So, let's talk about that game of Fiasco. This is a story game based most directly on crime-caper movies from the Coen Brothers -- think Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn't There, or Burn After Reading.
This was a late-night gaming session that came about after a couple of other games fell through. There were five of us: Paul Tevis, Graham Walmsley, Marc, Kristin, and me. So that's five improvisors. Of them, four (all but me) are game designers. Of those, three (all but Kristin) are published game designers. And on top of that, Paul won an award at GenCon for "most innovative game".
So basically, all I had to do was coast on my fellow gamers' experience and talent.
We set up a big table in the living room, we set ourselves up with Very Good Whisky, and we got started with the "Vegas" playbook for Fiasco.
I think most of us know how your classic D&D setup works: first thing is, you create characters. "I'm a dwarf!" "I have high dexterity!" "I wield an axe!" You spend a good long time picking names and classes and attributes and weapons, and then finally you sort out how all these pre-established characters know each other. Typically, it's the catch-all "you meet in a tavern."
Fiasco goes the other way: you start out by establishing the *relationships*, and you build the character-creation out of *that*. Each playbook has a list of relationships. There are six categories: things like "1. Family", "2. Business", "3. Friends", and so on. And then in each category, there are six items; for example, the "Family" one might have "1. parent and child" or "2. identical twins".
So we sat down and established a bunch of relationships.
The five of us were sitting around the table. We put a small sheet of paper between each pair of neighboring players. Then we rolled ten six-sided dice. Then we went around the table: each player picked a die off the table and used it to establish a relationship. For instance, somebody picked up a "3", put it between me and Graham, and said, "You two characters are friends." Later on, somebody else grabbed a "4", put it between me and Graham, and said that we had the specific item "4. military buddies".
We kept at this until all five neighbor-relationships were established -- one die for the category, one die for the item. Paul's character was the neighbor of Kristin's character, who was a fan of Marc's character, who was the daughter of Graham's character, who was an old military buddy of my character, who was (bringing us full circle), a prostitute working for Paul's character.
Actually, I've skipped ahead a bit. The only thing we absolutely knew about (say) that last relationship was that it was characterized by "prostitute and pimp or john". We had some ideas of how we wanted to interpret the general relationships for each pair, but we only settled on things more absolutely as we got more information.
This was generally something that this game of Fiasco -- and perhaps the game in general -- did beautifully: if something didn't need to be resolved just yet, we left it open for the time being.
The next step was to use similar playbook charts -- six categories each with six items, and then a dice mechanic for picking stuff and assigning it to a relationship -- to pick out locations, objects, and objectives. This is how we found out that, say, Marc's character was associated with the "Take a Chance" wedding chapel on the Vegas Strip. This led to the following discussion:
"Oh, so like, one of those Elvis-impersonator wedding places?"
"Yeah, but that name --"
"It's gotta be ABBA. Instead of Elvis-themed, it's ABBA-themed."
Suddenly, between that location and the "fan/performer" relationship, Marc was playing the Anni-Frid Lyngstad impersonator for a wedding-chapel ABBA tribute band. I don't think we would have come up with that on our own.
Other things fell into place in a similar way. Paul and I wound up with the objective "Get back at Big Jack". After some discussion, we figured that Paul in fact *was* Big Jack, and I was playing a prostitute who worked for him... and was bent on revenge. We quickly settled into this cast of characters:
Brad Severance [Graham]: A boozy ex-military type.
Big Jack [Paul]: Security officer for the Paradise Casino.
Jesse [Kristin]: Jack's neighbor, a down-on-his luck bartender.
Ms. Cho [Peter]: A Korean immigré prostitute.
Natalie Severance [Marc]: Brad's daughter, a singer in the ABBA cover band at the strip's "Take a Chance" wedding chapel.
We had some other things to work with. For example, we knew that Big Jack and Jesse were caught up with a plan for some sort of robbery at the Paradise Casino. We knew that Brad and Ms. Cho had some association with an envelope of diamonds.
