the Fairgame Archive

2005-11-18: A Form of Free: Pretend with Sebastian and Elliot
by Emily Care

a form of free: Pretend with Sebastian and Elliot

As the recent thread on testifies, there are as many forms of free-form (likely) as there are folks who play "that" way.  It is a general term applied to roleplaying that refers to some level of "just making it up" or use of very loose structures for play, which contrast strongly with other tabletop play that involves more elaborate formal procedures such as consulting stats on characters sheets, rolling dice, referring to tables etc.  I'm not here to argue what is not free-form, but I do want to talk in depth about a few specific examples of what is thought of as free-form by its participants, several styles of free-form I've taken part in.

The first of these will be the Pretend that I play regularly with Meg and Vincent's kids, Elliot and Sebastian. This is actually prompted by a question about it from Matt Wilson.

So, ground rules for my descriptions.  As much as possible, I want to talk about the agreements & procedures we use.  I hope you will say what you think too, Basha & Elbow!  My hope is to allow other folks to know what we mean when we say "Pretend".

To begin the Pretend

We start out by doing a pre-play discussion, which may involve arts & crafts.  This is then followed by the "actual" pretend in which we play the characters we have created & perhaps act out specific events we have loosely sketched.


The Setting is the first thing we discuss.  Will it be Pokemon? Will it be Toa? Or omething we come up with on our own?  If we have a disagreement, we often each come up with one element we would like to have in play and create a setting that has all three. For example, I might say "magic", Sebastian might say "robots", and elliot may say "monkeys".  Yes, this is just like the Tenet phase in Universalis.  Yes, it does work wonders.  I love how we get unusual settings we might

not have come up with otherwise.


The next part is making our characters.  We usually each have one primary character and then may make stuff up about friends, villains, other characters in the setting as we need & want to.  We rarely formalize any characters except our primaries.

Making a character is fairly standard.  We decide together what kind of characters we will play (pokemon trainers, wizards, time-traveling zoologists etc).

Then we pick various elements for them.  Sebastian knows a lot of the different characters & their abilities from the videos & books they see, so he often helps everyone choose good things for their characters.  We usually have some number of the following:

  • Name (though sometimes we skip this)
  • Description (color of costume, shape of robot, number of eyes & tentacles etc. for alien)
  • Powers/Abilities (lazer vision, mining drill attachment, flight)—these are used appropriate to the setting & character types. For example, if we are super-heros we'll get super powers, if robots, mechanical attachments, etc.
  • Weapons/Tools (swords for knights, sensors for scientists)
  • Transportation (sometimes you just have to have a bat-cycle : )
  • Home/Environment (if we are associated with an element we may have a home in that type: fire=volcano, water=beach, etc. Sometimes we live together, sometimes apart.)
  • Friends/Sidekicks/Pets
  • Supplies (if appropriate to setting, eg if we are camping one may carry the tent, another the food, a third the pots & pans)


This is a really fun part of the Pretend for me.  We often—though certainly not always—draw our characters, their homes, their friends and sometimes their enemies. We sometimes draw a map showing the whole environment we are playing in: the village, the island, the asteroid belt we are mining etc.  These maps sometimes figure prominently in play—we use them to show where we are & how we interact with others—and sometimes are just a jumping off point & don't get referred to again.  We usually don't draw them until we make up our characters though.


We usually at least figure out what kind of challenges our charactes will race.  This may take the form of one big threat (an overall villian, a menace to our home or community like a volcano explosion etc., or a quest or series of challenges to face).  If there is a series to be faced we often each suggest one that the group will have to overcome.  For example, when we do race car pretends, we usually make up the track (drawn or not) and each person makes up a challenging part of the track: mud slicks, a crevasse to leap, a waterfall to drive under etc.

Often, we each have one threat or obstacle tailored to our character. For example, if we are super-heroes we may each have a villain nemesis who is out to get us. We may all help each other overcome the nemesis, but usually it is our character's special job to face it.

