Over the last two months our roleplaying sessions have focused on brainstorming the setting for the forthcoming Shadows of Ulubrae story arc. My process involved conventional brainstorming sessions where we all throw out ideas for the setting.
However, I also like to weave gaming interludes into this stage of the story. This article outlines how one particular game, Fiasco, helps create certain elements of the setting.
One of the features of my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign is interludes woven into the ongoing story. These interludes typically feature one-shot games using a different set of rules. Previous interludes included games of DramaSystem, Becoming, Puppetland, Fate Accelerated, My Life with Master, Fiasco, Savage Worlds and D&D Next.
The best interludes use rules designed to create a specific feel to the game, and have a plot closely linked to events in the ongoing story arc. I like to run interludes that change the focus or setting, yet still inform the main plot. Fiasco perfectly creates a story with a specific style.
The game was designed by Jason Morningstar, and published by Bully Pulpit Games. Fiasco is a simple game of improvisation, designed to create doomed characters in a story that ends badly for most of them. The product page on DriveThruRPG describes the game like this:
Fiasco is an award-winning GM-less game for 3-5 players, designed to be played in a few hours with six-sided dice and no preparation. During a game you will engineer and play out stupid, disastrous situations, usually at the intersection of greed, fear, and lust. It’s like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one.
Given the structure of Fiasco, it is only suited for a particular style of interlude. This is an advantage, as the game is sure to produce a doomed story. Thus, I run Fiasco when I want a group of stumbling characters caught up in a disastrous situation. There is plenty of scope for creativity with the setting and characters within a doomed story. Fiasco does not limit those options, but the mechanics drive the game towards conflict and the self-destruction of the Players.
Fiasco also makes such a good interlude game as the rules are simple and the prep minimal. Both are very useful traits for a GM. The rules focus on the structure of the game, not the mechanics of playing. My Players picked up the game quickly, and threw themselves into their doomed characters. To date, I have run Fiasco twice, in different circumstances within the larger story. A more detailed look at these two games helps to illustrate the scope of Fiasco, and what it can bring to your ongoing campaign.
Fiasco 1: Failed Cult
Our first game of Fiasco was part of the Sigil PD story arc. The Heroes in this game were investigating an apocalyptic chaos cult. For the interlude, however, I flipped the roles, and the Players became active members of the cult. Fiasco explored the in-fighting of the cult, and their doomed attempt to unleash the forces of chaos onto the city of Sigil.
This game took place just before the finale of the story arc. The Heroes were closing in on the cultists. To better establish the personalities and plans of the cult, we played a Fiasco session focused on the cult. We knew this story would end badly, as the Heroes were about to arrive and destroy the cult. With these parameters established, we used the Fiasco game to detail the doomed ritual, and the nature of the cultists involved.
Fiasco 2: Doomed Robbery
Our second game of Fiasco enjoyed a little more freedom. The Microscope game played last month detailed the broad history of the city of Ulubrae. When the city was founded, a troll shrine was also discovered, but quickly hidden. This shrine is likely to figure strongly in the later story arc, so we needed more details about how or why the shrine was hidden.
Thus, we agreed this Fiasco game would end up at the shrine, but the who and why of this story was unknown. My three Players collaborated brilliantly, creating a fantastic story of clumsy hobbits and a vengeful dwarven priest. Several major plot threads were established, not just the discovery of the shrine, but also the fate of the sacred figurine found within.
The outcome of the second Fiasco game was less proscribed, so there was more freedom for the Players. I expect we will explore many of the plots established in the Fiasco game through the subsequent story arc. This version was less of a trick of narrative viewpoint, and more about establishing the background to major plot threads. Fiasco handles both options easily.
Beyond the story benefits of a game of Fiasco, there are additional gains. As the GM, I appreciate the relatively low amount of prep needed. A list of 36 potential relationships is all you really need, and these can be copied from the samples in the rules. Similar lists of locations, objects and needs are also helpful, but we skipped the location and object list for the second game. Again, there are themed versions in the rules to copy. For a game tightly linked to an established setting, you could choose object and location to fit with the existing campaign.
Fiasco also brings benefits to the Players. This is a highly improvisational game, within a tight narrative structure. Here is a great opportunity for Players to practise their improv skills without risking their main characters. These roleplaying skills are transferable to the main campaign, but it helps novice Players learn to improvise in a game where the risk of failure is minimal.
Everyone knows these characters are doomed, and that Fiasco is a one-shot. There are no long-term consequences from making a poor choice. Hopefully Players will see how they can drive the story forward creatively, and transfer these skills to the ongoing campaign when the story resumes next session.
Fiasco is ideally suited for interludes where the story is a doomed narrative. The game requires minimal prep, will conclude in a single session and provides Players with a great opportunity to practice their improvisation. A Fiasco one-shot could represent a change in viewpoint, or establish setting details. The GM frames the Fiasco plot according to what the ongoing campaign needs from the one-shot. Fiasco is fast, fun and flexible. My Players are already keen to play again, especially the ones who missed out on the last game.
Have you played Fiasco? How did your Players enjoy the improvisation? Did you weave Fiasco into the ongoing campaign story? How did that work out for you? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
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