It’s a really long time since I last had the chance to play Fiasco!, but I am thinking about it again since seeing the Guy Ritchie movie “The Gentlemen“. I know people who wave their hands and say, “yea, yea, I have played enough Fiasco! sessions for a lifetime”. Me, I have only played a handful of sessions.
In it to lose it
Fiasco!, just in case you, dear reader, do not know, is a GM-less game for three to five (or six) players (but more really stretches it to a breaking point) that targets the feel of Coen-Brothers-movies like “Burn After Reading“: A number of characters that are defined not by powers or skills but by their relationships with each other. They have Needs (burning desires), Objects (items that are significant and/or important to some of the characters), and Locations (atmosphere-providing locales where things are happening or that are important or valuable to characters).
These things — primarily relationships and needs, secondarily objects and locations — define the cast. There are no attributes or skills. Neither are there skill rolls. The game happens in scenes, and in each scene at least one character is “in the spotlight”, which means, the camera is on this PC. Ideally, more than one at a time, so they can talk. But the rules call for the non-involved players to participate as well, add ideas, or play “NPCs”.
Every scene gets “set up” either by the player of the character in the spotlight or by the rest of the group. If the player himself sets up the scene, the rest of the group decides during the scene if it should end well or badly for the main character. If the group sets up the situation, the player can decide if it should end well or badly.
All in all, the game is slanted to let characters fail. And that is fine: It is what makes this type of stories entertaining. So the focus is not on trying to win, but on trying to fail interestingly and entertainingly. Playing up the quirks, diving deep into character faults and vanities, being reckless. And embracing failure.
With this mix of freedom (open structure, open end) and guardrails (“scene should end badly for the main character”) as well as with the freeform character build and the focus on interaction between characters, the game borrows a great many concepts from improv theater.
Influence & Inspiration
I find that the concepts of Fiasco! are quite beneficial for other roleplaying games as well. Fiasco! demands that the players quickly establish personality and drive for their goals, as everyone gets only four scenes in the whole session, so the chance to get the plot moving during a scene is to be used, not squandered.
As befits a movie. Scenes where nothing much happens end up on the cutting room floor. Scenes that draw to a conclusion don’t mumble on and on … they cut and move on to the next scene. Games can profit from that mindset.
Daring risk makes for fresh challenges, while stalling and playing it safe can drag on. Fascinating stories are seldom born of mature decisions.
Games also profit from the social aspect of Fiasco!, the idea of involving other characters. Quite many players of other games see their character as the star (with good reason! Usually they are supposed to be the stars!), and movies often feature main characters who brood silently in a corner or go off to do stuff alone. That is nice in a movie — mostly because it looks cool — but poison in a party-focused game – mostly because games happen with people sitting at a table, so what looks cool in a movie is just a figment of imagination in an rpg. Watching your fellow players do cool things alone can be awesome with a good description, but it can get stale when it is the main mode of play.
More success is had when characters work together, when they speak to each other, when they bank on teamwork. Like theater and movie, play too profits from variations in pace.
And in that vein, Fiasco! is not only entertaining, but also instructive. It shakes things up, and it never gets into a rut. Especially since playsets vary wildly between settings, eras, and the cast often ends in a disaster, one ends up playing varying characters and gets to explore many quite different situations, which is useful to inform play of more traditional campaigns as well – if only by making your PCs more colourful.