Friday, February 20, 2015

Generic Relationships Playset for Fiasco

I have been exploring cooperative and gm-less story games for the last few months, as research for a book on cooperative play (the second of a trilogy of books about cooperation that I'm working on).

Ever since Gygax published the first role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” in 1972, RPGs & story games have largely been “setting first, character second”. This essentially means that the player is given very early on a protagonist to identify with, support and grow, within the context of larger world created by the GM. This is a powerful design principle, as it draws the players into the story and a “suspension of disbelief” using their emotional attachment to their protagonist character.

The challenge to “character second” design is that this gives the players a subset of “player agency” I call “character agency”, where they exclusively control the story as it relates to that character, except where it relates to the “setting agency” which is controlled by the GM. This can make it difficult when different players have different or conflicting goals for their protagonists, or in story play when the narration and drama require fellow protagonists to sacrifice themselves, fail, to suffer, or even die.

Most recent narrativist story game designs largely follow that model. Even Universalis (2001–2011), one of the older and more sophisticated story games, characters are typically created immediately after setting. The same is true for a number of the more popular cooperative story games such as Penny For Your Thoughts (2009), Western City (2008), Microscope (2011), Archipelago 3rd Edition (2012), Okult (2013), Kingdom (2013), etc.

Like the other story games, Fiasco (2009) also defines the broad setting and theme first, by the players’  selection of their playset. However, one of the real innovations of Fiasco is how it asks the players to first define pairs of relationships, as well as needs that are shared by those relationships — and asks the players NOT to define characters or select protagonists until this is complete. You typically will have 4-pairs of relationships on the table first, plus four shared needs, before you decide which two your personal protagonist will be connected to.

This design pattern of “relationships and needs second”  is quite powerful, as it lowers “character agency” without affecting “player agency”. This is important in Fiasco, as some, or even all the characters will fail spectacularly, in support of the players creating an enjoyable narrative for the story.

I see this approach influencing other story-oriented RPGs, such as the introduction of Hx (history, sometimes called strings or debts) in Powered by the Apocalypse (2010) games, the creation of generic game aids like Backstory Cards, and game designers like Ryan Macklin recommending Decoupling Aspects from Phases in the Fate role-playing game.

In a great Fiasco playset, an evocative & scenario specific relationship is much better than a generic one. For instance: "FAMILY: The black sheep and golden child", "WORK: Business rivals in a dying industry", "FRIENDS: Coolest kid in school and fawning minion".

However, sometimes you wish to have a broader selection of relationships to draw from. I have read through 20+ playsets, looking at their commonalities, to create this more generic set of relationships, using a Fiasco-style table, to inspire players. Just roll a d6 twice. You’ll still need to fit these relationships into your setting and add some evocative color, but this table gives a broader range of choices.

I also believe that this relationships table may be more generally useful to players or GMs of other story games, such as Fate or those Powered by the Apocalypse — I’m currently using it as part of a cooperative game that I’m designing. I welcome ideas on how to simplify/clarify this table.

I’m also working on an equivalent composite table for needs/impulses/desires.

Generic Relationships Table

(each apply to a pair of characters)

1. Intimate
  1. current (spouses, lovers)
  2. past (ex-spouses, ex-lovers)
  3. casual (just met, one night stand, friends with benefits)
  4. unequal (rich, beautiful, power yful, older, younger)
  5. illicit (secret, adulterous, unlawful, forbidden, against custom)
  6. unrequited (crush, obsession, affection, ships in the night, sexual tension)
2. Family
  1. parent/child (biological, step, foster, adopted)
  2. elder (grandparent, uncle)/younger (grandchild, niece)
  3. peers (siblings, cousins)
  4. in-laws (mother-in-law, sister-in-law)
  5. distant (second-cousin twice-removed, lost heir, overseas cousins)
  6. unrelated (like a brother/sister/son,daughter, like family, relatives of in-laws, kith)
3. Friends
  1. close (or formerly-close) friends
  2. mentor/protégé (teacher/student, creator/muse)
  3. on the same side (leaders, sports, team, volunteer, neighbor, roommates)
  4. two of a kind (shared culture, experience, faith)
  5. mismatched buddies (different culture, experience, sex, enemy of an enemy)
  6. casual (beer buddies, same boat, fellow tourist, familiar stranger)
4. Work
  1. supervisor/employee (boss/worker, investor/ceo)
  2. professional peers (partners, co-workers, collaborators, colleagues)
  3. professional/client (salesman/customer, pastor/congregant, doctor/patient)
  4. professional opposition (rivals, competitors, adversaries)
  5. clandestine (secret, criminal, illicit)
  6. former colleagues (any of the above, but in the past)
5. Community/Society
  1. local (neighbors, from same city, fellow ex-pats)
  2. shared interests (sports, hobby, club, school)
  3. authority/civilian (mayor, sheriff, case worker/citizen, lord/commoner)
  4. social or faction rivals (running for office, cross-town sports rivals)
  5. crusader vs. villain (green-eco vs. lumberjack, underdog vs. leader)
  6. shared prejudice (politics, race, class)
6. Trouble (optionally roll again on the table to combine with intimates, family, friends, etc.)
  1. dysfunctional (co-dependent, controlling, jealous, toxic)
  2. non-violent crime/victim (con-artist/mark, dealer/addict, prostitute/john,  blackmail, petty theft, bribery, embezzlement)
  3. violent crime/victim (bully/sufferer, enforcer/target, assassin/quarry, pimp/prostitute, non-consensual intimacy)
  4. crime leader/follower (boss/consigliere, capo/made-man, cult leader/cultist)
  5. partners in crime (bullies, professional thieves, con-artists, gang members, hoodlums, spies, conspirators) 
  6. exotic (fated, cursed, hunted, separated at birth, zealots, cultists)
This Generic Relationships Table table is ©2015, Christopher Allen (, and is licensed CC-BY.

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