Fiasco Play Summary

The evolution of Jason Morningstar’s dice mechanics

Jason Morningstar is one of the most well-known RPG designers in this particular indie community, and his game Fiasco is one of its few true break-out hits. One of the things that impressed me about his design is his efficiency and nowhere is this clearer than in how he uses dice.

In this retrospective I look back at the two of the games Morningstar wrote before Fiasco and how his use of dice evolved before and after.

 

Before Fiasco

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach (2006)

Shab Al Hiri RoachIn The Roach, Morningstar uses dice for conflict resolution. The conflict resolution system itself follows a design approach popular at the time: a conflict arises, the players set the stakes and then roll dice to work out who wins.

The number and type of dice (D4, D6, D8, D10, D12) rolled depends on each character’s standing, the traits they’ve narrated into the conflict and whether they’re being assisted (by others or by the Roach). The player with the highest value on a single die wins, whatever stakes they set are then integrated into the fiction and the scene ends.

In The Roach, conflict between characters is an inherent part of the game, each scene must include one and it’s the only way to gain Reputation (the game currency used to determine the winner).

Breaking this down:

  • The game uses all the regular polyhedral dice bar a D20
  • The dice are used in conflict resolution
  • Conflicts are required each scene, so the dice are used each scene
  • The system grants you better and more dice when you act to your strengths and interests, so it encourages players to enter conflicts relevant to where their character is strong, step back where they are weak and narrate in their characters traits
  • The dice determine which side wins and the outcome is determined before the roll as part of the initial setting of stakes.

 

So, in The Shab-al-Hiri Roach, Morningstar uses dice:

  1. For conflict resolution
  2. To encourage players to play their character’s role by giving them a mechanical bonus.

 

Grey Ranks (2007)

Grey RanksThe Roach pits the players against each other, however Grey Ranks has the players unified against a common foe; so while – as in The Roach – every scene culminates in dice being rolled, Morningstar moves away from talking about resolving ‘conflicts’ and instead writes about resolving ‘scenes’ or the mission as a whole (though he still writes ‘when the scene reaches the moment of conflict’ when describing resolving Personal Scenes).

The Roach encourages players to narrate their character traits into a resolution. In Grey Ranks, Morningstar flips this and has the outcome of the resolution change the emotional state of the characters.

Grey Ranks is a game about teenagers going through extreme circumstances and so is designed to have their characters grow and change through the course of the story. The game removes the mechanical bonus to the dice roll for playing to character, trusting for players to do this anyway. Instead of using character to influence the dice, it flips this and uses dice to influence character. The result of a roll moves a character on an emotional grid and so provides guidance as to how to play them in the future. The resolution mechanics are not just informing the plot, they’re informing character portrayal as well.

Likewise, what carrots Morningstar does use encourage players to change their character (through burning Reputation dice) or expose and destroy things their characters hold dear (allowing rerolls). These bonuses are limited though. In Roach, traits could be used to add dice again and again, but in Grey Ranks using these dice exhausted them, meaning that it was never an automatic choice to use them.

Additionally, in each game round (chapter) each player has two scenes (a mission scene and a personal scene). As each player always contributes just one die to each scene, Morningstar uses the dice as trackers. Each player starts with two dice in front of them and gives up one per scene, so it’s always clear how many scenes are left in the chapter.

Breaking this down:

  • The game uses all the regular polyhedral dice bar a D20
  • The dice are used in scene resolution, so the dice are used each scene
  • The system grants you benefits when you incorporate things your character holds dear or as part of changing the character’s reputation.
  • These benefits are limited and are likely to be exhausted.
  • The result of dice rolls changes the emotional state of the characters and so provokes different play
  • The dice determine whether the players succeed and the outcome is pre-determined as part of the initial mission briefing or scene framing
  • The number of dice are used to track the number of scenes played in a chapter.

So, in Grey Ranks, Morningstar uses dice:

  1. For scene resolution
  2. To encourage players to incorporate things their characters love and change their characters’ emotional state by giving them a mechanical benefit
  3. To provoke players to play their characters differently
  4. To track the number of scenes played.

 

Fiasco (2009)

FiascoIn Fiasco, Morningstar hugely simplifies his use of dice. Gone are the multiple polyhedrals, with their concept of improving odds by increasing d size, instead Fiasco solely uses the traditional d6… a lot of them.

