Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: Fiasco



I have ended exactly one long-term campaign in my experience as a Game Master. I've typically had endings in mind for all of the others, but eventually life and other obstacles have come in the way and prematurely ended those stories first. But the one campaign that had reached its planned ending resonates in my mind still to this day. It was a complete story for the characters and that was an amazing thing to pull off.

You see, that's my goal as a Game Master and my desire as a player; I want a compelling story. There are gamers out there who will scour every published book to try to min-max every detail about their character to tweak every advantage to squeeze in a +1 to their die roll. Games are about challenge to stats and ability and challenges to thought and morality are secondary. That's perfectly fine, but that's not why I play.

I play for the stories. And good stories need endings. Most of my campaigns end up being mapped out story arc-wise, but we rarely get to the ending. So something is lost in the process. For every campaign that I haven't finished--my Redham Thieves' Guild campaign, my Waterdeep campaign, the Silver Marches campaign, my Dreams of Carcosa Call of Cthulhu campaign--what I miss most about them isn't playing them, it's the idea that we'll finish the story. It's like reading a book and never getting to the last few chapters.

What I like best about Fiasco is that there are endings. The story is played to a conclusion and the conclusion system is absolutely genius. But, I suppose I shouldn't skip ahead to the ending.

Fiasco is a game by Jason Morningstar and published by Bully Pulpit. It is also a game about the phrase "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Basically, you will be playing out a Coen brother's movie type of caper. Things will go wrong. Stupid or impulsive plans will have disastrous results and things will go awry. But that is where the fun is.

First thing to realize is that you aren't playing to win. There are dice in the game, but don't worry about them. You aren't playing to win. You are playing to make a story.

The Set Up comes first. First your group (the game plays 3-5 players) agrees on a Playset. Playsets are the core of the game. They will determine your setting and everything about the story and Playsets vary from being set on a submarine to being a group of London gangsters to living in Salem during the Witch Trials.

Players sit in a circle and everyone places two cards between each player and their neighbor. Four six-sided dice per player are rolled into a center pile and the players will be able to pick dice from that pile, using them up. Dice are used to fill those cards between you and your neighbors. One card will always be to determine your Relationship with your neighbor--how you know one another. See, your character will know the player to your right and the player to your left, but may not have yet met their neighbors. The other cards will create either an Object, Location or Need associated between you and your neighbor.

Each Relationship, Object, Location, and Need will consist of a category and then defined by a specific detail. Each player, on their turn, takes one die from the pool and uses it to assign a category or detail on one of the cards out there. You don't have to define the cards between you and your neighbor; you could use a die to define anything on a card between other players.

For example, you could take a die and decide to give a category for possible between you and the player to your right. Your Playset could have relationship categories of 1-Family, 2-Work, 3-Friendship, 4-Romance, 5-Crime, or 6-Community. You decide that you want to somehow have a romantic connection to the player to your right and you take a 4 from the pile and assign the Relationship category of Romance. Then, the player across from you decides to further define your Romance. The Playset's details for Romance Relationships include 1-Former spouses, 2- Current spouses, 3-Life-long crush and Object of crush, 4-One time fling, 5-Lovers, or 6-Former lovers. They take a 3 from the dice pool and define that you and the player to your right are a life-long crush and the object of the crush. You don't immediately have to determine who is who, but as more and more things become defined, it starts to make sense and you can talk openly about ideas.

This creation of characters is brilliant. Players should openly talk about ideas as the Set Up is being played out. Relationships are important, but this process will also define Objects, Locations and Needs associated with the story. Needs often give motivation and could spark a lot of drive for the story. Locations help to define the setting and tie characters together. Objects tend to be... wild cards. There are generally a bunch of wild ideas for objects that help bring in a lot of quirk into your story.

