Fiasco! An interview with Jason Morningstar

Recently, I conducted an interview with Jason Morningstar for the Danish roleplaying site RPGforum. But for all the English-speaking people out there (hello!), I’m posting it here on my blog. I hope you enjoy it and you are very welcome to ask questions – to Jason or me – in the comments.


When I last interviewed you, you were working on Grey Ranks. Somewhat later, you visited Denmark and played a Danish scenario. Could you briefly fill us in on what happened since then in your gaming life – both as a player and a designer?

It’s been a while! I designed Fiasco, I’ve got two weekly gaming groups, things are good for me. Grey Ranks went on to win a couple of awards, which was very gratifying. I’ve made a lot of friends and have really been enjoying the hobby.

Before Viking Con, what was your perception of the Danish/Nordic rpg-scene?

I’d been to Denmark before and met up with Olle Jonsson, the Jeep guy, and we’d had some conversations about the gaming culture in the nordic countries. I was particularly interested in Jeep, and that was revelatory. But I really had very little idea what was going on beyond that, what was “mainstream”, how you guys did things. I’ll point out that this is largely because you guys (in Denmark at least) don’t really have a culture of translation, and I don’t read Danish. Now that I know what sorts of things you are up to, I’m hoping Frederik Jensen’s success will spur you in that direction. I know this is arrogant and selfish but what can I do? I really want to evangelize for you in the English-speaking gamerverse.

Before we go into further detail about the possible influence that your experiences with Jeepform and Danish scenarios might have had on Fiasco, I’d like to ask if what your design goals were for Fiasco and how these differed from the goals for Grey Ranks (oh, and perhaps you could give the readers the elevator pitch for Fiasco?).

Sure. Fiasco is a game about powerful ambition and poor impulse control. You engineer, explore, and play out stupid, disastrous situations, usually at the intersection of greed, fear, and lust. It’s like making your own Coen brothers movie, in about the same amount of time it’d take to watch one.

So my goals were a pick-up-and-play game that could be completed in around two hours, consistently provided fun, and had luminously clear rules.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the rules portion of Grey Ranks – it isn’t as easy to play as it could be. And I’ve been drifting down a path toward less points of contact and lighter rules, for a while now. I’m very interested in exploring how a designer can assist a group in creating engaging, fun play – what’s necessary, what can you leave out, what are things normally unspoken that you can provide to make things easier? Vincent Baker’s “oracles”, for example, are something I’ve taken and run with in a little different direction. Also (more game designer enthusiasm here) I’m interested in finding multiple ways to create utility from simple objects as well. In Fiasco you use dice, and they are a randomizer, a story-crafting tool, and a session timer all at the same time for example.

So, I see an influence from the Nordic Scene on Fiasco. Mostly, it has to do with the “lighter touch” of the system, but also the fact that there’s a higher degree of what I would call consensus play as opposed to a sharper focus on conflict. Do you agree? And if so, would you care to elaborate on why this play-style speaks to you and why it fits the concept of Fiasco?

I agree! First of all, I have an abiding interest in how authority is distributed around the table as an important factor in play. My designs tend to be GM-less (or GM-ful, depending on your perspective), and divide authority in different ways. Typically everyone has an equal amount, although that may rise and fall throughout the game. Fiasco is very balanced that way – every player has the same authority and will have the same amount of power to author and direct the fiction at different times. I’ve learned from Jeepform, games like Montsegur 1244, and my own games where you can really trust players to engage with the fiction and where to provide support. You’re right that conflict is de-emphasized – although the game is stuffed with conflict, procedurally you can only establish “positive or negative outcomes”, which give narrators very wide descriptive latitude. What ends up happening tends to be a frenetic, highly collaborative sort of story-telling. Character is subsumed by relationship, which I think is fairly unique. When I look at the source material (movies like Blood Simple, Bande à Part, or A Simple Plan), you see this strong, toxic interdependency emerge, and I wanted to model that.

You say that you’ve learned where to trust players to engage with the fiction – and thusly let go of the control a bit. What, in your experience, does it take to make players engage with the fiction?

Well, people want to engage with the fiction, right? That’s a big selling point of roleplaying games in general. So on one hand you have this desire and on the other, the tools to facilitate it. What sort of prompts does the system provide? Which are genuinely useful, which are strictly procedural, and which distance the player from the game? This is tricky because, on the two extremes, the answers vary from person to person. What I’ve found is that a highly structured framework is often beneficial. The bones of setting, plot and theme are often the pieces left up to the participants to create n the American RPG model, but that’s just a legacy of roleplaying’s earliest incarnation. So in Grey Ranks and The Shab Al-Hiri Roach you are given tight constraints related to time and space, and you are allowed to expand creatively from there. In Fiasco you work with an oracle structure – the same sort that works so well in In A Wicked Age – that defines your session’s theme, color, situation, everything. The possibility space is not only limited, it is limited in ways that directly or indirectly promote the kind of game experience I want you to have.

How did you go about defining the fictional space of Fiasco, and where in the design process did you discover or create the structural or mechanical part of the game that made the game go “click”? (I hope this question makes sense).

