Maybe some dude from youth group talked you into boosting a case of motor oil, but now your cousin is dead in a swamp and you killed him. Maybe you and your girlfriend figured you could scare your wife into a divorce, but things went pear-shaped and now a gang of cranked-up Mexicans with latex gloves and a pit bull are looking for you. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
Fiasco is a role-playing game by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games most often and easily described as "The Coen Brothers RPG". Other illustrative comparisons are films like A Simple Plan or Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, the common thread being small-time capers from ordinary people with big dreams getting out of their depth in criminality and over their heads in trouble, lies and death. If you're lucky, your character will end up back where they started with only the benefit of painfully gained wisdom.
It's notable in part for two reasons: first of all, it is a simple-to-run, no-prep, no-Game Master system which will produce a stand-alone story. The second is that it is a perfect tool for setting up a perfect storm of Gambit Pileups and sheer incompetence, where you won't know the fools from the pros until the end of the game.
Instead of using an Honest Rolls Character or a Point Build System or even crafting a character you want to guide to victory at all, the characters are defined by their driving needs and relationships to each other, chosen from tables in the playset and then set off to collide. A whole bunch of dice are rolled first and then used for this setup (and in the Tilt and Aftermath tables), but then it's all roleplaying. The player in the spotlight plays out a scene and chooses to Establish (set the scene) or Resolve (choose success or failure), with everyone else collectively making the other decision. It's expected that no-one will cover themselves in glory, and if your character's ignominious death is the best turn for the story, embrace it. (They can still appear in flashbacks and such.)
The book comes with four basic settings, or "Playsets": "Main Street" (small town USA), "Boom Town" (a mining town in The Wild West), "Tales From Suburbia" (American Suburbia) , and "The Ice" (in and around McMurdo Station in Antarctica); dozens more are available on Bully Pulpit's website, and they recommend a Playset of the Month.
Tropes possibly encountered during games include:
- Black Comedy: The entire game is geared towards indulging in the most morbid humor you can come up with.
- Burn Baby Burn: What will obviously happen if the result of the Tilt roll is "Something Precious Is On Fire".
- Captain Ersatz: Many playsets are inspired by certain movie or TV show settings in particular. For example, Saturday Night '78 is a riff off Saturday Night Fever. Usually, playsets will contain their sources of inspiration in the "Movie Night" section included under the plot summary.
- Chandler's Law: Players are encouraged to toss in plot complications by the handful, and the Tilt phase forces more complications into the story at the halfway point.
- Crapsack World: Each campaign can have mobsters, drug addicts, Insane, Machiavellian, Omnisexual monsters, etc.
- Eerie Arctic Research Station: One of the "default" playsets is "The Ice", set in the McMurdo research station in Antarctica. There is no predefined plot, but as the game's title suggest things there are expected to go badly and fast.
- Ensemble Cast: The four-scenes-per-player rule ensures that all characters spend roughly the same time under the spotlight.
- Extrinsic Go-First Rule: The first scene belongs to the player who grew up in the smallest town.
- Failed a Spot Check: From the Tilt table: "you thought it was taken care of, but it wasn't."
- A Fate Worse Than Death: The zero-score ending on the Aftermath table, where you either don't have any dice, or they cancel each other out, so your character gets "The worst thing in the universe".This probably doesn't include death, since death would be way better than whatever this is. Be creative and don't settle for the first "worst" thing that comes to mind - there's something darker, more awful, more wretched in there somewhere.
- From Bad to Worse: The average plot arc of any Fiasco game. By design: Halfway through the game there is "The Tilt" where a "new and unstable element" is added to the story from a table of possibilities such as "Something precious is on fire", "You thought it was taken care of but it wasn't", "Someone develops a conscience", marking the point where the wheels fall off and the story really hurtles towards a trainwreck.
- Golden Ending: The 13+ highest-score Aftermath ending, where your character comes out smelling of roses and success. "That thing that would make your life better? Oh, you got it, absolutely, and then some. And then some more."
- Gone Horribly Right: From the Tilt table: "A stupid plan, executed to perfection."
- Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: From the Tilt table: "Someone develops a conscience."
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: Inevitably, two characters will wind up having a loud, ridiculous, scenery-devouring argument or confrontation, at least once a game. Usually more.
- Hilarity Ensues: The whole game design is to create characters with tons of motivation and incompetence and get them to end up doing horrible, stupid and dangerous things, or suffering when other people end up doing those things.
- Karma Houdini: Quite likely, during the Aftermath. Considering almost every single character is horrible by near-default, it's not too surprising that one of them will get away with everything awful they did.
- Laser-Guided Karma: The pool of dice for either good and bad outcomes is limited, so if you keep getting away with it, it's going to catch up with you soon. Conversely, if you get being beaten down, things are bound to turn around eventually (assuming you live long enough.) Of course, the dice pool is common between all the players, so there's no guarantee that it comes back to the people who deserve it.
- A MacGuffin Full of Money: One of the Objects in a playset is often a Briefcase Full of Money or a similar collection of portable, universally-claimable wealth.
- Motivation: The "Needs" on each playset. "For a Need to really kick, both characters [related to it] need to be heavily invested in it - possibly at cross purposes, but invested." Not everyone has to have one, as long as they have connections to the others, and so get sucked into the mess.
