Monday, 22 July 2013

Arbitrary Dying for Fun and Profit

Mexican Standoff

Over the weekend, I ended up playing an impromptu game of Fiasco with Dan, Arthur and another friend. Since it was a fairly radical departure from any game I’ve played otherwise, I thought it might be nice to get my thoughts in order about it, and of course to see if it’s got anything I want to snaffle.


I’ve previously written about character generation for Traveller, and I’m seriously considering doing some similar posts for other games, because I think it’s an interesting aspect of games and particularly because it tends to shape your impressions and expectations of a game.

In this case, chargen isn’t really a distinct thing. Instead, what you have is a setting-generation phase, where you establish what the game calls a ‘playset’. You choose between “Southern Town”, “Wild West Boomtown”, “Suburbia” or “The Ice” as backdrops for the action, all of which naturally set up certain kinds of expectation. Next, you create Relationships, Needs, Objects and Locations, and here it gets a bit confusing (at least, it took us a couple of minutes to thrash out what we were supposed to be doing).

Each category of connection (Relationship, Need, Object, Location) has a set of D66 charts – one table per playset. Someone rolls sixteen D6s. You then go around the table: everyone picks a chart, and uses one of the dice to determine the tens column, allocating that connection to a pair of players. For example, someone created a Relationship (Romance) between me and Dan. Once a connection exists, someone can then pick another dice to determine the units column, which establishes the specifics – in this case Relationship (Romance: Current Spouses). You can do this in any order, so you can create all the base connections and then the details, or specify each one in order; you can create all the Relationships before anything else, or (as we did) just do whatever you feel like based on the existing ones, the remaining dice and what the charts look like.

For me, this was a mixture of fun and bewildering. I didn’t really have a handle on the tone or genre of the game so it wasn’t that clear to me what sort of things I wanted to do. Within any system you can choose to play as seriously or as frivolously (or as against the grain) as you like, but you need to know the game’s expectations to do that. Having not seen the films in question, I ended up aiming for a slightly more humorous and occult tone with my choices, which wasn’t quite the idea.

The system is actually a lot more restrictive than it may seem, because each playset has its own specific chart, six choices isn’t that many when you get right down to it, and some of them are only nominally different: for example, many of the Locations for Suburbia were either placenames (which can mean whatever you want) or generic buildings, and the six Romance options boiled down to three major ones (current, ex and prospective). This meant that we tended to avoid some categories and focus on things with a bit more character. You’re also quite constrained by the dice; it may seem like sixteen is a lot, but you rapidly exhaust any particular number, which cuts down your options significantly. I don’t think we rolled any 1s in the first place, and then we quickly found our choices down to three or four categories from six, and one or two specifics from six. This is potentially frustrating, I suppose, but in practice I think it’s quite useful when dealing with people exactly like me, who don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing. It constrained my ability to totally derail the game (consciously or otherwise) by giving me fairly specific choices, and also gave a bit of an impression of what they expected from the game.

I felt like the connections were a mixed bag, to be honest. Many were vague enough not to really add much – one Location ended up just being my house, for example. Others were very specific and therefore a bit tricky to shoehorn in: we had a “Briefcase containing $1m” that was important to us, which ended up vaguely in the plot in the form of money someone wanted to launder through my proposed business, but the specifics got entirely waved away. However, most of them either influenced our behaviour or had some influence on the plot.

The fun bit, though, is turning these hooks into solid setting elements. A Shared Dark Secret and an Unusual Statue became Dan and Arthur’s characters hiding my sister’s body under the garden and buying a random statue to cover it up. A Romance: To Hurt Someone connection turned into two mobsters aiming to seduce my character, to break up my marriage and leave my business vulnerable to their interference. I’ve got to admit that there was a certain amount of stretching to come up with things that vaguely fit the categories. However, I think we all enjoyed inventing these setting elements to play with (this reminds me a recent post on Really Bad Eggs, though it’s not entirely the same thing). I’m inclined to think that some amount of creative input helps draw you into a game early on. Certainly I think I’d have been much less interested in the game if presented with a similar setup ready-made. On the other hand, a character-based small-town real-world setting is very different from a continent-spanning fantasy romp.

And that’s it for chargen. Rather than generating any kind of traditional character, you have a set of important ‘nodes’ that you flesh out slightly into a person before starting play.

Now certainly, you couldn’t just import this into a more traditional game, because you don’t have things like stats or equipment or anything needed to actually take part in a traditional game. That’s because, as I’ll explain alter, there’s no randomising in the game itself. However, I think you could perhaps usefully borrow some of these techniques to help establish group connections during chargen.

I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that while the connection-generating process was a little confusing and perhaps slightly clunky, it had some advantages. We all ended up with perfectly reasonable characters to do stuff with, without having to read through tables, understand play mechanics, pick abilities, choose classes or exhaustively determine our possessions and background. To a large extent this is, again, because the game doesn’t really have anything traditional like mechanics or character abilities (I will refrain from saying “or game” as I think it’s unnecessarily sarky, but there’s a small element of truth in there). However, I would say the game is no less accessible to someone without previous RPG experience, than to someone who’s read dozens of rulebooks and knows how to skim off the key information. Compared to chargen in some other one-shot games – Hellcats and Hockeysticks, say – it’s a walk in the park.

