Infinite Possibilities, Itty-Bitty Comfort Zone

My nerdcation to Washington DC last month opened my eyes to a lot of things. These included crab chips and secret ginger candies that stop motion sickness. Mostly,  it was the exposure to open-form roleplaying games that has been taking up most of my free processor cycles. Despite being the guy in our group that would cheerfully handwave every combat in favor of having an all-roleplay session, I find myself flummoxed when faced with the infinite possibilities of a game like Fiasco. I have a lot of fun when it works, and nobody has fun when it doesn’t.

The Points Don’t Mean Anything

My first real exposure to improvisational theatre was an acting class in college. I had a case of extreme senioritis and an elective I needed to fill to graduate. The class was taught by a grad student who was the lead in the university’s production of Angels in America (a very serious and powerful play about homosexuality and HIV). One of our class assignments was to see this play and give a report. There were a couple serious and insightful discussions during that class that I barely remember. One that did stick with me was when I learned that conflict is the birthplace of drama, and that the conflict can be external or internal and still work. However, 99% of the class consisted of one activity, that being the playing of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. I learned a lot about cognitive dissonance that semester.

I used to watch Whose Line quite a bit in those days, and the performers’ ability to instantly roll with insane scenarios never ceased to amaze me. Coming up with weird scenarios, on the other hand, was a breeze. For whatever reason, I’ve been blessed with nonsequitur lobes about twice the size of a normal human’s. This means I could dish it out, but I had trouble taking it. This trend has continued until present day. I can look behind me and see the husks of former DM-brains, charred by my besugared mind — yet a curveball thrown by my players frequently gets met with me freaking out and putting things back on the nice, safe rails.

I’ve noticed that a lot of new D&D players are a bit gun-shy when they first start the game until they start to get the rules. Then, once they start to realize they can roleplay, a secondary shyness sets in. This one is frequently worse, and I’ve heard multiple people tell me they don’t roleplay they’re afraid someone will think what they came up with is stupid. There are games considered RPGs that just let you run around and fight. The only real distinction your character has from any other is its abilities and gear. On the other end of the spectrum, you have games like Fiasco, where you get 2 sentences that describe a scenario and a couple more vague words describing relationships to other characters and you’re expected to come up with the rest.

The initial reaction I’ve seen from three separate sets of people playing Fiasco for the first time is that they understand the concept, but they have no idea where to go from there. Dave “The Game” taught us all the game in the first game of Fiasco I ever played, and I was thankful to have someone who knew what to do there. He took the first scene and gave us all some context as to how things worked. I’ve done this twice for my group (albeit somewhat poorly), and it was enough that we all picked up on it enough to get the game off the ground.

In both the games I’ve played with my group, we seem to be able to hit the ground running but by the end we find ourselves working together to determine what should happen and then the actual scene happens and it’s nowhere near as good as the narrative. On occasion somebody feels the urge to solilioquize, which makes sense in some cases, but then we start getting hung up on making sure we follow the rules (of which there are few). It’s curious to me how we gravitate toward structure when given freedom.

It occurs to me that everyone I’ve played with has had some roleplaying experience before. I’d be very curious to see how a random person off the street handles a game like Fiasco. I wonder if it would be easier or harder. D&D has given me roleplaying experience which helps with the initial awkwardness, but it also comes with a certain way of thinking that’s hard to shake at first. You know who your character is to a certain extent, and (due to your class) you probably know your basic role in the party from the second you start. It’s the difference between having context to start with and having to create your own. I remember as a kid, we didn’t usually start from nothing at all but somebody would say “HEY wanna play spacemen?” or “HEY wanna play army dudes?” or “HEYYYY WANNA PLAY REAL GHOSTBUSTERS” (the last one is me, very overexcited). We had some context, just not much — kind of like Fiasco gives you. We didn’t give a crap back then what people thought. Why do we now?

Helpful Improv Tips

One thing that helped me greatly was to draw on some of the stuff I learned in that acting/Whose Line class. I’ve found stuff like this useful in D&D for years, but they mean a lot more in something like Fiasco.