Morningstar carries over the basic idea of using dice to resolve a scene; however instead of needing a roll to beat a target number, he eliminates chance and turns success into a limited resource. The game starts with four dice per player – 2 white, 2 black – in a central pool. If a scene resolves with a white die, it ends well for the spotlight character, if black then it ends poorly. With one scene per die, this design tracks the number of scenes played, speeds things up and ensures that things will go right as often they go wrong, but unlike The Roach and Grey Ranks what will go right or wrong hasn’t been set. Morningstar doesn’t write about success or failures, but rather positive and negative outcomes. In Fiasco, he deliberately proposes a free-wheeling style for scene resolution, without insisting on particular stakes or results from either outcome.

He’s able to do that because Fiasco does not mechanically serve as an effective game. In both The Roach and Grey Ranks there is a mechanical game in the middle of play, gambling and building reputation in Roach and winning Personal and Mission scenes in Grey Ranks; in Fiasco the core game is reduced down to trying to acquire more of one colour of dice than the other. Morningstar made this mechanical game so basic and easy to rig that it’s socially frowned upon to play to win it (by, for example, insisting on resolving all your character’s Act 2 scenes solely that you can then choose the resolution dice you want).

By undermining the mechanical game, Morningstar makes Fiasco purely about play. Fiasco neither provides a mechanical benefit for playing your character, nor mechanically prods how the character should be played. Even the random element of the dice is ignored for scene resolution; as far as resolution is concerned Fiasco could be played with just black and white counters. Instead, the random aspect of the dice is reserved for something new.

Fiasco is the only one of the games without a single setting. Settings are suggested by the playset the players choose for the game and then the specifics of the setup are decided by the players rolling all the dice and assigning them to line items in the playset’s tables for relationships, goals, objects and locations.

Half-way through, the game hits the Tilt. Players roll the dice they have collected and the two highest get to add new content to drive the action of the second half based on a roll of the remaining unallocated dice. These add new events can be used to drive the action in the second half. Finally, at the end, the players roll all the dice their character has collected and uses the result as inspiration for their epilogues.

Breaking this down:

  • The game uses just D6s
  • The dice are used in scene resolution, so the dice are used each scene
  • The dice aren’t rolled for resolution, however, instead there are a limited number of positive and negative outcomes and these will be exhausted
  • The exact interpretation of the outcome is not predetermined but created through play in the moment
  • There are no mechanical benefits
  • The dice are used in setting creation to help limit the options available in the playset
  • The dice are used to provoke new events in the second half of the game and guide the epilogues
  • The number of dice are used to track the number of scenes played.

 

So, in Fiasco, Morningstar uses dice:

  1. For scene resolution
  2. To limit choices in set-up and facilitate decisions
  3. To provoke new events
  4. To track the number of scenes played
  5. To guide how each character’s story ends.

 

Beyond Fiasco

Durance (2012)

duranceIn Durance, Morningstar boils down the dice needed to 3d6. Now instead of conflict or scene resolution, he writes that they should be used to resolve uncertainty; they’re not needed “when the outcome of a situation is obvious or necessary, either fictionally or thematically.”

In Fiasco the choice of dice offer a positive or negative outcome; in Durance the outcome is both more specific but also more challenging. At the start, the players establish three Drives for the colony; two – savagery and servility – are preset and the third is chosen by the players. A different coloured die is assigned to each of these drives and – to resolve uncertainty – the current guide rolls two of them (leaving the third set to whichever number it last rolled). The guide compares the dice in a specific order and is left with one (or sometimes two) drives to use to resolve the uncertainty.

Rather than The Roach and Grey Ranks where the dice decide which of two predetermined outcomes occur, or Fiasco where the choice of die simply guides that the outcome should be positive or negative, the dice in Durance guide the mode by which the players should resolve the uncertainty. These modes are always one of the games Drives (essentially the game’s themes) helping deliver a consistent tone within the story, but they are more challenging because they move us past the idea of the dice resolution dictating success or failure. Though he provides a sidebar rule where players really need to help to resolve which factions wins and which loses, Morningstar’s intention is that this decision should really be made by the players, using the dice only as inspiration.

But Morningstar finds even further use in the dice than that: after a roll if the dice shows doubles then it triggers a new event in the fiction; if they show triples then the resolution is interrupted by a major event that will have a significant impact on the progression of the story. Developed from the Tilt in Fiasco, Morningstar uses the same roll to resolve uncertainty to also add new material to help drive play.

