TactiCon 2012 Recap: Fiasco, Ashes of Athas, Chaos & Alchemy and impromptu D&D

Labor Day weekend has been a lot of fun for me the past three years, as I’ve been attending TactiCon. This is the smaller of the two conventions put on by the Denver Gamers Association each year (the bigger one is Genghis Con over Presidents’ Day weekend in February), but the 2010 edition was the first gaming convention I ever attended, so it always has a place in my heart.

I’ve done the “Marathon GM” thing in the past, where I run a D&D game in all nine of the convention’s four-hour slots over the weekend, but I was taking it a little easier this time – only being signed up for seven. Yes, I’m still nuts.


Thursday night, I had signed up to run a session of Fiasco. I had only played once before, but I think it’s a cool system and one that I want to get more comfortable with. I’ve been playing around with creating a playset of my own, but since it wasn’t ready in time I just brought the four sets from the base Fiasco book, plus the D&D-themed set, the rock band set and the set played on Tabletop a couple of months ago. My players, two of whom had never played before, opted for the Antarctica set. Since there were four other players plus myself, I decided not to participate as a player, instead just helping them along. I think Fiasco plays best with four.

The players had a good time, setting up a web of relationships and secrets. Things were going swimmingly until the radioactive penguins started growing tentacles at the end of Act One. Amazingly, the players all rolled pretty well by Fiasco standards at the end of the game, so none of them ended up dead and one ended up coming out smelling like roses. We finished in under two hours, too, which was great – I still had a little prep for the rest of the weekend’s games to finish.


Friday was Ashes of Athas Day One. I was running the three adventures from Chapter Three of the Dark Sun-set organized play campaign. I was delighted to discover that three of the guys whom I’d run Ashes of Athas for back at Genghis Con had returned, and they were stoked to play at my table again! They really made it fun for me last time.

This time was no different. With my projector setup running (and attracting lots of admiration from passers-by, as usual), we kept the fun flowing all day long. I felt bad for my core three players when they were bumped to another DM’s table for the middle session, but the reason was that we had a group of new-to-D&D players and the organizer knows that I love running games for new players (and that they tend to keep coming back after they’ve been at my table). I did love the new folks, too. Something about new players just gets my energy up.

My core three players were back at my table for the final adventure of the day, and it was mostly a big, two-part combat encounter. The second part had a very interesting environmental effect: Any PC starting or ending a turn in a zone of evil ashes had to make a death saving throw. This was in the Athasian plane of death, so it made sense. The cool thing about this was that it made it possible for a PC to die while still at full hit points, but not randomly out of nowhere as in a pure “save or die” effect. It really affected player tactics once they found out about it, and made things tense when they otherwise might not have been.


Saturday was going to be an interesting one. I was signed up to run Ashes of Athas from 9:00 to 1:00, from 2:00 to 6:00 and from 7:00 to 11:00. However, I was also signed up to run demos of Chaos & Alchemy in the board and card game room from noon to 3:00. I had asked the D&D organizer ahead of time if maybe I could bow out of some of my Ashes of Athas games, but he told me that he was really short on DMs.

Fortunately for me, he was wrong. Saturday morning, we had three DMs and three players. Easy solution: I would bow out, one of the DMs would play and the other DM would run a table of four! This let me get some much-needed coffee, check out the vendor hall, and then start showing people how to play Chaos & Alchemy.

Chaos & Alchemy cover art by Chris Rallis – Logo by Bree Heiss

My lovely wife came to join me in the demos at noon, and she was very eye-catching (like I said, she’s lovely). We had two tables of demos running non-stop, with lots of folks deciding to buy a copy of the game. One guy started telling all of his friends that they needed to come try this game, and I believe four of them bought copies. One of THOSE people also sent another buyer my way! Players are teaching one another to play the game.

A guy who owns a very new game retail store bought a copy and asked about carrying Chaos & Alchemy in his store. Two guys turned out to be involved with the organization of Denver Comic Con and wanted to talk to me about having a table at next year’s convention, with a “local game designer” angle on it. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and I ended the weekend with just 25 copies from my original 125 copy print run on hand. It’s off to a really good start!