But again, the game, and our take on the game, did a great job of just letting that lie for the moment. We knew we had those story elements to draw on -- but we didn't need to know all the details about them just yet.
So we got started with scenes. First off, Big Jack was beating up Ms. Cho in a typical "Where's my money at?" scene. But the scene went kind of a different way. You see, we knew I was playing someone from Korea, and we had brainstormed names for Ms. Cho, and we settled on "Cho" (a common Korean name) fairly quickly, but got stymied on first names.
"What if we never find out her first name?" someone suggested.
"Yes! That's perfect!" I said, and suddenly a lot of the character snapped into place: a cold, hard-edged type who never revealed her name. (Think of The Operative from Serenity, as an example of the 'so badass that s/he's nameless' type.)
This lent the 'beating' scene a weird balance: Ms. Cho got smacked around, and didn't respond, at all, and was so unnervingly stoic that Big Jack was left storming back to his office and pouring himself a drink with a very shaky hand.
This led us to the other main mechanic of the scenes: after a character's scene, either the scene ends well or poorly for the character. This means that there are two decisions to be made about each scene: (1) how the scene starts (the setup), and (2) how the scene ends (well/poorly). If it's your scene, you get to determine either (1) or (2) -- and then the rest of the players determine the other. So in this case, it was Paul's scene; he had decided how the scene started (Big Jack beating down Ms. Cho [and neatly motivating "get back at Big Jack", I might add]), and the rest of us decided how the scene ended for Big Jack.
We decided it ended badly for him. This is how we got to Big Jack pouring himself that shaky drink, uncertain of the consequences of pissing off Ms. Cho.
Now, when your scene ends, you get either a black chip (it went bad for you) or a white chip (it went well for you). And you have the option of either keeping that chip, or passing it off to another player -- this is pure game mechanics, rather than something that correlates to an action in the fiction.
We went on to the next scene -- my scene -- which I set up as "Ms. Cho, still badly beaten, randomly meets Brad Severance in the supermarket." Specifically, it was the first time they had met since twenty years ago in Korea. Here was the dialog of the entire scene.
"Who did this to you?"
One thing I loved about this game is that we could *do* a scene that was that short. This one was plenty dramatic -- Brad dropped and shattered a bottle of expensive whisky when he realized that the woman-who-looked-kind-of-like-Ms.-Cho really *was* Ms. Cho -- but it just concisely satisfied its dramatic function, and then ended. It was great to have a scene that was so 'concentrated', and it was nice to have a short scene thrown in among the more typical three-to-four-minuters, just for 'shape of show' purposes.
Then it was Graham's turn, and he made a scene where Brad was out for revenge against Big Jack. Graham elected to start the scene:
"So Brad is camped out outside Big Jack's house."
Kristin said, "Oh, and that's right next-door to Jesse's house, right?"
And then it seemed like everybody had the same idea at once: "BRAD BREAKS INTO THE WRONG HOUSE!"
And then that scene was off and running, with Brad kicking down the front door, brandishing a gun, shooting a pillow, and dealing with a very confused bartender in a wife-beater... who had a poster of Natalie Severance on his bathroom wall. From that point on we were firmly locked into "Coen Brothers crime caper" territory.
In the scene after that, Natalie met with Big Jack to talk about their relationship, and wound up making off with a security badge of his. We didn't know what we were going to do with that badge just yet, but we figured that, given time, we'd think of something.
We kept going around the table until each of us had had two scenes. We established that Jesse and Big Jack were in cahoots to steal a passel of diamonds (aha! there's that object we introduced...) from the safe at the Paradise Casino. We established that Ms. Cho was actually part of the Korean Mafia, knew a few things about the plan, and wanted to make sure that the heist didn't succeed. We knew that Natalie and Big Jack were an item, but they were having relationship troubles, troubles that weren't helped by Big Jack's constant efforts to keep the heist from falling apart.
