[Fiasco] Two dead, a sunken ocean liner and no happy endings. Sounds right.

Started by Phil K., January 11, 2011, 05:31:59 AM

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Phil K.

Yesterday was scheduled to be a regular D&D campaign day for one of my gaming groups. Unfortunately, last-minute things cropped up for several people and we were left with only three players and a DM. Instead, the DM suggested we break out Fiasco or Gamma World. We decided on Fiasco.

Joining us was our GM's wife, who had never played an RPG in her life. It was the first time playing Fiasco for everyone, we were all brand new. Some of us (myself included) hadn't even read the book.

The Players:

Sam, the normal D&D DM; most of his experience was 80s/90s D&D and some Gamma World. Came back to the hobby with 4e after a 15 year lapse.

Amy, Sam's wife who had never played an RPG in her life.

David, capital-G Grognard. Played D&D in the mid-70s at UofC and was heavily involved in GenCon for about twenty years. The most open player I've ever seen for trying any game. Player in our 4e game; interestingly, only met him because his son joined my other 4e game about two years ago.

Brian, another player in the 4e game; don't know his gaming history.

Phil (me), playing history involves mostly D&D, various fantasy heartbreakers and other tactical-combat heavy games.

As a group, we agreed upon the Transatlantic play set.

Character creation was interesting. It took us a while longer than a "normal" game, I think, because not everyone was familiar with the rules. There was a lot of explanation going on for both me and Amy.  What struck me immediately was that character creation is random without seeming to take away player control. That was a nice touch, I have had nothing but bad experiences with random character generation*. Having the character who grew up in the smallest town start play was an interesting choice. My only complaint about it is that, had this existed and had I played in high school, we all grew up in the same town. I feel that any well-functioning group will find a way around this (i.e. - townies are disqualified; the person whose house is furthest from town goes first). As it is, Amy and I grew up in similarly sized towns of <2,000 people.  Her graduating class was about 70, mine was 142. We decided she went first.

The relationships (going in clockwise from the starting player) are:

Amy created (Family: Warring siblings) with her husband Sam, who was sitting to her left. This was later fleshed out with a detail (Violent Object: Engraved Sword Cane).  Interesting note: she didn't want to make a relationship with Sam that too closely mimicked reality.

Sam created (Intrigue: "Who are you and why are you in my closet?") with the player to his left, David. That wound up with a need (Survival: Get out of the duel alive, because that's just not how things are done in the old world.")

David defined (Courting: Unrequited Love) with Brian. A location (The Bowels of The Leviathan: Behind the Triple-Reduction Steam Engine) was added later.

Brian set (Friendship: From the Great War) with me. To this we added the wonderful need (Revenge: ... Against capitalism because it destroyed your family.).

Rounding out the circle, my relationship with Amy was (Friendship: Built on a Lie) and we had an object (Sentimental: "Dear diary, today has been such a busy day!).

Now that the rules-bits of character creation was complete, we bandied ideas around for characters for a few minutes. David at several times said "I think that makes me a woman" in reference to his Unrequited Love relationship with Brian's character.  It was settled pretty quickly that, yes, David was a woman and that Sam was an officer on the ship. Brian and I figured out that we were Germans in WWI and our family fortunes were wiped out due to the war reparations imposed upon ze fatherland. Amy decided her character** (and by extension, Sam's) was a Swiss nurse/nun that had served impartially during the war.

Amy: Sister Marie, Swiss Nun and nurse who served during the war and saved the life of Hans.
Sam: Herman Zerich, Swiss 2nd officer of The Leviathan. He's worked hard to achieve his position and has obtained passage on the maiden voyage for his sister as a gift
David: Katherine Rothbottom, an English banker's daughter who is hopelessly in love with Werner
Brian: Werner Wirte, a former German soldier on his way to the new world to start a new life with his squad mate Hans.
Phil: Hans Henkelstein, a German Jew whose once wealthy family was ruined in Germany's post-war economic collapse.

Here are the interesting things for me:
1) Everyone has, at first, made seemingly functional characters.
2) Things that were introduced at this stage (the diary, most notably) and stressed as being important to character interactions later became entirely irrelevant through play.

