Academic paper on Fiasco and film

edited January 2012 in Story Games
Tavis' thread about cartography reminded me that I wanted to share the abstract for this paper I'm hoping to present at this year's Film Studies Association of Canada conference. I'm a third-year PhD candidate in Communication & Culture, and I specialize in digital game studies and cinema studies. (Bear in mind that this is intended for an audience that knows absolutely nothing about RPGs of any kind, so there are some pretty crass but necessary generalizations in the first paragraph.) If the paper gets accepted I'll post the whole thing when its written!
The Set-Up, the Tilt and the Aftermath: Role-playing the Caper-Gone-Wrong Film in Fiasco

“Tabletop” or “pen and paper” role-playing games (RPGs) are games in which players use a written system of rules to collaboratively play out an imaginary story, often using dice to introduce an element of chance. Historically, various editions of Dungeons & Dragons have dominated the form, but more recently a growing range of independently published RPGs have emerged as a self-reflexive alternative. Like mainstream RPGs, most indie games situate themselves in relation to familiar genres and settings from other cultural forms (Tolkienian fantasy, post-apocalyptic survival), but tend to emphasize improvisation, dynamic stories and character depth over the more straightforward “kill monsters, steal treasure” model popularized by Dungeons & Dragons.

A handful of these games go a step further, simulating not only the kinds of stories told in other media, but also the narrative form of those stories. Jason Morningstar's Fiasco is a particularly successful example of this approach, and is designed to simulate the kind of “cinematic tales of small-time capers gone disastrously wrong” associated with Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and especially the Coen brothers. The players take on the roles of “ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control” undertaking fatally flawed and criss-crossed plots for personal gain that “collapse into a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination.”

Gameplay proceeds as a series of “scenes” that drive the narrative towards its inexorably bloody conclusion. Unlike many other RPGs, the narrative in Fiasco is not required to be linear or centred on a unified time and place – flashbacks and “crosscutting” between different events are common, further encouraging the players to imagine the game's story as a film. The central mechanic of the game (the distribution of positive and negative dice based on the outcome of individual scenes that ultimately determine the ending of the story) the overall gameplay structure (set-up, scenes divided into two acts interrupted by a twist, and a denouement) and the specific narrative elements that the game deploys (relationships, needs, locations and objects) work in tandem with the Saul Bass-style presentation of the game and references to films that inspired it, to enable the players to produce a shared, imaginary caper-gone-wrong movie, scene by scene.

Fiasco can be seen as a sort of colloquial, playable film theory: the game must establish certain theoretical premises about the caper-gone-wrong genre in order to present it in terms of a system of game rules. Because it is a simulation, this system is selective and simplified – simulations value-laden and never neutral, always highlighting and de-emphasizing aspects of the source system. To say that Fiasco simulates the caper film is therefore to say that it presents a specific conception or interpretation of the caper film. Bearing this in mind, my analysis of Fiasco will focus on the particular elements and aspects of the caper narrative highlighted by the game's system of rules and its paratextual framing, and how they relate to the cinematic forms and conventions they simulate.


  • Sounds really cool, Felan. Are you in York's program?
  • I am indeed!
  • edited January 2012
    That's awesome. I looked at that program back when I was considering being a game studies academic. Hopefully it's working out for you!

    The primogenitor of indie-RPG-as-film-studies-treatise is really Primetime Adventures (though of course there are earlier examples of film-inspired games, including the much-maligned Lawnmover Man!). I'm not sure how directly PTA inspired Fiasco (I imagine a lot), but it influenced the language of indie RPGs and you still see it in things like "scene framing" and the use of phrases like "and...cut!" at the end of scenes. Fiasco and Geiger Counter were effectively parallel developments in an attempt to make GM-less, cooperative, single-session, film-inspired games that would be super easy to pick up and play with folks unfamiliar with hippie games. Both of them have been very successful in that regard, though Geiger's still unfinished. They have a lot in common with PTA, but the shift to movies led them both to a unified narrative arc (measured, in both cases, by dice) rather than the individual narrative arcs of PTA. They both also use rotating scene-framing responsibilities and use strong genre tropes as a way of getting everyone on the same page in the absense of a GM. PTA's influence is very much evident in the focus on film-related concepts like "sets" (locations), "props," motivations, and relationships.

