Some things I have learned about Fiasco

edited January 2011 in Story Games
I have played Fiasco a good amount in the last year. Both because it is awesome, and because it is perfectly-suited to my current gaming schedule (gaming with two different groups, neither on a regular basis, both with shifting members from session to session).

Some hard-earned wisdom:

Four players is the best number of players. With three, you don't quite have enough going on to have the separate but overlapping schemes that lead to a true fiasco. With five, it's hard to keep every character's story pointed at the central mess.

Too many flashbacks/flash-forwards make for chaos. A friend of mine who loves Fiasco (playing it was his birthday request), really digs jumping around in the timeframe, so much so that this has become our default mode of play.

At times, this is a great technique, and is super fun. Like, if we establish a scene with the policewoman and the pot dealer, who haven't been in a scene together yet, suddenly, two days later, confronting the crime boss about something that either of them were involved with so far, carrying another character's sack of money, figuring out HOW ON EARTH this happened is challenging and funny.

But if you do that a lot, scenes get too constrained by the needs of continuity. ("Well, we know that Frankie will be in the courtroom in an hours, hallucinating from snake venom, so I guess he has to run across some snakes in this scene..."). Because if you ignore continuity, you lose the power of the developing fiasco, and you're just playing "Crazy Collection of Unrelated Wacky Scenes".

Continuity is king. The game's best moments, for me, often come from call-backs. Like with NPCs ... if Edward plays the trucker's wife as being obsessed with daytime TV, and paying little attention to her husband, and then I play her as a homicidal maniac for no apparent reason, that's much less funny than if I play her true to form, even if she's a minor walk-on character, and bring up her daytime TV fixation.

Recurring NPCs are fun. Especially if you limit it to just a couple, and they come into contact with all the characters, so that different players have to pick them up from scene to scene, building on how previous players have handled them.

* * *

These are probably pretty obvious, maybe too obvious to be worth sharing. Since we all love Fiasco, people must have similar, probably wiser, observations.

Comments

  • Yes on all four points. Although in only one of my games did we have some timeline jump-arounds ("Actually, I want to declare framing a scene where we see what happened before that last scene"), it did make things sticky. But for all your other points: Yes.

    -Andy
  • I heart threads like this.
  • See, the time-skip thing has worked great for my groups.

    Whenever we start to get stuck for more story, someone says, "I'll inititate. Now it's a couple of days later. You're tied to the chair in the hotel room, I've got the shotgun, and she's begging me to spare you. GO!" We play out that scene, and then spend a few scenes figuring out how it happened. That solves the biggest problem with GM-less games for us, that with so few constraints on your contribution, you get analysis paralysis, and go deer-in-the-headlights.

    Also, we'll sometimes do scenes where one of the players isn't really satisfied with what happened, and they'll say, "OK, I don't really know why we were on opposite sides of the issue there. So let's go back, maybe a week before the first scene, and figure out our motivation. Why are we so upset at each other?"

    Finally, in one game, we wound up playing a triple-cross heist kind of story. We played out a violent conflict early, left the outcome hanging, and then spent most of the game jumping around showing how one of the characters had tried to work both sides against the middle, but gotten outmaneuvered by one of the guys she was playing because she had underestimated his greed and capacity for brutality. Going back in time let us show the planning of the various con games, and let us spend enough time in establishing the motivations of the player that the Aftermath could be genuinely heartbreaking. It was the best Fiasco I've ever played, maybe the best RPG session I've ever played, in terms of the resulting fiction especially.

    So - your mileage may vary, side effects may include CONfidence and Lucky Number Slevin, but I love playing the scenes anachronically.
  • I prefer 5 players to 4. Stuff happening 'across town' at cross-purposes to me, involving people I may never meet.
  • A certain kind of familiarity with the playset's subject material is necessary or at least desirable. Not necessarily direct, first-hand experience, but it can't be too alien to the players. With my anime convention playset I've found that people who've never been to an anime con really don't have enough of a hook to really get it, even if they're big time anime fans. Stuff like the Suburbia playset from the book is pretty universal, but there does seem to be a point where unfamiliarity hurts the game. So for example I'd be very hesitant to try that nifty-looking Harry Potter style playset without a group that's reasonably familiar with the source material.

    You can't be afraid to twist the knife. While having one player be a sort of straight man can help the game, you really need to be willing to get a little twisted. Even if the stuff you get from the playset doesn't immediately suggest it (they can have elements that are downright mundane after all), you can't hold back, you have to let your characters be terrible people and generally screw things up in interesting ways.

