Fiasco is a role-playing game of capers gone horribly wrong. The mechanics are built around incompetence, betrayal, and just plain bad luck, with a largely inevitable outcome in which most if not all the characters come to bad ends for what they have done. The ruleset is very basic, and is "skinned" easily with various settings that bring a specific flavor or tone to the same basic underlying mechanics. We've played a number of games using "Dragon Slayers", the fantasy setting, but tonight we were in the mood for something new, so we used a playset called "Objective Zebra". Here's its intro text:
"All is quiet aboard the U.S. Navy submarine SS-495, the USS Saddleback. She's on reduced battery power, nestled in the soft mud of the North Sea somewhere off the coast of Lower Saxony.
It is the middle of World War II. You were specially selected for this mission. They made it sound like a great honor, to ferry a handful of civilians somewhere, in the greatest secrecy, so they could do something that would help win the war. It was called "Objective Zebra". It hasn't worked out so well.
You surfaced and took them, heavily guarded, to an island that wasn't on the Saddleback's charts. They did whatever it is they were supposed to do and came back in a tearing hurry, followed by German spotter aircraft, and E-Boats, and finally a depth-charge tossing Vorpostenboot from the mouth of the Elbe that nearly sunk you. Saddleback went deep and got quiet fast, diving for her life.
Saddleback's collapse depth was 200 meters. When you came to rest on the bottom, amid the screaming protest of over-stressed metal, the gage read 226. There is a meter of water in the pump room and the forward torpedo compartment is largely flooded. The horrible groaning of the tortured pressure hull has mixed with another sound - something stranger, more unearthly - from outside the Saddleback. Whatever it is, it is like nothing even the saltiest old timers has ever heard before. And it is getting closer. What the hell did those civilians do?
You're trapped in a stranded submarine and you have to get the hell out of here... before it comes in!"
The players roll a pool of dice to determine what their web of character connections can consist of. We ended up choosing:
You connect up the players with combinations of Relationships and other elements and then decide what your characters are going to be. We came up with:
Act One Scenes
There are then a series of "scenes", four per character over the course of the game, in which each character in turn has a situation and ultimately wants some sort of specific outcome from that situation. Sometimes the player establishes the scene for their own character and the other players collectively decide whether they will succeed or fail; other times the rival players drop your character into the scene and force you into a situation, and you get to decide whether you will make or break.
BARNEY: Barney awakens in the engine room. He vaguely remembers that they went to the island with the civilians. He encounters Walter, who was also on the island. "What happened on the island, Walter? Did something happen to us? Did I die on the island? How did I die?" Walter not only freaks the hell out that Barney is alive again (of course) but he won't even talk to Barney about what happened on the island or how he died, only confirming that indeed Barney died on the island. (FAIL) Walter flees from the engine room to go find Professor McGuen. Barney follows.
MCGUEN: In the back compartment that the civilians are using, Professor McGuen is alone, tinkering with the Box, an elaborate thing made of bone and ivory. Apparently he and Walter found the Box on the island together, in a hidden chamber in a strange pyramid that nobody else could find, and they decided it was to be their secret, not for anyone else. It's a puzzle box and somehow both of them realized, on the island, that whoever solved the puzzle and opened the box first would get something beyond imagining. So they agreed they would take turns, share the effort of solving it. But now McGuen is tinkering with the box when it's not his turn. Walter shows up to talk to him about Barney and is angry to see the professor getting "extra" time with the box. McGuen promises to let Walter have an extra hour alone with the box if Walter buys him fifteen minutes right now. Just then, Barney catches up to them. Walter and McGuen quickly hide the Box. Walter agrees to give McGuen the fifteen minutes (SUCCESS) and decides to take Barney to the ship's officers to decide what to do with a guy who has come back from the dead. Every time McGuen makes a change in the Box configuration, the sounds outside the sub intensify. Then… he clicks one last part into a new shape, it opens, and the professor vanishes. The noises stop.
WALTER: Walter drops Barney off with the sub's officers and then a huge commotion breaks out back at the aft again. One of the other civilians tried to enter their compartment but it's been closed and locked from the other side of the door - i.e. by Professor McGuen. Only he's not answering the door now (of course, since he vanished). A bunch of people, crew and civilian both, gather to try and open the hatch. They take pry bars and cutting tools and when they finally get it open, Walter desperately rushes inside - not to find McGuen, but to make sure the Box is okay. He snatches it up unseen and ferrets it away, looking to find a new hiding place for it. But everywhere he goes, some other crew person encounters him, so he never finds a place to put it, and his NEED to tinker with the Box grows and grows until he cannot resist anymore. He sits down right in one hallway and begins manipulating it in the open. (FAIL) That's where the Captain and the ship's Doctor find him. They sedate him and give the Box to the civilian team, who had no idea it existed.
