Tonight, for the first time since I picked up Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, I shared my favorite hobby with my dad. He saw me playing D&D with my friends in high school, and while he was supportive, he never had much interest in learning about roleplaying games, much less participating. That all changed tonight when, almost 20 years after I first picked up a roleplaying game, I finally played Fiasco with my girlfriend, my dad, and my stepmother.
As obsessive card players, my dad and stepmom are no stranger to games. I grew up playing Poker and Cribbage with my dad, and we play hundreds of hands of Pinochle each time I visit them. We also play spirited games of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Boggle. Over the years, we’ve played a lot of games, but we just haven’t played any roleplaying games.
So it was with cautious optimism that I sat down with my girlfriend, my father, and my stepmother last night to play Fiasco. They’re both movie buffs who enjoy the Coen brothers’ films, so I tried to explain the concept in cinematic terms: we would be, collectively, the writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors in a Coen brothers movie set in the Wild West. We would use dice to determine some details, but all of the decisions were ultimately in our hands in a directed improv style. Not quite sure what we getting ourselves into, we embarked on our journey.
If you’re not familiar with Fiasco, there are a number of good reviews and resources available online to catch you up. I’ll point you to Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series on YouTube. We played the Boomtown playset included with the core rulebook, and landed ourselves with two rival gunsmiths, one of whom (my dad) was in the closet and hoping to escape the romantic pursuits of a young lady (my stepmother). The other gunsmith (me) was a former train robber who had recently arrived in town and setup shop as cover while on the run from a Wells Fargo agent (my girlfriend) bent on getting her man. Somewhere in town was a faded “Wanted” poster.
Our play experience was unsurprising: rivals became uneasy allies, allies betrayed each other, secrets became public, and shootouts were had. Perhaps equally unsurprising, I learned a lot from playing Fiasco session with senior citizens.
1. Fiasco really is an excellent introduction to roleplaying games
I’ve long known that my father–a resident of the Cowboy state–is a Western aficionado who reads books on Native Americans for fun. What I didn’t know is that both he and my stepmother are improv comedy fans (Did you know that Whose Line Is It Anyway? was released on DVD? I know because they own it.) Between the Wild West setting and improv nature of Fiasco, once we finished the setup to establish our character concepts and relationships, they transitioned seamlessly into character. We played for the next two hours straight. There is zero chance they would have sat down with a character sheet, even for a heavily narrative system like FATE Accelerated, and played a game for two hours.
So you can add this post to the long list of Fiasco articles that have echoed this point: Fiasco has the perfect blend of roleplaying elements with familiar tropes from fiction and board games to get non-gamers engaged, with enough of the classic roleplaying elements to inspire experienced gamers. The lack of a game master is a critical element of this; without designating one participant in charge of unilaterally resolving outcomes with Rule 0 power, Fiasco fosters the collaborative spirit between players while accommodating the natural competition that forms between characters.
2. “Normies” are weird as hell, too, man
Don’t get me wrong, while they’d be willing to play Fiasco again, my dad and stepmom are definitely not converted gamers. In fact, if I pointed out the similarities between Fiasco and Dungeons & Dragons, they’d probably give me the side eye while promptly dismissing Fiasco as “too weird” for them. They are, for all intents and purposes, normal people–“normies.”
But I learned that even normies–senior citizen parents included–are more strange than you think. I had expected a bit of awkwardness around the romantic entanglements in many of Fiasco‘s playsets, but I definitely didn’t think I would be the one to break character in the scene in which my stepmother’s young lady, Kitty, attempted to manipulate my character through seduction. I was surprised when my father–my pickup-driving, Marlboro-smoking, NASCAR-watching, red state Republican-voting father–suggested his character Benny would be secretly gay. And I definitely didn’t expect my girlfriend to cry out in alarm when her low total in the Aftermath resulted in the lynching of Benny’s male lover, whom her detective-type character had accidentally exposed to the intolerant townsfolk.
Then again, if the game involved some surprise turns in running its course, it drove straight off a bridge when it closed with a necrophilia joke… from my stepmother. Her character had been mortally wounded, but based on the Aftermath results, was meant to succeed in her need to avoid dying a virgin. Without missing a beat, she jumped on the opportunity to suggest necrophilia, like she had been saving it for the last round of Cards Against Humanity. It was brilliant, hilarious, and capped the ridiculous story nicely, but it’s still necrophilia. I wouldn’t put that past my weekly D&D group, but my stepmother? That was weird. Even normies are weird as hell, man.
3. How I Murdered My Father[‘s Character]
Step 1: Convince your father[‘s character] that you’re allies.
Step 2: Agree to take him to your secret stash of gold from your last train robbing score.
Step 3: Tell him to start digging.
Step 4: Thank him for digging his own grave, and then leave him in it.
When I initially saw the opportunity to kill off my dad in our final scene of Act II, I was nervous at how he would respond. I weighed my concern for his reaction–the feeling that he had “lost” the game–against the general coolness of the moment, and I went for it. It was probably my proudest moment in the game, not because it was clever or manipulative, but because my dad saw it coming, and he totally went for it. After egging him on repeatedly to dig a little bit deeper, when I clapped my hands loudly to signal the gunshot, my dad just smiled broadly. It was a fitting end for his character and in that moment, I saw that my dad “got it.” He wasn’t just playing along with the game, he was in-character as Benny. He wasn’t trying to win, he was trying to make the collaborative story as exciting as possible.
My old man was roleplaying. And it was awesome.