My Fiasco Kit

I’ve talked about Fiasco before on this blog, but only a few times. This isn’t a reflection of how often I play it ((Though, honestly, I’d like to play it more. The gaming calendar is crowded.)) – I find myself pulling it out when other games fall through, when a group of us get together to game on short notice, and to demo to people who’ve never played it. And that’s in addition to the evenings I actually plan to play it.

It works very much like a boardgame in that sense; very little preparation, everyone gets to play, and it’s over in a couple of hours ((I can think of some boardgames that don’t fit all those criteria. Arkham Horror, I’m looking at you!)). In addition to it fitting nicely into the boardgame timeframe for regular play, that makes it a good game to demo and run at conventions; you can get three to five people through a quick game of it in about an hour and a half, if you don’t let the scenes drag on too long.

Seeing it fill that niche, I decided that I wanted to carry the similarity a little farther, and I put together what I call my Fiasco kit: everything I need to run the game at a moment’s notice in a convenient bundle. It’s not really anything new; I imagine a lot of people have done similar things, but I’ve got a couple of comments about how handy it looks from others, so I figured I’d share.

That’s a picture of my kit above, and here’s the key to what’s in it:

  1. Fiasco rulebook. Honestly, I hardly look at the book myself anymore during games. The rules are simple enough that I don’t need it, especially considering numbers 2. and 4. below. But it comes in handy if there’s a rules question, and it’s good advertising for when I run the demos at conventions and such. Also, it’s just a nice-looking book.
  2. Tilt and Aftermath tables. In addition to owning the physical copy of the game, I also own the .pdf version. In an effort to simplify the reference materials I use at the table, and to save flipping through the rulebook, I extracted the Tilt and Aftermath tables and printed them out double-sided landscape so that I could fold them into a booklet. That way, I can save the binding on the physical book, or pass the physical book to observers who want to know about the game, and I’ve got all the info I need.
  3. Black and white dice. I picked up Fiasco at GenCon, and that was a very convenient place to snag a cube of 12 white dice and another of 12 black dice, along with their own dice bag. Now I just leave it in the kit, and I never have to go scrounging for dice. You don’t need 24 dice for the game, but getting the cube was cheaper than buying 11 singles of each ((Why 11, when you only need 2 of each colour per player, and there’s a limit of 5 players? Because the colour of the last die is wild, so I like to have an extra die of each colour to put on the table for when the last scene plays out.)).
  4. Playsets. As with number 2. above, I extracted each playset from the rule book and printed it out as its own booklet. It speeds up the time it takes to select a playset, saves wear and tear on the book, and minimizes the amount of reference material you need on the table. In addition to the four playsets in the rulebook, I’ve also printed out the free Playset of the Month booklets that Bully Pulpit have been producing, so I’ve got a nice, thick stack of attractive, colourful playsets for people to look at ((For those of you who care about that sort of thing, to get a standard 12-page playset to print out two-up landscape double sided and be able to fold it into a booklet, you need to adjust the pagination. The sequence needs to be 12, 1, 2, 11, 10, 3, 4, 9, 8, 5, 6, 7.)).
  5. Sharpies. For writing down the stuff you come up with during the set-up phase on number 6. I keep four sharpies in the kit, which means that there’s little – if any – scrambling after them during the game. Why don’t I have five? Well, they came in a package of four, and I figured that was good enough.
  6. Index cards. To write down the relationships, needs, locations, and objects that get created during the set-up phase; to use as name cards so you remember what your character’s name is; and to jot down the Aftermath scores as people roll them so that you can then go through the list and read the Aftermath definitions.
  7. A decent plastic folder. Single pocket, easy to wipe off if it gets something spilled on it, big enough to hold everything in one spot so I don’t need to scramble around for it. Easy to carry, with a fastener to keep it closed.

Like I said, none of this is groundbreaking, but it’s a little convenience thing that’s let me play a lot more Fiasco than I might do if I had to always hunt down the components.

And it means I’m always ready for a disaster.

Fiasco: Lust, Ice, and Penguin Drumsticks

Friday night was my third game of Fiasco. We had five players, three of whom had never played before – indeed, they hadn’t played any games like Fiasco before. Still, the game is quick to teach to people, and quick to play, so it didn’t slow things down at all.