- No Honor Among Thieves: It is definitely up to each individual player how much this is enforced, but the fact that character creation involves all characters having a good reason to back-stab each other (and even in the most chummy of groups, at least one character will always get screwed big time in the final resolution) makes it a very clear intent.
- No MacGuffin, No Winner: Some Tilt roll resolutions leave this as a story possibility, including "Something Precious Is On Fire".
- Plethora of Mistakes: It's the very nature of the game. The "Tilt" roll's results trigger a wide variety of possibilities, including Gone Horribly Right, Something We Forgot (or Failed a Spot Check), Guilt-Ridden Accomplice, No MacGuffin, No Winner, Unintentionally Notorious Crime, (a worsening case of) Chronic Backstabbing Disorder, and more.
- Posthumous Character: The book gives some guidance on what to do if your character gets killed off — playing How We Got Here flashback scenes is one option, and playing scenes with other characters focusing on your character's goals and the repercussions of their death are others. It is even entirely possible to start the game with one character's funeral and still have a really successful outing.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: It is far more likely a character, for all their efforts, will end up with this type of ending than a good one. About two-thirds of the Aftermath Table is dedicated to endings such as "Pathetic," "Savage," "Grim," "Merciless," and "The worst thing in the universe."
- A Simple Plan: The Tilt element "A good plan comes unraveled" — though if your characters really had a good plan to start with, you may be playing the game wrong.
- Stupid Crooks: Enforced by the rules. Multiple Tilt Table roll results involve one or more player characters screwing up somehow.
- Throw the Dog a Bone: The high black roll endings give relatively happy outcomes to characters who suffered and failed in most of their scenes.
- Twist Ending: The game lends itself well to this trope, especially the high black roll endings (where the character who failed in all of their scenes suddenly gets the best conclusion), seeing how no plot point is set in stone from the onset, and it's easy to reveal that, say, your character was the Big Bad all along if the final dice roll confirms it.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: All players are encouraged to run their characters this way for maximum entertainment value. Generally, all the characters will be morons at best, Ax-Crazy at worst, but this is all part of the fun.
Settings included in playsets (not nearly a complete list):
- Alaska: "Last Frontier" - "fishing villages and fishing village idiots, timber contracts and factory ships, State Troopers in floatplanes and the weird guys who hide when they fly over". This playset particularly appeals to the games' author, who is Alaskan.
- American Civil War: "Reconstruction" - The war is over and the South is in ashes. Rebuilding and restoring the South to the Union, there's scores to settle, carpetbagging and corruption - there's plenty to inspire bad decisions.
- The Big Rotten Apple: "Saturday Night 78" - New York in the late Seventies, home of disco, punk, heroin, cocaine, organized and disorganized crime, casual sex, and desperate people trying to earn a quick buck. One last gasp before the consequences of a decade of excess truly set in. Co-authored by Wil Wheaton.
- The Edwardian Era: "New York 1913" - Fin de siècle New York, the end of the party before the city and world plunge into the wrenching changes of the 20th Century.
- Flyover Country: "Flyover", set in a farming town in the American Midwest. Agribusiness and college football, everybody knows each other, and there's nothing for miles around but fields of corn and maize.
- London Gangster: "Gangster London" "A dead body, a Cockney drug-dealer selling from the back of the kebab shop, three suitcases full of blue flake cocaine and an unexploded World War Two bomb - these are a few of the things that make for a proper East End fiasco."
- Paranoia: "Alpha Complex", a Rules Conversion of the comic dystopian future, whose playstyle meshes well with Fiasco. Not playing is treason!
- Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: "Touring Rock Band". "An over-the-top collection of iconic rock and roll glories and unwholesome lunacy. It’s about golden gods rising to fame and falling back into addiction, stupidity and squalid failure."
- Soldiers at the Rear: "Lucky Strike" Camp Lucky Strike, the US Army's Replacement Depot and temporary home for soldiers on their way to the front lines of World War II in late 1944... and Ground Zero of a thriving black market.
- Stepford Suburbia: "Home Invasion" - A nice, clean, friendly middle class neighborhood. But now, property values are falling, crime is rising, standards are falling, and the new people moving in are not like us. (It's up to you to interpret that, from "The neighbours are prejudiced" to "The newcomers are adopting human form to ready the invasion".)
- "Stuck at the Airport" Plot: "The Last Christmas In O'Hare" has the characters stuck at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago (the sample scenario is because it's Snowed-In) and one or more of the characters are running out of time (the sample scenario being that it's essentially hours before The End of the World as We Know It). One of the world's most transited airports, full of angry people, and backstabbings a-plenty...
- Summer Campy: "Camp Death" - A summer camp, a bunch of teenagers and a murderer. Instant Slasher Movie!
- Torches and Pitchforks: "Salem 1692" - there may be a witch, there may be not, but either way you're burning someone.
- Who Shot JFK?: "Dallas, 1963" "The President is coming, although he really shouldn’t." But for guys on the make in Dallas, that seems like the least of their concerns.
- Zombie Apocalypse: "Living Dead" - not a whole playset, but an add-on for others. Zombie invasion in '70s New York, in the Wild West, in Dallas while JFK visits, in Raymond Chandler-style '30s Los Angeles. If there's a playset for it, there can be zombies.