Review: Fiasco Companion

Companions are a tradition of the RPG hobby. Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, Rolemaster, Runequest, Shadowrun and Warhammer have all had Companions at one time or another. Sometimes “Companion” was omitted from the title (like 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Unearthed Arcana and Champions II and Champions III for, well, Champions), but for a while in the 80s it seemed like every RPG of consequence had one.

Companions are not 128-page volumes dedicated to a niche subject like the psychic alien zombies of Lichtenstein, either. Virtually a second (or third or fourth) corebook, Companions contain – cheek-by-jowl in a single convenient 64- or 128- or 256-page volume – new crunch (player options and antagonists), rules variants and extensions, GM advice and genre analysis. The advice and discussion of genre tropes in Champions II is still markedly better than half of the pap new DMs try to learn from today. While Companions aren’t always the best supplements available for their RPG, their batting average is good.

Enter the Fiasco Companion, the latest member of this proud cadre, which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them. It ticks most of the boxes: variants, extensions, crunch (in the form of four new playsets designed to illustrate principles explored elsewhere in the text) and advice (including chapters on using Fiasco in the classroom and as a creative tool outside of roleplaying, plus tips for playing online and facilitating in the absence of the GM role). While Fiasco’s designer, Jason Morningstar, didn’t take this chance to share how his love for the Cohen Brothers (and similar flicks) inspired his greatest hit, and the “GM” advice is aimed at all players of this GMless game, it fits the mold well.

Being a Better Fuckup

Most of the Fiasco Companion focuses on playing Fiasco better. There are tips related to tone and pacing, embracing the genre and playing without the safety nets of a GM or a plot. If you’re immersed in the general culture of structured freeform RPGs or improv – or you’ve read Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe – a lot of the advice will be familiar. The tips on playing to the pace of Fiasco – a product of the tight scene limit – and on handling a couple of the edge cases that can crop up are useful for everyone and largely specific to Fiasco, though. If you aren’t already familiar with this style of play, it’s an excellent introduction, that includes good extended examples. Actually, it’s a shame that some of this material isn’t in the core rulebook, since it’s most useful to people that are new to Fiasco.

The section on alternative play environments – classroom play and using Fiasco as a writer’s exercise, for example – also contains some surprising gems for regular players. If you’re not an actor or improver, skipping the section about Fiasco for Performers seems obvious, but there are discussions of story structure and character that any player can learn from. Unfortunately, these sections are presented as interview or chat transcripts. This is better-suited to website bonus content or magazine articles, and I’d rather Bully Pulpit had distilled these transcripts down in to shorter, more digestible (and scannable) essays, punctuated by select quotes. I think I understand the logic underlying this format – it makes it easy to give credit where it’s due – but I don’t think it’s in the interest of the reader. It’s a venial sin, not a mortal one, but I wanted to call it out so publishers aren’t tempted to emulate it.

There is also a section of advice on facilitating Fiasco, including running it at conventions and on the internet. I was plesantly surprised to see how much useful advice there is about this topic, and some of it applies to facilitating any GMless/GMful RPG. The advice on internet play felt like it leaned heavily toward forum and e-mail play (there is a thriving play-by-forum community at RPGGeek that Morningstar leaned on for this advice), but that may be because Skype play and its kin are more akin to tabletop games.

Oh, and geek icon Wil Wheaton provides six tips, too.

Now You Have That Axe You Need

The best part of the Fiasco Companion is the advice on hacking the game. From building your own playsets to messing with the scene structure, virtually any type of hack that’s still recognizable as Fiasco is covered. The tips and pointers are great, and there are fully developed examples of most types of hack, from the compelling Vegas playset that shows off the basic playset-building advice to the alternate scene structure Melancholy Finnish Tag Team, which reminds me of Pulp Fiction.

Somehow, a bit of the hacking advice ended up at the end of the play advice chapter (under the topic of bending the rules). This seems a little weird and confused me just now when I looked up the name of the Melancholy Finnish Tag Team. Otherwise, though, this material is golden. I don’t think there’s anything else that needs saying about the art of building a playset. The warning not to mess with the Aftermath is stern but fair, and it isn’t absolute. In fact, an example of an alternative Aftermath Table is provided that offers gentler endings like those seen in some high school dramas. High school and wedding playsets are also included, and they can be used with the standard Aftermath tables for a harsh game, or with the new tables for something more lighthearted.

If you want to tinker with Fiasco, there’s no reason not to buy the Fiasco Companion.

Style Points

The Fiasco Companion largely replicates the gorgeous layout and art style of the original rulebook, which is fine by me. Fiasco is one of my favourite RPG books, admirably blending clarity and beauty. The art is stylish and used in tasteful moderation, which more RPGs need to emulate. The Companion doesn’t have the same visual impact as the original book since we’ve seen this style once already, but it’s still a pleasure.

The writing is excellent throughout, featuring a conversational style that (mostly) avoids sticking its thumb in your cerebellum. The text is punctuated by several meaty yet brief examples and short sidebars featuring advice from experienced player like Marc Majcher and Graham Walmsley. The copyediting is excellent as well; I can only recall seeing one or two typos in the entire book.

Not Such a Fiasco

Thanks to free monthly playsets and surprisingly punchy mechanics, Fiasco is a game that has a lot of legs. As a result, casual fans who only play Fiasco a couple times a year don’t need the Fiasco Companion. Fiasco will maintain its value for those players for a long, long time, and as good as the general play advice is, I don’t think it’s worth the price of admission by itself unless one of the included playsets tickles your fancy, or the specialized advice – say on running con games – seems like something you’ll use. If that’s the case, you should still get your money’s worth.

If you are a hardcore Fiasco addict – especially one attracted to the idea of crafting your own playsets and hacking the system – the Companion is a must buy. The advice for developing your own playsets is golden, and a couple of the included variants and advanced playsets will make the game feel (almost) new again.

The Fiasco Companion is available now from the Bully Pulpit store, at the Origins Game Fair convention, and will be shipping to retailers soon.

Comments

  1. Dang – sold out! Can’t wait for the PDF release…

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  1. […] the Fiasco Companion at Bully Pulpit Games. There are also a couple of reviews out already, at Critical-Hits.com and RPGmusings.com Advice, Fiasco, Games, rpg, Wil Wheaton, […]

  2. […] heard plenty of tales of Fiasco games going on in the Games on Demand room, and the brand new Fiasco Companion appeared in print for the first time at the convention. We’re already fans here on Critical […]