It can be hard to describe what happens in a Fiasco session: the nature of the game produces convoluted webs of interactions, and makes it easy for the stories to get tangled and non-linear. This is all to the good, as it mirrors the way the movies and books that serve as the source material for the game handle narrative and character. It just makes it hard to sit down and say, “This is the story of the game we played.”

That said, this is the story of the game we played.

We used The Ice playset that comes in the rule book. Actually, Michael had the interesting idea of passing the stack of playsets around the table and having each person eliminate two of them. What with the sets that come with the books and the ones you can download from the site, I’ve got a pretty fair pile of them right now – fifteen or sixteen – and it seemed a good way to narrow down the selection when no one had a really strong desire to play a particular set.

Character-wise, we wound up with a nice mix of scientists, eco-terrorists, and support staff. There was a romance that was falling apart, social and professional rivalry, revenge plots, heavy drinking, home-made pornography, spats over vegetarian cooking, sabotage, and the barbecuing of penguins – not necessarily in that order. As is pretty much required in such a setting, the fuel tanks went up at one point, and someone tried to strand someone else out on the ice to die.

The actual structure of the story was very different from my previous experiences with the game. Throughout the first act, the outcomes tended to be overwhelmingly positive. That left a preponderance of black dice for the second act, plus some very nasty tilt elements – cold-blooded score settling and collateral damage. Overall, it was like pushing a big rock to the top of a hill through the first act, and letting it roll down onto a defenseless (and explosive) village in the second act.

In the end, I was dead – beaten to within an inch of my life, then choking on my own blood in the infirmary. Another player lost a leg and had his life fall apart, while a third went to prison after getting his face cooked in the aforementioned fuel-tank explosion. The character in charge of the base wound up still in charge but with no hope of every getting out, and my nemesis – the vegetarian cook and eco terrorist – flew happily away to her next job.

We all had a lot of fun with it.

I’m starting to figure out a few things about the structure of the game, and the way the different factors in the game work together to make the story work the way it does.

First, the game is very focused on the story. Now, that may sound like a no-brainer, but I’ve been thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, when we generally talk about story-focused games, we’re really talking about character-focused games. We focus on the way our characters act and behave, and try to build a story around the motivations and desires of our characters. We identify with our characters, and so we focus on what our characters do, and that’s where the story comes from.

Fiasco does things backwards in that respect. You build the situation, which dictates the characters. The situation – the story – is what drives the play, and the characters exist only to serve the story. The nature of the playsets is such that you tend to not identify as strongly with the characters – they tend towards the unsympathetic but fun to play, especially as you drive them towards destruction.

That’s the second thing: at first glance, the game looks like it has some competitive aspects. You can throw strange relationships, locations, needs, and objects on the other players, looking to mess them up. You can toss mixed die colours at the other players, trying to make sure they end badly. That’s the way things seem to go the first game or two.

However, as I’ve played, I’ve found that the competition turns out to be different than you expect. I find myself competing, less to end well, than to end badly in a horribly spectacular way. It’s a competition to get the rest of the players to go “Wow. That’s messed up. Bravo.”

Third thing I’ve noticed is that the most important skill to master in this game is not improvising the scene, or deciding on your character based on the set-up, but knowing when to end a scene. Part of that is not identifying too strongly with your character, so that you can accept that you need to “lose” a given scene. Part of it is learning to recognize the tipping point, where things will turn either to the good or bad outcome.

That’ll definitely come with practice; I know I’m better at it now than I was the first time I played, and I know I’ve still got some distance to go. But mastering this skill makes the game really move along, and will tighten play so as to pull the focus more and more onto the strange, nasty twists that arise.

Fourth thing. The playsets are brilliantly constructed to build in conflict and confusion, driving the game towards meltdown with giddy speed. The tilt that happens after act one certainly accelerates things, but everything will go to hell even without that little extra push. Part of it is the list of options in the playset, and part of it is the expectation of the players, as set by the game itself.

The final thing I want to mention is the way Fiasco straddles the line between board game and roleplaying game. It has all the roleplaying elements you might wish for (except for character advancement and campaign play), but fits nicely into the kind of slot that you usually reserve for board games – it requires no prep, has great replay capability, and fits into a two- to three-hour slot nicely.

