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Fiasco proves how fun it is to role-play without a DM

Patrick Rothfuss joins us for some collaborative storytelling

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Clayton Ashley , senior video editor, has been producing and editing videos for Polygon since 2016. He is the lead producer of the tabletop gaming series Overboard.

Leading a role-playing game as game master or narrator can be a lot of work. Coming up with scenes, characters, and storylines for the rest of the players is a taxing job, but there’s a way to role play without anyone taken on that burden: collaborative role-playing games. This game-masterless tabletop genre is all about crafting a story together, and you can’t start with a better example this style of game than Fiasco. We played the game in our latest episode of Overboard with the renowned storyteller Patrick Rothfuss.

Fiasco’s structure gives you the perfect framework to create your caper without the need for a narrator. You’ll start by picking out a theme deck, which are like the canvasses you’ll paint your story on. The base game comes with a classic D&D style fantasy deck, a Coen Brother’s-esque Suburbia deck, and an “American mall that’s hiding a dark secret” deck, which is what we played with. The thing is, even the theme is still just a guide. We decided we wanted our mall on the moon, and so it was!

To build your story, you start by creating your characters. Unlike a typical tabletop RPG, you don’t create your own character. Instead, you establish relationships between players, using cards that say things like “siblings” or “backstabbed” or “hero and chump”. As a group, you decide what these little prompts mean. Who’s the the older sibling? Who backstabbed who? And which one’s the chump?

You’ll add more details to these relationships, with location, object, and “need” cards that will add further color to your characters, and importantly, motivations. It’s fertile ground for the drama you’ll create in the rest of the game. Role-playing scenes with these characters is the heart of Fiasco. On your turn, you’ll get to decide on a scene with your character. You can either establish the scene or resolve it, but whichever you choose, the rest of the players get to do the other.

The role-playing in Fiasco is approachable, more like describing a movie scene. What is the camera looking at and what does the audience see? Which characters are present? What’s the location? The relationship details you’ve discussed should give you plenty to work with, but the fun of Fiasco is improvising with the ridiculous characters you’ve created and seeing where it goes!

After everyone’s had a chance to lead a couple scenes, Fiasco ratchets up the drama further with the Tilt. Players use cards they gained from having positive or negative outcomes to their scenes in Act I to set the stage for Act II. These cards contain short, ominous prompts like “A tiny mistake leads to ruin” or “Death, after an unpleasant struggle”, and two of these cards will become the themes for Act II. Even if your story has meandered a little too much in Act I, the Tilt will make it very easy to flip over the table and let chaos rein.

Once your story has reached its conclusion, you’ll get the chance to explain the Aftermath of your characters choices. Think of this like the scenes we get during a movie’s credits that show us what all the characters are up to after the main events of the movie. It’s a fun and easy way to wrap things up... or set the stage for a sequel.

We had a blast creating our story, and it was certainly a treat to have the professional world-builder Patrick Rothfuss join us. You can see more of him over on his Twitch channel, and be sure to check out his charity! If you enjoyed watching this episode of Overboard, be sure to check out our previous episodes over on our YouTube channel!