Welcome back to TabletopTuesTAY! This week we're discussing the zany and fast-paced RPG FIASCO, from Bully Pulpit Games.
FIASCO is an absolutely stellar set of quick RPG rules from Bully Pulpit Games, enabling a group of 3 to 5 players create characters, formulate relationships and weave a web of disaster, and help bring it crashing down around the character's ears. In FIASCO, if you plan and run a heist, you aren't playing in the spirit of Ocean's Eleven; you're going to end up with a story like Burn After Reading or Lock, Stock, and 2 Smoking Barrels. Best of all, the entire game takes about the same amount of time as a short gaming session, between two and three hours, so you can wrap up with your story in a single night of misfortune.
To help set some guidelines for play, the group selects a 'Playset' to use. These give the general genre, theme, period in time, etc for the game. FIASCO's main rule book includes four settings: Main Street, set in a nice quiet and unassuming southern town; Boom Town, set in the dusty and lawless wild west; Suburbia, set in the idyllic 1960s neighborhoods; and On The Ice, set in a secluded icy Antarctic research station.
However, Bully Pulpit has heavily encouraged fan-submitted Playsets as well, and include a download section for them on their site for featured Playsets. These cover everything from Post Civil War southern US, a cruise liner crossing the Atlantic in the Roaring Twenties, London during the Black Death, LA during the 1970s nightlife, superheroes, Paranoia (Inspired by the RPG of that name), and more. It's also easy to make and use your own, as we did for our FIASCO game.
I was on a Game of Thrones kick, looking for more after finishing Season 3 of the TV series and the last of the novels released thus far (Don't you dare pull a Robert Jordan on us, you magnificent sea captain you), and figured that the insane plotting and betrayal from Westeros would fit perfectly into FIASCO's game set. A Playset, The Burning Ice, soon came together, and we were off.
To start with, you need some blank note cards and four six-sided dice (d6s), two each of two different colors, per player. Then gather all of the dice into a giant handful, roll it, and begin picking from there. Each player has to pick a Relationship of some kind between them and the players to their left and right. They also need some sort of other subset of the playset linking them and that other player. Each of the subsets of a Playset, Relationships, Objects, Needs, and Locations, have six subcategories, and six options per subcategory. For example, Relationships in The Burning Ice include Family, Nobility, Crime, Friendship, Romance, and Unforgotten Grudges. Subcategories for the Crime, for example, included Blackmailer/Victim, Thieves, Oathbreakers, Kidnappers, Former/Reformed criminals, and Assassin/Target.
Each player takes their turn selecting one of the rolled dice, and applying it to one of the Relationships/Objects/Needs/Locations related to them, or creating a new one if they don't have the Relationship and other subset already. The die value that was rolled indicates which subcategory is used (For example, a '3' would indicate 'Crime'). If the subcategory was already picked, the die instead determines the Option used (So a '5' would indicate 'Former/Reformed criminals'). Players continue using all of the dice until the dice have been used, and then from this web of connections they figure out who their character is and what their motivations are like.
In our three-player game, I ended up being related to one player (Dave) by a Relationship (Romance:Arranged Marriage) and an Object (Untoward: Bastard Infant), and to the other (Andy) by a Relationship (Unforgotten Grudge: Loss of Inheritance) and a Need (To get Respect: From your Rivals). Andy and Dave were related through a Relationship (Crime: Blackmail) and a Location (Risky: On a rickety bridge between two windswept islands).
From this, we discussed and determined that I was Lord Erich Blacktyde, head of House Blacktyde amongst the Iron Islands. Andy became my daughter, Slandi Blacktyde, my daughter who was about to lose her chance at my inheritance because I was marrying Maerys Tawney (Dave).
However, Lord Blacktyde had angered another lord, Lord Sparr, by sleeping with his saltwife and making her heavy with child. So, to appease him, he was going to try and convince Maerys to help him in a mummer's farce of smuggling the child in while giving her a false belly so as not to arouse too much suspicion. He's also banking on the unborn bastard being male, so as to lessen the humiliation of his only child being an upstart daughter.
On top of this, Slandi is actually a closet follower of the Seven gods of Westeros instead of the Drowned God that the majority of the Iron Islands worship. She can't reveal this, since it would ruin her chances at her father's power, but somehow Maerys finds out (More on this as we develop this aspect of the characters later).
Then we were ready to begin. In Fiasco, all the dice are returned to the center of the table. Then, each player has a turn. The players chooses to either Establish or Resolve a scene; Establishing a scene means you determine the who/what/where/why of the scene, including the conflict that needs to be resolved, and Resolving means you get to pick if the conflict is resolved in the active player's best or worst interests. A best-possible-result for the character means they are awarded a "white" die from the pile in the center (The example dice are black and white, but use whatever two colors you want), and a worst-case result for the character is a black die. For the first half of the game, the player who is awarded the die has to pick another player to keep the die. Then the entire scene is roleplayed, start to finish. No skill checks here!
For our first Scene, Dave decided that Maerys would Set the scene, with Maerys attempting to impress the assembled onlookers into seeing her as being worthy of assuming the Blacktyde name. Slandi attempted to make some snark about the hasty wedding and what it might indicate, but people mostly ignored her. The remaining players agreed that she handled herself well and gained some respect in the eyes of the onlookers, and awarded her a white die, that she then gave to her soon-to-be-husband Lord Blacktyde (Me).
