RPG Spotlight: Fiasco / Ribbon Drive

Since last month’s post I’ve managed to cross two games off my immediate wish list (and it looks like we’ll be playing both Kingdom and Apocalypse World in the near future, so things are progressing nicely)

Fiasco and Ribbon Drive are pretty similar procedurally, but with some differences that I think are interesting and significant — so I’m going to talk about them here.

Let’s talk about the similarities first:

  • Both are GMless, improv-driven games
  • Both revolve around scenes which are framed by one player and resolved by the group in a freeform manner
  • Both sell themselves primarily by reference to cinema — Coen brothers for Fiasco, road movies for Ribbon Drive
  • Both are often called “storygames” on the premise that successive scenes will gradually resolve into a narrative with some kind of conclusion.

I’ll run over my summary of both games first. If you know them, skip ahead to the Comparisons section.


Fiasco is the original poster child of the Indie prepless, GMless, pick-up-and-play RPG scene, endorsed by Wil Wheaton, and now in it’s eighth printing (as of June 2014).


The game is all about setting up a tenuous set of circumstances and then causing trouble. Characters are built entirely from their Relationships with one another, and each relationship focuses on a detail — a Need, an Object or a Location. All generated by random tables, meaning the game really can be zero prep.

This is not what we’re used to. Yes, the characters have individual identities which will be negotiated during the set-up phase, but there are no stats, nothing to tell us how one character might be superior or inferior to another. The resolution of scenes, for good or bad, is a binary choice. When your turn for a scene comes around you may either frame a scene for your own character and leave the outcome up to your friends, or get them to frame it for you but choose your own outcome. That’s it.

This is a game that pushes players to act now and make those acts significant. We only have two scenes each during the first act, and another two during the second. Additionally we’re encouraged to build in the details from our relationships rather than introduce new elements, to keep the focus on the same set of details. Halfway through there’s the Tilt, the thing that changes the landscape — betrayal, mayhem, uncovering dark secrets. At the end there’s the Aftermath.

The actual mechanism is beautiful: two white and two black dice per player get placed in the centre, rolled and selected for the initial relationships, then get used as currency through the game as scenes are resolved by selecting a black or white die (bad or good outcome) and giving it to the person whose PC is in focus for the scene. During the Tilt and Aftermath the totals are rolled with white subtracted from black. When half the dice in the middle have been doled out, that’s the halfway point and the cue for the Tilt.

Despite this beauty, I found the game hard to engage with. Scenes need to resolve, and therefore they need to be set up with cues as to what the conflict is — and more than once we found ourselves with a freeform scene with no obvious good or bad outcome. Negotiating the terms of the conflict up front (what’s at stake, what does each participant want) was the way to achieve a strong resolution, obvious when you think about it — but the need to do this is not totally clear from the game text.

This isn’t the first time I’ve found Jason Morningstar’s books to be a little vague when it comes to scene framing — I recall we had an identical experience when playing Durance. But actually Ribbon Drive suffers from a similar lack of specificity. Fiasco, to its credit, does have good examples that imply the style of play expected.

Fiasco reinforces my view that there’s a tacit component to understanding many of these storygames — some experience beyond the text of the game as written. This information is somewhere, I’m sure — it’s in the www.story-games.com boards and the cliques of convention goers and G+ threads, being passed from person to person almost as an oral tradition. To break into that you either need to be initiated by someone, or infer the framing process based on trad gaming experience, and muddle through until it works.

This is no different from all the different stripes of traditional gaming, it’s just the blind spots are in different places. Mostly it just reinforces just how hard it is to talk about exactly how we play, whichever part of the roleplaying subculture we find ourselves in. I do think that once the art of scene framing is learned there’s a big payoff in terms of bringing that back into traditional GMing, and games like these end up exercising muscles we don’t use often. That’s a good thing.

Ribbon Drive

Avery McDaldno’s Ribbon Drive is about road trips and personal journeys, all set to music. The need for mixtapes (and I’m going to call them tapes from now on, even though we’re a streaming household and my cassette deck is in storage) means it’s not fully prepless, although we tend to be the sort of people who have mixes “just lying around”.


Everyone must bring a themed mix along, with the lyrics to the first two songs printed out. The first thing we do is pick one at random (out of a hat for us) and listen in silence to the first track. McDaldno reckons this part is quite difficult, but we wondered if that wasn’t a consequence of convention play with strangers. If you’re playing with old friends — especially friends who share a passion for the playlist — it’s no big deal.

