This guest post is by Stephen “Stepto” Toulouse. He made a comedy album you can get on Bandcamp (cheapest option), iTunes or Amazon and wrote a book called A Microsoft Life. He blogs at Stepto.com.
If I had to pick three of my new favorite games my gaming circle has introduced me to this past year, it would be Fiasco, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Mythender. All three of these games involve basic improvisation skills and TERRIFY ME BEYOND ALL BELIEF. They are also terribly fun not just to play but to kibitz as well. (note I’m using the non-dick meaning of kibitz where you don’t constantly interrupt the game.)
The problem is I travel in some circles that involve people who write or perform for a living, so playing Fiasco with Wil, or Munchausen with Pat Rothfoss and Mike Selniker, or Mythender with Ryan Macklin can be mega super daunting. I’ll give you a for-instance: during a Fiasco game, Wil’s character was to meet my friend Eric’s character in a cheap bar. It was not the kind of place Wil’s character would ever go if he didn’t have to. Here’s how Wil opened the scene:
“I sit in the seedy bar, noting with disdain and disgust the rips in the vinyl cover of the dirty booth. With a sigh I slowly stir my cheap blend scotch rocks (the best this place could offer) with my finger watching the oily swirls of the cheap booze and the water. The tumbler is dirty and heavy, made from some poor cloudy looking glass. The smell of greasy beef coming from the kitchen well within view of the dining area is making me sick. I see [Eric’s Character] enter from the side, he looks shabby as always.”*
I mean, that’s how he opened. Eric played up to it perfectly but if you’re playing these games and people who have a lot of fun and a background of creativity and improv are playing with you, it can quickly put you in performance anxiety mode.
Thusly, I have tips for playing these games. These aren’t improv or story telling tips, they are just tips centered around the game experience itself.
#1: Don’t feel like you have to play to win.
Yes, most of these games have a form of scoring. But their structure is far more oriented towards everyone enjoying the game itself. I’ve “lost” many a game of Fiasco but much like losing at Chess I had a great time playing and learned something. I find I can relax my mind in these games quite a bit by simply not caring if I win.
#2: Role playing skills vary widely among people, don’t force yourself to try and play at the level of others.
This is by far the handiest tip I can give you, because it helps me the most. So when someone at the table absolutely knocks a scene or moment out of the park, don’t let that little voice who says “Well, I shouldn’t even speak at this point that was so good” stop you. I’ve played Fiasco games where the best role player or improv person actually didn’t win. It’s not about who can consistently turn their scenes into Shakespeare.
#3: Embrace the absurd or impossible when it’s presented.
This is by far the hardest tip to do. During a session of Munchausen, Pat was explaining how his rudimentary space ship reached the moon when Mike interjected and introduced a game challenge:
“But sir, what I do not understand is how you managed the trip being dead the entire time!”
Had I gotten that challenge I would have locked up and probably pushed back the challenge (you can do that in Munchausen), but it’s such a good challenge the other players would have forced it back on me. Pat took it in stride and wove a quick aside of what it truly means to be dead. I saw a similar scene in Fiasco where one character started off the scene describing the other character standing over their character’s own dead body, bloody knife in hand. This forced the other player to completely change what they were planning and explain how the situation came to be.
This is a hard piece of advice for these games because situations like this can happen often and force you into total and pure improv even if you already felt good about where you wanted to go. Take a moment, think about how you really would explain such a thing, and go for it.
#4: Have fun. It’s perfectly ok to stumble a bit or fail.
The most frustrating thing about these games is when people want to play them but feel they just aren’t good enough. Chances are if you are playing these games you are playing them with friends or, believe me, soon to be friends. If you take a moment to react to dialogue, or feel a story you are telling just isn’t working out, that’s ok. Sometimes there’s great fun in these games to playing in a more minimalist fashion with story telling and instead play the role of kingmaker by using your challenges or points to decide the winner. The point being if you’re going to sit at the table because this looks like fun, no one wants you to feel like this 20 minutes into it:
I hope those tips help. If these games are new to you and you have no idea what I am talking about try watching the episode of TableTop featuring Fiasco!
*I exaggerate only slightly. That’s more or less how Wil opened the scene. It was hysterical.