Discussion Episode 19: FreeMarket Review

Turns out we had a lot to say about Jared Sorensen and Luke Crane’s FreeMarket. This is our longest review yet, clocking in at a full 90 minutes.  This game was certainly a challenge for us, and we spend quite a bit of time breaking down our impressions and problems we had with the game. We’re all looking forward to our interview with Luke and Jared coming up next week!

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14 Responses to “Discussion Episode 19: FreeMarket Review”

  1. Shaun Hayworth Says:

    Wow. You guys had a very different experience with this game than I did. My group really dug it.

  2. Shaun Hayworth Says:

    Sorry for double-posting and all, but I wanted to do some thinking on this review before I posted my reaction to your review. I’d also like to freely admit that I’m pretty biased in my opinion – I really like FreeMarket, and a lot of the things that your players saw as bugs were features to me.

    One of the things that I found interesting in FreeMarket was that you sort of have to approach challenges backward. They made way more sense when you figured out what overall effect you want before you decide on the challenge. For example, the race with Luke240, as you pointed out, could be run as Ephemera, Ghosting, Breaking, or Shaping depending on what you wanted to accomplish. When we played, part of the setup of a challenge was drilling down the intent, so that we could figure out what kind of challenge was appropriate. In one of my group’s sessions, we ironically wound up doing exactly what one of your players said wouldn’t work in FM – kidnapping someone and tying them up. It wound up being a Ghosting challenge, since that covered stealing stuff. We just decided that ‘stuff’ included people.

    I think there may have been an issue with your Ephemera challenge, as well. The superuser gets Geneline 2 and Experience 2 when doing Ephemera. He doesn’t get the user’s tech and whatnot, at least not as far as I could tell. The only way to use the user’s tech or interface against them would be with a Burn action. Also, pretty much every Ephemera challenge we did was a group challenge, so the MRCZ had as much of a chance to earn flow rebates as they did in any other challenge. My one complaint about Ephemera and Thin Slicing challenges are that they can be difficult to frame, because they’re internal conflicts rather than external. I don’t think anyone brought up that particular point, but it’s something that one of my players experienced.

    Thin Slicing data is kind of a tricky idea. Using a Breaking challenge to get raw data out of a piece of tech makes sense, but Thin Slicing is all about increasing the value of the data by putting it in context. That’s why it works like Ephemera, you’re fighting against your self doubts over whether the bits and pieces of information you’re focusing on are relevant, or have implications that aren’t obvious from the original data, and making a case for that. I guess it’d be like writing a thesis, and using the original data as the reference material.

    Which kind of brings me to the “one system for everything” statement that I kept hearing. FreeMarket’s mechanics actually remind me a great deal of Dogs in the Vineyard, which also has a unified resolution mechanic. The only real difference between the two is that escalation in FreeMarket is framed as a separate challenge, rather than a continuation of an existing one. That could just be me, though.

    I guess the last thing that I can think of is the MRCZ Tier challenge issue. I can’t really argue against your math, although it probably takes fewer sessions to go from Tier 1 to Tier 7 with a 4 user group. However, one thing that didn’t get pointed out is that Tier Challenges can be called at any time, and doing so triggers the end of a session. If you call for a Tier Challenge two hours into a session after all of your group has made a net gain in flow, you can effectively go up a tier (assuming you have enough MRCZ flow to do so), and then play a second session. I don’t know how long it would take to go from 1 to 7 doing that, but it would significantly shorten the time. Not to mention that it’s entirely possible to disband your current MRCZ and attempt to join a new one. Contrary to what was said in the review, the rules say you can only be in one MRCZ at a time, so users in a group may not end up in the same MRCZ they started a FreeMarket campaign in, or even in the same MRCZ as each other.

    I’m sure that there’s a lot more to discuss, but I’ve made this comment WAY longer than I should have. Sorry for the wall of text.

  3. Kevin Weiser Says:

    Wall of Text crits you for max damage! :) No worries Shaun, we appreciate it whenever people have a lot to say about our episodes.

    Re: What challenges to use when: I would have had much less of a problem with this if the rules text had made any effort at all to explain the possibilities there. As it stands, sure, the rules are flexible if you take a loose interpretation of the challenges vs. the intent, but it’s very, very easy to have that go horribly wrong. If the text had made some effort to explain the logic behind some of these things, it would be a tremendous help.