As you might guess from all of that, I was able to spend most of the afternoon running Chaos & Alchemy, in part because there were only two tables worth of players for Ashes of Athas and the other two DMs ran the games. However, when the evening time slot came around, we had two tables of players but one of the other DMs was nowhere to be found, so I set up the projector and ran the adventure.

The players for Saturday night were the same six I’d had for Friday night. The adventure was the conclusion of Ashes of Athas Chapter Four, and it was my least favorite of the Ashes of Athas adventures I’ve run so far. It was really long, with too many skill challenges and combats for a standard convention time slot, and one of the combats ended up wiping out the other table of players (my table had a very hard time with it). We still had fun at the table, though. The party didn’t mind when I switched to some brief narration rather than actually running through some skill challenges, and they rolled with the bizarre “desert peyote trip” ending of the adventure.

This adventure also gave me my favorite gaming moment of the convention, when a new player who was running a spear-toting Ardent was trying desperately to figure out what she could to to help her allies while she was standing on a bridge and the gargoyle menacing them was 20 feet below her. Answer: Jump off the bridge, spear pointing down, and hope for the best. I gave her a +1 bonus for charging (sort of) and a +2 bonus for combat advantage (the gargoyle did NOT see this one coming!), and ruled that if she hit with the attack, it would count as an automatic critical hit.

Boom – gargoyle pieces everywhere! What a great ride.


I had nothing scheduled on Sunday, which was a first for me. I decided to sleep in, have an early lunch and get to the convention around 11:15. I got in on a game of Smash Up, which I knew had been a big deal at GenCon. I love the theme of the game – you play with a 40-card deck that’s made up of two 20-card decks smashed together to give you something like Alien Dinosaurs, Ninja Tricksters, Zombie Pirates or Robot Wizards. The mechanics of piling up minions and playing actions to take down some shared bases, with points awarded based on who contributed the most to breaking the base, were pretty good. The balance seemed fine, too, with the final score being 15-11-11-8 (I was one of the 11s).

However, I just didn’t have that much fun during the actual gameplay. The Robot Wizards, for instance, had really long, involved turns. The Ninja Tricksters got to do interesting things at unexpected times. The Zombie Pirates both had things popping out of the discard pile. The Dinosaur Aliens… were big. And they could return things to players’ hands. My turns were short and a little boring. It’s a game with lots of potential, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

I ran a couple more demos of Chaos & Alchemy, then headed over to the D&D area to see if maybe I could play in a game in the last time slot at 2:00. The organizer asked if I could run something instead. I didn’t have my laptop with me, even though the projector and rig were in the car, but since I’d never tried running module cold, I agreed to go for it.

I was loaned a wet-erase mat and marker and was seated at a table that was mostly empty, since the players (mostly kids who were friends and family of one another, with one adult) were apparently in their rooms leveling up their characters. Once I realized that they didn’t care what module they played, I decided I’d run one that I wrote – The Stolen Staff. I downloaded it from my blog to my iPad. I used the backs of business cards for initiative trackers. I wrote down monster hit points on a sheet of paper. I borrowed some minis from one of the players to represent the monsters.

And we had a rollicking good time! I soon realized that these kids really just wanted to fight stuff, so I gave them plenty of interesting things to kill. We had gotten off to a really late start, but we still fit in three fights and some role-playing, finishing on time. I did have a weird moment afterward when one of the kids asked me, “So who did the best?” I didn’t understand the question, so he clarified, “Who did the most damage and killed the most monsters? Who was the best?” I told him that my favorite moment was when one of his friends had his character jump off a tower to land on a minion (I guess I have a thing for PCs throwing themselves off of stuff). Maybe he’ll get the message that D&D is about creativity, not just numbers. Here’s hoping. It was a very min-maxed party, so I’m guessing I won’t change any opinions, but so it goes.