We may make up the threats and obstacles before we play, but we then flesh them out & use them in play.  Who brings them into play varies greatly.  Each of us will suggest things as we think of them.  Perhaps Sebastian says we see an Ogre in the woods that looks hungry, perhaps Elliot will say our friend Zippy has been captured, perhaps I will say I think we hear an explosion.


We don't use fortune.  We did for a little while, but, it introduced strife into our process.  The problem was surely how we were using it: someone is going to be unhappy if we use the dice to say "you lose".  I know Meg & her sister Serena had great fun using a penny for their resolution for their "Penny Adventures" as kids, but I wonder if what they did was more introducing complications with it, instead of having it be win/lose.  At any rate, we use discussion and limited veto for our resolution. We all face adversity and if someone thinks a suggested way of overcoming it is too easy, they say so & we all talk about another option, or the person whose character is facing it tries something else.  The most important part is having faced a good challenge, and that we all get to have a time in the sun.  Once we are satisfied that something is done, we end it.

Acting It Out

A really important part is actually playing out the events of play.  We usually move around through the house, using Elliot's bed as a space ship or cave, Meg & Vincent's room as the wilds of the forest, the stairs as a mountain to climb.  We don't act everything out, but having some suggestion of events is good.  While we move around, we are talking about what is going on. We each act for our characters.  (Poor Meg when we're Pokemons "Pika-pika-PIK-a-chu!")  Elliot is emphatic about having to actually play. I dig the pre-play part some sometimes he has to lay down the law & make sure we don't miss out on the really good stuff.

Another cool thing is that when we start to play sometimes we spend a long time just exploring what the world we are in is like. What kinds of alien life are on this planet? What is it like to visit dinosaurs in a time machine? What kind of crafts do our fellow villagers make?  We also act out things like going to sleep & eating with great pleasure. There is almost always some kind of challenge we face, but also there is often a lot of reveling in the sheer joy of making things up.  I'd be sad to Pretend without it.

Things not to do

We stay away from playing out fiction just the same as it was in the video or story.  We usually only play a character from a story the kids know if all of us are, though that varies. One of us may have a made up Pokemon while the others are standard ones.  We don't use dice to decide outcomes. We play characters on the same side.  This is a line Meg & them set together & we keep in our Pretend.  It's important to keep the peace, although we also make up what the other side does and how we face obstacles. That seems fine though since we always have our main characters to identify with that are connected & not at odds.

My favorite parts

I love making the maps & drawing the characters.  And I love us each choosing an obstacle that we'll have to face.  I love hearing what Elliot & Sebastian come up with. They also have a depth of knowledge about the various ficitional worlds they are familiar with—and the world in general—so there are always lots of interesting things to explore and face.  I love falling asleep together in our little bat cave (literally, not the super-hero.)  I love getting to run around!

Sebastian & Elliot, what do you say?  Are there parts I missed, guys? What are your favorite parts? What is it like for you to play Pretend? We could also list all the different types of pretend we do, but it would be a pretty long list!

with love,


2005-11-18 21:32:25 Matt Wilson

Man that sounds fun! It almost kinda sounds like Universalis without the book.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I liked as a kid in let's pretend, and what you describe sounds really familiar.

So what happens with grownups that makes that stuff less interesting? Is it harder to come up with fun things to discover and imagine? Notice how over-the-top some fantasy RPG settings are. Is there any connection there?

2005-11-18 21:29:22 Meguey

The "Penny Adventures" were not a resolution mechanic, it was a coin-flip between two outcomes we determined. So, if we 'lost', we had already decided what was at stake and how it resolved, even if it was only sketched out before the coin-flip.

The Cues section is super-cool to watch: everybody gets very creative and artistic (which, by the way, aids Creative from my Ritual & Gaming essay) The resulting maps and character drawings are great, and sometimes wind up saved as artwork.

