiently; the station’s Aggregate computer system likes and rewards efficiency, and for this you’ll get some of the Flow back that you spent.
So Urlo wins his Ephemera Challenge. This means he gets to make a Memory that his performance art piece instills in the people who saw it. However, he won by three points. He opts to spend two points on the Effect (what he’s trying to do) and one point on Efficiency (getting him a 25% Flow rebate). Through playing the Challenge out we described a scene in a busy crossroads of the station. Urlo recruits and then directs a mass of people to lay down in the intersection, jamming up the flow of foot traffic, not letting anyone through. When he spends his two points on Effect, he gets to create two out of the three Memory Concepts that all Memories are made up of for the Memory that passersby get from this performance. I, as the Superuser, get to create the other one. Compromise. A “Yes, but” victory. His two concepts are “Flow” and “Tyranny”. I could have tried to totally subvert his intended meaning with this (making art is hard! Do people really get what you’re communicating?), but I went easy on him in this case and added his MRCZ, “Re/!/Mem” as a concept to the Memory. The thing that people actually took away from this experience was something like, “Re/!/Mem staged a performance in the midst of the flow of traffic to comment on their view of Flow as a system of domination.”
Pretty cool, I think! Each Experience has its own rules for what spending Effect means, but less than three always means some sort of compromise, and even if a User wins by a full six points, spending three on Effect and three on Efficiency, they can still only get a Flow rebate of 75% of what’s been spent.
Except, say it with me friends, FREEMERS WORK TOGETHER BECAUSE FLOW! If you do a Challenge as a group, you all individually chip in the Flow cost for the Challenge. If you win and get a rebate, however, you get the rebate based on the total Flow cost contributed. If four Users each buy into a 5-Flow Challenge, and then win it with a 50% rebate, each User gets 10 Flow back*, netting them five on the Challenge—and they’ve also gotten whatever Effect they’ve won.
What happens in play is that as soon as people realize how much Flow they can get from Group Challenges (especially in the early game, when you have a paltry Flow score), they never want to stop doing them. Users can’t help but be helpful, cheerfully chipping in on Challenges they don’t really care about because, well, it might get them some Flow, which they need to do the stuff they do care about. It’s not just something that we’re told in the setting information that we’re supposed to just do because we want to be good roleplayers or whatever: people on the Donut are helpful and giving, and you will be, too, because the game rewards you for it. If you have some sweet Tech, and you just give it away, you get 10 Flow. If you extrapolate that to its logical conclusion in the game setting, you’ll find that if you want some sweet Tech or Interface, it’s just a matter of finding the MRCZ who deals in what you want and asking them. Yes, that means what you think. You, User, simply turn to your friend the Superuser: “There’s a MRCZ around here who has some good Flood/Bleeding Tech, right?” The Superuser then says, “Yep!” tells you who and where they are, and you go meet some people and get some free Tech. Maybe some Friends, too, and maybe you owe someone a favor.
Can’t Believe How Strange It Is To Do Anything At All
We’ve gone over a lot of stuff here, and in delineating some of the finer points of how the game works, we find ourselves far afield from our discussion about Freemarket subverting the expectations of its own structure. Now that we’ve laid some necessary groundwork, we can get back to it. What I mean is what I’ve already said:
In Freemarket, getting better for its own sake (in fact, getting more of anything for its own sake) is pointless.
So you become a good Freemarket User. You learn how to cooperate and engage in Group Challenges, netting some big Flow bonuses along the way. Everyone else in your MRCZ has probably figured it out, too, and your MRCZ Flow has increased such that you can ping the Aggregate computer to review your MRCZ and probably end up at a new Tier, getting more space, perks, and access to station resources. You’ve hooked up with some Recycling and Mobbing MRCZs and all your Tech and Interface slots are full (five and three, respectively). So, what do you do now? You can’t get more Tech or Interface (though you can improve the ones you have, to a point). You can slowly and steadily raise your MRCZ’s Tier, and keep doing smart Challenges to get more Flow.
Why do you need more Flow, User? Why does your MRCZ need to be a higher Tier? The answer to those questions is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning: What do you do when the driving concerns of human existence across its span are no longer your concerns? What do you do when you have all the tools at hand to build your dream, be it running a coffeehouse or a memory-merchant outfit? Well, you do it of course. Or you try and fail–that’s a fine outcome, too.
Freemarket encourages you to learn and master its various systems, but only to the end of accomplishing something in play. Gaming the Flow system and finding the loophole in the MRCZ Tier system such that you can actually reach Tier 7, the highest, is a red herring, I think (and it is possible, friends. My group figured it out after worrying for session upon session about how to actually reach Tier 7 (the game makes it look like you must play weekly for years and years to reach Tier 7), and once they did, I encouraged them to try it out. Funny; they never did. They had better things to do at Tier 2). Part of the reason that Freemarket is such a brilliant game is that you can chase the red herring and still have a great time; it doesn’t break. But you might be missing some of what the game is about, or could be about, for you.
