[Fiasco] We failed.

edited April 2010 in Actual Play
I was looking forward to try Fiasco, being a big Coen Bros nerd and generally a big fan of stories about people in over their head. After reading the rules I was still very much excited, and I managed to get some fellow gamers to try it with me.

We failed big time. Big time, and this post is my attempt to begin to understand why. I was the only one who had read the rules, and thus had to explain how the game worked to the other guys, which is a role I'm absolutely confident in, even in new games I've only read. I think I presented the game fairly, didn't criticise it or comment on it beforehand at all - just: "this looks great, let's play it!"

I still feel the same way, and I do want to try it again.

The only thing I was shaky about, in my mind, before the game was scene resolution, but my good man Peter confirmed to me in an online chat that it did work. I generally don't like deciding outcomes in scenes, so that was bugging me a bit, but I didn't mention it to the players. Structured "free"-form also leaves me relatively cold, so here lies, perhaps, another clue.

The group had never played together all of us, but we know each other pretty well, and the three of us have had very good gaming experiences (and bad, as you do) over a long period of time, say 3-4 years.

The short story was that the setup worked very well, and got us all engaged in the framework for the play. We chose the icestation playset. One very concrete problem we struggled with was reading the note cards of players opposite yourself - which made all of us feel a bit removed from what was going on over there, and thus not as sharp at inputting to the fiction based on info on the cards.

When the scenes began, we struggled from the get-go, and called off the game after four scenes I think. I goofed the first scene's resolution by somehow mixing up who could resolve it, but I don't it was a deciding thing.

J said: Nice setup. Bit complex, and took quite a while, but it made for an interesting setup. No idea how to start scenes, or where to aim at conflict, or whether we should have aimed at something else (like a crisis, or relationship). No idea where conflict happened. I personally wasn't sure who had jurisdiction over setting and relationships.

M said: Where was the game in the game? Or is it just a set of guidelines for improvisational
theatre, really? So much of it seems ultra-vague, handwavey,

To which J replied: There's a few games that are as simple, like 3:16 or Zombie Cinema, but there's more of a sense of what you should be driving at.

J later had the chance to read the book, and I was keen to find out whether I had presented the rules in a fair and workable way.

J said: Well... I don't think we missed anything. (And FWIW, there's some interesting mechanics that follow as the game progresses that I'd like to see in play). I think it's a playstyle thing. And some of it might have been the group, admittedly, and trying to get back into synch. But we all have a bunch of indie experience so I'm not 100% sure where the haltingness came from.

J continued: At the beginning, I definitely felt like I had very little to go on. I had the usual fear of stepping on toes, or taking over someone else's character (or scenes or places, come to think of it). Unlike, say, Contenders, I found it difficult to set an agenda for the scenes. Contenders has just the right 'push' for my preferred style - a framework, but everything within is loose. PTA does similar work by planning the arc. Sorcerer has kickers. And it looks like the next version of The Hammer Falls will have something similar by basing first scenes on character traits. But Fiasco doesn't start off with that little push.

D said: "I agree that it being the first game that we had all played together may have factored into the reticence to just start gaming but I feel that the "cold start" just made it all 100 times worse. It felt to me like we had put a lot of thought and effort into setting the scene and locations etc and then there was no spark to set the ball rolling. Like we said at the time, I just utterly failed to see where the 'game' was.

Comments

  • Posted By: Per FischerOne very concrete problem we struggled with was reading the note cards of players opposite yourself - which made all of us feel a bit removed from what was going on over there, and thus not as sharp at inputting to the fiction based on info on the cards.
    What I do for this is to write in bold magic marker on the bottom half of the card when creating it, thus leaving the top half available for me to write on it again, upside down. Thus with the card in front of me, you can read it, and I can read it, without turning around. It's especially important in Fiasco to leave room to fill in the Details as they're chosen.

    You're absolutely right that the "cold start" is tough with Fiasco. However, there is some good advice in the book for how to get over that challenge. I just said out loud, "Let's start with the Need." and we got an idea, then we just went with consequences from there.
  • edited April 2010
    The failure rate on first time Fiasco play seems to be disturbingly high. I'm running it at Nerdly Beach Party so I will be curious to see what happens. Now, I have not yet read the whole thing cover to cover but given the way things work it seems to me it should be played quite "Face Stabby."

