Level One Wonk: Fiasco

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week, we look at a very different sort of gaming experience that is loads of fun: Fiasco!

Truth is, the majority of the RPG world is either D&D, or a system based on D&D. If you go out one level from there you have a whole range of games with different assumptions about genre, complexity, and flavor, but they all have a lot of core similarities. Players have characters. Characters have attributes. Players can improve their character’s attributes over multiple play sessions. Games last multiple play sessions, or at least are intended to last multiple play sessions. There is a Game Master who determines, with the help of the rules, whether a character can successfully act at any given time.

Out there in the world, there are games which gleefully ignore these conventions, often with beautiful results. Games designed to be played in one sitting. Games where characters have no attributes at all, and can do anything they want in the context given, without rolling. Games with no game master. As you’d guess, the experience is very different, but it’s still excellent.

In this case, the game I have in mind is called Fiasco, from Bully Pulpit Games. Structured somewhat like a movie, Fiasco is designed to have everyone you play with create over-the-top, high drama scenarios, and watch them come tumbling down in front of you. What makes the game work so well is that the rules get out of the way, and you spend most of the time scheming, acting, and laughing with the other people at the table.

The game is divided into four parts: Act One, the Tilt, Act Two, and the Aftermath. Acts One and Two are when the majority of the game take place, while the Tilt and the Aftermath happen after Acts One and Two, respectively. In each Act the players go around the table and have scenes where their character is central to the scene. In the Tilt, a crazy plot twist is added before Act Two. In the Aftermath, every player gets to figure out what happened to their character in the end.

So how do you create characters in this game? Well, at the very beginning, there are a number of elements on the table. There are relationships between characters, objects and locations which are important to the plot, and needs that one or several (or all!) characters may have. Each of these comes from a set of tables called a Playset. The Playsets in Fiasco determine what the genre of the game is, and therefore what sort of elements come up. A game set in a suburban town may have the local high school as a location. A game set in feudal Japan may have a set of ancestral swords as an object. The players roll a whole bunch of dice and choose their elements by picking the dice which match the element they want. Then, when all the elements are chosen, character creation begins. How does it work? Write anything. Anything that fits with the elements on the table can be a character in Fiasco, your only limitations are your imagination and maybe seeing how your tablemates react.

When characters are done, it’s time to start acting out scenes! There are two mechanics in each scene. The player whose turn it is decides if they want to establish the scene, or resolve the scene. If they establish, they get to tell the table where the scene is taking place, who’s there, and what’s going on. If they resolve, they get to answer the key binary question asked at the climax of the scene: “Does this scene go well for my character, or poorly?” Whatever role they don’t pick, the rest of the table gets to do for them. Depending on how that resolve question is answered, the player gets dice from the central pool. There are two colors of dice used, one for “going well” and one for “going poorly”. You get to roll these dice for the Tilt and the Aftermath, so the decision of whether you want to guide the story or determine the outcome in each scene can be key.

When your group is playing out a scene, the establishment and resolution of the scene are the only mechanics. Everything else can be on the table. Want to have your character pull a rocket launcher out of the trunk of a car? Sure! Want to declare that the scene is actually a flashback to ten years ago? If you’re establishing, go ahead! Need some NPCs for the scene idea you’re establishing? Ask some of the other players to act them out for you! Without a GM, it’s up to all of you at the table to determine what makes the action ‘click’, and you have the full array of space, time, and the laws of physics at your disposal. As long as the players at the table are on the same page, the game is simple enough to work with gonzo or subtle. The playsets may set the initial conditions, but the story can go anywhere.

As you may guess, this game feels a lot different than your typical night running Keep on the Borderlands. My experience with Fiasco sits somewhere between an RPG and a cooperative board game. While you have a character and you get into that character’s headspace, you’re also engaging with the other players, almost as if you’re the directors of a movie. And though the Aftermath may indicate that one character was more of a ‘winner’ than others, the game works best when the whole table is working together to produce the most interesting outcome, rather than trying to get ahead.

While Fiasco is definitely designed towards a certain type of story (you’re going to see a lot of references to Coen Brothers movies show up both in reviews of the game and the game itself), there is a wide range of genres which can make for interesting games. Bully Pulpit has several books full of playsets and guidance for different genres which supplement the core game. There are also rules for making your own playset, and if you’re feeling bold, the playset construction rules are licensed under Creative Commons so you can share your creations with others to your heart’s content.

Fiasco provides the tools necessary to make a great role-playing experience in a very different way from other RPGs. Statistical simulation is replaced by improvization, and the guided storytelling of a game master is replaced by turning your game table into a writer’s room. One of the game’s greatest strengths and liabilities is the fact that it places most gamers well outside of their comfort zone. This is the biggest reason that I can’t recommend it highly enough. Spending a lot of time in character and thinking about what makes a narrative or scene interesting and fun are both great ways to improve all role-playing games, whether you play them or run them. In addition to being a load of fun in its own right, Fiasco helps gamers flex otherwise unused gaming muscles. Give it a try, and see if it changes how you think about other games at your table.

Fiasco is available from Bully Pulpit Games, and DriveThruRPG. If you want to know more about how the game actually plays, Wil Wheaton featured Fiasco on an episode of his web series Tabletop, and it’s a great watch. The Fiasco logo is used with permission from Bully Pulpit Games.

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