Act 1
Sister Marie bumps into Hans and Werner as they board; she hasn't seen Hans since the war after saving his life. Her diary falls to the ground and lies open to a page that has information Hans was previously unaware of. [This is our attempt to work in the diary; the information was left relatively undefined and suggestions included things like, "A name of someone she shouldn't be talking to," and even as far as "in a language he doesn't expect." At this point, the diary begins to fall flat; perhaps because no one bothered to define its contents? Black die for Amy.]

Herman is showing his sister around the ship and finds Katherine hiding in his closet; Katherine had written a cryptic note to Werner that someone wished to meet him but it went astray and wound up in Herman's quarters. The scene ended with Herman getting slapped by Katherine as the 1st officer knocks at the door. [Brilliant play by Amy here: during the scene she began to define Sam's character through the argument with comments like, "You've always been chasing women," and "When you drink, you get insufferable!" This really shaped Herman later in the game. In hindsight, it's awesome to me that someone completely new to the hobby was able to take such a bold move immediately without any prompting.]

Katherine manages to get out with the letter and redirect it to its proper recipient. Werner comes a-calling down in The Bowels of The Leviathan where Katherine empties her heart to him, saying she followed him onto the ship so they might have a chance to start a new life together in America. She invites him to dinner at her table in the grand ballroom that evening. [This one was left hanging until the decision was made by the group to give David a white die. Once the positive resolution was decided, he narrated how Werner has been convinced that she may be genuine and willing to give it a shot.]

Werner returns to the cabin he shares with Hans and tells him of this new development. Hans is angry; it seems Werner's resolve is wavering. You see, they are not immigrants hoping for a new life. They have secreted a bomb aboard the vessel with the aim of sinking the ship and ruining the corporate concerns that financed its construction and operation. [A black die for Brian, meaning that Werner won't get his chance at his happily-ever-after. It is decided that the two continue with their plot to sink The Leviathan. This was my a-ha! moment.  It suddenly occurred to me that the game would be better if people were really, truly awful specimens of the species. My character suddenly clicked and I was fully invested in sinking the damn ship as of that moment.]

Hans had heard from Marie that her brother was an officer; he uses her (and their confrontational relationship) to convince Herman to give him a tour of the engines and mechanical operations. [White die for me; I successfully get my tour and find the best point to place the bomb.]

Marie and Herman have words about his philandering ways, his lying and his drinking; Herman is drunk and threatens her with the sword cane. [White die for Amy.]

Herman confronts Werner after seeing the German reading the letter from Katherine; the foolish girl used distinctive Rothbottom stationery. The scene ends with Werner punching out Herman and subsequently being challenged to a duel.  [Black die for Sam.]

Katherine uses her feminine wiles and seductive power to convince Herman that a duel is not the best course of action for anyone. She actually gets him to promise to apologize. In return, she must dance with him after dinner. [White die for David.]

Werner is enjoying dinner with Katherine, Hans and Marie. Herman approaches, gives an insult thinly veiled as an apology and gets punched a second time. The crew haul away Werner and put him into the brig for striking an officer. [Black die for Brian.]

Hans speaks with Marie and convinces her to plead with Herman on behalf of Werner, to get him released. In return, he promises to keep Werner out of trouble and to bring him to Mass the next day. [White die for Hans.]

[Interestingly, play has been more or less chronological thus far. Each scene largely revolves around dealing with the shitstorm kicked up in the preceding scene(s). It's fairly common, I would guess, but that didn't hold true in the second half of the game.]

The Tilt
David and Sam got the most extreme results. Our tilts were "Somebody panics" and "Something you thought you took care of but didn't..." Both of them got worked in at least to some degree.

Act 2
Marie goes to Herman and asks him to arrange Werner's release from the brig. Werner is drunk and refuses; Marie manages to get the sword cane out of his quarters and hidden away where he can't get it. [Black die for Amy.]

Herman is now convinced that Katherine and Werner are attempting to con him. In a drunken rage, he decides to "interrogate" Werner about the con and Katherine. He gets carried away and beats Werner to death as he is chained to a wall. [Black die for Sam; Herman never got the information he was looking for because it didn't exist. We carefully watched Sam's wording and it was always in reference to Katherine, not just "What are you up to?" or "Who's your partner?" We decided that, since he wasn't being asked in an oblique enough manner, there's no way that Werner would mistake Herman accusations for the very-real bomb plot.]