    Re: Ephemera. Yup, we goofed on that. Assume everything we’re talking about with Thin Slicing and Ephemera actually only applies to Thin Slicing. In that regard, the arguments still stand. As for the flow rebate situation, our point was kind of scattered all over the episode on that one, so, let me boil it down to two paragraphs:

    The only reliable way to get flow rebates as an ephemerist is with group challenges. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The only way group challenges are effective is if everyone involved has a relevant Geneline or Experience. “Go Free” does not cut it.

    So, in a game that’s supposed to be about individuals, the only way for some individuals to be effective is to ensure the rest of the group does things their way. It’s never a good idea to solo anything. Everything should always be a group challenge. It’s like D&D’s “don’t split the party” except for instead of just coming out and saying “don’t split the party” they say “no no, it’s fine, split the party” then the rules totally hose you for doing so. Not only that, but unless everyone has built their characters specifically to work together from the ground up, group challenges not only don’t benefit, but they actively harm EVERYONE, because you’re either going to fail, (and everyone loses the flow they invested) or you’re not going to succeed with enough margin of victory to be effective (and everyone loses the flow they invested). It’s a spiral of failure and frustration.

    There’s a serious problem when the most effective and rewarding method of play is directly counter to not only the text but what the designers have been saying about the game out on the internets.

    Re: Unified conflict system: Good point about Dogs. I guess the difference for me is the Dogs conflict system has enough depth and crunch to it to pull that off. While FreeMarket has a clever and fun little conflict system, it’s not enough to hold up the whole game, I think. Also: Dogs is incredibly clear about why it has only the one system: you only go to the dice when it matters. That’s not exactly the case in FreeMarket. You have to go to the cards to do ANYTHING, and the entire Flow economy is based around that very fact.

    RE: MRCZ Tier system: You know, you could do multiple sessions in a night, I suppose. It’d be like playing BE with two maneuvers per phase. That would help a lot, yeah. I don’t know if they meant for you to do that. I’ll have to ask in the interview. I’m pretty sure in the review I said you can only be in one MRCZ at a time, but not all Users have to be in the SAME MRCZ.

  4. Kevin Weiser Says:

    I just received an email from Joshua A.C. Newman clarifying what exactly was said about Shock not being a “game”.

    “If I recall, I really said something like, ‘Well, I call it a fiction game, because it’s a game for making fiction. But a lot of people call it a science fiction RPG, because you play a role, and it’s a game, and you do lots of RPG stuff, so whatever.'”

    Hope that clears up any misunderstandings!

  5. Shawn Isenhart Says:

    First, thanks for reviewing this one – I’ve been curious about Free Market, but haven’t had the time to really look into it.

    Second, I’m trying to wrap my brain around Flow. It sounds like many of the problems in the game were Flow based – the economy of Flow making it so that you don’t want to risk single actions, it is hard to improve your MRCZ, and making certain character types very hard to play. It also sounds like the only ways to get flow are: 1) making friends, 2) completing contracts, 3) giving gifts, and 4) as a rebate on group challenges. What I’m trying to figure out is, why does the Aggregate reward those actions, but not things that do actually help/improve the station? If Muse put on a huge show that made life on the station more fun for everyone, why wouldn’t the Aggregate reward that?

  6. Kevin Weiser Says:

    Shawn: Those are very good questions. If we get time, I’ll try to ask them during our interview tonight! There are several issues with the Flow system I’d like to see further explained. For example, according to the rules, you are not granted Flow for gifting the same tech twice. So how do MRCZ like a bakery work? Every muffin they gift should be granting them flow, but according to the rules they’d only get rewarded for the first muffin. After that, they’d have to make crepes, or danishes, or cookies, or whatever. How does a bakery MRCZ keep a positive Flow score?

  7. Moses Moore Says:

    I listened really hard to the FreeMarket game (not a small amount because I was dating a super hot woman that works with the Singularity institute). The things that really stuck in my craw, and made me want to get off my ass and post, was the designer’s attitude of “you’re playing it wrong.”

    A wise DM once said to me “if your players can f*ck up your game by doing what they want, then you shouldn’t be leading a role-playing game, you should be writing a novel.”