    Basically if you choose to "set up" a situation then you should flat out "attack" someone. "Hey, Joe, you know that pile of money, you've got hidden away? I think you should give it to me for a while." Then the group decides how that turns out, with likely Joe's player taking point on that discussion.

    On the other hand if you choose to resolve the scene the group should instead "attack" you. "Okay, you're sitting on your porch when two armed dudes jump out of a car and say, "Quick where's your basement you have to hide us!" You hear sirens in the distance."

    I think that's why the lack of mechanical resolution works. You're picking whether you want to deliver a Bang or receive a Bang and Bangs produces choices, not necessarily conflicts. If there's a conflict inherent in the choice then you're allowed to resolve it anyway you like. I take the black die, "No way I'm harboring fugitives! They shoot me."

    In fact, I think may be the problem. People are trying to play to conflict rather than a choice. Resolving a scene means you describe the fall out of the decisions made in the scenes and decisions are not always a conflict. Two guys jumping out of a car and demanding you hide them, if you say "Yes" there's no conflict but you HAVE resolved the scene.

    Jesse
  • Posted By: JesseResolving a scene means you describe the fall out of the decisions made in the scenes and decisions are not always a conflict. Two guys jumping out of a car and demanding you hide them, if you say "Yes" there's no conflict but you HAVE resolved the scene.
    That's a great insight.
  • I had a very similar Fiasco-failure once.

    Just like the OP, I was the one who knew the rules and had to explain them to co-players who didn't know the game. And we used the Antarctic ice station playset.

    Unlike the OP, I had played multiple very successful Fiasco games before the failed one. In fact, I suggested the group of not-very-hardcore-gamer friends I was with that we play Fiasco exactly because it had consistently provided enjoyment and wild laughs before.

    In that case, scene one run normally, if not especially brightly. Scene two was actually a succession of fumbling attempts at framing a scene, as we couldn't find a way to frame the character into an immediately relevant conflict. Then it was my turn, but I called the game over, as the same or worst was happening: I had no sense of what my character wanted that she could somehow accomplish by her own actions, so I felt no framing was possible, at all.
    That day I lacked the spare time or disposition to analyze the failed game in depth. I just wrote it off to a "bad evening": what with me being totally out of shape and my co-players being neither experienced nor especially enthusiastic...
    In hindsight, though, I believe something went awry with the setup. While we followed the rules exactly, the setup elements we got were somehow lacking: we found it difficult to "read" a coherent situation and full-fledged characters in the cards we got, and I think I sort-of forced it. We ended up with some characters who had no real direction, who were passive victims maybe, while a number of details and even relationships felt contrived or merely incidental. Again, this was completely unlike the other four or five Fiasco games I played (using old west boomtown, nice southern town, suburbia and rock band playsets).
  • I'm curious to know if the people for whom Fiasco has failed have tried The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, and if so, whether your experience was different. I'm not implying the games are the same, but I felt there was a certain learning curve on hard scene-framing in Roach that (once topped) was a useful tool the one time I played Fiasco.
  • Jesse, your points about delivering/receiving bangs, and resolution being about picking an outcome (not necessarily going for conflict), are very good.

    I had a so-so game of Fiasco a week or so ago. It was, I think, mostly due to us all being tired and trying to hurry through the setup because we didn't have much time. Very bad idea; never rush the setup. Take time to talk about every relationship & detail as they come up, flesh it out a bit so you can see it. If you can imagine this location, object or need creating trouble for the characters, or helping them get into trouble, it's good.
  • Per, can you recall the elements your group selected for the setup? If you can (or if you still have the cards) I'd be very interested in seeing the combinations.
  • My game of Fiasco last September was not hitting home for me. I did think about it afterwards and came to two answers:
    1. Locations are not as strong a connection as relationships and needs.
    2. The mechanics of Fiasco is not clear on when an idea is potential and when it is a fact in the fiction. It is always a challenge in GM-less games with heavy improvisation and shared narration rights to find the right balance between facts and opportunities. Sometime being vague is best to keep the story open, sometimes facts are needed to bring everyone on the same page. In this particular game session, we didn't find a balance that worked for me. It was too much story brainstorm (creating potential stories) and too little story immersion (experiencing this particular story) for me.
  • edited April 2010
    Thanks for starting this thread, Per. This is pretty reassuring to me! The problems you are having all seem directly addressable. I hope we can have a conversation that makes giving Fiasco another try easier and more appealing, or confirm that it is the wrong game for you. To that end I'm glad to answer questions if that is helpful, or stay out of the way if it isn't.
  • edited April 2010
    Hey, Per!

