Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Fiasco

You might look at this and think, "Really? Hasn't this thing been out for a whole year now?" Well, yes, but that doesn't mean it's not worth scrutiny. The year it's had to gain traction in the marketplace is, in fact, why it is worth scrutiny.


"A Game of Powerful Ambition and Poor Impulse Control"

The setup could be from a movie in any era, really. It starts with a cast of characters who kind of know each other, and have needs they want to satisfy at any cost. Part-way through, they discover just how much trouble they're stirring up and have to start either running with their prizes, catching up with the folks that have 'em, or hunkering down to weather the coming poopstorm.

It's been described as a "Build Your Own Coen Brothers Movie" game, and for good reason. There's a list of 54 different movies in the back of the book which served as inspiration for the way this game plays out. Examples include Blood Simple, Fargo, A Fish Called Wanda, Office Space, Shaun of the Dead, Thelma and Louise, Bad Santa... I mean, the kind of film this game is based on is practically a genre unto itself.

This is one of that newer crop of "story games" which contain little in the way of traditional playability, but copious grist for those wanting to tell a story where everybody has a chance of being thoroughly, viciously, deeply screwed by either other people or circumstance or, despite all odds, getting the girl and/or the money.

If it sounds like it might get boring after a few playthroughs, it might have, had it not been for the add-ons. But I'll get into those a little later.


One word: Salty.

Let's just say the author didn't mince words when he wrote this. Let's also say that some of the author's words could peel paint. Whether you appreciate or condemn rough language for its shock value, it's in there. One gets the feeling that when played correctly, not only the players but the game itself should go for the throat.

This is not a game to be played with family. (If yours is the kind of family that would play Fiasco, you don't have to leave a comment. Send pictures instead.)

Significantly, this is the tone, but not the genre. The way the game is set up, the setting can be any time period and any kind of action that the players agree upon. But I'll cover that in a bit.


The publisher is Bully Pulpit Games. Bully Pulpit's master, and the author of the initial book, is Jason Morningstar. He has credits as far back as Tri-Tac Games in 1992, and more recent credits with Steve Jackson Games, Peregrine Press, and numerous RPG competitions. His most notable recent work was The Shab al-Hiri Roach.

(See also Jason Morningstar's ludography.)


The entire game as sold by Bully Pulpit is a single trade paperback-sized book. The book is 95% black and white with splashes of color (mostly reds) and a few illustrations in a characteristic blocky style. It's available as both a paper edition and a PDF.

And that would seem to be it. So why am I still writing under this heading?

You buy this book for the words. If you need pretty pictures, go read frickin' Babar or The Adventures of Tintin.

The game doesn't end with the book. One of the major aspects of the game is the concept of Playset, which lists the various relations, locations, objects, and needs that players would have in a specific setting. That means the game changes flavor (and genre, but not tone as I mentioned above) based on what Playset you're playing with.

The author has actively encouraged the creation and publication of new Playsets. The original book contained four playsets. Another twelve are available for download on Bully Pulpit's site, free for now but they may eventually get bound into their own book. And there are more out there if you search for them, or use other peoples' listings.


Here I must confess a little frustration. Rules-wise, Fiasco has none of that satisfying crunch, just the wet marshmallow fnarg you expect from story games. That's not to say there isn't a prescribed and precise procedure for playing the product, but you'll find that little of it relates directly to the character you're portraying in the story.

The game starts with a whole big pile of dice, and they're handed and passed around according to how scenes end, and they're only rolled a few times, to randomize the initial setup, to determine outcomes at the end of act 1, to determine the Tilt (kind of like an intermission, except the story's still going on and it's where the whole blasted thing catches fire), and to determine the outcome.

There's more to it than that, but my only obligation in the review is to describe the process in vague terms.


Each player has primary control of one character, but you don't use the dice to generate those characters the way you think.

When the Setup phase is done, you'll share a Relationship of some sort with the player on either side of you, and have one other thing, be it a Location, an Object, or a Need. Those four things are the touch-points you have to incorporate into the character you basically make up on the spot.

If that sounds imprecise, vague, and prone to abuse, then hey... Story Game! While it's hardly an excuse, that's what it is and it's still possible to play something resembling a game with it. Think of it as a creativity exercise.


There aren't a lot of variations available in the way the game runs. There are exactly five optional rules suggested. The rest is the way the game plays.

That makes the biggest available game-changer the number of Playsets you have on hand, and fortunately there's enough of those to vary play. Plus, they're not all that hard to make on your own. And the author encourages that. Once you've built one or two, send them to Bully Pulpit or publish them here on the web.

Play This Game If...

  • You like story games
  • You want to exercise your creativity and narrative skills
  • You like hosing over other players' characters badly
  • You don't mind other players hosing over your own character badly (or awesomely as the case may be)
  • You like more than a few of the movies in the filmography


  1. If I can find enough people willing to try this, I'd like to try this.

  2. Fiasco requires at least three players. We have four at present. And if the other two aren't willing, we might get others by advertising for them. I know of at least one other person who's voiced a willingness to try it.

    And I've got an idea for a Playset, too. But first things first: I have minds to play with.