    In any event, just some additional context, which may or may not be relevant to what you want to talk about.
  • Oh cool, it's a great program, although gigantic. I constantly meet people who I've never seen before and then find out they're ComCulters.

    I'm a big fan of PTA (haven't tried Geiger... yet), and I seriously considered making the paper about both PTA and Fiasco, but I decided not to just for the sake of doing an in-depth case study. I chose Fiasco because I'm more familiar with film studies than with TV studies (and also because I love the caper-gone-wrong genre), but there's a lot going on in PTA that would be really interesting to talk about. Frequently the rule book reads like a TV screenwriting manual, which I think is fascinating. Plus, it's even more explicit about encouraging the use the language of the television industry as a framing device (the pitch, the producer), televisual form and style to describe scenes (fade outs, pans, smash cuts, etc) in conjunction with the serialized narrative form of popular TV shows. Great stuff! If the Fiasco paper goes well maybe I'll expand it for publication to include other games, or write a sequel paper (or I guess a prequel, since PTA came first).
  • Shouldn't they be ComCultists? :)

    Yeah, I was just suggesting that PTA might be worth a footnote, for all the influence it's had on later games. Believe me, I'm all about single case studies rather than trying to do everything at once.

    Good luck with your submission and let us know how it goes! Having more academic papers out there about games gives us all more things to cite, so it's hugely beneficial. Maybe eventually we won't have to reinvent the wheel every time.
  • Tangentially It'd be interesting to trace back the history of direct TV/film media-inspired RPGs. Once you brought it up, JWalt, the first thing that came to mind was It Came From the Late, Late Show.
  • Totally. Didn't Theatrix do some of this too? I know Feng Shui is famous for drawing on movie tropes.
  • And the Italian game On Stage!.
  • I would love to read such a history. Generally, I think actual, critical histories of gaming systems over time are lacking in the literature - those that do exist are too linear, too focused on D&D/fantasy games, or too celebratory.
  • Emily Boss, Ivan Vaghi and I are finishing a paper we'll present at Solumkhota this year that surveys GMless play. Baby steps.
  • Nick Mizer, an anthropology PhD student who organized the panel at ACA/PCA that I posted about in the mapping thread, has a mailing list for folks interested in academic perspectives on RPGs. Drop me a line at if you want me to make an introduction!

    Isn't it true that a screenwriting book was very influential to Ron Edwards' thinking?
  • He talks about Egri all the time, or he did.
  • There's a difference between drawing on tropes and delivering a mechanical structure that creates the narrative form. For an early example of the latter - although later than It Came from the Late, Late, Late Show - see Extreme Vengeance.
  • I actually own It Came From The Late, Late, Late Show AND the supplement. It's...quirky.
  • That sounds neat, Jason - post it on here when it's finished. :)

    If anyone does end up going to Solumkhota, you should check out this more-specifically-academic seminar/conference/thing that's happening in conjunction at U of Tampere: I'd love to go but my conference budget (both monetary and temporal) is tapped for the year.

    Paul: Certainly, there is a difference, but they aren't completely separate either. I think they can be seen as different approaches to the same general drive to re-create or simulate stories from other popular cultural forms, as with any two games with similar subject matter represented differently.
  • One of these days, I'd really love to organize an edited academic volume on tabletop games that really tries to do a proper overview of the medium, but I'm not sure I know enough of the right people for that yet, or that we're working from similar-enough perspectives to be able to produce a bunch of papers that are actually in dialogue with each other, rather than stand-alone pieces about separate topics.
  • Yeah, it's a long process for an emerging field (digital game studies is only a bit further along). For now we're stuck with (ugh) Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy and its ilk.
  • I was actually really happy to see Designers & Dungeons published this year, which at least gets us a relatively-authoritative industry history to reference and argue about. Definitely a major step forward.
  • edited June 2012
    So, the paper was accepted and I presented it this past Friday during the Film Studies Association of Canada annual conference in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. It was well-received (plus, I managed to out a room full of film scholars as current or former D&D nerds).

