Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: Fiasco

I've been waiting to do this one for a while.

So there's this game called Fiasco.  Perhaps you've heard of it.  If you haven't, go click on that link; that takes you to the main site.

If you haven't, the premise is really simple: you're in a Coen brothers' movie.

You know movies like Fargo or Burn After Reading or Bound where a foolish plan goes pear-shaped really quickly?  That's the style Fiasco emulates.

Basically, Fiasco encourages the sort of gameplay that emerges in other role-playing games, because seriously, in what game hasn't some poorly-considered plan thrown the whole work out-of-whack?

Also noteworthy is that Fiasco is one of them newfanged story games, meaning that it bears aspects similar to a role-playing game (there is a loose framework of rules meant to facilitate sapient beings doing weird things to other sapients), but it focuses more on collaborative storytelling (those rules primarily drive the story rather than simulating reality).

The rules are relatively straightforward.  You arrange four dice per player, two white and two black.  Put them in the middle of the table, and roll them.  Use these randomly generated numbers to buy story elements from a shopping list called a "Playset."  (In addition to the four Playsets in the core book and the additional four in the companion, there are a bunch on the internet, and Bully Pulpit Games releases a new Playset each month.)  Each Playset is a collection of relationships, needs, objects, and locations meant to reinforce a particular setting or genre; there's a D&D-style fantasy Playset, a Desperate Housewives-style suburbia Playset, a JFK-style Dallas 1963 Playset, and even a Playset set in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Once you have your story elements generated — you two guys are brothers who share a suitcase with the ashes of $100,000, while you two are a pimp and prostitute who hang out over at the 7-11 by the trailer park — you're ready to go.  Those dice go back into the central pile, and they act as your countdown meter, letting you know how much game you've got left before it ends.  Each scene takes a die out of the central pile, and when no dice are left, the game is over.

Naturally, there's a bit more to it, so here's the meat: when it's your turn for a scene, you choose to either Establish or Resolve.  If you Establish, you get to say what the scene's setup is — I'm driving to work in the morning, I'm arguing with my ex-husband, I'm sitting on the trunk with the dead hooker in it, whatever — but if you Resolve, your friends set the scene for you.  Likewise, if you Establish, the rest of the table Resolves, deciding whether things go well for you or not, but if you Resolve, you get to pick.  Resolution is determined by the color of die chosen — partway through the scene, if you (or your friends) pick up the white die, the scene goes well for your character (however you wish to determine that), but if someone picks up a black die, the scene goes badly for you.

The whole game continues in this fashion, with a couple of complications.  The game is divided into two acts, and during Act One, you give these dice away (so if your scene goes well and you have a white die, you give it to whomever you want).  During Act Two, you keep the die (so if things go badly, you keep your black die).

The changeover between acts comes halfway through the game, and is called the Tilt.  You roll your little pile of dice in front of you, and you subtract low from high (so, if you have a white die and a black die, and roll White 6 and Black 2, your total is White 4).  The highest numbers get to roll the remaining dice in the middle to determine the Tilt, just like in the Setup.  The Tilt is a random element — something's on fire, or somebody does something monumentally stupid — that changes the game significantly.  Two of those come out to play, the group continues through Act Two.

Finally, there's the Aftermath.  Everybody rolls their dice in front of them, and subtracts low from high.  The higher your total, the better you do in the epilogue.  It's entirely possible to fail all game long and end up smelling like a rose, and it's also possible to do well all game (or be a nice guy who doesn't deserve it) and end up with a terrible endgame.  It's fast, it's furious, and it's not terribly fair.

Those are the rules.  I probably haven't done them justice (this review does a pretty good job of describing everything coherently), but they make a lot of sense when you read the book.

As for the game itself, the rules facilitate a fast-and-furious playstyle where characters do stupid things to get what they want.  As with many games, there is nothing that forces this, but it is subtly encouraged (when you have items like "a need to get rich through a re-written will" and "a suitcase full of cash," there can really only be one outcome).  Really, you're not getting the most out of the game unless you're making the most of the downward slide.

Incidentally, The Fiasco Companion mentions something I've often thought about Fiasco: it would make a killer setup for other role-playing games.  At the end of a Fiasco game, you have a terrible situation in which several people are probably dead or have ruined their lives forever.  That sort of monumental screw-up is the sort of situation where somebody wants vengeance, or somebody needs everything to be cleaned up, or where the existence of something has emerged that somebody wants (if the suitcase of cash was last seen being buried in the backyard, chances are good several somebodies are looking for that case, even if they don't know quite where it is).

There are a couple of Playsets (Dragon Slayers, Objective Zebra, and Camp Death, for example) that really lend themselves to the typical gaming subjects, but if there isn't a Playset that really matches your game, make one up!  You could easily make a Shadowrun Playset, or a Call of Cthulhu Playset, or whatever (I've been wanting to make a Chicago occult underground Playset for my Unknown Armies game).

Overall, I'd recommend it.  It's a bit of an odd bird if you're mostly used to traditional role-playing games, but the rules are pretty easy to learn.

One final note: if you're familiar with the source material and want a softer game (maybe you like the sound of the freeform role-playing thing, but don't want a poorly-planned heist with drugs and guns), check out The Fiasco Companion.  The book is primarily essays regarding advice, suggestions, and rules hacks for the original Fiasco; one of them is softening Tilts and Aftermaths if you want something more like a John Hughes teen comedy, or just a lighter situation marked more by pratfalls than poor judgment.

Expect an actual play report in a moment.

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