Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tips for teaching and playing Fiasco

I’ve gotten a few games under my belt for Fiasco. It’s a fun game but I think it can be a little daunting for newcomers. Likewise, there is a structure to the game and folks wanting a pure story-telling experience might be taken back somewhat with the dice mechanics. It’s a different game from your typical RPG, but with a few pointers you can easily teach and run a game without any major speed bumps.

Start with the aftermath... - When teaching the game, I’ve found it best to start with how the aftermath works. While story is king, at the same time you want to guide yourself to one color or the other. It can be counterintuitive that you can make a ton of bad decisions, earning a ton of black dice, and still come out on top. So having that guideline of working towards a single color helps.

At the same time, I reinforce that you want to push other players into bad decisions. You want to hand out dice that will give them a low score, drifting towards an even mix of white and black dice. All of it feeds into the aftermath, and understanding how the endgame works sinks in this concept of awarding a mix of dice.

...and work backwards - Of course how do the players get dice? It leads naturally into the different acts and establishing or resolving scenes. When describing this I emphasize that act two works just as taught (example, if a player is resolving a scene, they pick the outcome die). Act one is similar, but you give away the dice earned, leading back to the concept how the aftermath plays out. You want to be sure that the people whom you want to manipulate are in a bad situation. They need to be holding a good mix of white and black dice after act one, so be sure to push them using the dice.

Gloss over describing the tilt - Honestly, once players get through the setup and relationships, getting the concept of the tilt is pretty easy. Additionally, only two players will be deciding what tilt results come into play. It’s enough just to say that a few random events will come about after act one, and leave it at that. Once you are ready to determine the tilt elements, you can spend a little time explaining how they work for the game.

Have a clear agenda for a scene - A player should know (or say) what they want out of the scene and what they expect the other person should be agreeing to. This helps gives some direction and allows a better way to determine how good or bad a scene goes for them. There is not a lot of face time for each player. While some character scenes can work, its better to have players being proactive with the story and continually working towards character goals.

Say, “Yes, but...” A staple of improv that also works for DMing is the concept of ‘say yes and...’ For Fiasco I tell the players to “Say yes, but...” Players at odds with the active player should avoid shutting them down. Instead think how they can one up the other player. So instead of flat out refusing to hold a stash of coke at their home, how about counter with a request to burn down a lagging business? In effect that conflict becomes a you-scratch-my-back, I-scratch-yours arrangement. This opens a lot more story opportunities, allows that active player to get what they want, but still have an undesirable outcome (by giving up or agreeing to more than what they wanted to).

Award (or take) scene outcome dice earlier, rather than later - The natural inclination is to wait for a scene to conclude before you hand out dice. I think it gives better direction to players involved in the scene if the dice are awarded earlier. It helps avoid that long, drawn out conversation where each player dances around with what they want, and what they are willing to give up. At the worst, you end up with this contest of wills where the scene doesn’t go anywhere (which shouldn’t be an issue if they are using ‘Say yes, but...’).

Handing out dice earlier gives each of the players involved a huge heads up on how the scene should end. It’s a great way to indicate that one side needs to concede, agree with the plan, and move on. This gets trickier when a player is resolving a scene, but if they think they’ve made a solid argument, or will likely manipulate the other player, it’s a good way to herd the developing conversation towards that desired conclusion.

Stick to an approachable playset - A slasher horror, wild west, or post-apocalypse setting sounds fun, but new players might struggle with ideas. As much as folks may claim to have an active imagination, drawing ideas from everyday life can sometimes be easier. This is especially true if all the players can easily latch onto unfolding plot elements. Not everyone may have the same idea what life on a space station is like. For new players it’s best to work with the familiar.

One person picks the type of relationship (or element), the other picks the detail - I really like using this method. Sometimes this might mean having to skip a player during the setup, but it allows for both players to establish relationships, elements, or needs that define it. I may have a hankering to have a romantic relationship, or attach some weapon object to my partner in crime, but it’s the other player that would get to fill in the details. It forces both sides to compromise and allows each player to have some say in the story of the relationship.

Don’t be a slave to story elements - As everything unfolds and plans are made, you might find a certain location or object just isn’t part of the main stage and becomes more of a minor prop. Don’t try and force it back in. If you’ve got this wacky idea of something completely new, don’t fret too much about making it part of the game. The selected objects and locations are there as idea fodder. They don’t have to be central elements and you can use something else entirely if it just flows into the game.

Forcing selected elements to be part of the story can be problematic. I made this mistake trying to bring up a chosen object late in a game, where the plot had moved completely away from it being a more prominent element. Establishing a scene to drag it back in made the entire exchange fall flat. It would have been better to had just let it go and run with the other new ideas that cropped up as we played.

Don’t ignore story elements either - While you don’t want the chosen story elements to strangle the game, you also don’t want to bust open the fence of ideas and scatter the herd all over the place. Before you start throwing those free-form ideas around the table, take a look over the elements picked in the setup. Think again about trying to weave them into the narration. These elements have input from several players and making them part the story is a game in itself.

Be flexible - Be adaptable. If you’ve nailed down your character in the first scene, take a step back and reconsider their goals and motivation. Listen to what is happening around the table and think how you can weave your story into theirs. Sometimes this might mean altering what you envision your character as. Let things ferment a bit at least until the tilt. Remember it's a collaborative effort, don’t adhere strictly to ‘what my character would do’, instead be flexible and work with other players to make the game fun.

Hope folks find these tips useful for teaching the game. Have some downloads that might be useful for running your game too (including a new playset). I’d be reminisce to forget Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop episode on Fiasco. It’s an informative and entertaining way to learn about the game.

EDIT: Some kind folks have pointed out that Bully Pulpit Games have their own tip sheet for running Fiasco. A nice resource to have handy when teaching the game.