Mon
Aug 13 2012 1:00pm

TableTop’s “Fiasco” Captures the Heart of Roleplaying

TableTop’s Fiasco episodes may be the greatest roleplaying documentary made to date. While live-action roleplayers get things like Darkon or Monster Camp, pen and paper roleplayers have had to make do with Tom Hanks feeding into an absurd moral panic or Marlon Wayans acting as cheap comedy relief—why are there no good Dungeons and Dragons movies?

When Wil Wheaton, Alison Haislip, Bonnie Burton and John Rogers sit down to play Bully Pulpit’s Fiasco—a game where what can go wrong will go wrong—that changes for the better. Not only are the two episodes it takes to show their session a joy to watch (and they are a pleasure) but they succeed in something that is really difficult to do: capture the essence of a game session. Like bottling lightning, it isn’t easy, but TableTop manages it!

When TableTop aired their first episode, about Small World, I was pretty excited. As a roleplayer, I wasn’t much of a table top gamer. I figure, if I can get folks to sit at the table and geek out for a few hours, why not play a roleplaying game? Well, TableTop turned me around; I bought Small World on their recommendation, got a bunch of my non-gaming friends into it, and I’ve picked up an expansion pack for it already. The show works, is my point; I’ve bought Gloom because I saw it on TableTop as well. No surprise, you can add Fiasco to that list; I went down to my local gaming shop and picked it up just the other day.

I didn’t know what Fiasco was before the episode started and when I figured out that it was a roleplaying game, I was well and truly amped. Fiasco is a game in which you capture the dark comic confusion of the Coen brothers, where snappy Tarantino dialogue in the midst of mounting carnage is provided by the players, where the good-hearted charm of Simon Pegg’s bumbling runs smack dab into the harsh realities of a Greg Rucka spy comic. Quirky characters in unfortunate circumstances with the odds piling up against them, turning on each other and going out in a blaze of…well, going out in a blaze of glory might even be asking too much. The game is played without a “Dungeon Master,” with a variety of random charts taking its place. Everything else is left in the player’s soon to be bloody hands. At the end you find out if you’ll get the Wes Anderson bittersweet ending, the Guy Richie gritty ending, or the Reservoir Dogs ending.

Each game of Fiasco starts with a scenario—in this case, “Saturday Night ’78,” written by Wil Wheaton—formerly Star Trek’s Wesley Crusher, now blogger, actor and host of the show— along with Jason Morningstar, who created Fiasco, and Will Hindmarch. TableTop’s crew of players are Wil, playing as Marty Spano, a two-bit director anxious to his the big time. John Rogers—show runner of Leverage, where he presumably met Wheaton while he was playing the hacker “Chaos”—is Eddie O’Malley, desperate owner of the now-closing nightclub “Glamorous.” Bonnie Burton—author of the Star Wars Craft Book— plays Lilly Anastasia, the waitress turned disco celebrity hoping to use Marty Spano to make it in the pictures. Alison Haislip—one of the stars of Battleground, which I think you have to say prefaced by “Hulu’s first original series...”—is Betty Capozzi, the naïve beauty looking to escape from peepshows and to rekindle the flame with her ex, Eddie.

This was all figured out during the set-up, which is its own bonus episode. As a game geek, it is worth watching; it will help you grok how the mechanics of the system work, and how the characters were built. As for objectively good television? They were right to cut it and spin it out on its own. It is the nitty-gritty of the game, and watching the nuts and bolts are interesting to some but it isn’t snappy, it doesn’t pop the way the two-part episode does.

Think of it as behind the scenes footage. If you’ve got an interest in that sort of thing, it is fascinating, but if you don’t you can safely skip it. If you want to play “Saturday Night ’78” for yourself you can download it for free.

