Review: “Fiasco”

Jason Morningstar likes to describe Fiasco as being about “powerful ambition and poor impulse control,” and the rules are laser focused on this. It provides the powerful ambitions and interferes with the players’ natural impulse control. The rest – the juicy stuff, the fun stuff – is in the hands of the players. That minimalism – that focus – will turn many gamers off, but it is also the reason Fiasco succeeds so brilliantly.

The Skinny

Fiasco is inspired by a certain type of movie, most strongly associated with the Coen Brothers, where there are several characters that have a plan, plus, possibly, a couple who have strong convictions. These plans and convictions run up against each other over the course of the movie, and a human train wreck results. Morningstar, in an appendix, cites Blood Simple, Fargo, A Simple Plan and Burn After Reading as the four perfect examples of the genre (he also includes about 100 lesser exemplars). In Fiasco, each player creates one of these characters and then, during play, they run their characters at each other at high speed. By the end, there will be winners and losers, and they won’t necessarily be deserving of their fate.

The system is a far cry from Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer. In fact, it belongs to a new school of RPG design that calls itself as Structured Freeform. Related to the Scandinavian Jeepform movement but aimed at tabletop play instead of LARP, Structured Freeform does not focus on conflict resolution or skill checks, let alone combat systems. Instead, the rules of these games focus on developing characters and scenes that produce the kind of story the designer wants, and trusts the players to go in the direction these pointers indicate. As with Fiasco, many of these games avoid GMs, and play in a single sitting. In this case, all players take turns establishing scenes that feature their characters (and any other characters they feel are appropriate), although they only get four turns, plus a denouement, to tell their character’s story. An entire Fiasco arc should take no more than 3 hours to play out, plus a little extra time if there is a rules explanation. With a group of experienced players, playing time should come closer to two hours than three.

Unlike many Structured Freeform games, Fiasco uses dice; heaps of them, in fact. The players choose dice from the heap in consultation with the appropriate results charts, though. The results, therefore, are not entirely random, but the dice do constrain some choices. The dice are rolled right away, during character creation, but characters are not created as individuals. Instead, players choose dice which define their character’s relationship with the characters of the players seated to either side, plus an additional important element of that relationship; either a Need, an Object or a Location that is important to the relationship. Players develop their characters entirely from what those relationships say about the character and thereafter from the turns play take.

Fiasco comes with five full-fledged setting documents, and several more are available free on the Fiasco website, with another arriving every month. These setting documents, called playsets, are, in many ways, Fiasco’s killer app. Sneakily, they don’t even address setting in the traditional RPG manner. All they contain, aside from a brief introduction, are the charts you use to build the relationships between the PCs. Otherwise, Fiasco relies on the players’ familiarity with the setting and the type of story that Fiasco produces to fill in the blanks. The playsets included in the rulebook are:

  • Main Street, for play in Anycity, USA
  • Tales from Suburbia, detailing how the American Dream often crushes souls
  • The Ice, drama at an Antarctic research station
  • Boomtown, the old west, gone awry

A few examples of Relationships, Needs, Locations and Objects:

  • Main Street
    • Relationship: Pastor, doctor, lawyer, dentist or drug dealer & client
    • Need: To get the truth about what she did behind The Patio
    • Location: The old fish house, an abandoned roadhouse
    • Object: Mink farm
  • The Ice
    • Relationship: Isolated co-religionists
    • Need: To get off on sabotaging a scientific program
    • Location: Scott’s Hut, the Terra Nova expedition’s 1913 base
    • Object: A USB drive, a spreadsheet, names and dates
  • Tales From Suburbia
    • Relationship: Drunk Driver and victim’s next of kin
    • Need: To get even with your old high school rival
    • Location: The cul-de-sac at the end of Avanti Way
    • Object: The charred ashes of $100,000

Since you sit at the nexus of two relationships, you have plenty of material to develop an interesting, probably slightly messed up, character. When you put three or four of these characters together, plus a couple ancillary NPCs, the result is a combustible situation, ripe with potential for fun.

