Fiasco RPG (2009)

I love it when a plan falls disastrously apart.

Fiasco, a quick one-session paper role playing game, aims to recreate bad day and black comedy movies like Burn After Reading and Fargo. It’s GM-less, for 3-5 players and takes under three hours to finish from character creation to final curtain.
Shells and I have been looking for more RPG’s to play and this storytelling game is a nice way to warm up to larger RPG’s. It was definitely the highlight of last week’s Nukecon. So much so, I bought the PDF of the game ($10) from RPG Now when I got home.

Fiasco is a gateway game for the highly dramatic, funny and weird among us. You will need to get heavily involved in the storytelling, but there is no number crunching or stopping down to roll die to determine story outcomes. Your existence as a character isn’t depended on a die roll. You don’t even have a character sheet.

Let’s start with character creation. All the characters are described by just a few words on index cards. Every person has a defined relationship to the person on their left and their right written on the index cards. For example, ‘angry ex-lovers’ or ‘business rival after the same goal’ or ‘siblings.’ These relationships are determined by the play set, the bones of the game. Bully Pulpit games has released a bunch of free play sets which run from 1963 Dallas to a Spinal Tap-like band to Suburbia. Go to the website and check them out. If it sounds intriguing, you may like the game. Each play set is basically a different genre and setting of your story. To determine your relationship, a bunch of dice are rolled and you or others assign a die to it’s corresponding general relationship and a second die is set to define a more specific detail. Since anyone can place dice for anyone else, you may not have much control over the basic obsessions driving your character. This is a good thing because it forces you to think about the overall story and not just yourself. You are not in a group of people all working for the same goals. There’s no loot or booty or leveling up. It’s all about story and conflict.
Conflict breeds chaos and chaos breeds fun. The second signifier between you and the person to your left or right is either a need, object or location. This puts the story in a certain place, adds a MacGuffin to the story and gives characters reasons to do what they’re doing. Sometimes, very strange reasons. In the session I played, most of the action took place in the basement of an elementary school and involved the ashes of $100,000. Very strange stuff happened involving a deer. The rulebook does a good job of going over the particulars of character creation, but playing it out definitely solidified the logic behind the process. Don’t get attached to your character, horrible things may happen to him or her. Think of this character as an extended NPC from another game and go bananas. Also, assign dice and attributes to others that you’d like to see them play out. Increase the tension, yo.

I think the character creation in Fiasco could easily be used in other more traditional games to add a level of soap opera to a group, especially a mystery game like Call of Cthulhu. If you run an improv group, you could create some random characters and situations and make a pretty funny skit out of the results.

The meat of the story is told in two acts with an epilogue. In the first act, each player can either choose to establish or resolve what hijinks their character is up to. The dice, in two colors—one representing good outcomes and one bad outcomes—are heaped in the middle of the table. If you choose to establish the scene, you start the story and get the ball rolling. At some point, another player will grab either a good or bad die and finish your scene with a positive or negative outcome to the scene. If you choose to resolve, the group sets the scene and you grab a good or bad die to say how the scene ends. In act one, that die is then given to another player. Act one is finished after everyone has a scene. After act one, a tilt is introduced. Basically after a tilt, some unforeseen elements are thrown into the story, as the best laid plans of characters start to derail. Craziness ensues for act two which follows the same pattern as act one, except you keep the dice after setting up or resolving the scene. The dice are used to chart where your character ends up at the end of the story, from pathetic to victorious. You may be dead before the end of the story, but that’s ok, you can still come out a winner, story-wise. The more players the longer the game, but it should all wrap up in under three hours with a break.
Reading the rules, I was unsure how to play. I’m glad I played it before reading the rules as it made the rules make more sense. Although, in my session, we did give dice away more as rewards and not as they were intended, to wrest away control of the story. The rulebook’s way sound more fun.
I’m not saying the rules were unclear, not at all, Fiasco is a breezy read filled with cool quotes, examples, and step by step instructions on what is basically a pretty simple RPG. Playing the game first just internalized the logic behind the game. This a game that makes sense as you play it.
As you can see from the picture below, the graphics evoke a cool ’60’s vibe and the book carries that graphic design throughout, kind of like a funny or strange noir story. Good guys get screwed, bad guys get away and the wishy-washy probably end up dead.

In our session last Friday, we had duplicitous affairs, covered up murders, a Klingon sword, deer sex, defrauding an elementary school, many exposed secrets, the fake ashes of a body, misunderstandings, a prison murder and vacuum cleaner/lawyer/councilman war. Um, yea, strange.

We hope to play again with the teens this weekend, maybe the rock band scenario, and to improve play, I hope there will be more secondary characters and more odd story turns as dice are grabbed. The rulebook encourages seamless story-telling and staying in character with out much stop down.

Fiasco’s a game for people who normally don’t play role playing games and aren’t bound by their conventions. Hey, Humanities peeps, give it a try. Screenplays have probably been written with less prep. And Fiasco’s pretty prep-lite, there’s nothing you need to bring to the table except your own twisted personality.

And with the right group of people, you should be able to create a runaway train.

(Full disclosure, I wrote a supplement, for myself, to one of Bully Pulpit’s other games The Roach of Shab-Il-Hiri, a parody of ’80’s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty called The Cashingtons. I hope to do a play set with the Cashingtons with Fiasco as well. Jason Morningstar, the game’s creator, is fantastically available and supportive of outside input.)

Fiasco should show up on Wil Wheaton’s YouTube show Tabletop soon.

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