Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fiasco: Time travel and Coen Brothers shenanigans create a compelling story

On Tuesday night, I had my first unequivocally successful game of Fiasco - a roleplaying game by Jason Morningstar about inspired by cinematic tales of small time capers gone disastrously wrong (such as Blood Simple, Fargo, Burn After Reading, and A Simple Plan).

 Fiasco is a GM-less game for 3-5 players. My previous attempts have been marred by different combinations of the following:

  • too many players 
  • disagreements about tone (some players wanting the story to be gonzo; others wanting it more serious and real) 
  • lack of genuine enthusiasm from all players about the setting of the story 
  • scenes that featured fuzzy motivations and unclear conflicts 
  • confusion amongst the players about how events in the story pay off and tie together. 


This session (which lasted about two hours) dealt with many of those problems head on.

We had five players, and all of us were genuinely keen to play a setting called 'All the Damn Time', which centres around a time-traveller called Sam. Each player portrays Sam at a different stage of his life, and each Sam (from youngest to oldest) has access to a time machine and can interfere or aid the other versions of himself.



Once we'd set the story up two situations clearly emerged. Firstly, my character, Sam at 12 years old (henceforth Sam@12) was obsessed with building a time machine and disappointed with Sam@17 who had abandoned this dream. Secondly, due to a malfunction with the time machine the oldest version of Sam (Sam@33) was stuck in the Mesozoic era trying to avoid dinosaurs and find a way out.

I took the opportunity before the game began to ask everyone a few questions about what was motivating each of our Sams - and expressed a preference for clear simple motivations. For instance, Sam@12 wanted to build the time machine in order to go back and save his mum's life.

From there, the game flowed pretty smoothly. Fiasco doesn't really give you much support in the way of 'what happens in a scene' but the game works well if a group (a) are all enthusiastic about the setting and characters they've chosen,  (b) use the locations, objects and motivations that the setting gives them, (c) have a clear understanding of each character's motives, (d) stay aware of how everyone's plans will affect each other, and (e) are familiar with the genre of ambitious people trying to pull off cons that are too smart for their capabilities.

My favourite moments included:


  • Sam@12's disgust at how Sam@17 just wanted to play his guitar - leading to Sam@12 attempting to crush his own hand with a hammer and being carted off to a psych ward for extensive therapy ... which led to him being convinced that his experiences with time travel were a delusion and that he should take up the guitar as musical therapy.
  • Sam@17 being harrassed by every single other version of Sam into building the machine. The breaking point came when Sam@28 dragged Sam@17 back to see Sam's mother playing with Sam@7. To Sam@17, this was a complete violation of that special moment - and it was at that point we realised that the mysterious figure who'd been defeating all our attempts to save our mum was Sam@17 experiencing a Tyler Durden-style psychotic break / split personality that prevented us from realising we were sabotaging our own efforts.
  • The continual replaying of Sam@22's first meeting with Abby Wright, venture capitalist and lover. By the second meeting it was becoming clear that both Sam and Abby were getting instructions from their future selves about what to say and how to act, and that two different lots of time travellers were trying to get the advantage over each other.


Great game, great players, genuine emotions, twisting multi-layered cons. It may have taken me 10 games, a full-read through of the rules, leafing through tons of internet posts about how to play, extensive thinking, and watching Tabletop's Fiasco episode, but I can now thoroughly recommend this game when played with the right people and the right techniques.



Here's a 30 minute video showing how the first half of an excellent game of Fiasco works.
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