The road trip comes out of the first mix, including the briefest outline of the party and the reason for the trip. The second song gives the party substance; we take lyrics and turn them into Traits and Futures. Traits are (unsurprisingly) things that define what the PC can do or how they behave, and Futures are what the character expects or hopes to happen (and phrased as a statement, not a question). Both of these attributes should come out in the freeform roleplaying during scenes.

After playing Fiasco where characters are completely defined by the relationships they have with others, this approach felt a little more natural; characters are developed in isolation after agreeing on a central premise, which is pretty much how I would go about preparing for a one-off game.

Then the third track plays, and we’re on our trip. The first person to speak frames the first scene, everyone pitches in as appropriate (as Author, Actor or Director) and at some point someone says “cut!”. The advice on resolving scenes is even more scant than Fiasco, but at the same time I felt there was less pressure to incorporate all the details — I was mainly responsible for bringing my own Traits and Futures to the surface. In Fiasco I felt hemmed-in by the details, but here I felt the opposite — like I could let go and just freeform it, taking cues from the music-as-the-road.

While there’s no details to include and no little pile of dice to work through, we did feel obliged to bring Obstacles into play. If an Obstacle comes along (proposed by the last person to speak in a scene) and no-one can beat it with a Trait, a Detour happens: the mix is changed for a new one, and the next scene happens immediately. This is all well and good except we were so wrapped up in the trip itself that most of the time we forgot obstacles entirely. Reading other accounts of play I don’t think this is out of the ordinary.

Ultimately it’s the Futures that we’re driving towards. But whereas Fiasco’s end conditions are clear-cut — once the dice have been distributed, it’s time to find out just how awful the Aftermath is — Ribbon Drive’s Futures are uncertain. This is both a blessing and a curse. We did question whether we were spending too much time noodling about and not expressing our own Futures as much as we should.

We did break one rule, although I’m struggling to work out what the consequences were. We talked about how long it would take us to get to our destination, and decided we were only a few hours away. That may have changed the end conditions from resolving Futures and letting go to a more mission-based outcome. The actual effect was minimal but I wonder if it would have broken the game had we had that conversation earlier. Still, it was an in-character conversation, so legitimate.


Much as the two games are different from our traditional approach, they have some fundamental differences that shape my feelings about them, too. This is what I could identify:

  1. Fiasco’s play boundaries — coming back to the details — are well defined and (if you allow them to be) constraining. Ribbon Drive boundaries are almost nonexistant — because the constraint is on the possible future, not the journey itself.
  2. In Fiasco the players take joint responsibility to incorporate the elements of all relationships as much as they are able; and in Ribbon Drive the players are similarly advised to keep an eye on each other’s Traits and Futures (to make sure they get brought into play). In the end though I think it’s possible to play Ribbon Drive focused only on ones’ own Traits, and that’s just not possible with Fiasco’s relationship structure.
  3. Less pressure to resolve each and every scene with a significant conclusion in Ribbon Drive compared to Fiasco.

What about comparisons with traditional roleplaying games?

Fiasco is so radically different from D&D that no real comparison can be made. On the other hand comparing Ribbon Drive with a minimalist system like Everway makes a lot more sense. Both use a small number of descriptive traits, and both use some notion of uncertain destiny which is (at least partly) under the control of the player. Everway even uses media inspiration — in the form of art cards — to generate character.

Maybe this is why Ribbon Drive feels particularly comfortable. In fact the way we tend to play has a lot in common with Ribbon Drive’s freeform approach, including spontaneous invention of facts and events (with GM permission, of course).

Final Words

T reckons we’d managed to squeeze every last drop of goodness from our very first Ribbon Drive, while we have yet to hit Fiasco’s peak. That’s a fair statement; certainly I don’t think our next session of RD will be better, just different. At the same time while I definitely feel I should play Fiasco again, it’s the next session of Ribbon Drive that I’m looking forward to.

A lot of this is to do with the ritual and joy of creating a mixtape, and our play group are that target audience. While Fiasco is a game I like well enough to play again, Ribbon Drive has been love at first sight.

