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Fiasco in a Box

by on July 27, 2020

A WKD baptism in an old park where an Extreme Skateboarding Christian League used to compete. A man dressed in a gimp suit and night vision goggles, running through suburban streets while angry neighbours shout that it’s the wrong night for that kind of wardrobe… It’s good to be back in the world of Fiasco.

Fiasco was one of the old guard, RPG-wise. It’s a roleplaying game which promises (threatens?) to make a messy story in the style of a Coen Brothers movie. A game of ‘people with high ambition and low impulse control’ which you’ll generate at the table and experience the story of all in one sitting.

It was the game which introduced me to story games, and it was love at first sight. I’ve hosted about thirty games of it to gamers new and old. The thing is, when you’re the game which spawned a ton of other games, the world moves on. Fiasco was from shortly before safety mechanics became more prominent. It had a good amount of that ‘edgy’ humour which came close to Cards Against Humanity territory without actually punching down. Still, it went to some dark places, we made it go to some dark places. Over time the designer, Jason Morningstar, has been growing and changing as a designer. He’s put a lot more focus on LARP-style experiences such as Juggernaut and Winterhorn. He also has a massive about of clout in the community, enough trust to be able to make a new version of Fiasco more than just a small book. He’s made Fiasco in a Box…

Okay, not that box. My GMing mentor, Graham, built a Fiasco kit and made a second one for me. It had dice, laminated handouts and wipe-clean cards for people to write on. One of them still faintly shows the illustration of a third place American Football trophy. But this isn’t the Fiasco in a Box we’re talking about, I just thought I’d show it off as it was a lovely kit and something I’ve used a lot.

This is Fiasco in a Box. So what is it and how does it work?

The Box

Fiasco in a Box replaces the old Fiasco entirely. Both are still usable, but you don’t need one to run the other. This version replaces all of the dice with cards and promises to reduce the game time to around two hours, which is great for places like the mini-con I attend where folks think signing up to a roleplaying game is a massive undertaking beyond the length of many board games.

Fiasco in a Box contains a tiny rulebook, much like the one from Zombie World. Smaller than that, even. It explains the rules and then there’s an Engine Deck to do the rest. There’s a board, reference cards and several scenario decks. Because we’re in an age where safety tools are always good to consider, there’s a bright yellow card with, “Let’s Not!” on it. If there’s anything you don’t want to see or do in your game, you can use it to say, “Let’s Not!”. I don’t know what it is about the colour and phrase, but it feels almost playful and light in tone.

The Engine Deck contains a couple of Let’s Not! cards so they’re within easy reach of everyone. It also has three decks; positive outcome cards, negative outcome cards and aftermaths. The positive and negative cards get shuffled, cut down to a size to fit the amount of players and put on the board, along with the unshuffled aftermaths.

The playsets in the box are Tales from Suburbia, Poppleton Mall and Dragon Slayers. Each has a set of Relationships, Locations, Needs and Objects. There are also blank cards in case you want to customise each scenario.

To play, you pick a playset, shuffle them up and deal them out between 3-5 players (there’s no moderator or GM). From that you place a relationship between each player, followed by a location, need or object, making sure to have at least one of each on the table. The old Fiasco had you roll dice and use the results to pick from a menu. Speaking to the players in my first game of this new version of Fiasco, it was raised that in the old Fiasco you had a limited selection and your choices got more restricted as different dice types got used up. This time it felt like there was a wealth of choices to pick between in each person’s hand. The back of the cards have names which can be used if you’ve not got one in mind for your character and then you’re good to go.

The game runs in two acts, each with two scenes per player, broken up by a midpoint which forces things to escalate. Old Fiasco had the rule that whoever was born in the smallest town and I had the secret weapon of being born in a tiny town on the Isle of Wight in a failed artist’s colony. This time the person who goes first is the person who most recently broke something valuable, which thanks to my coordination, means it’s a fair chance I’ll be the first player.

The active player picks if they’ll start the scene or decide if the end of the scene is good or bad for their character. Whichever option you don’t pick, the other players have instead. There’s also a ‘kicker’ selection for players who can’t think of a scene, although the act of character creation normally makes a powderkeg of resentment and ambition eager for a match.

When a scene is drawing near its conclusion, it’ll be decided whether it’s ending well or poorly. The active player who didn’t establish will draw a card from the relevant deck or if they did, another player will quietly pass them a card mid-scene. This means things could twist or turn like an angry rattler. You don’t look at the card you get, not yet. Instead you wait until everyone’s played two scenes, normally building up potential for what’s going to happen next.

In the Tilt, folks turn their cards over to see numbers and plot ‘tilts’. Whoever’s got the highest red score and the plot elements are picked by whoever’s got the highest blue score (also with + and – symbols for our colourblind chums… Hi Ben!) These are elements left out and needing to take place in the next act, including things like, “Something precious is on fire.”