    From a designer’s point of view: if there’s a wrong way to play the game, without breaking the rules or the fourth-wall, then the rules of the game are missing something. If you make a sandbox game, tell the players “go whereever you want,” and they exit off the edges of the map, do you blame the players or the game?

    One last thing to complain about before I switch modes: MRCZ and character gen. You guys mentioned (prompted by Luke, I’m sure) that characters are supposed to be created as individuals, then assembled into a MRCZ, and the ill-fitting of these individuals is supposed to be part of the game. Someone (either you, or one of the game’s designers speaking through you) said “does the she change to fit the MRCZ, or does the character change the MRCZ to fit her?”. But you forgot the third option, which is stunning because this is John-f*cking-Adams ESSENTIAL to a free-market economy: “or does she take her stuff and go somewhere else to get her needs met?” A free-market depends consumer freedom to choose, and the ensuing competition, to provide the best possible exchange for the consumer’s goods. In a world where needs are provided for, the other currency isn’t just Flow but also people willing to work for the MRCZ (as someone pointed out, to advance the MRCZ your character’s gotta sacrifice her own personal hobbies and work for the MRCZ full-time).

    Example: I develop a dude that’s all about Breaking things and hoverboard racing Ephemera, but I’m in a MRCZ where I have to do stuff like walking on goo, and raising a psycho pair of twins. I could get used to walking, and give up on hoverboarding, or I could try to cajole my MRCZ-comrades into ditch this goopy-pram junk and get into hoverboards and vehicles… or I get an offer to join the Kings Of Speed MRCZ where I get to work for them and do my own hobbies at the same time. What’s the easiest way to get what I want? Duh — leave this ad-hoc, join the ad-hoc that suits me. This is what happens in real life in communities with sufficient population densities to have sub-cultures… hell, easy enough to do in a high-school of 1,000 people, nevermind a town of 10,000 or a sci-fi commune of 80,000.

    Okay okay, one last thing: conflicts for man vs. man and man vs. self are well defined, but man vs. environment is shoehorned into man vs. self (as the upset Ephemerist pointed out often). Man vs. society conflicts are handled as man vs. very big man (“Aggie,”) but at least they tried — damn near every other RPG doesn’t even do that much. I expected more interactions with/against the culture as a whole for a game that was commissioned to be an exploration tool for post-humanist society. The idea of a technology-gone-awry of a band of Ephemerists creating the ultimate anti-Ephemera (and what do you DO about that? Is this right? Is it wrong? Is it “squicky” or fascinating? Do you help the affected people? How? Do they even need help? Would you want to particpate and get yourself affected?) … this sort of speculation and problem-solving is exactly where this game should go if it’s truly a way to experience post-singularity human life. I say again: shame on the designers for saying that you shouldn’t use their speculative fiction game for speculating.

    Good bits: ShortTerm->LongTerm->Experience is a brilliant idea, and I want to incorporate something like that into ALL of my future RPGs. The hobby-economist in me really wants to take the idea of Wuffie/Flow out on the racetrack and run laps with it — the RPG wants you to use it for commuting, but I want to get under the hood and tinker on the engine. Hazards/error-correction, and spending excess shifts for a variety of post-success advantages aren’t brand-new ideas, but they’re incorporated very well here.

  8. Moses Moore Says:

    Er, the “ultimate anti-Ephemera” was a rambling example of man vs. society…. The society allows it by permitting (lassez-faire, just like a free-market) the MRCZ to create the tech [not gonna spoil WHAT it is, people should listen to the podcast], so do the characters fight against society by saying “this is wrong” an spend the flow to get Aggie to intervene? But if you try to impose order, either by asking for Aggie to do government intervention, or by trying to police it yourself, that’s a conflict with the society’s values of “anything goes if you got the Flow.”

  9. Shaun Hayworth Says:

    Does a similar piece of tech with different tags count as the same piece of tech to gift? I think that, behind the scenes, a baking MRCZ is having varying degrees of success on baking muffins, so all those different muffins are rated differently and have different tags. Thus, they’re gifting different pieces of tech.

  10. Moses Moore Says:

    Does a “one-use only / consumable / single-serving” item count as tech?

    Are you selling a tool to help you repair a nutritional deficit in your body, or are you selling the short-term memory of eating a/this muffin?

