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roleplaying

Actual play: Fiasco

Fiasco RPG with Wil Wheaton
Fiasco, here seen with Wil Wheaton. He digs it.

We played our first game of Fiasco with four players. Three of us had played together before, but one of the players was new to the group and not too experienced with roleplaying in general, if familiar with the concept. I was initially worried because we had a hard time coming up with a good reference movie or scenario that everyone was familiar with, but turned out it wasn’t a problem at all, in the end.

The idea of the game is that over the course of one game, you tell a miserable story of over-reaching ambition and poor impulse control, of big dreams and bigger losses. It’s meant to emulate a Coen movie.

There are very few mechanics. You do have dice, but there is no conflict resolution. It is the purest storytelling game we’ve played aside from complete freeform. When it’s your turn, you choose to either set up or resolve a scene for your character – the other players do the other half. This forces you to play together and be very involved in what’s going on. Compared to most roleplaying games, Fiasco demands total concentration. The about two hours you spend on a game feel much more intense and require way more energy than most games.

The structure works beautifully. Each player gets two scenes, then something bad happens, then two more scenes, followed by a montage of the aftermath. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s crazy how many juicy situations and drama you can pack into that, when scenes flow between characters and things start bleeding into each other. Each scene clocks in at max ten minutes, so there’s around 30-45 minutes of focus time per character (player). The whole thing wrapped in just two hours and felt like an episode of a good drama TV show.

The setup consists of determining relationships between players and adding a couple of details (locations, objects, needs) to give direction to the game. You then talk about the things we know until you have an idea of who the characters are, and then just go along with it.

You shouldn’t know how it all hangs together – finding that out should form the meat of the game. Our story took place in a nice southern town between people who all worked at a used car shop. There was a snake, a love letter, the AA and a need to cheat money from a handicapped man. As a “tilt” element, a stranger came in looking to settle a score, and somebody would commit murder in cold blood.

Even though there were multiple ways it could’ve gone and every player was going for something a little different, as long as you can accept that you’re co-authoring it with the other players, it does work very well. Everybody took part in each scene, often changing the logic or the details as we combined the puzzle pieces. We did retrofit (change) stuff when it turned out that something probably would’ve turned out slightly differently to make for better drama in a later scene.

What we struggled with a bit was describing it all in visual terms. You’re framing scenes and cutting between them, trying to cut out the dull parts, but we spent the majority of time discussing what’s going on inside the protagonists’ heads. A dose of show, don’t tell would’ve helped, but that would’ve required more trust in being able to tie together the differing storylines.

I guess we also shied away from chaos a bit – the ending was great, but it could’ve been tenser if there was a little bit more of unknown elements in play.

Soundtrack had me worried because I hadn’t thought about it before we started the game. In a pinch, I added a bunch of tracks from movie soundtracks, deleting the dialogue bits. I used Death Proof and Pulp Fiction from Tarantino (probably should’ve chucked in Jackie Brown, come to think of it, and perhaps Kill Bill) and the True Blood soundtrack. It worked great, totally setting the scene in many cases.

I do hope to play more of Fiasco because it feels like the next time would go smoother – we didn’t struggle with anything, but it did take a lot of concentration. The intellectual element of it is very engaging, figuring out how all the angles fit together and where the story could and should go for each character.

I love how we got this very involved, dramatic story out of nothing in less time than it takes to run a single combat encounter in many games. Also, no gamemaster and no preparation required!

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