RPGs are narrative games, and they progress through conflict and risk. Sometimes it’s simple—the adventurers want treasure, orcs have treasure, so the adventurers fight the orcs. Other times, it’s more complicated.
Dread and Fiasco are two games where it’s much more complicated. Both are also extremely enjoyable and gratifying due to how much adversity characters may have to endure when striving toward unmet needs and unfulfilled desires. When those are achieved, it creates a genuine sense of accomplishment.
What makes these games unique, however, is how they enable players—via their materials and mechanics—to exercise agency through characters taking risky actions and resolving conflicts. In particular, the materials each game uses to impose risk and chance not only determine gameplay but also represent the course of narrative conflict by physically embodying, on the table, the interpersonal power relations that structure each game.
In other words, each game’s physical, mechanical, and social structures are similar at the abstract level. Deploying all three of these in tandem achieves distinctive narrative experiences that set Dread and Fiasco not only apart from one another but from the vast majority of RPGs.
All stories are motivated by conflict—characters want things they can’t have, so they try to circumvent or remove the obstacles standing in their way. But games are only interesting when there’s a risk of failure and consequence; uncertainty encourages audiences to invest in characters inhabiting books and films, and it motivates players’ investment in their RPG characters.
But like books and films, different RPGs offer different experiences. Different types of stories are told, and players hold different expectations.
Dread is a game of suspense and horror. It strives to unsettle players, induce anxiety, and awaken the primal imperative of survival.
Fiasco is … well, it’s in the name. It’s a game of “powerful ambition and poor impulse control,” and the book is peppered with quotes from films that exemplify the sort of stories players can create. Survival is a factor in Fiasco, but it places as much emphasis on more immediate drives like power, prestige, sex, wealth, and revenge.
Fiasco is a dice-based game, but not quite like other RPGs. Dice introduce randomness into the play experience, but only three times per game when determining initial conditions, narrative twist, and final resolution. During the bulk of play, dice are capital for players to circulate and accumulate as a formal means of shaping the story’s events.
Dread has no dice.
Instead, players pull wooden blocks from a tower to simulate uncertainty and risk at pivotal narrative moments. If a player causes the tower to collapse, their character is removed from the game. For all intents and purposes, every risk taken is a matter of life and death.
The Dread GM’s first task is to create a questionnaire for each player. These questionnaires allow the player to establish their character’s background, motivation, concrete goals, stake in the plot, relationships with other characters, and their personal strengths and limitations. The GM has total control over the questions asked and holds right of final approval over the player’s answers. Once completed, this questionnaire serves as an informal character sheet.
Character creation in Fiasco begins not with characters themselves but with relationships between characters. Dice are rolled and results are used to add details and conflict to these relationships—not individual characters. As a result, Fiasco has no character sheets, only cards describing complicated relationships. From these concrete details, players develop their characters based on their relationships to one another—rather than in relation to the GM.
Dread grants the GM greater control over character creation to ensure characters fit the predefined scenario and plot. In Fiasco, only the circumstances are predefined; the plot’s specific events all emerge over the course of play.
Social Organization in Gameplay
Once a game of Dread is underway, players enjoy more autonomy. The GM guides the overarching narrative, but players can freely collaborate and contribute local color and details.
The GM, however, still decides when players must pull from the tower. But the GM will never have to do so themselves, ensuring the story’s narrative arc is followed and concluded, one way or another.
Fiasco, rather than cleaving to a master narrative, is an exercise in emergent storytelling. With no GM, authority is distributed amongst the players, who collectively build a story on the fly while maintaining tension with one another via their characters.
In Fiasco, the game’s phases supply the narrative structure that, in Dread, is the responsibility of the GM. These are Act 1, the Tilt, Act 2, and Aftermath. This conforms to the film- and publishing-industries’ standard 3-act structure, but Fiasco arranges it around the story’s midpoint for the sake of convenience. It provides a nice intermission for players to refresh and gather their thoughts, and it enables both halves of the game to utilize the same basic progression of multiple scenes followed by dice rolls.
Every scene in Fiasco carries risk. Players can choose to establish a scene, deciding what conflict or situation it explores, but the outcome (positive or negative) will be decided by another player rather than by chance. Players can instead choose to resolve their scene and maintain control over the outcome, but they sacrifice control over the situation they’ll find themselves in.
Scenes are resolved by selecting a black or white die (representing a positive or negative resolution) from the central pool. Over the course of a few scenes, players will accumulate their own dice pools. During scenes, the dice’s color represents the positive or negative resolution. At the Tilt and Aftermath, players roll their dice, sum up black and white dice, and subtract the low value from the high one. The results determine the midpoint plot twist (Tilt) and the story’s final resolution (Aftermath).
At the Tilt, two players will decide which horrible event befalls the other’s character. In all phases except the Aftermath (and even sometimes then), play is collaborative and non-hierarchical—but it maintains a competitive drive. Every player has an end in mind for their character, whether good or bad, and they want to ensure their character arrives as planned (though not necessarily unscathed).
Material and Social Similarities
In Dread, risk and randomness are embodied in the tower’s physical structure, which materially reiterates the gameplay’s social hierarchy: the GM wields significantly more narrative power and incurs absolutely no mechanical risk. The political and physical structures are both vertical. Only one will topple, and it won’t land in the players’ favor.
In Fiasco, on the other hand, the power hierarchy is much flatter—though not perfectly flat, and its contours ever changing. This is embodied in the dice as material mechanisms of risk and randomness. Dice must be stable and level for their results to count in mechanical terms; they cannot be piled or stacked like Dread’s wooden blocks.
Agency, like dice, is distributed amongst Fiasco players from the outset. This complements the game’sprimary social dynamic, which is people competing against people, driven in contrary directions by their motivations and desires. In Dread, however, the main conflict consists of a group collectively struggling against a single, external threat—the in-game antagonist(s) and the metagame GM.
Both Dread and Fiasco exemplify the narrative potential of elegant, limited mechanics and an open invitation for informal collaboration. This adds color and atmosphere to the shared tale, and it encourages players to invest in their characters.
Dread is structured to create a deeply internal experience for players—but not the GM. Its asymmetrical power relationship favors the GM’s agency to great effect; there is an intelligent, intentional authority imposing strife and tribulation upon the players, whose success is a matter of timing and grace under pressure. For them, the experience is a cerebral one of isolation and vulnerability, both of which define its narrative genre.
Fiasco is primarily collaborative (again, not cooperative), and its improvisational element has greater structural impact than is formally possible in Dread. The story emerges from the open social relations between players, whose dynamics are embodied mechanically and physically by the dice.
Dread and Fiasco, each in its own way, leverage very different materials, mechanics, and social structures. But in doing so, each game is able to to achieve disparate but highly effective narrative and experiential results.
What interesting experiences have you had with Dread and Fiasco? Let me know in a comment!
Emmy Allen’s Stygian Library in silhouette
TTRPGs as communication & communication in TTRPGs
Forge a dynasty from birth scream to last gasp