MCGUEN: McGuen finds himself back on the island the day before, exploring the ruins with Walter close by. The rest of the team (both civilian and Navy) are elsewhere about the island. The trail that leads to the pyramid in which the Box can be found is a circuitous, difficult-to-see one. In fact, it's only McGuen's facility for dead languages that allows him to pick out the directions that are hidden among all the other vaguely-Toltec-like glyphs and runes, directions that lead them to the hiding place that nobody else on the island can see. They arrive at the Box's chamber, just as they did the previous time. An ornate sculpture of gold and gems, surely worth millions of dollars, holds the Box - but neither man cares the least for the treasure, only for the Box itself. McGuen lets Walter go forward ahead of him this time, pulling a loose stone from the temple wall, and then bashing Walter's brains out from behind. The Box is all his now, in this new divergent timeline. (SUCCESS) Having already solved the pathway-puzzle once, McGuen immediately sits down with the Box there in the temple and solves it again, vanishing even further into the past.
BARNEY: In the original timeline, Barney has been handed off to the ship's officers by Walter before all the commotion erupted in the back of the ship over the locked hatch. The First Mate parks Barney in the damaged-and-unusable mid-ship head (toilet). "Just hang out in here for a bit until we can explain to the crew that you're back from the dead and that it's okay, okay? If they see you without some warning, they might freak completely out." As soon as the crewman leaves, Barney starts to hear a voice whispering to him: "Come to the engine room. I know how you died. I'll tell you everything you want to know. Just come to the engine room." Barney exits the head, breaks open the firefighting box nearby, pulls jacket and airmask on to disguise himself - grabs the axe for good measure - and heads toward the engine room trying not to be recognized. Though he encounters a couple other crewmen along the way, he is able to bluff that he's someone else and makes it all the way down to the engine room. (SUCCESS)
WALTER: In the original timeline, Walter shrugs off the sedation just enough to knock the ship's doc out, lurch to his feet, and head toward the engine room with a plan: start a fire there to draw off everyone's attention so that he can go steal the Box back from the civilians, or wherever it is. As he heads towards the engine, he gathers the things he thinks he'll need: a lucky zippo, some rags, machine oil, gas canister from the galley… He pulls open an electrical junction box and starts shoving his improvised molotov cocktail into there when Barney shows up… as a firefighter! "How… how did you know?" Walter stammers. Barney tries to stop him from starting the fire; they fight and Walter is pushed back against the electrical box, and is electrocuted. (FAIL) The fire breaks out but Barney, well equipped and thinking quickly, puts it out as the fire alarm goes off. Crewmen rush into the engine compartment as Barney pulls the airmask off, panting. As predicted, seeing their fellow crewman who died back on the island alive and well… freaks them the hell out.
The Tilt is a pair of new events that occur in the second act that cause everything to go awry, if they haven't already. We rolled:
"Something precious is on fire."
"A tiny mistake leads to ruin."
Having already just had a scene where the sub almost caught fire, it seemed like the first element would be a slam-dunk. However, in our games we have a chronic problem with not getting the Tilt elements in play early and significantly enough, and this game would prove much the same.
