My long-time boardgaming kaki (buddy) Allen has expressed interest in trying out Role Playing Games (RPG's) for quite some time. RPG's are a different genre from the boardgames we are used to playing. When I think of RPG's, the picture in my mind is a bunch of guys sitting around a table playing with paper, pens and dice, and talking a lot. From outside looking in, it's alien. There are no game boards, no fancy cards, no pretty pawns. Where's the game? I have been reading boardgame articles and following boardgame news for many years. I have by now learned a little about RPG's through osmosis, because some boardgame articles mention RPG's. I just never made an effort to try one out. Finally this year Allen decided it was time to stop being NATO (No Action, Talk Only). He got in touch with some local RPG players to request for an introductory session. I grabbed the opportunity to step into the world of RPG's.
We met up with two experienced RPG players, Darren and Kai. We had discussed much beforehand about which game to do. They wanted to make sure they picked a suitable introductory game for us. They introduced to us the many different settings, game mechanisms and game styles within the RPG hobby. We eventually decided to try Fiasco. It is a highly regarded game, and it can be completed within one session (some RPG's can play for years, each session being like an episode in a TV serie, which is almost unimaginable to me, a boardgamer). However Fiasco is not exactly a typical RPG. It puts much emphasis on storytelling, and is light on game mechanisms and rules.
Like many RPG's, the game Fiasco is basically a book. You need to prepare your own sheets of paper, pens, and dice.
Fiasco has a simple game structure and a simple set of rules governing the overall process. Each time you play, in addition to these rules, you also need the content from a scenario booklet. The game comes with a few scenarios. Many other scenarios have been written and released, including some by fans of the game. We picked a scenario about a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The game is played over four rounds. In each round, every player gets to tell a story from the perspective of his character. The story must come to a point where the protagonist faces a dilemma. The active player can define the dilemma, then ask the other players to decide the outcome; or he can ask the others to state the dilemma, while he decides the outcome. The whole game is about players working together to construct an interesting story.
The game starts with a setup phase, to determine the key elements of the story from which the players will elaborate and expand the story. A set of dice is rolled, and it becomes a pool shared by all players. The scenario sheets list many story elements, all numbered 1 to 6. To select a story element, you need to claim a die with the corresponding number. Players take turns doing this to pick the elements they want in the story. These elements determine the relationships between players. Some will give a character a goal or mission. Some of these elements are described in a vague manner, to allow the players freedom to make up their own stories.
As the game is played, whenever a dilemma is resolved, the active player claims a die depending on whether the outcome is good or bad. You take a white die if the outcome is good, and black otherwise. The colours of these dice you collect during the game will matter eventually, when you reach the finale.
The dice we used. The game requires 2 white and 2 black dice per player. We used the blue dice to stand in for the black dice.
There will be a twist in the middle of the game, after Round 2. A procedure defined by the game rules helps insert this twist, and the players now need to incorporate this twist into their story. It is meant to push the story towards a climax. At the end of Round 4, there is another process to determine how the story ends for each of the characters. This is where the dice collected by the players throughout the game come into play. They are rolled to determine what kind of ending the characters get individually. You look up the scenario booklet to check what your die roll means for your character, and you need to conclude your story according to the general direction the scenario booklet says. The description given by the scenario booklet is usually quite generic, to give you space to fill in the details. E.g. it might say "although you did not achieve your goal, you have gained something unexpected instead".
Fiasco does not have many rules. The rules just provide a framework for the players to tell a story together. The scenario booklet gives you many interesting story elements to get you started, and it is very much up to you how you want to tell the story. The story elements provided by the game system are not meant to restrict you to tell a specific story. They are to assist you and to inspire you to tell an interesting story. They give you a rich and realistic setting to apply your creativity.
It's hard to imagine the game by describing the rules. I think it is best to just share the story that I made together with Allen, Kai and Darren.
