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Sampling Fiasco

The other system I got to try last weekend was more rewarding. Fiasco is GM-less, rules-lite, and just generally the greatest departure from the traditional RPG I’ve tried. (Although it shares much with Executive Decision, I don’t consider the latter an RPG, strictly speaking, despite encouraging roleplaying while seeking to win by scoring victory points.)

Characters are not defined by their abilities; indeed, skills and talents aren’t addressed in the game at all. Instead, characters are defined by their relationships with one another. You will share with each player sitting next to you around the table a relationship and some other feature of interest—a motive, a place, an object, or something similar. These shared elements are selected semi-randomly, first by rolling a stack of dice, then by taking turns choosing elements from a list designed for the scenario. So if, for example, you’re playing a mafia scenario, you might share a relationship of “rivalrous siblings” and a dark secret of “killed the don’s wife;” if you’re playing a game of betrayal in academia, you might share a relationship of “former student/mentor” and the object “incriminating photos of the dean.”

Choosing these elements is a two-step process. One player chooses the type of element, another the specific element in that type, taking a matching die from the central pool as they do so, until the dice, options, and necessary elements are exhausted. (The numbers rolled in the initial pool limit your choices: once you’re out of 3’s, nobody can choose the third list in any category, nor the third element in any list.) You can select elements for anyone at the table, so no one has sovereign control over who they are. Perhaps you have your heart set on the motive “finding out what’s hidden under the old mill’s floorboards,” but chances are good someone else will saddle you instead with “getting enough money to pay off my gambling debts,” especially if the 3’s run out early. That’s okay. Go with the flow.

You may as well, because things aren’t going to end well for you, anyway. You may have noticed the elements above have a dark tone. Fiasco is a dark game, seeking to simulate movies of simple plans gone horribly wrong, people whose ambition exceeds their reach, grand schemes and poor impulse control. Think Fargo, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or Reservoir Dogs. Knowing what the game is about gives perfectly innocuous elements, like “a baseball bat autographed by Mickey Mantle,” a deliciously sinister tone even before the game begins. Focus of a jealous feud? Collateral for a foolish loan? Murder weapon?

When play begins, the dice—half white, half black—are dumped back into the middle of the table. Players now take turns narrating the action in brief scenes, no more than four or five minutes long. A player may choose either to “set the scene,” describing where the action takes place, who’s there, what’s going on in the background, or to determine whether its outcome is generally good or bad for those involved. The other half of that choice is surrendered to the table at large. Somebody, either the active player or someone else at the table, sets the scene, and the players involved start acting; anyone else is welcome to supply necessary minor roles, troupe-style. Within a couple minutes, somebody, again either someone else at the table or the active player, dramatically picks up a die from the middle of the table: black for good result, white for bad result, and it’s up to the players involved to make things turn out that way. Finally, once the scene is resolved, the active player (not necessarily the one who selected it) hands that die to any player at the table he likes, and a new turn begins.

When half the dice at the table are gone, the story gets “the flip,” a major new element that’s likely to upset the course of the action. When all the dice are gone, the story’s over, and it’s time for the denoument. Players roll the dice they’ve been handed over the course of the game and subtract the total of the white dice from the total of the black dice. A large positive or negative result means a relatively happy ending for that PC; a result near zero means a disastrous ending. Players describe their just desserts in a quick montage; if they’re very lucky, they come out no worse than they went in.

Fiasco is an excellent game, with rules that brilliantly reinforce the intended purpose. It is definitely not for everybody. Part of the price of a GM-less game is that everyone gets to be a GM at times, and players have to be willing to surrender a lot of control to one another—control over their own characters, the direction of the plot, and the final outcome. Another price to pay is the likelihood of a sort of formless, it-is-what-it-is story line; no established mysteries or carefully paced rise to a climax here. And, of course, the tone of a Coen brothers movie is a fairly specific taste. I struggled the whole game to match that tone, to anticipate where other players wanted to go, and to fit my patches of narrative with an idealized rise to a climax, with limited success. Without skills and hit points, Fiasco offers no tools for space battles and dragon slaying, so you can’t fall back on letting the unfolding action dictate the story; everything you do is naked narrative. It’s hard work, and not everybody has the talent to pull it off. But when you do pull it off, it can be beautiful.

To date, supplements have come out at a good clip. This is good, because the lists of elements are foundation and framework for the game. The rules are literally all described above, and can’t support a game alone. You’ll need the inspiration of those elements, and their setting-specific nature means you’ll need lists appropriate to the story you want to tell. Some of the supplements are obvious: bank robbery, treasure hunters, Elizabethan tragedy. Others are inspired. Having lost my legs in a tornado while trying to tie down my uninsured farm equipment, only to watch my spinster sister take grandma’s wedding ring to marry good-for-nothing Sam Morgan and leave me with a failed mortgage, I’m eager to see what trouble awaits me outside the rural midwest—maybe in the frozen isolation of McMurdo, or 1963 Dallas.

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