Act Two Scenes
MCGUEN: Having activated the Box in the new timeline that he'd already gone back and spawned, McGuen emerges into a third timeline way back on the night before the USS Saddleback mission even began. It was the night when the professor broke into the classified records department at the Innsmouth naval base with a specific goal in mind: He was going to modify the mission dossier for the expedition that he knew was being assembled to go to this uncharted island. He wasn't supposed to be on that mission, but he had taken out the language academic they'd already selected and inserted himself onto the team instead. Unfortunately, on that night, as soon as he'd finished modifying the mission records, he was stumbled across by none other than Barney the Cook, who was also breaking into the classified records department for some unknown reason. McGuen, surprised, had brained Barney on the spot, killing him accidentally… and when he realized what he'd done, McGuen dragged Barney's body to the pier and threw him into the water, hoping that the crabs and Deep Ones would get rid of the evidence. Imagine his surprise when, the next day, Barney the Cook showed back up alive and well for his mission on the USS Saddleback. That was back in timeline 1. Having returned to this time and place with a clean new timeline ahead of him, McGuen vows to make things "better" and to avoid Barney's murder. Knowing that Barney is about to show up, he sits in the dark with a lit pipe and waits. When Barney comes in, McGuen pretends to be a Navy Intelligence operative who has new, secret orders for Barney. He tells Barney to take a civilian bus to San Francisco and report to a (non-existent) agent at a (non-existent) address. Barney, he bluffs, must not use Navy channels for this mission because there are Nazi infiltrators in the intelligence wing and they would get wind of what Barney was doing. Barney, for some reason, seems to buy it. (SUCCESS) He immediately goes AWOL, thinking he's actually on a special assignment. McGuen, satisfied that he has saved Barney's life, finishes editing the mission records. When he travels to the island *this* time, he tells himself, he'll ditch Walter and find the Box all by himself, no sharing, no murders, no complications.
WALTER: In timeline 3, Walter gets a weird vibe about this Professor McGuen guy on the mission. For one thing, McGuen seems more skittish and evasive on the sub around Walter than around anyone else, crew or civilian. Even more weird, when it's just McGuen and Walter in a room, Walter can't tell which of them is going to die first. It's the first time his psychic power has ever failed like that. When they get to the island, Walter realizes McGuen is trying to shake everyone else off to sneak away by himself. Walter is determined to shadow him, and does so. (SUCCESS) McGuen reaches the top of the secret pyramid and finds the Box. Walter catches up, sees McGuen with the Box, almost done solving its puzzle. "What the hell is that?" McGuen is surprised, upset, and for a moment his eyes flick involuntarily to the loose brick in the chamber's wall. Walter's attention is drawn there as well, he sees the brick, and suddenly he knows what he must do - he must have the Box, and to have the Box he must kill Professor McGuen. He pulls the same loose brick from the wall and beats the professor to death, taking the Box for himself. (We call this "smeagoling the deagol".) He suddenly has a vivid psychic flash of the true scale and horror of the Box, regrets the murder that he just committed, and decides to unmake this whole terrible mess. He finishes the last few steps of the puzzle solution, opens the Box, and pushes through into the past of a fourth timeline. (At this point we start diagraming the parallel timelines on the whiteboard, PRIMER style.)
BARNEY: In timeline 1, the crew has gone completely apeshit. A full mutiny is underway, as superstitious Innsmouth crewmen blame Barney - the ghost, the corpse, the demon, the albatross - for all that has gone wrong with the mission. They want him off the sub, dead. The officers are unable to stop them from dragging Barney to the #3 torpedo bay, where they are going to shove him into one of the tubes to be killed by water. On the way, Barney hears the voice again - "It will be okay, Barney. The cockwheel is missing. When they open the tube to shove you in, the sea will flood the entire submarine and everyone will die, and then you'll come back. Just let them do it." Barney realizes the voice sounds like Professor McGuen to him. He doesn't want the crew to die - if it's going to be all of them or just him, then let it just be him who has to die, he'll come back anyway. He warns them about the missing cockwheel and the danger of touching the #3 tube, and they listen to him long enough to confirm it's true. (SUCCESS) Some level of control reasserts itself and the crew decides rather than just murdering Barney, they should handcuff him in the conning tower for now, until they can figure out what to do about him and their plight.
WALTER: In the new timeline #4, Walter has also jumped back to that night before the Saddleback mission, the night that originally is when the professor murdered Barney accidentally. But timeline 4 is spawned from timeline 3, where McGuen tries the military intelligence bluff, so when Walter comes into the classified records department, McGuen is waiting there for him (but expecting Barney). Even though Walter and McGuen should not have ever met yet, they of course both already know each other. In fact, each of them recalls having murdered the other in a previous timeline; neither of them knows that they were themselves murdered by the other one in a previous timeline. Both of them know about the submarine mission. "We have to stop the mission from happening," Walter says. In fact, he's brought all the tools needed to burn the records building to the ground - kerosene, explosives, etc. scavenged around the base before he showed up. He wants to hamper or halt the mission by destroying its mission dossier. "No, we have to go through with the mission," says McGuen, "but we just have to do it carefully, correctly, so nobody needs to be hurt." They argue. Finally, Walter is about to just take matters into his own hands - sprinkling kerosene around, getting ready to start the fire - but they hear Barney arriving outside. (FAIL) "Shit, that's Barney, we have to get away from him!" whispers McGuen. "Who?" Walter doesn't know who this 'Barney' is but clearly McGuen is freaked out. Both men slip out the back door to hide from Barney, to wait for him to leave, but they are stumbled upon by a patrolling MP. The shout goes up, Walter and McGuen flee in separate directions, and neither man is going to get what he wants - McGuen hasn't had a chance to doctor the mission records for himself and Walter hasn't been able to scuttle the mission entirely.
