Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaching Vs. Learning Vs. Fiasco

Look, it's just a given that Fiasco is brilliant. There's no other game like it. That's the baseline for discussion from my perspective. But there are some interesting discussions that flow from that, one of them being the prospect of Fiasco as a gateway game, one to draw in non-gamers.

This is an interesting proposition, and a compelling one. Fiasco has few rules to learn and is very flexible while still providing sufficient structure and rigidity to give play a direction. It has no GM so it's dynamic is much more like the kind of game that people think of when they talk about games. It's small, unthreatening, and as the number of playlets increases, more and more likely to have a specific implementation that appeals to a given potential player.

And yet, I am uncertain.

For all that Fiasco is quite simple, I wonder how much that simplicity is built upon a foundation of the language of RPGs. In comparison, when you read the rules to a board or card game, there's a procedural element to it which presumes little knowledge beyond turn taking and card drawing. Most powerfully, this allows you to play games correctly without necessarily playing them well. That is to say, you can make poor decisions in a game of Monopoly or Magic and, while you may be more likely to lose as a result, the game will still proceed forward. For Fiasco (and RPGs in general), that cushion is not in place. It is entirely possible to grind a game to a halt without an understanding of what the next step can and should be.

Now, I think this is something worth remembering for all the folks who think there is only one true purpose for a GM. In many games, the GM's most important role is to help get past those moments of freezing up and keep the game moving. Power, authority and all that are often just tools to serve that end.

To that end, many Fiasco games may well have a GM-in-all-but-name, the person who brought the book, explains the rules and so on, but then we're talking about how _teachable_ the game is, which is subtly different from how well it can serve as a gateway.

This is not to say that I'm dismissing Fiasco as an introductory game. i think it's a good one, and with direction and people inclined to teach, I think it's fantastic. But I'm thinking about where it falls short with an eye on how those gaps might be filled.


  1. I also consider Fiasco brilliant, and I had great games with it both times I played. In practice, yeah, it needs a facilitator. This is probably also true of boardgames in practice, but I think your response would be that a boardgame facilitator doesn't have to be in the boardgame cognoscenti: it's just the person who's read these here rules.

    I think the potential issue with Fiasco is something I wrote about on 20 by 20 Room a month or so ago: it's potentially vulnerable to stalling out for the same reasons improvised theater is vulnerable to stalling out unless you've trained past those vulnerabilities. Both the games I played in had a facilitator and, perforce, a trained improviser to help jolly people past any reluctance to commit in the moment. And for the second-game postmortem, the facilitator and I agreed that we might've had a stronger session had he and I sat diagonally across rather than adjacent.

    I don't know the extent to which playing poorly for a group of true n00bs (to RPGs AND improv) would a) amount to not playing at all - progress grounds to a halt - or b) inspire people to "try this again, but better" vs. giving it up after a single try.

  2. I have found that new players are often most comfortable with a game that has a lot of structure to it, which goes a long way toward explaining why the various incarnations of D&D have always done better than their rules-light contemporaries. It's not that a new player is any less creative than an experienced one, but being put "on the spot" to decide what they should do next is intimidating. Games with more structure tend to have concrete options that give new players a straight-forward choice; skills to check, items / powers to use.

    Lacking that concrete structure, you're right that a facilitator who makes new players feel safe and encouraged is very useful.

  3. I wouldn't argue with your point, Rob, and even cop to it on page 122. I play a ton of GMless games and the same situation emerges - the guy who understands the procedural engine best facilitates, keeps an eye on pacing, offers choices, picks up some of those duties a GM would expect to be responsible for. I think this is natural and it doesn't bother me. A group of brand new players will experience the same phenomena, probably with the guy who bought the book and is only half a step ahead of the group on the learning curve. I like to think that the learning curve, at least procedurally, is mitigated by the game's instructional design, but that's an open question that doesn't address social issues at all. I've played a *lot* with n00bs, but I have no anecdotal evidence about how a table full of people new to RPGs approach Fiasco. Probably in some exotic, weird and wonderful way!

  4. I know there's a growing Hollywood crowd of screenwriter types who are totally ga-ga over Fiasco and I'm not sure all of them are actually gamers. But the usual suspects are.

  5. I agree with what's been said in previous comments.

    I think it depends a lot on the facilitator, and without someone who knows the game well it'd be very tricky.

    In general, I think you want someone to guide you through something the first time. It takes too much energy to discover everything on your own.

    When you have little or no knowledge about a subject, you don't even know what questions to ask to learn more. You don't have the vocabulary to phrase the questions.

    With a game like Fiasco I could see that it'd be easier if you are comfortable with the story format, even if you are unfamiliar with the game format.

    You easily get stumped if you have too many options. It can sometimes be more liberating to have a choice between 'A' or 'B'. Or examples to guide you - 'You could do something like A or B'

    With great power comes great confusion, when there's uncertainty about how to use that power.

  6. I do think Fiasco is very close to being written in such a way that a non-gamer could follow it. (For all I know, it is already and I just can't see with non-gamer eyes any more.) so if Wil Wheaton and John Rogers wanted to invest in mass-marketing the game, a) Sweet! and b) Jason would "just" have to revise the text and test it to make sure it was n00b-friendly.

  7. I should note that I consider it an incredible strength of fiascos text that it's a not-purely- procedural game where we can even -discuss- newbie accessibility rather than just laugh when the topic comes up.

  8. Interesting analysis, Rob. I would love to see some actual anecdotal evidence of non-gamers playing Fiasco, with or without a facilitator. I have a few non-gamer friends who are very creative and spontaneous (they love Dixit, for instance). One is a scriptwriter. I wonder if Fiasco would work for them?

  9. many Fiasco games may well have a GM-in-all-but-name, the person who brought the book, explains the rules and so on,

    I describe this role as the "host". "Facilitator" works, too, but I think "host" is friendlier.

  10. Great read :). Actually a lot of people told me, they consider Fiasco „the better PTA“, as it gives you more structure. Still, while I really enjoy Fiasco the first time I played it, it bothered me a bit, that I had to adjust my tempo of wanting to complicate / advance the story to the structure of the game. It got better as I got more used to the game, but well sometimes I still have that feeling that I have to go trough some „not quite as interesting scenes“ before the next big thing is allowed to happen.

    Hm.. my take if you're looking for a RPG / Storygame that allows / „forces“ you to advance no matter if you play it well or only „correctly“, would be Eero Tuvinen Zombie Cinema. Actually quite an fitting example, as it really comes disguised as a board game^^.


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