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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.