I really like observing the development over time of Sebastian's (9 yrs) and Elliot's (5.5 yrs) ability to handle adversity in gaming in a Story way instead of a personal way. I think the Acting It Out and What Not to Do sections have really helped that. Also, it's way more bearable to have them playing Pokemon they made up than just re-doing the shows. (Rant on: why do they have to KEEP EVERYTHING AT A LOUD, HYPER PITCH?!! EVEN THE COOL ENVIRONMENTAL MESSAGES ARE SCREECHINGLY SHRILL!!! ACK!! There is a decent gender balance, and stuff I don't mind, but jeaze, modulate. people!!! :rant off)

2005-11-18 22:26:44 Josh BishopRoby

All of my childhood pretend play involved Legos.  It... kind of left a mark on my thinking—everything is modular!

2005-11-19 15:15:34 Emily

It is a lot like Uni without the book.  And, Meg, so your penny adventure mechanic was a lot like Shadows—way cool.  From thinking about how fortune works with the boys, I can see how you did it is much better than a succeed/fail type thing. There is a lesson here. Also, JBR: Modular rocks!

2005-11-19 15:16:05 Emily

I talked with Elliot & Sebastian about our pretend. Here is what they had to say:

S: It is like roleplaying with no rules except that it needs to be fair and make a good story.

S: When you play pretend, you are a shapeshifter. & if your character can change form you may be a shapeshifter within the pretend.

S: The limits are what your character is like, or role-player's block.  Limits of what you can be are what you can imagine.  Limits of what you can do is what your character can do.

I asked them what their favorite things are about Pretend.

S: You can be anything you want to be.

E:—except be invincible.  We don't play superman, because he's invincible. [We didn't go into the krypton thing, but personally, I agree with him.]

E: I like that you can start anywhere you want [in the story] and end where you like, as long as you faced the challenge.

Talk about sophisticated analysis from a 9 and almost 6 year old.  *whistles*

2005-11-21 03:26:38 Tom


Someday, we (or more likely me) are going to be old codgers railing against young punks like S & E who are doing all this "insane teenage roleplaying" instead of the "good RPG stuff like D&D".

I can't wait to see what they come up with and I hope I'm cool enough to play.

2005-11-21 18:35:58 Meguey

This makes me really happy, because I feel like they are getting some great stuff on basic levels, like challenge is ok, and your imagination is great, and play should be fair and fun.

2005-11-21 18:53:21 Emily

I completely agree, Meg.  Honestly, I think Sebastian's first remark is perfect:

It is like roleplaying with no rules except that it needs to be fair and make a good story.

All the rules we use are pretty much designed to help us get to those two other things: playing fair & making a good story.

Matt had some good questions that I wanted to get back to:

So what happens with grownups that makes that stuff less interesting? Is it harder to come up with fun things to discover and imagine? Notice how over-the-top some fantasy RPG settings are. Is there any connection there?

I think adults eat all this stuff up, when they get the chance. Look at how beloved PtA is: in that game everybody works together to make up the world & the challenges.  And as for acting it out—despite sectarian disparagement, live-action role play is hugely popular all over the world.  All us little monkeys love to run around, when we let ourselves.

I'd say that that's the biggest block for adults:  letting ourselves indulge in imaginative play.  Gamery folks have an advantage in that they have embraced it & know how cool it is.  All kids know this, but we get caught up in "more important" things as we grow older & have less free time.

Maybe you're right, Matt, maybe part of me never grew up. But, if so, I hope it never does.

2005-11-21 22:55:02 Judd

I'm fascinated what kids in Sebastian and Elliot's second generation gamers are going to come up with game-wise.


2006-06-22 20:26:38 Mike Holmes

The Penny Adventures sounds like a primitive version of Zak Arneston's game Shadows. That is, it is resolution, but resolution between two outcomes both chosen by the players instead of by the system.


Back to ToC