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January 7th, 2010

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10:10 pm - 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.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:January 26th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)

Fiasco Might Have More Legs Than You Think

Hi; nice review or a game that's become near and dear to me, after a late play test of it at MACE convention in High Point, NC last year.

I just wanted to point out some things about the replayability of Fiasco.
* The random nature of the Setup dice makes each playset more reusable than just for a single session. I've rolled the Setup dice and had, for instance, only one 5 result, meaning that if a particular Detail is desired (i.e. it requires a 5 result to pick it) it must be claimed very early. Given that a four-player game will only use eight Details out of a playset's thirty-six, I'd say you can safely play each playset at least three times before you feel like the Details are "forcing" a retelling of a previous game's story.

* While some of the playset Details are rather specific, others are more suggestive and, thus, can result it wildly different relevance and meaning in a story. A Detail that, in a previous story, was a "mere" setting or colorful detail can become the pivotal element in another story.

* Bully Pulpit Games will be releasing a new, complete playset every month this year (and maybe beyond?). For free download, right on their site. As such, the game (Setup) options will continue to grow, with additional content from the designers and most-experienced playtesters themselves.

* Finally, Jason et al have a pretty strong following in the "indie" scene (whatever that is) and, as such, I expect an early deluge of playsets from other designers and hobbyists who are inspired by its balance of structure and freeform narration. Even after the first blush of release, it's likely that a lot of later adopters will want to "make their mark" with their own playsets, possibly even drifting the game into atypical genres and intellectual properties for such a style of game.

So, in closing, not only do the existing playsets in the game book have more than single-session replayability, you are guaranteed another twelve (if you can get online somehow, of course), and it's entirely likely that a couple dozen or more will be made by equally creative and talented folks in the coming months. One could safely estimate that a game group can enjoy thirty to forty unique sessions from the initial PDF or book price. For a Jason Morningstar game, that's a heck of a lot of replayability (as compared to Shab, Grey Ranks, and his Civil War game in development).

Hope this helps;
David Artman
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Date:January 26th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)

Re: Fiasco Might Have More Legs Than You Think

That's fantastic news about the playsets, David - and thanks for the comments on replayability. That makes me more interested in playing Fiasco than ever.

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