So I finally got to play Fiasco this week, with friends Chien, Kit and Ember. Previously I had only watched Fiasco being played on TableTop.
The first step in playing Fiasco is the Setup which starts with choosing a Playset, which is a setting. Then you work your way around the table, defining Relationships, Locations, Needs and Items relevant to that Playset. We chose McMurdo Ice Station for our Playset and immediately I started thinking of films like The Thing, Ice Station Zero, and some classic Dr. Who episodes.
In going round the table, we established Relationships. You get one with each person to our right and left around the table. There were Professional Rivalries, Mutual Survivors, members of the same Religion, and Criminal enterprises afoot. Needs resulted in Earn Respect, Need to Escape (and I forget the rest). There was a undefined Weapon and a locked room in the Biology wing.
Then character creation began:
I ended up playing Hope Anderson, a recent grad student, arriving on station after getting hired by Ember/Anke’s husband, the senior researcher on McMurdo. Hope had written Anke, having followed her online for years, and plead to be hired.
Ember created Anke Jornsdotter, a Norwegian leader of a radical feminist sect (our mutual religion). Her husband was the senior researcher on McMurdo. Anke is secretly trying to invoke her goddess, and to that end, she’d convinced her husband to sleep with Dr. Andrea because Anke herself was infertile. In the meantime, Anke works as the schoolmarm for the base, teaching kids from elementary up to high school.
Kit created Dr. Andrea Lorearu, and ambitious bio researcher, gorgeous and not adverse to using her wiles to get what she wanted. She also believed in unspecified extremist of beliefs. She found a kindred and plyable patsy in Thomas Rhys while he was a doctorate student and she her advisor.
Chien created Thomas Rhys, PhD, who had attended university with Hope and they had rivaled for Dr. Andrea’s approval for their Doctorate programs. Thomas had crushed hard on Hope, but Hope only strung him along, until he met Dr.Andrea, who made him her lover and minion and approved his thesis over Hopes’. Once on McMurdo, they were conspiring to develop an exotic lifeforms they’d discovered under the ice as a possible bio-weapon for sale on the black market.
Fiasco is played in a series of Acts and Scenes, each player getting to either open or close a Scene involving their character, going round the table. There is a pool of white and black dice, representing if the scene went well for you or not. However, in the first phase, you give the dice you earn to another player.
Kit/Andrea got to go first, and crafted a flashback scene laying out how Andrea and Anke were the sole survivors of a terrible accent during the base’s celebration of the winter solstice. Something with tentacles ate all the other members of the party.
Three months later, Hope arrives on McMurdo, looking forward to proving herself both before Anke and professionally in spite of the setbacks by Thomas and Andrea. Waiting for her was Anke and not Dr. Andrea. Anke informs Hope that Dr. Andrea is now in charge and Hope would be working for her instead of Anke’s husband. Hope is a little downtrodden by the news, but Anke promises to take her under her wing. Anke also gives Hope a list of activities and things she’ll need for her Initiation into the Order. Hope, having studied all she could about their faith online, is suddenly surprised she has a lot of extra homework to do as well to prove her commitment to their religion.
Now Dr.Andrea was the senior researcher, and made it clear on their first meeting (since college) that Thomas was her right-hand man, and that Hope had a long road to proving herself. Dr. Andrea was also six months pregnant by now, father unknown.
After a few weeks work, Hope discovered that vital supplies are missing, and goes directly to Dr. Andrea. Andrea, who knows Thomas is using the supplies in their secret bio-weapon research, tries to distract Hope from the issue by bringing up Hopes’ proposed thesis project, and offers her a currently unused greenhouse module on the far side of the science sector to continue her research. Hope, excited for the opportunity, agrees. Andrea tells Thomas to let Hope borrow what equipment she needs for her pet project. When Thomas isn’t paying attention, Hope borrows a spectrum analyzer that happens to have some frozen ’Bacteria-X’ samples in it.
What follows is a montage of Hope doing lab work during normal hours, pursuing her old thesis project in the greenhouse and also setting up and practicing initiation rites in the same space; doing triple-shifts, if you will. The greenhouse becomes a messy combination of thesis project and cult initiation paraphernalia.
This was the midpoint of our story, the game mechanics change somewhat. First you determine The Tilt: the mechanisms by how things go so badly wrong. We ended up determining "Something precious is on fire," and "A beast (even metaphorical) is set loose."
Then Act Two begins: You still go around the table, requesting scenes, or dictating them. But when you earn a black or white die in phase two, you keep it. The dice you have (from phase one and two) have a direct effect in the final phase of the game.
