Critical-Hits has run a review of Fiasco and an Origins report that included it, but I’m here to report as a Fiasco player. I played with four other veteran gamers, a few among us industry pros. Logan Bonner got us together and learned the rules with us. For the record, I have read on bits of the Fiasco rules, so this report is purely experiential and relies heavily on my memory of events. I’m also trying out a Chatty DM style post for a change. (Mimicry is flattery, Chatty.)
First, we chose the “Tales From Suburbia” Playset. Guided by that, we had to make up characters and their related accouterments. Here’s a sketch of what we came up with.
Toby Grace (Logan Bonner)
The teenage Toby is gaining some fame as YouTube’s Bat’leth Boy, filming and uploading his mad Klingon sword skills. (I liken him to Kazookeylele.) He’s, more or less, a typical teenager, shy, with a part-time job at Max Reginald’s women-only costume shop, the Well-Dressed Lady. He dislikes his stepdad, Gerry. Toby desperately wants to be famous. Although he has no girlfriends, past or present, he’s pretty sure he’s not gay.
Gerald “Gerry” Grace (Derek Guder)
Gerry is a self-loathing gay man who married Toby’s mother, Bethany, for the money and a life of leisure. He drinks way too much, and he acts out of desperation and instinct more than reason. (Read: He’s an idiot.) Toby is the object of Gerry’s idle ire, because Gerry hates himself and suspects Toby, who has never had a girlfriend, is gay.
Alex James (Chris Tulach)
Alex is Gerry’s former lover. Impeccably dressed and groomed, Alex drives a black Cadillac and has all the latest gadgets. Something suggests he doesn’t really need money—maybe he made some cash in the 90s dot-com boom. He wants Gerald Grace out of suburbia and back in his arms, so he has gotten involved in a plot with his cousin Rory James.
Rory James (Chris Sims, me)
Rory is fresh out of the army and the Middle East. He’s a young, ex-military anti-tax Libertarian radical educated by conspiracy rags, first-person shooters, and Fox News. Rory believes not only that certain liberals are leading this nation to ruin, but also that the government is against the people. The IRS is after Rory, who needs money quickly to stay ahead, collect guns, and keep his jacked-up 89 Bronco running. Rory has a single usable grenade.
Max Reginald (Andrew “Doc” Cunningham)
A community activist and local Freemason Worshipful Master, Max Reginald owns a women’s only costume shop (the aforementioned Well-Dressed Lady) in the heart of the historic downtown area of this suburban town. He seems to have a penchant for teenage girls, which he hides behind a mask of overzealous vigilance against pedophiles. He knows Rory James through the local Masonic Lodge.
Here are a few important non-player characters that made their way into the plot.
Bethany Grace: Toby’s mom, who’s dying of cancer. She’s bedridden and lives upstairs in the old Grace house, a historic site on the edge of downtown. She’s also addicted to pain meds.
Randy James: An aging hippy lawyer who lives on the outskirts of town. He works for the Graces, and he’s Rory’s estranged father.
Holly: The teenage grocery checkout girl whom the younger Toby has the hots for.
Mister Bubbles: Rory’s yellow lab, named for the character in Bioshock.
The movie opens in the morning with Gerry—half naked, and carrying an adult toy like a weapon in his drunken rage—berates Toby while “Bat’leth Boy” meant to be filming his kick-ass moves. Instead, he gets the indelible record of his inebriated stepfather’s tirade. Toby uploads the film. Was it a mistake or fate?
Gerry later sits by Bethany’s bedside, failing to notice she drops a syringe on the floor. He hears a noise and goes to the window. A black Cadillac drives away from across the street. Gerry thinks nothing of it.
Alex drives away from the Grace house, a medical phial rolling on his floorboard. He receives a phone message from Rory and pulls over to catch it. It’s Bat’leth Boy’s latest film, starring Gerry Grace. Then Alex calls Rory, cryptically saying, “It’s done.”
In a rented house bereft of much in the way of furniture, Rory is sitting—barefoot and shirtless, in camouflage pants—at his computer after talking with Alex. Mister Bubbles scratches at the door to herald the coming of the mail and all Rory’s past-due bills. Rory gets the mail and curses at the Mexican gardener across the street.
Meanwhile, Max comes out of his house and notices Alex parked in front, just across the street from a playground. Max confronts Alex, accusing him of “watching the children” because “nobody parks to take a phone call.” Alex drives away. Max notes the pedophile danger for later.
Each of the above represents a player’s first turn, with that player setting up the scene for other players to resolve or resolving a scene others have set up. The outcome is good or bad, success or failure, for your character, resulting in you taking a white (good) or black (bad) six-sided die. In Act One, you give the die to another player. You keep it in Act Two.
Without telling the whole story, the rest of Act One played out. Salient details include Toby finding out Holly likes him. Gerry discovers Randy James is helping Bethany write Gerry out of her will. He doesn’t know James is also working for Max. Rory and Alex are working for Max to ensure Bethany dies shortly after her will is changed. Max alone knows that the Grace house is the final point of a geographic pentagram he is building. He needs to own to property to seal his occult power over the entire historic downtown area.
