Tuesday 30 July 2019

Fiasco - The Post-Pod Review

Fiasco is a collaborative storytelling game for three to five people by Jason Morningstar and published by Bully Pulpit Games. According to the rulebook you play 'ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control.' The game is heavily inspired by the films of The Coen Brothers, Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino and individual movies like Office Space, In Bruges and The Way of the Gun.

Longbaugh: What do you think?
Parker: I think a plan is just a list of things that don't happen.
- The Way of the Gun.
Fiasco does not begin with a plan. There is no gamesmaster to dictate what the story is or is not. Everything is conceived and played through in one three-to-four hour session of play. It's a fast, frenetic form of democratic storytelling that delivers high drama, low comedy and great opportunities for role-playing. Because the games are so quick, and your characters are not part of an ongoing serial narrative, you can take risks in the game that you would probably not consider for long term role-playing campaigns. If your character would be better off dead, for the purposes of the story, then it's no problem, as you can still participate or even explore your character further using flashbacks or some other narrative device. But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself...

All of the players start by agreeing on a playset. A playset consists of a brief outline of the setting for the game and lists of relationships, objects, locations and needs that help the players develop an interesting scenario to explore. Because you are defining relationships between characters during setup, rather than individual characters, you are developing the bones of a plot and intrigue and avoiding the common roadblock you get when you start playing traditional RPGs - how do the players know each other and why do they interact with each other? This core mechanic is so great that I'm shocked it hasn't been stolen or adapted by mainstream roleplaying systems.

Once you've got the relationships and plot elements sorted you play through a series of scenes. Each player takes it in turns to either establish or resolve a scene. If they establish a scene, the player describes a situation involving their character. Once the scene has been established and it's clear there's a decision or important element to the scene, the other players decide if it goes well or badly for the character by selecting a good or bad die and giving it to the player.

Rob: So, I'm in the bowels of the mafia Don's estate, looking for his prize stallion so I can steal a vial of horse semen.
Chris: This is definitely going badly for you.
Rich: I agree, there's no way your character can pull this off.
Darren: Bad die it is. What about if some guards turn up and chase you off?
Rob: Sounds good, but I'm going to grab something on the way out. Perhaps the Don is storing his own sperm, just in case. Taking that will up the ante and won't be valuable to anyone else.

The above example is really condensed, you could roleplay out the guard encounter fully, with the other players taking control of the guards before switching it up and letting the first player narrate the chase and aftermath. As long as the group agrees that what comes up meets the good/bad result, you're free to do what you like.

This brings us to the divisive part of this game. If you don't feel comfortable coming up with the story as you're playing, either because you prefer reacting to someone else's prompts or you don't feel like you have the creative muscles to contribute, you're going to hate this game. I firmly believe that playing Fiasco, or other collaborative storytelling games, often will develop those muscles and lessen the feeling that you can't tell your own story, but that will take take time and trust in your fellow players.

Marge Gunderson: OK, so we got a trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, these folks drive by, there's a high-speed pursuit, ends here and then this execution-type deal.
- Fargo
One of the interesting points raised in the podcast was the pretty clear understanding, justified or not, that it was the gamesmasters responsibility to craft the story of any given campaign. Obviously, in games that require a setting and rules arbiter, the gamesmaster has a responsibility to understand the setting and rules enough to be able to react to the player's actions. But, should that mean that the gamesmaster is the only, or even main, source of story or plot in your games? I don't believe so.

I'm not suggesting that players get to determine what the story is AND how it plays out. The beauty of Fiasco is that it understands that there is a balance that needs to be maintained between establishing and resolving the plot of any game. If your interaction with the story is purely reactionary and/or mechanical (choosing a limited response and rolling dice to see if it works) then it isn't a role-playing experience, it's just an encounter simulator.

I'll leave you with the immortal words of The Dude:

Walter, I love you, but sooner or later, you're going to have to face the fact you're a goddamn moron.
- The Big Lebowski

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