Thursday, October 14, 2010

RPGs I Like: Fiasco

What Is It?
The Coen Brothers rpg.

Too Flippant, Sir
OK maybe that isn't exactly accurate-- but Fiasco does consciously and explicitly try to echo the themes of films like Fargo, Blood Simple, Raising Arizona among others. In its extensive filmography it mentions A Simple Plan, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Bad Santa, Bottle Rocket, Jackie Brown and so on. If that list of films conjures up a pretty definitive sense, then we're on the right track.

Fiasco came out last year-- so why am I reviewing it now? Well, I promised a month of game reviews for one thing. Also I noticed that RPG Geek had session reports but no formal reviews of the product (which is kind of a lie since the session reports serve as I'm cheating). I thought perhaps I could provide potential buyers with a little more detailed approach to what the game actually is. But most importantly, just reading this game book got me excited about playing. I mean a strong and visceral reaction-- to the ideas. I came in a little skeptical, though I'd probably describe myself as a story-centered GM. I wasn't sure how a GM-less game would work to actually carry out these kinds of stories. Having read the rules I can buy the enthusiasm that the various session reports, AARs and comments suggest.

First, I used to work for a publisher and I love a well-done and well prepared book. I think sometimes that feeling of excellent graphic design gets lost when books get converted over to pdfs. In the case of Fiasco the brilliant and singular elements and style carried over. In pdf format it is 135 trade paper sized pages. It's easy to read, the design focuses on teaching you the systems and headings make finding details simple. Bullet points and icons all support the authors explanation.

The Whole Enchilada
But what is it? Fiasco's a collaborative story-telling rpg with no GM used to create stories about awful people and/or awful situations. It has dice and a resolution mechanic, but not used in the conventional sense. The book suggests up to five players and I've heard that 3-4 ends up best. A game is supposed to run 2-3 hours.

In the beginning the group selects a Playset (or they've built one). The book includes four: Main Street, Boomtown, Suburbia, and The Ice. Bully Pulpit has also released a series of additional playsets as a free downloads. Each playset has a list of elements-- relationships and details (which include- needs, objects, and locations). The game begins with the group working through and establishing relationships- one each with the player on their left and right. Then the players tie the details into those relationships. There's a simple mechanic for tracking the addition of those details and a count-down to the game actually beginning. It is a kind of structured improvisation. Once those things are in place, players come up with characters to fit those relationships-- filling in backstory. There aren't any character sheets-- those relationships and details come closest to a conventional system.

The game then splits into two acts, plus bumpers on each. In each Act players take turns with a scene for their character. On their turn they have a choice. They can either set up the scene: setting the stakes, providing the circumstances, laying out the complications. Or the can choose to resolve the scene as they'd like. Whichever they don't choose someone else gets control of. That choice affects distribution of d6s from a pool in the center of the table- split evenly into black and white dice. Once half the dice have been distributed through scenes, the first act is over. But now comes The Tilt-- the event which sends everything spinning into chaos. Two players get to determine the parts of the Tilt and put it into action. Play continues through the second act with players again taking scenes on their turns- often in reaction to the new circumstances. The dice distribution mechanic changes slightly in the second act and there's some strategy to how you give or take the dice colors.

When the dice pool empties, play moves to The Aftermath. Each player rolls all of their dice, subtracting the total value of one color from the total of the other. You want the highest remainder possible. The higher the value, the better your end state in either Physical (Black) or Mental/Social (White) areas. Players get to use their dice in an ending montage to narrate what happens to their character.

It is a very different game: no conflict resolution mechanism, no character sheet and the strong possibility that your character will die before the end of the game but you'll keep playing. It is made purely for one-shots. In the beginning I worried about how to pitch this to my group, but the more I read, the more I got the rhythm of the rules. I don't think I have to worry about the buy-in.

