As you might know, I play more than just board games. Most gamers do. But really, I’m a promiscuous gamer. If you can play it, I’ll try it. One kind of game that I used to play a lot more than I do now is role playing games. Not because I don’t enjoy them any more – quite the contrary. The problem is that now, with most of the people I play with done with university and entering the jungle people call “real life”, it’s become all but impossible to gather the same group of people around a table on a regular basis.

Without a regular group of people, playing a campaign of anything is pretty pointless. Sure, you could play with mostly the same people every time, but how do you explain the sudden absence of some characters? And sharing characters is about as great as sharing underwear. What we needed was a system that was built to play a full game in one evening, with the people that happen to be there. Of course, then we wouldn’t want to spend a long time rolling characters. Long term character development loses some a lot of attraction as well when there is no long term. Instead, a game like that should be focused on the story and the characters’ relationships. Lucky for us, many people that grew up playing RPGs went through the same development we did and ended up creating a bunch of game systems that play in one evening.

One such system that I’ve been enjoying a lot is Fiasco. Fiasco is, by itself, a system of rules without a setting. Choosing a setting – a playset – is the first step of every game. The Fiasco rulebook comes with four playsets included, publisher Bully Pulpit Games is curating a playset of the month every month and if that’s still not enough a quick Google search reveals some other sources as well. Pretty much any setting known for drama is covered: suburbia, polar bases, submarines, the Titanic Leviathan and many more. The playset helps you assemble your background; you roll a ginormous amount of dice and then select various things appropriate for the playset from the lists provided. Players create Relationships between characters together from the playset by placing index cards between two players and writing down their Relationship, for example “Family: Identical Twins” or “Criminal: Stalker and Victim”. To each Relationship you also assign a Detail: an Object, Location or a Need that connects the two characters in some way. The Details, especially Needs, are the driving force behind the plot in Fiasco. Only after all this is done (or while the Setup is still going on) are characters created: the focus is not on who they are but on who they are to each other.

Fiasco Playsets
Fiasco Playsets

When the Setup phase is over, the plot plays out to everyone’s (dis)advantage. Players take turn in playing a scene staring their character. Playing a scene is free-form role playing: their is no skill checks or anything, your encouraged to use your common sense on what your character can and can not do. That doesn’t mean you just get to tell a tale about how your character becomes rich and famous and lives happily ever after; there is a very mean and very clever way to prevent this. When your character has a scene, you either Establish or Resolve it, but not both. When you Establish, you decide what scene is played: where is your character, what is happening to him, who else is there. A scene can involve any of the other characters or minor characters that will be played out by one of the other players. When you Establish, however, the other players will get to Resolve the scene: they decide if the outcome is ultimately good or bad for your character. And since only a limited number of scenes can end with a success, you better be convincing. If you want to Resolve, the others will Establish a scene for you and you may have a hard time talking yourself out of the situation they put you in.

Did you notice something else in the explanation? Yup, you got it: there’s no game master.

After every character had two scenes, the Tilt adds an additional, slightly random complication to the plot. After two more scenes each, the plot is resolved in the Aftermath. It’s your own responsibility that the story has some kind of Closure to it at this point.In the Aftermath, every player describes in a few sentences the situation his character is in after the proverbial feces hit the air-moving device, guided by the success and failure dice collected in the scenes. Having a lot of failure dice is not a bad thing here, the characters that are worst off in the end are usually the ones with the same amount of failures and successes. But of course, Fortuna has her fingers in this as well.

After the first one or two games to learn the system, a game of Fiasco lasts about two, maybe three hours, perfect to finish in an evening. And in every game I played so far, it makes good on it’s promise to produce a plot like a Guy Ritchie or maybe Coen brothers movie: you put a bunch of messed up people into an even more messed up situation and watch as calamity unfolds.

Fiasco is not the perfect game for role playing beginners – I think it just gives a bit too much freedom , you should know the basics of role playing already; I’m more than willing to be corrected of course, I haven’t actually played with complete beginners. It’s definitely a great way to spend an evening. You can download a preview of the rules from Bully Pulpit’s download page and buy the full game as PDF or print edition for not much money at all if you like what you see. All playsets are then completely free.

Have fun!

The images used here are property of Bully Pulpit Games.

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