Steven S. Long is a writer, game designer, and all 'round great guy. According to the secret files of the KGB, he once singlehandedly defeated the Kremlin's plot to attack America with laser-powered Godzillas.

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FIASCO -- Roleplaying Game, Or Not?

One of the biggest successes to hit the roleplaying game field in recent years is Fiasco, by designer Jason Morningstar. Released in 2009, it continues to sell like wildfire through Indie Press Revolution and other outlets. It’s been translated into numerous languages. Sessions of it have inspired films. It’s a genuine phenomenon within the little pond we all love to splash around in.

Back at GenCon 2013 I went to dinner with several people, and naturally we discussed games. As we delved into various issues of game design, at some point someone mentioned Fiasco. Me, contrary cuss that I am, said, “Wait a minute, I don’t think Fiasco is actually a game at all — it’s more like guided improvisational acting.” That led to a short discussion but we let the issue pass; we weren’t going to see eye to eye on the issue, so we moved on to other, related, topics.

So I figured I’d carry on that conversation here and try to make my case to the harsh and unforgiving Internet. ;)

(Before I continue, let me be absolutely, positively crystal clear about one thing: I think Fiasco is awesome. It’s all kind of fun to participate in. Jason Morningstar is a skilled and insightful designer, and a great guy; I particularly enjoyed the session of Fiasco I was privileged to participate in with him. Nothing I say here is intended to take even the slightest thing away from Fiasco, or in any way to criticize it; I am simply arguing an issue of definition.)

If I’m going to argue whether something qualifies as a game, I should start by defining what I think a game is. In that respect, for purposes of this discussion I prefer a definition articulated by noted game designer Greg Costikyan in his article “I Have No Words and I Must Design,” from issue #2 of the late, lamented magazine Interactive Fantasy (available online here):

“A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.”

(In formulating this definition, Costikyan differentiates games from puzzles, toys, stories, and traditional art forms.)

Obviously, of course, you may prefer some other definition, or (like me) you could quibble with aspects of this one. Nothing wrong with that. But I’ve got to start someplace, and I think this definition’s good enough to go with. ;)

So let’s look at Fiasco and see how it satisfies the criteria Costikyan’s definition lays down.

How Fiasco Goes

In a session of Fiasco, things go more or less like this:

1. Three to five people gather around a table. (Doritos and Mountain Dew optional.) In addition to pens and paper, they have four six-sided dice apiece (two of one color, two of another).

2. They choose a Playset — a pregenerated set-up that establishes the time and place of the scenario (such as “a small town in the Old West” or “a space station on Mars in the 22nd century”). They then roll all the dice into a pile, and by choosing from them based on tables provided in the Playset, they define their characters through “Relationships” and “Details.”

3. Play then takes place in two “Acts.” In Act One, the players act out various “scenes” by either “Establishing” or “Resolving” them. Act One ends at “the Tilt” — when an unusual or crazy thing occurs or arrives to disrupt the story. This occurs when you’ve used half the dice in the pile. Act Two then proceeds through more scenes, eventually ending at “the Aftermath,” where you determine the fate of all the characters (usually a pretty gruesome one, and often darkly humorous as well). Act One is mostly about learning who your character is and what he wants; Act Two is about trying to achieve his goals (to a greater or lesser degree).

For example, in the “Boomtown” Playset provided with the Fiasco rulebook, the player whose turn it is to pick when the Location of the story is defined may decide on choice #2, the Bradford Hotel. So he chooses a die showing 2 from the pile and places it on an index card on which “Bradford Hotel” is written. To further define the Location, the next player looks at the list under Bradford Hotel and chooses #4, “the Saloon.” He picks a die showing 4 from the pile, puts it on the Bradford Hotel’s card, and notes on the card what it signifies.

When all that’s done, and all the starting conditions for the story and the interrelationships among the characters have been defined, you dump all the dice back into a central pile (numbers/facing don’t matter). As the scenes play out in the two acts, dice are chosen by color to signify positive or negative outcomes (thus, there are a finite number of both, which becomes important as the pile shrinks).

There’s more to it than that, of course, but I think that covers the basics. (No doubt someone will come along in the Comments section and point out something crucial that I missed or mis-stated, but in any event I think I’m close enough for guv’mint work.)

So, is the activity I just described a game by Costikyan’s definition? I think one cane make a strong argument that it isn’t. Let’s look at the crucial elements of that definition: making decisions; managing resources; and pursuit of a goal.

