Roleplaying

Fiasco Teaches Us to Love When Our Characters Fail

Fiasco by Billy Pulpit Games is one of the best-known examples of a “story game” RPG: narrative-heavy, rules-light, often made for GM-less one-shot play. Popular for being featured on the first season of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, it’s stayed relevant because it’s great at what it sets out to do: force characters to lose, fail, and often die. More excitingly, it gets players to want to lose, fail, and die.

Most role-playing games incentivize success. That is, the rules encourage you to make your characters succeed at tasks, both on the short term (successfully attack a target, pick a lock, track the monster, etc.) and on the long term (successfully save the kingdom, finish the quest, slay the dragon, etc.). On the surface this is so basic that it seems like a tautology. Of course games tell you to win because the goal of a game is to win. But RPGs aren’t like checkers, and they don’t need to have the same sort of goals. They are narrative engines, which means they use mechanics to create a story that conveys certain tones and emulates certain genre conventions. For many, many stories, the narrative is all about the protagonists overcoming obstacles, realizing their dreams, and saving the day.

However, “the good guys win” isn’t the only way to tell a story, and Fiasco is built around shaking up that narrative.

Failure Is Not a Possibility but a Mandate

The drive to have characters succeed is built into most RPGs, most obviously in the form of “optimization,” or building characters with statistics, traits, and equipment designed to be effective at given tasks. At its most basic, this is as simple as making sure that, if you’re a fighter, you have a high strength and constitution. At the other end of the spectrum, this means spending hours poring over your character, carefully tweaking numbers where possible, and seeking out the exact sword you need so that you never miss an attack. Either way, you are building a character in the hopes that they will succeed at the tasks you have them attempt. This makes sense if you consider your character as, essentially, the avatar for yourself within the game. Wherever possible you’ll set things up for them to succeed, because wherever possible you’ll set things up for yourself to succeed. Over a longer time scale, you endeavor to safely guide your character to fame, fortune, and high levels in the same way that you try to guide yourself to a successful life.

Fiasco does not allow for character optimization. No matter how hard your character attempts something, they are still going to screw things up. Every scene you create will end after you get a six-sided die indicating whether the scene works in your favor or not. Half the dice available are white, which means the scene is advantageous for you; half are black, which means something goes wrong. Stats and skills don’t figure in; both scenarios are equally likely. It’s difficult to finish the game without getting one of those black dice. Furthermore, because failure is determined at the scene level, it is never meaningless. While any missed attack in Dungeons and Dragons gets lost in a thousand other rolls, players get only four dice over the course of a game of Fiasco, and each one determines the outcome of an entire scene’s worth of action. Failure is, as such, nearly impossible to avoid and too major to ignore.

At the end of a game of Fiasco, players determine their characters’ fates in something called the Aftermath. Everyone rolls dice they’ve acquired over the course of the game and total them up by color, arriving at a black value and a white value. Next, everyone subtracts the smaller number from the larger to arrive at the total, which dictates how their characters’ epilogues will progress. Twelve and up is about the cutoff for “things go your way.” Anything less than that and you’ve either accomplished nothing or made things worse for yourself. A one indicates that the character dies, and a zero is a fate worse than death.

A little rough calculation suggests that, if you end the game with 4 dice, which is the most likely scenario, your odds of hitting that 12 or up is about 15%, and your odds of getting straight-up killed or worse are about… 15%. Those are not great odds.*

On a purely mechanical level, you are forced to accept that your character might fail – and fail painfully – by the end of the story. But the game is constructed to make that much less frustrating than it would otherwise be.

Narrative Outweighs Character Desire

When you’re playing a traditional RPG, you control a character who you want to win. This means that failing at a task is annoying, and failing a major quest is tragic. You’ve put in lots of time and energy and care into this character, and you don’t get anything out of it? Worse still if things come to a point where your character is doomed or actually dies. Stories across the Internet tell of players who pitch a fit when their characters die, potentially forcing the GM to pull a deus ex machina.

But Fiasco sets characters up to lose, and because losing is always on the table, multiple features help mitigate the blow.

Coming to a game of Fiasco, there’s no room for pre-conceived characters. Players bring nothing to the table but the dice and a playset – a list of relationships, props, locations, and motivations built around a specific setting. The first thing you do at the table is create links in the form of relationships or concepts that are important to two characters. Only after this web of relationships is finished do you actually create the characters themselves. As a player, this puts your focus on the context first and characters second. Your character isn’t even fully your own; you must incorporate the relationships he or she has with other players, and you as a player don’t get to define what those relationships are.

This changes where your investment lies. You may still care about your character’s well-being, but the game forces you to emotionally invest in the narrative as a whole more than your individual part. Fiasco’s web of relationships sells you on the collective story. Meanwhile, because character creation is collaborative and open, players will have a hard time shoehorning in pre-existing character concepts.

