Tuesday, June 19, 2012

GM Conference, Fiasco! And beyond...

Last Sunday SAGA hosted its GM Conference at which a number of speakers gave presentations - about 30 minutes apiece - about some aspect of running a roleplaying or storytelling game. I missed the first half, but managed to catch the presentations after the lunch break. In fact, I caught them on video! Currently the videos are about 5GB each, and as soon as I can find a way to reduce them to a reasonable size, I'll post them online.

After the conference I was invited to my friend Brian's house for an RPG. If you read my blog regularly, you probably know that I'm not much into role playing... I played some Dungeons and Dragons in junior high, tried it again in college, but while I liked the idea of it, the experience never panned out the way I would have liked it to. More recently, Brian has introduced me to some of the more modern indie RPGs, most of which don't appear to me to really qualify as "Role Playing Games" so much as "Collaborative Storytelling Games." Many don't even have a GM. At one of SAGA's RPG days I sat in on a session of Yesterday's Tomorrow!, a sort of retro-sci-fi storytelling game based on speculative future... what did people in the past think the future would be like? So the stories you make will resemble old, dated pulp sci-fi such as Flash Gordon.

A few years ago I learned about a Storytelling game called Fiasco. When it came out I heard about it from several people, read about it a bit, and watched Brian and friends play a session of it. The idea is pretty cool - the game sets you up to tell a story in the vein of those Fiasco movies such as Fargo, Burn After Reading, or Blood Simple... you know, those movies where people get in over their heads, and everything seems to go wrong. The game's tagline is "A game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control." It was Fiasco that we played at Brian's house the other night.

I really like the way the game structures a web of interconnections between characters and encourages their stories to overlap and be at odds with each other. I had a pretty good time with it - even though it took about 5 hours rather than the advertised 2. With all it's good points though, there are some aspects of that game I'm not too happy with... For one thing, the game goes out of its way to encourage failure. The book goes on and on about it, and people who like the game seem to like it at times merely because it's a foregone conclusion that pretty much everybody's going to die at the end. Any goal your character may have? Forget about it - you'll be lucky if you're still walking when the credits roll. I agree that it can make for a more interesting story if everything doesn't simply go the characters' way all the time. Part of the reason Indiana Jones is such a fun hero to watch is that he fails constantly! But then he perseveres and succeeds in the end. But it's as if whoever wrote this game (or at least some proponents of it) thought "well, if failure makes a better story, then if ALL the players fail ALL the time, then it'll be the best story EVAR!"

I don't agree with that. JC Lawrence said something insightful in a short Twitter discussion yesterday:

"The narrative requirement isn't success, but personal growth thru travail. The growth needn't connect to orig goal."
I think a good story can result from a game of Fiasco, but I don't think that in order for that to happen, all players must meet with disaster. I think it's enough that the game sets the characters up to be in conflict with each other from the outset, so it's not possible for every character to succeed all the time. I might go a step farther and suggest that instead of requiring just 1 "Need" for the group (which is what the game rules suggest), that each character be assigned a "Need" of their own, so each character has their own ambition, and because of how it's set up, that ambition will bring the characters into conflict with each other.

So that's my beef with Fiasco. I have another, smaller issue with the game, but it's not really something that I would say is wrong with the game so much as I simply don't like a particular dynamic that comes along with the way that game does a shared narrative. The same thing is true of Improv Comedy to an extent. When I have an idea for a story, it's not a simple action by a character... for a choice or action to even make sense a lot of times it depends on other things happening in the future. If a storyline gets re-routed before the initial idea plays out, then it fails to even make sense anymore, and makes for a disjointed, unfulfilling story for me. Instead, the way to go is NOT to plan ahead at all, just be reactive and live in the moment, so that it doesn't matter what direction the story takes, it won't dismantle what you were going for. That's fine, it's just not the way I want to tell a story - I'd personally prefer a bit more control over at least my character and what I want to do with him.

On that note, the other day I was thinking about how a game like Fiasco could allow for more player control over their own character's story, and I came up with an idea that may have merit. I'm not familiar with many of these storytelling games, so it's possible something like this already exists - I wouldn't know. I'll preface by saying that I very much enjoy movies like Pulp Fiction, with multiple separate, distinct story arcs which occasionally cross paths, and are not necessarily told in order. In my storytelling game, of course, there would be an overall setting, and probably some overall attributes like there are in Fiasco (important locations for example). Each player would be in control of a Story Arc, which would have a main character, possibly a supporting character, and probably some sort of goal or ambition. Also like Fiasco, the players would have inter-relationships between themselves and other players at the table.

