On Sunday afternoon I had my first ever experience of playing Fiasco, a “story-based” role-playing system by Bully Pulpit Games. The basic idea of the game is to build up a narrative, cooperatively-generated storyline that follows the pattern of movies like A Simple Plan: a group of friends/acquaintances/family/colleagues who hatch a scheme to pull off some criminal enterprise, and as the scheme falls apart the conflicting pressures in the group drive it to a situation out of control.
We observed this in spades.
The game works pretty simply. There is no GM, so everything is done cooperatively by the players. You set up a scene, build pairs of relationships between the characters, and then generate at least one need (an urgent demand that is placed on one of the players), one location, and one object. You then role-play eight “scenes,” brief interactions between the characters, the outcome of which are represented as black or white dice that you accumulate. Then you roll up the “tilt,” which is a set of conditions that arise to drive the character’s purpose awry. Another eight scenes are played, and at the end of this you roll up the outcome for each character. Then, once the outcomes are determined, you run through a fast and entertaining “aftermath” in which the unresolved details of the final scene are played out and the characters’ fates are described. For most of the characters the game will end very badly, but if you’re really lucky you can make it out rich and famous.
We chose the pre-packaged scenario “The Ice,” which is set in Antarctica. The four characters were:
- June Kimura, a research scientist who has received funding from an oil company to research the cancer-curing properties of penguin vomit
- Michael Jackson, her (estranged) husband who came to work with her on the ice but is really hating it. His job primarily involves farming penguin vomit, and he doesn’t like it at all
- James P.J. Sinistret III (my character), an ecological terrorist who has come to the ice to destroy the research project and free the penguins
- Scott Fielding, a considerably-less-committed ecological terrorist who is really just an easily-impressed stoner, and who was originally Kimura’s research assistant before he turned against her penguin-vomit program
For additional relationships, we chose that James and Michael were “the ones who found the body”. The other details are below.
- Need 1: Michael Jackson needs to “get out … of responsibility for the accident”
- Need 2: June Kimura needs to “find out the truth … about the accident”
- Location: The world’s largest Adelie penguin colony on Ross Island Glacier
- Object: a crashed helicopter on the road to Ross Island
The location essentially drove the whole story, from the setup (penguin-vomit based cancer cures) to the finale, and Michael Jackson’s main motivation. The accident was the opening for the adventure and used the object: Michael Jackson, shooting a penguin, missed it and instead killed the pilot of the helicopter James and Scott were flying in. They survived the accident but Scott was unconscious; when Michael came to help, James told him that he would be taking the pilot’s identity, and that if Michael didn’t want to get done for murder he would help bury the body. They buried the body amongst the penguins of the penguin vomit farm – a big mistake, as we will see.
Things progressed from there, with Scott wavering between wanting to free the penguins and wanting to find an administrative solution to the ecological problem of penguin vomit; June became increasingly suspicious about James (whose pseudonym, Juan, didn’t quite suit his pure aryan looks, and whose stated reason for being on the ice – climate denialist research for the US blog Powerline – was obviously baloney); and Michael Jackson getting increasingly desperate to warn everyone about what was happening among the penguins.
Because, it turns out, the chemicals being pumped into the penguins to induce their vomit and extract the curative bile, were slowly turning the penguins crazy, causing some kind of contagious craziness disease – and by burying the body amongst them we had turned them into man-eaters.
The Tilt and the Ending
For the “tilt” we rolled up “someone panics” and “dangerous creatures get loose.” These scenes were pretty fun to work though. First an oil company executive turned up to put pressure on Kimura about the progress of her project, but he was met by Michael Jackson, who was raving about the penguins being crazy. His best line: “The Penguins are going crazy. No wait! Hear me out!” The executive was not impressed, and sent Kimura an email on his phone to tell her to put Michael Jackson at the top of the agenda, then started bullying Michael Jackson and being very rude.
The first tilt came: Michael Jackson panicked and shot the oil exec. Of course he had to bury the body – in amongst the penguins. Then he drove to the research lab where Kimura, of course, confronted him – she had received an email but the exec didn’t turn up with Michael, and by now she was already very suspicious about his involvement in the accident. He continued his panic, knocking her out and dragging her to the only remaining escape route from the area, a big snow buggy. Here Scott confronted him, demanding to see the oil exec so he could put his case about closing the project; Kimura woke up at this point and Scott realized that Michael Jackson was trying to run away. They then all saw James driving his snow buggy down to the penguin farm, and followed him to stop him releasing the penguins. There was a confrontation, Michael’s gun ran out of ammo, James released the penguins, and everyone had to flee.
We rolled for aftermath and found that Scott and Michael both escaped and Scott even managed to make some money and fame; James was seriously injured and permanently damaged, and Kimura’s research career was destroyed, her life ruined. To play this out, Scott dragged my injured body away from the penguins and stuffed it into the snow buggy, but I saw Michael Jackson dragging Kimura the same way. I put my head out of the window to yell at him to leave her behind, but a group of mad penguins leapt up and ate my face. Then Jackson and Kimura flung themselves into the buggy and we fled, leaving behind the enraged penguins.
The aftermath then featured our futures: Scott was professor of Penguin microbiology at harvard, his theory of penguin reverse hypoallergenic reactivity having been conclusively proven, and pretty students were lined up at his office door to “get his autograph;” Michael Jackson was a famous conspiracy theorist with a movie deal; Kimura had been ruined and was living on the streets, forced to watch buses pass by featuring adverts for her ex-husbands conspiracy movies; and James was living as a cripple in Chile, gutting fish by day, drinking at cheap bars every night, and going to the beach to kill and eat penguins on the weekend. He was infected by whatever virus caused the rage in the penguins, and in the final scene of the aftermath he charged drunk out of one of the beachside bars, attacked a passing stranger, and started biting his face …
Fiasco is an entertaining and fun little game of murder and mayhem. It’s easy to setup, learn and run, and it’s easy to make it pan out. The rules are very simple, but it does have some drawbacks. First, it is heavy on role-playing of the acting kind, actually going through conversations and little scenes: many players don’t like this style of role-playing and may find the game uncomfortable. Second, although the rules provide a framework for the unravelling plan and conflict between people with “poor impulse control,” they don’t actually force this to happen, and if you don’t have a clear sense of how these kinds of things should unravel I think it’s possible you could fail to make the game come out as intended. However, the gamebook is written in such a way as to really draw out the intended atmosphere, and to give the proper feeling of how it should run, so I think groups of players would easily make it work. However, if someone is skeptical about story games, not into the style of role-playing it demands, or really unfamiliar with this genre of thriller, they could probably derail the game or just lead it into a boring ending. However, overall, I think the risk of this is low and the game probably resolves successfully (and violently) on most occasions. It took us four hours to play having never played before, so I think once you’re familiar with the rules and the style it is probably a 2-3 hour game – a good way to enjoy an afternoon with your gaming friends and an easy, low preparation thing to do when your standard gaming group can’t must enough numbers to run or is in a hiatus. It’s well worth giving a go, especially if you like a bit of chaos and madness in your gaming!