I’ve got most of my gaming group initiated into Fiasco, now, and everyone likes the game. It fills a niche that we wanted filled, and it’s just a great deal of fun. Bully Pulpit Games is releasing new playsets every month, which is great support for the games.

Go get the game. Give it a try. You’ll like it.

Fiasco: Tainted Love, Pickled Heads, and, Strangely, a Leopard

My buddy Clint, who runs our Shadowlands game, was feeling a little burnt out tonight, so he wasn’t up to running the game we had scheduled. I offered to teach everyone Fiasco, because I really wanted to play it again, and I knew that one game and everyone would be hooked.

So, the four of us gathered and decided to use the New York City 1913 playset. I was a little leery of this, because I don’t know all that much about the time period. Turns out I really didn’t need to.

I’m starting to think this is a hidden feature* of Fiasco – the playset provides seasoning and flavour, but the core of the game remains very similar in all playsets, so you don’t need to fret about lack of familiarity with a given setting. You use it as window dressing for the universal story: not-so-clever folks get into a mess and everything spirals out of control.

We wound up with a young Jewish man secretly in love with a woman who was involved in the labour movement. She and her brother were hoodlums with a dark secret in their past. The brother had stolen a leopard from the zoo and wanted to sell it*, and was also hiding the fact that he was gay. He was the target of a serial killer stalker who was a friend of the Jewish man, who knew that the serial killer had the pickled head of a murderer hidden somewhere in his apartment.

The rest, as is the case with Fiasco games, just writes itself.

Some memorable scenes:

  • The Jewish man asking to borrow the pickled head in order to impress the woman.
  • The woman’s plot to stick the leopard in the offices of a warehouse to kill the management and help get the union formed*.
  • The inevitable escape of the leopard, the crash of the bakery van, and the revelation that the pickled head belonged to the woman’s father.
  • The flashback where we learned how the Jewish man and the serial killer met and where the head came from.
  • The claustrophobic closet scene in the first act where we learned that my nice young Jewish man was going to wind up with his head in a jar of brine.
  • The two thugs figuring out that their buddy was gay.
  • The woman kicking open the serial killer’s door to see him and her brother in what appeared to be a passionate embrace, with the pickled head of her friend sitting on the table. And the ensuing gunplay and suicide attempt.

So, how did things end? Well, my character was a pickled head in a jar. The woman wound up in a coma for 30 years, so her brother got to be her first visitor when he got out of prison. The serial killer died clean, which is the best he could really hope for.

Have you ever seen the movie Something Wild? It starts as a fairly light-hearted comedy, with a yuppie Jeff Daniels “kidnapped” by a very attractive (but slightly crazy) Melanie Griffith, and dragged across the country to attend her high-school reunion. Fun stuff. Then Ray Liotta shows up and things turn rather dark and grim.

That was how this game went. From the wackiness of trying to impress a girl with a pickled head, to the plot of trying to stick a leopard in a warehouse office, to the fun by-play with the two thugs figuring out their buddy’s gay, it was light, if a little twisted. After the leopard got loose and disappeared, though, things turned pretty dark, and just got darker as the second act kicked in.

We all had a blast, as usual, and we came to an interesting conclusion about the game.

See, it’s set up to create some pretty adversarial relationships between the characters, and the players have a tendency to try and stick each other with strange and difficult-to-use baggage in the form of needs, objects, and locations. And there’s a certain gamish, strategic element in trying to accumulate the right types of dice to have your character come out well in the end. But those things are artificial, and as you play, you begin to care more about the coolness of the story than about the survival of your character. Indeed, you can begin to root for a nasty, horrific end for your character, just because it would be neat.

Fiasco reinforces and rewards the right kind of story in subtle, delightful ways. It produces the spectacular, horrible, blackly funny car wrecks of humanity that we all look for in Coen Bothers or Guy Ritchie movies, and it does it in an effective, unobtrusive, and engaging manner. Everyone winds up rooting for the complete meltdown of the characters and situation.

Anyway, it was fun, and the ending was as messy and horrible as we could have wished for. We’re going to play again soon.


*Or maybe not so hidden. Back

*And really, what fence wouldn’t want to buy a leopard? Right? Back

*Also, it would get the leopard out of the apartment she shared with her brother. Back

Fiasco: A Mutual Problem

Stayed up way too late last night getting into trouble. Some of the Arc Dream folks and I decided to get together after the Ennies to give Fiasco a try.

