Most role-playing games are about players playing characters who are heroes doing heroic acts. Even if they are not doing heroic things, these characters are generally somewhat extraordinary and are often, at worst, anti-heroes. This only makes sense as stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things are, almost by definition, boring. Nonetheless there are hundreds of slice-of-life style movies which prove that even ordinary people can get involved in extraordinary or at least extraordinarily interesting stories.
Fiasco is designed to tell these types of stories in a role-playing game format. Because the characters in these stories are less important than the situations they find themselves in, Fiasco revolves entirely around the relationships between characters rather than those characters’ abilities. In fact, players don’t create characters until after these relationships are established. Each character has a relationship with the character of the player to his left and to his right and a character’s personality and abilities are defined more by these relationships than anything else. Character creation boils down to giving a name and a descriptive phrase that fits the personality suggested by these relationships to the character. In fact, having a character concept in mind before these relationships are established is pointless.
These relationships are defined by the group through a rather ingenious method. Each Fiasco game begins with the group (or perhaps the person who happens to have one available) selecting a play set. These play sets are short descriptions of the sort of scenario the players can expect or the theme and genre that the game should be. It also includes a “movie night” section which suggest movies that the play set emulates. Fiasco makes no bones about the fact that the game is inspired by dark farce movies and this is a prime example of that dynamic.
The playsets also include a set of tables that include all the possible relationships, locations, objects and needs that can bind the characters together. Again, everything that is defined in Fiasco is defined by the relationship between characters, so if an object is created for the game, it is placed between two players and has some bearing on the relationship that those two characters share. What that bearing might be is determined by the players.
To define what relationships, locations, objects and needs take place in the game a set of six sided dice are rolled. Taking turns, each person then uses the results from one of these die to make selections from the charts in the playset. Beginning with the relationships, each player establishes a link between two characters, which may or may not include his own character, or refines a link that has already been established. This continues until a relationship has been defined and refined between every adjacent pair of characters at the table. Then, the group moves on to needs, locations and objects. Each Fiasco game includes two needs and at least one location and one object. While one relationship could end up with all the needs, locations and objects stacked on it, that would make for a very boring game for the people not involved in that particular relationship as the story revolves around these connections. To that end, it is suggested that each person be involved in only one need, meaning that at least 4 people at the table will be involved in one need or the other. It also helps keep things interesting if the locations and objects are evenly divided amongst the remaining people at the table.
Once all these factors of the game are defined and refined, it is time to start the narration and this is the meat and bones of a Fiasco game. The die mechanics are exceptionally simple and very rarely used with most of the play depending on the storytelling abilities of the players. Beginning with the person from the smallest town (which is usually me) each player decides whether they want to create or resolve a scene about their character. If they create their scene they describe what is happening, interact with the other characters and NPC’s and set their character up in an interesting scenario. Then, one of the other players takes over, narrating how the scene closes and the results. Once the scene is resolved, whoever described the ending gives out a die from a common pool in the middle of the table. Half the die in this pool are one color and the other half are another color. These represent positive and negative results for the scene and should be given out appropriately. The die given out always goes to someone else in the first act and always goes to the person who resolved the scene in the second act.
If a player decides to resolve rather than create a scene, then the other players get to set the scene for that player’s character. Just as in the other scenario, they set the scene, have the character interact with other characters and the environment and lead the character up to an interesting situation. It is then up to the player to narrate how the scene ends.
There are no real rules to these scenes, though they should use some of the elements that have been established for the game, needs, objects, etc. and they should definitely depend on the relationships. They can be exceptionally short, fairly long, involve everyone at the table or only a single character and be funny, tragic or simply surreal.
Once everyone has had two scenes, Act 1 ends and everyone rolls any dice they’ve earned up to this point. They add all the dice of each color together and subtract the total rolled from one color from the total rolled for the other color. Each of the people who get the highest results in each color get to select the Tilt. Much like the relationships and needs from the beginning of the game, each person defines one of the Tilts while the other refines it. The Tilts are things that must be incorporated at one point or another in Act 2. Unlike the other aspects of the game, the Tilts are not applied to a single relationship. Instead, anyone and everyone can use them. As might be suggested by the name, a Tilt changes the direction of the game.
The game then continues with two more scenes for each character created exactly the same way that they are for Act 1. In Act 2 each person who resolves a scene keeps the die given out from the central pool instead of handing it out to someone else.
At the end of Act 2, each person rolls all the dice they’ve earned throughout the game and, again, subtract the total of one color from the other. This result is compared to an Aftermath table which gives guidelines for how well the character does in the world after the story in the game is told. The player then spends each die to make one statement based on this aftermath result to say a short phrase or sentence about his character’s destiny after the story told in the game ends. It is a sort of montage that runs during the credits at the end of the movie created by the game.
Fiasco is definitely a one shot game and it would be hard to imagine running a Fiasco campaign, even a short one. This is actually quite freeing as the players can do anything to and with their characters without fear of the long term repercussions.
Fiasco is an exceptional narrative game. It provides a good structure to base the narration around, especially in the beginning of the game when it is really useful. Generally, the hardest part of most narrative games is getting started. In many ways a blank slate is worse than a railroad track, especially for people who are not accustomed to narrative games. Things simply never get started or go anywhere if there isn’t enough structure. With all the relationships, needs, etc. established from the beginning of the game, it becomes relatively easy to get started and things only get progressively easier as players generate additional plots inspired by the original framework. In fact, it will likely take most groups longer to establish the relationships in their game than it will to actually play out either Act 1 or Act 2.
As good as Fiasco is as a narrative game, it is not a bridge game. It is definitely not a hybrid between narrative and tactical games. It is, however, a good starter game for anyone who is interested in trying their hand at narrative games, whether veterans of more traditional games, or newcomers to the genre. It is simple enough that everyone can grasp the concepts within a few minutes but has enough structure that newcomers to the idea of RPG’s aren’t left wandering in the dark. But there is also plenty in Fiasco to interest people who are narrative game veterans. No matter what a person’s experience level with this type of game, Fiasco will give them what they’re looking for.