Sunday, November 22, 2009

Freemarket, as seen by a socialist

[Disclaimer: I do not like Luke Crane games. This one is no exception. I am going to try a little to be even-handed, but when stuff irks me, I am going to be a jerk about it. When stuff is cool, I will probably make back-handed compliments. That being said...]
It's a Luke Crane game. That means we're not going to get along, pretty much guaranteed. Still, on a whim, when I went to Buddha's house last night and they said "Check this out" I said "Okay". We, ah, took about three hours to get through character creation; we didn't end up playing.

To be fair, the resolution mechanic doesn't seem so bad; you more or less pay attention to three main card colors (imagine dealing random Magic cards and only noting their color) and count some of them as points, and some of them as not-points. I can't exactly give you the precise mechanic, but suffice it to say it's a tiny bit like AP contests in Hero Wars - it might look intimidating from the rules text, but it's not probably so bad. "Probably" is necessary because I haven't played either, and don't want to, you know, lie to anybody.

I like the concept for the setting: you're on a space station with matter replicators, infinite cloning for all, every physical need is met, at least on a level of comfortable, if boring, subsistence... also, there is a social economy, as you may have heard. That's why it's called FreeMarket, by the way (also: jab knitting needles in my eyes - people on the station are known as Freemers. Get it? This is almost exactly like the nickname for those who frequent the authoritarian-rightwing site FreeRepublic - "Freepers". Blech) - it's called that because, um, well, okay, so there isn't really any good reason to call this high-tech, socialist utopia an ANYTHING market, but there you have it.

Anyway - so you're kind of on the Facebook Space Station - you get Flow, which is a combination of Diggs, Pokes, "You like this", etc. You lose Flow from Frownies, which means that, by the 52nd century, Facebook has finally devised a Dislike button. The Facebook comparison is not at all meant to be demeaning, by the way - I merely think it's apt, and the bright-and-bushy-tailed feel of the game text pushes me further in thinking so.

Strictly speaking, Flow is given to you by the Aggregate, aka the station CPU, as a reward for giving gifts, acting in concert to overcome challenges, and other things. Of course, being gamers, we spent a good bit of our time devising hypothetical scenarios in which we trick or otherwise game the Ag into Flowing us like whoa.

Speaking of terms that I tire of capitalizing, the skill list ("Experiences", for some reason) makes-a no sense. There are three different skills, that is, Experiences, that relate to social interaction (Shaping, Thin-Slicing, and Social Engineering; no, they don't mean what they sound like), skills that have nonsensical names, given their function (Mobbing is Modification Of Body-ing. Why not MODding? Search me!) and a few that I'm skeptical of, but I'm sure play would make it clear why there's a difference between them - using replicators is its own skill (Printing), separate from building things by hand (Cultivation) or retrofitting/reusing things to make new stuff (Recycling).

There are also MRCZ groups. The text mercifully recommends you pronounce this acronym as "mercy", with "mercies" as the plural. Catchy, and interesting. This is where some of the inspiration behind the game comes through a bit more - the text speaks of theoretical, anti-bureaucratic(I get it, and yet...) adhocracies, or groups that form ad hoc for a purpose and then disband when said purpose is completed. Given that there are arduous levels of MRCZ prestige to climb through, this actually sounds like the very opposite of anything temporary or ad hoc - where's the spontaneity? A barn-raising would be a more fitting adhocracy than these, well, WoW guilds the authors are describing.

Going back to the much-mused-over title of the game, I have this to say: it's a gift economy, in the sense that generosity, when it's received, is a source of social status. Flow is, chemically speaking, a byproduct of the social interaction, and not actually brought into the mix by any party involved; the Aggregate generates and distributes Flow. So - while there's certainly an economy taking place, it's not, you know, anything at all resembling a "market". It's really a "network". If this game is some attempt to realize a great big Objectivist impulse, then I'm going to go throw up red Kool-Aid on Luke's lawn in protest. But then again, maybe I won't - it's a lousy attempt at this. Why is everyone provided for? Why is there no cold and finite resource that rules all others?

This really should have been billed as Facebook: the RPG. And maybe there, it could have had terms that made some more sense, and less misplaced attitude. When you Poke someone, all it means... is that you Poked them.

Oh, and I can't make heads or tails of what the goddamned CA is. It's your Right to Dream about this really cool, crazy space station, presumably, since the relationship mechanics are about as deep as those on the for-real Facebook site (and that's a huge lynchpin for Story Now, to me), and there's way too much going on that isn't related to Stepping on Up (nor are there victory conditions, permanent death [mostly], end-game mechanics...) to count as that, either. There's this whole thing where death isn't really death unless your body is so totally fucked by horrible, multi-system destruction that they have to make a whole new clone. Even then, you're not really dead.
If I really wanted to play an MMO, or face off against the never-really-dying Saturday morning cartoon villain, then... nah. I wouldn't want to do either of those things. Not again, at any rate, as far as MMOs.

You know what? I take it back. This isn't Facebook. This is Second Life, converted to tabletop!


  1. Ah, but this can't be Second Life, because the text explicitly forbids playing furry characters! Even though the art clearly depicts some.

    I'm interested in trying Freemarket, but I'll admit the seemingly arbitrary skill names are a pretty big turn-off. I do at least see the point of distinguishing between hand-made objects, manufactured objects, and intangible experiences, in the fiction, but it remains to be seen if separating them mechanically makes any sense.

  2. Ah, furries.
    I made the mistake of, fairly nicely, summarizing our experience with the game - but I shared it with one of the playtesters for BW. He had a response for every point I made, as if he had no interest in hearing that I didn't like the game, and no, I didn't want to give it a chance.

    Hey, maybe he's had to put up with a lot if he likes BW so much - that would explain why he has stock answers for everything.

    I'm sort of interested in trying it, but I have to admit I want to go over this whole MRCZ thing a bit more - I am not jazzed about what we have for our concept.

  3. Wow, let me start off by saying that in very high opposition to you I love Luke Crane. Most of this admiration comes from his ability and example as a game designer who has made his work into a business and in this area he excels. My knowledge of his design skills come mostly from my perusal of Burning Empires and Mouseguard (which I thought was very well done) and so I can't say I am an expert on his design skills. But after reading your post I'm going to have to check this out and see what the heck is going on there.

    The game sounds like a bloody mess. I mean, really? Having so much jingoistic terms doesn't help immerse you, despite what some people may think. What it does is make your game hard to learn, constantly pull players out of the experience by forcing them to reach for the glossary or flip through the book for definitions.

    Making those terms hard to pronounce or far removed from their real world meanings only enhances the problems.

  4. Hey guys, thanks for the comments.

    FreeMarket is currently in editing and will go on sale for pre-orders in March. The limited edition box set should be out at GenCon, if not earlier.

    - Jared