Note: This is the second post in my series on our first experience with Fiasco, and why I designed a new playset for our first game. It makes sense to start from the beginning of this series of posts, though. That’s here.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of my recent brushes with gaming is the idea of design. I don’t mean game design, because after all in the last two games I’ve tried, Dread (written up here) and Fiasco, we’ve used rule systems designed by someone else.
And those rules systems have worked incredibly well; when there have been (minor) roadbumps in our games, it’s either been an issue of roleplaying (the player, which at points includes me) or scenario design (which, in both cases, falls to me). I want to focus on the scenario design side of things at the moment.
After running a session of Dread, one thing I started to think about was the question of how to get a mixed group of players–some Korean, and some expat–to be able to play an RPG together. It’s one thing to tell a Westerner that Fiasco is a game that lets you spontaneously to make up, as a group, your own weird mixture of Tarantino and Coen Brothers-type film narratives. (To me, the game is more Coen Brothers than Tarantino, but there’s definitely some Tarantino-potential in there.) However, what you’ll find is that most expats you know will have seen Fargo or The Big Lebowski; most Koreans will not have seen those films.
Then there’s the cultural references in the playsets that are out there. They have a strong bias towards places familiar to North Americans, and little wonder: that’s the kind of setting that’s easy to improvise from scratch for a North American, and many of the game’s players are… North America. However, trying to play a game centered on a sleazy disco nightclub in the 1970s with Korean players is about as likely as trying to play a game set in the Joseon Dynasty, during the persecution of the Catholics, would be for North Americans. It’s hard because the cultural referents are different, or, more crucially, they’re absent.
It’s possible, of course, to slip into certain universal, generic, and stylized periods. I have a feeling most Koreans could probably pull off a 1940s/50s-ish hard boiled crime setting in Korea or the States passably. But it’s easier to go with something contemporary, and something familiar to Koreans… they can have the home advantage in terms of cultural referents, because expats are likelier to have the advantage of a more generally fluent knowledge of this schadenfreud-type crime-comedy narrative.
Those advantages, though, in play theoretically ought to be mitigated by players aiding one another, and overlooking certain blind spots. A very simple example is a Korean player who, for example, opting to play a Korean-American who is fluent in English, might speak with certain simple, non-intrusive grammar problems. (An example from our gameplay session was when Miss Jiwaku mixed up pluralization and singulars while roleplaying.) That kind of thing should simply be ignored, or–if the objective of the game is partly improvement of spoken English–gently corrected by a native English speaker and repeated by the player who made the error.
(And, note, the reverse is true: the game could be used to learn Korean, or some other language. During play, at least two expats switched to rudimentary Korean, which was grammar-error laden; it got ignored, but it could have been corrected if our objective was to improve our spoken Korean.)
But in a bigger sense, the in any mixed group operating across cultures, a higher degree of cooperation is necessitated–in the form of brief asides to explain references or idioms, to clarify communication on unclear points, and so on. Likewise, there will almost inevitably be an imbalance in the characters played: both Koreans and Westerners should be encouraged to consider playing a character from the other culture, not just as a case of filling out the story but also as a case of fair play. Most Korean players will be entering into a game where they are already engaged in a culturally foreign activity; if they are the sole Korean player, that is not a problem, but if their character is not only Korean, but the only Korean in the group, that too might be difficult for some players.
(Our group involved a wonderful mix: two expats playing expat characters very unlike themselves; two expats playing native Koreans; and one Korean playing a Korean-American.)
My point about referring to in-play behaviour is simple: intercultural play may require a certain kind of awareness of the complexities of intercultural communication that mean game design is neither the be-all nor the end-all of the issue. This is like any RPG, I suppose: without “good players” the game isn’t likely to go well… but the difference here is that “good players” means something different, or perhaps just bigger, than in a normal, monocultural RPG setting with everyone sharing a common mother tongue. this, again, is something that most expats living abroad (and most Koreans with expat experience) will grok better than most non-expats, which, in the context of playing in Korea is likelier to be a subset of the Korean players.
