Thursday, 12 September 2013

Fiasco: We All Had Fun In Spite of the Rules

Last weekend's game of Fiasco, like the other three I've been in, was a crazy blast featuring a preposterous mix of meth dealing, Narcanon, Cthulhu phenomena and Alaska. But I also had the strong, recurring feeling that we were having fun in spite of the rules - that the dice mechanics were inelegant and largely had to be worked around. I have always had the strong urge while playing this game to either Ignore the Dice or Respect the Dice.

Case 1: the rolling for relationships and objects/locations/goals by taking dice from a large pool, which gives a bewildering amount of choice for people who go first and an unsatisfying lack of choice for those who go last.

Ignore the Dice: Just pick.

Respect the Dice: Just roll d6/d6 (and make sure every option on that table is AWESOME, and if you can't think of AWESOME, then have 12 or 20 instead of 36 options)

Case 2: the unclear gamesmanship of taking and granting dice during play. Black or white dice are granted to other players in the first round, then to yourself in the second round, either by yourself (if you let the others set the scene) or the others (if you set the scene yourself). At the end, the only people whose characters have positive outcomes are those who have a large imbalance of black vs. white dice (either way). There's also a tension between players who have been gaming this aspect of the game, and others who have just been playing to make a fun story. You could argue that the negative outcome feeds the grimness of the tale, but in the source material of botched-caper films, there's a space for characters who against all odds come out all right.

Ignore the Dice: Just wager for black and white tokens, with outcome based on the imbalance or some other means.

Respect the Dice: Just roll for outcome, regardless of what happened during play.

The larger point about game design is that Fiasco's flaws are very much traceable to an ideology of player agency. An ideology is distinguishable from a technique when it starts getting in the way of fun. Forget GNS or anything else, here are my three necessary ingredients for fun in a game- PLAYER-centered instead of DESIGNER-centered:

1. agency - ability of players to make meaningful choices
2. surprise - results can come up that shock and galvanize the whole table
3. representation - the opposite of an abstract game, where you can visualize how the game mechanics create a compelling situation or story

My point is, the dice element in Fiasco adds very little to point 2, which dice are there to do. Either go full-on storygame (Ignore Dice) and get surprise from the interaction of players, or respect the dice, and open up to the full ranges of twists and turns that they are there to provide.

Another way to put it perhaps: the choices involved in selecting from dice, granting dice, and reading dice at the end are not representational. "Representational" in this game would be picking some sort of theme or strategy for your character, seeing it through and watching it influence play, and having it inform the outcome at the end.


  1. Many story games are like this, I'm discovering. They are fun because sitting around with your friends making up stories in a semi-structured way tends to be fun. But whether they are generally good games, I'm not convinced.

  2. I think it's because some of them are written by thespian twist. Please note that there are thespian gamers, which is something differently.

    What I mean to say is that sometimes some people get so carried away by the lure of Story and Collaborative Storytelling, that they loose track of the fact that you need to have a game in there if what you are producing is a game.

    Frankly, sometimes I think some designers get stuck in the Store Before mode, insisting on a story and drama and highfalutin Agency so much that they do the same error as those who have a story they want to tell regardless of the players. This time is the "empty" story, though. God knows if I'm making sense.

    Regarding Fiasco I have many times felt that I should like that game. But, when I try to track down actual plays it sounds terrible! I think there are items to salvage from Fiasco, but it needs to be more gamey. I've toyed with the idea of a Fiasco with a rotating GM, and rolling to succeed instead of just rattle the bone box. I'd like to invoke the oracular power of dice, to make the story twists Fiasco sets out to provide.

  3. Meth dealing is fine but sex is a problem. Love that framework.

    1. Consistency is overrated, don't you think? Especially when it comes to blog comments policy.