Once everyone has developed their relationships and characters, play begins in a tightly defined, but loosely prescribed way. On their turn, players have a choice between establishing the next scene and letting the rest of the table decide if the scene turns out well or badly for the active player’s character, or letting the table establish the scene and keeping the right to determine whether the outcome is good or bad. What the scene is about should relate to the character’s agenda, which should relate to the elements of that character’s relationships, but isn’t fixed in stone. The relationships are fuel for the imagination, not a straitjacket.

After each player has had two turns, the players consult the dice again, and Tilts are the result. Tilts inject a little chaos – and a little momentum – into the proceedings by adding semi-random events in a manner similar to defining relationships. A few sample Tilts:

  • Death, out of the blue
  • The wrong guy gets busted
  • Somebody develops a conscience
  • A stupid plan, executed to perfection

Once the Tilt is determined, the group should take a little time to interpret the results in the context of their game, after which, play proceeds for two more rounds of scenes.

Without going into detail, players collect white and black dice during the course of play, and at the end of the game they roll these dice to determine their character’s ultimate fate. Generally, having dice that are mostly the same colour is the best way to ensure a good result for your character. Some sample Aftermath results:

  • Horrible. You are probably dead. Other people, probably innocent people, are as well. There is no justice, there is no mercy, everything is utterly, painfully screwed and it is all – all of it – your fault.
  • Pretty good. All things considered, you’re coming out of this smelling like a rose. You’re a little better off – maybe you got the girl, or maybe you just didn’t get caught.
  • Bitter. You know what it’s like to be utterly crushed, casually brought low, forced to eat your own words and stand mute and powerless before your enemies. They gloat, and you are helpless.
  • Nothing to crow about. Not better, but not way worse, either. Maybe the car is wrecked, or your wife is leaving you, or there’s a court date. But compared to some of the other people you know…

With this result in hand, you narrate the ultimate fate of your characters, and then reflect on what an incredible mess it was.

The Human Factor

While it may sound like Fiasco is a “for story, just add water” game, it actually makes some demands of its players. The one that is most likely to turn off some people is the need to come up with scene ideas. The rulebook touches on this problem, and offers a bit of advice, but I think it could reasonably have gone further, especially for people who are prone to “white paper syndrome” – paralysis because they cannot choose from a seemingly infinite range of possibilities.

There *are* tools that can help you get around this problem. Usually, framing a scene about a Need related to your character isn’t too difficult. In fact, this is one reason why a four-player game is probably best for inexperienced players; it is likely that every character will have a relationship that involves a Need. If you aren’t so lucky, or if you feel that Need is being overworked, you can also turn to an Object or a Location; flesh those suckers out in play. If that doesn’t work, you can even punt and ask the table to frame your next scene, retaining the right to decide whether the scene turns out in your character’s favour or not. If everyone at your table is unsure about framing scenes, though, this solution may be the worst one, since it imposes more discomfort on everyone else. Contrary to what some may think, though, scene framing is not a task that demands brilliance. Often, choosing to go with the scene that seems obvious is the right choice, and it will lead to fantastic play.

Fiasco also demands that all of the players push as hard as they can – without being a jerk – for what their characters want. You’re trying to produce an interesting train wreck of human ambition here, so you must play your character’s in a way that shows off their ambition or threatens the ambitions of other players. Also, you only have four scenes to tell your character’s story, plus any bones the other players throw you by including you in their scenes. That’s not a lot of time to develop an arc. There is no room for passive play, and damn little for reactive play. Casual “I just want to see what happens” players will deflate the game completely. Let the players know what the game is about up front, and what the game expects from them so they have the best chance of providing it.

This may seem like an invitation to break the game considering how loose Fiasco’s constraints on player narration are, but there are limiters, some of which may be hard to spot. The other players should be pushing back in the name of their own characters, for instance, and the other players also have some control over your character’s scenes. Not only are they free to play their characters (and NPCs as appropriate) in your scenes, they also get to frame them (probably incorporating some serious obstacle for your character) or decide whether the scene should end well or poorly. If it looks like things are going too well for you, the other players are likely to frame you into awkward positions or make scenes end badly for your character.

But Wait, There’s More!

In a brilliant marketing move (well, it hooked me, anyway), Bully Pulpit Games have been releasing additional playsets, for free, on their website. One new PDF playset comes out as a free download on the first of each month. Originally, they were only available until the next playset was released, but a couple of months ago they changed this policy, and now all of the PDFs are available to download. Also, the best of them will be collected into a print supplement sometime next year.