Tilt, Act Two
Elements of the plot go awry, of course, in what the game calls the Tilt. Randy James, pothead that he is, was lackadaisical in making Bethany’s will official. He hadn’t finished finalizing it by the time Rory and Alex manage to kill Bethany. Gerry finds Bethany dead at the same time he finds the new will. Smart guy that he is, he attempts to eat the document. Max becomes infuriated when he learns Randy James failed, and Rory and Alex were a bit too efficient. Alex discovers that the money envelope Rory provided is stuffed largely with grocery coupons. Toby, it turns out, stole the money from Rory to help Max buy the Grace house.
Like a film that Tarantino directed the first half of and Rodriguez directed the second half of, the character development and interaction degenerated into bloody conflagration by the end. All the main characters, in one way or another, end up in a serious confrontation near the Grace House. Mayhem ensues.
By the end of Act Two, Alex is wounded at the hands of bikers who are helping Max (it’s complicated). Half a dozen bikers are dead or dying. Mister Bubbles has given up the mortal coil, along with Rory’s Bronco, thanks to that grenade mentioned earlier. A flying tire from the exploded Bronco hit Toby’s new girlfriend, Holly. Toby is unconscious on the street, Holly’s d’k tahg next to him, thanks to Rory hitting him with a shotgun butt. Gerry, half-naked again, is bleeding on the street. The Grace House has been blown to cinders. Rory is speeding out of town on a stolen chopper. Max turns into an occult master right before everyone’s eyes.
Each player has a small pile of dice by the end of Act Two. Turns out you use these dice to find out what happens to your character in the end. This was the most confusing and unexpected part of the game to me. See, you roll the dice, subtracting the black form the white. The result determines how well it goes for your character in the end. I expected that my small “white” result to mean a minor victory for my character. Nothing to the contrary prepared me otherwise, but as is common when one is first learning a game, especially without having read the rules for oneself, my expectations were wrong.
It turns out that the closer your result is to zero, black or white, the worse it is for your character. Had we all known that, we might have played differently. We stacked a lot of negative results on Gerry, thinking he’d pay for his idiocy in the end. He didn’t, as you’ll see.
As an aside—reminding readers I’ve read only portions of rules, such as in this preview, because I don’t own the book—I wonder why lots of black dice result in a positive outcome for the character? It seems counterintuitive to me, the uneducated novice player. Maybe it makes sense for genre reasons or something else, but I still fail to get it.
So I was expecting to tell the story of how Rory rode that stolen Harley, eluding the cops, all the way to Central America. Maybe he spent the rest of his days in Paraguay as an American exile. His views on American politics became irrelevant. Maybe he married a nice mestizo woman and got over himself. But, no!
Instead, my low white result meant Rory fled the scene only to attract the attention of a traffic cop on a motorcycle. Rory took a shot at this “fascist,” and the officer jumped clear of the bike as it flipped and hit Rory’s cycle. Rory died in a blaze of glory, the last thing seen of him being his burning rank patch. Good night, sweet corporal. I like to think life would have been too dismal without Mister Bubbles anyway.
With a similarly low result, Alex died at the end of a Bat’leth in Max’s hands. All the other players got high black or white results. Toby, with Logan’s higher result, goes to physical therapy with Holly, and they later start a costuming company together. Bat’leth Boy becomes famous. Gerry’s wounds cause him to need organ replacements, including his suffering liver. He survives, accepting himself and his stepson, as well as enjoying the provisions of Bethany’s older will. He also sells the Grace house property to Max, who gets away scot-free and completes his pentagram.
After the Aftermath
Fiasco sells itself well and truthfully. We five newbies played a highly entertaining game in about three hours, some of that spent stumbling around the rules clumsily. (The rules aren’t clumsy. We were a little.) The outcome does depend heavily on who you game with, though. It seemed like we all enjoyed the darkly ridiculous nature of our imaginary movie. We were all up to the freeform nature of the roleplaying and storytelling.
Either of these elements might turn some off. For instance, my wife enjoys playing a barbarian in D&D 4e, but she dislikes Coen brothers’ films (okay, she dislikes sad endings, full stop) and is new enough to roleplaying to want some guidance. She’s also not partial to dark stories and foul language. Fiasco is definitely not a game for her or someone like her. Part of the book I did read (“One Last Fing Thing”) spells this out, which is a fine bit of honesty.
For me, despite my feelings about the resolution system in the aftermath, it was a cool way to spend a few hours with buddies. Fiasco tests your spontaneous imagination and invites you to take chances. It rewards player trust and going with the flow. I can’t help but wonder if it could be a useful tool for honing roleplaying skills for players of other games that have more structure. It could work well as a team-building exercise.
It’s certainly worth a look-see . . . if you have the stones.