Enjoying a Fiasco

Disclosure: I co-wrote a Fiasco playset in 2012, with fellow game designer Logan Bonner.

Fiasco, published by Bully Pulpit Games and designed by Jason Morningstar, is a game where the cover says it all.


Fiasco follows a particular narrative form: Act I, The Tilt (where everything goes horribly wrong), Act II, and the Aftermath. The content of Fiasco’s playsets, as well as some of its narrative rules, often belong to the genre of caper movies like those by the Coen Brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Snatch,) but playsets and rules alike plug into a dizzying array of genres.

Narrative control is shared in Fiasco—even in setup. Players help each other determine details, large and small, about their characters and their relationships to the players next to them. During game play, players can either choose to set up their scene, or to resolve it. If my fellow players tell me the Kingpin I stole a cool two million dollars from has come to see me, and I chose to resolve my scene? Well, my character may come out running, and that Kingpin is now madder than Hell. Is that a good thing for me? Or bad? My fellow players can help me decide if a scene will end in triumph or brutal failure later, which affects if I get a black die or a white die at the end of my scenes. Those colored dice help determine if I end the game with a fate worse than death, or come out smelling like a rose. The die pool of scene outcomes changes act to act, but I’ll leave more of the technical details for you to explore on your own, or watch in action.

I find Fiasco fascinating because the game experience is built heavily on the people at the table and what they bring to it. The game text is introduced to you, the reader, which creates a sense of active bond and conversation. In most game texts, things are written without addressing players directly. By choosing that direct form of address (“You”), Fiasco picked a brilliant way to sidestep gendered language issues. It wouldn’t work for every game, but it does for Fiasco.

Fiasco’s book has a small selection of playsets in it, and scores of them online; if you’re not familiar with the game, playsets are a bit like a movie’s plot elements, broken into lists. It gives players options, with the understanding that not all those options will be used. I could use a playset and use the law office listed in Locations, but a different group playing may ignore that location entirely. With a video game, we have an illusion of controlling our story. We play the game in hopes of getting what we feel is our best ending.

Fiasco supplies elements we can pick and choose from, and there is no guarantee anyone will get an ending they could see coming a mile away if it was a movie. Since the game has no one person running it, and everyone shares narrative control, Fiasco is highly unpredictable and varies wildly, every time you play it. The replay value is phenomenal.

So it’s an incredible, cinematic game that has ingenious mechanics and avoids gendered language by going for direct modes of address, putting the text and the reader into a conversation. (“Many times you’ll frame a scene as a straight-ahead conflict.”) Fiasco isn’t about a world, or a universe, or one genre in particular; rather, its rules are about taking the story of the table from its start to its disasterous end. Fiaso’s playsets are what we drape over the rules; a form of narrative dress-up. The game is about the mechanics it gives people to use, and its advice on how to make the stories that evolve during a Fiasco fast-paced and worth every second. The book is 130 pages long, and in its focus to tell you how the game works, You, the reader, get a crash course in cinematic narrative devoid of sexism—devoid, really, of gender at all. Fiasco rips cinematic form apart, down to its bones, and shows you how a story moves. It’s up to the players to clothe the skeleton by picking playsets.

Because Fiasco is so often introduced to people as similar to a Coen Brothers movie, there’s potential (often invoked) for violent plot content. That could make Fiasco really weird if you sit down to play it at a convention with strangers. Yet it’s also a game where I see people frequently ask before play, “Is there stuff you’d really like to not come up?” Its content has caused a number of people I’ve seen play to explicitly build a social contract. And that’s damn impressive in any game.

Previously: Beyond the Silo


by Lillian Cohen-Moore
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