Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Fiasco

Review: Fiasco by Jason Morningstar
Bully Pulpit Games
Rating: ★★★★

Fiasco is such a wonderful game that I cannot help but wonder why this sort of game did not exist much earlier.  If there were only three things I could say to convince you, my dear reader, why this game is worth the purchase, I'd say these three things:  No GM thus everyone gets to play, six-sided dice are very easy to come by, and last is practically no prep work necessary.

So What Is This Game?
Fiasco is Jason Morningstar's game that captures the feel of movies such as Fargo, Burn After Reading, Pulp Fiction, and more tragic versions of telenovelas and soap operas.  In these games, everyone has a dream, a goal, a secret perhaps, and definitely a story to tell.  Dream big, aim high, but fly so low that you'll most likely crash and burn.  Fiasco is not about winning the game, or surviving the experience. Fiasco is about experiencing a group-developed arc of schadenfreude.  The phrase, "It seemed like a good idea at the time.." captures the direction stories in this game go very well.

Many people, and I'm included among them, first heard about this game thanks to Will Wheaton's Table Top webshow.  The game was featured in three parts:


I must admit, the show was very successful in capturing how the game is and when I ran it with my own friends, we could not help but appreciate how smooth the system works.

What's the System Like?
The dice are not rolled to resolve actions or challenges.    That probably will come as a shock to many of you, but the system is nicely narrative in nature, with the dice used for setting up a session, to denote whether or not a scene ends in the character's favor, to determine the Tilt, and in the end to determine what each character's fate will be.   And given you need three to five players to play, but given no one has to be the Game Master, its more fun for everyone!

In Fiasco, you will need a lot of six-sided dice, four for each player and preferably have them be two sets that can be distinguished from one another.  The game recommends black and white dice but I've run the game with white dice and colored dice as the sets just fine.    You will also need a lot of index cards and a marker, which allows you to write down the key things in the game and have them on the table for all to very quickly see.  Trust me when I say this is definitely a good thing to do because you don't want to waste time having a player go, "Hello... what's your character's name again?" or "I saw what's her name... your wife... *checks the sheet for the name*" which breaks the immersive quality of the game.

The game has tables, which are the meat of what are called Playsets.   At the start,  all the dice are rolled, and you get to choose from the tables by "using" some of the dice that you rolled.  Set up helps the players come up with varying reasons to what relationships their characters have with others.  It also develops the key locations which will be featured in the game as well as Objects that are important to the story.  Once those elements are set up, each player has a Scene where he has two choices:  Establish the Scene or Resolve it.  If the player chooses to Establish the Scene, he gets to determine who is in it, what it is about, and why it is happening.  However, how the scene resolves will be something the other players will determine by handling the player a single die, white for the scene to end favorably for the player, or black for the scene to end in a bad way for the player.  If the player chooses to Resolve it, the other players decide what the scene and its participants will be about, but the player gets to pick up the die he prefers to reflect how it ends for him.

During this First Act, each player gets a few scenes to run but but the die the player gets during his scene is then handed to any other player he wants to reward.   Each scene is intended to allow players a chance to achieve their goals when possible.  Once the pool is reduced to half its number, Act One ends and the Tilt is introduced.

The Tilt is when things get worse.  Of the remaining dice in the pool, you roll and determine the Tilt.  The Tilt can be an intense moment of Tragedy, Innocence, Mayhem, Paranoia, Guilt or Failure.  It will definitely shift the direction of the story to a much more desperate moment.

With the Second Act, players this time keep the dice they get in each scene.  And by the end of the second Act, players roll their accumulated dice, subtract the lower set from the higher set, to determine their Aftermath.  The more white dice, the better the possible result.  The more the black dice, the more.. tragic the end.

Death?  What about Death?
Oh players characters can die in this game.  In fact, it is expected players will die one way or another.  But that does not mean they are out of the game.  Instead, their scenes are flashbacks that reflect events that had unfolded.  Or are moments in the span between life and death where they linger on a bit longer to add to the tale.

Sounds Interesting... but not Challenging..
I guess it depends on what you define as a challenge.  If you're hoping to "beat the game" then you can challenge yourself to play the game with the goal of ending with the best possible ending.  But that, frankly is what I wouldn't support as an approach.  The game, after all, is about the people whose high dreams lead them to fall painfully hard on the way down.

Challenging for me would be the fact that you got at least three people all crafting the story at the same time, each with their own desires, needs and goals in mind, and trying to accomplish what you want without tearing the story apart.  And admittedly, I'm pretty impressed how so far it has been a successful jaunt even with players whom never tried a table top role-playing game before.

The web is filled with so many other playsets set at different times and settings that I don't foresee anyone getting bored with playing another session of Fiasco when they have time.  Admittedly, the fact the game is meant to be a single session thing might turn some players off.  But the single session aspect allows the the players the freedom to aim high and shoot for the moon with their hopes and dreams, which is quite perfect for the kinds of stories the game invokes.

Rating Breakdown:
Concept: A niche market that is far wider than I realized.  The basic idea of the game can be quickly grasped and expanded to explore further genres and scenarios.
Crunch: Tremendously lite, and yet compelling.  Choosing things from the playsets has surprisingly always been fun, and there is always that brief moment of worry when you finally roll the white against the black dice, even if we're not even aware of what the results can entail.
Layout: Very polished.  My kudos to Patrick Murphy and Robert Poppe, the people behind the layout.   The artwork by both John Harper and Robert Poppe is very effective in capturing the feel of the game.  I wish I had the actual books to keep in my collection.
My favorite part: Set-Up.  There's something fun about choosing from the table of Relationships, Needs and Objects.  The game itself is great, but I admittedly feel very excited to see more playset tables!
What I wish was better: Ongoing Options.  Maybe there's a book that presents these, and admittedly I've only seen the main book so far, but I would LOVE if there were rules for a mini-chronicle, perhaps something that spans two to five game sessions.    I would also be curious if there's a kid-friendly version of the game.  If there isn't yet, I would love to write one up!

And no, I don't think there was any political messages behind the white die vs black die.  That would just be seeking for problems where there isn't any.


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