Fiasco: A Review

The first time that I played Dungeons and Dragons I was an 11 years old living in Marietta, Georgia. I was an imaginative child interested in comic books and video games, as well as increasingly interested in how stories worked. While other kids were playing video games or running around outside I tinkered around with drawgin my own comics and writing my own stories. Dungeons and Dragons introduced me to a fantasy setting not too dissimilar from the Lord of the Rings series which I had also recently bedevoured. Because of this, and for most of my subsequent roleplaying career, I’ve associated the practice of playing roleplaying games with worlds of fantasy, sci-fi or other speculative genres.

As my tastes have matured, a love of movies, specifically the intricacies and structure of screenwriting as an art form, have begun to dominate my interests. It is for this reason I find the game Fiasco, to be so goddamned fun. Before I'd even finished my first game, I'd already ordered a copy of the rulebook, companion, and 24 six sided die so I could start running my own games. The world “running” in this context is very misleading. Unlike many other roleplaying games, Fiasco doesn't have a Dungeon Master or Game Master role. The closest thing the game has to a Game Master, is that of the facilitator, and honestly this role is just occupied by the person who already knows the rules to the game and are able to explain them to new players. My friend Henry White uses the “term collaborative storytelling systems” to describe Fiasco, and I too find that to be a compelling way of thinking about it. That being said, Fiasco plays more like an involved and intricate improv game, with rules that push players towards a common goal. The players wins in a game of Fiasco, when they end up telling a satisfying story together.

The simple premise of Fiasco is that, with a group of 3–5 players, you act out the plot of what ends up amounting to an approximation of a Coen Brothers movie in about as much time as it would take to watch a Coen Brothers movie. Whereas in other roleplaying samea, there is a defined goal with the party’s success being defined as the completion of that goal, in Fiasco the only goal for each player is to help the group to tell a good story. There are no experience points to be gained for the characters, no exotic artifacts that will follow them through their ‘adventuring career’. There are no combat rules to speak of. In fact, most of the action takes place through description and acting out the actions of the characters.

In many ways, Fiasco play out more like a structured version of the writing room of a movie or TV show than a roleplaying game. Gameplay is divided into 5 parts; 1) the setup, 2) Act I, 3)The Tilt, 4) Act II, and 4) the Aftermath. If you are familiar with the style of Cohen brothers movies you will know that they typically deal in dark comedies, where screwball characters get caught up in tricky situations, that tend to devolve into chaos. This is part of what makes Fiasco so fun. The problem for the players to solve isn’t the question of “Will something bad happen to my character?” and to avoid that outcome, but instead to figure out “How will my character specifically contribute to the ‘fiasco’?” and how to best and most artfully steer into the skid.

During the setup of Fiasco a number of six sided die are rolled and by selecting story elements based on the dice available, the players create an intricate web of relationships according to whichever scenario they choose to play out. In the basic Fiasco game there are 4 scenarios to choose from 1) The Wild West 2) A Small Town in the South, 3) The Ice, 4) Suburbia. One of the strengths of the game is the community that has developed around it and the foresight the creators had in allowing and encouraging players to create their own playsets. Because of this the action and plot of the basic Fiasco game can be modified and adapted to accommodate a large variety of settings and genres.

Most of the action of Fiasco takes place during Acts I and II with the Tilt acting as a sort of intermission of the game. In the various Acts, players play out out scenes focused on the characters that had been developed by the relationship web during the setup. Each character gets two scenes to develop their segment of the plot. This forces players to move the action and the tension of the story along. Knowing that one has limited time and space to express themselves through their character allows for players to make bolder choices, and provide just enough of a push that truly inspired moments come out of necessity.

To add the the chaos, on each player’s turn they can choose whether to establish a scene, or have it resolved for them by the rest of the players at the table. By choosing to establish the scene themselves, players can have a direct hand in shaping how the plot of the story shapes up. However, by choosing to do so they give up control on the outcome of the scene. That task shifts to the whims of the other players at the table. A player that chooses to resolve a scene, doesn’t get to make the decision on what scene will be taking place, but has direct control over the outcome of the scene.

In both of these situations, the player who’s turn it is will narrate/act out the scene with the help of their other players. The key difference is that the focus of the scene will further the wants and needs of the characters who’s turn it is at the time. In a game of Fiasco you may be playing a specific character, but at opportune moments jump in, to play non-player characters as they pop-up throughout the story. My favorite characters that appear in the games I’ve played are rarely even one of the central characters, but the random collection of supporting cast that the table generates as the need arises. One such character was a buffoonish defense attorney that was cooked up when one of the players at the table decided that our story needed a trial. Many of us took turns playing our hand at acting out the lines and mannerisms of our hapless lawyer. It’s moments like this that highlight the deeply immersive quality that this game has the potential to have. The fact that we could all agree on the necessity of such a character AND how his mannerisms would look like didn’t come out of a long arduous process, but rather, someone just jumped on it and we carried their metaphorical creative torch towards the finish line of great story.

I could go further into detail about the intricacies of the game, but the main thing to take away is that Fiasco is 2–3hours of madcap fun that will challenge any notions you may have of what a roleplaying game can/should be. I’m already making dastardly plans to convert the more impressionable of my friends in to the world of roleplaying games through Fiasco, and I suggest you try it too.