You play through the last set of scenes, keeping the old positive & negative cards and gaining more as you go. Finally everything’s set to end on a point of tension and uncertainty when we close the curtain. Players can give one of their four cards to another player in order to change both of their eventual scores, then everyone counts up their blue and red scores. You subtract the lowest value from the highest and take the appropriate Aftermath card. It’ll tell you the level of fate your character has, and you narrate a short epilogue about how things end up for your character.

As a game on its own, it’s short and elegant. It can seem overwhelming to some players the way a blank page looks to a writer. That’s where things like the kickers help, as does letting someone else start your scene. Even after so many games of old Fiasco, I felt the worry that I’d set everything up and no one would know where to begin, but it wasn’t like that at all. The group I played with quickly got into the swing of things and ideas were sparking from the set of cards. Pared down to this form, Fiasco feels even more like a magic trick, an invocation made to form intricate and hilarious stories.

One last thing to say is that there are three playsets in the base game, but there are also other sets sold in pairs including Bigfoot hunts, explosive weddings and street races. If you’re feeling daring you could mix a couple of playsets together or use their blank decks to make your own. It’s nothing like the wealth of free playsets for the old edition, but they’re gorgeous and feel a lot more accessible to use.

The Game

I received my boxed set of Fiasco shortly after the first game I played. As we’’re in the quarantine times, I ran Fiasco using their official Roll20 module which is really nicely put together. I had some issues with permissions for folks to draw their own cards or interfere with the board state, but that could easily be a problem with me not being great at Roll20 more than anything else.

I was joined by Steve and Rhys. Steve’s one of my oldest friends and Rhys is a regular attendee of my community RPG nights who is often referred to as a “Chaos Engine”. We picked Tales from Suburbia (a playset I’d never actually used in the old Fiasco).

I’d accidentally cut through my washing line with a hedge trimmer the day before the game so I went first.

I made Officer Dustin Bradley, assigned to a gated community, considering himself king of the place despite being little better than a mall cop. He was part of Kick Flip For Jesus! A Christian extreme sports youth league. Sybil Tweedy was the favourite, but at the last minute Dustin won, and never let Sybil forget it.

Steve made Doug McLean, a local reporter for a dying newspaper, lusting after the editor-in-chief’s wife and hateful of Sybil Tweedy. He was a volunteer police officer serving under Dustin, mainly to get good stories and to help with his grudge against Sybil.

Rhys made Sybil Tweedy, a down and out reporter who was good, but had fallen on hard times. He lived in a van and worked on scams with Buiskit, this neighbourhood’s version of that old, rail thin guy who’s always at skate parks.

Here’s the board state that we had, with all the virtual cards laid out

In our story, Dustin was eager to get Sybil to move on after too many complaints from the Redbud Residents Association. The local skater kids still liked Sybil, although that felt like it was just as much to annoy Officer Bradley than anything else. At the same time, Doug was trying to plot the downfall of Sybil. Compared to the pair, Sybil was hanging out in the park by a statue of a duck who was a war veteran (Vietnam III, we’d decided) and chatting with Buiskit and find his next fix. The trio of characters circled each other, clashing, manipulating and leading to a moment where Doug was in a park in a gimp suit, caught on camera by Sybil’s flip phone after interrupting a bizarre blue WKD baptism. Doug fled the community, startling people as he went, mainly because their night for gimp suits wasn’t for a while yet. He’d managed to get some evidence on Sybil but was also incriminated. The community meeting was a kangaroo court and barbecue at the local church, ending in a breakdown for most of the characters, spreading of malicious photos of Sybil’s baptism and Doug’s gimp suit charge through the town. With everything at the crescendo, we added up our positive and negative cards, then drew the relevant Aftermaths. Doug had been radicalised by the experience. The photos included proof of his obsession over his editor’s wife and he moved from social network to social network, becoming a manic Alex Jones type. Sybil was arrested after overdosing and attacking Buiskit. Finally Officer Dustin was a laughing stock in the community, with the local kids celebrating Sybil as the true hero of Kickflip for Jesus, and living with the tireless van now permanently a fixture in the neighbourhood.

Compared to the two hour suggested time, my game took three. There are several mitigating factors which could be the cause of this; teaching & playing a new system, learning it on Roll20 and a short break to get another dram of Woodford Reserve.

If you like daft, messy stories about chaotic, awful people then this is the perfect game for you. The plots end up feeling like a Coen movie or a more ambitious It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plot. Personally I found this version even tighter and more accessible. The only criticisms I have are the size of the whole product compared to even my old Fiasco in a Box. Despite this, Fiasco’s a stone cold classic and a great game for one shots. You can still play the old version if you prefer, but I think this is the edition I’ll be taking to one shot nights from now on.

Fiasco in a Box is beginning to trickle out to retailers like Leisure Games, but at the moment while we’re all indoors, you’re probably best checking out the Roll20 version 

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