The storytelling in the game would take place in 2 Acts. In the first Act, scenes would alternate between Monologue scenes, and Interactive scenes:
  1. Player 1 would start with a short Monologue scene, basically telling part of their Story Arc - what happens to the characters that they're in charge of - up to a point at which their Arc crosses paths with another player's Arc. 
  2. At that point, those players play out an Interactive scene together, shaping their stories based on what happens between them.
  3. After the Interactive scene is resolved, that second player gets a chance to do a Monologue scene following their own Arc, probably a chronological continuation informed by the previous Interactive scene.
  4. The second player's story will then cross paths with a 3rd player's Arc, initiating another Interactive scene, this time between players 2 and 3.
  5. ... And so on until the last player's Monologue scene collides with player 1's Arc, ending the round with an interactive scene between PX and P1.
In Act II, the players return to the beginning of the overall story chronology, and players 2 and 3 (who's Story Arcs have not yet crossed) will do an Interactive Scene, filling in a gap in the story leading up to the first Interactive scene of the game. It'd be like "while player 1's Monologue scene was going on, Players 2 and 3 were doing this." And the end of that scene leads up to the Interactive scene between Players 1 and 2 (the first one of the game). Then we get to see what was going on in Player 3's Arc while P1 and P2 were having their Interactive scene... etc.

That probably sounds a bit confusing, I have a graphic that makes a bit more sense (click for bigger image):

Anyway, I haven't tried this and I don't know if I ever will get a chance to, but I think the Monologue scenes would offer the control I'd prefer to see. I also think the constrained end conditions of Act 2 scenes (they have to set up scenes from Act 1) could be really interesting. And with a setup like Fiasco's where the characters all have ambitions that will force conflict, then there will be an appropriate amount of failure going around.


David Brain said...

Well, the game is called Fiasco! for a reason. It probably shouldn't have a happy ending...

I usually play what are called Freeforms, which are games that come somewhere between RPGs and Collaborative games in terms of design and structure.

You are given a character (often fairly detailed) who has plots they know about and goals to achieve. Other characters have other goals, and within the game there is often a larger plot that reveals itself during the game. (Classic Murder Mystery Dinner Party games are a subset of this genre.)

There are GMs (who wrote the setup) but their job is to try and stay in the background as much as possible; if the players' actions cause the story to spin off in unanticipated directions, well, that's when it becomes, um, interesting.

The main difference, I would guess, is that Freeforms are generally written for larger groups, because that allows the web to become far more intricate. (At the moment, I'm involved in writing one for 60+ players!)

The new generation of Collaborative games are certainly interesting and well-constructed, but I don't think that their formats scale particularly well; then again, I am not sure they are intended to.

Chaos_Celebrtaion said...

So... I've been doing some thinking about your critiques of fiasco and I think your problem is where you come from when analyzing this game.

One of the reasons that fiasco works so well is that the PLAYERS must be willing for their characters to fail. Because each player is not going to push for their character to win, a "fiasco" can ensue. What you want to play, is a game your character can come out ahead. The game you want is in no way Fiasco. There are a lot of games where you can be tragic or you can be a winner. Fiasco is a tragic story. I've played fiasco many ties. One particular time I played with a group of people where no one wanted to be the guy who did anything stupid. (Everyone wanted their character to come out ahead in the game.) NOTHING was accomplished. No one wanted to do anything stupid and as such there was no Fiasco. It ended up being about people trying to swindle each other out of some money, but nothing bad really happened. Fiasco works because the players willingness to have their character do something stupid creates heated situations, because... that's how life works. Most of these movies work the same way. Someone does something stupid to try to get ahead and ends up deeper in it than they started out. If you don't want to do that, then play a different game. It sounds like you want to play Fiasco and just change the final table to allow more success. I think... if you do that, you'll end up with REALLY unsatisfying stories of 5 people who do CRAZY and STUPID things and just get away with it in the end.

So, I believe your coment:
I think a good story can result from a game of Fiasco, but I don't think that in order for that to happen, all players must meet with disaster. I think it's enough that the game sets the characters up to be in conflict with each other from the outset, so it's not possible for every character to succeed all the time.

