Imagine being in a Coen brothers film – not just acting in one, but discovering what the story is as you go. This what Fiasco is all about.
It’s a GM-less roleplaying game, a game about improvising stories from solid foundations. There is a nominal victory mechanic, but it is a game which is a lot more about the journey than the destination.
And there is an awful lot in Fiasco which is of value to writers.
The game is structured around a setting, and the relationships between characters in that setting. This single shift in focus is one of the most powerful things about Fiasco when compared with more traditional RPGs: the things which drive stories are the relationships between the characters rather than the characters themselves. The way to play Fiasco is to invent the simplest thing that could work*, and then elaborate on it while bouncing ideas off other players.
Lesson one, then: build relationships between characters before you define your characters.
The narrative drive of the game is a small set of needs and objects – only a very few per game, rather than a hotchpotch of narrative elements which might confuse the story and the player.
Lesson two: shorten the list of narrative drivers.
A game of Fiasco starts by picking a play set, a collection of story and setting elements which the players use to shape the story. The game comes with four, and there are many more play sets available on the publisher’s web site. Or if the players have their own ideas then they can write their own play set before they start.
Lesson three: you only need enough setting information to understand the story.
Fiasco play itself consists of a series of scenes, focussed in turn on each player’s character. The mechanics of the game are such that on your turn you get to either pick the setup for the scene (establish) or choose the outcome (resolve). But you have very few scenes to tell your character’s part of the story – you get four in the whole game.
Lesson four: get to the point.
These lessons are not appropriate for every story that you tell, but for certain kinds of stories they are very helpful. The writer behind the TV show Leverage has used Fiasco in his story development sessions (he appears in the Tabletop episode linked below), and there is a worked example in the Fiasco Companion of a London gangland story treatment which demonstrates how effective Fiasco can be as a seed for interesting stories.
The only problem I have now is that if I watch a Coen brothers film I find myself analysing it in terms of the Fiasco structure – Burn After Reading especially seemed to conform to it.
A couple of episodes of Tabletop were dedicated to playing through a Fiasco game, and are highly recommended if you want to get a feel for how the game works:
But Fiasco is great. It’s some of the most fun I have had playing a game.
[*] compare with agile software development also, although I am not going to pursue that further here.