3 thoughts on “RPG Spotlight: Fiasco / Ribbon Drive

  1. “We talked about how long it would take us to get to our destination, and decided we were only a few hours away. That may have changed the end conditions from resolving Futures and letting go to a more mission-based outcome. ” I hope that this didn’t change what we were doing with the game, and although I asked about it I wasn’t sure anyone else would even have noticed that we broke the rules. As far as I remember, from my POV at the time the few remarks we made about the future that didn’t relate to Futures, were basically touching base to establish consensual reality. Specifically, how absurd was our physical location compared with what we reasonably could have expected when we first set out? Of course if we’d wanted to do that while sticking to the rules, and were familiar enough with the game to remember the rule properly at all times, then we’d have found another way to express the same thing. Even something as simple as “where are we?” instead of “how long do we have to go?” would have done the trick, except that I was too hazy on the geography for that to actually work on this occasion! Although you say “It was an in-character conversation, so legitimate”, the reason I asked you about it after the game as a rules query was that I think Ribbon Drive is attempting to assert some limits on the game (or focus if you prefer), and it may be that off-topic conversations, no matter how justified by the characters and their relationships, simply should be avoided or where appropriate called “cut” on. That is to say, assume they happen but not on-screen since they aren’t relevant to the Ribbon Drive game. After all, if we just wanted to make some characters and play them to music, then we could use those parts of the rules and not the rest, but we wouldn’t be having the experience that we’ve chosen McDaldno to advise us to have, by playing his game. I see Ribbon Drive’s rules in a very different way from how I see the polearms table in D&D — I suspect the Ribbon Drive’s few rules to be pretty much minimal, such that removing any of them is significant. Obstacles seem to me primarily a means to group-negotiate the choice of music. We raised two and overcame neither of them, since in each case we were ready for a change of mood when they were raised. No doubt there is some additional depth to be found in actually applying Traits to them! “Ribbon Drive boundaries are almost nonexistant” — now that you put it that way, I feel like Ribbon Drive is a Klein bottle. It has no boundaries, but clearly a finite extent. And we were self-limiting in a way, in that as we discussed afterwards we all felt like with practice we could use NPCs and backgrounds more actively than we did.

    • If we did inadvertently break the rules, I don’t think our game suffered. I don’t think asking questions like that broke our stride at all. And I think it would have made less sense to interject “hey, we’re not allowed to talk about distances!” The “are we there yet” conversation is a staple of car journeys :)

  2. Couple of thoughts –

    Fiasco & deciding conflict stakes on the way in. I wouldn’t, I can see the temptation, making sure you know what a scene is about early allows you to be much more focussed on the outcome of the scene but sometimes giving yourself a set up and seeing where it goes gives you a better outcome for the story. I want to see what happens when this character and that character have to talk about this. Fiasco plays quick, roughly 30 minutes per player, the odd slightly rambling scene isn’t going to be an issue. It is sometimes worth having someone remind the people at the table that a scene does need to be given a token, and end at some point, though.

    With good and bad outcomes, they are specific to being good and bad for the character that is the focus of the scene. With a bit of creativity even ending up with a sack containing $1,000,000 can be negative to the goals of the target character.

    I don’t know when you were throwing the token in, doing it early can also help a scene (so rather than waiting to see where the scene is going, just throw it in to see how the participants make the scene fit the dice.)

    Ribbon Drive – It sounds like the rule you’re worrying about is ‘don’t talk about the destination if no-one has it as a future’. We tend to play a bit fast and loose with this rule to be honest. This hasn’t left us with bad games, but probably leads to longer games. For me the point of the rules of Ribbon Drive is to be laser focussed on the Futures. They are the trigger for the end game, they are the important bit for the characters and they are the thing that road trip movies are about. The rule mandates this, it says ‘only talk about the characters futures, nothing else matters enough for a big discussion’. We play with that in mind, but often discussions will ebb and flow with futures being part of them.

    We regularly don’t bother too much about real world geography, much as it gets in the way of films (wait, you can’t take a tube train to the middle of Greenwich…) it can also get in the way here. So unless it really bugs a player, if Georgia is next to Louisiana in the game, fine we cross the border in to Louisiana (I have no idea if it is in real life, it may be). It’s a bit like the ‘do we check the rule book or keep the game flowing’ debates. Everyone has their comfortable zone. It sounds to me as if you needed to have a consensus of where you were to maintain suspension of disbelief. Not a bad thing. We have had good games where the final scenes have been at the destination with futures finally resolving. It’s not that unusual with road movies.

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