One of the best parts of living in our Golden Age of RPGs is that the choice of systems to use provides an unprecedented level of game design flexibility. Recently I was watching the Amazon TV show Man in the High Castle thinking how much I liked the story as possible RPG setting. While my first impulse was to develop some system and setting out of whole cloth, I quickly realized that the setting was the perfect candidate for a Fiasco playset.
If you’re not familiar with Fiasco, it’s a GM-less RPG that revolves around high ambition and poor impulse control. Originally seeded as an opportunity to play out a Coen Brother style session, it has evolved into an RPG engine that can provide amazing gaming sessions in myriad different genres, tones and depth of story-telling. The writers of Fiasco have open-sourced the playsets it uses to allow anyone to create a Fiasco session in any really anyway, anytime, with all sorts of interesting gaming levers to pull.
So instead of going and designing a new game based on The Man in the High Castle (both the TV show and novel, both of which I like immensely), I just decided to build my own playset. And, quite frankly, it worked out quite well. This last weekend, at BigBadCon in Walnut Creek, CA, I ran two separate sessions of Return to the High Castle, a Fiasco game set in the world of The Man in the High Castle. My game description was as such:
Canon City, Colorado, 1962: Sixteen years after the Nazis bombed Washington, D.C., the Greater Nazi Reich rules Eastern North America, while the West is governed by the Japanese Pacific States. High in the Rocky Mountains lives the remains of the USA, those unwilling to submit to the will of the totalitarian state, those hiding secrets and their past, and those who are still willing to stand up and fight. The Resistance has a move to make, something to hide and sell, but there are spies, moles, and double agents everywhere. Time for plans to fall apart. Time for a fiasco. Loosely based on the Philip K Dick book and Amazon TV series “The Man in the High Castle.”
I will be writing more on the playset, but for now, I wanted to note some of my thoughts on the two sessions and some give feedback for myself on where to go next with the playsets. Most of my feedback drops into one of two buckets:
1. The Setting Can Be Really Dark… or Not: So just running a game with Nazis and Imperialist Japanese with a modicum of verisimilitude creates problems right out of the gate. Basically, these were horrible fascist regimes that did horrible things to many, many people. The impact of what was done is still being felt today and will be felt for a long, long time. So much so, that there are a lot of stripes to fascism that are still in our public conversation today, in discussions on race relation, immigration, and, oh, I don’t know, the fact that Aleppo, Syria today looks like Berlin in 1945. So yeah, those are still fresh scars.
The first key here is, then, to just talk about it. We had an open conversation at both tables, though one was far more thorough than the other, on where we might cross boundaries and how we were going to talk about it if we did. One observation is that, for both sessions, we limited the action in the game to just the city and area around Canon City, which plays a central part of the TV show. My playset is set there because it represents the perfect arena for plans to come undone, but we also found that no one wanted to play in the either of the occupied parts of the former USA, either the West/Japanese or East/Nazi occupied lands. Not playing in these areas allowed us to stay away from most of the really dark stuff that might come up. We were playing in what was, ostensibly, the remains of the USA, which allowed us freedom that might not be available in the occupied areas. It also kept us at arm’s distance from the fascist regimes that might be able to easily crush the freedom that we, as players, needed to exercise in order to avoid some of the darker topics.
The key component of a good Fiasco game is high stakes in imperfect plans that come tumbling down, usually in a tragic manner. Keeping the action to Canon City, and away from the darker parts of the setting, allowed us to set up some dark comedy and tragic plans without needing to pull in the really, really horrible stuff.
2. Dick’s Split Reality: One of my favorite parts of any Philip K Dick story is his playing with reality and perceptions. All the best PKD stories have characters punching through the veil to realize that things are not really as they seem. It’s very Dickian for the High Castle stories (both novel and TV) to have people realize that their reality, in which the Axis won WWII by dropping a bomb on Washington DC, is not the only reality, and that a reality exists where the Allies won (aka our reality). Not only do the characters realize it, but they travel to that reality at some point, as well as have artifacts (film and book) come from one reality to another. So it’s key to any PKD-inspired story to have shifting realities be a part of the narrative.
Well, in the first game we played, this was only hinted at when one of the PCs (mine) came across a USA flag with 50 stars. Not only is the the flag banned contraband but the USA of the High Castle reality would have never reached 50 states (with Alaska and Hawaii both gaining statehood in 1959). So 50 stars on a USA flag is something strange but not reality shaking. In our second game, as we attempted to raise the stakes, one of the PCs encountered what seemed to be a Nazi listening post (much like the Japanese one in the High Castle TV show), that implied that every place the PCs had been was tapped. This had serious implications for the narrative. Well, we just ran with it, and came up with a very Dickian story with double and triple realities, possible time travel, and maybe even androids posing as PCs. So yeah, Dickian.
Lots of different avenues to investigate then with this playset, and I was amazed and overjoyed with the sessions. Of course, it helps to have high quality players, and I was blessed with eight amazing gamers who jumped in with both feet for this unusual and somewhat risky endeavor. But the session bouyed my intuition that the High Castle is a valid and interesting setting for RPGing, especially in the Fiasco realm. The possibilities and details providing in the playset were more than enough primer to help build a unique, interesting, and most importantly fun Fiasco session.
There is still work to do on the playset, some tweaking and some open questions on organization that need to be answered. I aim to provide this playset free of charge, so we’ll see how that whole thing works out with Intellectual Property and all that. More soon with further developments.