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Running 30 Minute Fiasco for Middle Schoolers… With No Prep

“I want you to teach my class how to tell a story,” came the original request from my wife, an eighth grade teacher.

My first thought was: “Let’s send them all down to Robert McKee’s Story Seminar for a weekend. That’ll learn ’em.” But no, that’s not what she was talking about.

“I want you to use one of your game systems and help them understand how a story is formed. Can you do that?” Well, yes, of course I can. I can teach them about story and characters, about goals and conflict, about how gaming and writing are similar in that the most important part is the journey, not some destination- “You can have 30 minutes.”

Ah. Well then we’re playing Fiasco.

Fiacso, if you don’t know, is a collaborative role-playing game where a group of 3-5 players builds characters in a setting, then gives those characters certain ill-advised desires. Play begins with the PCs building their plans but usually poor impulse control gets in the way. These plans get built up over one act, then come tumbling down over another act, as the poor impulse control leads to worse and worse decisions until the bottom falls out. It’s a game that’s modeled after Coen Brother movies like Blood Simple and Fargo, but can be put in just about any setting where ambition and greed intersect (I have written a Fiasco playset for The Man in the High Castle — more on that in a later post).

To me, the best part of the Fiasco game comes from the setup, where the group builds out four categories of information to use during the game: Needs, Relationships, Objects and Locations. Because it’s a collaborative game, everyone builds these together, which does an amazing job of giving everyone stake in the game; the Needs and Relationships build out the foundation for the story, giving the characters immediate agency and action; building out these factors fresh every game allows amazing portability and replayability; and designing the setting like this is just plain fun.

I explained Fiasco to my wife, how all of these elements come together to provide a fun experience that actually does a pretty amazing job of teaching the fundamentals of story-telling. You learn how to create interesting characters and settings, then give those characters conflicting desires and goals — conflict brings drama. And drama is just life with all the dull bits cut out, to quote Alfred Hitchcock. Drama is interesting. Drama gets us coming back for more.

She nodded to all of that and wanted me to wrap all of those core ideas into a snappy 30 minute presentation. I explained how I could run a setup with the class, then take them through a couple scenes to give them a grasp on how “easy” it is to pull these elements together, once you know how it works. Great, great, she said, just do all of that.

And so that’s what I did back in December, when I showed up with just a smile and a love for stories and games to share.

Teaching kids Poor Impulse Control

The class of 26 13-14 year-olds was mostly eager and attentive. I got one of them to play scribe and then explained what we were going to do: the game would be set at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (a nearby coastal amusement park); I would get different parts of the class to figure out the different elements of the story we were going to tell (Objects, Relationships, Locations and Needs); then I’d call up four volunteers to role-play the game with some help from the crowd.

While I am not professionally a teacher, I have found myself in a teaching role frequently in my life. I was a technical writer for years, which is teaching via written manuals. These days I’m a software consultant that is often teaching both concepts and specific technical details. And I like to both play and run games, and am often in situations where I am the only one who knows how to play games. These situations require at least a fundamental understanding of both explaining and teaching. I think I do a pretty okay job of it.

After covering the core concepts and getting the class to collaborate on the details for the game, we jumped in to the actual role-playing part. I brought up two boys and two girls and gave each set one of the needs. We really only had time for six scenes, so we would be just doing a quick setup before I threw in a twist of some kind and then we’d have two more scenes. We talked about how desire unmet is the core to any interesting story and that two of our characters had some sort of unmet need. Hey look, there are the needs right on the board.

It didn’t take much to get through the scenes. One of the boys was trying to ask one of the girls out, and boy howdy do I not miss adolescence. True to his character, he could not figure out what to say in the moment, and so we roleplayed his anxiety and indecision as it happened. Frustration and a little embarrassment added to the tension as we moved onto the next scene.

We had another two scenes, where we brought the characters together by playing off the other needs, and used the locations and items to center the story on the same items that were introduced at the beginning. Everyone was ready for the climax, and we soon came to the end scene, where one question loomed large — could the boy summon the courage to ask out the girl?

There was a beat, a moment where it was unclear. But then yes! He took a deep breath and asked if she would go to the dance with him! The class thundered with applause and a sheepish grin came over the boy. Object of desire achieved!

I sent the kids back to their desks and explained what had happened, how the boy’s embarrassment and anxiety had created distance from his goals, how that distance had created tension, how that tension had created interest in the story. We talked about how some of the story elements might have come together differently if we could go back and alter them; if we were writing fiction, we could add and subtract elements until the story was just right.

But most importantly I talked about how these elements, and the game of Fiasco, help bootstrap us into building a coherent and interesting story, and that they can be used both in and out of a game context. If, as a writer, you can understand how the concept of unmet desire is fundamental to story (and humans, really), then you understand what goes into building good drama and interesting characters. With that, my 30 minutes were done.

And that’s how you run a 30 minute Fiasco game for middle schoolers with zero prep. It works for a reason.

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