Say “yes, and..” when you’re suddenly faced with the unexpected. This is the “first rule” of improv theatre. It’s very hard for me to deal with is the loss of control when playing a more freestyle game, but this isn’t like D&D where you have one person in authority driving the narrative. This is a shared experience where everyone is creating the story equally. Yes, you will wind up with stories that don’t go the way you want them to. Somebody may even kill your character. But this is also different in that games like this require a much greater deal of trust between players. You can’t play Fiasco in a group that would kill the party’s paladin for littering.

Here’s a link to a lot more very useful tips for improv theatre. I’ve found stuff like this useful for years for D&D, but they carry a lot more importance in something like Fiasco.

Rules Of Improv

Mucking About In Places We Probably Shouldn’t

All this is not to say, of course, that we haven’t been having a blast with Fiasco. We totally have, and will probably play again soon. One wrinkle in our plans is that our decision awhile back to let more people into the group (I can’t remember if we have 7 or 8 now) has impacted us in unexpected ways for Fiasco. We have 3-4 more people than Fiasco’s maximum of 5 will allow. Granted, my new arcade cabinet can certainly help this, but it does kind of suck to get left out.

My friend Dave (from my gaming group, not CH’s dark overlord) and I have been discussing trying to change things up a bit. One idea that I find interesting is playing 2 games at once and intertwining the two somehow at the Tilt (the middle part where Something Unexpected Happens That Messes Everything Up). My initial thought is to have everybody play Act 1 in two separate groups (with the two rounds of scenes as normal), and then have everyone sit together for one final megaround. I think it would be interesting if each group were a rival team of some kind, be it sports teams or news teams or (my favorite) car dealers across the street from each other. The first half of the game everyone hatches elaborate plans and in the second we set them into motion and watch everybody try to mitigate the various disasters around them.

I would also love to see what happens if a bunch of kids play a game of Fiasco, minus all the killing and sex and whatnot. Could a decent Fiasco playset suitable for kids be made? It’s all about relationships, needs, locations, and objects. Kids love all those things.

I’m pretty sure these break the whole idea and flow of Fiasco somehow, but it sounds like fun so we’ll see what happens. I just hope it doesn’t end up in a real life Fiasco. And if it does, I hope I get a crapload of white dice by the end.

 Photo Credit



  1. One of the issues I have with modern RPGs is that they seem to provide too much context. As you pointed out in your post, kids’ play sessions often start out with a minimal statement of context, which is followed by a negotiation of gradually increasing specificity. That’s more the model I prefer in my RPGs, both as player and GM. The events at the table, and the interactions of the characters, are the negotiation.

    Games that involve a lot of mechanics are fine for some people. I prefer a few simple mechanics, and the chance to explore the nuances cooperatively, either through play, or discussions of (strategic and tactical) play.

  2. Nice article. You make an excellent point about kids and roleplaying, though I wonder if that would still apply today. Back a hundred years ago, the best graphics were in my own head, so I had to translate the spectacularly low-res, low-rent cartoons and movies into something cool. This made it easier for me to pretend to be something else with my idiot friends as we ran around throwing knives and dirt clods at each other and lighting bees nests on fire.

    I also worry that the Fiasco magic from DC Game Day is fleeting, and when I play it again at an upcoming December convention, it’ll be a huge disappointment since the perfect people won’t be there.

    It would be so great if I can just peel off all my self-consciousness and be a Whose Line kid, not just in Fiasco but in all my games. Unfortunately, I’ve spent an awful lot of gaming years firmly fixed in my comfort zone.

  3. @anarkeith: That’s a good point. That’s one of the things I don’t like about 4e, it feels hard to deviate from the norm without screwing something up. I’ve never much cared for boxes and the thinking inside of them.

    @Dixon: I wish I could say my first game of Fiasco when I got home went as well as our DC Game Day experience. I wish I could say my second game went as well as our game too. I cannot. 🙂 But I did see noticeable improvement in game 2.

    Keep in mind Dave is a pretty damn good person to have to lead new players through something END BROWNNOSE . It’s just straight up not going to work as well for you at first without someone experienced helping out.

