Fiasco is an award-winning roleplaying game (RPG) about plans gone awry, bad decisions made worse, and stupid people doing even stupider things. Okay, so that’s not exactly true because while it may have been inspired by movies like Fargo and Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels, it turns out that Fiasco is capable of a lot more thanks to the brilliant way playsets interact with the core Fiasco rules. The result is that while the game leans towards the comedic, it can also yield some pretty heavy drama as well.
Fiasco is an RPG designed for 3-5 players (with larger groups the author recommends splitting into multiple groups to keep things moving fast). A typical game lasts 2-3 hours, though I have found it usually takes closer to four the first couple times you play. It is a GM-less, no preparation game, making it ideal for a game ideal for conventions, one-offs, and short notice cancellations from players. The game is authored by Jason Morningstar and published by Bully Pulpit Games.
In an attempt to explain and illustrate how the game works, I’ve included references to a recent session I took part in using The Jersey Side playset. You’ll see these in blue, italicized text throughout the review.
Fiasco is a 132-page digest (6″x9″) perfect bound soft-cover book that retails for $25 (a PDF-version is also available for $12). The book has a color cover, with a black & white interior. The art, while simplistic, is attractive and fits the game perfectly. The book is well-written, although somewhat idiosyncratic in that it is written in a conversational manner that includes liberal use of profanity. While this may turn off some readers, it fits the mood and tone of the game well and is done in a way that isn’t overly gratuitous. The book also includes an extensive example of actual play which is a huge benefit in understanding how the game works at the table.
Fiasco is essentially about creating “caper” movies, starting with the introduction of the characters, the unfolding of the plot and finishing with the final scene in which it is likely that most, if not all, the characters, are dead, dying, scarred for life, or in jail. Of course, there is always a possibility that one or more may also see fortune smile upon them, though where’s the fun in that?
The structure and nature of the particular story is determined by the playset which is made up of a series of tables that are used to generate the key story elements — relationships, locations, objects, and needs. The book comes with four playsets (a southern town, suburbia, a town in the Wild West, and an Antarctic station), but an ever growing number of playsets have also been released to date, spanning a wide variety of sub-genres and topics.
The magic of the playsets, which I alluded to earlier, is that they can radically alter the nature of a particular session and no two sessions are likely to be the same, even when using the same playset. While many of these elements can generate comedic situations, much of their emotional valence depends largely on the interpretation of the players at the table. Having played over a dozen sessions of Fiasco to date, I have gotten to see quite a range of tones – while nearly all of the games I’ve played in have had comedic elements, many have also yielded a strong sense of tragedy and I have played in one game which was more of a true drama than a comedy. Thus, one should not be fooled in to thinking that Fiasco is simply about black comedies.
For a recent game, we chose The Jersey Side which is set in Jersey City, on the other side of the Hudson across from New York City. It’s a place frequented by shady characters, mobsters and corrupt politicians.
The mechanics at the heart of the game are incredibly simple and are largely aimed at guiding the story and determining the outcome in the end rather than resolving conflicts or determining success or failure. Instead, dice (in total 2 black & 2 white per person) are used initially to generate the story-elements during the set-up by constraining the choice of elements available from the chosen playset’s tables. The result is a semi-random process which gives nearly infinite replayability with a single playset that provides enough freedom that the stories can remain coherent despite the random elements.
Unlike most RPGs, characters are not defined by abilities, skills, or traits. Rather they are defined by their relationships with each other. One of the elements generated in the playset are relationships defined between players sitting adjacent to each other at the table. These are determined by the specific playset chosen and therefore can take on all kinds of forms from “Cousins” to “Former co-workers” to “Sorcerer/Apprentice” depending on the specific playset chosen. Each pair of characters also share one other element which is either a need, a location, or an object. This is where things get really interesting because the combination of those and the relationship have the potential to create some wickedly powerful, rich and high energy situations.
In our game, we had three players and ended up with the following elements from the playset defining our characters:
- Me and DH: relationship = government investigator & shady broker; location = the morgue
- Me and FR: relationship = Boss & subordinate; need = to get to the truth about where all this blood came from.
- FR and DH: relationship = friends with a dark secret; object = a city bus
The result when the set-up is finished is a circle of relationships, objects, needs and locations from which the story is built. Once you have these elements the group spends a few minutes talking about how they might work together, who each character is, and how the elements might be incorporated. You then name your character and start play. If this all sounds chaotic, it can be, although I have yet to play in a session in which we could not make a perfectly sensible – though often somewhat outrageous – story.
