I’ve had my eye on Fiasco for a while. Last week, I played for the first time.

It’s… different. It’s a game that I think is easier to play than to explain. Our group actually played while I read the rules. It did create a snarl when we realized that we’d assigned too many dice to relationships and hadn’t chosen enough details, but it was easy enough to scrap what we had and begin again.

But I noticed something in playing Fiasco that I realized had captured something I have struggled with for a long time. Relationships.

Characters in Fiasco are defined by their relationships, quite literally. Setup for the game is actually part of the game, like if players participated in GM Prep. I really like that aspect, as it eliminates the “solitary” nature of GM Prep.

But the important thing is that players define the relationships their characters have to each other and the world before they so much as choose a character name. Character is emergent in Fiasco. Which is a big change from D&D.

Enough of a change that it made me wonder what exactly made them different.

I created a list of game and story components in two columns and tried to determine which in Fiasco or D&D were defined, and which were emergent.

In Fiasco, the players define their Relationships, Needs, Places, and Things. Characters are emergent, as are Scenarios and Conflicts. Why do I say that? Because they’re all improvised, of course. They emerge though play.

D&D on the other hand, defines virtually everything from the outset — the characters are explicitly defined by the players. Need is always pretty much, “survive.” Place is always “the dungeon.” Thing is always “treasure.”

Scenarios are predefined by the Game Master, whether they’re using a published module or they developed the adventure themselves. Conflict is often (if not always) resolved through negotiation or the dice.

So, what does that leave?

Relationships.

In D&D, the primary element that emerges through play is the relationships between the characters and the environment. This is what makes D&D such a personal experience for players despite its social nature.

Each player is free to invest as little or as much of themselves in the different traps, treasures, monsters, and NPCs. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t “relationship” mechanics in D&D. Consider alignment and deities.

Your character’s choice to worship a particular deity or adhere to one of the three, nine, five, nine alignments, defines their relationship to the campaign setting — and to the other Player Characters. (Paladin, anyone?)

Actually, this position explains a lot of the “bloat” that is often associated with D&D. Throughout the lifespan of an Edition, we see lots and lots of new options for players to invest in relationships — new races and classes (which can also be used as the basis of relationships), new gods, and new background options.

5e has its own “backstory” option: Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.

Every piece of a character can be used to form a relationship with the world however, ability scores being the most fundamental. But you also have your character’s race/class, level, skills, feats (3e-5e), alignment, equipment, and spells. Everything can be used to establish relationships.

I think what’s critical here though, is that to form these relationships, you have to play the game. I think that may be much of the reason I’ve found D&D less fulfilling as time passes. I don’t get to play enough. Fights take too long and there isn’t enough to do outside of a fight.

Blah, blah, “roleplay.” Roleplay what? There isn’t enough to do. Spending an hour chatting with a merchant over coffee isn’t playing the game. Making decisions, rolling dice, dodging traps, finding treasure. That’s playing the game.

Seriously, I think my montage just concluded. I need a mentor to step out of the mist behind me to say, “you are ready,” so I can go fight the boss.

Maybe not “need.” Still, it’d be cool.