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:
- 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.
- At that point, those players play out an Interactive scene together, shaping their stories based on what happens between them.
- 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.
- 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.
- ... 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.
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.