For our last scene from this batch, Jesse got an anonymous text telling him to come to the "Take a Chance" wedding chapel. He assumed it's from his idol Natalie, and arrived with a rose in hand, only to meet... Ms. Cho, telling him to go through with the heist, only with one little tiny change....
And with that, we were done with act one. We took a ten-minute break to stretch our legs and to drink more Very Good Whisky.
Then we were back for Act Two.
Act Two opens with "The Tilt". This is the event that sends the characters' perhaps-already-cockamamie scheme completely off the rails. Again, it's a chart with six categories and six items per category. Graham and Kristin rolled four dice, and picked them out in sequence to get a couple of items: we wound up with "something valuable is on fire", and also "the thing you've stolen has been stolen before".
Then we went into more scenes. The scenes in Act Two have the same basic mechanics as the scenes in Act One, with one significant change: when you get a black chip or a white chip, you have to keep it; you can't reassign it to other players.
We opened right where we left off. This time, Ms. Cho recounted the heist plan back to Jesse. "Go ahead and let Big Jack disable the main alarms. Let him open the safe. Let him fake the hostage scenario." In this game of Fiasco, Graham interposed several wonderful 'film' bits. In this case, on his suggestion, we "intercut" between the Jesse/Ms. Cho conversation and a flash-forward to the heist actually going down the next day. Using film grammar in our RPG created some brilliant moments like that.
"The only change," said Ms. Cho, "is that I want you to change out the diamonds," and she pulled out a bag, "for this." She opened the bag to reveal paste diamonds.
So the heist went down as expected, only with that little switch. Oh, and also, Jesse never returned either bag of diamonds. Meanwhile, Brad finally confronted Big Jack -- "You're the guy who was trying to shoot my pillow!" / "I wasn't trying to shoot your pillow." Brad bought himself a new pillow, and then ran straight into goons dispatched by Big Jack.
For my last scene, we had a flashback to twenty years ago. Brad and Ms. Cho are young, and happy, and in love. But Brad is about to go back to the States... to his daughter.
"You have a daughter?"
A brief argument ensued. Then:
"Wh -- what's her name?"
And then Graham kicked himself for getting the name wrong. Everybody else said, "No! No! We'll find a way to make this work!" (ETA: Nope, it turns out he got the name wrong deliberately.)
In the present day, Brad was seeking revenge against Big Jack, so he drove off to the casino with a bunch of kerosene, and drove up to the back of the casino.
Except -- ah yes, reincorporation -- Brad made the same mistake he'd made at the start of the story. He was off by one building, and instead set fire to a Korean barbecue where Ms. Cho was meeting with the mob boss, known as "Mega Kim". "Great," thought the Koreans, "somebody *else* is in on the heist."
Meanwhile, Big Jack has a bag of diamonds secreted away. Jesse has a bag of diamonds on his person. Jesse, who is madly in love with Natalie Severance, sees it as his big chance to win her over. So, Jesse calls Natalie about the diamonds, and he goes to Natalie's trailer and leaves the diamonds there with a handwritten note.
Meanwhile meanwhile, the Korean mafia tracked down Big Jack. Unbeknownst to Ms. Cho, they also found the guy who was responsible for burning the barbecue: Brad Severance. Then they brought in Ms. Cho to interrogate them. Ms. Cho is, of course, shocked to see the love of her life tied to a chair in a sub-basement of the Paradise Casino, and immediately gets him out of the room and tells him to run away.
Big Jack was left in the room to stew for a while.
Then he had a visitor: Natalie, who was looking for her man, and finally used her cadged badge to sneak through the basements of the Paradise Casino looking for him.
Ms. Cho came back in at this point.
"What? Who are you? How did you get in here?"
Natalie: "Is this about the diamonds?"
Cut to, Natalie and Big Jack, both tied to chairs, and Ms. Cho asking Natalie pointed questions about the diamonds.
