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Five Lessons to Learn From / Before Playing "Fiasco"

Fiasco is a great tabletop role playing game.  It's been around for a few years, but being a role playing game, I don't think it's well known outside of gamer circles.  Which is a shame, because it's incredibly easy to pick up and enjoy.

It's basically a guided improvisation course based on the works of the Coen Brothers and similarly-toned dark comedies.

The basic structure of the game goes like this: First, you roll a bunch of dice.  Then you match up the numbers on the dice with plot elements on a few numbered lists - these are things like character relationships, props, locations, etc.  After you've chosen a minimum set of elements, you and your friends gather around a table and take turns either Setting Up or Resolving a scene.  The goal is to act out a bunch of scenes until you've basically just improvised a 90-120 minute movie.

I'm skipping all of the finer mechanics of the game, but that's basically it. (If you want to see it in action, you have the option of watching Tabeltop's Fiasco episode, but I wouldn't recommend it.  Sorry, Mr. Wheaton, but that was not, in fact, "one hell of a Fiasco.")

There's different play sets that are themed around various locations or movie genres.  And there's plenty of custom modules on the Internet (naturally).  It's easy to learn and can lead to a great night of compelling and/or hilarious stories, depending on how your group feels.  But as with any improv exercise, there are dozens of pitfalls.

I won't claim to be much an expert on improv - I was part of an improv group in college for maybe... oh, let's say three weeks, but outside of that and Fiasco I don't really have much experience.  Even so, I've learned enough in that time that I feel confident giving the following five pieces of advice:

5. It's not about forcing plot elements to fit the idea you want - it's about crafting a good idea from the plot elements.

The pregame setup can be a drag.  You're amped and ready for some free-form comedy fun, but before you can dive into your wacky adventures at an Antarctic research base, you have to meet the minimum plot requirements: everybody needs to have a relationship with the players next to them, there needs to be at least one prop, there needs to be at least one location....

If you overthink this part of the game, then you'll shoot yourself in the foot right away.  The problem is twofold: First, you might try to make up the entire plot before the game has even started, which ruins the whole experience.  Second, you can just plain bore everybody.

When I've had to sit through long setups in the past, I noticed that the problem was with people trying to select the dice that were "just right" for the game.  I recommend that you don't do that.  There aren't any "just right" elements.  The whole point of the game is that you are reacting to the strange ideas that come at you.  Improv is all about flexibility and quick-thinking - you hardly get to plan anything.

It's better if you just pick dice arbitrarily and see what you can do with the things that are given to you.  Remember that you're playing with preselected plot lists, so it's not like anything that comes up will be "completely random."  It may be unexpected, but its wholly within the realm of your playset - otherwise it wouldn't have been in the playset.

4. If you start out over-the-top, you have nowhere else to go.

So you have your game set up and you jump into it.  And you have this great idea for your character:  He's a zany, whacked-out hornball who keeps humping everything.  You try it out... and it's a hit!  It's funny!  You laugh, your friends laugh, and you're all having a grand time.

The next scene comes up, and you're on point - time to get back to humping.  This time, you mock-hump the couch while shouting your new catch phrase, "I'ma put my dick in it."  More laughs!  This is great - you have the zaniest character in the world.  And everybody loves it.

For about 20 minutes.

The problem hits when you get to your third turn and you've already humped everything.  What do you do now?  How are you going to sustain that kind of energy for the remaining 70 minutes?  And how do you keep that in the narrative?  Does your character's dick implode?

This is the problem when you start the game at full speed.  You want to avoid making your character too outrageous or else you'll run out of steam early on.  The couch-humping is fine, but let's save that for later in the game.  You'll note that most action movies end with the scene where they blow up forty-six tanks.

But maybe you really want an outrageous character, and you want him now.  Fine.  My advice?  Just settle on one or two affectations and build from there.

I know it might sound cheap, but why not just have a silly accent?  Sure, it would be stupid if you saw it in a movie, but you're not watching a movie - you're improvising.  You're allowed to take a couple of shortcuts here and there.  A silly accent is something you can keep for an hour and a half while you search for The Funny somewhere else.

3. When in doubt, resolve.

Don't be in a hurry to Set Up too many scenes.  For one thing, if you only ever Set Up, then you run the risk of being too bossy - and Fiasco, like any other improv, requires teamwork.  You can't dictate everything.

But more importantly, Setting Up is often not nearly as fun as Resolving.  Resolving means a lot of things: it means you trust your team to give you something good to work with, it means that the burden of coming up with an idea has been off-loaded, and it means that you already know how the scene will end - good or bad - because you get to make that choice.

A good game will have you do both, but Resolving should always be your go-to choice if you're not sure.  The worst thing you can do when you're out of ideas is to take control, because all you're going to do is lose momentum.

2. Don't be afraid of NPCs.

Although every player has a primary character, there will often be times where you bring Non-Player Characters into the story.  Calling them "NPCs" is a bit of a misnomer, though, because another player can absolutely act out an NPC's part if they want.

Unfortunately, sometimes players are reluctant to do that.  I don't know if it's a fear of losing your hold on your main character, or maybe it's too much to keep track of, but for whatever reason, there are times when nobody wants to be an "extra" in a scene.

You should always jump at those opportunities.

The great thing about being an NPC - aside from the chance for a few extra laughs or plot twists - is that it lets you clear your head.  Maybe you're getting a little tired of your own character.  Maybe you haven't been able to introduce any good plot twists because your character is too confined.  Maybe there's another player that you want to interact with and you just haven't had a chance.  Whatever the reason, NPCs are almost always a great solution.

Your willingness to jump in and be another person gives the game more complexity and depth.  And never forget that enthusiasm can be contagious; you jumping in to be "some guy" can give your fellow players the cue they need to join in the fun, too.

1. Don't say "no."

Improv is all about giving and taking.  You want to set up your partner for a good line or reaction, and you want them to set you up right back.  Unfortunately, there will undoubtedly be times when you have tried to set something up and it didn't work, and then your partner comes back with an awful idea.

It's easy to shoot them down.  You're in a scene and your partner says, apropos of nothing, "Let's go have gay sex!!!!"* and he titters like a twelve year-old.  Your gut reaction is to groan and say, "No, that's okay... but maybe we can try to do something that's funny instead?  Like, maybe... maybe a joke?  Are you allowed to make those?"

Resist the urge to turn them down - even if it means a cheap throwaway gag about having wacky gay sex!!!!

You virtually always want to run with whatever ideas come up, no matter how stupid or inane they might be.  Partly this is a trust issue - your willingness to accept ideas communicates to your partner that you're building the scene together.  Partly it's a momentum issue - your willingness to cooperate allows the scene to continue without any awkward gaps.

But more than that, accepting the ideas that come at you is the whole point of improv:  you come up with a clever solution to the situation.

Alright, so maybe if your partner brings up gay sex, you think that's just a childish and somewhat bigoted thing to do in the scene.  It's insulting, degrading, offensive, but not funny.  But don't think about it like that.  Think about how you can use gay sex as the launching point for something else.  Maybe you can just sigh and say, "What, again?  I'm not a machine."  This way you're still accepting your partner's "joke," but you can redirect the scene to something else.

It's a skill that you can improve through practice, so it might not work the first few times you play - but you can get there.  You just have to learn to say "Yes" to everything.  Turning down an idea is basically just another way of saying, "I don't want to play."

* Sex - specifically between men - seems to be the default option for "outrageous comedy" when you're playing Fiasco.  I don't know why.  Maybe my sixth piece of advice would be, "Try not to use gay sex as a punchline."