    The only Fiasco game I had that really fell flat suffered both of these problems in a big way.
  • Posted By: ccreitz
    Whenever we start to get stuck for more story, someone says, "I'll inititate. Now it's a couple of days later. You're tied to the chair in the hotel room, I've got the shotgun, and she's begging me to spare you. GO!" We play out that scene, and then spend a few scenes figuring out how it happened.
    Totes. This technique is rad. But I think it works best in small doses.

    My experience over two games is that doing a time jump backwards and forwards for almost every scene is confusing and makes you lose the heart of the story.
    Posted By: Todd LI prefer 5 players to 4. Stuff happening 'across town' at cross-purposes to me, involving people I may never meet.
    I like that in theory. But in practice I like my Fiasco games tight and short (three hours).
  • edited January 2011
    Posted By: Neko EwenYou can't be afraid to twist the knife.
    Two amplifying remarks: Twist the knife sooner rather than later, and don't forget to revisit previous twistings.

    "Sooner rather than later" is great Fiasco advice in general, I think. Making a few serious early commitments empowers everyone at the table, especially when it comes to establishing the characters. Waiting around to see if (e.g.) your guy is a badass or not, means we may never find out, and he may be flat and undeveloped for a long time. Go ahead and initiate a scene right away where the die color will tell you whether he's all talk, or a monster, and honor the result. If you do that in scene 2, then you've got almost the whole game for it to inform additional contributions to the fiction, which is a lot more helpful than delaying it until scene 10.
  • Posted By: Neko EwenA certain kind of familiarity with the playset's subject material is necessary or at least desirable.
    So I'm playing in my first game right now, we're using the Transatlantic playset. I've actually had a blast searching for period information, for example 1930's photography, ocean liners, fashion, prohibition, slang, etc. The one nice thing about playing Fiasco online is that you have time to really spice it up.
  • With newer, more hesitant players, I've had luck suggesting that the first couple of scenes be with the player to the left, starting with a relationship with a need. After two or (at most) three scenes like that, the ball is rolling and players never look back.

    I'll second the recommendation of call-backs. One of the best moments in my first game was with a parole officer who was a mall ninja type. "Have you seen my new baton?" he kept asking people as he pulled it out and waved it around. Near the end, another character attacked him, grabbing the parole officer's baton and beating him with it while shouting, "HAVE YOU SEEN YOUR NEW BATON??????"
  • Posted By: Stephen GranadeOne of the best moments in my first game was with a parole officer who was a mall ninja type. "Have you seen my new baton?" he kept asking people as he pulled it out and waved it around. Near the end, another character attacked him, grabbing the parole officer's baton and beating him with it while shouting, "HAVE YOU SEEN YOUR NEW BATON??????"
    This makes me so happy.
  • I'm digging the holy heck out of this thread.
  • Things I've learned:

    I prefer five players to four. I'm tempted to try six if people had the time but I feel it might get too complicated then. With five players there tends to be a lot more plot going on and people enjoy the sudden scenes where there are two ships passing each other in the night that will later end up at each other's throats.

    Allowing people to 'edit' scenes in order to create drama/problems is okay. The "What if I had been there in the background and overheard/recorded that" type of things. People don't usually think of them at the time, but later it comes up and everyone agrees that it would've been possible and cool.

    Randomly generating everything doesn't always work--sometimes it's better to pick things that would add to the game. I have played some awesome randomly generated games, and a couple that we struggled with. Now I usually do a mix with the game--the beginning is randomly generated, and towards the end people want to see the list to see what would make it even more insane. Then people start spending their die by choosing something. This has worked out really well and as I'm introducing a story game to normally mainstream players, they get really involved when they have just a bit more control over it.

    A lot of the things I've learned with Fiasco is getting mainstream players into story gaming without being too frustrated in the process. Fiasco, I find, is great for that. The beginning takes a bit to draw them out, and once they notice the freedom of the game, they can go overboard. Trying to display a mid-ground to that is always good. As a result, though, I have lots of people that walk away wanting to play more story games.

    One thing I have received complaints about: The playsets. I know they're awesome, and I know there are some fantastic ones. I have a lot of females at my table at any given time that automatically aren't interested in a lot of the historical settings just due to gender issues in those days. As a result, there are a bunch I've never played because people have the right to veto playsets based on what makes them comfortable. I've had one First Nations girl veto Boomtown (which I've loved and played) because the old west makes her uncomfortable due to the history of First Nations relations with settlers. A lot of men that come to the table are interested in the war-time ones. A lot of women that come to the table are interested in The Ice and the Rock Band Tour.

