Fiasco and Vigorous Creative Agreement

On Friday I played a game of Fiasco, and a few days later I read an old post on Vincent Baker’s blog. The post got me thinking about the game in a way that seems worth writing down.

In the post, Baker contrasts two modes of play. The first is vigorous creative agreement. Vigorous creative agreement, as I understand it, is characterised by two things. First, the players enthusiastically agree about where to take the fiction. Not, of course, automatically or immediately, but after bouncing around and developing ideas. Play might go like this:

  • Player 1: “And then Harry is knocked out cold. And Lena is screaming: ‘What did you do, you brute?’ at her brother.”
  • Player 2: “Sure. And then they just walk away, right?”
  • Player 1: “Perhaps they put Harry in one of the coolers?”
  • Player 3: “Maybe Harry isn’t knocked out. He still hears what they say. And Lena says something upsetting, so he’ll know she’s just been using him.”
  • Player 1 (who plays Lena): “O, yeah, that’s great! As they put Harry into the cooler, Lena says to her brother: ‘You don’t have to be angry about Harry. I was just pretending to date him. Surely you don’t believe I’d ever go to bed with that dork? I’m only using him for our plan.’”
  • Player 2 and 3: “Exactly!”

Second, and equally crucially, when players agree about what should happen in the story, it happens. There are no rules that stop such an agreement from becoming the fictional truth.

Against this, Baker expresses his love for a different mode of play, and in particular a different view of what rules are for:

As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of an rpg’s rules is to create the unwelcome and the unwanted in the game’s fiction. The reason to play by rules is because you want the unwelcome and the unwanted – you want things that no vigorous creative agreement would ever create. And it’s not that you want one person’s wanted, welcome vision to win out over another’s – that’s weak sauce. No, what you want are outcomes that upset every single person at the table. You want things that if you hadn’t agreed to abide by the rules’ results, you would reject.

Here’s what I find interesting. If you had just given me these two description of modes of play and had asked me which I preferred, I would certainly have gone for Baker’s mode. Give me the delicious disappointment and tragedy of failure! Give me the equally delicious feeling of triumph and relief when the outcome you were rooting for happens even though failure was a real possibility! And when all is said and done this is probably my favourite mode. But that really fun Fiasco game I played last Friday? It was an absolutely pitch-perfect example of vigorous creative agreement.

In Fiasco, scenes end in either success or failure for the characters whose scene it is. If that character’s player started the scene, the other players get to decide — collectively — whether it ends in success or failure; if the other players started the scene, the character’s player gets to decide on the end. It is the character’s player who gets to choose which of these two modes to use. Now this whole set-up works only if players are not invested in the success of their characters. In any particular scene such investment may happen. But it shouldn’t be an overall feature of play. Now of course players tend to identify at least to some extent with the characters they are playing, and so tend to be invested at least to some extent in the success of those characters. Many roleplaying games take this as a given and use it as the main engine driving things forward. How does Fiasco counteract this?

Basically, by setting up a huge distance between the player and the character. This starts with the premise of the game. The introduction in the game booklet tells you that you are about to play a character with powerful ambitions and poor impulse control, and that you will likely experience a massive amount of failure. So genre expectations are set; and we’re primed to enjoy, well, a fiasco. Next is character creation. Here you have only limited control over who your character will be; it is the individual members of the group that will link your character up in certain relationships and with certain objects, places, and needs. You’ll have some say in exactly who the character is, but it’s the cards on the table that determine, for instance, that you are involved in drug dealing and trapped in a loveless marriage. And then, in the game itself, you do not have exclusive control over what your character will do. You can set the scene, in which case you get to decide what your character intends to do. But then the other players may describe what the characters ends up doing. Or you can take control over the ultimate fate of your character in the scene, but that means that the other players decide what your character is up to. At no point is there even a suggestion that the character is really yours. Clearly, the character is just a moving element in the plot that we’re all meant to enjoy.

Fiasco’s resolution mechanic, in which you either start the scene or decide how it ends, would be completely inappropriate in a game of, say, Trollbabe. It is essential that your Trollbabe character fits your vision of the character; indeed, the game is designed in such a way that failure almost never compromises that vision. (It avoids the common problem that if you are out of luck with the dice during a session, then your bad-ass cool fighter constantly fails at fighting, and hence at being the bad-ass cool character you envision.) This means that you must be the one who decides what your character is up to. And it would be equally crazy if anyone around the table could just decide whether your trollbabe succeeds or fails. We’re all rooting for the trollbabe characters! Including the GM! The dice are there precisely to make failure possible and success all the sweeter. You can get the outcomes that upset every single person at the table.

Back to Fiasco. In my experience with the game, the neutrality that people have towards their ‘own’ characters, combined with the strong genre conventions that everybody is tuned into, ensure that there’s almost never disagreement about whether a scene should end in success or failure. It’s not just that the ‘other’ players agree on whether ‘your’ character should succeed or fail. You too agree. You’re all following the logic of the story, and you all tend to come to the same conclusion — especially once the ideas have been bounced around and developed. Although the characters are all murdering each other, the players are all in vigorous creative agreement. And while the game gives you some fictional elements to work with (the cards of the initial set-up, and then again the tilt halfway through), these are all chosen from a set of possibilities by the players and interpreted and used only as they see fit. This means that playing Fiasco tends to incorporate heavy elements of collaborative screenwriting and improv theatre. Which is fun! Great, great fun!

But… in the end I’m with Baker. Do I want to play that brash but deeply caring trollbabe who is trying to convince the young woman to leave her abusive husband? Do I want to be down to my last reroll, so that this d10 has to end up 7 or higher and otherwise the conflict is over, and she’ll stay here with that son of a bitch, forever, and all my character will be able to do is move on with a little bit more darkness in her soul? You bet. Give me the strong sauce.

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