Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games

Price: US$25 (Print)/US$12 (PDF)
Rating: Great 

One of the more popular sub-genres of role-playing games of recent days is the story-telling game. In this genre, whilst you are usually playing the role of a character, the objective is not to have adventures with the character in order to benefit the character, but rather to collaboratively tell an interesting story with the character. The investment of the player being in the story, not the character. And if the best stories end up having the character meet a grisly end, then this is something that is more likely to happen with a story-telling game than a traditional tabletop (or computer) role-playing game.

This is particularly true in the case of Fiasco, by Bully Pulpit Games. This storytelling game is inspired by those cinematic tales of small-time capers that go disasterously wrong for all involved. We are talking Fargo, Burn After Reading, Blood Simple, A Fish Called Wanda, A Simple Plan, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Office Space. Basically anything with a cast of ordinary people with powerful ambitions and poor impulse control. Where “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is the watch-phrase, and things start going rapidly out of control. Where poorly executed plans soon collapse into a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination. Where lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom gained, and if a character is really lucky (or truly vile or innocent), they may just end up back where they were to begin with.

The first thing to do when playing Fiasco is to gather three to five people in a circle. Like many story-telling games, this is a collaborative activity, and so there is no gamemaster. Instead the rules provide the formal method of interaction that govens the interactions of the players.

The players must then decide what sort of setting they want to use. In Fiasco these settings are called Playsets, and they contain the detailed information to set up play. There are several Playsets to be found in the rules, and a new one each month is put on the Bully Pulpit Games website. Additionally it has become quite popular for Famous Game Designers™ to write and publish their own Playsets. Here are some of the Playsets that are available:

Once they have decided on a setting, they must generate the relationships that exists between their characters. They each take two black dice and two white dice and roll them in the centre of the table, creating a pool of dice. They then each take turns selecting a die from the pool, and converting this is converted into a specific Relationship, Need, Location, or Object by consulting the Playset. Each player will have a Relationship with an adjacent player, and there should be at least one Need, Location, and Object.

For example, a player using the Objective Zebra Playset might decide to take a black 6 to detail a Relationship between two characters. This translates to “Family,” and so he writes down “Relationship: Family” and places the index card between two players, indicating that the two players are family of some kind. During a later turn a player (either another or the same), takes a white 4, looks up “Family,” and discovers that the actual Relationship is that they are “Blood Brothers,” so the index card is amended to read “Relationship: Family – Blood Brothers.” A player then decides to attach a Need to this Relationship by taking a black 3 and looking up the result for this Need in the Playset, discovering that it is a “Need: To hide that…” A later white 1 added to the index card indicates that it is a “Need: To hide that you didn’t exactly follow orders concerning Objective Zebra.” So you have two blood brothers with a need to hide the fact that they didn’t exactly follow orders concerning their mission. Of course, each of these characters will be further defined by the Relationship and Detail on the other side of their player.

The players now have to interpret how these relationships define their characters, and in return, how their characters define the Relationships and Details. Remember that this is a collaborative activity, so it’s important to share your thoughts. Once this is done they can begin with the actual game play.

The dice are returned to the centre of the table. They will be used for scoring. At the conclusion of your turn you will be given a die from this pool by the other players, which will reflect the outcome of your story. A black die indicates negative consequences, whilst a white die indicates positive consequences. During the first Act you must give this die to another player. During the second Act you get to keep it. It’s better to get all white or all black dice, so naturally people will try to give you dice you don’t already have. The trick is to tell a story such that they don’t want to accept the consequences of giving you the wrong colour die.

During your turn, you get the opportunity to either Establish a scene or Resolve a scene. If you Establish a scene, you get to set the scene up, invoking whatever relationships and details you think are important. Based on your performance, the other players will give you a die. If you Resolve a scene, the other players will generate a scene for you, and you will choose a die. In either case the colour of the die will affect how the scene actually plays out, and whether the outcome of the scene will be a success or a failure.

One great thing about this game is that character death doesn’t matter. In fact it can be weirdly liberating, as it allows you to tell the rest of the story in flashback. Although it is considered impolite to kill anyone before Act Two.

Act One is basically used for setting up the inevitable fiasco. Between the Acts, further complications will emerge; this is known as The Twist. Then play proceeds to Act Two, where the wheels generally come off and everything falls apart. Then comes The Aftermath, where your character’s actual story is resolved.

The Aftermath is resolved by rolling the dice that you were given in Act One and Two, and generating a white total and a black total. Subtract the lower from the higher. That’s your overall result, with the higher the better. This is why you generally want dice of a single colour. Finally, for each die you have, you can make a single short statement about what happens to you. So characters without many dice soon disappear from the narrative (inevitably down-trodden and probably dead).

Now this is only the basics of the game. The actual rules discuss all of this in detail and provide examples of how it all fits together, and explains in greater detail the interaction that occurs. They are something you really want to understand before you attempt to play the game, no matter how simple it sounds. In particular, the trick of trying to tell the story in such a manner as to ensure that the other players give you the die you want is something that takes a little practice. It also relies on the players being able to take the set-up and run with it, and purposefully engage with the other characters.