The first half is when things really start rolling, and you can see the strength of Fiasco as a system. Everyone has a loose character framework—tied together by relationships, needs, objects and places—but those character develop into a cogent whole pretty immediately through roleplaying. Think of the relationships and whatnot as a minimalist character sheet, cut down from attributes and spells to the heart of things—roles. Since everyone is playing in a milieu, there isn’t a lot of need for balance: the system relies on the player’s pursuit of the theme and the social pressures of telling a good story to keep things from falling apart. If they do fall apart, well, Fiasco is all about how the center cannot hold, after all. Which is the point of The Tilt, which is how the first episode ends. Each scenario—we’re watching “Saturday Night ’78,” remember—has a specific list of tables for the set-up. Obsessions, connections, locations, items—these change from scenario to scenario, but The Tilt stays the same. A mixture of mayhem, tragedy, innocence, guilt, paranoia and failure—The Tilt is where everyone’s big plans start to go pear-shaped.

Oh, glorious fallout. The second half of the Fiasco episodes contains an energy familiar to anyone who has had one of those roleplaying sessions where everything just clicks. Where your character’s convoluted backstory comes together with another characters behind the scenes plotting and they mix like ammonia and bleach. Really, these two episodes just cut to the heart of what makes the hobby so fun. It is both totally unpredictable…and totally your own creation. Watching all the wonderfully terrible dominos fall down leaves you feeling like Hannibal from The A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together. You can see that everyone succumbs to the duality of the game: on one hand, they are immersed in their roles, but on the other hand they all have that level of distance that allows them to throw their own characters under the bus. The whole thing ends with The Aftermath, a montage sequence in which the players wrap up the fate of their characters. Like The Tilt, The Aftermath is common to all the Fiasco scenarios, and ranges from “the worst thing in the universe” to “grim” or “pathetic” all the way up to “awesome” and other more merrily explicative laced options. By this point, the schadenfreude has been aged to a fine vintage; drink deep!


Mordicai Knode enjoys a good tragedy now and then, don’t you? Maybe that is why he got such a kick out of Vampire: The Masquerade. If you’d like, you can follow his fiasco of a Twitter and his tilted Tumblr.

13 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I actually watched this episode again on Friday with a non-gamer friend who enthusiastically champions us giving it a play next time we hang out. I guess I need to pick up a couple of bricks of d6s...
Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
Alison "Dead Eyes" Haislip FTW! Though Bonnie Burton's Lily was a masterwork of malicious web-spinning.

And kudos to Mr. Wheaton and the TableTop team for dedicating two full episodes to their Fiasco session, which fits in perfectly with the game's own suggestion to take a break when the Tilt is introduced (end of Act One) and the scenario is resolved (Act Two).

I would say, for anyone wanting to learn Fiasco, the bonus Set-Up episode is a must-see. I would also recommend it generally, too. Yes, it adds more of the nitty, gritty game detail and mechanics. It also gives viewers a chance to see how the characters were born and how their relationships evolve. And the four players are just having too much fun for me not to want to hang with them longer.

mordicai (@1): If you want to play Fiasco, don't sweat the pile o' d6s. The game is recommended for 3-5 players, and you need 4 d6s per player in two colors (one for positive, one for negative resolves). So, it's only 12-20 d6s (two sets of 6-10 each). Any gamer worth her salt should have that many in the ol' dice bag already, no?
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. Eugene R.

I find the game's tone to be quite charming, regarding that "take a break," especially, where they are like "really, though, take our advice, we think you should!"

Everyone does such a great job it is hard for me to single out any of the characters or actors...but if I had to, I might say John Rogers, if only because the wheedling tone he takes is so similar to the wheedling tone that Timothy Hutton's character on Leverage, Nate Ford, takes. I was charmed!

Anyhow, I confess, most of my dice are "ugly dice," which is to say, in all the worst colours of the rainbow. Puces & a flourescents & pastels...it is sort of a nightmare. I mostly play with the World of Darkness ruleset, so I have nice d10s (an old Vampire: the Masquerade set & one of the new Promethean sets) which made me think "Hey, you could make a d10 variant of the standard scenarios, & just expand it!" But anyhow, I sort of want a nice matching set?
Eugene R.
4. Eugene R.
mordicai (@3): I agree with you that John Rogers adds a lot to the session both as player and as a commentator on the way that Fiasco uses the scene structuring of compelling drama ("What does the character want? Why can't he have it? Why should we give a frack?"). No surprise to find out that he is one of the interviewees in The Fiasco Companion.