When Thomas realizes the spectrum analyzer is missing from his secret project, he tracks it down to Hope’s greenhouse, finding Hope chanting and carving a wooden effigy in the midst of lab equipment. He startles her and she cuts her hand with the carving knife, bleeding onto the incomplete idol. She breaks down, exhausted and crying and wounded, confessing all. Seeing her injured and broken, Thomas takes the opportunity he’d always wanted, takes care of her injury and takes her away to the infirmary, but not before the bloody idol is placed precariously on the analyzer. He looks over his shoulder as they leave the greenhouse, thinking he can come back for the analyzer when Hope is out of the way.
After delivering Hope to the infirmary, Thomas checks in on Andrea, who once learns Hope was cut and bleeding near Bacteria-X, orders the infirmary to put Hope in quarantine. She then nearly faints from stress and seeming to have early labor pains, but not before ordering Thomas to clean up the greenhouse “by any means necessary.”
Thomas returns to the greenhouse, but learns that the bloody effigy has fallen on the samples of Bacteria-X, and now some kind of glowing moss is growing on the idol. Afraid to get close, he goes to fetch some gasoline and fire source…
Anke, taking some of her kids on a tour to the medical wing, sees Hope get placed into quarantine. She hears Hope muttering something about her idol and her work, and Anke makes for the greenhouse. She arrives in time to see Thomas dousing everything in gasoline. She interrogates Thomas, learns Anke is having some kind of labor pains, learns about Bacteria-X. About that time, Hope’s idols eyes start glowing. Anke tells Thomas to burn it all. She heads to find Anke, and tells Thomas to get Hope out of quarantine, telling him: “Hope may be the only person who can undo this!”
The very second the fire hits the glowing chia-pet idol, Andrea suddenly goes into intense labor pains. It feels like a salamander is slithering in her belly. Anke arrives, finding Andrea delirious and believing she’s back on the ship when the terrible accident happened months ago.
Thomas arrives back in the hospital and distracts the doctor on duty by telling her that Andrea’s having some kind of preclampia and can’t make it to the ER. The doctor sends two paramedics to get Andrea, and rushes off to prepare the maternity wing. Left alone, Thomas then breaks Hope out of quarantine. He reveals that the greenhouse is on fire, Andrea is in pre labor, and Anke said to free Hope because she could stop whatever was happening.
Hope drags Thomas to the greenhouse, only to find it in ruin, but there’s a very large hole in the ice, laced with purple moss of some kind and apparently dug by either fire or claws. She convinced Thomas to man up to protect the woman he loves. They grab outdoor gear, tranquilizers guns from the biology lab near by, and jump into the hole to follow whatever monster they’ve set loose on the world.
Anke arrives and snaps Andrea out of her fugue, tells her she knows that the child is her husbands, that it was Anke’s intention, and that Andrea is probably carrying a god. But all of Anke’s practices and plans were based on nordic legends and practices, which happen on the other side of the world, and here in the antarctic, who knows what kind of diety she’s invoked on the polar opposite of the planet… Paramedics arrive and take Andrea & Anke to hospital. Anke using her training and rituals to keep Andrea calm and easy the fires caused by the god-child inside her.
Hope and Thomas follow the tunnel, which leads back under the complex and comes up into Andrea’s office space. They follow the path of destruction thru the office spaces, leading outside again, and clearly headed for the hospital wing. They jump on ice bikes and race after it.
Hope and Thomas catch up to the monster just as Andrea has delivered a glowing child in the maternity wing. The monster kills the doctor and the attending nurse, and grabs the child and appears ready to eat it. Hope and Thomas attack with their tranq guns, but they have no effect.
Thomas charges the beast, bravely throwing himself between it and the woman he loves, trying to save the child he believes may be his.
Hope sees that while most of the monster is mossy tentacles, it still has the incomplete idol as a ‘face.’ She realizes that it was her ritual of making and her blood that brought this monstrosity to life. She tears the bandage off her wounded hand, smears the ritual carving knife with her blood, and while singing the rite of Unmaking, stabs the monster in the idol/mask.
Everything goes white.
At this point we’d spent all our scene dice, which means that it was time to roll the Aftermath, and narrate what happens to our characters. You roll all the dice before you, subtracting the negative ones from the positive, and lookup the resulting value on a table in the book, which gives you a general description of the level of how-screwed-your-character-is. It’s then up to narrate how your character’s story ends:
Thomas is dead. He was used by stronger women, played for a patsy, but he was brave and died trying to do the right thing.
Andrea is emotionally and mentally broken, confided to a psyche ward; breaking into hysterical screaming fits when she sees Anke or her child or any child for that matter. It will take a long time to heal her mind.
Anke leaves McMurdo, godling child in arms, but without a husband or the support network she was hoping for. Just what kind of being has she brought into the world? How will she take care of it?
And finally, there’s Hope, who was burned and unconscious after the battle. I imagine the last scene of the ‘movie’ is looking down at her hospital-bed confined self; one eye covered in bandages. Int he final shot her good eye opens, and a purple glow emanates from under the bandage where her other eye should be.
Slam to black screen and roll credits.