Once the Set Up is finished, players talk about their characters and further define how they know their neighbors and further define their relationships. The end result is that you will have three to five characters all tied together by chance, fate or blood and differing attitudes and motivations between each. I might have a hard longing to fuck the character to my right ever since we were in middle school and the player to my left might be my AA sponsor who is overly obsessed with my recovery from alcoholism. I might not even have any idea who the player across from me is, but it turns out that they are my AA sponsor's dentist that share a Need to get rich through stealing a drug stash, and that crooked dentist also happens to be the father of my crush to my right. So we all tie together, bound by relationships, needs and other fine details. Once this is fleshed out, play is ready to begin.

Players put all of the dice back in the center of the table. It doesn't matter what number they are on, what is important is that half of the dice should be white and the other half should be another color (referred to as black).

Gameplay consists of players playing out scenes. These scenes are broken into two Acts. But at the end of the first Act, players roll for the Tilt--the circumstances and situations that will help make these terrible plans fall apart.

In each Act, a player gets to play out two scenes. When it's your turn to have a scene, you can either Establish or Resolve a scene.

If you Establish a scene, you make it up. You can bring in other players' characters if you wanted. Or you could ask them to play a role needed just for the scene. For example, I could ask the player to my left (my AA sponsor) to join me in a scene where I call him telling him that I am really thinking about having a drink because I don't think I have the courage to approach my crush without having a little "liquid courage" in me and it's driving me mad. But I'm not limited to linear scenes. Maybe I want a scene to further establish my longing for m crush and ask her to join me in a scene back in middle school. We play out a scene at a party and the first time she really notices me is when I start drinking. She's in middle school, so she thinks it's cool and I'm funny when I'm drinking. Or maybe I decide to have a scene with no other characters, but instead I ask another player to play a random bartender as I sit and commiserate and lay out my motives and pour my heart out in a scene of exposition. This is my scene and I can do whatever I want with it. When you Establish a scene, you are the director of the shot. However, during the scene the other players will assign you a die during your scene. If they give you a white die, then your scene should resolve well for you. If they give you black die, then the scene should resolve poorly for you.

So, if I'm talking to my sponsor and the other players give me a white die, maybe I decide that he's right. I don't need the drink. I'm not myself when I drink and I want her to like me. Or, if they give me a black die during my scene, perhaps I'll give my sponsor lip service and sigh as I hang up my phone and walk into the bar that I was pacing outside of when I called him.

If you Resolve a scene, you choose the die (and thus, the positive or negative result of your scene), but the other players are the director. Perhaps I ask to Resolve a scene and I take a black die--I want things to go badly for me. The other players create the scene for me--they decide that my crush invited me to a club to go dancing and that she's telling admiring stories about my funny drunken escapades. I play out the scene with her and she laughs about the things that I did and I smile and chuckle, playing with my 1-year sober chip in my pocket the whole time, but as she excuses herself to use the restroom, I walk to the bar and order a drink.

After your scene, you should have a die for that scene. You then give it away to another player. But don't worry about the dice yet or what they mean.

When you make a scene, you shouldn't be worried about "winning" the scene. In that sense, people who are overly attached to their characters or play to win can be a detriment to the story telling process. It's about the story.

Everyone should have two scenes per Act. After the first Act is finished, players roll for the Tilt. The Tilt adds a couple of complications to the story so far and really heats up the second Act. Players rolls the dice in front of them and the highest black result and the highest white result choose the Tilt elements, each picking a category and then defining the other's detail.

Tilt elements are much more open and less defined than the elements in the Set Up, and are chosen by a roll of the dice left in the dice pool. Perhaps one of the Tilt elements ends up being Guilt--Greed leads to killing. Or perhaps Failure--Something precious is on fire. Maybe it is Innocence--The wrong guy gets busted. These are fairly open to interpretation on who they can be incorporated, but these elements should play into the scenes in Act Two.

