Review: Fiasco – A great game for writers

I’m just going to say it. I am a huge tabletop role-playing game nerd. That’s probably what stoked a lot of my interest in writing. The GM’s would offer extra experience points for detailed character journals or backgrounds, so I would deliver 6 pages of tragedy, comedy, and a chance for redemption. Needless to say I was the most obsessive about it. So, while I recommend getting in to RPG’s of any stripes (New World of Darkness by White Wolf is a great place to start but I’ll save that for another post,) there’s another game I’ve played that I feel may be even better.


Billed as the game version of a Coen brother’s movie, I liken it almost to Reservoir Dogs crossed with Elmore Leonard’s novels. In Fiasco, you play as criminals, ne’er do wells, and poor innocent people caught up in a failed criminal plot.

Now why I recommend it for writers. The game itself is for 3-5 players, but I’ve found it works best with 4 or 5. In the beginning of the game you choose a scenario to play. I’ve played some set in 1930’s Los Angeles, a contemporary suburban neighborhood, and Antarctica. Each setting has a different set of features that shape the story and characters. Not all of them can be chosen in one play through, meaning that each time you play you get a different story. The goal? Basically, survive.

This is not a competitive game, but a cooperative fiction game. You set up relationships between characters and the setting with random die rolls, and refine them as you wish. Then, each player gets several scenes where they can either choose the set-up, or resolution, of the scene. Say if I choose that I want my character to end up in a really shitty place, the other players decide the set-up, and vice versa. The reason you would choose this, is based on how your scene goes with another player, you can be awarded good or bad dice. The bad dice can leave your character standing if you have enough of them, just like the good dice, so the interest becomes telling a good story rather than just focusing on good things happening to your character.

In the middle of the session, the ‘Tilt’ happens. Basically, something random is introduced to the plot that completely turns everything upside down. The rest of the game is trying to pick up the pieces in the middle of the chaos.

I would definitely recommend watching Wil Wheaton’s TableTop session of the game here.

So, the reason I like this is that it makes me think on my feet. Not only do I have to worry about my narrative arc, but also that of my friends. We collaboratively need to create a story that is both fun and realistic, without throwing someone to the wayside. Having a character die though, can be just as entertaining as having one live. In fact, I’d say that ending up worse than you started is the most entertaining scenario. I’ve had characters shot during a confused drug exchange, trapped in a Nazi submarine underneath a collapsed glacier, and have had the dimmest character in the session end up the last one standing: a criminal king pin.

Why should you play? It’s entertaining as hell, and I think it strengthens character building in ways that normal writing exercises do not. It is less acting, more free flow improvisation and character development. If you have a few friends that even have interest in something like this, give it a shot. I haven’t tried the companion book, but if you do please let me know. Bully Pulpit Games, the publisher, also has scenarios you can download for free from their site. Honestly, I love this game, and recommend you all try it if it sounds appealing. It’s worth the money and only takes a few hours to play. Each session is self-contained so if a character dies it’s not a big deal. I promise that I have not been paid off by Bully Pulpit in any way. If they want to send me the Companion though that’s cool. No rush.

Let me know what you think!

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