So, I got a copy of Bully Pulpit Games’ popular tabletop RPG game Fiasco, which was created by Jason Morningstar, for the university library. After all, I’ve long been interested in how RPG games can be used in language-teaching, and in fact I’ve long had a similar exercise that I use in English conversation courses (which I’ve recently posted here, after Fiasco inspired me to expand the exercise a little). In that exercise, students plan out a heist, con, scam, or other crime of some kind–usually with a set goal and set rules they cannot break in their plan–as an exercise in stretching their English conversation skills.
(And that’s the part I added to my own exercise–the blowback from the failed con.)
So anyway, I have this copy of Fiasco on hand, and I’m planning on running a game for some friends–possibly a couple of groups, since different people with incompatible schedules have expressed an interest in the game. I mean, how could you not find this back cover synopsis tempting?
Fiasco is a game inspired by films like Blood Simple, Fargo, and A Simple Plan. During a session you and your friends will engineer and play out stupid, disastrous situations that exist at the darkly comic 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.
For 3-5 players and 2-3 hours. No preparation required!
A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control
No preparation required? Yes, indeed, and there’s no GM, just playsets which players use to collaboratively create the narrative of the game. Which would make it an excellent tool for a once-a-month game session with a high-level group of students, especially if you could give them specific language tasks they need to carry out while playing the scenario through.
One problem is that in both groups I’m likely to play with will definitely have one or more Koreans playing; however, the playsets I’ve seen so far have just enough nuanced cultural references to make it (possibly) difficult for non-North-Americans to grok it all and carry it off convincingly. Plus, nearly all the settings I’ve seen so far are in North America or Europe, except one in Antarctica.
So I figured, why not create a playset of my own, and set it in Seoul, and make Korean language and culture part of it? If I were careful and smart about it, I could design a setup capable of accommodating whatever kind of group might want to play such a game in Korea, in English: that is, either all-expat, or a mix of expats and Koreans. (As far as I know there’s no Korean-language version of Fiasco, and I can’t imagine many Koreans wanting to play a game of Fiasco in English, so I didn’t consider that configuration of players so much, but I think my playset would probably work just as well if all the players were Koreans and the game were conducted in Korean.)
So when I was thinking about what kind of setup to go with, I reread the tagline at the end of the back cover blurb — A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control, just like in the image above, and one thing immediately came to mind:
The hakwon, the Korean cram school, is a place where two worlds meet: the Korean staff, students, teachers, parents, and owner unavoidably get mixed up with the strange, exotic, and (in their eyes) slightly seedy realm of the Western expat English teacher. Which is only fair: the world of the hakwon looks pretty seedy to a lot of expats too, with its smug owners, its unhappy Korean teachers, its often husband-hunting office girls, and its seemingly crazed parents, as well as the oodles of students of all ages who come from all walks of life.
So while it’s a slightly offensive set of stereotypes–not that one can’t find cases where they’re true, mind you–the hakwon is also laden with a rich, absurd mythology that suits the tragical-satiric mode of Fiasco perfectly: everyone has a story about a crooked, moronic, and unsavory hakwon owner… and a gullible, incompetent, sex-crazed, or backstabbing hakwon office worker… and resentful, bitter, backstabbing Korean hakwon co-teacher or colleague… and crooked, moronic, lawbreaking, on-the-lam, drug-addled, unsavory expat “teachers” working in the hakwon system.
(And, to be frank, it’s not too hard to find stories of all these figures in Korean universities, too.)
(And, though I shouldn’t have to write this: no, I’m not saying that everyone associated with hakwons is horrible, though some people–Korean and expat teachers, students, and parents alike–certainly are, in my experience. I’m saying there’s a rich mythology, and not all of it whispered among Koreans alone, associated with the hakwon industry as a national institution. To get from there to a Coen Brothers-styled disaster-caper doesn’t take much. All Fiasco requires is a little bit of amplification, that’s all.)
Seriously, as I think about it, I’m shocked nobody has ever made a neo-noir film of a heist or scam gone wrong, set in a hakwon. I’m kinda tempted to pen a script for Brutal Rice Productions on that very theme.
But that’s the other thing: neo-noir doesn’t really seem to be such a popular genre in Korean cinema, either. I’ve seen a lot of gangster comedies, but they tend to be more on the slapstick/absurd side of things. And the gangster dramas seem to either play out as comedies or tragedies, but lacking in much irony.
That whole black comedy thing about the schadenfreud of watching a scumbag’s plan go horribly, horribly wrong (or horribly right, for plans of a certain stupid kind) is not so present in Korean society, from what I can tell. Maybe I’m wrong, but I find there’s a kind of irony deficit here, I suppose I’m suggesting, just as there is something of a sarcasm deficit. I’m very curious to see whether the logic of the game will translate at all to the Korean players, especially those who are fluent in English but whose cultural experience is limited to Korean society. Maybe having them watch Fargo before we play might help? I don’t know.
The only way to figure it out was to give it a try… so on the morning of Friday, 16 November, I set aside a few hours and designed a playset. It’s titled, “With a Side of Kimchi” and I’ll be running it this Sunday, 16 December.
The process was really fun, in a way I didn’t expect, and I think it helped me dial in a few things I hadn’t quite grasped about the process of setting up character motivations and flaws and relationships. Designing a playset basically forces you to strip things down to the bare essentials:
- Who? This question is not answered so much in terms of essence or identity or skills, but in terms of relationships and the burdens and advantages those various relationships give the character.
- Why? Why are the characters doing the things they do? What powerful ambitions drive them? This is the classic thing of motivation, which so many of us writers struggle with at first. Here. it’s front and center.
- Where? Which locales figure centrally in the story? What do those places signify? You can set scenes in all kinds of places, but Fiasco requires you to pick a really important place, one where things probably will go down in the end.
- What? What are the crucial objects that exist in this setting, and with what meanings are they pregnant? A sentimental object suggests an exploitable vulnerability in a character, or a superhuman motivation; an unsavory object adds spice to the story; an valuable object can become the center of a conflict between characters.
This is only my second or third brush with the new “indie” RPG genre, but one thing I can say is that I’m seeing narrative from fresh angles each time, mostly because of how stripped-down these no-prep pickup games have to be. It’s nothing I didn’t already know in theory, or in painful practice, but looking at it through the lens of setting up a game for people to play an enjoy spontaneously, makes me see it all in a new light.
Which is to say, I feel like I learned something about structuring narrative from the exercise of creating a playset: how to set up characters in mutual opposition; how to wire their motivations together for maximum trouble; how to design characters from their motivations on up. There are lessons in there that I’d say are useful to every writer, even if it’s just a reacquaintance with the basics… because most writers know about and work with these things, but designing a playset brings them to the fore in a way that, at least for me, felt like I shed new light on the subject. As someone who has always struggled with character motivations and with plot, this is a great thing. We’ll see how the game follows through on that…
I think Jason Morningstar has really nailed something down in Fiasco… which explains why it is so insanely popular and successful, I guess.
Anyway, I’ll do the same thing I did with our recent game of Dread: I’ll post a series (starting with this post) including not just this writeup, but also a play report a day or two after we play. Eventually, I’ll also share the already-published playset, unless Bully Pulpit Games snaps it up for their website. Either way, you’ll be able to see the playset eventually.