System Review: Fiasco, Conclusion

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I Swear I Never Meant for This

Fiasco is an interesting mix of extremely rules light and crunchy that I haven’t seen before. While the actual system is so simple you can write it on a single sheet of paper with lots of room for graphics, it requires input at the beginning, middle, and end from fairly extensive charts. These charts are largely “setting,” but they dig directly into the heart of the system. Given how many lightweight games don’t really have much utility to the book once you’ve gotten a firm hold of the rules, it’s pretty neat that Fiasco retains value as a repository of charts.

And the charts are really cool. They’re basically several hours of play (with a high degree of straight up replayability) in a few pages, which is a ratio that modules for heavier systems can’t beat. Particularly for nights where you don’t even have enough prep time to read a module, high-density playsets for games are awesome. Fiasco is right up there with Technoir in expandable, easily-digestible module content. I get the impression that, for groups that have played it, the game has become the go to system when you have a couple hours to game and no clear plan what to do.

Admittedly, it’s the kind of game that works best if you’re comfortable with a high-improv, cooperative, GM-free environment. There aren’t really many rules to keep a problem player from ruining your fun. Even someone that’s not trying to be difficult, but just isn’t comfortable without a clear GM, goals, and character stats could provide a drag on the game. So it’s probably important that you play with people you trust to provide a good time in such a situation. That said, I’ve played the game with the member of my group least likely to go in for freeform improv, and everyone had a great time: the setup phase really is good at getting investment from people you wouldn’t expect.

And, as noted previously, even if you absolutely can’t see your players enjoying rules light or GM-free games, there’s a lot of utility in the rules that are there. In particular, the setup phase (with the attendant chart structure) can be easily lifted and applied directly to other games where you want to shake the players out of their usual roles in the party or just want to help them come up with pre-game intra-party relationships.

It’s easy to read, quick to run, and can give you some new GM tricks even if you never play it again. So check it out.

System Review: Fiasco, Part 2

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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.


System Review: Fiasco, Part 1

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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.

Core Mechanics

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.

Part 2