I think you're approaching this critique of the game from a boardgame designers POV. If you look at RPG's there are two different motivations for playing. The CHARACTER and the PLAYER. These are distinct and separate entities. In Fiasco, the players desires SHOULD run counted to their characters. Because EVERYONE is failing all over the place the CHARACTER is trying (without inhibition or a whole lot of foresight) to succeed, while the player is delighting in the character just being tragically beaten to a proverbial pulp.

To play a game of Fiasco, you have to want a Fiasco like story. If you want your character to grow and change, you'll have to choose a different game.

I think your idea for a storytelling game has some great ideas to start, however there is one thing that needs tweaking. There is WAY to much solitary action. A monologue sequence can be useful every once in a while to refresh us where we are, but without character interaction we have no story. Something else needs to happen. If it's GM'less then it requires player interaction. You can't fill that much dead space by yourself.

There's also the question of motivation. Fiasco makes motivation out of the poor impulse control concept. The plot moves forward because players are relentlessly pursuing their objectives without forethought. If your players are carefully trying to advance their own plots then you NEED a GM to moderate conflict. Moderation disappears if failure is your GOAL.

Seth Jaffee said...

Very interesting comments, thanks!

In case I didn't mention - and I'm sure it becomes apparent as I talk about storytelling games - I'm really not a connoisseur of that type of game. I have almost zero experience. I'm only talking about what *I* would prefer to see in a storytelling game, if it were up to me.

Just so I'm clear though, I do not insist that *my* character need to succeed in order for me to enjoy the story. I just don't think the quality of the story hinges on how many of the characters succeed or fail.

I think the neat thing about Fiasco! is that it sets people up with conflicting ambitions, so no matter what there will be inter-player (inter-character) conflict.

I wrote that post in a sort of stream-of-consciousness mindset, so I'm not sure if it came through correctly... I had 2 main comments about Fiasco, and they were completely independent of each other:

1. Focus on failure for failure's sake. I like the competing ambitions, which will automatically create tension between characters, and I do not think players need to make sure their characters fail in order to enjoy Fiasco. I bet if each character were given an ambition involving the same items and other people, then the game would be fun no matter who succeeded and who failed.

2. (And this is a personal preference thing) Fiasco is definitely the type of game, as you suggest, where you can't really go into any scene or take any action with any forethought, or it'll be disappointing. When I think about a story, I am not satisfied with a single action at a time, I like to chain actions and have actions that are dependent on the outcome of other actions. Fiasco simply isn't the game for that. The next time I play, I'll probably try not to 'plan ahead' with my story ideas, because chances are that if a planned chain of events begins, it won't ever end, and I won't enjoy that.

To address the comments on the Pulp-Fiction storytelling game idea, you're probably right... again, I have not tried it, and I'm not even really familiar with these types of games. In my mind, the monologue scenes would be short, maybe akin to 'setting up the scene' in Fiasco, not long and drawn out.

As a side note, while playing Fiasco the other night, I got a similar vibe as I get when playing cooperative board games such as Pandemic... it seems very easy for more talkative players or players with stronger personalities to more or less dominate the game, such that the story goes the way they say it does, and the other players are in a way just pawns. I refer to those board games as "Solitaire by Committee," and as I see it their purpose is for a group to come to a consensus as a group as to which actions to take. In a Storytelling game I suppose players could come to a consensus as a group what direction the story will take as well. I don't think that's the purpose of Fiasco, but it seems like it could be played that way (and indeed, we seemed to play it that way).

David Brain said...

Solitaire by Committee is indeed the danger of these sort of games; the trick is to ensure that each individual player has something that means that they are important to the overall outcome of the game. In boardgames it's relatively easy to ensure this, but as the game moves along the graph towards the more unstructured forms it becomes more difficult.
No, I don't know of any easy solutions to this, but it's mostly not a deal-breaking problem.

SDS said...

Most story-games are about the surprise of the plot twists that you didn't see coming, as suggested by the players/GM. If you are pre-plotting what you expect your character to do in the next 3 or 4 scenes, then yes, you will be disappointed.

Fiasco is also very dependent on the mood of the group, as far as "failure" goes. If the group is giddy and wacky, the failures spin ridiculously out of control.