    I will go on record as saying this though: you are freaking amazing at this. You almost killed the whole table with your portrayal of Shaggy. You even managed to make his ending 100% Coen-Bros Compatible. I’ve been trying to recreate that same magic and comic timing in my games, so you take a big old heaping helping of heart and keep at it man. OR SO HELP ME THE POISONED YOGURT. CONSEQUENCES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME

  4. Wightbred says:

    Nice post.

    We played our first game of Fiasco at our table together and it was the best we’ve ever played. Maybe it is just that think about pilots that their second landing is never as good as their first.

    Some of the other stuff you are talking about is supported by the Fiasco Companion: gentler aftermaths for kids and playing with larger groups.

  5. “It’s curious to me how we gravitate toward structure when given freedom.”

    This line stood out to me.

    It’s not so much structure as it is limits, I think. Limits reduce the amount of available choices which allows us to make decisions easier. Not better, mind you, but usually faster and easier. In a game with less limits, you increase the number possibilities and analysis-paralysis sets in. The cure for that is to realize that every choice is the right choice as long as it is interesting.

  6. Improv is something I really want to work on as a DM. Thanks for the crash course!

  7. @Thorynn Prep by giving yourself a small contingent of modular resources that you can draw on in a pinch… random NPC names, premade dungeon maps/tiles, and sample adventure hooks (one liners). Then just do your best and let it rock. You’ll get better over time. And if you don’t tell your players, there’s a chance they may never even notice.

    Personally, I’ve put quite a bit of thought into world-building and major story elements of my campaign, so if the characters randomly choose to do something, I have an idea of the personalities the players will meet, and the kinds of problems the area might have. I think a lot about the overall story, and how to unravel little details, and I think a lot less about specific terrain/monsters.

    @iserith I’m a little sad that I’ve given my players absolute freedom to roam where they want to, but they seem to prefer being spoon-fed plot hooks. 🙁 I realized I need to start “forcing” some serious decision-making into their adventures… otherwise they’ll walk obediently along the railroad tracks… which is just no fun.

  8. Yay Fiasco!

    I like the Whose Line analogy (I don’t think you explicitly made an analogy with roleplaying, but whatever, I’m going to pretend you did.) Come to think of it, I have a lot of conversations with people where someone says “wouldnt it be cool if” or “wouldn’t it be funny if” and then both sides start riffing off the idea. That’s not so different from roleplaying, and maybe applying that approach to roleplaying could work.

  9. Nice article, but I notice you didn’t mention your loving wife whom you tried to kill!!! How Rude!!!

  10. @sunyaku

    I know what you mean. I tried to run a sandbox Dark Sun game last year and it was an unmitigated disaster. The players couldn’t agree on anything and when they did it was usually the least interesting of all decisions. I realized the only thing that was keeping them from killing each other was my railroady, action-packed in media res adventures. I figured out that as long as what I fed them was good, they didn’t care if they had no say in what the food was (so to speak).

  11. I figured out that as long as what I fed them was good, they didn’t care if they had no say in what the food was (so to speak).


    Ken Hite infamously defined ‘railroading’ as ‘a pejorative term for a game in which something is accomplished,’ and while this appears to cut hard against the essential power fantasy underlying most RPGs (cf. Robin Laws’s brilliant, uncomfortable article on domination/loss of control mechanics in ‘Dying Earth’ and other games), the fact is, human beings are really really bad at articulating what the hell they want. Most revert to cliché like ‘I WANT TO BE IN CHARGE,’ when in reality, more often than not, they want to be part of something with other people and just don’t know how.

    So-called ‘railroading’ is like, say, the sonnet form: there’s plenty of room for innovation within the form, so long as you’re not obsessed with the form itself to the detriment of the content.

    Players often want to micromanage the means of roleplay, thereby totally losing sight of its end: a good time with friends, in which make-believe is joyfully engaged in and occasionally some poor bastard has to roll the bones to save against death.

    Another way of putting this is: RPG nerds don’t sit down around the table and pretend to be superpowered heroes because they’re brave well-adjusted iconoclastic innovators. They just think they do. A play style that flatters their self-conception while keeping things fun and fast-moving is ideal. Sometimes that’s ‘Yes, and…’ As often as not, it’s the railroad.

    Magic is when everyone wants the same thing and their belief makes it happen.


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