What a Fiasco!

Fiasco bills itself as “A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control”. It’s a one-shot role-playing game that helps three to five players tell a neo-noir story along the lines of the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo, Jackie Brown, Bad Santa, and Out of Sight. It requires no game master, takes about three hours to play to completion, and is a tremendous amount of fun.

You start with a playset, a list of relationships, locations, needs, and objects. The playsets evoke a particular feel, such as a small southern town or mobster London, and are the Lego blocks out of which you will build a story of messed-up people doing terrible things. You roll a bunch of dice and use them to choose elements from the playset to create the story. Everyone has a relationship with the players to either side of them. They range from family relationships (siblings, parent and child) to romantic ones (current spouses, former lovers) to criminal ones (gambler and bookie, embezzler and accountant, drug supplier and dealer). Each relationship gets an additional detail like an object (“photographs, possibly incriminating”), a location (“the ball field”), or a need (“to get rich through the death of an elderly person”).

This setup phase is a blast in and of itself, and starts setting up the dominoes that will fall one after the other as the game progresses. To give you a feel for how the setup helps guarantee mayhem, here are the relationships we had in our game:

  • Richard “Dick” Williamson and his wife Kiki, who have a secret side-business selling marital aids “for educational purposes” in their little Alabama town.
  • Kiki and her old friend Junior are secretly selling illicit Viagra from the back of Junior’s panel van he also uses as his mobile pawn shop.
  • Meanwhile, Junior is palling around with his drinking buddy and parole officer, Ronnie, who is a mall ninja with a penchant for saying, “Say, have I shown you my new baton?” He spends a lot of time telling Junior about how he wants to get laid by his childhood sweetheart (not played by a player) and not telling Junior that he has erectile dysfunction and has never had sex before.
  • Dick works for Mary Beth, owner of Vantage Services, a medical claims processor and the largest business in town. Dick’s had a crush on Mary Beth for the longest time.
  • Meanwhile Mary Beth and Ronnie are making extra money by processing fake medical claims for several of Ronnie’s parolees, who are in no position to argue with Ronnie. That’s slow money, though, and Mary Beth and Ronnie are looking to get rich faster. And wouldn’t you know, Ronnie knows a guy who’s dealing in illicit Viagra….

Right away we’ve got a love triangle, two sets of people competing for the same drugs, and a whole bunch of lies that need to be covered up. As you might imagine, it only got worse from there. As the game played out in two acts, including a twist in the middle (known as the Tilt) that made things go from worse to worst, everything snowballed to the point that Mary Beth and Ronnie planned to steal Viagra from Junior and Kiki to sell it at the local old folks’ home, not knowing that Junior had topped the Viagra off with similar-looking pills of rat poison. In the end Junior was dead, shot after accidentally hitting Ronnie with his panel van and interrupting Dick’s attempt to beat Ronnie to death with his own baton. Kiki ran off but was arrested for drunk driving, though in jail she met the real man of her dreams. And Mary Beth, master manipulator and schemer, got off scott free and was rewarded with a windfall of money.

You’ve probably noticed that the game, like the movies after which it is modeled, tends to be fairly unsavory. It lends itself to mordant humor, and its stories are set in a universe where the undeserving are often rewarded while everyone else’s lives are left in shambles. It’s also a more demanding game than some RPGs, requiring collaborative storytelling, free-wheeling improvisation, and a willingness to roll with the changing story. But the reward is great, as our game of Fiasco, like the others I’ve read about, was hilarious in all the wrong ways.

Bully Pulpit Games has released thirteen free playsets to keep the game interesting, and have provided a free sample of the book to give you an idea of what you’re in for. The PDF only costs $10, or for $25 you get the PDF and a printed book. Even if you don’t play Fiasco, the book is worth reading. If you do play Fiasco…well, I imagine you’re in for a wonderful time making your terrible characters meet horrible ends.

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2 Comments

  1. on January 18, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    You entered a world of pain when you spelled it Cohen. Mark it Coen!

    I would be so in on this.

  2. on January 19, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Whoops! Fixed.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Fiasco is a role-playing game that re-creates neo-noir stories like those found in Coen Brothers movies. Given my history with small-town universities, I couldn’t resist creating a Fiasco setting based on one. Universities are strange places, and small town universities even more so. Faculty fight viciously with each other because the stakes are so low. Students grub for grades, or give up and drift through school. Townies hate the school, but it’s the only thing keeping the town alive, and many of them go to school part-time. [...]

  2. [...] of Coen Brothers movies. I’d heard about Fiasco before from Stephen Granade (here’s a play report of his as well as an academia-themed playset he wrote). Both were a lot of fun and went in rather goofy, [...]