All that being said, I think I’d have really struggled without someone who’s seen the right films to help out. On the other hand, in that situation you probably wouldn’t be playing Fiasco, so hey. It didn’t have particularly high entry barriers, but it also wasn’t super-accessible to someone without genre knowledge. We also found that regardless of its mechanical merits, the dice system for play and outcomes took quite some understanding; I wouldn’t want to pull anything like this on novice roleplayers because I think it’d be offputting, since both repeated explanations and having someone just work things out for you tend to make you feel stupid.

Playing the game

The actual game itself is very rules-light; you go around, each in turn having a scene about you. It usually involves your character, but can also be other people thinking or talking about them. You choose whether you want to determine the premise of the scene, or determine whether its ending is “positive” or “negative”; other people do the other one. Within a scene, you just make up events and dialogue, though these have to lead towards the chosen type of ending. Based on the ending of the scene, you collect white or black dice. At the end of the game, you roll all your dice, subtract one from the other to get an absolute value, and then consult a chart to determine your ultimate fate. You then have to narrate your “closing scenes” in a series of sentences beginning “this is me...”. For a more comprehensive look at the mechanics, Dan’s your man.

To be frank, the dice mechanic felt contrived, arbitrary, nonsensical and more or less unnecessary. In the first half, you give away whatever dice you earn, so whatever you do makes no difference. In the second half, you can try to control your fate by choosing more of the same (for a “good” ending) or a mixture of dice (making a ”bad” ending likely), but that often means disregarding the natural course of a scene. For example, one of my scenes had me directing some workmen to move the statue concealing my sister's body: there was no plausible way for it to end ”well” unless I picked a white die immediately and undermined the scene established by the other players. On the other hand, if you pick dice based on considerations like actual roleplaying, then your ending is likely to be bad regardless of what happens, because you'll typically get a mix of scenes. And for zero apparent reason, for fate resolution purposes, dice stop being Good and Bad, and become Emotional and Physical, so having four Good dice means having four Emotional dice, which confusingly does not mean you're liable to have emotional problems but that you're likely to escape them. I mean, just, what?

Another problem I had with the game was that the turn-taking mechanic - which is perfectly sensible in traditional games - didn't feel like a good fit. In a narrative-heavy situation, it just doesn't really make sense for each person to have a turn in a specific forced order. I can understand why they'd do it: it's easy for one, and it makes sure everyone has a fair part of the game, though I do wonder whether they thought about it at all or simply followed the usual assumption. However, there were quite a few turns where it didn't feel particularly natural for the next person to take the focus, or where they really had no idea for how to advance the story or what to do. In these circumstances you can simply choose to have the others decide for you, and resolve the ending instead, but it still felt clunky to me. Perhaps some mechanic where you can decide how much focus to take, maybe even involving their weird dice mechanics, would have made things smoother?

As well as clunkiness, I felt like forced turn-taking actually made the game less accessible. In a more mechanical game, players can choose how much spotlight they take and involved to be; if you choose, you can simply follow the lead of other players and just roll dice when you need to. This is a nice option for people who are new to the game or genre, shy, uninspired, tired or just don't feel like shouldering a lot of narrative burden right now. More energetic people can spend a lot of time making suggestions, asking questions, talking to NPCs, and generally doing things that determine the flow of events in ways other than rolling dice. In Fiasco, while other players can help out, you don't have that much flexibility. For that reason, if no other, I'd be a bit reluctant to introduce some people to it, because I know they prefer to take a back seat most of the time, at least until they have a handle on a game. In D&D, my players tend to start off pretty mechanical, and roleplay comes in later when they're more confident. Fiasco doesn't offer that kind of flexibility.


I also found the ending system fairly trite. While it led to what sounds like a decent story, this falls apart somewhat if you examine it. Again, Dan covers this pretty thoroughly. For example: Arthur's character just about managed to get everyone off their various crimes, but couldn't save his reputation. My character, utterly traumatised by, well, everything, burst into tears on the Lake Road (a previously-mentioned accident black spot) and took the corner a little too fast! Arthur's character arrived at the house just after I left, met Dan's character also arriving too late, and just had time to blurt out "It was my bab-" before Dan's gun went off! Dan got pulverised by the mafiosa's goons when he burst in to blame her for everything, and slunk disgraced out of town! The mafiosa just kind of carried on being a bit mediocre! Wait, that bit wasn't actually that exciting.

The thing is though, none of that game from the game except how dead we were. It's all just justification of arbitrary numbers after the fact, by the players trying to make some kind of sense out of things. It's not some natural, inevitable outcome of the plot so far.