    Did you see my AP of Fiasco? (link)

    We played the game through, but had pretty much all the same issues you describe.

    Jesse's advice, above, sounds very good as a re-frame of how to play the game, although it still leaves hanging the issue of how (say) four people can concensually frame a scene without just defaulting to "the loudest person leads".

    edit: cross-posted with Jason. Looking forward to seeing how this discussion develops!
  • Minor insight that might help: While the dice economy and the Aftermath rolls give the impression that the game has a competitive element, it is actually cooperative. "Loudest person" is still subject to veto/vote; and being on the receiving end of some face stabbing is FUN.

    Also, any of you who quit after four or five scene have, I feel, not yet experienced the dice economy. For instance, there comes a time when a scene outcome is a given (excepting the last scene of an Act) and so, regardless of who establishes and who resolves, the outcome is assured. THAT is where the system can actually dig into your Bang (or Flag) and disrupt where you would have thought it would/must go; and the dice economy provides the creative constraints that keep it from being freeform.

    HTH;
    David
  • I've run Fiasco at conventions with some success, but I've also been trying to pay attention to what works and what doesn't work.

    I think that the game benefits from a moderator -- someone who is willing to take GM-like power and then use very little of it. Especially in convention situations where you have 4 or 5 people who have never met before, having an authority figure who can prevent the loudest voice from winning, encourage the terse, and summarize the prolix really keeps the game moving. Fiasco benefits from having fairly strong scene framing, and it really helps people who are new to story games if "the GM" is encouraging and supportive when they try to frame a scene.

    One of the key elements about Fiasco is that it gets a lot of its energy from doubt and uncertainty, and one of the things that sucks out a lot of this energy is when a player frames a scene in such a way that there's only one workable solution in-story. In both of the convention games I've run, one of the players had a tendency to do that (different players, same approach) -- one of them set up scenes that were perfectly in-genre and appropriate, but in which the other characters really only had one response consistent with their characters. That took a lot of the energy out of the game, surprisingly. And I found that the scenes that engaged me most were the open-ended ones, where there was uncertainty about how things would play out.

    Fiasco also really requires a strong dissociation between player and character. The player's goals are often at odds with the character's goals, and I think you really need to embrace that -- your character does not want to be stabbed in the face, but sometimes from the player's third-person view a face stabbing is exactly the right thing.
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: cwilburI think that the game benefits from a moderator.
    This is 100% true; doubly so when playing with strangers. The word I use is "facilitator", because ideally you are cherry-picking GM duties like editing, adjusting pacing and serving as a procedural resource while dumping the stuff that doesn't benefit from being centralized, which is most stuff. This is universally true in GMless games.

    I should add that if you play the same game with the same crew long enough the facilitator role diminishes and eventually disappears.
  • Posted By: cwilburFiasco also really requires a strong dissociation between player and character. The player's goals are often at odds with the character's goals, and I think you really need to embrace that -- your character does not want to be stabbed in the face, but sometimes from the player's third-person view a face stabbing is exactly the right thing.
    Absolutely!

    One of the hardest things I saw in a couple early games was when I depserately wanted something horrific to happen to the character I was playing. Of course, my friends are evil, and sometimes did just the opposite to spite me.
  • I found that being the facilitator and not playing really was a lot of fun. When someone was stuck, I could pitch in a few ideas and they could grab one and run with it without feeling like I was spotlight hogging, since the rest of what I was doing was reminding them what they physically did with dice and who resolved and who framed scenes.
  • I can totally see how that would be fun. In my head "player fun" and "GM fun" are very distinct things, so games that ask me to do both "player-stuff" and "GM-stuff" at the same time tend to leave me feeling really dissatisfied. Instead of chocolate + peanut butter, it's more like bleach + ammonia, complete with choking sounds and death.

    Being a non-playing facilitator sounds like a hoot, though.
  • If I facilitate again, I'll make a rule: I'm never allowed to touch dice.