Katherine heads to the brig to visit her true love, only to find him hanging dead from manacles in the bulkhead. She goes into hysterics and summons all sorts of officers. Marie arrives on the scene and tries to cover for Herman. [This scene, while interesting, didn't seem to have much content at the time. Later, it would prove crucial to determining the timing of things. I don't remember the resolution, but I can only imagine it was a black die for David.]

Werner, in a flashback, placed the bomb according to Hans' instructions. [White die for Brian.]

Hans is starting to panic after dinner. His partner in conspiracy is in chains and there's a bomb missing from his cabin. Worse yet, a nosy nun is coming to apologize and ask him to help confront Herman en masse. Unable to escape the bride of christ, he settles for grabbing his service revolver from his steamer trunk and hiding it under his jacket. [Black die for me, I didn't get to go look for the bomb only I know about. Interestingly, this is where the timeline picked up again but it was rewound to just after dinner.]

Marie drags Hans down to confront Herman; they arrive only moments after he returned from beating Werner to death. His hands are still covered in blood and the sink is filled with crimson. The two confront the 2nd officer and eventually Marie flees to the brig to see what has transpired. [This is where the interesting timing takes place; Marie had a place to be but no real reason to be there until this scene occurred. I believe this was a black die for Amy.]

Herman pushes past Hans and rushes to confront Katherine. Hans follows, wondering if he has to take vengeance upon the Swiss bastard. Katherine has been returned to her quarters by some stewards in an effort to calm her down. In the confrontation Katherine pulls her lady's .22 caliber and fires a shot that comes nowhere close to anyone. Herman admits to murdering Werner and begins strangling Katherine. Hans draws his hand cannon and shoots him in the back before running off to find that blasted bomb. [Black die for Sam, obviously. Incidentally, this is the first time in a game I've ever attacked or killed another PC.]

Katherine has to deal with a dead 2nd officer in her quarters. Thankfully, the cowed 1st officer from her previous scene showed up and mostly just wanted to wrap things up quickly and tidily. He declared she shot him in self defense after he broke into her quarters and had the whole thing hushed up. [White die for David; it felt a bit strange at this point. We had run out of black dice, so it was obvious that the last three people were going to succeed at their tasks. We all opted for set-up because of this.]
Werner, in another flashback, accidentally sets the timer on the bomb for midnight rather than noon the next day... [White die for Brian; the ship is going to blow up.]

Hans goes looking for the bomb in the places he told Werner to place it. He discovers it with just five minutes left on the timer. His reaction is to flee as fast as he can to a life boat and launch it alone before the explosion. Everyone else be damned! A couple of sailors get in his way and wind up shot dead in the process. Then Sister Marie makes and appearance and... stalls him long enough that they are caught in the blast. [I was unaware of the rule stating that the last scene's resolution is not dictated by die color. They gave me a black die.]

The Aftermath
Amy rolled exceptionally well; I believe she had three white dice and one black die at the end. Her result had Marie coming out smelling like a rose. She got to a life boat, was picked up by another ship, made it to the new world and went to medical school.

Sam rolled very poorly, a white 1. In addition to being dead, Herman was fingered as the source of the plot that sank the ship and is reviled throughout history. His sister founded an alcoholics rehabilitation center in his name. His body was never recovered.

David got a white 4, which is not a particularly happy ending for Katherine. Her family's fortunes were tied to The Leviathan and they never recovered from her destruction. She also died a spinster virgin.

Brian rolled well on black but Werner was already dead... All told it was decided that Werner was remembered as the one who stood in the way of Herman and tried saving the ship. No one ever pinned the actual bombing on him. His body was recovered and put to rest in a lavish memorial.

I rolled moderately, a white 5. My ending narration included one arm being crushed by a beam knocked loose in the explosion, finding my way aboard a life boat and living to a bitter old age as a cripple in an English prison.

I also had the least dice at the end; two white and a black. Sam had 5 dice while the other three all had four dice of various configurations.