Fiasco started out as a game called Hat Creek, where you’d collaboratively build up a town in the American west and then play out its history. Not very character focused, but filled with people. As I developed it, I started to realize that while the people were not that interesting as individuals, their relationships were. And that was inspirational – suddenly I appreciated the strength in a system that privileged relationships over characters in the “situation construction” phase of the game. Once I had that the whole western town thing seemed overly narrow, because a web of relationships is pretty timeless. Placing it in the context of small time capers and criminal disaster seemed very straightforward – those sorts of stories all seemed to follow similar arcs that always included interrelated small groups of 3-5 characters. So privileging relationships became Fiasco’s killer app.

I’d like to talk about the resolution-system of Fiasco – or the possible lack of one for a moment – at least a mechanical system. Apart from the fact that you’ve got limited resources (a set number of black and white dice), scenes are resolved by choice – either by the spotlight-player him/herself or by the rest of the group. Thereby, you emphasize the social structures of the play-group. What are the thoughts behind this?

So in every roleplaying game a scene is going to be framed and then its outcome is going to be determined. In Fiasco these are discrete tasks, and when it is your turn, you choose one and cede authority for the other to the rest of the table. If you establish a scene (ensuring a situation with thematic content important to you), your friends determine the outcome. If you want control over success or failure, you have to let them frame the scene – and giving up that authority means giving up a degree of narrative control. This is a wonderful dichotomy and very fun in play. As I was building the game, I knew that it wouldn’t need a highly structured system for conflict resolution – so much depended on the forward momentum supplied by the initial situation and the players enthusiasm. Interestingly, early playtests had the two outcome choices be “win” and “lose”, with the explicit setting of stakes, and playtest feedback (thanks, Ralph and Seth!) rapidly convinced me to change this to “positive and negative outcomes”, which is much more flexible and obviates the need for explicit stake-setting. So that was a tiny bit of crunch removed from the system, and play is much more natural as a result. As far as social interaction at the table goes, my “establish or resolve” mechanic ensures that everyone has something to do all the time, which is really important for a game this short and intense.

My thoughts on this is that handing over part of the control of your character to the group (as opposed to the GM in many games) actually creates a common responsibility or a shared understanding (often unspoken) of the social structure of the play-group. If you constantly screw each other over in a decidedly unfun way, everyones fun suffers. Come to think of it, I notice that your three “Biggest” games – The Roach, Grey Ranks and Fiasco – all demand a certain social responsibility or maturity in order to run smoothly – Roach because the freedom (both in the mechanics and in the moral fibre of the fiction) needs a leash or at least a shared understanding of how far you can go; Grey Ranks because the subject matter is extremely bleak and therefore you will definitely run into scenes that are at the very least emotionally harrowing and Fiasco because the system doesn’t really hold your hand in this matter.
Do you agree with my assessment? What are your thoughts on it – and is it on purpose?

I think that is accurate, and it is on purpose only to the extent that I design what I like to play. So I never consciously considered these points, but they emerge, I think, because I want to play that way, and am surrounded by smart people who are capable of it. I am drawn to games that dispense authority more equally (in aggregate) because I love the GM role and want to share that with my friends, allow them to be broadly inventive, and to let them all surprise me.

What’s the intended target group for Fiasco? Is it different from your other games? And what have you done to reach this market?

Well, I’m afraid I have not done much to market Fiasco. I’m waiting a bit, becuase I’d like to build some solid buzz based on play. I also have no idea how to reach out to people who might enjoy the game but are outside the roleplaying community. I think the person who will enjoy the game might differ from my core audience a little – the game is more accessible than Grey Ranks and more tightly designed than The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, for sure. The appeal should be fairly broad. Using film as inspiration helps. The rules are very clear.

Seeing that Fiasco can be said to draw from different “schools” of rpgs, I guess there’s a crossover potential, where both “Jeepers” and “Story Gamers” (as well as others) could be interested in the game (I know that those categories are way too simplistic, but I’m sure you understand). Is this a part of a bigger trend, in your opinion?

I hope so! I think at its core Fiasco is a straightforward game drawing on the tradition that gave us My Life With Master and The Mountain Witch. It is obviously influenced by my own enthusiasms and interests, which includes Jeepform and a slightly less structured and conflict-oriented mode of play, but it isn’t something really new. I don’t know about trends, but I think there’s a natural assimilation of the new and interesting. GM-less play was new and interesting once, I think the lessons of Vi åker Jeep are new and interesting to some people, there’s always something that is going to be influential. I was very pleased when Frederik Jensen cited my games as being helpful when he was working on his own excellent Montsegur 1244. I think that’s how it goes, one game building on another, taking the good parts and improving the rest.

So, last question! What’s next in line? I know that you are working on a couple of games on and off – but which one will be the next fully-formed game from your hand and can you tell us a little bit about it?

I do always seem to have two or three things in development at once. It’s hard to predict which will be published or when, but I have two small focused projects that are pretty far along. One is Cowboys With Big Hearts, which is about dying cowboys in the waning days of the American west going on one last mythic ride. It has a strong GM, which was something I wanted to explore. The other game is called Carolina Death Crawl, and it is a competitive GM-less game rooted in a historical event – Potter’s raid on the Tar river valley during the American Civil War, in 1863. It has a nightmare-picaresque-Cormac Mccarthy feeling to it. Both are designed for a single session, and both will use custom cards instead of the traditional rule book, which is something else I’m really interested in trying. I think these will be the next thing I publish. If you are interested in playtesting, let me know!

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