Character and Scenario Creation
The group character/scenario creation system is the most mechanically complex aspect of Fiasco. It is also largely dissimilar to normal RPGs (though shares some overlap with Smallville).
Before starting, the players agree on a playset: a half dozen or so pages of charts detailing thematically related elements: objects, locations, needs, and relationships. The playset determines the high concept of the caper, such as a small town or a mall at Christmas. Examples are available online.
All the dice are then rolled (four per player) and serve as a limited-choice pool for selecting items off the charts. For example, if you didn’t roll any 3s, you can’t pick any of the 3 results from any of the charts. If you only rolled one 4, only one 4 result can be assigned.
Each chart element has two tiers of decision: a category and a specific element. This becomes immediately important as it makes almost every decision a shared decision between two players. It also gives the player that will be assigned the decision more of a chance to select something palatable. You see, each player takes turns assigning one die at a time to elements, and they might be elements that don’t even pertain to that player.
Ultimately, each player will have a two-step relationship with two players (the ones to either side) and that relationship will be associated with a two-step need, location, or object. On one side, your Gambler/Bookie relationship is associated with the Chicken Hut fast food restaurant. On the other, your Former Spouses relationship is associated with the need to Get Rich through political back-scratching. And those relationships and elements loop around the table, forming an unbroken circle of relationships and desires.
The rest of character creation is entirely description based via discussion with other people at the table. In the above example, you might decide that you’re the town mayor and you’re trying to get your ex-wife to help you in a scheme to pay off your bookie. Or, you could be the bookie, and it’s your ex who has some crazy scheme to use your connections to get rich. The goal is to use pure improv brainstorming to come up with several flawed people and one or more schemes. The system doesn’t care if you make a super-wealthy, celebrity, martial artist power trip or a shiftless layabout with no money or skills to speak of. All that’s important is that you have relationships to the other players that will allow you to drive the story in some way.
And it works really well for the freeform, one-shot nature of Fiasco: it’s basically a first start at getting the players all on board and thinking in terms of how to work together to make a plot without a GM.
It’s also very easy to borrow for more traditional games. While I’ve been kitbashing Smallville relationship creation onto everything for months, this is theoretically a much more lightweight method of pre-connecting PCs that would allow the GM more control over the kinds of relationships that emerge (after all, he could write his own playset tables). In general, I find that a few broad pre-selections on available PC types focuses player creativity, and defining relationships and certain elements to two or more PCs before chargen could be a big help.
Tilt and Aftermath
As alluded to last week, the two other times besides chargen that dice are rolled is midway through the game (the Tilt) and at the end (the Aftermath).
At the Tilt, all the players roll their available dice (earned from the first half of the scenes) to see who gets to help select the Tilt. The two players with the highest white and highest black results then collaborate to select a Tilt: a pair of complicating elements that will influence the second half of the story. These are both also two-stage elements picked from a chart via pre-rolling dice (just like chargen elements). One player picks the category and the other picks the specific, and then vice versa for the second element. So the second half of the game may have to deal with the complications of “Innocence: Love rears its ugly head” and “Paranoia: The thing you stole has been stolen.” The group then works these problems into the rest of the story.
At the Aftermath, each player determines his or her character’s fate by rolling the kept dice and comparing to a chart. The main action was likely resolved in the last scene, so the Aftermath mostly serves as an opportunity for denouement: the final scenes in a film or the closing crawl on a reality crime show. Interestingly, the Aftermath, since it is at the whim of the dice, can totally change the feel of the final scene. The last scene of the game could end with one character riding into the sunset with the stolen money, and then a death result on the Aftermath might require the player to narrate how he was shot to death by thieves a week later. Conversely, a character that lost everything over the course of the story might get a very good result, allowing a description of how he turned it all around after his wake up call. Or the dice could favor the winners, and let crime totally pay.
Both systems are useful elements to turn structured improv back into a game. At the Tilt, control over the complications gives you a shot of extra control to pull the narrative in the way you find entertaining. At the Aftermath, clever management of wins and losses for your character gives you a better shot of getting to give him a happy ending. They do a good job of keeping the players focused on the meaning of when to end a scene.