Here's the starting setup of our story. My character was a retired government official, Mr Ron Brown, who used to be the governor of Bombay. He was on a secret mission to deliver a precious diamond from London to New York. He had already retired and had had no intention of being involved in any more political matters. It was upon the urging of an old friend that he agreed to take on one last mission for his government. To avoid suspicion, he kept a low profile and pretended to be just a retiree visiting relatives in USA. He was very nervous about the mission, and he was anxious not to fail his country. Darren's character, Pierre, was on the surface a French gentleman in the jewellery business. However true identity was a notorious jewellery thief, and he had his eyes on this diamond Mr Brown was carrying. He had his network of spies and had learned about this mission well before Mr Brown stepped aboard the ocean liner to New York. He had arranged to be sharing a cabin with Mr Brown. Kai's character was female, a young lady from a noble family which had now fallen from grace. The downfall of the dynasty was due to a much publicised case of jewellery theft, which was the work of Monsieur Pierre. Allen's character Douglas and Kai's character were newlyweds, and they were on their honeymoon. One twist that we had at game setup was there was going to be an incident between Mr Ron Brown and Douglas involving this exclamation: "Who are you? What are you doing in my closet?"
We needed scraps of paper to write down our character details and the relationships and shared story elements between our characters.
Based on what we had set up above, we had to start making up stories for our respective characters and weaving them into one coherent plotline.
It turned out that Mr Brown and Douglas had a rather complicated relationship, involving an incident in the servant quarters in India many years ago. Douglas was a bastard son born of rape when the young Ron Brown had taken advantage of one of his servants. So Douglas was actually Mr Brown Junior. Douglas had hated this father he had never met since young, and had always wanted to take revenge for the hardships he and his mother had to suffer. However when he encountered the frail old Brown Senior on this fateful journey, and confronted him, all past thoughts of revenge melted away. Douglas realised what he always wanted was not revenge. What he wanted was a father. He revealed his identity to Ron, who was utterly shocked. Ron, now that he is old and lonely, had many regrets in his life. He had thought he would die alone and uncared for, and had never imagined having a son in his life. He was overcome with emotion. He was overjoyed to learn that Douglas had just married, and he was going to meet his daughter-in-law soon.
Young Mrs Brown caught sight of Pierre soon after the ship set sail. It was a most hated face that she could never forget. She had vowed to avenge her family's honour, but for years she had failed to track down this notorious criminal. She had never expected to run across Pierre on her honeymoon trip. Pierre did not recognise Mrs Brown, and had no idea he was now a big red target.
This voyage that our protagonists were on was not just any other voyage. It was a historical voyage meant to set a new world record for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. To the captain, this was to be the pinnacle of his career. So he was much dismayed when an officer brought news to him that another ship, of a rival captain, was setting sail on the exact same day, and was planning to beat him to making the new world record. He was even more dismayed when his head of engineering came up to him to report a problem with the ship's engines. It was not something he could fix quickly, and he advised not to overstretch the engines this trip. The captain decided he was not going to be discouraged. He knew his ship and his crew, and he knew they were going to make history. He was not going to give up easily.
Mrs Brown overhead the conversation between the captain and the head of engineering, and decided this was an opportunity she must not let slip. She knew the moment the ship reached New York, the elusive Pierre would again disappear. If she could cause an engine failure and strand the ship in the middle of the ocean, Pierre would have nowhere to run, and she would be able to plot his demise.
The resourceful Mrs Brown managed to pull it off. An explosion shook the whole ship. Pierre thought this was the perfect opportunity. In the confusion after this loud explosion, he managed to trick Ron into grabbing a fake briefcase with a fake diamond, both of which Pierre had prepared beforehand. With Ron steadfastly guarding the fake briefcase and running around trying to hide from would-be robbers, Pierre had plenty of time to figure out where the real briefcase was in the cabin he shared with the old man. Or so he thought. Young Mrs Brown was much more effective than she herself had expected. The incident she triggered led to a major fire which was now threatening to sink the ship, as opposed to just causing a delay in holiday plans. Now she had even less time to figure out how to get Pierre. It was now or never, she thought, and threw all inhibitions aside. In the chaos of passengers rushing to the lifeboats, she found Pierre, and headed straight for him, armed with a sledgehammer. Pierre was alert and seasoned enough to know trouble when he saw it, and his instincts told him to RUN PIERRE RUN. Thus began a desperate hunt amidst the fire, smoke, screams and fleeing passengers.
Unbeknownst to Ron, he had been secretly tailed and protected by two British intelligence agents traveling as a holidaying couple. With all hell breaking loose, they now approached him and revealed their identities, and made sure he still had the diamond with him. A Royal Navy cruiser was in the area, and the agents called for support. You could say things were getting serious.