So far, the free playsets are:

  • Touring Rock Band, which does what it says on the tin
  • Gangster London, made in the image of British geezer gangster flicks, a la Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre
  • Last Frontier, about life in rural Alaska
  • Lucky Strike, where soldiers in the dying days of World War II try to secure their future
  • Flyover, set in all those silly red states nobody cares about (just kidding)
  • Reconstruction, for play in the American South right after the American Civil War

I’d largely ignored Fiasco while it was in development, but I downloaded the Touring Rock Band playset when I heard it was available for free. It hooked me when I saw that the setting consisted entirely of a situation generation engine since I am something of a fan of this kind of tool (a variation on those used in games like In a Wicked Age and Morningstar’s own Grey Ranks).

A Thing of Beauty

As befits a clean, minimalist game design, Fiasco’s print design is clean and minimalist, but also beautiful. In fact, if someone asked me what an RPG book should look like, I would point them to Fiasco.

First, the cover art and interior illustrations are in a style reminiscent of the work of Saul Bass, the man behind such movie title sequences as Vertigo, North by Northwest, West Side Story and Goodfellas. They are an odd mix of geometrical and rough, as shown in the accompanying images. This blend does a great job of evoking the feel of the game for me.

In addition to the marvelous imagery, Fiasco’s typography is a thing of beauty. Designer John Harper has the confidence to let it stand on its own, and the result is perfectly balanced, well proportioned, and a pleasure to behold. Ample whitespace; the heading font, Hitchcock and judicious splashes of colour prevent the layout from becoming boring or static. I constantly rail against background images and textures in RPG books, and this is exhibit A when arguing that they are unnecessary even if you want to make a beautiful book.

The Bottom Line

Buy Fiasco. Play Fiasco.

Even if it turns out not to be for you and yours, playing Fiasco will be a valuable experience for any roleplayer. It’s a great example of why roleplaying doesn’t require a hundred pages of crunch to be compelling. It will help everyone you play with understand how well crafted characters can drive play, but don’t require pages of backstory, either. It exercises roleplaying and story muscles that they can put to good use in your regular games. Since it can be played, including rules explanation, in an evening, it is a perfect pick-up game for nights when some players can’t make it, but you’re not in the mood for board games.

What’s not to love?

Well, if your entire group likes to sit back and be entertained by the GM it may not work. On the other hand, it could be just the tool to show everyone how fun proactive, improvisational play can be, too.

Comments

  1. @Linneus: I forgot to tell you in your last post but this one confirms it, you write extrodinarily well crafted reviews. I’m glad you joined us.

    Now about Fiasco, I’m very intrigued by the system’s idea (especially the mechanics) but I have a very strong aversion for the 4 movie named. I’m however very interested in the Guy Ritchee module!!!

  2. I’ve been looking at this one for a while. I really want to pick it up. I’m thinking I really need to, now.

  3. highbulp says:

    My D&D group took a break to play this one session–we have 7 people (and spent a long time thinking and joking about possible outcomes set up by each new soon), so it went a little slower than normal. In 4 hours we were only able to get to the tilt, and then we had to break for a few weeks and the game lost moment (so we never finished the story). But my god it was fun. Those characters will be long remembered, even though they only got about 3 scenes to do anything.

    FWIW, I like the group story-telling mechanic so much I’ve tried (with partial success) to integrate it into 4e Skill Challenges: given a basic situation/challenge, the group sets up a particular narrative obstacle and then one player gets to “resolve” it (and make the check). I haven’t gotten it to work perfectly yet, but it’s a neat idea, and seems a good potential method for getting D&D players into a more active storytelling mode, rather than simply reacting to the DM.

    But yes, Fiasco is awesomeness!

  4. @chatty

    Thanks! This review went on a bit longer than is ideal, but there is so much about it that is worthy of mention that I couldn’t help myself (and I may have the same problem again with my next review).

    While the four films I mention are the primary influences (and, for the record, I love Fargo but haven’t seen the other three yet) the hundred other flicks named in the back of the book are pretty diverse, ranginf from Rashomon to A Fish called Wanda. Morningstar doesn’t include a bibliography, but I would also point at the collected works of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen as excellent source material as well. From what I know of your gaming tastes, I’m pretty sure you’d love this game, although it may take your group a session or two to come to grips with what it does.

