Good day internet! I'm Charles and I swear I was intending to write this article before Jason wrote his. I think it's fantastic, because he's talking about narrative RPGs, and I want to share my experiences with a game where everyone is a player.
While Jason did a great job explaining the meta behind narrative gaming, he didn't exactly touch on what it actually feels like to play a narrative RPG. It's very hard to understand what it's like to play a narrative RPG without playing one yourself, but here's my attempt to explain it through my experiences with Fiasco.
You may have heard of Fiasco from Wil Wheaton & Felicia Day's Tabletop, or maybe from all the people shouting their dislike of it. If you fit in to the latter category already, that's fine. You're allowed to dislike things that I like. But know this: I have led a flock of fairies with my righthand solider, a dog with the brain of Randy Savage, (and his sidekick the Ultimate Chihuahua), against an army of zombie miners led by Gilbert Gottfried who was possessed by the spirit of a Jamaican island.
Fiasco is a narrative RPG where everyone is a main character in a movie about plans going wrong. Like a drug deal that ends up with a hitman after the dudes who were late paying the boss back and also ended up sleeping with her lover. Who happens to be the leader of a political party and the one buying the drugs. Or like a team of news anchors all trying to break into a vault before their boss airlifts it out with a helicopter. Or a gambler, a merchant, a debtor, and a gunman all vying for a piece of the very corrupt governors fortune and a way out of town before he notices. I'm sure you're all familiar with the type of film that Fiasco tries to emulate.
The biggest difference between Fiasco and a normal RPG is that there is no GM. Everyone is a player, and while it is technically true that nothing is stopping you from making whatever you want happen, players limit each other and are also limited by their characters and the dice and the fact that you're trying to tell a story together, not win a game.
Every game of Fiasco can be completed in a single setting including setup. The characters and dice work very simply, and unlike other RPGs, you do not use the dice during any scene. Before the game begins, the players choose one of many settings, such as “Transatlantic”, “Dragon Slayers”, “Quest for the Golden Panda”, “The Dresden Files”, “Gangster London”, “Candyland”, and many others that the fine folks at Bully Pulpit games cook up on a monthly basis and post for free to their website.
After a setting is chosen all the dice are rolled (one of three times they will be rolled at all), and the players use the dice with the tables from the setting to determine their connections to the players to their immediate right and left, their needs, important locations, and important items. Additional to the characteristics determined by your relationships and miscellanea, it goes without saying that every character is very ambitious and has very poor impulse control. How else could a weather gorilla end up in the children's intense care wing with a bandolier of tear gas grenades while his handler tries to break into a bank vault after visiting the evidence room of the local police station? By the way, the gorilla was high on cocaine.
The type of options that are possible depend on the setting, but to give examples from a session we've had: a news anchor and his assistant, the executive bathroom, a very valuable videotape, a need to get even, an executive and her ex-lover, two competing news anchors, a pornographer and his model. We decided that Lucky Dog used to be an employee of Channel 9, but was fired after it was discovered he was using company equipment and personal to make his magnum opus, Magnum O'Penis, after hours. His model was a sexy news anchor competing with Nye O'Reilly, a very catholic 'science' reporter with a huge ego, whose assistant was secretly the sister of the other news anchor, trying to find some way to cause the big boss of the station, Lucky's ex, to fire Nye. And then we started playing. By the end of the game, the building had burnt down, two of the characters were dead or dying, one was hiding from the police, and Nye had a spot on Fox News.
There's absolutely no need to be as silly as my group is with our fiasco games. Indeed, if you watch the tabletop episode where they play a game of Fiasco, it's all perfectly serious, tense and dramatic without being insane, surreal, or ridiculous. What you should be getting from this paragraph is that your group can play Fiasco however the heck you want. Everyone ends up adding a lot to the game, because everyone has equal ownership of the story, everyone wants their scenes to be important, to be memorable, and everyone wants to have a good time. And everything builds up together to create amazing finales. Throwaway characters like talking dogs, and cameos like Gilbert Gottfried end up becoming integral parts of the very fucked up stories you tell. It works. I'm not going to say Fiasco is the best narrative RPG there could be, as there are definitely stories that are hard to tell with the system, it doesn't fit every gamer group, and the limitations aren't always enough. But my group has had a lot of fun with it, and you could do a lot worse for your first narrative RPG.
When you start playing, each player in turn has a scene that focuses around their character. They can either choose to set the scene, or to choose the outcome. Not both. During the first part of the game, if the scene ends well with them, they get a white die to give to another player of their choice. If the scene goes badly, they get a black die to give to another player. During the second half of the game, they keep the dice they earn.
Otherwise, dice don't do much during the game. Your storytelling skills, as you act out each scene with the other players, is the main mechanic.
The two other times you roll dice besides setup are at the midpoint in the game, and at the end of the game. At the midpoint, there's a twist. Well, two of them. Everyone rolls the dice they've earned, and the two people with the highest totals roll on the twist table, and two somethings go horribly wrong. Of course, things should already be going horribly wrong if you're playing right, but these are extra things that go wrong that you couldn't possibly have planned for. At the end of the game, you roll your dice, subtract the black die from the white die, or vice versa to get a positive number, and that determines how well your character does in the end. You want to get either a high black or a high white number. Because there are 4 dice per player, your character will get 4 scenes centring around them. Try not to get 2 white and 2 black dice!
Obviously, I'm skipping details, but those are all the mechanics. I could now throw you into a game with no explanation and you'd have a vague idea of what to do. More than just a narrative RPG, this is a pure story-telling machine. You are not playing a character who will carefully consider their actions to arrive at the optimal result, you are not playing to 'win', you are playing a character who probably fully deserves to die horribly, and you are playing to make it a true fuck-up worthy of legend. Go out in the most fantastic way possible, and aim to be so insane you instead break through the other side with a bag full of cash.
By the way, every story I've alluded to is part of a real session from my RPG group, not just things that could hypothetically happen. And I haven't even mentioned the Russians who shot down a zepplin staffed by bikini babes, the spaghetti western in space where a vixen literally dealt the poker cards, or the superhero in ancient china who was given advice about his family from an enigmatic wise man.
Every single one of our fiasco games becomes a complex interwoven web of lies, deceit, trickery, and sometimes we even consider telling the truth. In all my time playing D&D and pathfinder and 7 Skies and Paranoia and etc. etc., I have never needed a corkboard to keep track of everything that happens even in year-long campaigns. We need corkboards with multi-coloured thread for every single session of Fiasco. The system is incredibly well-suited to creating very complex & entertaining social situations. In our very first game, between 5 players, we had 17 rich relationships between our characters, only 5 of which were determined by the setup, the rest of which were emergent.
I have drunk the kool-aid of narrative RPGing, and it is good.