Brainstorming Immediamente
The game itself focuses on more modern and western themes, I can easily imagine developing playsets which deal with the fantastic:

*Gothic Fantasy: Something ala Gormenghast with old family rivalries, eccentricities rewarded, staff members at a private war with one another and an absolute sense of decay and breakdown.
*Superheroes: Perhaps Watchmen or even something as awful as the Brat Pack. There's a lot more dark, soap opera-y tales like those out these days Irredeemable or The Umbrella Academy for example.
*Wushu: Many of the best wuxia dramas are convoluted dramas with misplaced alliances, poor planning, confusion and lots of people ending up dead at the end. There's a built in clash between the idealist and the practical. There's a little of this in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but even more in Curse of the Golden Flower or The Banquet (which borrows from Hamlet)
*The Estate: One could do a Steampunk version of Godsford Park or The Rules of the Game. I could imagine a clash between the upstairs and downstairs or focusing on one over the other. If you want to combine this with the concept above, perhaps something with various Chinese Court Ministers engaged in a battle for influence in a household.
*Samurai: There's more than a little echo of this in Yojimbo. Even better some thing like Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. Some of the more modern samurai films have more than a little tragic sensibility to them-- Taboo for example.
*Straight Fantasy: A party dividing up loot? Retired adventurers call back into duty? Corrupt city guards in a town outside a famed dungeon (ala Pavis).

Last Word
I think it speaks to the success of something like this when it can spark that can of immediate riffing and thinking. Even as I read through the rules, trying to get the dice mechanics sorted in my head, I found myself rushing forward. I wanted to get through the text so I could start thinking about a game and put it on the table. Even now, a couple of days after reading I'm excited and nervous. I really want to get this to the table to try out.

Good stuff.


  1. Funny you should be talking about this today. The play reports from the last DC Gameday (which I sadly missed) mentioned that folks had a blast playing Fiasco. I poked around, read reviews, and am now strongly considering buying it. I'm also a little skeptical, perhaps scared off by how free-form the scene narration is. But the game is uniformly praised and I certainly want to give it a shot.

    RE: Brainstorming Immediamente
    For Supers, the movie that immediately came to mind is "The Specials". :)

  2. You shouldn't be afraid of the free-formness at all. I've found in every game of Fiasco I've played that everyone gets on the same page, and even if your character dies half way through the game (this is easily possible!), you're not out and you can easily do flashback scenes the rest of the game to screw over everyone else.

    Very good review! We actually got an interview with Jason Morningstar (designer of the game) over at The Hopeless Gamer:

  3. Thanks for a great review. One effect your review has is to expose my bias as a consumer of RPGs. I realized that if the game has no GM, I don't consider it an RPG. That's like saying that Munchausen is an RPG...

    I'm not saying I'm right about this -- just that, for me, having a GM is one of the criteria for an RPG. Otherwise you are playing some version of a board game (even if it's sans board) or, I suppose more appropriately, a party-game.

    I love the movies that the game is based on, but I don't see myself in this game at all.

    So, negative reaction, but your review, still highly informative and helpful. Thanks again.

  4. That's an interesting definition of an RPG Morrisonmp. I'm not saying your definition is "wrong" or anything, but I politely disagree. I'm a very strong advocate for Fiasco, and a big reason is because of the role-playing aspect.

    It actually feels much less gamey to me than something like D&D 4th Ed. or Savage Worlds (two other games I also love). Apart from Dread, I don't feel nearly as free to role-play in any game like I do in Fiasco. It's definitely part party game, I'll grant you that if only because it's so extremely cooperative.

    I feel like I've never gotten into character acting more than when I've played Fiasco. But of course to each their own :)

  5. @Risus-- yes, the Specials has all of those hallmarks: relations going in different directions, the tilt in the middle and a crash and burn at the end for some.

    @Paul-- that interview was among the things I'd read recently that made me want to write down my reflections after reading.

    @Morrisonmp-- that's an interesting perspective. I hadn't had the presence of a GM as a defining feature of an rpg, given the number of GMless rpgs (as an example this list). But I can certainly see that feeling as a valid one. I do think you're right that there's a degree of gut level picturing of play that will affect something like that. There are games I've shied away from because of preferences about not having complicated dice mechanics or management, for example.

    Thank you for the comments-- I just finished reading your post on The Call and it put some of my reactions to DL in perspective.