    I don't know if anyone else has found this amongst their gaming experiences, but I find, more than most games I've played, that Fiasco is really affected by what genders are at the table. I'm not trying to polarize the genders into "Boys like war and girls don't" but it's what I keep coming across. I get a lot of "I wouldn't be comfortable playing a female in that era because it was so oppressive" and those type of details. I realize my friends are a lot of hardcore activists and such, but it wasn't a problem I was expecting to find with such an awesome game. That being said, they still love Fiasco, just not all the playsets.
  • I guess I'm not surprised that people prefer the longer, more complicated game with five players. My preference for four players is mostly driven by my preference for a shorter playing time.
    Posted By: Kate BullockRandomly generating everything doesn't always work--sometimes it's better to pick things that would add to the game. I have played some awesome randomly generated games, and a couple that we struggled with.
    You mean rolling for set-up elements, rather than picking them by "spending" randomly-rolled dice? I think I want to do that next time I play. In my last game, the set-up took forever, and I'm pretty sure there's probably no real difference in the results.

    How do most people handle that?
    Posted By: Kate Bullock
    I don't know if anyone else has found this amongst their gaming experiences, but I find, more than most games I've played, that Fiasco is really affected by what genders are at the table. I'm not trying to polarize the genders into "Boys like war and girls don't" but it's what I keep coming across.
    I wouldn't have guessed that, but it makes sense when you point it out. A couple of the playsets have elements that make me uncomfortable, so I can sure see it.

    I love playing RPGs with my friends who don't normally play, which is usually the only time I get to game with women. But, as awesome as Fiasco is for that kind of thing, I've actually never played with any non-dudes. Geez. That shit is embarrassing.
  • I'm not sure history has many times that were great for the fairer sex. Perhaps something in another culture, Pilgrim era Native Americans?
  • Posted By: Kate BullockOne thing I have received complaints about: The playsets.
    In the nicest most kindest possible way, you should try your hand at creating your own playset!

    I've done several (LA 1936, JFK/Dallas 1963) and they are not as difficult as you might imagine. And you are correct that most historic eras were not that kind to women.

    Personally I'd love to see a playset written by some hardcore activists. Go crazy. Create the playset YOU'D WANT TO PLAY. I bet that would be some awesome stuff!

    :)
  • I actually really avoid gaming that deals with activism and such themes. I used to be all about the dark future settings until, well, things happened that involved being dehumanized because I was near a protest (not protesting).

    I am working on a couple of more literary themed playsets--1001 Nights, and of course, a fairy tale playset. The fairy tale one is almost done, just gotta get the objects and locations down, do a couple of playtests and such. I was contemplating doing an activist one, such as setting a playset at a G20/G8 convention, but I felt it would belittle the efforts of those protesters, and the gravity of the situation itself.
  • I'm super happy to see the diversity of opinion about what works and what doesn't at individual tables. I think this means the underlying constraints are flexible enough to accommodate the way you like to play, without stepping on the neck of some dude who wants to play differently. That was definitely a design goal! I'm really enjoying lurking in this thread and seeing what you all have observed.

    Kate, I'm not surprised that some people are not excited about specific playsets. Some are edgier than others, but there's some uncomfortable stuff in all of them, I think. Honestly, there should be. If there are very specific elements someone is uncomfortable with, I think it'd be fine to call it out and not allow those elements to be chosen in the setup, but if it is the whole era or whatever, yeah, that's not going to work.

    What is it about The Ice and Touring Rock Band that you think women are drawn to? Those are both really popular playsets with everybody, and I'm not sure why (particularly for The Ice). Is it that they are contemporary? Removed from "normal" society? Extra gonzo? Not oriented toward violence? Just guessing, really.
  • I'm not sure what draws people to those particular playsets. I'll start asking when I run games.

    I really enjoy The Ice because it is contemporary, and anything can happen in a place so far removed from where we are. People always get really excited about Antarctica when I read it out loud. The other one that gets a lot of play from my more male dominated games is Boom Town, because who doesn't enjoy the old west? After that, I'd say Gangsters of London is the third most popular, and that's mostly because people like British accents and there's just something about gangsters that's hard to turn down. I'm setting up my next bunch of Fiasco one shots through the club, and I'll see why people choose the playsets they do.

    I never really decide on a playset because I let my players decide. I'm excited to eventually try Dragonslayers, the new cthulhu one, and the one set in Elizabethan times (I believe it is). But as my printer is out of ink, it will have to wait.
  • Yeah, please ask them after the session ends - I'm quite interested in what makes people excited about one and not another.