"Okay, okay, I think my dad has them."
"Who's your dad?"
"Brad. Brad Severance."
Ms. Cho got teary, and then rushed over to Natalie and embraced her: "NICOLE!"
Natalie just looked confused.
At the same time, Big Jack and Brad both thought they had the diamonds. Ms. Cho: "There can't be two bags of diamonds -- so who's lying?" The other players corrected me: Ms. Cho knew that there were, in fact, two bags of diamonds: one bag of real diamonds, and one bag of paste diamonds. "Okay, okay -- this is great," I said, and emended Ms. Cho's line to this: "Look, there *can't* be *two* bags of diamo -- wait. [beat] Okay, [to Big Jack] you tell me where your diamonds are, and [to Natalie] you tell me where your diamonds are. Both Big Jack and Natalie recounted their stories simultaneously.
Meanwhile, Brad had escaped from the sub-basement, and went... where could he go? He finally went to his daughter's home, a trailer out in the desert -- the trailer where Jesse had left the diamonds for Natalie. Brad saw the diamonds and the note. He took them both, got in his car, and drove away.
Cut to Brad, driving around Vegas. He had the diamonds in his passenger seat -- none of us knew at this point which set of diamonds it was -- the real ones or the fake ones. Brad just knew he had stolen diamonds, and he also knew that he had burned down a Korean barbecue entirely by accident.
He breezed by a cop. The cop noticed that Brad had a busted taillight.
Brad saw the sirens in his rearview, and... at this point, understandably, he slammed his foot on the gas.
Later, in the desert, pursued by a flotilla of cop cars, two police helicopters, and a Vegas press copter, Brad got a phone call from his daughter, which I believe was along the lines of "the Korean Mafia is hunting you and wants you dead". Result: Brad pulled a 180° parking-brake turn and gave himself up to the cops.
Now we were on to the epilogue. This was a last scene for every character. Each of us got to set up our scenes, but whether the scene was good or bad... that depended on a dice roll. We counted up our black chips and white chips. We picked up those numbers of black dice and white dice. We rolled all of them, and figured out the difference between the black total and the white total. If that *difference* was really big -- all good scenes, or all bad scenes -- then we wound up with a *great* outcome for the character. If the difference was close to *zero*, then things ended badly for the character.
Big Jack got a huge difference, so he wound up in charge of the casino. Ms. Cho had a difference of seven, which was basically equivalent to 'meh, not so good' on the scale -- so I had her back in Korea, living with her family again, getting no respect from her estranged daughter, and in charge of absolutely nothing. Brad had a flashforward to his release from jail, where he finds a single diamond in the pocket of the jacket that he wore during the car chase. Natalie has married Big Jack, and the "Take a Chance" chapel has been rebuilt into a veritable emporium of wedding, jewelry sales, and lord knows what else.
And then finally we cut to Jesse's epilog. This one cut between a flash-forward -- Jesse lives a life of luxury out on a cruise ship -- and a flash-back, where we finally figure out which diamonds went to whom. Jesse took all the diamonds, mixed them together, and separated them back out into the two bags.
Fade to black.
So that was the game, or at least a hazy, hand-wavey recollection of what happened in our session. (If any of the other players can provide corrections or additional details, let me know and I'll fix this post accordingly.)
Hopefully tomorrow I'll have a bit more to say about my take on the game, and why I think it worked so well.
 It also meant that, for a number of scenes, Marc went scrambling through his iPhone's YouTube app to find the appropriate ABBA song to underscore the action.
 ... as it turns out, I quickly went another way with the character.
 There I am, dropping the 'prostitute' offer. Then again, in scene #1 nobody explicitly *said* she was a prostitute....
 Earlier in the game, we had a scene where Big Jack announces, "No one could possibly have bugged this room!" -- and of course, we cut to a VU meter, bouncing up and down with his every word.
 Yes, the fire took out the chapel as well. (Many valuable things caught fire that day.)