Mrs Brown did not manage to get to Pierre. In an untimely explosion, they were both flung into the sea, and she could no longer find him. Ron and Douglas managed to get to a lifeboat. Douglas had expected his wife to join him soon, and when she did not come, he jumped off to search for her. Ron's heart sank as he watched his son plunge into the burning wreck. Was he going to lose his newfound son and daughter-in-law?
Thankfully Douglas did manage to find his bride. However by the time they made their way back to the lifeboat, it had become so full that it threatened to topple over when the other survivors tried to pull them aboard. The survivors immediately starting looking for items to throw out to make space for the young couple. Ron still had the briefcase and diamond, clutched protectively against his chest. It was at that moment that he realised what he truly valued in life. The briefcase and the diamond were unceremoniously dumped, and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, never to be seen again. The Brown family was reunited.
Of course, that was the fake briefcase and fake diamond. The real diamond was found and retrieved by the British agents with the help of the navy. On the other side of the sinking ship, away from the lifeboat the Brown family was on, Pierre was fished out of the water by the navy men on the cruiser. After many years of avoiding the authorities, he was finally captured. However he was no ordinary burglar. With his extensive network of criminals in high places, it was only a matter of time before he slipped away.
Young Mrs Brown failed to take revenge, and ended up in prison. The whole ship were witnesses to her murder attempt afterall. Douglas being the loyal husband visited her regularly, and awaited her release. Ron had almost failed his country and disappointed his old friend, but these no longer mattered that much now.
This story that the four of us made up together was quite a wild ride. Crazy twists came out of nowhere, and we had to think on our feet to make everything jive. Some of the twists were provided by the game mechanism, some were our own ideas. We needed to harmonise all these story elements, to make sure the story still held, and we also wanted to make it a fun story. Fiasco is very different from the boardgames I normally play. It is an exercise of joint scriptwriting. The game rules and the scenario booklet provide a framework for us to employ our imagination. Normal boardgames don't provide such an experience.
We played for about two hours, and it was an immersive, engaging two hours. Everyone had to pay close attention to the stories told by everyone else, because when it comes to your turn, you have to make sure the story told from the perspective of your character merges well with the stories of all other characters. I was a little sticky about telling a plausible story, and didn't like plot lines that went too far. The story must make sense. Not that we can't have surprises or close-to-impossible events, but the whole thing has to be convincing. If anyone suggests too crazy an idea, I tend to try to steer the story back towards a more logical or reasonable path. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or bad. You are supposed to exercise your imagination in RPG's, but how do you strike a balance between that and telling a plausible story?
RPG players have an excellent command of English. I know my sample is small - just Darren and Kai - but that was one of the biggest impressions I had from my first foray into RPG's. There were some words that they used which I did not understand and had to ask what they meant. And I thought my English was good. They truly dove into the game and acted out their roles, like what actors and drama artists do. In boardgamer circles I rarely see this level of immersion. Boardgames are more about knowing and using the rules well and doing your utmost best to defeat your opponents. You are absorbed in the competition. You are a manipulator of the game system, standing apart from the game world, which you try to control to ultimately give you victory. In RPG's, you are part of the game world, and you mould and grow your game world as you play. You are building an experience, and not trying to defeat your fellow players. Fiasco was a refreshing experience for me.
It occurred to me that Fiasco would work fine in any language. You just need to translate the scenario booklet. It would be interesting to try this with my children. It may inspire them and ignite their creativity.
Darren and Kai shared with me that in most RPG's there is a Gamemaster (GM) who controls how the story goes. The Gamemaster sets the scenario and tells the players what they see and what happens to them. The players decide what they want to do and how they want to handle situations they face. Then the Gamemaster tells them the consequences of their choices. Often this involves some success-or-fail die roll, where the success rate depends on the skills of the characters involved. Many RPG's have very detailed rules on the skills of characters, how they can be upgraded, combat resolution and so on. Fiasco is unlike most other RPG's. It is light on rules, and its focus is the storytelling. Unburdened by rules, players have much freedom to do what they like. There is no GM, because everyone is a GM.
One of the genres in RPG's is the mystery genre, where the GM sets up a case for the other players to solve. I think the next time I try an RPG I'll go for this type.