    Also, I won't reply to "I don't get what's going on/what to do" by re-explaining rule procedures.
    Instead, I'll talk about Your Guy's current predicament & ask what he wants to do next.

    If directly asked about rule procedures, I will re-explain.

    And instead of "Establish" (or "Frame"), and "Resolve"; I'll say: "Do you want to START this scene, or END it?"
  • The single epiphany I had when play testing one of the earlier versions of Fiasco...and I think this might have inflienced the direction the final rules went...is that you just roleplay characters doing stuff and then whoever is responsible for resolving the scene picks a die...and the players in the scene...just keep roleplaying without breaking the action.

    If the die chosen was "positive" this simply means..."as you wrap this scene up, leave the acting character in a better position than when the scene started...however that naturally falls out"

    If the die chosen was "negative" this simply means..."as you wrap this scene up, leave the acting character more fucked than when the scene started...however that naturally falls out"

    And then just play to a natural wrap, being guided in how much you fuck up the acting character by the above.


    Once I figured that out, all of the mechanical WTF hangups I was having went away. I then "got" what I as the player was supposed to be doing.

    When you "frame a scene" on the other hand its usually best to start with someone trying to pursue or prevent the pursuit of a need, or bring tension to a fucked up relationship. Those are your easy goto scenes whenever there isn't a natural follow up. Your goal when framing a scene is to simply figure "what scene will give this character the opportunity to position themself better in the pursuit of their need, or to position themselves better relative to their fucked up relationship". That way they either move towards that thing (positive die) or dig themselves a deeper hole. Once you've got a few scenes under your belt your goal when framing a scene will become fairly obvious...follow where the plot is pointing and give the character the ability to get a piece of what they're after or hang themselves. When such scenes aren't obvious...fall back on one of the go-to scenes.

    If you keep those things in mind...assuming you have an arsenal of heterogenous movie tropes to call upon...the game practically plays itself.

    I found what was fucking me up is trying to figure out "how these mechanics work again?" Fuck that shit. For this game...just improv it and let the colors fall where they may. The "game" is in the set up. The play is improv theater kicked off by the set up. That's why the set up takes so long and is so involved.

    Last piece of hard learned Fiasco advice: DON'T EVER skimp on the set-up...EVER. Worst Fiasco experience I had was when we tried to fast forward through the set up in order to "get to the real play". Fucked ourselves up royally and the "real" play was lame, uninspired and draining. In fact, I would recommend not settling for going through the set-up just once if the end result doesn't get you fired up. The creative constraints of not being able to pick anything you want (because of the dice limit) is totally solid...but sometimes the combination come out "this could be cool to play...I guess". IMO fuck that...call a redo and get one that instead is "Holy shit...this is gonna be awesome". Funny thing is...that's the same problem you have with Universalis Tenets...and I totally fell into the trap anyway.
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: ValamirFor this game...just improv it and let the colors fall where they may. The "game" is in the set up. The play is improv theater kicked off by the set up.
    Thanks for the input everyone - we had a good idea why the game didn't work for us, and this thread has nailed it down. Ralph said is most succinctly, I guess. None of the players in this group are interested in improv theatre (not as a gaming application anyway), or deciding the outcome of scenes with or without conflict.

    For me personally, it's essential with a system that can push the fiction into places none of the participants could have thought of or foreseen. For obvious reasons that is absent in Fiasco, and that kills it for me, unfortunately.

    Fiasco's setup game is fun and involving, but not enough (for my group).

    Per

    (Edited for typos)
  • Posted By: ValamirIn fact, I would recommend not settling for going through the set-up just once if the end result doesn't get you fired up.
    I'm totally gonna treasure this piece of advice of yours, Ralph.
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: ValamirI found what was fucking me up is trying to figure out "how these mechanics work again?" Fuck that shit. For this game...just improv it and let the colors fall where they may. The "game" is in the set up. The play is improv theater kicked off by the set up. That's why the set up takes so long and is so involved.
    Hmm... brilliant.

    I played a beta at GPNW last year and then again recently with the full version. The first time, because I had never read the game and didn't know about the Aftermath, I spent a lot time wondering to what end and based on what motivation was I supposed to be basing my die color choice on other than whim. I was confused because I knew I'd be happy framing/playing scenes for any outcome. Anyway, we improv-ed away and had a ball.

