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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The Kingdom (1995) and the RPG Heaven and Earth (2004)

Lars Von Trier can be a real heavy-handed sumnabitch. Movies like Dogville-that bloody anti-Our Town-spend half of it’s running time bludgeoning it’s message at the audience in such a relentless manner that literally every character becomes a martyred symbol by the end. That said, it was an extremely interesting failure. Might as well aim for the bleachers.

So, I’ll generally give a Lars Von Trier movie a chance if I’m in the right mood. I liked his last film Anti-Christ because the dreamy symbolic and dark imagery worked and I’d watch Willem Defoe in just about anything. Yea, the ending was a bit much and lacked subtlety, but, honestly, I give most horror/thriller/dark dramas a pass on ending because I expect to be disappointed. The main selling point in these types of movies is ‘What is the central idea and is it executed well?’

I saw The Kingdom ( on Netflix streaming and had always wanted to see the mini-series because I’m a sucker for the core set-up: a seemingly normal small town or location that hides dark or supernatural secrets. Blue Velvet, although it doesn’t hold up well, is one of my favorite films. I read Stephen King’s Under the Dome (great idea and 3/4ths of a story with a lame ending, but that’s most of King’s books). There was an American adaptation of The Kingdom with King’s name on it that I saw a little bit of few years ago, but it was a dreary affair. So I was kind of pumped to see the original Danish mini-series. I’ve only seen the first two hours of eight (more later tonight), but I’m liking it and it has me thinking about some other topics I’ll cover in a bit. I love it when a movie I just saw before bed also seeps into my dreams as the tone on last night’s dream could have been an episode of the show.
So, The Kingdom refers to a Danish hospital built on spooky grounds. Much of the show could play as a dark medical comedy about the arrogance and just plain haphazardness of running a modern hospital. The characters already have flaws and mysteries and obsessions that make them at once mildly compelling and empathetic and also deserving of a grizzly end. The main character in the show has to the most arrogant SOB doctor character in the history of the arrogant SOB doctor genre. Love it. (Also learned that the Swedes looks down or at least this guy looks down on the Danes. He would go up to the top of the hospital and loudly scream profanities at his Danish counterparts.) There’s rapid disfunction, a literal crumbling of the institution, secret societies, and even an adorable Down Syndrome duo that serve as a Greek chorus. Of course, there’s some supernatural shenanigans which hopefully will turn down right Cthulhu as the show goes on. On the heavy-handed side, director/writer Lars, himself tuxedoed, would show up at the end in the credits and go on about good and evil and god and the nature of interest in such things. Odd. Anyway, this isn’t really a review as the show got me thinking about a Role Playing Game I ran for seeshells a few years ago.

Heaven and Earth( had a real compelling mystery at it’s center that I won’t spoil here, but the tone of the game made me want to run it and adapt it to my own style and write some plots and characters to fill in the mystery. The game centered around my favorite place, a small Kansas college town chock-a-block with weirdness and secrets. Every character had a secret. The RPG book gave some supernatural explanations for most of the secrets, but also supplied realistic reasons for the strangeness. My idea to expand the core book was to actually have some of the secrets be mundane and some supernatural and to be like an onion so that mundane mysteries would lead to other other-worldly secrets and vice-versa. I wrote about 50 NPC’s. Most characters only knew a tiny part of the big mystery and some believed the wrong thing about it or only a part of it, some were skeptical about some of it, but not other parts. Some were oblivious and most concealed something. Heck, some characters were ghosts who were credulous about some explanations. Anyway, I wanted to make a sandbox for the player character to go anywhere, soak it in and find mysteries everywhere. The game failed a bit because it didn’t always present a strong compelling course of action for seeshells’ characters. Basically, there was almost too much to do and I had her create a bunch of different characters to knock around town with. But I would like to use this place to solve on of the mysteries seeshells stumbled upon to show how you can use a character in the weird town genre to open up a wider story. (An aside, I was attracted The Kingdom because it was a mini-series so there was more room for multiple explanations and multi-layered mysteries. The same for the too-short ABC show Happytown which at least resolved it’s central mystery without resorting to cheap left-field supernatural explanations. Maybe it would have it it dragged on a few seasons. BTW, boo to Lost for it’s cheap non-explanation spiritual ending. Ang-ry.)
So, one of seeshells’ characters was staying at a Bed and Breakfast run by the sweet widow of an ex-mayor. The widow had a bulldog she was extremely attached to. Seeshells’ inquisitive character soon deduced that the bulldog was really the spirit or reincarnation of the widow’s husband. That’s pretty simple, mystery solved, right? Well, the widow did believe the dog was her husband, she did the satanic ritual to ensoul the dog in her basement. But why did she do it? What the widow didn’t know was the mayor wasn’t dead, the circumstances around his ‘death’ opened up a new mystery as also the whereabouts of the mayor. But there were people using supernatural forces (or being used by them) to control the dog to get the widow to carry out their bidding for their own strange ends. And down the rabbit hole we go.

I guess what I’m getting at is that most movies are too cut and dry in their telling of supernatural stories. It’s almost always the big bad ghostie pulling all the strings at the end of the day. It’s never ever a natural explanation if the supernatural is hinted at in the beginning. The only place that happens is Scooby Doo and then the reverse is true, wouldn’t you love it if a ghost DID gobble up Shaggy in just one episode? Mini-series offer the hope of the onion.
Man, I hate that recent rash of the skeptical/supernatural movie. (Only can think of Signs, but there’s also that movie with Hillary Swank and some river of blood) You know the plot, a skeptic who used to be a believer but lost faith because of the death of a child or wife now is a full time debunker of supernatural hoo-haw. In the first scene, he does expose a fraud, but then has a case too good to pass up. For half the movie, weirdness and disbelief abound until, something so bizarre happens (usually involving the ghost of a small girl), and the skeptic loses someone close to them. It’s only through coming around to full-on belief and eventual self-sacrifice is the big bad supernatural averted. And of course, no one believes him and everything is reset X-Files style.

I hope The Kingdom doesn’t end that way and the douche bag doctor is just eaten by Cthulhu.

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