Off the top of my head: how about Arthur manages to weasel out of (accurate) Accessory To Murder allegations, spill just enough to get the mafiosa busted, have Dan taken care of and move in to comfort the grieving widow - perhaps picking up that $1m briefcase along the way? You have a decent story about a treacherous bastard lawyer wading through blood and coming up smelling of roses. Or the mafiosa gets her chance to break up my marriage once and for all, rid herself of a backstabbing weasel lawyer with too much dirt on her, offer a helping hand to the widow, launder that cash and put an end to the grumbling from her mooks. Or perhaps all three of the criminals play things too cleverly, get each other wiped out, and leave the innocent housewife standing there single, holding a cash-filled briefcase, and looking thoughtfully at the handsome out-of-town sheriff who used to date her sister. Or... you get the idea. I'm pretty sure, between the four of us, we could have done something with whatever set of endings we rolled up.

When I was a young lad, my family used to play a game that I can't remember the name of right now. You’d improvise a Famous Five story or something similar, passing the story along from person to person, giving the next person three specific things to incorporate. It was both simpler and less frustrating than the mechanics of Fiasco.

Other stuff

I feel like the game missed a trick, to be honest, but that may be deceptive. Being completely ignorant of the genre it’s emulating (barring Dan’s quick description) I have little idea how well it succeeds. It seemed to me like with a little more flexibility you could have used it to play a broader range of genres, which would have made it more likely to get played: personally I would have much preferred to run something like an Ealing Comedy, but the ending tables are inherently downbeat and sadistic, and don’t allow for anything like that.

I'm also a bit confused about what my goals as a player actually are. Am I supposed to be invested in my character's ultimate post-game fate? In in-game events? In vaguely emulating a type of film I've never seen through riffing on tropes? In just having a laugh? Similarly, without goals, how do you know whether you're doing what the game intends? I don't want to get into a complicated discussion on Doing Roleplaying Right, but you can at least play with or against the grain of a game, and I'd like to know which is which - not least because it helps clarify whether I genuinely don't enjoy a game, or simply didn't get it. Did Dan and Other Player succeed, because they survived to miserable futures? Did me and Arthur succeed, because we died in accordance with genre expectations? I couldn't really tell what I was trying to achieve (as a player or as a character), whether I was doing it right, or how to do it better. Of course, if I was really enjoying myself, I probably wouldn't have been wondering about any of those things.

As Dan has mentioned, there was also very little guidance as to what you and your character can do, particularly to other characters. This is perhaps because they don't want to lock that kind of thing down too tightly, as some kind of cooperation is expected; however, as it's potentially quite an adversarial game, it seems to me that they should perhaps have suggested that you decide those limits for yourself before the game starts. As it stands, there doesn't seem to be anything to stop one player having another character killed whenever you like, completely changing any existing story strand, or otherwise dominating the game. You might think that's a matter of being a reasonable player, but a reasonable person could well feel that the absence of restrictions is deliberate, and intended to create a chaotic story moulded by the players' whims. And (from what I can tell of the genre) people getting randomly bumped off isn't exactly out of keeping.


I can't help noticing that I really don't have that much positive to say about this game. It's in a genre I'm not interested in, its mechanics manage to be both minimal and clunky, it's quite demanding without giving you much support, and it seems to take a lot of credit for the ingenuity of players in making sense of arbitrariness. Just about the only thing I can really commend in it is the character generation.

I had a reasonable time with this game, but that's because my mates are cool. Fiasco deserves little of the credit.


  1. To be fair to the endings, I think the fact that we could probably have spun a decent conclusion out of whatever the dice had thrown at us is arguably a feature rather than a bug. The advantage of the current system (and I am aware that this is very much damning with faint praise) is that it gives you something to build your ending around. If there wasn't a mechanic of some kind, it would be very difficult to work out where things were supposed to go (suppose, for example, that Arthur felt his character should get away with everything, but I felt he should get killed - we'd need some way to work out what actually happened).

    In general, I also feel that it's not necessarily a problem if what you enjoy about an RPG comes from the players rather than the game, to an extent that's the way I think it *should* work. And arguably I think a flaw of a lot of modern indie RPGs is that they try to make the fun come from the mechanics instead of the players.

    Having said all that, I don't actually particularly disagree with you - Fiasco did feel basically confusing and was (as I think I said in my blog post) a lot less fun in play than in retrospect.

    1. The feature/bug thing is true... I think my issue is that we could equally well have drawn straws to decide who dictates each character's ending, or consulted a chart based on how long each person talked for. What I mean is, because of the system's faffiness, the only real connection between the random ending and the events of the game is what you make up to justify your die roll. I think I'd prefer either a system that more naturally connects the two, or a simpler system that was up-front about its randomness. Does that make sense? For example: the character who does best out of each scene collects one token (even if not actually present); at the end of the game people narrate one thing about the story per token, for any character.

      I definitely agree that most of the fun of games comes from players, the RPG itself is a (hopefully) enjoyable McGuffin. That being said, I think there's a difference between "enjoy hanging out with Dan and playing RPG" and "enjoy playing RPG with Dan"? I mean, I can enjoy myself chatting to someone while I do the washing up.

    2. I should probably also say, I am being a little bit heavy-handed on the criticism here. I don't think it's the Worst Game Ever or anything, a lot of it clearly comes down to the Game + Player combination with aspects that don't happen to suit me. If I'd been a fan of the films, had a better sense of what was expected, played a story game before and generally been more actively keen on Fiasco from the beginning, I might well have enjoyed it more.