One of the things that you learn FAST as a Game Master (or Dungeon Master, or Storyteller, or whatever your preferred nomenclature) is that no matter how much you love a system, setting, or campaign, you’ll want to take a break every once in a while. Whether to get a mental breather, to re-think what direction you want to take things, or just to try something new and fun, taking a break is usually a good way to regain your mental footing. Some people do one-shots (small, self-contained adventures with pre-generated characters.) Other groups play board games. Me and my group, though?
We play FIASCO.
FIASCO, published by Bully Pulpit Games, bills itself as “a game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” More prosaically, it’s essentially a ‘build your own Coen Brothers movie’ set, where each player helps to create a story that usually ends in death and/or humiliation for everyone involved. All you need to play are three to five players, four six-sided dice per player (two white and two black), some index cards, and a pen or pencil.
Each game uses a set of locations, items, and themes FIASCO calls a “playset.” The core book includes several different sets, including a small Midwestern town in the 1950’s, a Wild West boomtown, and an Antarctic watching post, but dozens more are available at the link above. After deciding on a playset, each player rolls his dice and puts them into a central pot, where they’re then used to create the relationships between each character.
I’m Not Mr. Lebowski; You’re Mr. Lebowski
The playsets each have four sections: Relationships, Needs, Objects, and Locations. In order to figure out how the pairs of characters are connected, each player takes a die from the center pot and decides who they’re going to help create. They then select whether they’re going to define a new Relationship or Detail, or instead elaborate on an existing Relationship or Detail. Relationships can be as mundane as Family – Siblings, or as weird as The Past – Drunk Driver and Victim’s Next-of-Kin. Likewise, Details run the gamut from the ordinary (Location – the Oak Tree at the top of Promise Hill) to the utterly out there (Need – To Get Rich Through Tax Fraud).
After everyone has decided who their characters are going to be, the game starts in earnest. Each player has a “scene” with the person to their right, and they get to decide whether to Establish or Resolve their scene. This means that they get a choice: either set up where the scene takes place and what it will be about, or decide how the scene ends.
Once all is said and done in the scene, the table decides whether it ended well or poorly for the scene’s subject. That character’s player then takes a die out of the center pool (white for a good result, black for a bad) and then gives it to another player. This continues for the next player, and then the next, until everyone’s had two scenes. At this point, half the dice are gone from the center pile, and it’s time to shake things up with the Tilt.
Smokey, My Friend, You’re Entering a World of Pain
Everyone rolls the dice in front of them, and the two people who roll highest on black and white get to choose the elements from the Tilt Table in the core rulebook. These Tilt elements are usually pretty crazy, and for good reason — their entire purpose is to put a new spin on the story that’s happened so far! Possible tilt elements can include “A dangerous animal (possibly metaphorical) gets loose,””Somebody develops a conscience,” and “A stupid plan, executed to perfection.”
After the Tilt has been chosen and everyone’s agreed on what it means, the second act of the game begins. During this stage, you keep the dice you get at the end of your scene. After everyone’s had two scenes and all the dice are gone, the story should come to its natural conclusion.
After the last die has been taken, it’s time for the Aftermath: everyone rolls their dice, notes the totals on white and black, and subtracts the lesser total from the greater. This final number is compared to the Aftermath table in the core rules, and each character’s final fate is narrated by the players. Usually, the result isn’t pretty. Death and humiliation are standard fare for most characters, and if they’re lucky, they’ll end up right back where they started.
F*** It, Dude, Let’s Go Bowling
The stories you can get out of this game are absolutely insane. My own games have seen characters hawking their mother’s ashes as cocaine, fleeing from murderous packs of were-penguins, and being caught in compromising positions with a box of popsicles (and the less said about the last of those, the better.) The only real complaint I can muster over this game is that, when you’ve played it a few times, it’s easy to understand how to game the system – just make sure to only take dice of one color. If you’re playing FIASCO to win, though, you’re probably doing it wrong. Half the fun is seeing your characters trying to escape a parking lot in a stolen car and forgetting to take the E-brake off, or clumsily attempting to seduce the nonogenarian secretary at the bingo parlor to sneak into the cash room. It’s messy and it’s ugly and someone’s probably gonna lose a toe, but damn if it isn’t exhilarating.