roleplaying games

After-action report: Fiasco, September 23rd

I have mentioned that in the past, I thought that GURPS would be the only game I would ever need, something I discovered was dead wrong. Fiasco is a perfect distillation of everything GURPS can’t possibly do, and that makes it a fantastic game.

For those of you who don’t know, Fiasco is a delightfully simple improv RPG which has all of four mechanics: the exposition, the Acts, the Tilt, and the Aftermath. In the exposition, you choose elements from a playset, which are broken down into Relationships, Needs, Objects, and Locations. Relationships and Needs are likely familiar to any gamer: the former defines how characters know and interact with each other, while the latter are the motivations which drive characters and the plot. Objects and Locations may seem obvious, but the framing in Fiasco is more of one a film student would use: in an ideal game the objects and the locations can be just as much of characters as the characters themselves. Think “The Winchester” from Shaun of the Dead, or the Ring of Power. They drive events in the plot, rather than just sit there waiting to be used. All of these elements come from the Playset you choose, which has lists of Relationships, Needs, Objects and Locations tailored to a certain setting and genre. Examples from the core books include “Nice Southern Town” and “Wild West”, which you may notice were both settings of Coen Brothers movies. This is not coincidental.

The Tilt and the Aftermath are similar to the exposition, in that you roll dice available to you, and use the numbers you have to determine either a plot twist for between the two acts, or how your character makes out in the end.

The Acts, though, are the strongest part of the game and the simplest. Each player gets two scenes per act. Each scene, they choose to either establish the scene, or resolve the scene. If they establish, they have complete narrative control over the scene except for one element. If they resolve, they get to choose, at a critical juncture, whether the scene is going to end well or poorly for their character. Whichever role they don’t choose, the rest of the table does for them. The core of the gameplay lies in these two decision points: establish or resolve, end well or end poorly. Everything built up around it is just fodder for doing some improv and enjoying the chaos.

The table setup: my friends Seamus and Mark, Seamus’s wife, my girlfriend, and a spread of rare and/or high gravity beers. The playset: Gangster London. It got weird very quickly, with a Hebrew School teacher/undercover cop, her stalker, a Russian immigrant caught up in the middle of it, and a few lovers/drug dealers (there was some overlap with both the loving and the drug dealing). The action started at a synagogue, moved to a strip club, and ended with a shootout with the police and some unfortunate grenade explosions.

One of the reasons Fiasco is one of my favorite RPGs is that it offers something completely different, while still providing structure in a way gamers are familiar with. I think one of the biggest liabilities in the indie scene is that writers still need help moving away from existing paradigms if they don’t fit well…the clearest example of this to me is Fate, which despite being light, punchy, and fairly well-written, confuses the hell out of gamers at a conceptual level more than any other game. This is simply because Fate hews to traditional RPG concepts up to a point, and that point is exactly where many people stop following. In the case of Fiasco, the traditional RPG architecture is thrown away completely, but replaced with another one people understand: film. There are two acts. In the middle is an event which shakes up the proceedings and leads into the climax. Each scene in an act is about a character. This also sets up the intent of the game, which is to create dramatic chaos. Players are primed for this by the game’s subtitle: A Game of Powerful Ambition and Poor Impulse Control. It does also help that the game is very simple, requiring only a handful of structured decisions or dice rolls and leaving the rest up to the minds of the players.

Fiasco is likely the greatest one-shot game I own, and is probably the only game I own that is designed to be played only in one sitting. This means that I have a lot more chances to bring it out at parties than other games I own, and that is something I’ve done with varying degrees of success. Nonetheless, my hope is to keep playing Fiasco in the future, and it’s more likely than not that I’m going to send some money in the direction of buying some more playsets from the publisher…the more chaos available, the better.

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