    Do you still get 10 Flow for gifting a one-use only item to someone else on the station? Or do you only get 10 Flow for gifting something that has limitless uses? Does that mean you only get 10 Flow for gifting a lifetime supply of muffins?

    (it’s a little tounge-in-cheek, but what value to put on single-use items in a post-scarcity economy is a serious question that Freemarket could answer.)

  11. Shawn Isenhart Says:

    See, and that’s why I think Ephemera should be gift-able. With that change, then entertainment becomes possible. “Come to the show, you’ll get a short term memory of a nice time, as a gift from me to you.” Creating a short-term memory of happiness in a ton of people should, based on our current economy, be rewarded quite heavily. Why would it be rewarded less post-scarcity?

    Similarly, I’m interested in the idea that increasing your Experiences didn’t really increase your probabilities of success. Would an easy fix for this be having each conflict start with you having a number of successes equal to your Experience rating? (Or your Geneline rating, if you started with that active) I don’t know the rules, so I have no idea how unbalancing that would be.

  12. jenskot Says:

    Great podcast! You guys are off the wall passionate. If I ever write a game I definitely want you guys to play and review it.

    That said, Kevin asked me to post my thoughts here as someone who has played FreeMarket before. Full disclaimer… I’m really good friends with both Jared and Luke and helped playtest FreeMarket so I’m obviously very biased in my opinions! I’m not an impartial party.

    I also wrote the following before reading the other comments. These are my thoughts reacting to the podcast itself not to any of the comments above which I haven’t read yet.

    Let’s break it down…

    You can’t ever get better at Ephemera because you fight yourself?

    Ephemera was unfortunately played incorrectly (although this is the way Thin Slicing works). You do not use the PCs statistics against themselves…

    “Superuser plays the target. As the target, the superuser represents the user’s inner demons—self doubt and inadequacy. The superuser has access to geneline 2 (Giant Useless Loser: artist, failure, useless) and ephemera experience 2.”

    The podcast mentioned that 2 players frequently used Ephemera, one player’s character concept relied specifically on Ephemera and the GM heavily featured Ephemera in the game. The issue of Ephemera occupied a considerable amount of time on the podcast. Late in the podcast they mentioned that their bad experiences with Ephemera colored their overall experience of the game.

    After talking to Kevin it appears they may have played Ephemera correctly but because several weeks passed between their last time playing and the review, there was some confusion on the podcast about what happened in the actual game prior. It’s unfair for me to comment here because I wasn’t at their game but it’s unfortunate that this took so much time on the podcast (which otherwise I thought was great).

    You can’t gift Ephemera?

    They wanted to use Ephemera to gift art but Ephemera uses songs, speeches, artworks, philosophies and even religions to spread ideas. Ephemera doesn’t create physical objects. Cultivating, Printing, and Recycling do. That said, I can understand the confusion.

    Song, speeches, philosophies, and religions aren’t things but the use of the word artworks may be confusing. Art in real life can be two things, the message and its physical form. To make a painting, you use Ephemera to craft a persuasive message and Cultivating, Printing or Recycling to make the physical artifact that you can then gift. But the physical aspect isn’t required (although it can help). You don’t need something physical to sing a song, give a speech, or preach a religion. This is why real life performance artists sell merchandise! Ephemera is insanely powerful on its own. You can rewrite someone’s short term memories! That’s scary!

    Is picking the right skills crucial?

    There was mention that you really have to know what the experiences (skills) are since you get so few of them and if you make the wrong choice it limits what you can do. I think that’s very true!

    But there are only 14 experiences in the game and as part of character creation they are listed on 1 page with 1 sentence next to each clearly stating what they do in summary. You can then read them in more details under the specific experience which after re-reading it is very short, clear, and labeled for quick reference.

    That said, I’m sure there are things that can be done to improve understanding… I wouldn’t fault the game for this… but there is plenty that can be learned from the experience which is why podcasts like this are useful.

    FreeMarket doesn’t have money?

    There was a complaint that FreeMarket does indeed have money because it has an economy of Flow and that since there is an economy, there is currency so there is money. I have to admit that when I first heard about FreeMarket… I thought the same thing! But my expectations and confusion were based on what other people were saying… not reading the game which communicates something different… repeatedly and clearly.

