Bully Pulpit Games
Fiasco is short-form table top roleplaying that makes us see the joy in disaster
Fiasco describes itself as a table top role playing game of “powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” It’s inspired by films like Way of the Gun, In Bruges, A Simple Plan, or anything by the Coen brothers. Fiasco is short-form role playing, where the source book and the dice provide details about your scene, and it’s up to the players to write the story around those details. If you’ve ever seen an improv comedy troupe, this should feel familiar. The outcomes of the scenes in Fiasco, either positive or negative, are determined by dice, and that’s where the “game” part comes in.
Few rules, much freedom
There are very few hard and fast rules in Fiasco, and even fewer things can be certain as the game goes on, but six-sided dice are a necessity. You need four dice for each person playing, meaning a total of 12 dice when three people are playing, 16 when there are four, or 20 dice for five players. These are evenly split between two colors: one for failure, and another for success.
The dice are rolled before the start of each game, and the values facing up are what you use to choose your Locations, Objects, Needs, and Relationships. These are listed in the Fiasco book, with each of the items listed above broken into six Categories containing six Details to choose from. For example, when choosing an Object, you might be drawn to the Category of Sentimental. Within the Sentimental Category, you might use the Detail of “newborn baby.” Choosing these isn’t a solo effort, and everyone can help flesh out the details of the game’s story. The player sitting across from you might want a Relationship with their partner to be based out of the Romance Category, but if you think it would work best for them to be friends with benefits instead of spouses, you can choose that Detail for them, provided they go along with it.
My group chose the suburban play set, and from there built a story that revolved around a grief-stricken church organizer seeking bloody vengeance for the death of her mother. Her mother was killed by a drunk driver, played by the friend sitting to my right. She in turn was sent to AA, run by the drug-abusing psychiatrist, played by the player to her right. The psychiatrist had just broken up with the player to his right, an underage, gay lover; a preacher’s son who hijacked the same hearse carrying my mother’s corpse. This player’s partner-in-crime was the player sitting to my left, a panhandler who had been sent to the troubled youth group I ran.
Half of these details were crafted by us as players, half by Fiasco. While the game requires one Relationship per pair of neighboring players, and you should have the same number of Relationships as players , the Details of these are basic. Fiasco told me that my relationship with the player to my left was based on the church. Since the game in turn told her that the relationship with the player to her left was based in crime, we as players decided that she would meet me in a troubled youth group I ran through the church.
Though they’re not strictly necessary, we followed Fiasco‘s suggestion to use note cards to help us keep track of our Relationships, Needs, Locations, and Objects. With our group of five, we used a total of 17 cards: one for each Relationship, one for each character’s name, one for our Location, two for our Needs, two for our Objects, and two for additional Details introduced halfway through the game during something called The Tilt. The Tilt comes at the end of Act One, with Details chosen in the same manner as the setup. The Tilt represents the poor decisions and bad luck that will likely lead everyone to ruin, and these Details should affect every scene of Act Two.
Obviously, things could only turn out well
At the start of each scene, a player in the spotlight chooses to Establish or Resolve. If Establishing, the player chooses for themselves what the scene’s details are: where things take place, who is there, and so on. This player also chooses whether the scene turns out negatively or positively by choosing one of the associated color dice. If the player chooses to Resolve, the other players choose both the setting for the scene and the color of dice for the player in the spotlight. The dice is given away in Act One, and kept during Act Two. These will become the dice you roll at the end of the game, and in fact you will only roll the dice three times: once at the beginning of the game, once to determine the Tilt, and once at the end. The rest is up to your creativity.
Scenes play out in short sketches, where the timid will find no comfort. This is a game for actors and improv afficianados. My group’s game started relatively calm, as I hired the known criminal to my left to “whack” the drunk driver who killed my mother. Dark sure, but not exactly shocking in a game like Fiasco. My friend performed much better on her turn. In flashback sequence, she and her boyfriend – in the role of Rodney, the preacher’s gay son – acted out the hearse hijacking.
You might ask at this point, “Why would a preacher’s son steal a hearse?” The scene and details are outlandish, and this is where Fiasco challenges its players. My group pondered the same, and in roundtable discussion we constructed the web that tied us all together. This scene would come on the heels of Rodney’s breakup with the drug-abusing psychiatrist, and his emotionally-distraught state would lead him to make, as teenagers going through breakups often do, a bad decision.
Giselle, the player to my left, popped open the casket. “There’s a bitch in here!” We all burst into laughter. Rodney received a text and began to sniffle. Giselle asked if he was okay. “You know me,” he said. “I get all weepy when I’m on drugs.” Good cover, Rodney.
The absurd is the expected
Scenes like this populated the entire session. The psychiatrist gained possession of my mother’s will and tried to blackmail me with it. He used an Optimus Prime mask to alter his voice when he called demanding ransom. Rodney accidentally shot himself in the arm trying to carry out my plan. The drunk driver tried to flee town, though I caught up to her and ran her off the road.
“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” -Marge Gunderson, Fargo
By the end of our game, Giselle and Rodney were dead, Rodney’s homophobic father learned the error of his ways, the psychiatrist was a crippled eunuch, and the drunk driver’s face needed surgical reconstruction after I introduced it to a tire iron. I lost every penny gained from my mother’s will to pay for a settlement and soon moved out of the ‘burbs.
That’s the end, with myself and the drunk driver getting good scores. These scores are determined with dice accrued through Act One and Act Two. The dice that denote failure and the dice that denote success are rolled together, with the lower being subtracted from the higher. You do this at the end of Act One as well as at the end of Act Two, combining both for your final score. With your final score, even a high number from “failure” dice can end in a positive outcome.
Think of a high “failure” score as a situation where dumb luck prevails, think of The Big Lebowski, and a high “success” score as one where your character earned their fate, such as Raising Arizona. The epilogue plays out in montage, with each flash crafted by the players. This time there are no Details from Fiasco to help, it’s up to you to say how your character’s story ends, or how they’re remembered if they perished during the game.
Fiasco is a game inspired by failed capers filled with “I can’t believe that just happened” moments, and the game provides more props than guidance. It’s not about who won in the end, but who helped to tell an entertaining story.
Fiasco‘s stories aren’t for the shy, and neither is the game
My group was full of theatre nerds familiar with improv, and I can’t deny that’s definitely an advantage. Even with our backgrounds we felt daunted by the mess Fiasco expected us to sort out, so I can’t imagine a group of shy players enjoying the game. If you find yourself somewhere in the middle or feeling unsure, familiarize yourself with the type of story that Fiasco models itself after. These are great films, and if Fiasco provides the excuse to finally see them, it’s succeeded.
Fiasco is more of a ruleset or campaign setting for roleplaying than what we think of when we hear “game,” but the guidelines it provides for a night of misadventure can’t be topped. It may be too much, it may not be your thing, but I say give it a try. Because hey, what’s the worst that could happen?