Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 16 May 2014

Disastrous Entertainment

If the Coen brothers were to design a roleplaying game, then it might be an awful lot like Fiasco. Then again, Fiasco: A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control is inspired by two of the Coen brothers’ movies—Blood Simple and Fargo. It is an ‘indie’-style RPG published by Bully Pulpit Games that focusses on establishing and resolving the opposing greeds, fears, and lusts of its protagonists in a narrative that is set up and completed in just three hours. It is designed for three to five players, does not need a GM, and requires no preparation—set-up is part of its play.

Fiasco is played as a three-act structure. In Acts One and Two, each player has two scenes in which to play out his protagonist’s plans and ambitions. Between the two occurs the ‘Tilt’, an event that upsets everyone’s plans, forcing them to desperate acts in Act Two. Following which, everyone’s fate is resolved in the Aftermath.

Beyond the rulebook itself, Fiasco requires two black and two white dice per player, pencils and index cards, and a Playset. The dice are used to randomly determine the elements of a Playset and its aftermath for each of the protagonists, as well as a timing mechanism. The Playset provides the elements and theme for the Fiasco—the relationships between each of the pairs of characters in the game, the needs that they share, plus objects and locations of note. Four such Playsets are included in Fiasco—‘Main Street’ (small town America), ‘Boomtown’ (The Wild West), ‘Tales from Suburbia’, and ‘The Ice’ (McMurdo Station, Antarctica)—more are available from the publisher’s website. The game works better if printouts are available of the playset and the rulebook’s Tilt table.

Before play begins, the players roll the dice and then use them to match the numbers to the categories and their elements in the Playset. This sets up their protagonists’ relationships, their needs, and places and items. Initially the set-up focuses on establishing relationships between each pair of players, but by the end, there should also be one Need, one Object, and one Location as well—though there may be more.
For example, Debbie, James, John-Paul, and Peter sit down with the ‘Pyramid Scheme: The Death of Brandon Madeley’ and roll the dice. Going round the table, Debbie uses a die to open up the ‘Romance’ category from the Relationships table between herself and James; James then opens the ‘Crime’ category between himself and John-Paul; Jon-Paul selects the Friendship between himself and Peter; and Peter chooses the Family category between himself and Debbie. Going round the table again, James defines the ‘Romance’ Relationship between himself and John-Paul with the ‘lovers behind the boss’ back’ element; John-Paul selects the ‘mole and federal investigator’ element for the ‘Crime’ Relationship he has with James; Peter moves and determines that the ‘Family’ Relationship he has with Debbie is that of ‘parent/child or stepchild’; and lastly, Debbie is left to define the Friendship Relationship between John-Paul and Peter. She opts for ‘drug friends’.
Using the rest, the players add an object—an attaché case stuff full of bearer bonds, and a location—the boss’ yacht. Two needs are also added. Peter selects ‘…about his mother’s death’ from the ‘To Get The Truth’ category from the Needs tables, whilst James opts to ‘Get Rich’ by ‘…taking the boss for everything he’s worth’.

Once this is done, the dice are collected up for use during the game’s play and then the players define who their protagonists are. This is broadly done. For example, Debbie defines her character as Angeline Madely, the boss’ second wife, ex-secretary made good, big blonde dressed in the most expensive faux-leopard skin possible, whilst James decides that his character is Boyd Wooten, assistant to Angelina’s husband who might know some of his dirty secrets. As their Relationship suggests, Boyd and Angeline have been having an affair, he behind his boss’ back, she behind her husband’s.

Play proper then begins. In both Acts, each player has two scenes, each scene a chance to put his character in the spotlight and further explore both his needs and relationships. Typically a scene will involve one or more of the characters he has relationships with NPCs handled by those not involved otherwise. There are two possible types of scene—Establish and Resolve. To Establish a scene, the player chooses how it is framed, but the other players will determine its outcome, whereas if he chooses to Resolve, the other players choose how it is framed, but the player determine its outcome. At the end of each scene, the player is given a die, a black die if the outcome is negative, white if it is positive. During Act One, this die is not kept by the player, but given away, whereas during Act Two, the player will keep the die.

With the Establish and Resolve rules, a player can either set the scene up or he can decide its outcome, but he cannot do both. The rules also enforce Fiasco’s collaborative style of play because the other players must have input into the current player’s scene, either to help end it if he chose to Establish, or to set it up if he wanted to Resolve.  Thus they work together throughout to build and create the story of their Fiasco.
For example, on James’ turn, he decides that he wants to Establish a scene between his character, Boyd, and Debbie’s Angeline in which he will find out if she knows where the attaché case stuff full of bearer bonds is. They rendezvous aboard the boss’ yacht and he attempts to woo the information out of her. As they play the scene out, Angeline resists, Boyd gets desperate, and then he threatens to reveal secrets of Angeline’s. At this point, the other players—John-Paul, Peter, and Debbie—determine that this is not going well for Boyd, and hand James a black die…
Between the First and Second Acts, there is the Tilt, which adds the two elements that will have a negative impact on everyone’s plans during the Second Act. The Tilt Table is found in the core book and the elements are determined by the players who rolled the highest result on the black and the white dice.
In our example, James as Boyd and Peter as Johnnie have rolled the highest numbers. Their choices are the ‘death, after an unpleasant struggle’ element from the Tragedy category and the ‘a showdown’ element from the Guilt category. These two elements will somehow figure in the outcome of Act Two.
At game’s end, the players roll the dice they have accumulated over the course of their four scenes subtracting the lower colour total from the higher colour total. The result for each player determines the ultimate outcome for his character—lower totals give worse outcomes than higher ones. During the Aftermath, each player has the chance to narrate what exactly happens to his character after everything that has gone on. From set-up through to the Aftermath, including both Acts should only take about three hours at most.

Fiasco is clearly and simply written, its style of play amply showcased with a lengthy example. If there is an issue with the game, it is that it represents a radical style of play in comparison to that of traditional RPGs. Most RPGs are driven by one narrative and work by having the players influence the game through an impartial player—the Referee—their only job being to concentrate on what their characters do in the world presented by the Referee, who in turn directs the narrative of the game. Storytelling RPGs shift this control to the players, who as the game progresses, create the narrative and the story collaboratively as well as they tell the stories of their characters—typically in short, concentrated sessions. Essentially, they shift their role from just the ‘I’ of their characters to being both the ‘I’ and the world normally narrated by the Referee. It should be pointed out that this is a radical switch to make for many inured in standard roleplaying where the players often have little or no say in the world that their characters are in or in the outcome of what their characters do.

With a framework rather than a set of rules, Fiasco, like many storytelling RPGs, relies heavily upon the input of its players. They have to engage not in a setting that is pre-written for them, but in a setting that they themselves create as they play. In particular, the players need to engage in not just the RPG’s genre—but also the setting, themes, and elements of the Playset selected for the forthcoming game. A good Playset should underpin a good session spent playing Fiasco and a good Playset should provide inspirational elements enough to make it worth using it again and again. A side effect of the choice of genre also makes Fiasco accessible to those new to roleplaying; indeed they have the advantage of having not so preconceived notions about roleplaying garnered from playing more narrative RPGs.

A good storytelling RPG encourages good gaming and good storytelling, and Fiasco epitomises this. It comes as pleasing complete package, its keeps a tight structure around the game, and it forces—in a good way—the players not just to play well, but it forces them to create well too. Playing your desperate plans gone disastrously awry has never been so much fun—Fiasco: A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control enables you to emulate its genre in exemplary style.