Making Decisions

It’s true that some decisionmaking goes on in Fiasco. You have to make choices during Setup; you have to decide whether to Establish or Resolve a scene on your turn; and so forth. But in my experience those decisions really aren’t like the decisions you make in board games, card games, or RPGs, where each decision has tactical implications and can benefit/harm the player in various ways depending on circumstances. There is some tactical element in Fiasco — deciding whether to Establish or Resolve, for example — but by and large it seems to me that the decisions being made aren’t made for logical or tactical reasons. They’re made to shape the story. Sometimes a player tries to do this in ways that he thinks will benefit his character, but more often they’re made out of a desire to craft a better or more entertaining story. (That is, of course, a highly laudable goal — just not necessarily one that should be made in a game.) In the end the story’s likely to result in a (wait for it...) fiasco, and your goal isn’t to “win” or to “lose” — it’s to craft the story of that fiasco in a way that’s fun for all participants. A friend of mine once exultantly said to me after playing Fiasco, “It was awesome — my character took a hundred hits of Ecstasy and then got eaten by a bear!”. That is not the sort of statement you ever hear a player exulting over in activities that obviously satisfy Costikyan’s definition of “game” — in fact, I think most players would consider that outcome “losing,” not a cause for celebration.

Of course, RPGs don’t precisely have “winners” or “losers,” either — not in the traditional board or card game sense, anyway. But there is de facto winning and losing. If the characters succeed with the goal of the adventure (clean out the dungeon, rescue the princess, slay the dragon, whatever), they in effect “win.” If they fail at the goal, they in effect “lose.” But Fiasco lacks even that form of “winning” and “losing”; the entertainment comes from crafting an enjoyable narrative.

(Semi-relavent aside: I sometimes joke that “It is possible to win at Fiasco!” because in the first session I participated in, my character arranged events so that everyone else died and he walked away clean with a $1,000,000 insurance payout [in 1930s dollars, no less]. But my perfidy should certainly have no bearing on my argument in this blog. ;) )

Managing Resources

At first blush, it would seem that Fiasco involves some resource management: the dice. The participants choose dice from a pool to determine the specifics of the setting/situation in which the Playset takes place, then choose them again during Acts One and Two. The colors and finite number of dice control the positive/negative flow of the narrative.

But on closer examination, I’m not so sure that really qualifies as “resource management” in a game sense. Typically this concept refers to using the assets available to the player or his character — Power Points, magic items owned, spells known, weapons and gear possessed, cards and the specific game abilities they provide, or the like — to assist in the pursuit of the game’s goal (usually “to win”). Play the Avoid Trap card at just the right time and you benefit, coming closer to the goal; use your spells most efficiently and you’re more likely to win.

The dice in Fiasco don’t serve this sort of function at all. Instead they simply help establish and guide the narrative. Without them, a session of Fiasco would consist of four or five people sitting around a table, saying, “I do this” or “I think it should be like this.” They’d have no guidance or way to determine what happens next other than group consensus. Thus, I don’t think the dice in Fiasco are a resource to manage in play so much as they are a tool to guide the activity and keep it moving along. They take the place of a drama coach or acting instructor in a traditional improvisational acting exercise.

Pursuing A Goal

Lastly, a game involves the pursuit of a goal. I’d argue that this goal must be reasonably well defined: be the last person with money in the bank; kill the dragon and take his treasure; accumulate the most Victory Points; capture all the other player’s pieces. The goal can’t just be “have a good time” — that’s the inherent “goal” of every form of entertainment, and thus useless for definitional purposes.

Fiasco, as far as I can tell, has no such goal. The goal is “create a fun story” — or to put it more in English grad student terms, “explore a defined narrative space to its dramatic conclusion.” To repeat something I said earlier, I think that’s a highly laudable objective — I just don’t think it rises to the level of the sort of goal I’d expect from a game.

To Sum Up...

...I think that if you accept Costikyan’s definition of a Game — “a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal” — Fiasco doesn’t qualify. (At best, it occupies a position far to the left on the Roleplaying Game Spectrum, a subject I’ll discuss more in an upcoming blog.) That’s not to say it’s not awesome fun (which it is), just that clarity and consistency demand the use of some other descriptor. I prefer the term “guided improvisational acting,” but I’m sure many others could apply.

I look forward to hearing what y’all have to say in Ye Olde Comments Sectione. ;) And if any of you want to “play” some Fiasco, I’m up for a session just about anytime!

Reader Comments (8)

Preface: If this is rambly at all, I'm recovering from the Travel Crud. :)

I don't think that an RPG provides a goal, in and of itself. A GM can provide a goal, or can provide a universe where things happen and the players can act or react and make their own goals. An adventure can, and usually does, provide a goal, but if it's prepackaged it may not resonate with the players. (For instance, in a Fantasy Hero game, you're better off looking at the characters Complications, and building your adventure based on them; the players are more likely to respond to them. This is goal setting by the players in a way that Fiasco very much does during character creation; what are my relationships with the characters around me? What are my goals? What things, places, people are important to me?)

During Fiasco, you are making strategic decisions. You're angling for the Aftermath; do you want a lot of dice of one color or the other, to have your character come out of it as well as can be expected, or do you want to want to try to match them up to get that Fate Worse Than Death? You don't necessarily have a lot of control in the first round, because you really only have the possibility of collecting dice when it's not your scene, but you have two chances in the second round. And a skilled roleplayer can work the first round to their advantage.