Act Two is played out exactly as Act One is as far as Establishing or Resolving scenes. The only difference is that you have the Tilt to consider. And at the end of these scenes, you keep the die instead of giving it away. The scenes should also be building to a crescendo toward the ending. In our scene above, perhaps it was played out that my AA sponsor and his dentist tried to score a bunch of pain killers to sell. The dentist knew where to get them and the AA sponsor knows a dealer from his pre-sober days. Maybe the Tilt comes in and the daughter is wrongly accused and arrested. Drunkenly, I decide a bold move to impress her as sign to confess my love and I decide I'm going to break her out of custody.

The scenes can go anywhere, but things are really heating up. If it seems right that a character should die, then the character should die. Maybe the AA sponsor's contact kills the dentist, or maybe even the AA sponsor becomes greedy and tries to eliminate the dentist. If you die and still have scenes to resolve, you can still have your scenes. Flashbacks work wonderfully in this situation and can poignantly or ironically foreshadow events that you know will occur.

After the last scene is finished, everyone should have some dice in front of them. Perhaps a mix of black or white. It does not matter. Everyone rolls the dice in front of them. The Black dice are totals together and the White dice are totaled together. The lower result is subtracted from the higher result and that gives you a number. Either Black or White.

With this result, you get your Aftermath. Your character's ending to their story. Having a Black result generally tend to be focused on the physical, while having a White result tends to be more social and mental.

But let's say the result is White Two. The result reads, "Merciless: You might not be dead on the outside but you sure as hell are dead on the inside. The emotional or mental wounds you have suffered will never heal. The future is a brick wall."

With that in mind, I resolve my character's story, giving a little vignette for each die in front of me, describing what happened in my character's epilogue. I mean, obviously from that ending, I didn't win and get the girl. I'm probably drinking again. I only really made an impression on her when I was drinking and I've realized that I hate myself sober. But with each die, you describe in a sentence or so the aftermath of your character.

But what is really interesting about the resolution is that the highest totals end up being the best outcome. That means that characters who had ups and downs tend to roll lower numbers as their black and white dice cancel out. Characters who were on top of everything (all white dice) tend to come out on top. But the best thing is the turn of fate for the schleps. If you have all black dice in front of you, likely from a bunch of scenes that went poorly for you, you will likely have a high black result for the aftermath. Your piss-poor fortune can turn for you. That is just... perfect.

What you end up with is a compelling and fun story. Things tend to get dark in Fiasco, but that's okay. In fact, that's great. The game's story feels like a movie and also is resolved in about the same amount of time it takes to watch one. Games run between two to three hours depending on the number of players.

The only issue that I have is that players need  to know to up the stakes. At the end of the Set Up, it is possible for players to seem rather mundane. You can still have good and compelling scenes that are interesting, but if everything is mundane, and aftermath result that involves death and dismemberment just seems too out of the blue. So players need to be aware of this and raise the stakes. Big plans and big ideas need to be tackled--and tackled poorly.

What I love most about Fiasco is the endings. We've all ended up with our just desserts. Everyone can build a compelling narrative to conclude their story and arc. And for someone who had too many campaigns that never had their endings, that is something amazing for me. Characters should have arcs. Stories should be more important than rolls and success. In fact, you should be willing to go with the fails. Failures are glorious and spectacular and that is what Fiasco celebrates.

The thing about Fiasco, however, isn't just that it is a fun little story that you create. It really could be used as part of a writer's workshop. The stories that come from it really could be movies or short stories. The Set Up process is the most compelling portion. It is amazing to see the chain of connections between players at the end of it. And the aftermath provides that resolution that I so often fail to achieve in storytelling games.

I very strongly recommend Fiasco. There are Playsets to cover any and all genres. And despite the dark themes that often present themselves, it truly is one of the funniest games I've ever played. It is a great creative exercise and one of improving not just characters, but scenes and stories. When you move away from games with Game Masters, you suddenly realize just how much everyone else around you can create and add. And it is much more of a marvel to see what you can create as a group instead of just seeing how they react to what you made.

1 comment:

  1. So you finally got around to Fiasco. Why didn't you say so I had a copy and alot of playsets printed out.

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