Memories are a great example of this. In Freemarket your character’s Memories can be stolen, implanted, remixed, or converted into points of Data to be Gifted or hacked into still different Memories. Again, Memories are how your Experiences advance. The fact that Memory–Identity–is so mutable in a traditional, character-driven roleplaying game goes to show that characters in this game are different, and should be approached differently, than your D&D characters. Memories are the very currency of advancement in Freemarket–and they can be changed, or lost. This means you, User, play directly with how your character is going to grow. It’s growth, not advancement. Maybe your dude ends up with a Memory about Deathing someone, when he’s never done Wetwork in his life. Well, he can learn it now. He’s been shunted in a new direction of growth, in the fiction and on the character sheet.
Even more radically, these Experiences that increase through having Memories are themselves mutable. If you’re in a Challenge that really matters to you, User, and you’ve burned through your Tech and Interface and used all your bug chips, but fuck it all, you have to win this one–you can always Burn an Experience. This means permanently erasing a point from one of your Experiences for every point-scoring card you discard from your opponent’s hand. It’s a desperate move. I’ve never seen it in play. But it’s there. You can Burn your Geneline, too, though I’ve never seen that happen either. Identity is mutable. All your resources that in any normal game would be accumulated to accumulate–Flow, MRCZ, Memories, Experiences, Tech, Interface, your very Geneline itself–can be used, Burned, changed, to answer the question: what would you do with Utopia?
The Central Metaphor
Look, the game is sci-fi at its core, and not just in its color; I think I’ve shown that. The stories that I’ve been a part of creating through playing Freemarket have all been about what it means to be a human on the edge of being human, what a society with a reputation economy means for the individual and collective, whether we’re really in a Utopia or not.
The game is about all of those things, and more. But for me the central metaphor of Freemarket, the one that remains when months have gone by and the stories dealing with time, space, and identity are fuzzy, is the creative struggle. It’s a game about cooperating and being friends, but in Challenges you have to fight tooth and nail to get what you want. You have to wrap your broken gamer-brain around the game’s sometimes difficult concepts and systems. You have to shuck off your expectations and approach Freemarket naked (that’s impossible, by the way, but it’s a good struggle to go through). Your every need is taken care of, and instead of being a Baseliner, flipping through entertainment feeds all day long and living on ready-made food (an experience I’m sure none of us can relate to) you’re a potential mover and shaker on the station. Well, Baseliners are all potential, too. But you’re potential in action. What do you shake, who do you move?
Utopia is only so because there is meaning and growth and struggle ahead, and all the factors that distract from that–hunger, thirst, need for shelter, death–have been removed.
The F Word
This review has been so. Fucking. Hard. To write. I don’t see why that should matter to you, only it feels appropriate to mention it here. There are too many things that I have left out. This game, clearly, has made me crazy. I love Freemarket with my whole red heart. I have turned it over and over in my hands and in my mind, and the groups I have played it with turned it over until it guttered to life and roared. Most nights, after playing, we would sit around and talk about the game for as long again as we played. The only words that come to me in this, the hour of my need, the hour when I sit down to try to encapsulate something of my un-summarizable experience with Freemarket, are pure junk: complex, deep, fascinating, um…fun.
Fun! The fucking F word. Fun is a terrible word to use to describe an experience with a game, and doubly so with Freemarket. I don’t say this because playing Freemarket must be a life-changing experience of exploring Space, Time, and Identity. I disregard fun because, again, Freemarket works best when you check your assumptions at the door. The deepest assumption of any player approaching a game is that they are doing it for fun. And of course you’re playing Freemarket to have fun. Freemarket does not disabuse you of this notion. But there is more to life than happiness, and there are more to games than fun.
Luke Crane and Jared Sorenson, the designers of Freemarket, have talked in the past about how fun is a meaningless descriptor when applied to games. They didn’t design the game to be fun, they designed it to do specific things and elicit certain behaviors. Fun is a by-product. You come to Freemarket to play Freemarket. Because it entices you, because it frightens you, because it makes you mad, because you were sold the minute you saw the art and the names on the box.
You will have fun, but other things will also happen.
The way I see it, Freemarket has changed my life. Since playing it, I find myself, again and again, viewing any number of my daily experiences through the lens of this game. As all important art does, it has restructured me. In small but real ways, I am not the same person I was before I played Freemarket. I have been dubbed into a new body, my Geneline tweaked, Experiences altered, some Memories changed and new ones Flooded in.
I play Freemarket, and a week later I’m on the street thinking, If I were on the Donut, if I could do anything, what would I do? And then I realize that I don’t have to wait for Freemarket station to be built. I can answer the question now.*(Four Users each spend five Flow: 5+5+5+5 is a total of 20 Flow spent on the Challenge. Winning with a 50% rebate on that 20 Flow gets each User 10 Flow back.) • • •
Thin Slicing Challenge - End Efficiency: 0 Effect: ?