There’s also the question of how the design of a playset contributes to its spontaneous playability. On one level, this ties back to the familiarity of setting, which in fact reminds me of something I learned at Clarion West: a convoluted, complicated plot works best when paired with a very familiar, immediately-comprehensible setting; but if you want to tell a story about a mind-blowingly alien setting, then you’d better stick to a pretty comprehensible plot. This is surely true in genre fiction: a great example that comes immediately to mind is Benjamin Rosenbaum’s short story “The Man Who Worked for Money” where the setting is so futuristic and so other that the plot is basically some people puzzling at a guy’s weird economic theories, and the guy explaining it, and then one of the characters finding it interesting enough to think about.
There’s a line, of course, and you can skate back and forth across it. Lavie Tidhar does in his wonderful Osama–the noir-ness and the slightly-othered-world feel familiar, then they don’t; the plotline seems simple, then it isn’t; and Ian McDonald in River of Gods. And some of my favorite books (like, say, Accelerando by Charles Stross) goes on ahead and mashes the complexity of plot and the complexity of worldbuilding together. (I’d say John Brunner’s incredible Stand on Zanzibar does the same.) But this method works for countless other SF authors, and along other axes, too: Patricia Anthony wants her stories to be very emotionally rich, so she uses familiar SFnal content so as to make that stuff (for the most part) immediately accessible. (For example, the culture of the Greys in Brother Termite is at once both a twist on the traditional Grey Aliens, and also a familiar trope–the (semi-)hive-mind of 50s Red Scare SF.) I’m behind on Connie Willis’ novels, but the best I’ve read were both time travel books (The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and both mostly used very familiar settings for convoluted plots.
Anyway, the point is: a good Fiasco playset uses a setting immediately familiar to the players, which, again, requires a little bit of thinking if you’re working on devising a playset that will work equally for Koreans and for expats.
Take Itaewon district in Seooul, for example. For me, the first things that come to mind are annoying street hawkers, large-sized clothes, and English books — because it’s one of the few places where an English bookstore is located. For other expats, the connotations can be quite different: it can represent a range of things: a haven for the foreigners, a dingy slum full of bars and overpriced foreign food; a dangerous place where GIs and drunk teachers get into fights over bargirls; one of the few places where non-Koreans are able to enter the sleazy Korean underground world of the sex trade; a safe zone for homosexuals. There is no Itaewon: there are many, all in one place.
And then there’s the Itaewon that is conjured up in Koreans’ heads when the name of the district is spoken. That tends toward the sleazy, scary part. A couple of Miss Jiwaku’s friends actually have such a bad mental picture of the district that, even knowing she’s engaged to an expat, they started ranting about drunk losers who couldn’t get a good job back in their home countries and came to Korea to hunt for “easy Korean girls.” Many see the place as one of danger–a sense that isn’t helped by how the Korean media sensationalizes every crime in that neighborhood, especially crimes across race, while soft-pedaling equivalent crimes in supposedly all-Korean areas–and as sleazy, dirty, a haven for the types of foreigners that fulfill every bad stereotype. This is racist, of course… but I could have named another district of Seoul, one of those supposedly all-Korean ones, and you’d see the same in reverse: Koreans would have a more nuanced image of it, while expats would have a one-dimensional one with bias visible all over. (I’m thinking about Jongno, as an example.)
That’s one reason I decided to set the playset in a setting where the Korean and the foreign worlds meet: an educational institution. In fact, in the last decade, hakwons and universities and, most recently, public schools have been one of the few places where the foreign and the Korean intersect on a daily basis. A lot of expats socialize with other expats, in expat bars or otherwise; a lot of Koreans don’t go out of their way to socialize with expats. The only places where foreign and Korean worlds intersect in a setting bigger than a household (in the form of intercultural couples, whether dating or married) is an educaitonal one, or a business one. And since I know little or nothing about the world of foreign companies in Korea, and neither would most of my players, the obvious choice was an educational institution.
This worked, thank goodness. But I should talk more about that after I discuss our playthrough. Which may take a few more days: I’m still trying to piece together the plot, which was tough even when I started (the day after we played our game) and is very hard now. We’ll see what I can pull off, though. Once I started trying to write it all down, parts came back in a flood. Maybe I’ll manage some more later tonight. But I think from now on, I may just quietly record our game sessions, so I can review the results… not for posting, though, since that might make people uncomfortable. But it’ll help with the recaps.