Fiasco is one of my go-to choices when a friend that’s never played a role playing game asks me about trying one. It’s a simple, clear setup with easy mechanics that plays in two hours or less. It also tends to be gutbustingly funny given the dark humor threaded throughout the playsets available for the game. Bully Pulpit Games sent me some review copies of their latest decks for Fiasco Second Edition, which I was more than happy to take out for a spin.
Fiasco Classic, as it is now known, was designed by Jason Morningstar and released in 2009. It sought out to emulate the high ambition and low competency films like Blood Simple and Fargo made by the Coen Brothers. It also popularized the concept of games without a GM; play was built to be collaborative, more like an improv scene than the call and response of most RPG play. The group chose a series of writing prompts like people, places and things called a playset and used them to set up the sticky situations the characters were in.
Play went around the table with each player taking a turn where they could choose one of two options. They could either choose a scene setup or whether the resolution was positive or negative. The rest of the table chose the other option. After one round came The Tilt, which is the mid-movie twist that throws everyone’s plans out of whack. A second round of scenes are played out, followed by a turn where players narrate the montage of their characters' fate, usually laughing as they talk about the terrible future that awaits them.
Even though Fiasco is one of the first games that helped shape the indie narrative RPG movement, there’s some strategy to it. The best outcomes happen to characters who head for either of the extremes in positive or negative point values. It’s the ones in the middle who usually get left holding the bag. Players need to balance out how often they are in control of the staging with how many positive or negative outcomes they have in front of them.
Another key element were the playsets. Fans of the game expanded it far beyond the original scope into different historical eras, the usual genres of fantasy and sci-fi and other settings where petty squabbles could have long lasting consequences. These small scale playsets were my preference because they covered a lot of stories that would otherwise go untold in the RPG space. You can get a story of found family wandering space in a beat up freighter in a variety of flavors. But where can you get news anchors willing to kill each other for the big scoop of the names of the giant Chihuahua triplets at Bart and Mark’s Bark Mart?
Fiasco Second Edition came out in 2019 looking to refine the gameplay further. Instead of dice and printed out playset lists, the new sets were made out of decks cards with each card containing a story prompt. The box also included Let’s Not, their version of the X Card that lets players veto any story elements that got too dark or too weird.
The new edition’s gameplay is a little faster and easier with the cards. Taking a step toward a more traditional game look makes it an easier bridge for non RPG players to cross. I would love to see an improv troupe or something similar take Fiasco on stage using this format. The main downside of the new edition is that it leaves a lot of the older playsets behind. There are ways to convert them, such as the decks of blank cards available for purchase, but there’s still a feeling of loss to overcome.
Instead, the playset decks of Fiasco Second Edition look to make it up by offering more flexibility. Players can customize their story by shuffling their decks together. Want those squabbling news anchors to be hunted down by a sporting goods slasher? Put together News Channel Six with Camp Death. How about your dead end retail employees facing off against a dragon accidentally summoned during a back room D&D session? Put together Poppleton Mall and Dragon Slayers.
The most recent expansions continue this trend. The sets include office hijinx, underground fight clubs,cult compounds, social media influencers, ice stations and even a pair of historical settings like Regency England and the old west. It’s easy to look at these setups to see where interesting combinations lie. Social influencers covering the disastrous opening of a robot wild west park? A cult taking over an old Antarctic research station bought by their billionaire sugar daddy? One of the decks, Just Add Panic, is built for the express purpose of adding extra chaos like time travel, zombies or geese into an existing playset.
Fiasco Second Edition has evolved not just in gameplay but setups. The same savage storytelling is at its heart. I learned more about writing complex characters from Fiasco than I did in my college writing courses. You can still get a great story out of a single deck. But now it encourages tables to mix and match genres to get to interesting places as well. If you’ve never played Fiasco before, there’s no time to start like the present.