What is Freeform Roleplay?
This is, believe it or not, a serious question that usually doesn't get asked or answered. Everyone has different ideas not only about what roleplay is in general, but what exactly freeform roleplay is. This document is an attempt for me to define what I believe to be the essential characteristics of freeform roleplay. Hopefully, this will give you the player or potential player a better idea of just how you can participate (for specific guidelines of the dos and don'ts of roleplay see my Roleplay Etiquette Guide.
So then, what IS roleplay? In the most general terms, roleplay is simply the act of pretending to fill a certain role. This can be as mundane as thinking about how YOU would act in a given situation all the way to crafting an elaborate character and pretending to BE that character. However, this broad definition isn't very useful for our purposes. What we are really talking about is fantasy roleplaying. Fantasy roleplay is the act of creating a character, a role if you will, complete with affect, personality, physical appearance, occupation and so on and so forth that are (normally) different from your own at least in some aspects, and then playing out that character in a fantasy (in the psychological sense of the word) setting, thereby telling some sort of story. Analyzing this a little, fantasy roleplay has three essential characteristics: character, setting and plot. I will not explain these characteristics except to say they are very similar to the literary version of these terms.
What defines the type of fantasy roleplay you are engaging in is how those elements are created and used. Freeform roleplay, as its name suggests, is the least structured of the various types of fantasy roleplaying. And now we get to the crux of the matter: the central defining characteristic of freeform roleplay is the lack of any central organizing body or power. That is, in freeform roleplay no one in particular calls the shots or even has the authority to call the shots. In freeform roleplay, all the power for shaping the fantasy world is in the hands of every individual player.
This is not to say that there are no rules in freeform roleplay. Freeform roleplay is NOT pure anarchy. The difference is the rules are more akin to the mores and folkways of a community than to laws and other regulations. No one person or group of people has the right or authority to decide the rules that will be followed in freeform roleplay. Instead, those rules evolve as the community evolves and are embodied in the community standards of play. Generally speaking, the only hard and fast rule about freeform rules is that the freeform rules must be functional to the community at large - if the community standards serve to fragment people or inhibit cooperation then the freeform community will fall apart. This does make it more difficult for newcomers to penetrate a freeform community since typically the community standards aren't well articulated, seem arbitrary to outsiders and are applied in an extremely discretionary manner. However, with patience and openness on the part of both established members of the community and newcomers this does not have to be a major impedament.
Okay, now lets apply this definition to the three essential elements of fantasy roleplay. First off is characters. In "pure" freeform roleplay, no one can dictate what specific kind of character you play. The "genre" of your character will usually be determined by the nature of the community and environment you're attempting to join (freeform communities CAN be "genred" if there is community consensus on the specific genre being played). However, the specifics of your character including race, personality, "alignment" and so forth are left entirely up to you. You aren't forced to cram your character into a specific class. Of course, there are still going to be restrictions on what you can do as dictated by the community standards of etiquette. These usually revolve around making sure everyone is being reasonable and fair so as to keep the play interesting. Naturally, in freeform roleplay strong, well developed characters are vital specifically because no central authority will be telling you what to do or where to go. You, the player, will be making ALL decisions regarding your character's actions and without a solid foundation you will have nothing to provide direction, which will result in uninteresting and often "mundane" roleplay (hardened warriors chatting in bars and cruising for sex anyone?).
And now we come to setting. Again, in "pure" freeform roleplay no one person dictates the particulars of a setting. Typically, one person will start by describing the general setting and then others will pitch in, adding more and more detail. Or, if you're playing online the general setting may be dictated by the particular chat system or "room" you are using. But in any event, the specifics of the setting are still left to the players to decide. At all times settings exist as a "consensus" among the various players. As such, there is often a great deal of emphasis within a freeform community of NOT introducing major changes to a setting that will invalidate past contributions (but again, there is NO CENTRAL AUTHORITY dictating such standards - they are consensus based community standards). As a result of this, freeform settings are moderately dynamic but at the same time evolutionary. Large changes to a setting normally occur as a series of successive small changes that happen over time. As a result, there is no way of predicting how a setting will change given what's going on at any moment.
And the final aspect to discuss is plot. You should be able to deduce this by now, but in "pure" freeform roleplay no one person nor any small group of people dictate the plots. That is, it isn't a matter of "leaders" dictating to a large group of "followers" what will and should happen. Instead, plots are actually emergent phenomena that arise from IN CHARACTER interactions between different characters and different groups of characters. EVERYONE has a chance to contribute something to a plot. As with setting, there is normally a community more against introducing changes that will "rock the boat" as it were and cause massive disruptions to an ongoing plot. That is to say, everyone is allowed to make modest contributions to a story through their character. This isn't to say people cannot organize and 'combine their efforts' as it were into establishing a major new plot thread. In fact, this is the best way for jumpstarting new ideas - gather a group of friends, collectively craft your backstory and possibly new characters fitted to the plot your working on, and then unleash them on the masses. However, for this to remain "true" freeform you must then "let go" of your plot and allow it to develop as it will. Once out in the open, your contribution to the plot as an individual is no more important than anyone elses contribution. Remember though that if a large group of people work toward the same end, then as a group you will be able to wield enormous influence (though not SOLE influence) over the plot-thread.
