In this, the concluding segment of my extended look at Fiasco, I’ll detail the Tilt and the Aftermath, two special phases of the game that have a formative place in the overall narrative. I’ll also reveal the destiny of the not-so-endearing characters from my first game that were introduced in Pt. 1. While not strictly necessary, I’d recommend reading Pt. 1: Search & Setup and Pt. 2: Structure & Strategy before reading this one. The review was originally written as one large article, so this latest piece will reference ideas presented previously and is too narrowly focused to provide context for gameplay in toto.
With each player receiving two turns in each act, a four player game of Fiasco includes sixteen scenes. I might wonder, if I were you, how the tightly focused set up I described in Pt. 1 could possibly sustain itself over that much time. Well, you if you were me might just be surprised at how far an uninterrupted Fiasco narrative can travel if the players involved maintain a decent sense of pace. Fortunately, though, you/me do not have to rely on your/my/our own dramatic timing. At the end of Act One, just when things look like they might be slowing down (or not), Fiasco, that crafty little rapscallion of a game, gives a kick in the pants to your precious story in the form of the Tilt. The Tilt introduces a couple of new elements that will, in all likelihood, alter the trajectory of the chronicle altogether.
To resolve the Tilt, players each roll the dice they have collected so far in a manner similar to the procedure I previously described for the Aftermath (see Pt. 2). The two players with the highest respective light and dark totals then roll the dice remaining in the central pool and use the resulting values to choose elements from a generic Tilt table that is used across playsets. This table contains broad categories such as mayhem, tragedy, paranoia, and failure, each with its own subset of vaguely-stated elements that can apply to pretty much any story with a touch of creative interpretation. Perhaps “the thing you stole has been stolen,” or “somebody develops a conscience.” Maybe “love rears its ugly head.” It’s up to the players to decide just how the chosen elements apply to their story.
As an example of how dramatically the Tilt can impact the direction and/or velocity of a game, let’s revisit the session whose set up I described in Pt. 1:
As Act One winds to a close, serious conflict is brewing between Vernon and Amadeus. “Amadigglez” has all but refused outright to follow through with the killing of the reverend, and his time spent with Mary Jane in an attempt to weasel information from her about her father’s habits has accomplished little but igniting Vernon’s jealousy. Mary Jane herself has been playing things a bit too coyly, raising suspicions that she may know more about what’s going on than she’s admitting. Rev. Cranston, on the other hand, oblivious to the plot against him, has invited Amadeus into his confidence, offering the young thug an opportunity to earn a position of responsibility in his burgeoning criminal empire.
The Tilt commences. I happen to roll the highest light total, so choice of one of the complicating elements falls to me. I glance at the Tilt table and the numbers available to me in the central dice pool and immediately discern the perfect option: “somebody is not so innocent after all.” The player with the highest dark total also makes a juicy selection: “misdirected passion.”
It turns out Mary Jane is not quite the sweet pastor’s daughter everyone assumes. Not only is she familiar with her father’s dealings, she also knows the location of his stash of drugs and money—and she’s ready to make a play for it herself. All she needs is a willing dupe to handle the dirtier work for her. With two troublemakers constantly fawning over her, she won’t have to look far…
Act Two hits the ground running. Vernon and Mary Jane form a greed- and lust-fueled alliance after Amadeus, in a confusing mixture of repentance and romantic desperation, reveals the hooligans’ murderous machinations to her. Fearful for the life he could not bring himself to take, Amadeus attempts to warn Rev. Cranston about the danger to his safety. Unfortunately, the dishonesty exhibited during Amadeus’ now-abandoned scheming is brought to light in a confrontation involving all four lead characters, and he is cast out from Cranston’s good graces.
The final scenes of Act Two bear witness to the inevitable debacle. “Amadigglez,” in a botched “heat of betrayal” murder attempt, loses both of his hands to a firefighter’s halligan tool (fo rizzles) when Cranston defends himself with the only weapon he can find in his house. The reverend himself is shot and left for dead when he confronts Vernon and his own daughter making a move on the drugs and money stashed under the church pulpit. In the end, the goods secured, Vernon makes his gun-toting getaway alone leaving Mary Jane to face the music of the approaching sirens and the shrill cry of Amadeus as he drags himself arm over arm into the church: “Mr. Cranston! Why?!”
All ignoble tales told in Fiasco end with the Aftermath. The last scene of Act Two may or may not see the denouement of a story, but the Aftermath allows players to ensure their narrative reaches an appropriate climax as well as to realize the ultimate destiny of each of their characters. After making the roll described in Pt. 2 and referencing their fate descriptors on the Aftermath table, players alternate crafting short vignettes that form a conclusion and/or epilogue to their characters’ stories. On his or her turn, a player restores an earned die to the central pool and shares a short statement, just a few sentences long and shaped by his or her Aftermath result, about what that player’s character does following the events of the story proper. Time is extremely flexible during this finale, so players are free to move forward and backward in time, delving into the immediate repercussions of the events in Act Two or jumping ahead to explore the ramifications of those events on their characters’ future selves. Players repeat this process in sequence, forming a sort of closing montage, until none of them has any dice remaining. How might matters have materialized for my motley mates’ miserable mob of maladjusted miscreants?
Reverend Cranston: Though he survives his gunshot wound, the loss of his entire fortune leaves the reverend in dire straits. He spends the brief remainder of his life on the lam and plagued by professionally-obtained venereal disease.
Mary Jane: Carted away by the police, Mary Jane endures a long trial before receiving the maximum sentence for every portion of the foregoing Fiasco to which the law could tie her. She stews in prison, filled with hatred for the men who put her there.
Amadeus: Wracked with guilt and lacking in extremities, the man known to some as “Amadigglez” also lands himself behind bars. Unable to stomach his own role in events, he makes a full confession to the police that leads to a widespread manhunt for the ones that got away.
Vernon: Fleeing to the relative safety of Mexico, Vernon employs his temporary wealth to purchase a small, seaside villa. Haunted by his fling with the passionate Mary Jane, he marries her Mexican lookalike and names his first daughter after her.
In the end, Fiasco satisfied the ambiguous gaming itch I’d been suffering far better than I thought any game would be able. It was as if, to this point in my life, I had been carrying a Fiasco-shaped hole in my game-heart that only Fiasco could fill. While it may not have the strategic depth of your weird uncle’s old war games, its ability to offer meaningful choice without constraining creative excess is pretty remarkable. Not only that, but the satisfyingly immersive and memorable experience it delivers fits easily into a three hour window. In about the same amount of time it would take you to watch one of the cinematic fiascos recommended in the book’s appendix, you can create one of your own.
For anyone interested in giving the game a shot, the Fiasco page on Bully Pulpit Games’ website is a great place to start. Publishers of this fine ludological specimen, their site has a wealth of content. Not only will you find physical and pdf copies available of both the original book and a companion volume (which is totally unnecessary for play but worth picking up if you’re into exploring the game’s possibilities or building your own playsets), they also have a couple of purchasable pdf playset collections that present an expanded “campaign mode” allowing you to link multiple sessions together to create a truly epic Fiasco. Most exciting of all, however, is their “Playset of the Month” gallery, a library of quality and absolutely free pdf playsets that span a wide variety of genres. You’d be hard pressed to exhaust it.