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

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