Patrick (artbroken) wrote,

Indie RPG and the Temple of Doom - Fiasco

Fiasco is the latest game from Shab al-Hiri Roach creator Jason Morningstar, and having purchased it this morning I'm so enthused about it I decided to bump it to the head of the review queue right away, because it's pretty damn awesome. Eschewing the tightly specifc setting of Roach, Fiasco is a broad toolkit game that emulates crime-caper-gone-wrong movies, films like Fargo and A Simple Plan that are about regular folks caught up in a web of betrayals over some prize that all gets fucked up and eventually someone gets fed into a wood chipper. Here the focus is on the genre, not the setting, and Fiasco pinpoints the core concepts and embeds them into a co-operative-but-competitive GM-less game much like Roach, but significantly different.

Games begin by selecting a 'playset', a defined setting (like a small Midwest town) that brings with it a host of possible details and plot elements. A big dice pool is rolled, then players take turns marrying the numbers to the playset elements to create relationships between characters and then attaching places, objects and motivations to those relationships (rather than to individual characters, which I think is a very clever move). Afer this setup period, the game moves into two acts as players frame scenes putting characters into conflict, but there's a twist to this. When it's your turn, you choose to either establish a scene for your character, but the other players decide how it pans out - or you let them decide what the scene involves, but you decide on the resolution. Either way, dice are awarded (but not rolled) from the central pool until it hits a threshold, at which dice are rolled to either bring in a major twist (end of the first act) or determine your character's fate once everything goes to hell (end of the second act). Roll credits, hose down the wood chipper.

Mechanically and conceptually, there are a lot of very intriguing ideas in Fiasco. Game play is more or less diceless, but there's nonetheless a level of dice-connected strategy. When you decide on a scene's resolution, you award a positive (white) or negative (black) die from the pool, but those labels fall away when it comes time to actually roll them at the end of the acts. Instead, you just want high numbers on one colour and low numbers on another, and the best way to ensure that is to have all/most of the dice the same colour (so keep winning or keep losing). In the first act, you give the dice you win to another player, so you can parley your scene's outcome into hurting or helping (but probably hurting) another player. In the second act, you keep the dice you win, so it's in your interest to decide on the outcome of your scenes - but the other players will probably frame scenes that put your character in even more trouble. It's a lovely design, although it's so close to diceless that some groups may just ditch the dice and play from the gut.

I also want to give big props to the writing and design of Fiasco, which is clean and clear, but also has a strong and engaging voice that is enthusiastic without ever being patronising. There's a strong emphasis on examples of play, which really helps to explain the unusual concepts involved. In fact, the last chunk of the PDF (which is like 140 pages for just $10) is a massive blow-by-blow play recap, showing exactly how the game flows and the dice get matched to playset elements. I generally find 'actual play' recountings dull as ditchwater because they usually focus on the narrative, rather than the game, but Morningstar makes this extended example both interesting and informative. Another salute goes to the four sample playsets (small Midwest city, Wild West town, suburbia and Antarctic station(!)), which all have a strong mix of elements and plot hooks. That said, if none of those appeals, you have to create your own playset which might take an hour and bleed some of the suprises out of play; that's a labour intensive task just for a single-session game, so I suspect that some lazy players (mea culpa) might stop after those four and shelve the game from that point.

But even if they do, that's four strong single-session criminal fuckups for ten bucks, and that's definitely worth the money.

I really liked Fiasco, if you can't tell, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to recreate Blood Simple, or handcuff their best friend and throw them into a sewer for their share of the meth money. Buy it now and don't blame me when the cops break your knees.
Tags: indie gaming, nerdier than thou

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