Fiasco: I love it when a plan comes together (and falls apart)
I’ve been quite busy over the past couple of months and haven’t made much progress of Project Awesome. With the summer holiday season now in full swing, hopefully this will be remedied soon. But as this blog is about experiments in collaborative gaming, I thought I’d write up my experience with a great game I’ve just discovered: Fiasco.
Fiasco has actually been around for a couple of years but I first heard about it just over a week ago. Sean Buckley, a guy who works at Leisure Games in Finchley, is organising and promoting a Fiasco Picnic on 18 August in Regents Park. Then, a day after finding out about that, the latest episode of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop went live, the first of a two-parter in which they demonstrate the game:
I’m an avid Tabletop watcher and every other episode find myself instantly ordering the game they play (I’m weak willed like that), and this week was no different. It was clear from the word go that Fiasco does everything I’ve been looking for in a game: an RPG with a focus on narrative and character, which you can play in a couple of hours and which you don’t have to spend weeks working on background or world building, with a heavy emphasis on collaboration. The fact that it is rooted in the neo-noir films of the Coen Brothers is an added bonus.
In fact, I was so enthusiastic that I wanted to have a go right away. A lot of my friends are away this week, but fortunately I managed to rustle up a couple of folks who were both available and willing to play. Even then, I’ve been impatiently waiting all week for Saturday to finally come around. Indeed, there was a danger that I could have built it up too much and let myself in for a massive anticlimax. So I’m pleased to say that it was quite the opposite in the end.
The first stage of Fiasco is the set up, in which the players take turns establishing the characters, their relationships and details; which typically will be a need, a location or an object. As we were playing a three player game, we’d have just one of each.
The relationships and details are all chosen from a series of tables. There’s a different “playset” for each setting you can root the game in, and there are a lot of playsets available. The basic rulebook comes with four, the Fiasco Companion comes with another four, Bully Pulpit Games publish a “playset of the month” and there are dozens of fan-created sets - all freely available to download online (making your own ones would appear to be a doddle as well).
We chose the Gangster London playset, rolled some dice and started picking some options from the tables.
The options for what the players can choose from the tables is restricted by rolling a big pile of dice - four for each player. Each table has a series of six categories to choose from, and each category has six elements to choose from. Each turn, a player can only choose either a category or an element for a relationship or detail which already has a category. In this way, the options get narrower quite quickly as the setup progresses (although the final die chosen is always wild and can be any number).
To cut a long story short, this is what we came up with:
Relationships and Details:
A (Cal) -B (Zoe) => Relationship: Odd - Socialists | Location: Residence - Flat 253, Broadwater House
B-C (James) => Relationship: Crime - Criminal boss and underling | Need: To get rich by running eastern European prostitutes
C-A => Relationship: Romance - Secret Lovers | Object: Extra Legal - “This is the most dangerous weapon you have ever laid your dirty little hands on”
The relationships and details by themselves are quite stark. It took us quite some time before we managed to work out how all these different aspects could fit together. The breakthrough was realising we didn’t need to set the game in modern times at all and could fit it during the height of the Cold War. Suddenly, everything made sense: my character would be a Ronnie Kray type character, having an illicit affair with a Guy Burgess stand-in: a gay civil servant recruited when he was at Cambridge University. Finally, Zoe’s character would be a fellow Cambridge alumni who had fallen into drug addiction and vice and had ended up running a brothel.
We struggled a bit with the “dangerous weapon”. Not unreasonably we started off by assuming it would be something owned by the gangster. In the end we decided to make it some kind of weapon that the Russians had passed onto our spy character. This little Macguffin was a potential tool for blackmailing the spy into helping the madam get the prostitutes through immigration, while being a fairly obvious source of horrible and excruciating death.
The last thing to do in setup was to give each character a name. We came up with:
A: Tarquin Blytheton-Smythe (Cal)
B: Kate Spencer (Zoe)
C: Frankie McMurdo (James)
Fiasco games have two acts: one in which the plans are made, and one in which the plans (typically) go horribly wrong.
Within each act, the players take turns playing out scenes: you either set the scene yourself (“Establish”) or let the other players set the scene for you (“Resolve”). If you Establish, the other players get to decide if the scene goes well or badly for your character; if you Resolve, you get to decide if the scene goes well or not.
A scene can be pretty much anything, but typically takes the form of a dialogue between two or more characters. These can either be player characters or incidental characters (in which case one of the other players will step in and play that character on a temporary basis).
So, our first scene featured Tarquin and Frankie in a restaurant, Tarquin having just received a suspicious-looking briefcase from the KGB - something which piques Frankie’s interest. Our second scene featured Kate trying to persuade Frankie to give her some drugs on credit, and Frankie offering to do so as long as she was willing to expand her brothel and smuggle through a few more desperate women from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Our third scene on the other hand featured just Frankie and a non-player character, Ron, who Frankie asks to tail Tarquin and discover what is inside his case.
After each scene, the player whose turn it is receives a die: white (or in our case, green) if the scene went well for them or black (purple in our case) if the scene went badly - there are equal numbers of good and bad dice. In Act I, the player then gives the die to one of the other characters - s/he cannot keep it.
Act I continues until half the dice have been given away - in a three player game this means after six scenes. By the end of our first act, Kate had attempted to persuade Tarquin to help her smuggle the eastern Europeans through immigration (we had established by that point that Tarquin worked in immigration), with little success, but she went on to discover that Tarquin had been marked for death by the KGB (via one of her clients, a Russian diplomat called Boris Litvenenko). Frankie meanwhile had discovered that Tarquin’s dangerous weapon was a radioactive isotope, as revealed by a very sick looking Ron. Uncomfortable with having an irradiated thug in his club, Frankie gets another henchman, Jimmy, to “get rid of him”.