And as soon as I typed my thoughtless comment about all of us having enough dice, I realized that I was cutting off a gamer from a perfectly usable excuse to buy more dice. Fool that I am! Forgive me, I know not what I say. Years ago, at my first major games convention, I wandered into the dealers' room and was bedazzled by the Chessex display. I remember thinking, "This is as close as I will ever come to the classic, 'You are in a 10' x 10' room; there are piles of gems gleaming in front of you' dungeoneering experience in Real Life." Happy dice gathering!
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
4. Eugene R.

Yes, the truth of the matter is, I'm glad for an excuse to buy more shiny dice! You know, they hve all those fancy dice, like made from dinosaur bones & meteorites & stuff...maybe one day I'll get a vanity set. They aren't that expensive...

John Rogers being a big old game nerd is pretty great; I was watching Leverage before I found out, & had even mentioned to my wife how much like a Dungeons & Dragons party the crew of that show were. When I found out John Rogers was a gamer, my first response was "of course he is!"
Sam Brougher
6. Azuaron
@Eugene R. Wait wait wait... you think ever gamer is going to have 40 (sorry, read it wrong) 20 d6s just lying around? Even at the height of my Shadowrun days (which is all d6s) I only had around 20. Not only that, but you have to be able to separate them into two easily distinguishable groups, which most gamers' "all the colors of the rainbow" dice collections will not readily do.
Sam Brougher
7. Azuaron
Also, "dead eyes" has, in fact, become a gif.

Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
7. Azuaron

I am not the biggest fan of Facebook but sometimes a comment comes along that I just want to "Like." Today, "deadeyes.gif" is it.
Eugene R.
9. Eugene R.
Azuaron (@6): Oh, I am certain that all of us have piles of d6s, although not necessarily just lying around, as you note. I might have to scavenge through some board game boxes to fill out the totals required (I'm looking at *you*, Risk!). But, in general, the minor glut of d6 game systems (Champions, anyone? Star Wars) should have left in its wake a nice heap o' d6s, with color choices, knowing how we gamers love us our variously shaded and textured dice, making it a bit tricky but not insurmountable (say, white d6s versus non-white). Heck, I know people with sets of 20 dF (Fudge dice) in 5 colors! (Of course, it helps that I like to run Fudge-based games ...)

(@7): Yes, John Rogers was soooo right in making that call about the "Dead eyes" gif appearing within hours of the webcast, wasn't he?
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
9. Eugene R.

To be fair, the Geek & Sundry crowd basically call "that'll be a .gif!" on any funny face in any of their episodes. To be even fairer, though, I must admit, they're not wrong...
Dale Norman
12. dokipen
It looks brilliant and I enjoyed the videos but the game seems to come down to the narative ability of the players rather than the game itself. As a person devoid of creativity that kinda puts me off. Also, and this may just be a by-product of being English, I don't know anyone who wouldn't feel 'silly' having to go through all that.

Don't let that take away from a brilliant series of videos. I've thoroughly enjoyed watching them. :)
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
12. dokipen

I have exclusively played it with non-gamers, & I find that the silliness & doubt dissolve pretty quickly. The trick, I think, is that people actually HAVE narrative ability, but they don't neccisarily KNOW that they do. The rules provide enough hooks & enough framework for people to just sort of let themselves go. I guess what I'm saying is that you might just surprise yourself if you gave it a whirl.
Eugene R.
14. Eugene R.
Just ran across an interview (on the Bookslut blog) with Lizz Stark, author of the LARP study Leaving Mundania. She recommends Fiasco as the "starter" game for people intrigued by LARPing but unable to find a group and/or a set of foam-rubber swords and armor.

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