Fiasco Fridays: Introduction and Setting

I love Fiasco. It’s just about the most enjoyable role-playing experience I’ve ever had, and it’s all done in just a few hours. (If regular roleplaying campaigns are like a long term relationship, Fiasco is a one night stand.) This will make a lot more sense if you have some familiarity with the game (buy it now in either pdf or print forms.)

I’ve always wanted to write a Fiasco playset, but it’s trickier than it looks. It does after all require one to create four role-playable lists of 36 items: one each for Relationships, Locations, Objects, and most importantly, Needs (motivations). But the very first decision that has to be made is the setting.

In Fiasco, setting roughly means genre, although it can also mean a time and place. Selecting that has to come first, because it’s what determines the boundaries inside which all the rest is going to be set.

I’ve been considering what setting I want to use, but so many of the good ones have already been taken – I have a collection of literally dozens of them. So it’s taken me some time to think of one that interested me that hadn’t already been done. Naturally, when I did, I thought of two. They are:

  • Hit The Mattresses — set in a war between two mafia families.
  • November 12, 1975 — Set on the day after the most shocking event in Australian political history.

So I guess that gives me a week to decide which one I want to go with.

EDIT: the finished version of the playset can now be downloaded as a PDF here.

Fiasco Fridays: Relationships

One of the ways in which Fiasco differs from other games is that the way characters are defined, initially, is in terms of their Relationships to each other. Every player character has two Relationships that are spelled out in detail: one with each of the characters of the persons sitting either side of them.

These Relationships may, of course, imply other relationships: say your character has two Relationships: Husband and Wife, Father and Daughter. By implication, the people either side of you have a Son-In-Law and Father-In-Law Relationship. It’s this sort of density that makes Fiasco so entertaining to play: because each character has two Relationships, nothing can happen in a vaccuum. In addition, the other elements of the game – the Objects, Needs and Locations, are all attached to a Relationship, not a character, which helps to drive the action.

Structurally, Relationships – like the other three elements – are defined on two levels. There are six broad categories, such as Work or Family, and then each of those has six actual Relationships in it.

In this particular case, I’m writing a playset that will be set against the backdrop of war between two rival Mafia families in a major (but unspecified) American city. This logically suggests several categories to begin with – Family and The Law quickly spring to mind, as does “Family” and Love (which is a category that appears in almost every playset just because of its fantastic potential to screw things up). For my mast two categories, I choose Bystanders, to broaden the range of characters, and Miscellaneous, for those relationships that belong in this setting, but that I couldn’t fit elsewhere (either because their more appropriate category was already full, or because they didn’t really seem to fit in any of the other categories).

1: Family
  1. Heir apparent and resentful sibling
  2. Parent and child
  3. Kissin’ cousins
  4. Estranged siblings
  5. Husband and wife
  6. The grown-up child and their real father
2: “Family”
  1. Don and Consigliere
  2. Rival Capos
  3. Capo and Soldier
  4. Friends from different families
  5. Enemies from different families
  6. Third Family mediator and the one who doesm’t trust them
3: The Law
  1. Undercover cop and unsuspecting partner
  2. Crooked judge and bagman
  3. Cop and witness
  4. Cop and informant
  5. Double agent and handler
  6. Crusading DA and contact who’s on the take
4: Bystanders
  1. Clean and dirty relations
  2. Witness and wannabee
  3. Didn’t see a thing and Doesn’t believe that for a second
  4. Guy who knows a guy and Guy the guy knows (non-gender specific)
  5. Protection racketeer and “protected”
  6. Helpful witness and Lying witness
5: Love
  1. Lovers across family lines
  2. Lovers across legal lines
  3. Secret lovers
  4. Cheating lovers (on other people)
  5. Cheating lovers (on each other)
  6. Criminal and civilian
6: Miscellaneous
  1. Undertaker and best customer
  2. Out of town gambler and contact in town
  3. Legitimate businessperson and “legitimate businessperson”
  4. The Fed and the Local
  5. The reporter on the crime beat and their source
  6. Confession-hearing Priest and the one doing the confessing

Some notes about generating relationships:

  • Paired opposites are one of the most fun kinds of Relationship – I’ve used that above a couple of times, notably the Helpful & Lying Witnesses and the Heir & Resentful Sibling, but also with Legitimate Businessperson & “Legitimate Businessperson”
  • Relationships should be left fairly unspecific, so that the details can be filled in later. Didn’t see a thing and Doesn’t believe that for a second is a good example of this – it doesn’t specifiy who saw anything, or even if they saw it, nor does it explain who doesn’t believe them and why.
  • A certain portion of relationships fall under the heading of necessary connective tissue, because something has to connect across categories rather than just in them.
  • It’s frequently impossible to avoid hierachical relationships, which means that one player is going to be able to give another player orders at some point. Don’t worry about avoiding this when writing playsets or playing the game: Fiasco is a game of screwing up big time, so disobeying orders you don’t like fits right in.

Fiasco Fridays: Needs

The next step in creating a playset is the Needs. This is probably the section of the game that requires the most attention, because it’s the Needs that drive almost all the action and generate all the conflict.

I like to think of Needs in Fiasco in terms of the three questions that JMS once described characterisation. He said you have to know what a character wants, how far they’re prepared to go in order to get it, and how far someone else is prepared to go to stop them. This being Fiasco, the answers to the latter two can safely be assumed to be “stupidly far”, leaving the remaining question, what does the character want?