Breaking this down:

  • The game uses just 3d6
  • The dice are used to resolve uncertainty and so may not be used in every scene (or possibly at all)
  • The dice are rolled for resolution, but do not award victory to a side but rather set the tone that the players must then interpret to resolve the uncertainty
  • The players retain an element of choice in which 2 dice to roll that can influence which Drive wins
  • The exact interpretation of the outcome is not predetermined but created through play in the moment
  • There are no mechanical benefits
  • The dice create new both small and major events to power the story forwards
  • As there is no wider game structure, the dice are not used to mark scene progression.

 

So, in Durance, Morningstar uses dice:

  1. For uncertainty resolution
  2. To reinforce the game’s themes
  3. To provoke new events.

Themes

I named this article the evolution of Jason Morningstar’s dice mechanics, but that wasn’t to consider that their final state was innately superior to the first. Each mechanic was designed specifically for each game. The dice in Grey Ranks provoke development in the characters because they’re teenagers and they’re supposed to develop, while the characters in The Roach and Fiasco are more fundamentally set in their ways. In Durance, Morningstar uses Oaths as a different tool instead of dice to provoke character change, just as he uses player elimination to create different starting situations in place of the dice in Fiasco.

In spite of the dice mechanics being tailored for each game, there are trends in his use of dice across these games.

The first is simplification: The Roach and Grey Ranks had multiple types of polyhedrals, Durance only 3d6.

The second is a transition from resolution to inspiration. The roll of the dice in The Roach determines who wins and who loses with stakes preset, the choice of die in Fiasco determines a positive or negative outcome but what actually happens is down to the spotlight player, and Durance does not even resolve good or bad but rather sets the tone the play should go. In truth, this second theme is one of increasing trust in the players: a trust that they can navigate their story together even in overtly settings that ostensibly put their characters at odds without a mechanic that dictates who succeeds in any given conflict.

The third is efficiency, Morningstar’s designs have pushed to make the dice do more: to track progress, to provoke character change, to help create a setting or to add new content. Morningstar makes his dice work for their place on the table.

From this retrospective, Fiasco reads like the high-water mark with the 5 different ways Morningstar uses the same pool of D6s. Because, unlike Fiasco, Durance doesn’t have a specific structure the dice couldn’t be used for tracking scenes or epilogues, but still – I think – they could have been used for more. For example, rather than just being used to resolve that single uncertainty, the current value of the dice for each Drive could set the general atmosphere; the dominant Drive could inform everyone’s decisions during play and thereby provoke players who wished for a different Drive to dominate to push for moments of uncertainty.

There is also undoubtedly something lost in this evolution as well and that is the mechanical game: the measured satisfaction of engaging a combination of assets and abilities to build such a pool of dice as to devastate your opponents or the elation in chancing it all on a single roll and have it turn up a critical.

These types of joy are completely valid, but they come from a type of rpg in which the player is encouraged to try to win the game mechanically. Instead – across these four games – by simplifying, trusting and being efficient, Morningstar wishes us the joy of the exploration of all sides of a character and of a story well-told together.

Epistolary Richard

Epistolary Richard is one of the co-ordinators of the London Indie RPG meetup. He’s a frequent game-runner at the meet and a variety of conventions and he hosts an annual year in review seminar for indie games at Dragonmeet.

One Comment

  1. Hey Rich,

    I have recently threatened to run some old school indie including My Life with Master and Shab al hiri Roach. Naturally I was pointed toward this article.

    I enjoyed the read so thank you for that. I particularly liked the statement “Each mechanic was designed specifically for each game.” This right here, this is my number one of deciding if I’m going to like a system of not. The mechanic MUST tie into the system and drive the story.

    The example I’d use with the Roach is simple – accepting the Roach as your master to gain that extra D12 in conflicts is a big deal. Both in terms of your character development in the story and players reacting to the game. The characters become more powerful but also more dependant (on the Roach and its commands). At the same time the game has developed as a player has chosen to accept the Roachy fate and states there interest in ‘winning’* the game with a risky move. This system/game change drives the story to a crescendo finale. It’s beautiful when it works right. And that’s how these Roach infested stories should end.

    But like you’ve pointed out, Grey Ranks is a different game and should have a different feel it shouldn’t end in a crescendo of crazed, desperate people instead more of a whisper of what could have been.

    The mechanics in Jason’s games make this happen – or at least help this happen.

    Cheers
    Toad

    * I used winning but I’m referring to the character completing their goals at the expense of the other characters. I’m not talking about players beating other players with a tactical decision.

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