Take Aways
Be a fucking bastard. This is not a game about nice people who get along, pick flowers and drink tea. If you're not stabbing someone in the back (literally or figuratively) you are playing the game wrong. This was not immediately apparent to me.  However, once I figured it out, the game took on a whole new life. My instincts on the bomb plot seemed spot-on because everyone got on board with it. No one ever gave a scene that advanced the bomb plot a black die. It's as if they all wanted the ship to sink and be another Titanic. Well, who could blame them? It was rather fun.

That pretty much sums everything up. It's a remarkably easy game to remember, this was all written without the aid of notes. Everyone had a really great time. Amy seemed to get into the spirit of the game very readily and really needed very little coaching from the more experience role players at the table. We've agreed to play again; one of the absentee D&D players has the book and really wants to get a game in sometime, so I think there's another Fiasco in my future.  As a listener of The Jank Cast and patron of Chicagoland Game, I'm looking forward to talking to everyone there about Fiasco.


* Most of my experience with this was in Heroes Unlimited. Our party at one time wound up with Ice Ninja (my character; had alternate physical form: ice, chameleon [the throw-away grab bag of powers that included walking on walls and holding my breath for ten minutes without penalty] and martial arts) and Fish Wizard (he was a human/fish hybrid and had magic). Don't remember the others but those two stick out as particularly atrocious.

** Her original concept was a former prostitute, but Sam said, "I thought we agreed to leave prostitutes out of this." The comment left me really confused until after the session when Brian explained that before I arrived, they had talked about how actual play descriptions they've read online make the game seem like the Dead Hooker in the Closet RPG.

Phil K.

Interesting phenomenon: I sent a link to this to the play-group and there has been quite the discussion bouncing back and forth all morning. It seems very much like Forge conversation, but none of them have signed up and posted. I'll encourage them to give their input here or at least ask permission to post a transcript of the feedback.

Ron Edwards

To follow up on our conversation last Tuesday night: Phil, do you have any thoughts on how or why old-school gaming experiences did not seem to cause a problem for switching to something as whacked-new-school as Fiasco?

To clarify for anyone reading this, I'm speaking as an ongoing objector to the constant claim that gamers are dichotomously divided between old D&Ders and new Forge-indies. Phil, your group seems to be a good confirmer on my position about that. Since I wasn't there and don't know the folks in question, I'm interested in what you think translated well from one to the other, or any other comments about the issue based on this experience.

Best, Ron

Phil K.


As I said earlier, David seems willing to give any game a fair shot without prejudice. I like to think I'm pretty open to most games, though probably more picky than I actually like to admit.

I honestly don't know. My best guess is that none of the older players have been actively involved in D&D (or Champions or Rifts or whatever) for some time. Both David and Sam had been out of the game for a while, so to say. Habits of old school play may have been broken in their long absences, if they existed at all. Beyond that, none of us are rabid, hardline D&D Players. My use of Grognard in describing David was more in reference to his long, varied history of play rather than adherence to a particular style of play.

Given that this Fiasco session was a D&D placeholder, I think it just means we're all open minded about which games we are willing to play. Even Matthew and Jessica, who precipitated our Fiasco game by their absence, are excited about playing at some time in the future. Matthew even owns Fiasco and was bummed he couldn't join us. (Apparently his football team is in the playoffs or something, I was born without a sports gene and don't follow these things.)

Our 4E D&D games will often go long periods of real-time without rolling dice; mostly while exploring a location or interacting with various NPCs. Sam does a wonderful job of bringing his various characters to life and making them interesting for us, the players, to interact with. We often have entire conversations (what a FATE game would call social conflict) without a single die hitting the table. Stepping into Fiasco was a bit of a leap, given that we could more or less freely narrate anything, but we at least didn't feel the need to roll dice to make something happen.

At 26, I am the young whelp in the game. David is in his mid-50s (and has my apologies if I got that wrong, it's my best guess). Sam and Amy are both in their 40s. Jess, Matthew and Brian are closer in age to me than the others, though I think all are a few years older than I am. I don't know if the age spread makes a difference.


While I've been playing 4e for a couple years now, most of my gaming experience was back in the 70s and 80s with AD&D.

I'd say that a game such is Fiasco is actually closer to how we played back then than how 4e is done today. My adjustment to 4e, after a 20 year or so break from RPGs,  was harder than getting into story games such as Fiasco or Dread. (From what I've heard about it, I probably would have had even a rougher time with 3.5, if I'd started up again with it).