For Andy's character of Slandi, he decided to resolve, and so Andy and I opened the second scene in a feast for the wedding Blacktyde was throwing for the assembled guests. (Side note here: Scenes do not need to be in chronological order, and you can even kill players if the direction of the scene looks to necessitate it, playing later scenes with that character as flashbacks or ghosts or what have you.). Erich's attempt to chide his daughter's foul mood backfires when she quite publicly announces that she is willing to marry any noble who can prove himself to her. Iron Islanders being a hotheaded lot, this causes quite the excited and eager hubbub (And pisses Maery's father Lord Tawney off to no end), and Andy takes for her a white die for her success, giving it to me for setting the scene.
The third scene was mine, and I chose to Resolve it. Andy and Dave decided that it was going to be an attempt to convince Maerys to go along with the "Pretend you're pregnant for six-ish months and then be mother to my bastard child" plan. Maerys isn't stupid, though, and only through Erich's pleadings and explanations of the copious amounts of slaughter Lord Sparr will lay upon them if his secret sort-of-son-in-law isn't made heir to the Blacktydes (Along with a healthy tithe). I chose a black die since Erich was really winning no friends with the plan, despite Maerys grudgingly agreeing to play along.
Back to Dave, and he chose to Resolve his next scene as well. The scene was set as the swinging windswept bridge, during which Maerys happened to see that Slandi was receiving prayers and blessings from a septa (female priest, sort of like a nun) of the Seven. Maerys managed to watch the blessing and hyms on the windswept bridge, and Dave chose to give himself another white die, awarding it to Andy for the wonderful setup.
For scene five, Andy decided to Establish his scene as Slandi forming a plot with one of her more successful suitors, a man called Ser Brynn. As his wedding gift to her, he shows Slandi that he has all of the servants and midwives of the castle in his pocket in some fashion or another, and can promise her the death of her father's newborn child while Maerys is unconscious/drugged from milk of the poppy and the stress of childbirth. Slandi agrees, but gets a black die because the plot basically hinges upon the false premise of the baby being born to Maerys, when in actuality Erich and Maerys have figured to smuggle in the bastard shortly after his birth, and feign the delivery by paying off the midwife and servants. Andy gave me the black die for escalating the scene with Brynn's devious proposal.
Next, I got to Set the scene, and decided to have the conflict be Lord Blacktyde frantically trying to appease the infuriated Lord Sparr, immediately following Slandi's public announcement for suitors at the dinner feast and before his attempt to convince Maerys of the harebrained plan. After giving numerous concessions, Erich managed to convince Sparr not to gut him then and there, but it was a close thing and Sparr indicated that he didn't trust Blacktyde not to utterly muddle everything else up. They awarded me a black die, and it was given to Slandi due to the potential fallout for her as well should Blacktyde fail to appease Sparr.
At this point, half of the dice in the initial pool had been awarded, and Act I was completed. In the FIASCO rules, players are encouraged to step out, have lunch, relax, and shoot the breeze for half an hour or so, to make sure everyone is on board with what has happened so far, and where the game is going from there. Following that, players determine the Tilt.
The Tilt is when everything starts to go wrong for the players of FIASCO. Each player rolls all of the dice they were awarded, subtracting the higher number of one color from the lower number of the other. The players with the highest black number and the highest white number each get to help determine the two Tilt elements, which start to be used in the remaining scenes of Act II. The remaining unawarded dice are rolled, and the Tilt is picked from these dice much in the same way as the initial Relationships, Objects, etc. Dave and I determined the Tilt elements to be Failure: You thought something was taken care of, but it wasn't; and Mayhem: Magnificent self-destruction. Other Tilt elements you might get for your own game include "Something precious is on fire," Someone panics," "A stupid plan,executed to perfection," and "Death, out of the blue" among many others. Some players have even made their own tilt tables as well.
For Dave's first scene of Act II, he decided to Establish a scene of Maerys meeting some of her father's men coming to check on her safety in secret, some months after the wedding. Her father's man gives her some herbs to help make Slandi barren if she can get her to ingest them, and also introduces her to one of her father's men who will act as her hidden bodyguard should Slandi try and hurt Maerys. Since this protection is an ace in Maerys's pocket should Erich's plan go sour, we awarded her a white die for it. All dice awarded during the second half of FIASCO are kept by the player, instead of being given to another player.
From there, the game is still ongoing (It's a play-by-forum, so it goes a bit slower than in a face-to-face game). Eventually, after each player has concluded another two scenes, the game will end with the Aftermath. In that, the players roll all of their dice, subtracting the higher color from the lower color's total value, and compare it to the Aftermath table, with a really high number of either color being good, and a number close to 0 usually indicating messy death or failure, or worse. The game closes out with a montage of single-sentence moments, one for each die the player has, usually showing how well or poorly the overall FIASCO went for the player in the end.
Overall, FIASCO is a fantastic game, and a ridiculous amount of fun for new and experienced players alike. I highly recommend purchasing a copy and giving it a shot with your friends!
In addition, here's Wil Wheaton demonstrating in greater detail how a playthrough of FIASCO goes.
Let us know what you think of FIASCO, and how any games you've played have went! Do you have any favorite Playsets, or any memorable moments from your games?