BARNEY: In timeline 4, we find out why Barney was also breaking into the classified records department. You see, Barney has been dying and getting reborn over and over and over for several years, but each time he re-constitutes, his memory of the past gets worse and worse. He no longer remembers how he got the powers, how long he has been doing this for the Navy, how much they know about his past. Now a submarine has shown up and guys in trenchcoats are roaming the base and he can tell that another secret suicide mission is in the offing, which means they are going to come for him in the morning to join the mission. But he wants to know, has to know, what the truth about himself is, so he's breaking in to read his own dossier. Fortunately for him, McGuen had it out (along with the rest of the mission papers). But when he opens it, it's cryptic, almost entirely written in an alien script that he can't read. (FAIL) There's a handful of pictures of him on various missions… and a hand-drawn sketch of the Box. Barney has never seen the Box but somehow he knows this is the key to understanding himself… but not here, not tonight, the whole file is written in a long-dead language. Then the alarm goes up (caused by the fleeing Walter & McGuen) and Barney himself must escape back to his barrack.
MCGUEN: While the mainland base is on high alert in timeline 4, McGuen sneaks out to where the Saddleback is parked. He knows the sub pretty well from the original timeline, and attention is elsewhere, so he is able to sneak aboard. His plan is to sabotage a torpedo so that it will ignite in the tube before the sub even leaves Innsmouth. But he's no weapons engineer; he not only isn't able to get the torpedo armed in any way, he also breaks the cockwheel for the #3 tube. (FAIL) But he hopes for the best. Out of time, he has to get off the sub and go home. The next day, the ship crew & civilian expedition is assembled (without McGuen, since he didn't edit the mission profile) and the Saddleback leaves without any trouble at all, off to find its fate at the island with Walter and Barney both aboard but without the professor.
The scene-by-scene resolution process leaves the players, at the end of the game, with some number of dice from their successes and failures. There's a roll to randomly determine each character's fate, good or bad (mostly bad), and whether that fate is mostly a physical or psychological one. The lower the result, the worse the fate. We got:
Walter: White 0. "The worst thing in the universe happens to you."
Barney: White 2. "You may not be dead physically, but you're definitely dead on the inside."
McGuen: White 4. "You get nothing that you wanted and you are powerless against your enemies."
Then each player narrates how they get from their final Scene to their ultimate fate in a series of vignettes, like a montage, in round-robin fashion, one bit per die. With three players, we had 12 dice to go through in the Aftermath:
Without a doubt, this was our most gonzo insane game of Fiasco ever. The moment Dan P (Walter's player) established that McGuen's disappearance through the Box led him into the past, we were doomed: all three of us have seen and greatly enjoyed PRIMER, TRIANGLE, and INCEPTION so there was no way we were going to do anything but iterate on as many nested ever-deeper loops as we could. The only question was whether, by the end, we could connect the tail of the snake with its mouth. It all came together even better than we could have hoped; it was scarily easy to identify actions and choices we had taken in the first hour of the game (Walter doesn't want to talk to resurrected Barney about how he died on the island in the very first scene) as obvious and natural consequences of actions and choices we were making in the fourth hour (of COURSE it was Walter who killed Barney on the island).
It has become something of a tradition for us, at this point, that at least one character is dead by the middle of the story. Somehow we always find a way for the dead character to keep on going, to keep having an impact, whether that's through reanimation or (in this case) time travel or what have you.
Around the time Walter kills Professor McGuen in Timeline 3, we realized we needed to start tracking which details were true or not-true in which timeline(s), and started charting on the whiteboard. This is what our timeline looked like at the end of the game. (Best viewed at max size so you can read the writing.)
We need to better manage use of the Tilt. We tried to make something precious burn more than once - the submarine, the records office, we even talked about having the Box get burned up by Walter's engine room fire - but it never happened. Those scenes seemed to invariably get failure instead of success. Successfully applying the Tilt elements has been very hit-or-miss across our several games; we need an approach that is reliable.