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.
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.
- 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.