    We played Dragon Slayers last night and it was very silly and fun. We had Object: Sentimental: Old ally polymorphed into a toad, which turned out to be our barbarian Albertus, and most of the session was told in flashback as we inched toward that fateful event in the tomb of the Lich King.
  • edited January 2011
    Jason, I'm reminded - what about "gentle" aftermaths? Is there a discussion somewhere with some proposals for what might be in those tables? Anyone playtesting anything?* Any idea when we might see something published "officially" (in a sort of, you know, companion volume to Fiasco)?

    * I ask because there may be an opportunity for me to test it next month at the local minicon. If anyone has something they'd like playtested, send it out, and I'll propose it to whoever I wind up playing with.
  • Yeah, the Fiasco Companion is underway and includes:

    Advice for wringing the most out of the game as a player or facilitator
    Advice for hacking it to do other stuff, like changing it from Joel and Ethan Coen to John Hughes, with worked examples of both tables and playsets
    Advice and discussion for using Fiasco for stuff other than pure entertainment - education, performance, and writing for starters.
    Plus a bunch of cool playsets that push the edges of the format in interesting ways.

    This spring! I'll have a galley at Dreamation.
  • In many RPGs, I tend to get caught up in the character motives, and just start thinking "What would these guys do next?" and playing accordingly. In Fiasco, I've found that the initial situation often doesn't produce enough dramatic momentum to make this wise. A certain amount of crazy shit needs to happen or the characters' quests can become mundane. So, being less adept at injecting that mid-scene, my groups have taken to discussing where the game is going during scene-framing.

    The last time I played, after a lot of narratively logical but ultimately bland suggestions, I said to the group, "That wouldn't make a good Coen Brothers movie. What would make a good Coen Brothers movie?" The game improved dramatically from there. I think we added more violence and absurdism, and pumped up the "powerful" in our "ambition".

    Jason, do any of your playsets have much more grandiose ambitions than the ones in the book? I understand that a certain small time-ness is key to the genre, but I'm curious about the limits of that.
  • edited January 2011
    Weirdly enough, most games of Fiasco I've played - with different groups - did NOT feature a lot of violence. Occasionally, of course, as is endemic to the genre, but almost always as a surprise, and almost always a single episode that resonated through the rest of the story.

    EDIT: That made me think of the game where someone got shot in his pinkie toe, which was stolen directly from 'Harlem Nights', which is a total Fiasco movie.
  • Posted By: David BergJason, do any of your playsets have much more grandiose ambitions than the ones in the book? I understand that a certain small time-ness is key to the genre, but I'm curious about the limits of that.
    My feeling is that the players are going to bring the grandiose much of the time, so a certain amount of aesthetic restraint in the playset is a good thing. That said, every set has something truly awful with the potential for going completely, messily over the top. The Touring Rock Band set is, I think, the most aggressive about framing this. Flyover, while ostensibly pretty mundane, sets up some horrendous possibilities by implication.

    I think my favorite example is from Tales From Suburbia: "Object: Untoward: Night vision goggles and flexi-cuffs". How is that not going to be tied to some grandiose, terrible ambition?
  • Hahaha! Nice.

    Next time I play, I may propose Touring Rock Band.

    Hey, I just thought of something -- I think I like Fiasco best when the characters get mixed up with people/organizations way out of their league. Basically, I find it easier to enjoy playing Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels than Fargo. Are there any playsets you'd recommend as conducive to that? Or is it simply entirely up to the players to bring that if they want it?
  • I think it really is up to the players in the choices they make at setup. Some are probably easier to push that way - Gangster London of course, Dallas 1963. But again, Flyover is stuffed with Mexican drug mafia references, there's corruption at the county airport, if you want it you can have it.
  • Crap, I missed Gangster London. I will definitely grab that before the next time I play!

    Oh, hey, I had an idea for a playset at an amusement park. I may work on it at some point, but in the meantime, feel free to use the idea if you like it.
  • Posted By: David BergHahaha! Nice.

    Next time I play, I may propose Touring Rock Band.

    Hey, I just thought of something -- I think I like Fiasco best when the characters get mixed up with people/organizations way out of their league. Basically, I find it easier to enjoy playingLock Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsthanFargo. Are there any playsets you'd recommend as conducive to that? Or is it simply entirely up to the players to bring that if they want it?
    Two words: Las Vegas.

    -JC
  • Vegas has been given away as a promotion and will probably appear in the Companion. It's a really good playset.
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