Once all was said and done, I still wasn’t quite finished. A couple came up to me as I was packing up from my last game and asked if I was Michael (I am) and if I could teach them about Fiasco. Apparently they had bought the game and weren’t confident in jumping in, and they had seen my name in the program as someone who had run Fiasco. So, after the GM appreciate ceremony, I met up with the two of them and taught them about Fiasco before heading home.

Yay for more new gamers!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Fiasco – first play session and review

My RPG career has consisted mostly of Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, a game I love. However, I’m always interested in discovering new and exciting things. Having heard great stuff about Fiasco on the Jennisodes podcast and elsewhere, I decided I should check the game out. I paid my twelve bucks for a PDF of the game just before leaving for my cruise vacation a couple of weeks ago and then read the game for the first time while aboard the ship.

Game overview

Fiasco is a story game with no game master. The game begins with four six-sided dice for each player – two white and two black (although we used gold and purple in our game). All of the dice are rolled into a central pile, and then the players take turns choosing dice to let them pick from lists of Relationships, Objects, Locations and Needs for the characters that they’re creating on the fly. These lists come in Playsets, four of which come with the base game: Suburbia, Small Southern Town, Antarctica and Wild West.

At the end of this setup, each character will have some sort of relationship with the characters on either side of them, and each of those relationships will have a Detail associated with it (object, location or need). All the dice go back into the central pool, and the Scenes begin, with players taking turns.

When it’s your turn for a Scene, you can either Establish or Resolve. If you establish the scene, you describe what’s going on with your character in the scene and perhaps describe some conflict that the character will be working through in that scene. The players then role-play this scene at the table, bringing in the elements from the setup (relationships and details) as they go. At some point in the scene, the other players will decide whether the scene is going to end well for the main character, in which case they’ll give the player a white die from the central pile, or poorly, in which case they’ll give the player a black die. They’ll then play out the positive or negative outcome of the scene, and then the player will give their die to someone else (whoever they want).

If the player decides to Resolve the scene, then the other players decide what the scene will consist of, and the player in the spotlight will decide whether the outcome is positive or negative. They’ll take the appropriate die, play out the consequences, then give the die away.

After each character has had two Scenes, we get to the Tilt. Everyone rolls whatever dice they’ve collected so far (an average of two per player, but you could have anywhere from zero to six dice) and nets their white total against black. The highest net white total and the highest net black total will each get to pick an element from a Tilt Table: Crazy crap that will happen to the characters in the second half of the game.

The game then tells you to take a break and get a snack, talking about the game so far and where it’s headed. I like this rule!

You then move on to Act Two: two more scenes per character, working mostly the same as Act One. The differences are the Tilt elements, of course, but also the fact that the player who gets a black or white die based on their character’s outcome then keeps it instead of giving it away.

At the end of the game (two scenes per character in Act One, then the Tilt, then two more scenes per character in Act Two), each player again rolls their dice and nets white against black. The closer to zero your total, the worse the Aftermath for your character. You then take turns narrating what happens to your character after the movie is over, based on their Aftermath. A high white total or high black total will be a good ending for the character; low numbers are usually death or even a fate worse than death.

Our experience

Seven people showed up for games over the weekend, and Fiasco is not designed for more than five. So, three people who weren’t that interested in role playing decided to play Lords of Waterdeep while four of us sat down for Fiasco.

After I explained how the game worked, we passed around the play sets and decided on Wild West. A note here: Definitely print out the play sets with two pages on each sheet of paper. It’s plenty big enough to read, and then you only have four pages (one each for Relationships, Objects, Locations and Needs) instead of eight pages cluttering up the table during the Setup.

The ultimate layout for our Fiasco game. Tilts are in the middle of the table

My character’s relationships were Gamblers on one side and Criminal/Detective on the other, so it became clear that I was an outlaw. I decided to call him Pecos Pete.

The Detective to my left was Detective Stanton, a half-Chinese man from Chicago who was in Last Chance, Arizona – our made-up setting. Detective Stanton and Pecos Pete shared a Need to get away from an honest woman, ruined.

Stanton’s other relationship was Professional/Client, and we had established that Stanton was the professional detective. His client was the town sheriff, Sheriff McGinty, who had hired him to come to Last Chance to hunt down Pecos Pete. This relationship shared a location – the White Star Chinese Laundry.