    The game text states multiple times that there is an economy in FreeMarket. They even use the word “economy” and phrase, “reputation economy”.

    A free market in real life is a market without economic intervention and regulation by government except to enforce ownership and contracts. It is the opposite of a controlled market, where the government regulates how the means of production, goods, and services are used, priced, or distributed.

    When people say money in present day, many people mean Fiat Money (ha… GM fiat!). Fiat Money is all about control and flies against free market principles. Fiat Money’s value is controlled and regulated by governments.

    So in FreeMarket (the game), one of the few things that are regulated is your basic survival needs. Everything else is up to you, including assigning value. The people determine value through reputation… social capital… measured by flow. The people have power to vote with their flow. And it fluctuates and can be manipulated.

    But with no want… aren’t you breaking the rules of drama?

    People in FreeMarket don’t have needs… but they have plenty of wants! And those wants can get pretty aggressive… pretty dramatic… very quickly! People go from slackers to type A personalities at neck snapping speeds!

    And these wants are baked into the game. The GM has tools for taking your Short Term Memories and grinding them up into toxic blends of screaming problems drenched in your experiences to splash back at you.

    You also need Flow. The best ways to get it (not the only ways) is to give gifts and help each other. People helping each other often for groups called MRCZs. MRCZs have goals, mission statements, and pretty clear wants.

    FreeMarket also has scarcity. The most obvious is space and station resources. Space is very limited… you want lots of friends… there are lots of people that are awesome and want to be your friend… but you don’t have room for them (kind of like NYC). But the more powerful your MRCZ is, the more space you get.

    But the less explicit scarcity is relevance. Some games are about old vs. new. This is all in vs. out.

    What’s old and out today can be old and in tomorrow. And because the market is free, barely regulated, the waves come quicker… the rises sharper, the crashes deeper.

    Drama abound!

    Since picking the right experience (skills) and group conflicts are so important… shouldn’t we all have the same skills or we get screwed?

    If you don’t have appropriate experiences or gene lines, you can still participate in a conflict! You can Go For It 3 times, use tech, error correction, burn, and call.

    If I have 0 flow, you can’t defend yourself?

    If you don’t have flow and you are targeted you can indeed still defend yourself. It just means the attacker only risks 1 flow.

    In other games you create an adventuring party first and then characters to fit into that group… why not in FreeMarket?

    You have a lot of freedom in FreeMarket. Including not being part of an “adventuring party.” Players can create their own groups, MRCZs… they can join separate MRCZs, then can invite NPCs to join, they can compete against each other and more!

    Also, check out the box art (gorgeous).

    Imagine an overfilled tiny MIT or Harvard college dorm room bursting with genius immigrants constantly being shipped in running around with star trek level technology competing to be noticed, lead their sorority, get published, become professors, or change the world!

    There are rules for joining groups, quitting groups, and creating groups. Groups aren’t static, and you can find or make the right group in play rather than before play.

    People can steal and sell each other’s memories or kill anyone who gets in their way. Except nothing stays dead… but nothing ever comes back the same! Everything about the game is about change. It’s quirky and unsettling. Never boring. It’s steroids for your imagination.

    The tension of trying to fit everyone together… no matter how much they don’t fit… is part of the game. And if you don’t like it, you can do something about it!

    I want to play that in play!

    FreeMarket would make the perfect Planscape game. Hell… the station is even shaped like Sigil! A giant donut. Yum.

  13. CJ Says:

    I’m not sure we were complaining about the money thing as much as we were really amused by it – I know Dan and I were thinking about it in comparison to supposedly “moneyless” post-scarcity economies like the Federation – especially in ST: Deep Space Nine, which has its own economic wackiness.

    I do think the aggregate steps over the line from “enforcing contracts and ownership” to directly meddling in the economy. The most obvious example is gifting, which is heavily subsidized. Efficiency is rewarded. Leaving a MRCZ is penalized, but joining or forming a new one is free, etc. The aggregate controls the economy to encourage the things it wants. It’s fun to think about how changing those numbers affects the gameplay.

  14. The Walking Eye Podcast » Blog Archive » Interview 14: Jared Sorensen Says:

    […] Our FreeMarket Review […]

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