Additionally, Fiasco has four scenes per player and shouldn’t take more than three or four hours, including the entirety of character creation. The time frame affects how the players are investing in the game because you don’t have weeks and months to grow to love a character. This doesn’t mean that you can’t care about your character, but it does help keep the distinction between a character and a person. The folks in a game of Fiasco aren’t people; they are parts of a story. Time and attention can make someone forget that, which is as true in games as it is in any long-running serial.

Similarly, because this is a one-session game, you don’t have a compelling reason to keep a character alive once you’ve reached the epilogue. A death in Dungeons and Dragons represents not only the end of hours and hours of adventure but also the loss of all the adventures to come. Even in games where PC death is more accepted, such as Call of Cthulhu, it’s still a disappointment, to say nothing of the hassle of creating a new character and integrating them into the story.

So the harsh math of the game isn’t all that harsh. On a character level, everyone is set up to lose, but Fiasco keeps the line between the player and their character thick. Which is to say, characters may fail, but that doesn’t become a failure for the player.

Embarrassing Failure, Perfect Ending

In real life, failing is unpleasant. I think we can all agree on that. But failure can make for a compelling narrative. There are plenty of examples in other media in which the protagonist never gets what they want. Consider John Carpenter’s The Thing, which (spoiler alert for a 33-year-old film) sees the base destroyed, every character dead or dying in the Antarctic wilderness, and the titular thing from another planet quite unaccounted for. It’s a story about how humanity, when pushed to the brink of paranoia, panic, and isolation, spectacularly fails to rise to the occasion. Seeing rescue choppers on the horizon would have been pat and disappointing, running counter to the arc of the story thus far. A sudden rescue or dramatic turnaround would have been incongruous with the overall tone of The Thing; failure was the only emotionally satisfying ending.

The freedom to lose and die allows players to recreate narrative tropes that require failure. A pair of lovers that wind up unable to ever contact one another again. A soldier who loses his platoon and regrets it for the rest of his life. A post-apocalyptic survivor who finds herself surrounded by the undead but at least goes down fighting. In a narrative, these inglorious endings can fit the fiction and be touching, or exciting, or – and this is often the case in Fiasco – bleakly hilarious. Because the story matters more than the characters, having the “right” thing happen becomes more important than having the “good” thing happen.

This opens avenues for players to portray characters they want to lose. Since Fiasco is an engine that tries to emulate Coen brothers films, you often play loser criminals who think they can make a big score but have to contend with their own incompetence (or as the tagline puts it, people with powerful ambitions and poor impulse control). You get to be a schmo. A jerk. An idiot. Taking a character like this into a traditional RPG is possible but troublesome. For one thing, the others in your party are unlikely to be happy carrying around someone who gets them in trouble. If you’re playing someone flawed and self-destructive, you still have to contend with the general success-focused nature of the game and the other players’ investment in their own characters’ well-being.

In a narrative-first story engine like Fiasco, however, these loser archetypes slot right in. Petty thugs, alcoholic PIs, middle managers with delusions of competence… it’s fun to watch these people fail. They are weak people, but that’s what makes them strong characters. Narratively, they can deserve to fail; it feels good as an audience to watch someone get their comeuppance or be knocked down by their own arrogance. Once you’ve switched off from the need to succeed, you can toy with failure, both in scene-by-scene screw-ups and in grand denouement embarrassments.

Because everyone’s Aftermath is determined at the same time, Fiasco also opens the door to collaborate regarding characters’ fates and create endings that are fulfilling for the whole story. Characters who are going down can go down together, while characters with a mysteriously bright future ahead of them might be simply lucky or might have sold out their companions. The endings that individual characters face build off of one another to create a greater, narrative-ending finale.

Failure You Control Is Fun, Not Frustrating

Finally, because your fate is always set during the epilogue and not earlier, Fiasco actually offers you a lot of control over how it happens. Death never comes out of nowhere because you rolled a one on Perception and fell in a pit. Instead, your character dies on your terms. If they make their lives miserable, you get full control over how that happens. The broad strokes are determined by the dice, but the game doesn’t take control away from you. In most games, when you end because you’ve been killed or doomed or otherwise cut off from ever achieving your goals, it’s because you lost control of your character. Outside forces or sheer dumb luck conspired to take away your agency. But in Fiasco, you never lose your agency as a player. When your character gets a black die (so the scene will end badly), it’s still your choice how it takes effect. And when you find yourself doomed to die, it’s still your choice whether you go out in a blaze of glory or as a pathetic wreck.

Oddly enough, from a strictly mechanical standpoint, there isn’t a difference between success and failure. Failing doesn’t introduce lasting complications or deny you rewards, and it never means that you need to stop playing. By the time your character dies, if that is their fate, the game is ending anyway. All it does is twist the narrative in a certain direction, and you get to decide how your character moves in that direction. This is a tremendously freeing situation.

Where most games have you pursue success at all costs, Fiasco encourages you, in several different ways, to lose. Lose big. Lose grandly. Be the biggest loser at the table. If you can’t reach the stars, you might just be able to go down in flames bright enough to be remembered forever.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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