Fiasco, or how I returned to roleplaying

January 3rd, 2019 § 0 comments

In the last few months, I have got excited about roleplaying for the first time in a decade.

It’s thanks to Fiasco. Fiasco is the most fun, creative, simple roleplaying game I have ever encountered. In fact it seem weird even to call it ‘roleplaying’, considering how different it is from the complex combat heavy rules of Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I’ve even take to describing Fiasco as a ‘storytelling game’, to avoid scaring away potential players. My experience is that people can play through a game and have a great time, without ever associating what they are doing with the word ‘roleplaying’.

Fiasco takes place in a single setting. There is no Game Master. There is no plot prepared in advance. Everything is collectively improvised. The only seed is the ‘playset’, a bare-bones list of possible places, objects, motivations and relationships. These are designed to nudge you towards a black-comedy caper style of play. Fiasco describes itself as a game of ‘people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control’, and names Coen Brothers movies as a major influence.

You start just with a list of 36 possible relationships between characters, and similar lists of places, objects and motivations. Through a semi-random process of selecting them, you collectively sketch out your characters.

The main game is a series of improvised ‘scenes’. Each player in turn is the protagonist of a scene. She sets up a situation and acts it out. Other players perform their own characters as required, or switch and take on minor roles. At some point the other players decide whether it will turn out well or badly for the protagonist (symbolised by handing them a white or black die), and the improv moves seamlessly towards its end.

A game of Fiasco feels something like the roleplaying equivalent of a jam session. You aren’t trying to beat the world, or overcome the obstacles placed by a game-master. You aren’t even trying to get the best outcome for your character. You are trying to have fun.

We found ourselves stripping down even the minimal game mechanics which existed. Provided everybody is on the same wavelength, the stories create themselves, and the rules become just a background rumble.

Fiasco claims to be for 3-5 players. My experience is that 3 works better than 5. That’s mainly because Fiasco lacks a mechanism for time-keeping, and would definitely benefit from having one. It’s very easy to get caught up in a scene and lose track of time, with the effect that any players not involved in a scene get bored. With 3 players, it’s likely that every player will be involved in a scene. With 5, there are likely to be a couple of bystanders.

Even with 3 players, Fiasco tends to go on much longer than its theoretical 2-3 hours’ playtime. I’ve found myself often cutting games short, to avoid people drifting off into exhaustion. Being a single-session game is a curse as well as a blessing — I can’t imagine stopping a game of Fiasco in mid-flow, only to take up the chaos the next week.


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