Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Generic Plot Twist / Tilt Table for Fiasco and other Story Games

In my last exploration of tools and techniques for gm-less story games I focused on on a table to help create interesting pairs of dramatic relationships. These are typically established by the singular author of a story, but in a gm-less story game it is now the shared responsibility to create these by all of the players in the game.

An area that a singular author or gm has an advantage in storytelling over a team of players is in the area of misdirection and plot twists. If the players collectively plan these in advance, the drama in the twist may suffer or even be lost in play.

Plot twists are not required in all story games, but they are essential color for many types of genres, such as the caper, noir, tragedy, soap, etc. Though plot twists may be required for these genres, for more ordinary dramas they also can serve as glue between acts — connecting together disparate plotlines, styles, or episodes of a story into a larger continuous thread.

The gm-less cooperative Fiasco (2009) accomplishes plot twists by using what they call a Tilt. The Tilt happens in the middle between the two acts of a standard Fiasco game. The player with the most dark dice picks a category, and the player with the most light dice picks the sub-category on the Tilt table, and then vis-a-versa. This results in two surprise attributes that are added to the game in subsquent play, such as Guilt: Someone develops a conscience or Deception: A secret goes public. The players then decide together when to “discover those twists in the second act, or establish retcon (retroactive continuity) into play with a flashback scene to create the twist.

Fiasco offers two different tables, the dark and often cruelly humorous Hard Tilt table in the original book, and a second “Soft Tilt table in Fiasco Companion (2011), which offers lighter, more socially-focused plot twists suitable for more light-hearted Fiasco playsets.

Fiasco rules require two plot twists at once, which is probably overkill for many story games. However, the use of multiple plot twists is particularly important for the tone of caper and noir plots, which is what Fiasco does a great job simulating. Thomas Leitch in Crime Films (2002) observes:
“ambiguity and irresolution are at the heart of Fargo’s comedy, which […] works by systematically depriving viewers of any single privileged perspective from which to interpret its outrageous events”
There very few Fiasco playsets that offer their own custom Tilt table. Most notably the Star Wars spoof Lord Doomicus and His Giant Battle Planet has its own Tilt table with such thematically evocative results as an (Un)natural Disaster: Alien virus with un-expected side effects or It's Business: Embarrassment leads to rage for Lord Doomicus, and the Secrets of NIMH-like Rat Patrol, has results like Withdrawal: We’re all getting stupider” and Retrieval: In Dr. John Sutcliffe’s soft hands.

Seeking more varieties of plot twists, I dove into a variety of sources, most notably:
I’m very happy with this distillation of all these different kinds of plot twists into a relatively concise list of only 36 entries, which must convey both breadth and depth of possibilities. I'm also confident that this table addresses my goal of achieving the 80/20 rule to cover the most common and useful varieties of plot twists.

As I comment in my Fiasco Relationships post, I believe that the best Fiasco playset tables should offer customized results that fit their theme and setting, rather than using this Generic Plot Twists table. But I've seen very few playsets to date that offer custom Tilt tables. Thus you can try using my Plot Twists table as a subsitute for the default Hard or Soft Tilt tables, or if you are a playset author, use it as inspiration for creating your own customized Tilt table.

These plot twists also may be generally useful to GMs of other story games, such as Fate Core (2013) or Powered by the Apocalypse games, or even authors of fiction. I’m currently using it as part of a cooperative game that I’m designing. The table itself is licensed CC-BY, and I always welcome advice on how to simplify/clarify it.

Generic Plot Twists / Tilt Table

1. FATAL FLAW (hamartia  / hubris / hoisted petard)
  1. the characters' otherwise competent plans have a fatal flaw or their goal misses the mark
  2. the characters are not as skilled as they think they are
  3. the characters outsmart themselves / a trap or trick set by the characters causes grief for themselves
  4. the characters are faced with a impossible choice (a dilemma, mutually exclusive goals, which innocents to rescue, the lesser of two evils), or have to think out of the box for a third choice
  5. the characters are on the wrong side and don't know it / the source of the problem is actually the characters or the character's allies
  6. be careful what you wish for, because you might get it
2. CHANGE OF FORTUNE (peripeteia / catastrophe)
  1. didn't see that coming (false assumptions, known unknowns, unknown unknowns)
  2. the characters are betrayed or tricked by friends, allies, or mentors
  3. escalation / things have to get worse before getting better
  4. pyrric victory / success can only be achieved at a serious cost / sacrifice
  5. the characters' goal actually benefits the villain / is in fact villain's secret plan / is a diversion from solving the real problem
  6. the characters solve a problem that turns out to already be solved / goal is no longer valid or has become meaningless
3. INFORMATION REVEALED (anagnorisis / discovery)
  1. the characters have no idea that something someone possesses is special (reverse macguffin)
  2. information is revealed that wasn't to be shared
  3. the victim being rescued doesn’t want to be rescued (stockholm syndrome, love, has other goals)
  4. love rears its ugly head
  5. the enemy of my enemy is my (friend, rival, new villain)
  6. a prophecy is revealed / a prophecy isn't what the characters thought it was
  1. the characters believe something is special that is not (macguffin)
  2. someone or a relationship is revealed to be not what the characters thought it was (family, friend, villain, victim) / the villains are the victims and the victims the villains
  3. the real goal isn't what the characters think it is / the goal isn't enough and only reveals the beginning of a new goal
  4. hidden or false crucibles - the characters are being tested, but do not know how, or don't even know they are being tested
  5. a trope is subverted (instead of being plot type a, it is in fact plot type b)
  6. the untwist / unreveal — an outcome considered to be too obvious turns out to be what happened, or a reveal is untrue
  1. the characters are beset by an unexpected force (new enemies, the law, the weather, an event)
  2. a villain's known limitation is no longer a limitation
  3. a defeated villain returns / a minor villain scorned returns as a big villain
  4. the timetable is unexpectedly accelerated
  5. an early tiny mistake/compromise leads to ruin
  6. the villain did his evil deeds for a greater, good purpose and/or the characters become now responsible for the achieving it.
  1. there are innocents or bystanders that must be protected
  2. the characters must work alongside someone they don't like (rivals, villains, outcasts)
  3. the characters require help from an ally that wants their support for another goal
  4. the characters must succeed without violence, or without access to certain abilities or resources
  5. the characters discover someone else has failed to succeed in the the goal before them
  6. the longer the characters take to solve a problem, the tougher it gets
This Generic Plot Twists Table is ©2015, Christopher Allen (, and is licensed CC-BY.

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