Tag: Fiasco

Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ’emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?

Games in Story Mode

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

More than a few video games that provide a multiplayer experience also have single player campaigns. In fighting games and others, this is referred to as ‘story mode’. The quality of these stories can vary wildly, but the pitfalls and perils of storytelling in video games is much better covered by other sources, and it’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because relegating “story mode” to single player play feels like a misnomer, even in something as simple as a fighting game or a first-person shooter. Whenever more than one person is involved in play, I feel there’s massive potential for storytelling.

Some systems better facilitate this than others, of course. Eventually, in a fighting game, you’ll stop contriving reasons your character gets up after having his or her spine ripped out or all of his or her ribs broken. Games set up for multiple players that lean towards story construction, from MMOs to your typical Dungeons & Dragons campaign, have plenty of tools to keep things moving. But those games tend to come with a lot of systems and rules that can interrupt the flow of the story. I enjoy them thoroughly, don’t get me wrong, but some games have a fantastic way of keeping the game aspects simple and letting the story aspects shine.

Consider Fiasco, by Jason Morningstar. Much like a role-playing game with the tables and systems stripped down to the bare minimum, Fiasco is “a game of high ambition and low impulse control.” Inspired by caper films like Burn After Reading, Snatch, Fargo, and A Simple Plan, the game puts players in relationships with one another and gives them each goals to try and achieve. The systems are there simply to set up the tapestry of the situation, from who knows whom to what’s desired and why, and to let you know when things are about to go horribly, horribly wrong. In the end, the dice are an impetus for the tension, drama, fun, and laughs, rather than encapsulating those things themselves. It’s a brilliant game and a great way to tell stories with friends, especially if one hews to Rogers’ Rules:

1. Who Wants What?
2. Why Can’t They Have It?
3. Why Should I Give A Shit?

Shock: is a similar game by Joshua A.C. Newman, where players work together to create a sci-fi world in the vein of Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick, populate that world with their ideas and characters, and go nuts from there. Everybody around the table contributes to the aspects of the universe created, from the nature of the planets to the motivations of both protagonists and antagonists, and the ruleset, like Fiasco‘s, keeps the story central while offering support to keep things moving and keep players interested. It’s a fascinating approach to both gaming and storytelling.

As impressive and fun it can be to see what enjoyment can be wrought from a big box full of wooden components, cards, boards, and tokens, there’s something to be said for the sheer power of a story well-told with friends. Collaboration gives rise to ideas that could never have taken flight on their own, and when everybody’s helping tell the story, everybody has a stake in seeing it through to the end. That’s what makes games like Fiasco and Shock: so brilliant. It’s not about the components or the systems or anything the game actually provides; it’s all about the people around the table.

You can buy Fiasco here, and Shock: here.

Writer Report: Busy Busy Bee

Let’s take a quick look at where things stand in various non-dayjob areas right now.

Cold Streets

I’m beginning to think my “end of 2012” prediction for this novella might have been too ambitious. That, or I simply need to make more time to write. I have the outline laid out and a decent handle on how things should proceed from point to point, I just need to sit down and make myself do it. It’s all about discipline, and I need to do it more to myself even after long-ass frustrating commutes at the end of long-ass hectic days.

Untitled Fiasco playset

I’ve realized there’s a great deal of storytelling potential in the collaborative role-playing game Fiasco and I have an idea or two for a playset of my own. I’ve been looking at a couple of the others (Alpha Complex, Saturday Night ’78), just to make sure I’m not repeating too much that’s been done before. Not aware of what Fiasco is? No problem, Wil Wheaton’s gotcha covered.

Extra Life

Still no donations to this year’s campaign. That sucks. I still feel I should go through with the marathon anyway, at least get it started, but it’s disheartening to say the least. I’ll do a post-mortem next week either way, try and figure out what, if anything, I’ve done or am doing wrong.

Magic: the Gathering

With everything else going on I’ve actually been playing a bit less Magic in the past week. In person, anyway. I’m inclined to throw together a cheap deck for the upcoming Gameday, as there’s a whole pre-ordered box of Gatecrash on the line, but we’ll see what happens. More important stuff needs to be addressed. Meantime, I went in for some of the pre-release events online, and the result has been the ability to self-sustain some drafting for the time being. It’s good practice, if nothing else.

Boring Real-Life Stuff

My wife and I are moving! Yesterday I donated a ton of books to my local library, and I have bags upon bags of clothing, blankets, and towels set aside for the Salvation Army. There’s a metric fuckton of crap in my basement I’m straight-up throwing away; much of it I haven’t even looked at in the three years since I moved in here. The new digs are pretty and spacious, right across the street from a golf course of all things, and much closer to the dayjob. Between the balcony with a decent view of the outside world, plenty of room for a writing desk separate from major distractions, and the shorter commute, I’m hoping this will help me get into and maintain a writerly state of mind more often. I’ll have to find a closer venue for Friday Night Magic, but them’s the brakes.

Rogers’ Rules

Courtesy Wired

Meet John Rogers. You may know him as the writer for projects like Leverage. He’s also a stand-up comic, video gamer, and dissector of storytelling. In playing Fiasco with Wil Wheaton, he’s conveyed three of the best rules for storytelling I’ve heard since I’ve tried to memorize most if not all of the advice distributed by Chuck Wendig. I’m going to run down these three very simple but very potent questions.

Who wants what?

Everybody wants something. I’m not just talking in the metaphysical “what do I want out of live” sort of way. We all have needs and desires in the moment, from a cheese sandwich to a couple of Tylenol to enough money to pay our debts to that attractive person’s phone number. Any one of these can be the beginning of a story, and they’re pretty simple. Needs and wants can be even greater: nuclear launch codes, or a million dollars, or revenge for a wrongful death, or the solution to a murder. When you boil it down, any character you care to name, protagonist or antagonist, good or evil, likeable or despicable, is driven by a singular, overarching desire and a goal to go with it.

Why can’t they have it?

If everybody just got what they wanted, that’d be pretty boring. There would be no story. So something must come between our characters and what they want. Do they want a cheese sandwich? Sorry, the fridge has no cheese. A killer is going to be elusive. An escape route is going to be blocked. There has to be some sort of obstacle between the character and their goal. The obstacle’s job is to create the drama that will fuel the story and heighten the tension between your characters. As interesting as characters can be on their own, they’re all the more compelling because of their struggles.

Why should I give a shit?

The conflict and tension generated by multiple characters struggling towards what they want can be interesting in and of itself, but to be truly good at the craft, you need to make your audience care about more than the overall drama. Personal investment in characters makes their struggles more compelling, their victories more rewarding, their failures more tragic. The guy after the cheese sandwich might not have eaten all day, heartsick over losing a loved one. Do we understand why the would-be terrorist wants the launch codes? Did the murderer kill someone close to our hero, who is now more interested in revenge than justice? Is the gangster trying to escape because he needs to get to his kid, to make sure they’re safe and won’t grow up into a life of crime? Do something to make the characters motivated beyond the basic need or want you’ve established; in other words, make them people.

These are simple rules you can apply to just about any story you want to tell. “X wants Y because Z” may seem like a straightforward, almost formulaic way to establish characters and motivations, but establishing this in your story will lay the foundation for a compelling and memorable experience for the audience. The better fleshed out your characters, their desires, the obstacles that stand against them, and the drive that will push them into, over, or through those obstacles, the better your story will be.

Follow John Rogers on twitter (@jonrog1) and check out his breakdown on the process behind Leverage here Kung Fu Monkey.

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