We decided that my name was Pauli Parizzi and I was a night tech working at the morgue. FR was Dr. Jason Kapono, the city ME and my boss. He was childhood friends with Raul Gianelli, a corrupt assistant DA with mob connections. Kopono and Raul’s dark secret was that Kopono was being paid to falsify autopsies to conceal mob hits. I was making money by draining corpses of blood and then selling it to the blood bank (yeah, I was that stupid). Obviously the morgue was the central location of the game. As far as the city bus went, we decided to see how that would show up during play.
Once the set-up is taken care of, all the dice (a total of 4 dice, 2 white & 2 black, per player) are pushed in to a pile in the center of the table, where they will serve as a pacing mechanism for the story. Play then begins. The session’s story is broken into two acts, with the table working collaboratively to create the story, with each character getting two spotlight scenes per act. For each of these scenes, the player can either choose to establish the scene (where it occurs and who is present), or to resolve the scene (determining what the ultimate outcome is, good or bad, success or failure). Whatever the player chooses, the rest of the players collectively handle the other job.
Scenes might be sequential, flashbacks, or even flash-forwards – whatever suits the particular framing player(s) needs or desires. Once the scene is established, play proceeds with players playing their characters and/or NPCs, and at some point the scene is resolved. Scenes are resolved simply by choosing either a white die or a black Outcome Die – a white die signals a positive outcome for the spotlight character, while a black die indicates a negative outcome. In Act One, you hand the die to another player once the scene is over and they add it to their personal pile.
In our game, I had the first scene in Act I and chose to establish. I decided to establish the nature of the relationship between Pauli & Dr. Kopono, asking DH to play a hospital tech named Frankie as an extra. At the end of the scene, the players decided that things ought to turn out well for Pauli and so a white die was handed to me (which I then passed on to another player).
That’s all there really is to the mechanics. There is no conflict or task resolution – instead it is all handled purely based on what feels right for the story, chosen by whoever has resolution rights. While the dice (white or black) signal whether or not the outcome of a scene is positive or negative, it is completely up to the player – perhaps with the input of the others at the table – to determine how it is good or bad. Thus, while one person might interpret a black die meaning their character loses an arm in a wood chipper, another player might decide the black die means the wood chipper runs out of gas.
In one scene, Raul and Kopono meet with a mob boss who is very unhappy with Kopono’s careless behavior (it later turns out that Kopono is a recovering alcoholic who has fallen off the wagon and has gotten more and more careless with his doctored autopsies). FR had decided that he would resolve the scene and towards the end chose a white Outcome die from the pile, signaling that the overall outcome of the scene would turn out positively for Kopono. In the end the mob boss seems satisfied by Dr. Kopono’s explanations and lets him going but not before warning him that any more mistakes would lead to Kopono taking up permanent residence at the bottom of the Hudson River.
Play continues around the table, with each character starring in a spotlight scene until half the dice are gone – a die is handed out at the end of each scene and with four dice total per player at the beginning, that means each character gets two spotlight scenes per act. It is at this point that each player rolls the dice they have in front of them and then a “Tilt Table” is consulted, which essentially throws in an unexpected twist into the story which will be incorporated into Act Two. The table then takes a break to discuss where the story is going and how the tilt might be incorporated into Act II.
Play in Act Two follows the same pattern as Act One, except that instead of giving away the Outcome Die, each player now keeps it. Early in Act Two the group works to introduce the Tilt, adding the somewhat random twist that sends the fiasco spinning out of control.
In our game, the Tilt involved “the wrong guy getting busted” and so in our first scene of Act Two, Frankie, the tech introduced in Act One, ends up getting blamed for the bad blood and ends up being arrested under a capital murder charge.
When all the dice are gone from the central pile are gone, the story draws to a close and each player narrates a final epilogue scene. In the end, how well or bad things turn out for each character is ultimately determined by rolling all of the Outcome dice you have accumulated in your personal pile, adding the like colored dice together (yielding two numbers), and then subtracting the smaller sum from the larger. The result is a number from 0 to 13+ and a color (white or black, depending on which sum was greater), which is used to determine the general outcome ranging from really bad (as in you’re likely dead or even worse) to awesome; the lower the number, the worse the outcome.
What that last bit ultimately means is that, in general, it is better to have accumulated dice of a single color, rather than a mix of the two, since an even mix of two colors increases the chances of a negative final outcome. This may seem like a mechanism that’s very prone to meta-gaming and it is: that’s the magic of it though because you can try to nudge a character’s fate (yours or another player’s) in a particular direction but ultimate success or failure is not a guarantee. I really like the way it works since in various games I’ve found myself rooting for or against certain characters, especially my own, and so I have tried to move the story in a direction that encourages a fitting ending but there is no guarantee that you will get the outcome you want. I have had characters finish the game with three white and two black dice, end up with a very positive outcome and characters with three white dice and no black dice end up with with a very dark ending.
