They Move Right Through You
What do you call the genre that includes films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Burn After Reading, and Layer Cake? It almost certainly includes most of Guy Ritchie’s other films, and might include entries like In Bruges and Reservoir Dogs. It’s effectively the counterpoint to the caper genre (e.g., Ocean’s 11): a movie about crime where the protagonists are so interestingly flawed that watching their plan begin to self destruct from the word “go” is a whole movie’s worth of entertainment.
Fiasco is a story game that seeks to model this kind of movie with its system. The players make characters that are tangled up in a web of alliances of mutually assured destruction and then are given a situation that causes them to start pulling on the strands. By the end of a session, the point is to have each protagonist either broken completely by the events of the story or whole only through dumb luck.
Unlike most games I’ve reviewed so far, I was able to play in a session hosted by the game’s designer. A primary source on how the game’s supposed to play is very helpful for this kind of thing. Unfortunately, that also means I can’t be sure that the game plays the same way if you just have the text. But, given that the book includes a very thorough example of play, and players that weren’t in the designer-hosted session seemed to pick it up without issue, I don’t believe that’s a concern.
While Fiasco uses dice, they spend most of the game being primarily used as counters for the pacing mechanism: they’ll be rolled only three times during a session.
Each player initially puts two black and two white dice into a central pool (which is used for character and scenario creation, described next week). Each scene, one die leaves the pool and is kept by an individual player, and the session concludes when there are no more dice in the pool. This is one of the most key features of the game: it’s fast paced and quick to play because there are only four (often pretty short) scenes per player and everyone can see the pile of dice dwindling so they can move more aggressively toward the end.
There is no GM: each scene, another PC becomes the focal character, passing around the table. In a focal scene, the active PC must be present, but other players might portray either their PCs or NPCs created on the fly to round out the scene. No characters have specific stats, so making new characters and situations is quick, basic improv.
On his or her turn, the focal player has the option to either set the scene or ask the rest of the players to set up a scene for his or her character. If the player sets up the scene, thus describing a situation related to his or her goals for the character, the other players will ultimately get to decide whether the end of the scene goes right or wrong for the focal character. Conversely, if the rest of the table collaborates to set up a scene, the player of the focal character gets to decide whether it concludes as a win or a loss for the PC. Wins are signified by white dice and losses by black, so there are a limited number of positive and negative outcomes: if everything is going wrong at the beginning, it has to start going right toward the end, and vice versa.
In the first half of the game, the player immediately gives whichever die was received away to another player. In the second half, the player keeps it. At both the midpoint and the end of the game, it’s better to have an unbalanced mix of dice colors. When the dice are actually rolled, they cancel out: a roll of 8 on the black dice and 3 on the white is a net result of 5 Black. So there’s a decent amount of strategy involved in passing around the dice and deciding whether to frame or conclude a scene to try to keep your dice tilted toward one color while mixing the dice of the other players.
At the end of the game, the net roll of each player’s dice is compared to a chart to determine how his or her PC came through the scenario. Low rolls equal death or worse, while higher rolls indicate the character somehow got out of the fiasco intact, or even ahead of the game. During a final montage, each player takes turns counting off the good or bad dice in the pool and explaining how that outcome happened.