Sherriff McGinty was a bit of a dirty cop, however, since his other relationship of Sheriff/Deputy was tied to a Need to get rich through fraud and trickery. He was working with his deputy to ultimately trick Detective Stanton into helping them defraud Pecos Pete out of his gambling winnings.

The deputy’s name was Roscoe, and he was trying to get rich along with the sheriff, but he was also a gambling associate of Pecos Pete. The two of us (I was Pete, remember) shared an object: A doctor’s black bag with and a jar of acid. Hm.

Act One saw the arrival of Detective Stanton in Last Chance and his first interactions with the gambling Pete and Roscoe, ending with him getting invited to a high-stakes after-hours game. We also saw the sheriff and his deputy, Roscoe, have a falling out after the sheriff learned that Roscoe was double-crossing and working with Pete to rob Stanton.

Stanton, meanwhile, ended up coming to the high-stakes game in disguise as Ling Wei, a Chinaman from the laundry who fancied himself a card player (but really had no skill). It was also established that the honest woman, ruined, that Pecos Pete and Detective Stanton shared a need to get away from was named Ruth. She had followed Pete from Chicago to Last Chance years before, and she had once been a lover of Detective Stanton’s.

Stanton closed out Act One with a jump ahead to a scene where he was standing over Ruth’s dead body in the laundry, hands bloodied. Deputy Roscoe came into the room, aiming to rob the detective, but instead stumbling upon the murder scene. Unfortunately for Roscoe, the Sheriff was also following Stanton, who managed to pin the crime on Roscoe. Poor Roscoe ended up in jail, awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit.

The Tilts introduced for Act Two were Innocence: Collateral Damage and Something Precious on Fire.

We began Act Two by establishing that Sheriff McGinty was going to try to get Pecos Pete to rob a government stagecoach for him, thus getting rich through fraud and trickery. Roscoe escaped from jail and switched Pete’s jar of acid with his sack of whiskey (I guess whiskey comes in sacks in Last Chance), without Pete’s knowledge. Stanton got stinking drunk after the murder of Ruth and decided to come and kill Pete, which failed miserably.

The sheriff hired some of his posse to act as snipers at the stagecoach robbery, killing Pete once he had taken out the driver and guard. Poor Roscoe came on the scene disguised as the sheriff – not knowing that the posse assassins were secretly associates of Pecos Pete and were planning to kill the sheriff on sight. Blam – dead deputy.

Pete managed to get onto the stagecoach and tried to use his acid to take out the driver, but since it was actually whiskey it ended up igniting thanks to a nearby lantern, engulfing the whole stagecoach in flames.

In the aftermath, things went badly for everyone. Pete ended up dead, having gotten only ashes of burned money for his trouble and then dying by acid when he tried to drown his sorrows in whiskey. Stanton ended up captured by Indians and tortured for years. The sheriff ended up dead, I believe self-inflicted, and Roscoe of course died in the final scene thanks to the double-crossing assassins and a poorly chosen disguise.

The review

Fiasco is an interesting game, and great for people who really love role playing. I think I had expectations that were a little too high, though. Our group isn’t great at role playing, so we struggled a bit. We still had fun and came up with a rollicking tale, but we had our awkward moments.

The whole game took us less than two hours to play, which was good. We kept our scenes short, and even had a few scenes that didn’t really involve role playing, just narration. This worked out well.

I was surprised to learn that my friends strongly preferred wackier play sets. I was expecting that we would start with Suburbia or Small Southern Town, but Suburbia wasn’t even considered. They preferred the zany settings. This was fine with me, but I wasn’t expecting it.

Overall, I’d say that I’m glad I bought and played Fiasco. I don’t think it’s going to be a game that’s in heavy rotation at my tables, since my friends seem to prefer killing monsters and taking their stuff rather than getting deeply involved in role playing. That’s okay with me, too, but it’s fun to play a game like Fiasco every now and then. I’d definitely give it another go sometime.

-Michael the OnlineDM