You will notice I mention "plot threads" here. It is important to remember that in a freeform environment there may be (in fact normally are) many different plots of different scales occuring in parallel. Usually, large scale plots involving the majority of players occur infrequently. The norm for freeform settings are small plots that involve only a few players at a time. However, large plots cand and do happen provided everyone is willing to work together.
And that brings me to my concluding points. From the description of freeform roleplay you may be inclined to think it is "crap" or invariably low quality because of the lack of central organization. This is frequently true, especially when you have group of individuals who vary widely in skill and interest levels.. At it's worst, freeform roleplay is uninspired, hackneyed crap that is little more than people "chatting in garbe." However, at it's best freeform roleplay is enormously fun, original and creative. The very lack of central organization that can be a liability to freeform roleplay can also be its greatest strength. With no one person or group of people having discretion over creative input there is capacity for ideas that would never see the light of day in a more structured environment to be introduced in freeform roleplay. Morever, freeform offers limitless opportunities to the creatively inclined player. As a player, you aren't stuck acting out someone elses script. Instead, you have the chance to make your own creative contributions and in general to nudge things in a direction YOU enjoy. When everyone is making quality contributions to play, FFRP plain out beats the hell out of GMed or other more structured forms of playing. However, when you have only a small group of people making creative contributions and everyone else "along for the ride" then FFRP simply falls apart. The key to good FFRP is widescale, equal contribution; everyone has to be more or less at the same level of play and everyone has to be willing to take their turn contributing while at the same time yielding to other people's input.
Finally, it is never a good idea to mix FFRP with other styles of roleplay. This gets into a very unhappy middle ground termed "pseudo-GM" (GM for Gamemaster, NOT godmodder). Basically, anytime you have someone (or some group of people) trying to unilaterally take control of the course of play in a freeform environment you have "pseudo-gm." Or to put it another way, when you stray from the truly egalitarian, "player" based model that is freeform and introduce the idea that one person, or some people's ideas are more important than others you are in "pseudo-gm" territory. If you go there you might as well call a spade a spade and do "pure" GM (that is where ONE person calls ALL the shots, creating the world and scenerios players explore and dictating the outcome of ALL character actions). Some people seem to think there's nothing wrong with "pseudo-gm", but experience has taught me it frequently ends in frustration and more importantly is just not conducive to sustained play (that is play happening a large portion of the time). One or even a few people cannot possibly have enough creativity and motivation to keep roleplays going for any substatial amount of time (we're talking on the order of weeks and months of continuous play here). GMing is FINE for an "events" model where you don't have any play except when an event is happening, but it is important to do it RIGHT by truly GMing the event and not pseudo-gming it. In a GM-ed event the person who proposes the event takes over total control of that event and directs people through a sequence of tasks toward a predetermined outcome. "Pseudo-GM" events give a pretense of being freeform (players are allowed to narrate their own action and such) but in actuality aren't because the would be GM is placing stringent restrictions on what is "allowed" to happen BEYOND the usual community standards. Also, the would be GM usually has a specific outcome or specific situations in mind which they've planned for ahead of time; the play isn't just allowed to go where it will but rather than GM attempts to direct it. With true GMed play the players only dictate what they try and the GM resolves ALL outcomes. Pseudo-GM has the GM only stepping in when a player does something "wrong." Naturally, this typically leads to frustrated players, a frustrated GM and lots of bad blood.
As a quick aside: it IS quite possible to have Freeform events. These can happen a couple of ways. One is the "impromptu event" where basically one player just spontaneously throws out a bit of narrative to start something and the others play along. The other is the "planned event" where a group of players arrange a time to get together to play out a scenerio. In any event, to be true freeform the event has to be left largely as improv (that is a general scenerio is agreed to but no specifics are planned out - this applies mostly to planned events) and of course ALL player contributions have to be given equal weight (within the bounds of the community standards of course).
So in conclusion, the central concept of freeform roleplay is freedom. All players have equal control over events in the freeform world and in fact over the world itself. Or, to make things abundantly clear, the larger world and stories of freeform roleplay exists ONLY through community consensus and NO OTHER WAY. Characters are the only absolutely vital element of freeform play - the rest will emerge as those characters interact. Another way of saying this is everyone in freeform roleplay is both narrator and character at the same time. This does suck if people aren't on the same level or aren't serious about creating thoughtful contributions, but it works wonderfully when everyone is at the very least making some thoughtful contributions (even if they aren't the most creatively inclined people in the world).