As came up at the game table as we were explaining the game to those who hadn’t read it, Fiasco is essentially the Coen Brothers/Guy Ritchie rpg. It’s a game, as the cover says, of powerful needs and poor impulse control. The whole experience is geared toward creating interlocking connections to tell a story where things spiral out of control and everything ends badly in a most entertaining manner.

One of the core elements of playing Fiasco is what they call a playset. These are lists of options for relationships, objects, locations, and needs relevant to a specific setting. Each of the four categories is broken din into six general types, and each general type is broken down into six specific elements. So, you have 36 relationship options, 36 location options, etc.

You get four playsets in the book, and each GenCon copy came with one extra play set in a separate booklet, and apparently there are more on the Bully Pulpit Games website. There are also rules for creating your own in the book.

Elements are added in turn to the game semi-randomly. You roll a huge mitful of dice – four for each player, and people take it in turns to take a die from the rolled pile and buy an item from the playset, building a network of relationships and details to serve as the framework for the story you tell. Only after you get the framework of the situation fleshed out to you decide who your characters are, based on the relationships you’ve built.

So, in our game we wound up with:

  • Frank Dodd, a corrupt, divorced police officer
  • K. C. Montana, a war hero seeking to uncover the corruption in the city
  • Martin Thornton, studio owner, Frank’s patron, and K. C.’s father-in-law
  • Max Shirley, bookstore owner and sparring partner of his war buddy, K. C.
  • Margaret Phelps, Frank’s ex-wife, and Max’s employee

Game play runs in a series of scenes that players create in turns. Players can choose either to establish the scene, in which case the rest of the players decide whether the outcome is positive or negative, or to resolve the scene, choosing positive or negative outcomes themselves, while the rest of the players set the scene.

After each character gets two focus scenes, the first act ends, and the group introduces a couple of complications that really make things go south. Another round of two focus scenes per character, and the second act ends.

Now, if you’ve been using the details created in the set-up phase, things will have degenerated massively by this point, probably to the destruction of at least one or two of the characters. In our game, a love square had formed around Margaret, with Max and Frank intensely jealous of (married) K. C. and his attentions. Frank kept trying to win her back, and Max went to Thornton to report that K. C. was cheating on Thornton’s daughter (“We have a mutual problem…”). Frank and K. C., after initially trying to kill each other, (Max to Frank: “We have a mutual problem…”) wound up uniting to bring down Thornton after Max’s betrayal was revealed. Frank wound up shooting Thornton, Margaret got a little knocked around, and K. C.’s gun was found at the scene of the shooting.

So, as play progresses through the scenes, characters accumulate dice: black dice for negative outcomes, white dice for positive ones. When the second act is over, it’s time for the aftermath. Each player rolls the dice for his or her character to see, basically, how screwed he or she is. The wrap-up is then narrated in turn as a montage by each player, describing how each character meets his or her come-uppance.

For our group, only Margaret came out ahead, moving to San Francisco to start a new life. Thornton was dead, and Montana had become what he hated most, taking over his father-in-law’s businesses, both legitimate and otherwise. Frank was a broken shell of a man, firmly under Montana’s thumb, and Max… Max wound up pretty much back where he started, hiring a new attractive clerk for his store.

From start to finish, the game took about two to two-and-a-half hours. It ran very smoothly, and all the rules were easy to understand. I was the only one who had read the entire book, so I acted as facilitator, as well as playing Margaret – the game doesn’t have a GM. Easy to pick up, minimal prep, and fast to play. It was a hoot.

Now, as I was starting to explain the rules to the others, it was pointed out to me that the author, Jason Morningstar, was sitting at the table behind us playing AD&D. When we finished our game, we rudely interrupted his to tell him how much we had enjoyed Fiasco, and he was very gracious.

So, good game. Pick it up.

**Edit** I was wrong. It was actually Steve Segedy, not Jason Morningstar, whom we accosted at two in the morning while he was playing AD&D. Still, he was very gracious with a bunch of late-night fanboys, and also forgiving of my misidentification of him. It was late, and I didn’t read his badge – one of the players pointed to him and said, “It’s his game,” and I leaped to entirely the wrong conclusion. So, sorry about that, Steve. No hard feelings?