I also think that the dice are used in Fiasco to answer the same question they're used for in most traditional RPGs; does my character succeed or fail? They're used differently here, but there's also a slim-but-present divide between success for the character and success for the player. They are totally a resource and game token here, every bit as much as in, say, Connect Four (and I don't want that comparison to reflect quality-wise on either Connect Four or Fiasco).

I'd say that Fiasco pretty explicitly aims for what Aaron Allston would say are the Plumber/Romantic/Tragedian player types, with a good dose of the Showoff as well.

And I really, really wish that you had posted this last week so we could discuss it in person! :)

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Goodwin

Sorry to hear about the Travel Crud, Chris. :(

Agreed on posting it earlier! (Though we might have bored Lisa to tears.) The whole post arose from a conversation, after all, and will hopefully spark others.

Based on some of the comments I've seen in Jason's G+ feed, I think I need to hurry up and get my blog on the Roleplaying Game Spectrum done sooner, rather than later, to better explain where I'm coming from on the whole issue of what is/isn't an RPG. ;) Naturally it's not really an either/or but more of a continuum, from my perspective, and I can place FIASCO at the far left end of that continuum, methinks.

January 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

If there's a definition of roleplaying games that excludes Fiasco, then I respectfully suggest that the definition needs work.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Powell

Steve, no worries. The worst part is over, now I just have to get rid of the gunk. :)

John, my definition of roleplaying game is "a game that includes rules for pretending your 'playing piece' is a person and can do things that aren't represented by the physical state of the game pieces". I don't exactly have my own definition for game, though*. If Fiasco is a game, then it's a roleplaying game under my definition. If you were to strip all of the roleplaying out of Fiasco, you'd probably have something like an extended version of "divide and choose". I'm not up on game theory (the mathematical version, not RPG theory) enough to say whether that counts as a "game" but it's at least a move. Though... hmmm. Once you and the other players have divided and chosen all of the dice, then you roll your dice, subtract the one from the other, and.... what?

Maybe it's not entirely a game, then.

* Not entirely true. My definition of "game" is "the person what made it says it's a game". That doesn't mean it has to be a very good game; the Big Stick(tm) Game from Whack-O(r) (directions: "1. Take turns hitting each other with Big Stick(tm)...") probably isn't very fun, but when I'm talking about games with my friends and especially trying to figure out one to play, I'm more interested in the fun part than the definition.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Goodwin

So, I think I just tried to take the conversation away from Steve. Back to it: is Fiasco a game according to Greg Costikyan's definition? Going back to the article...

Does it have decision making? Yes. You make lots of decisions at every step of the process.

Does it have goals? Greg sez:

No victory conditions, true. But certainly they have goals; lots of them, you get to pick. Rack up the old experience points. Or fulfill the quest your friendly GM has just inflicted on you. Or rebuild the Imperium and stave off civilization's final collapse. Or strive toward spiritual perfection. Whatever.

Fiasco provides goals as much as any RPG does. Further, it provides a setup such that there will be more goals than you can possibly explore, and the hard part is choosing which ones.

Does it have opposition? Yes. Every character around you is the opposition in some way.

Managing resources? I think this is the part where we're quibbling. I think the dice are the resources, and it is possible to end the game having only two dice! (During the first round, you have to give away the dice you get for resolution, and there isn't really any rule saying you have to spread them evenly, nor that anyone has to give you any...)

Game tokens? Again, the dice. I don't think there's any quibble here. :) "To give a player a sense that he controls his destiny, that he is playing a game, you need game tokens." The dice count, if nothing else.

Information? All over the place.

Some of the other things that strengthen game:

Diplomacy? Oh hell yes. Backstabbing and double dealing galore.

Color? Per Greg's definition, there's lots.

Simulation? Depends. In what Greg is asking directly, I think it's minimal, but the whole game is geared toward giving you an experience similar to that of a Coen Brothers' film, in approximately the same amount of time. It does indeed give you that kind of experience. :)

Variety of encounter? Oh yes. NPCs can pop up like popcorn, and can be downed as easily.

Position identification? Yes, indeed. Lots of it.

Roleplaying? Ahhh, here's where Greg's definition and mine meet. Yes, you totally do that.

Socialization? Check.

Narrative tension? Check times ten billion.

Per Greg's definition, I'd say that while the bit about resources is the most wibbly-wobbly, the other parts in which it's strong, and amazingly strong at that, more than make up for it.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Goodwin

Chris -- sounds to me like we need to get up a session of FIASCO next time we're both in the same town, and then compare notes. ;)

January 3, 2014 | Registered CommenterSteven S. Long

Steve, looking forward to it! Lisa also loves the Coen Brothers, and hasn't yet played it but is interested. I say this knowing it might be a year or two down the road... :)

January 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris Goodwin

Awesome to see a new blog post, Steve! Thanks! I had never actually learned what Fiasco was, so thanks for this! And yeah, totally a game, though maybe not like "Settlers of Catan".

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaze9999

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