But in Fiasco, Needs are applied not to characters, but to relationships – and thus a need has to be something that either or both the people in the relationship can have. Most times, it will only be one or the other of the characters, because if they both want the same thing, there’s no conflict, and without conflict, there’s no game.

1: To Get Out…
  1. Of this family
  2. Of this war
  3. Of the blame
  4. By any means necessary
  5. Smelling like roses
  6. With your skin intact
2: To Prove…
  1. Yourself to your superiors
  2. Yourself to your enemies
  3. Yourself to your lover
  4. Yourself the better man or woman
  5. Who really did it
  6. Who the rat is
3: To Get Even
  1. With the one who betrayed you
  2. With the one who cheated on you
  3. With the one who showed you up
  4. With whoever set you up
  5. With the one who stole from you
  6. For that thing that time
4: To Make It Big…
  1. In your organisation
  2. In an opposing organisation
  3. In the eyes of your lover
  4. Financially
  5. In the press
  6. Even if it kills you
5: A reason…
  1. To keep going
  2. To stop
  3. To do the right thing
  4. To give a crap
  5. Why you shouldn’t do it
  6. For this war
6: To Show…
  1. That you still have it
  2. That the old ways are the best
  3. That the new ways are the best
  4. That you keep your word
  5. That you’re a badass
  6. Them all!

Some notes about generating Needs:

  • It’s good to go broad with Needs. That’s why, for example, I have a category labelled “To Get Even” rather than ‘To Kill” – it’s more surprising, and more fun, when the players can decide what form their revenge should take

Fiasco Fridays: Objects

Objects are the next element. They follow on from Needs logically: the Need is the reason to fight, the Object is usually one or the other of the stakes for the fight or a complication to it.

Objects can be tricky. Unlike Locations, they can imply other Needs and Relationships than are already specified, which adds to the complexity of the game, although usually in a good way.

1: Legal
  1. An officer’s service weapon
  2. A signed warrant with no details filled in
  3. The keys to the evidence lockers
  4. A blood-stained judge’s gavel
  5. The police light from an unmarked car
  6. The contact details of an informant
2: Illegal
  1. A shipment of very hard drugs
  2. A stolen sculpture
  3. Unregistered weapons
  4. A car with no plates
  5. The take from this week
  6. The Don’s ring
3: Evidence
  1. A taped statement
  2. A confiscated weapon
  3. Seized drugs
  4. The murder weapon with the fingerprints
  5. Security camera footage
  6. The negatives
4: Awkward
  1. Handcuffs (police but not in police custody)
  2. Handcuffs (furry)
  3. A policeman’s badge
  4. Hard to explain porn
  5. Love letters from the wrong lover
  6. The will
5: Innocent
  1. A take out pizza
  2. A child’s toy
  3. A pack of cigarettes
  4. A typewriter
  5. Someone’s lucky dice
  6. A dozen red roses
6: Tools
  1. Safe-cracking
  2. Carpenter’s
  3. Tyre change
  4. Electrician’s
  5. Plumber’s
  6. Birth control

Some notes about generating objects:

  • Objects need to be broad, so that they can be attached to nearly any relationship. One example from above is the police officer’s badge – it logically goes with the police officer, but it’s so much more interesting if it’s someone else who has it.
  • Many of the objects listed above can easily wind up in the game even if they’re not chosen during set-up – in Hit The Mattresses!, for example, very few characters will be without guns, even if such isn’t specified above.

Fiasco Fridays: Locations

Locations are probably the least important element of a Fiasco game. They exist primarily to provide colour. But it doesn’t have to be that way – there’s no reason why a Location can’t be vital in and of itself, although using that way tends to push it more towards being an Object in game terms.

Fiasco Locations should be appropriate to the setting of the game – and whatever settings are cliches of the genre should always be represented in the playset, even if they never get used. For instance, Hit The Mattresses! would hardly capture that classic Mafia feel without including a barbershop.

1: The Mob
  1. The opulent home of the Don
  2. A mob-run speakeasy or strip club (depending on the era)
  3. The Don’s favourite barbershop
  4. An understanding mortuary
  5. A safehouse that may or may not still be safe
  6. A stakeout
2: The Law
  1. The detective’s bullpen
  2. An interrogation room
  3. The cells
  4. A courtroom
  5. The evidence lockers
  6. In a police car
3: Neutral Territory
  1. St Joseph’s Cathedral
  2. The best Italian restaurant in town
  3. The agreed meeting place
  4. A schoolyard
  5. The zoo
  6. A kosher butcher
4: Disputed Territory
  1. A shooting gallery
  2. A subway station
  3. A classy brothel
  4. A much less classy brothel
  5. A backroom crapgame
  6. The racetrack
5: Bad Places
  1. A dead end alley
  2. A junkyard
  3. A deserted factory
  4. A drunken mob-doctor’s surgery
  5. The sewers
  6. The landfill
6: Around Town
  1. A run down pool hall
  2. The best bakery in town
  3. A Chinese laudromat
  4. A classy hotel
  5. An average cinema
  6. The newstand

Some notes about generating locations:

  • More than any other aspect of the game, Locations set the mood and genre. They have to be true to our pop-cultural expectations.
  • Like Relationships, Locations are best kept broad with most of the details to be filled in by the players unless you’re specifically trying to evoke a particular time and place. That said, it is a good idea to give some direction to the emotions they inspire. Above, I included a whole category of Bad Places, specifically intended to make the point that if something is happening in these locations, it’s going to be unpleasant for everyone, and potentially fatal for someone.