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Playing Fiasco

I’ve been writing a lot of serious business kinds of posts lately (and I have another queued up), so let’s take a bit of a break, shall we?

standoffI just spent several hours playing a tabletop roleplaying game called Fiasco with some friends. If you’re not familiar with tabletop roleplaying games, Wikipedia explains it fairly well. If the idea of acting out a character in an improvised radio play without a script doesn’t sound fun to you, I’m probably not going to sell you on it with this post. But if you are vaguely into the idea of RPGs but 1) haven’t played one, 2) don’t like Dungeons & Dragons, or 3) do like D&D but are willing to branch out, stick around.

Fiasco is, in many important ways, simpler than a lot of the other RPGs out there. It’s the perfect one-shot, consistently playable within 2-3 hours. There aren’t character sheets or statistics, there is very little dice-rolling, and everyone has an equal stake in the story: there is no “game master” or “storyteller” or whatever, and there isn’t any kind of plot written before you sit down to the table. Instead, you agree on a theme/genre/world, or “playset” in the terminology of the game. (There are lots of playsets.) And then everyone shows up and follows a few simple rules to collaboratively determine what the relationships between the characters are, what the characters’ goals are, the specific location(s) important to the game, and any objects of importance. You then take turns setting and resolving scenes; each player gets a turn, and in your turn you have the option to “set” the scene or “resolve” the scene. If you choose to set the scene, you describe what’s going on and who else is in the scene with your character. You play through the scene for a while, and the rest of the table gets to decide how the scene ends—either well or badly for your character. If you instead choose to resolve the scene, the other players get to tell you what scene you’re playing and who with, but you get to decide if it goes well or badly for your character. If well, you get one color die from the pool of 6-sided dice in the center of the table (clear, in our game); if badly, you get the other color (purple). And, in Act One, you then give away the die to another player of your choice.

It’s worth a quick note that RPGs are not competitive. You don’t always want things to go well for your character. Instead, you want to make the story interesting. (And, mechanically, there are a limited number of “it goes well” dice and a few reasons why you might not want all your dice to be that color.) You win not by having a happy character—it can be a lot of fun to play a character who fails horribly—but by having fun, yourself, while helping the rest of the table have fun, too.

Half-way through the game (the length of which is pre-determined—two times around the table), everyone rolls the dice in front of them, and the two players with the most extreme scores get to determine the “tilt”—kind of the twist, or the thing that goes wrong.

Act Two is played just like Act One, only you keep your dice instead of handing them off to another player. Also, you have to bring in the tilt (and deal with it) before the pool of dice in the center of the table runs out—in other words, in two more trips around the table.

At the end, you roll all of the dice in front of you, and that tells you how your character fared in the long run.

Super fun, super simple. Where D&D is trying to recreate Lord of the Rings, Fiasco is trying to recreate the feel of movies like “Snatch,” “Burn After Reading,” “Fargo,” “L.A. Confidential,” “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” “Sean of the Dead,” and “Office Space.” Inasmuch as those have “a feel,” right? The theme, according to Dale, is “A messed up pile of relationships.”

Example: We played with the Dresden Files playset, where the players are bad guys, and the “tilt” is Dresden himself (the part that gets chosen is pretty much what he’s doing there/how mad he is). We decided ahead of time to be Winter Court Fae. There were two cousins, two frenemies (heh), a sorceress and acolyte, a noble and vassal, a pair of exes, and a pair of lovers. The frenemies wanted to blow up the White Council of Wizards’ headquarters, using plastique and a magic staff, which the noblewoman-slash-acolyte had stolen from the sorceress. One cousin-slash-frenemy wanted to be known/respected, hence his destructive plan. One of the “exes” wanted to get back together with the sorceress, but was entangled with one of the cousins and hired to help with the explosion plan. It was a big old mess, Dresden beat the frenemies up, the ex got turned into a were-frog, the White Council got the staff, there were some explosions, and at least three characters spent some time in prison. But it was a good time!

Offer: If 3-4 people want to set aside 2 hours during ALA (Monday around lunch is usually good for me), I’ll bring the rules book, dice, index cards, and a playset, and I’ll totally facilitate a game. (You don’t need a DM, but it helps to have someone who knows the rules and will count the dice for you.)

Published inalagaminggeekeryon a personal note


  1. Tyler Dzuba

    I’ve been wanting to play this for a while! I’m in for an ALA game!

    • You’re in! That’s… 2 of us, so far, out of a possible 5. :)

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