Fiasco is not your usual tabletop RPG. In fact, it’s difficult to describe it as an RPG at all. It’s more like a board game, RPG, and acting exercise all met and threw a really screwed up party. Or had a really screwed up kid.
See, like a more “traditional” RPG (if any of the games my group have played for Tabletopping thus far can be described as traditional), you create a character with needs and wants, but there isn’t a Game Master to guide you. You all play as a group. Like a board game, you’re all working towards a goal, but there is no win or lose condition. You all simply win if you made an entertaining story. Like an acting exercise, there’s going to be lots of drama.
Also, like many acting exercises I’ve participated in, it will be completely ridiculous.
See, you don’t make your characters ahead of time and bring them to the first session like you would for D&D. Instead, as a group, you choose the setting of the game, called a playset. The playset has several lists of Relationships, Needs, Objects, and Locations. The players all sit in a circle and lay out a bunch of dice: two white and two black for each player. Then, all of the dice are rolled at once. Going one at a time, each player chooses one of the dice and attaches it to either a Relationship, Need, Object, or Location. Each player needs a Relationship to the players to their left and right. Also, one Need, Object, and Location each need to be assigned. There were five players in my group, so we also added a second Need and Object or Location (Object, in our instance).
Assigning a die is done in two stages. One player will give a relationship to two people, for instance. There are six kinds of relationships, and each kind has six exact instances of that kind of relationship. For example, a relationship type could be a romance, and in romance, the relationship could be defined as former spouses, current spouses, unvarnished lust, or three others. So the first player will say what kind of relationship two people will have, then a second player will define the exact relationship later. This way, no one person has complete creative control over their character or that character’s situation. Want to play a good guy with a great job? Well sorry, that’s not going to happen. Something is going to wrong about your guy…and that is kind of the point.
When I say the point of Fiasco is to tell a story, I forgot to mention that there is a specific kind of story in mind. These stories are supposed to be capers, in the vein of movies like Fargo. You’re all playing as desperate and impulsive people, and sometimes as the innocents who get in their way. Quite frequently you’ll find yourself making your character do something very stupid, and that’s part of the fun! Seeing how hard you can make your character crash and burn is a game within itself.
So, back to our group. Our circle going clockwise was me, Rick, Noah, Ben, and Scott. The playset we chose was based in the Wild West. Uh…keep that in mind as we go forward. My character’s relationship with Rick was a family relationship, specifically a parent (me) and their child (Rick). We also had a Need to get free—in this case, of a family obligation. Rick’s relationship with Noah was from the past; they were both married to the same spouse. The playset has in parentheses “sequential or tandem?” to which they both responded “tandem.” They also have a Location, a residence in this case; “a gaudy mansion next to the dirt platted as a park.” Noah’s relationship to Ben was one of crime. Ben was Noah’s opium dealer. They had an Object between them as well; a matched set of Colt revolvers (from the weapon category, of course). Ben’s relationship to Scott was a romance. Specifically, Ben was Scott’s mail-order bride. They had a Need to get even…with the Chinese. Finally, Scott’s relationship to me was also one of crime. Scott was my faith healer. We had an Object. In the untoward category, I had “a three-dollar ‘all-night’ brothel token.” Yeah.
With all of these relationships set, we form our characters. Most of them are pretty easy to make, really. Generally, the ones with Needs are the ones that will be driving the story, with the others supporting or opposing them. In this case, Rick and I wanted to off “Grandma” to get her inheritance, and Ben and Scott wanted to get back at the Chinese in town for edging in on their illicit business territory. How these two Needs intersect may surprise you!
So, with characters and relationships in place, you are ready to start act one. An act consists of two scenes per player, told one at a time in clockwise order. At the beginning of a scene, that player gets to choose to establish or resolve the scene. If they establish, they get to build up where the scene will take place and with whom. If they resolve, they get to choose whether the scene will end positively or negatively for their character. This is a great mechanic, by the way. It insures that everyone has a hand in the storytelling, even if it’s not their turn to have a scene. It also helps out the player whose turn it is. If they aren’t sure what their character will be doing next, the other players can help establish. Players go through their scenes with the other characters they’ve invited (characters not part of the original group can definitely be introduced as well). Once they come to a logical conclusion, the player takes (or is given) either a white or black die from the central pile. A white die signifies a positive outcome for their character; a black die means the opposite. Then, the next player starts their scene. Once everyone has two scenes in, then the Tilt happens.
The Tilt is like an intermission of sorts. A new element is introduced that shakes up the entire story. In this case, the Tilt was under the mayhem category. “A dangerous animal gets loose.” We decided to write “Grandma” next to it. That’s right! The kind old granny who Rick and I were trying to off was actually the criminal mastermind leading the Chinese this entire time!
After the Tilt, act two starts and plays much like the first, though players are encouraged to incorporate the Tilt into their scenes. Also, we’re nearing the end, so stakes must be raised, characters are constantly threatened or maimed, and everything comes to a head! Then, once everyone has completed two more scenes, we come to…the Aftermath.
This is where you roll all of the dice you’ve been collecting and see just how well or badly your character fared. Did you crash and burn? Somehow walk away from the carnage unscathed? It depends on how the story has gone thus far…and a little bit of luck never hurts.
As for my group? Well, our story was just slightly insane. After all, we had a criminal mastermind granny, an opium-dealing mail-order bride, a poly trio (of which one had an indeterminate [or was it merely inconsistent?] gender)…the list goes on. And we all had a blast. The story was ridiculous, the characters were larger-than-life, and everyone caused a lot of damage. I think the first thing that was said after we were done was, “Can we play again? Like…right now?”
I’m sure my meager description is selling it short, but this game is really fantastic. Where most games are about building up your character and improving them over the course of a long campaign, a game of Fiasco takes about 2-3 hours and consists of your character getting horribly humiliated at the very least.
Just…play the game. Please. It takes next to no setup, you don’t need to be especially nerdy to get its themes, there’s no luck involved, it’s just about getting together with your friends and making up a wacky story. It’s awesome. You can grab it on the cheap from Bully Pulpit Games here or from DrivethruRPG.com. Get it! Play it! Most importantly: have fun!