The Farnsworth Problem

posted by Marc

It was October of 2010, and I was a rookie player at the Story Games Seattle meetup. Seated with me were three others–our facilitator Emily, and two fellow newbies named Pat and Shuo. The four of us cracked open Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco and chose one of the baked-in settings, the Old West. We rolled our dice, made our characters, and unleashed mayhem.

Several hours of laughter later, we parted ways with funny moments to cherish. Of particular note was the strange custom in our town of High Mesa: bar patrons would toast with one glass of whiskey, then smash it on the table and drink from a second glass instead. Our characters were a hilarious mix of scoundrels and marks, but one in particular deserves special mention: Dr. Farnsworth, a snake oil salesman who ended up wandering blind in the desert at the end of our story, the victim of his own hubris. When we left the table that night, none of us expected to see any of the weird rogues we’d invented again.

But six months later, Dr. Farnsworth returned.

It was another Story Games Seattle Meetup night in May 2011, and I sat down with my friends Pat and Shuo to play Fiasco again. This time we picked the Reconstruction setting, and as we revealed our characters, Pat dropped a bomb on us: he would be reprising his role as Dr. Farnsworth. We set the game one year prior to the events of our game in High Mesa in order to facilitate this. The doctor’s reappearance was not something we planned or expected… and it turned out great.

Some months after that, Pat, Shuo and I decided we’d had so much fun with our Reconstruction game that we wanted to play yet another round of Fiasco, but with the focus entirely on a younger Rhett Farnsworth (before he obtained his fake honorary title) as he became the scheming con man we knew and loathed. We set a date, gathered at a bar, and dove in.

And it sucked. We ended up quitting after just a few scenes.

Why did the game fail? It wasn’t the players–Pat, Shuo, and I were seasoned veterans by that point, having played dozens of story games over the preceding year. We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t the system–Fiasco is about as solid as a story game gets. Was Farnsworth so unlikeable that we couldn’t stand to keep the spotlight on him for that long? No, we’d worked to make him sympathetic and relatable as we set up the game, so it wasn’t that either. What, then? Why did our third game with this character bomb when our second was such a hit?

We’d fallen victim to what I call “The Farnsworth Problem”.

The reason the third game didn’t work was because we forgot one of the most important rules of story games: play to find out. When we started our second Farnsworth game, the inclusion of Farnsworth added value because the character was a nod to the past–a fun cameo–but he wasn’t the sole focus of the game. We’d put just as much effort into creating the other two characters, and the interplay between the old and the new led to a unique, unexpected story. Furthermore, there was still much of his tale unknown and untold. All we had set in stone was the fact that he survived to the end.

Contrast this with our third game, where we set out specifically to tell Farnsworth’s story. That would’ve been fine if we didn’t already know so much about Farnsworth, but the problem was this: we’d already played the game before we sat down to play. We had a checklist in our heads of what Farnsworth had to be, do, see, and become (based on everything we’d learned in the first two games), so there was very little room left for us to add anything new to his story. Telling his tale didn’t feel like creating new fiction as author/actor/audience. Instead, it felt like we were coloring in the margins of a painting that was already largely complete.

Playing to find out means walking into scenes and interaction without knowing how they’ll end. It means allowing your ideas for the story to be fluid, and being willing to let yourself be surprised by what others bring to the fiction. It does not mean being completely unaware of what will ultimately happen to the characters. In fact, many great games give you the ending up front (e.g. Downfall, Metrofinál, Microscope, my forthcoming title Epitaph) and ask you to play the parts leading up to it. This doesn’t ruin the story: it enhances it.

The Farnsworth Problem is, fundamentally, one of playing the game before you play the game. We knew everything we wanted to know about Farnsworth, so there wasn’t anything fun left to do with his story. Could we have found a way to make it work? Maybe. We could have tried doing what we did in the second game: create an interesting cast of other characters and tell their stories alongside Farnsworth’s. But even that might not have saved the game, because the constraints we put ourselves under in order to make Farnsworth’s story turn out how it was “supposed” to turn out were so limiting that we would’ve spent a lot of our time stopping the game to say “wait, that doesn’t work because he has to do XYZ”–which is what we did throughout our third game.

To avoid “pulling a Farnsworth”, be mindful of how much of your story you’ve already got mapped out in your head before you play. Is there a certain outcome you need to have happen? That can work if it’s broad (e.g the Hero fails), but the more specific the parameters, the less room there is for exploration, discovery, and surprise–the very things that make story games satisfying in the first place.


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