Pauli ended up going to prison for his role in the tainted-blood ring, while Kopono’s alcoholism spun out of control and he ended up losing his medical license. Raul, who had the worst numerical result, also ended up in prison with the final scene closing with the image of him sitting at a prison cafeteria table with someone approaching him from behind with a shank made from a sharpened toothbrush.
Fiasco is hands down one of the best RPGs I have ever played. It delivers exactly what it promises: a self-contained, no-prep session in which a comedy of errors and bad decisions results in a complete fiasco. Having played in over a dozen sessions to date, every single one has been enjoyable and all but one have been great. I also have introduced the game to a large number of players and all of them have loved the game. That in and of itself should speak to the quality of the experiences Fiasco yields.
Fiasco is not going to be for everyone though. First off, it requires active, creative participation from everyone at the table. It’s not meant to be a game written and run by a single person, but rather a collaborative storytelling experience. Thus, if you despise collaborative gaming experiences and want very traditional RPG mechanics, Fiasco is going to be a poor fit.
It also means that everyone at the table has to be on the same page about exactly where the story is going – table chatter (some would call this meta-gaming) is allowed and actually essential to avoid someone completely derailing the developing story by negating past events or introducing completely random elements. I’ve had this happen in one session (the one that wasn’t great) in which one of the players in the very first scene destroyed the object that linked our characters and then introduce Cthulhu-inspired horror elements which left the whole table scrambling to follow his lead – while it didn’t ruin the game, it did negate everything we had discussed at the table during the set-up and ultimately left us with a story that didn’t have a lot of coherence in the end.
Lastly, Fiasco can easily venture in to areas that may make certain players uncomfortable and so it’s important for people, especially those unfamiliar with each other, to discuss potential limits and taboo subjects before the start of any game. This also needs to be considered when looking at the location where you’re playing since spectators may get the wrong impression if they only overhear snippets of in-character dialogue. While the game does not need to involve sexuality, addiction, criminal activity, or profanity, most of the playsets as well as the tone of the actual rulebook (which fits the genre perfectly) definitely lean towards mature themes.
That last point also requires a bit of caution for anyone wanting to use Fiasco with younger audiences. Nearly all of the playsets to date, including those in the rulebook itself, are not suitable to younger audiences given how often they make explicit references to sex, drugs, and violence. That said, I have had great success and fun using the game with the after-school RPG program I run simply by modifying existing playsets to create PG-versions. Nearly any of them can be easily adapted for younger audiences with just a little effort and the types of stories it yields are very much in the style of a John Hughes movie or something akin to 10 Things I Hate About You or Mean Girls. The recently released Fiasco Companion includes specific advice (some of it based on interviews with me) for playing with young adults as well as a few toned-down playsets.
In terms of playing it with younger audiences – I would definitely consider it a teen game given the nature of the stories and comedy – all of the students I have taught to play absolutely love the game. Last year it quickly became the favorite game at our after-school program and this year it has been the first game the students have requested to play. Unlike the D&D games I’ve run (including both AD&D and 4th edition D&D), the kids were fully engaged, attentive and actively participating in our Fiasco games. Originally I did not think the improvisational style demanded by the game would work well because it requires active listening and creativity in real time, something many adults don’t handle well, let alone teenagers. How wrong I was. The students, who range in age between 13 and 19, all have taken to the game and with some guidance have managed to collectively create remarkably good stories. The really great part of all this is that these types of games are far more pedagogical than traditional “reactive” RPGs like D&D since they foster things like creativity, cooperative storytelling, and active listening – the students can’t simply sit back and react to the situations described to them, or “push buttons” by choosing preset powers. Rather than spending five minutes picking a power and then going back to checking their phone, students are now listening to each other intently, building off what others have introduced, and creating something that in the end is much greater than their individual contributions. Best yet, they’re having more fun doing it.
In the end, I can’t say enough good things about Fiasco. It is such an amazing value for what you get and it is my go to game at any con or I find myself in need of a game on short notice. Everyone I have introduced the game to also loves it and the kids I have played it with have all returned in the following week wanting to play again. At this point, I consider it my go to game when we don’t have something planned and it is also the first game I would choose to teach teens how to roleplay since it teaches creativity and improvisational storytelling using a set of very simple rules, rather than focusing on things like combat, looting dead bodies, or moving from one encounter to another with no concern over story structure. The difference in the type of play and the ultimate satisfaction I have seen with the students at the after-school program are quite astonishing compared to more traditional RPGs I have introduced and thus Fiasco has found a permanent place in the game bag I take to each week’s meeting. I would encourage anyone who likes collaborative storytelling games, or who just wants to play something different, to give it a try.