Last night, per Dan Fabulich’s recommendation, I checked out the Seattle story games meetup and played through a game each of Shock and Fiasco. Shock is about exploring social issues (whichever ones the participants choose) in the context of a science fictional future; Fiasco is about emulating the wacky, everything-goes-wrong misadventure plots typical of Coen Brothers movies. I’d heard about Fiasco before from Stephen Granade (here’s a play report of his as well as an academia-themed playset he wrote). Both were a lot of fun and went in rather goofy, unexpected directions.
Our particular play group went back and forth between actually role-playing scenes out and doing quick narration, and was really cooperative in terms of trying to get interesting, narratively satisfying outcomes for the story. Quite a few times, one player had the opportunity to help or oppose another player’s character and made the decision based on what would generate the most aesthetically effective scene. That was a lot of fun — the spirit of collaborating towards a common (if not always clearly perceived) outcome is a standout feature of this kind of play. Our group seemed to tend towards the tragic or bittersweet, preferring outcomes that were mixed success and failure for our characters.
Both games start out with a set-up portion that is less about the kind of fiddly, numerical character generation I’m used to (“…and I have two more points, so I guess I’ll put those into Swordplay: Dirty Tricks…”) and more about establishing focus points for the story.
In Fiasco, each pair of characters around the table has two things in common: each of these might be a relationship (father and son), a need (raise a large amount of money immediately), a location, or an object. (A suitcase full of Central American bearer bonds played a significant role in our game.) Those features then become the essentials around which the rest of the character can be fleshed out a bit (though because the mechanics of the game are pretty light, there’s a lot of room to make things up later rather than having to flesh out a full character up front. I found this a really evocative and satisfying process.
In Shock, each character is concerned with one of the game’s thematic issues, and has an antagonist character created specifically to drive her towards her story goals. This can (and did in our case) mean that the stories of the players can be quite unrelated to one another; but since each antagonist is run by a player as well, there are plenty of two-person scenes going on. Playing the antagonist was an interesting task, because it was all about trying to figure out how to challenge the protagonist in a way that would cause movement in an interesting story direction. As in improv, the trick is to avoid blocking the other person, but to make an offer that they can usefully build on. And it is a really satisfying and rewarding experience when the person playing your antagonist comes up with just the point of conflict that is most likely to throw your character off balance.