In some cases, failure is just simply, "not getting what you want." And lead to other outcomes. A year or so ago, I played an online forum game using the "All the Damn Time" playset, which is unique in that each player plays the same character in different times of his life, and he has a time machine. In the end, it was a very melancholy story of an argument that leads up to his wife getting killed and "stuck in the time vortex" while saving him. And so, the "young Sam" character spent most of his time worrying about funding his project and neglecting his wife, while the mid-life Sam's spent most of their turns time-jumping in the hopes of saving his wife from death, and the older Sam chasing mid-life Sams down, in the hopes of getting to to just "let go" of her because they were starting to muck up the space/time continuum.

There was no one getting eaten by polar bears.

The other thing is that if you are upset about the 50/50 nature of success and failure, you can easily just replace some of the black dice with white dice.

I would say that every player does not need an explicit need. Remember that 1 need is somehow shared across two players. The best thing to do is start the game with one of the players going after the need, while having a needless player already "own" the need as a target. Also, all characters have needs...just that they aren't obviously assigned at the start of the game. While Joe needs someone to steal the statue (his explicit need that was created at the start of the game) for him, Clark volunteers to do it, not because of his explicit need, but because of his assigned relationship: "Is secretly in love with..."

And I agree that you are coming at this from too much of a boardgame rules mindset. Your suggestion is kind of hardcoding structure into a world that doesn't need or want it (and really, there's no reason why you can't call for a monolog scene in Fiasco) as I did:


Unknown said...

Hi Seth,
This is an interesting topic. I was one of the playtesters of Fiasco and the game didn't gel with my group well. I had fun but I'm the guy in the group who is more into the story games/indie type of game. Your observation is pretty spot on as are the other commentors'. Fiasco does tend to focus on failure in that it gives permission to fail, if you will, AND gives you tools to deal with failure. Your observation about the stronger players dominating tends to be true unfortunately. One thing Fiasco has done for me is make me come forward in games and push for my character's goals. By the way I'm interviewing Jason Morningstar and Steve Sedegy of Bully Pulpit Games soon on Go Forth And Game. I may ask him about this.
Tom G

Mark Diaz Truman said...

@Seth - Heya! It's Mark from Magpie Games. Interesting article!

You've got two main points here:

1) Fiasco is problematic (focusing on failure).

2) You want a game with more structure, perhaps even one that follows the kind of pattern you've laid out.

To the first point, I think you're attributing something to Fiasco that isn't part of the game. Many characters in Fiasco suffer failure, but failure is not universal. In fact, some characters can waltz through the story seemingly untouched by the kind of chaos that they stir up: Bunny Lebowski in TBL, for example.

But Fiasco, like many indie games, has a certain genre that it's trying to emulate. That genre has enough weight to act almost like a rule, a way of thinking that encourages certain styles of play and discourages others. Fiasco is about failure, in the same way that Our Last Best Hope is about noble sacrifice in the same way that Monopoly is about capitalism: if you try to play it differently, you're missing what's good about the game.

As for your proposal, it absolutely sounds interesting. Structured games of that sort are totally workable and I think that some really interesting stories can come out of a highly structured (i.e. NOT FIASCO) environment.

That said, I think that you'll need to do some additional work to try to figure out what exactly you hope such structure to produce. While planning in the way you've laid out can be deeply satisfying in and of itself, I think you'll need a bit more to make the game a satisfying experience.

Let me know if you want to chat more!

Seth Jaffee said...

@Mark: Thanks for taking the time to read that post!

I don't know if you also saw the comment thread, but I believe I discovered through that discussion what you said about Fiasco - that playing it differently simply won't be satisfying because that's not the way Fiasco works. I agree with that.

In any case, as an entirely different game I think my proposed structure could work (maybe even work well) - but not being a connoisseur of this type of game I'm not exactly sure how it'd play out, or just what types of mechanisms ought to be included (dice pools, etc). I was modeling it after Fiasco, so I imagine some sort of draft for story elements may be in order. Perhaps a deck of cards with those elements would be easier to use than some more complicated (though admittedly not terribly complicated) dice mechanism.

My hope is that the structure will produce a couple of story lines, each largely controlled by one of the players, though all players can have some input into each story line - especially through the interactive scenes that occur when the story lines intersect. I imagine this effect will feel a lot like the movie Pulp Fiction.

The goal, I think, is to allow each player a larger degree of narrative control over their own story arc than Fiasco does, so that not everything in the story has to be entirely reactive and short sighted (in Fiasco the whole point is that the characters' actions are short sighted); while still providing a chance to influence each others' stories and interact with each other character-to-character.

Also, I really like stories told like Pulp Fiction - with threaded story arcs, and not necessarily in chronological order :)