FreeMarket: Early Impressions of the Beta

Well, I know I don’t do much tabletop RPGing at the moment; in fact, the recent game of D&D with Simon and his kids broke an eighteen-month drought. But I still dip my toe in the waters every now and again, mainly by browsing various RPG-related sites and fora.

Just recently I signed up on the website Project Donut. A rather odd name to be certain, mainly because it supports a rather odd game: the soon-to-be-released collaboration between game designers Jared Sorensen (whose games InSpectres and octaNe I’ve game mastered and loved and whose game Lacuna I own and would love to try sometime) and Luke Crane (whose game Burning Empires I own and would love to try sometime), called FreeMarket.

I’ve signed up for the beta program and have downloaded the 150-page rulebook and assorted extras, and after a loose read-through I have to say it’s really odd. The setting is a whopping great space station orbiting Saturn where death isn’t permanent and all basic needs are taken care of (no one goes hungry or without shelter), leaving folks free to… well, be as explosively creative as they want.

It’s odd. It’s got the… well, the funkiness that I think I’ve been looking for in the RPGs Cyberpunk and Shadowrun all along without realising it. Heaps of tech toys without going overkill on stats (or even pictures), crazy-arse ideas on the nature of humanity without Essence or Humanity stats telling you how far away your character is from going berko, and conflict that doesn’t have to involve Friday Night Firefights or shotgun blast spreads.

Or violence full stop.

And death isn’t permanent, although it certainly has effects.

It’s odd. Most games I’ve read rely on at least one of two things to get people interested and involved: A clear concept of what characters do or the opportunity to be badasses.

D&D, I think, codified the latter in its “wandering band of mercenaries” model. Cyberpunk and Shadowrun certainly expanded and expounded upon it (and added a thick icing of guns-and-cybernetics badassery), although I still think 4th Edition D&D is the best at making killing monsters and taking their stuff as fun as possible.

Sorcerer, the granddady of the bunch, gets the badass factor as pure as it can probably be, abandoning setting, pattern or overt goal in favour of a core character premise that screams ambition, action, and heaven help anyone in your way.

The former concept is better seen, I think, in the more oddball games I like.

In InSpectres, you’re ghostbusters, eliminating supernatural pests whilst struggling to keep your company afloat. In Lacuna you’re agents traversing a dream city fighting your own heart rate as you hunt monsters of the id, a situation that just begs to go all David Lynch.

Burning Empires has an arse-kicking premise; you’re political, military, corporate and / or theocratic movers and shakers on a far-future planet that, unless you get your acts together, is doomed. Why? They’re here. I mean, just read this. Angsty, but bloody gripping!

Whereas FreeMarket… it’s odd.

There’s the space station, which isn’t really under threat although it’s getting overcrowded, and all these groups with goals and agendas and the players make a group of their own out to… well, that’s entirely up to the players.

It’s odd, because while there’s nothing hugely hooky that covers me in petrol, hands me a lighter and tells me what fun it is to play with fire, I read about how every character has a set of short- and long-term memories which give the GM – sorry, superuser – characters, places and events to create challenging situations from, and how memories can be traded and rewritten and turned into skills, and how both characters and the group have reputations that fuel conflicts and one of the best ways to get what you want is to get on with folks, and…

… damned if I don’t find myself in the oven being slowly roasted in the game’s fine sautee. It sneaks up on you like that.

There is a question there: “You neither now nor in the future have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. What do you want to do?” It’s a question that I don’t think another RPG has bothered to ask, and it implies situations that are potentially more meaty than those supported by other RPGs on the market.

Here’s a good way of looking at it. If you got hooked on that classic SF TV show Babylon 5 by its idea of a political neutral ground of scheming diplomats, wily merchants and people hoping for something better, and if you were disappointed when it turned into another (albeit bloody good) Galaxy-Spanning Space Opera, FreeMarket may be for you.

I’d love to give it a try sometime.

Anyone else? Either interested in what I’ve just written or willing to spend a few hours indulging me?

Featured image from the Project Donut web site.