Between Act I and Act II comes the tilt, in which new elements come into play which further complicate - and thus unravel - the plot. These are selected from the Tilt table, which is very similar in both appearance and effect to the setup tables.
We selected the following Tilt elements, and then prepared some afternoon tea:
Failure - You thought it was taken care of but it wasn’t.
Tragedy - Pain, followed by confusion.
Our tragedy element was fine, but not especially surprising given the plot which had thus far developed. Our failure element by contrast was delicious. Having just dispatched Ron, it immediately became apparent that his demise was not as imminent as we had assumed it would.
The second act is played in pretty much the same way as the first, with the exception that we needed to incorporate the tilt elements, and that instead of giving away the die at the end of each turn, we got to keep it.
For various reasons - possibly because it was our first game and we were feeling nice - most of the dice selected in the first act had been positive. This meant that the remaining dice, apart from one, were all bad. The only real question then was who would get the one good die? Cal and myself had two green dice, while Zoe had a green one and a purple one. For reasons I’ll explain in the aftermath round, it is in the characters’ interests to each have as many dice as possible of a single colour.
Plotwise, the story sped up at this point. It turned out that Ron had in fact stolen the briefcase (and not told Frankie). This causes Tarquin to panic and contact Boris, who makes it clear that Tarquin had better recover the damn thing quickly. Tarquin is then further blackmailed by Kate into helping her with the prostitutes. Meanwhile Frankie is appalled to discover from Tarquin that the suitcase had gone missing and even more appalled to discover that Jimmy had misunderstood what he meant by “get rid of Ron” and let Ron escape.
A flustered Tarquin forges papers to help Kate at the airport, but does a terrible job and both are arrested. Kate gets bailed out and turns to Boris for help, who turns her down. Frankie’s gang track down Ron, only to discover that the radioactive isotope has been dumped in the Thames. Act II ends with all three characters tumbling into the back of a van headed to Hull in an attempt to escape the authorities.
The final stage in the game is the Aftermath: the characters’ fates are revealed and we describe what happens to them via a series of vignettes in a montage.
All three characters had, by the end of Act II, acquired two green (white) dice and two purple (black) dice. At this stage you roll the dice together, total each colour’s dice and subtract the highest value. A high number is good; a zero is the Worst Thing Possible. In our case, we ended up with the following results:
Tarquin: Black One - Horrible. You are probably dead. Other people, probably innocent people, are as well. There is no justice, there is no mercy, everything is utterly, painfully screwed and it is all - all of it - your fault.
Kate: White One - Dreadful. You are certainly dead, probably from a self-inflicted wound. People you care about are also probably dead, maybe through your own stupid, ugly failure. To say that you fucked up is an insult to fucked-upedness. You have redefined the term.
Frankie: White Six - Weak. Hey, you’re busted, beat, and broke down, but at least you’ve learned a lesson about human greed and frailty, right? It’ll serve you well in prison, which is where you are probably headed.
Given the plot trajectory, these results were absolutely perfect. In a nutshell, the three characters quickly fall out when they reach Hull, with Tarquin drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Kate going cold turkey and Frankie abandoning them both. Filled with remorse and reading the ever worsening headlines coming out of London, Tarquin drowns himself. Kate, meanwhile, is tracked down by one of the eastern European prostitutes and, Trotsky-style, killed by a blow to the back of the head using an icepick. Frankie is tried and imprisoned: the story ends with him looking wistfully out through his prison cell window.
A few notes on how the game went:
Overall, for a first game, this one exceeded all my expectations. When we picked the Gangster London playset, at the back of my mind was a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels type scenario: fun, but perhaps not earth-shattering. What we ended up with, possibly as a result of our own backgrounds and interests, was more akin to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: a vignette from the height of the cold war and a plot featuring the convergence of two of the 1950s most infamous homosexuals. I didn’t see that coming at all, nor did I see how the tilt would unravel the plot in such a satisfying way.
The other thing that is notable is quite how easy the game is to play. We didn’t look in the rulebook once throughout the entire game (unless you count the reference tables, which don’t really): unheard of in my experience of role playing. There are no stats to learn, and pretty much everything is simply determined by whether a scene went “well” or “badly” for the character whose scene it is. If the game were more competitive and the players had a real incentive to get their characters out alive and well, it might be hard to maintain. In this case, the system and genre blend perfectly.
On the downside, it took us a while to loosen up and get into the improvisational nature of the game - and my accents were all awful. The rulebook warns that three-players is not the optimal number for a game and I can now see why: the plot closed in on itself just a little too much. We ended up all playing recurring secondary characters (Ron, Jimmy and Boris). That in itself was quite satisfying, but it felt a little small scale given how high the stakes were.
The other downside was that by the time we got to the second act, we’d more or less wrapped the plot: however fun the tilt was, there were simply too few variables, and too few scenes for us to create any more complicating factors.
I’m really itching to have another go with four players, to see how the dynamic changes. But none of this is to denigrate what was a mind-blowing experience. A game that can deliver an improvised and satisfying narrative experience in the space of a couple of hours ought to be on everybody’s shelf: if you’ve always considered role playing to be about dragons, goblins and complicated rules, you really need to give this a go. See you on 18 August?