    You can read "The Set-Up, the Tilt and the Aftermath: Role-playing the Caper-Gone-Wrong Film in Fiasco" here in PDF form.

    While I would love to hear your thoughts on it here on Story Games, I'd appreciate it if you don't circulate the PDF or cite it without my permission. I'm hoping to present it again at some point in an updated form, or perhaps expand it into a journal article or book chapter.
  • I liked it, and agree it could be greatly expanded.
  • The description of Pathfinder as an "indie RPG" on the first page is pretty surprising.
  • Posted By: J. WaltonThe description of Pathfinder as an "indie RPG" on the first page is pretty surprising.
    Hahaha, I knew a Story Gamer would take issue with that. Paizo is an independent company in the sense of not being owned by a conglomerate like Hasbro. But even if you don't buy that, the reference to Pathfinder is simply to demonstrate to a non-gaming audience that there has been a shift away from D&D as the monolithic centre of RPG business and culture, not to align it directly with the communities of practice you and I would call "indie."
  • For me the issue is that Paizo, although independant, produces products based on a pretty mainstream and traditional rules set. In fact, it's so reactionary, it goes so far as to produce its Pathfinder products for a community that rejects evolution in the mainstream product from 3e to 4e.
  • Honestly, I'm really not interested in discussing whether Paizo is independent or not. Like I said above, the purpose of that sentence is purely to establish some context for my discussion of Fiasco, for people who have never heard of any RPGs other than D&D.
  • edited June 2012
    Posted By: Felan...for people who have never heard of any RPGs other than D&D.
    It's funny that you would choose that as your presumed 'audience'.

    As I read the paper, I was thinking that it is very dependent on that very assumption, throughout: that the reader would be sufficiently-familiar with D&D that unfamiliar ideas could be established simply by contrasting them with D&D as a known quantity.

    I don't know if that's a wise presumption to make.

    In that vein, I'd suggest changing 'play out' in the first sentence to something more concrete, such as "verbalize".
  • edited June 2012
    Thanks for your comment! This was written for a specific conference - the Film Studies Association of Canada - where I knew most people who would come to my panel would at least be familiar with stereotypical representations gaming in general if not D&D specifically. Likewise, if I pursue the paper further it will be for an academic game studies audience. So, I don't think it's overly presumptuous to use D&D in the first few paragraphs as a way of contextualizing what is unique about Fiasco.

    (Side note: I think people would be vastly more baffled by the word "verbalize" than "play out." Collectively verbalize a story? "Play out" is a colloquial expression that exists outside of gaming. If I were to change it, "tell" or "perform" would suffice.)

    EDIT: I hope my responses here don't seem brusque, but there are only three comparisons to D&D, and they're all in the first two pages, so it's not something I'm particularly concerned about either way. I do appreciate the input, regardless.
  • @todd

    are there other games known by the general population in US?

    Here in italy I would say that D&D is dominant. Most people that have had some game experience would probably know about Vampire too.
    Also, in UK Warhammer is huge. It seems that many (male) people I meet have played it at least once, but I am not sure it gets classified with RPGs in pop culture.


    glad to see a paper on the topic!
  • Well, sorry to get off topic. If you're addressing fiasco and film theory, then you can mention how Jason uses "monologues" at the end to allow each player to create their character's own falling action for the film-like storyline they've created - without even using the word climax.
  • @Arpie

    Certainly, and I think you'll find that the Aftermath montage sequence and its function is indeed discussed in the paper itself (see link above).
  • edited June 2012
    I meant "montages" not monologues*. Whoops. And I'm having trouble finding the link...

    *Although the montages are, technically, broken-up monologues.
  • edited June 2012
    Okay, here's something that probably isn't intelligent, but it jumped right out.