    The next time having read the text, I embraced the idea that we were supposed base our choices on hoarding the same color die to get a happy ending on the Aftermath chart. So, that's what we did. This time the mental gymnastics of figuring out how to frame scenes for your character to get the color die you want for your pile really bogged the game down. However, we improv-ed away and had a ball.

    So, now reading Ralph's comments, I'm thinking if I was to play again, I'd try some way of picking colors blindly and rolling with it. EDIT: maybe all that's required are the same mechanics but this time embracing picking on a whim and using looser definitions of positive and negative (i.e. without a conflict with a capital C) and continuous roleplaying I guess that would mess with the you frame/they frame mechanic so I don't know how'd that work, but my goal would be to beeline it to the part where we improve away and have a ball.

    EDIT - I am still open to the idea that I'm totally missing something and maybe I need to read the text again.
  • For me, the color choice is a "play the player" moment and I do it totally meta.

    If the scene is working there's naturally stuff going on. Whether its capital C conflict or just a guy talking with his girl about what to have for dinner...I mean how many ways are there for that to end totally fucked up....tons right...so I ask my self..."self, do I want to see these two players act out a totally petty bickering arguement that puts stress on their relationship and drives them toward some horrible fate? Or do I want to see them all lovey dovey and cudly so that when we fuck them later its that much more horrible." Then that's the die I angle for. Course, being improv the actors might hit upon a totally different interpretation of what better ending or worse ending means...and how much even cooler is that.
  • The dice in Fiasco remind me a bit of those in S/Lay W/Me. They're for pacing, and for deciding how things work out in the end. Not so much for strategic manipulation.
  • edited April 2010
    Posted By: Per Fischer

    Thanks for the input everyone - we had a good idea why the game didn't work for us, and this thread has nailed it down. Ralph said is most succinctly, I guess. None of the players in this group are interested in improv theatre (not as a gaming application anyway), or deciding the outcome of scenes with or without conflict.
    Yeah.

    Thanks, all. I was one of the players, and had much the same feelings about the game. This thread has explained a lot - cheers!

    I think I could get into Fiasco again, but I have a feeling it doesn't scratch an itch I usually want from storygaming. I typically want the system to push back and surprise me or provide a constraint I wasn't expecting. Maybe tilts will do that and it'd be worth holding out til then.
  • The Tilt is always surprising. It either sheds new light on existing relationships ("love rears its ugly head") or points to an upcoming situation ("something precious is on fire") that certainly will. It is designed to be unavoidably disruptive.

    I hope there's some effective subtlety to the way the dice work, particularly the way they serve the fiction in the first and second act differently, but fixation on manipulating them to your benefit is not the path to the most fun. I often use them as an assessment tool in play - if Joe's guy has a lot of white dice currently, that says something about where his guy is at the moment in his life. Things have been going well for him! He's been getting what he wants! My interaction with him can be colored by that. If I have a die to give away, is it more interesting right now to support his current condition or to disrupt it? This is both an in-game and meta-level evaluation for me.
  • Ping: having played Fiasco a few more times since our game, I think that I have to echo what Mr. Morningstar says. (Although, heck, he's only the designer, what does he know?) If you focus too much on trying to game the dice to get a high black or high white outcome overall, you wind up with considerably less satisfying outcomes because they're serving the metagame more than the fiction. The dice let you keep score and see how you're doing, but they're more a tool to get at the real game, which is improv storytelling rather than dice counting.

    In that, it's a lot like the Reputation mechanic in the Shab al-Hiri Roach: in the best games I've played of the Roach, the Reputation mechanic is critical to get the game going for the first Event, but by the time you're in the third Event, the wager of reputation is a mere formality: the players are far more interested in getting revenge for what happened at Convocation. You *can* play as if acquiring Reputation and avoiding the Roach is the real goal of the game, but that's not the path to the most fun.
  • edited April 2010
    Yep, Charlton and others, this thread has definitely cleared stuff up for me. I would be interested in playing again armed with this new knowledge.

    EDIT - I do think that by the end of each of the games I have played which started with different takes on the mechanics, we were playing "correctly" and we had a lot of fun and arrived at genre-fitting stories. But because of that journey, I just always wondered whether I had missed something.
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