    @highbulp

    Wow. I think with 7 people, I’d try to convince folks to break up into two groups before trying Fiasco. Four is definitely the sweet spot, and I think more than five does too much violence to the pace and tightly-woven structure of play. I’m glad it still worked fairly well for you though. The set-up rules definitely work to take players out of their comfort zone with their characters, which, for my money, is a good thing.

    I’d be interested in seeing your skill challenge hack once you have it working more smoothly. It sounds like an interesting idea.

  5. Thanks for the kind review, Linnaeus! We really appreciate you taking a long look at the game, and I’m glad to see that you’ve had fun with it. I would like to mention that in addition to being available in PDF form at RPGnow, the book is available in print through Indie Press Revolution.

    highbulp, playing Fiasco with seven players must have been crazy- how many additional details (Needs, etc.) did you use? I’d love to hear more about that game.

  6. highbulp says:

    Well rethinking it, I guess there were only 6 of us (one of our players was away).

    We did a direct scaling of the normal 4-5 people: so each person had a relationship to two others, and each relationship had an associated object, need, or location.

    We were playing The Ice scenario, and our overall location was McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The Characters were:
    * Professor [Ms.] Snowden, a university professor with a side-line in ecoterrorism (something about saving the penguins…).
    * William, one of Snowden’s graduate students who had followed his mentor into radical environmentalism.
    * Nikki, William’s somewhat bewildered trophy wife.
    * Dr. Demitri Vygotski, a scientist working at an underground lava lake who has just returned to McMurdo after a tragic accident (and who may or may not be Russian). Was also an old rival of Snowden’s [this was my character, so a lot of what I remember is from his perspective]
    * Garmon Rupture, a lab technician from the lava lake lab who survived the accident (the only survivor apart from Vygotski).
    * Enrique, the McMurdo station cook from Nicaragua who had a shady past.

    A lot of the needs/etc. were used to construct these characters and their relations, more than drive the plot forward.

    The basic story we constructed was that Snowden and William were here to commit some act of sabotage to blow up something and stop Vygotski’s research. Garmon was also looking to get revenge on Vygotski, who he believed caused the accident and thus caused the death of Garmon’s girlfriend (Meryl). Vygotski wasn’t aware that Garmon was still alive.

    Things got really interesting though when Nikki contacts Enrique about the ecoterrorist-plot–apparently she is really a secret agent of some kind, and Enrique is her undercover contact. Her marriage was just to get information. At the same time, Garmon tells Snowden that he has secret information (which he is willing to share “for justice”), but also goes to Enrique to enlist his help against Vygotski.

    Snowden meanwhile threatens to expose Vygotski (he had a habit of “accidentally” getting his grad students killed). So Vygotski also goes to Enrique (who takes care of all kinds of odd jobs), and tells him that there is a “scary woman” who needs help “to punch ticket”. Enrique becomes convinced that Vygotski is on to Nikki’s secret identity, and so is out to get her.

    Where we stopped (right before the tilt), Nikki and Enrique had hooked up (Nikki’s need was “to get laid”), Garmon had run away from Vygotski to get to his meeting with Snowden somewhere on the ice, William was wondering what the hell was going on, and Vygotski was sure he had all his bases covered. We expected Garmon to get murdered on the ice, and there were explosives involved… it was fabulous.

    Vygotski had 2 white dice (so a good chance of coming out ahead–even though he was a terrible evil person, we were pretty sure he was going to get away). William had 2 black–bad stuff just kept piling up on him, as Snowden ordered him around and Nikki cheated on him. Everyone else had a pretty even mix of white and black.

    It was an amazing game and we had a great time. It took a long time (we played for like 4 hours and didn’t get to the tilt, though we were pretty slow because we were joking around and didn’t quite know what we were doing), but it was really really fun–a lot of joking around and discussing all kinds of brilliant and enjoyable possibilities, even if they didn’t come to pass. We actually recorded the sessions, though I’m not sure how interesting they would be to listen to for people who weren’t there (the recording’s first line is: “is it made out of sahaguin?”).

    Ah, that’s fun to remember ;)

Trackbacks

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