Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Review: Freemarket

"We are a society of functionally immortal, cybernetically modified, telepathic infovores. Our culture is centered on a reputation-based economy in which all basic needs—sustenance and shelter—are accounted for. If you wish to do more than just survive—if you wish to create, perform, build or destroy—you must win the approval of your friends and the community at large."

—The first paragraph of the Freemarket rulebook


Freemarket is a science-fiction game set indeterminately far into the far, far future. How far? Matter printing is common, and people routinely graft tech into their bodies. Consequently, bodies can be printed and your data backed up into them, making death a mere inconvenience.

All play takes place aboard a space station above the data repository of Tethys, one of Saturn's moons. (Apparently, Tethys is now a backup drive for all of humanity's endeavors and the space station is the I/O port for it. Or something. It's not really explained, nor does it become relevant, until you're more than halfway through the book.) People come in to start new lives. When they arrive, they are generally accepted, given a little bit of Flow, and set loose to find their own way. Most take one look at the shark tank they're about to jump into and flee for the proverbial hills. Those that stay can either baseline (subsist) or reach for their dreams.


The feel of Freemarket is generally that of a happy-go-lucky romp through advanced tech and a free-wheeling society. It can mutate according to the needs of the players, becoming about nail-biting drama and tense action as the PCs attempt to ghost (sneak) into an opposing MRCZ (club) and steal some incriminating tech, or it can take on the loose, twangy, sloppy vibe of a game of Teenagers from Outer Space toward the tail end of a fraternity kegger.

It's up to the players how bright or dark to make the game, but despite the pressures, and because death is more of a revolving door, the game has an overall positive feel: Tech can solve your problems if you can get it built without someone adding the "Exploding" tag to it.

"Transhumanism is about how technology will eventually help us overcome the problems that have, up until now, been endemic to human nature. Cyberpunk is about how technology won't."

— Stephenls of RPG.Net, on the relation between transhumanism and cyberpunk

I've railed in the past here about transhumanism, how it's either woefully vapid and incomplete as a philosophy, or no game based on it would have enough conflict to keep it interesting. Mercifully, Freemarket falls short of the ideal and contains more than enough opportunities for conflict.

Because it's set on a space station, some resources like available space are limited, and while people can print whatever they need, it's the wants which get people in trouble with other people. There is no money as such, but there is Flow, which is a sort of public-relations stat. The more you have, the more the Aggregate will let you do. Giving things away and making friends will get you Flow. Ticking people off will earn you Frownies, and if your Flow ever drops to zero, you're off the station, never to return. Ever.


Freemarket is the brain-child of Jared Sorensen (of Memento Mori Theatricks) and Luke Crain (of Burning Wheel fame). Together, they formed Voltron the SorenCrane MRCZ which, while it doesn't have much of a presence, at least has its own website, Project Donut, where you can buy the game and download some useful forms.

Jared Sorensen is notable for other games like octaNe, Inspectres, and Lacuna: The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City, Second Attempt.

Luke Crane as mentioned above, is the driving force (transmission?) behind Burning Wheel, a game of relative simplicity and surprising depth, which I'm going to have to review some time because he's recently released Adventure Burner, essentially the fifth book in the core series.


The pre-release edition still on sale over at Project Donut (see URL above) is a pretty, colorful, solid-feeling boxed set containing:

  • A soft-cover rulebook,
  • 32 counters representing bugs, attaboys, frownies, and gifts (but mostly bugs),
  • A pad of character sheets,
  • A pad of MRCZ sheets,
  • Four sample characters playable right out of the box,
  • Five Challenge decks, and
  • One Tech deck.

All parts have a relative solidity to them. The rulebook is printed in glorious full color, and that pad of character sheets feels like heavier-than-normal paper (Were I to guess, I'd say at least 24#). Even the decks of cards used for conflict resolution (and yes, it uses cards rather than dice) are plastic-coated playing cards, with no chintzy feel to them whatsoever.

Even for what you get, though, the $75 price for that boxed set feels a little steep. I can feel in the materials where the money went; it is a quality product. But still, day-umn. If that seems a bit much, the PDF of the rulebook is a far more reasonable $10, but then you don't get extras like the tokens or the decks of cards. And you'll need those decks of cards. Yes, in theory you can make them yourself, but good luck capturing that luscious plastic-coated feel. (And yes. I said luscious.)

<hint>It sure would be nice if Project Donut had a way of buying individual challenge and tech decks, just in case the dog eats them or players lose them or step on them or something.</hint> I know what I'm talking about here. I've had players lose entire books, if only because it's so much harder to lose part of a book.


To do anything above and beyond baseline/subsist/devolve into vegetable matter, you'll need to risk Flow. Any move of conflict, or construction from the station's rather limited pool of resources, will have a Flow cost associated with it. This is the price that must be met to start a challenge.

Once that's done, you draw cards a few at a time to determine which of your character's attributes you can bring to bear. If your opposition is another character, the challenge is pretty straightforward. If your opposition is the Superuser (GM), he'll have a sort of virtual character with set attributes acting as your foil depending on what you're trying to do. There are further nuances, but that's the gist of it.

Whoever has the most points when someone finally declares the match over wins, although the measure of the victory is still in question. The winner can spend the difference to either buy up effects (how well you did) or efficiency (how little of the station's resources you used in the challenge). There's a further caveat: every Hazard card in the winner's hand is a bonus to the loser in case he wants a rematch.

The system uses only 14 Experiences (skills), covering everything from Ephemera (public and artistic presentations) to Wetwork (combat) in necessarily broad brushstrokes. Four of them are connected expressly with making stuff, three are social, two are information processing, three are subversive, and two are destructive. There is potential here for a great many activities despite the short list.


Characters come in four flavors. They can be the original folk who came to the station ("first" generation), they can be those peoples' descendants ("second" generation), they can be created on the station ("blank" generation), or they can be recent newcomers ("immigrant" generation). The generation determines how much you can spend on Geneline, Experience, Interface, and Tech, and from those all other elements of the character are bought up.

They're also deceptively simple. If you need to work with a number larger than five, you're doing something wrong. When building a Freemarket character, the tool of choice is not a calculator, but a thesaurus. At many points in character creation, you'll need to fill in three tags to describe what you're working with. Your Geneline and every piece of Interface (body-internal gadgets) and Tech (all other gadgets) will have three tags. The descriptors you attach determine their suitability to Challenges (above), so they're at least as important as whatever numbers you attach to them.

The resulting construct of information can appear rather sparse, but by that point the player will have enough of a mental picture to start filling in the subtleties.


Not a lot, really, although I do have to wonder. The game represented here is a closed microcosm of a much larger and rather interesting universe which, according to the terms of the game itself, you can never properly explore. Once you leave Project Donut, you're dead to Project Donut.

I mean, come on. They built a data center into a moon and every human endeavor in the solar system has been backed up onto it. What other feats of engineering legerdemain have they cooked up?

Play This Game If...

  • You want to play a light-hearted science-fiction game
  • You want to explore the concept of virtual immortality—that's one of the themes in the game: "You have forever. What are you going to do with it?"
  • You want to play with a (so far) unique conflict resolution system
  • You want to have an impact on your surroundings
  • You want to make new and interesting friends
  • You want to make new and interesting enemies
  • You have the money, and appreciate craftsmanship

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