    I notice you make a nod toward ironic mode early in the paper, but then go on to address Fiasco as an emulator of the "caper" or "caper-gone-wrong." Is that a subset of stories written in this mode?

    There are caper stories where the heroes aren't doomed losers (Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" perhaps?) But Fiasco is largely driven by giving players the permission to act badly (letting players who are normally a very controlled subculture embrace the "Stop Making Sense" ethos need for improvisational performance) by prefacing everything in an imaginitive environment where your character is someone less desireable than yourself already and therefore one you are more free to make mistakes in playing. Thus the "poor impulse control" coda of the title.

    I notice you address this on pages 8 and 9, with a couple frequent references to Saul Bass (I'm thinking Man with the Golden Arm, but I'm not sure if that's the same poster design.) And you wrap it all up with a note that the caper-gone-wrong genre circulates outside the cinema. I'm curious about that, too.
  • Hmm, yeah - the caper is definitely distinct from the caper-gone-wrong (or the "fatal caper," which might be a better term for the kind of stories Fiasco produces). Not all capers-gone-wrong have the kind of ironic distance found in Coen brothers movies, but I think Fiasco adopts that irony very heavily in its particular interpretation of the sub-genre. The distancing is also produced in the playing of terrible characters - because everyone knows you don't identify with the idiotic small-time crook you're playing there's a natural distance (while in more heroic games, maybe you do identify with the good guy you're playing). Choosing to have your character make a mistake, rather than doing what's obvious, requires a certain detachment from the fictional world.

    As for the idea of the genre circulating outside of cinema, in my conception (adopted from a host of much smarter scholars of genre), genres are complicated, incoherent, overlapping assemblages that encapsulate all kinds of divergent ideas in many different media. Some examples of capers-gone-wrong in other media might include the Kane & Lynch video games, the Parker novels (and their various film and comic book adaptations), and even some genres of popular music (Ghostface Killah's "Maxine" is a fantastic example). The idea of the genre is mobilized in different ways and in many different contexts - if you're interested, the book More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts does a great job of demonstrating how to understand genres, tendencies, cycles and movements in this way.
  • For posterity, an updated/streamlined version of this paper was just published over at Analog Game Studies:
  • Thanks! I'd missed this thread before.

    As for RPG games mimicking television, let's not forget Soap! - which, I hear, was a fantastic game, and very ground-breaking.
  • As for RPG games mimicking television, let's not forget Soap! - which, I hear, was a fantastic game, and very ground-breaking.
    I suppose we should get Dallas in here, too. For good or ill.

    This should not be considered an endorsement of "it was all a dream" plotting.
  • As for RPG games mimicking television, let's not forget Soap! - which, I hear, was a fantastic game, and very ground-breaking.
    I suppose we should get Dallas in here, too. For good or ill.

    This should not be considered an endorsement of "it was all a dream" plotting.
    This is incredible!

  • This is incredible!

    The world is not only stranger than you imagine ...
  • For double posterity, this essay is now published in Analog Game Studies Vol. II, available for sale in print and epub, and for free in a nicely formatted PDF, alongside numerous other interesting essays:
  • Maybe you already know these, but Hillfolk DramaSystem by Robin Laws is an explicit gamification of television soap narrative; and he expands on that theory in Hamlet's Hit Points. Similarly, The Play's The Thing by Mark Diaz Truman is pretty directly a gamified form of dramatic criticism. Monsterhearts by Avery Alder is a PbtA of high-school supernatural television.
  • Maybe you already know these, but Hillfolk DramaSystem by Robin Laws is an explicit gamification of television soap narrative; and he expands on that theory in Hamlet's Hit Points. Similarly, The Play's The Thing by Mark Diaz Truman is pretty directly a gamified form of dramatic criticism. Monsterhearts by Avery Alder is a PbtA of high-school supernatural television.
    All great examples! I wish I had time to write about the broader phenomenon beyond the Fiasco case study. Maybe when I get tenure (I can dream).
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