Sunday, 17 January 2016

Bloodwaddle (A brief Fiasco game summary)

We tried Fiasco for the first time last week, and I didn't immediately have time to write down everything I remembered about it. I wish I had, because I had been worried that the excellent Tabletop play-through of the game was misleadingly good (because they had such unusually excellent and expressive players, all professional storytellers) and that our amateurish attempt at creating a story from scratch would never reach that level. But it's such an excellent rules system, so cleverly made, and we're apparently not half as inexperienced at this stuff as I worried - it is still basically roleplaying - so everything turned out great. The story ran smoothly without feeling too obvious or forced, and we had a great time.

We used 'The Ice' playset, and as one of the first elements to come up was a bookie/gambler relationship between two of the characters, everything was built around trying to justify that. And so we had a tale of murder and deception flowing out of the illegal penguin-fighting ring of MacMurdo Station. Please bear in mind that we took this all dead seriously, even though we'd all already watched this video clip in our pre-game research into how penguins fight:

The cast was as follows:
Steve Kent, glaciologist, here for the first time, bunk mate of Pendlebrook (Damon)
James Pendlebrook, structural engineer, who found the body with Ekstein (Scot)
Janave Ekstein, outpost accountant who runs the penguin fights, owns Smitty's gambling debt (Sita)
Smitty, seal expert and research rival of Grant (Jamie)
Gavin Grant, ornithologist and fellow first-timer with Kent (me)
Cookie, another structural engineer, not a cook, who was found shot dead out on the ice at the start of play (NPC)

I immediately love how all the major defining elements are always shared between at least two players, never tied to only one of them, so that anyone tugging on any thread will eventually cause all other threads to shift too. We added official occupations to our character descriptions to help explain why they're there at all, but where traditional RPGs would almost entirely focus on what an individual character is, what it can do, what its skills are, what its job is, those are all fairly trivial, unnecessary considerations in Fiasco. I'm sure there's a Dumbo's Feather analogy here.

I also liked how easy it felt, unavoidable sometimes, to leap back and forth along the time line, doing flashbacks to fill in missing details as if it were perfectly natural and not (as it usually feels) like an erroneous break in the smooth flow of the plot.

I wish I'd written even minor notes about the order in which things played out, but it was roughly something like this:

Having stumbled across the body of Cookie and the gun that killed him, Ekstein wants to cover it all up and make sure she can arrange one last big illegal gambling event out at Ross Island (where the penguins are and the authorities are not) before winter darkness sets too fully and the fights have to stop until spring. Pendlebrook, on the other hand, is eager to get Kent involved in the investigation, and since Kent had once walked in on Cookie plucking and cooking dead penguins (I forget if this was to eat the evidence or just because he liked eating them, but either way, it's where his nickname came from), Kent was eager to help uncover more of the station's dark side. Grant tried to convince the station chief (we never looked up the correct title for the head person at MacMurdo) that Smitty was behind the suspicious decline in penguin numbers, but lacked solid enough proof. Meanwhile, Smitty had hatched a scheme to get out of debt by modifying a dodgy penguin (wings sewn to its sides and similar sabotage) and using it to rig a fight.

Ekstein and Smitty found mutual usefulness, stumbling into each other out at Ross Island, one dragging a dead man, the other carrying an obviously mutilated penguin. Smitty helped Ekstein hide the body, so that it wouldn't cause her gambling event to be cancelled, and in turn Smitty used this to blackmail Ekstein into slipping his dodgy penguin into the fights for him. Just as they'd agreed to this, Pendlebrook, Kent and Grant surprised them, on the literal trail of the murder. Grant, furious at catching Smitty red-handed with an abused penguin, bolted straight for him, and Smitty bolted straight out into the gathering evening mist. Grant stumbled on the loose snow over the freshly-moved body, losing sight of Smitty, but revealing the body to all.

Smitty managed to sneak back and slip Cookie's body away, sinking it into the ocean near an ice-fishing location he knew well. Ekstein was brought to MacMurdo, but with no body, the authorities saw no reason to hold her. She took the opportunity to make one last effort to secretly get a few people to the fights. She hadn't counted on so many people being excited about it, with rumours of the event spreading by word of mouth, and so the crowd ended up being far larger than expected. Pendlebrook alone tracked Smitty down to an ice-fishing hut, and the two of them negotiated a plan for Smitty's debt to be cancelled if he'd take the fall for Cookie's death. At the same time, Kent was searching through his bunk mate's belongings, and discovered evidence that Pendlebrook had a strong motive to kill Cookie (I forget what it was, something to do with accounting records, which also tied Ekstein in?). Grant, now armed with plenty of solid evidence, arranged for an official raid on the fights that evening, specifically aiming to pin it on Smitty. Pendlebrook came back to his room and realised that Kent must have found the evidence against him.

Storming in with MacMurdo's security people, the gambling crowd quickly broke into panicked flight in all directions. Grant spotted Smitty, but was knocked unconscious (by something?), and Smitty got away clean. Pendlebrook used the chaos to booby trap Kent's snowmobile, setting engineering explosives inside of it. Kent was extremely badly injured by this trap, with the explosion only adding to the chaos.

In the end, Kent's Antarctic career ended in disability and lifelong pain. Pendlebrook successfully covered up his first murder and his second attempted murder, but seeing Kent suffering in the base hospital brought him sudden realisation that it was his own friends he had been hurting. He fled to South America, never able to let go of the guilt. Ekstein was jailed for the illegal gambling ring. Grant continued his research, but lost most of his funding to Smitty, who not only escaped blame for everything, but was promoted and given a huge funding increase, partly taken from Grant's funds. With Ekstein gone, Smitty took over the penguin-fighting ring himself, with many others now in debt to him.

I'm sure there was plenty more to it than that, but this is all my frail human memory retained. Perhaps the other players can add more in the comments.

It might not be the absolute most original story ever, but it's clearly a functional plot, assembled from a small number of very simple random elements, which is cool. And the really exciting part, which is maybe lost in the re-telling now, is watching it all emerge in front of your eyes, as if from nowhere. If you've ever tried to invent a whole story from scratch, and especially if you're very familiar with writer's block, it's astounding how this game just pours a whole story out like it's the easiest thing in the world. It's a beautiful process, and Bully Pullpit can rightly be proud of it.

It's also a very social game. Some games, including even some roleplaying games, push players to keep quiet, to focus on their own characters/resources/pieces/whatever and treat other players as distant obstacles on the board. But Fiasco works best when everyone is talking to everyone else simultaneously, in an environment where creative ideas are encouraged and enjoyed. I really like that.

I look forward to trying it again, and I hope the basic mechanics can be easily adapted to other genres. I can see all sorts of other good uses for it already.