What I Learned by Playing Fiasco

Fiasco is a role-playing game where things go wrong. It’s a GM-less cooperative story-telling system that facilities a story of converging fates that combine in catastrophic but oh-so-entertaining ways.

To set up a story you each choose things off of some charts. Relationships, Needs, Locations, Objects. From there you make characters and start acting out scenes. Then, terrible things happen and you continue the process to its grievous conclusion.

For each game you pick a playset, which supplies those charts and directs you towards a specific genre or style. There is a surprising breadth of playsets to choice from, but the core system is the same.

Fiasco is very good at what it does. I recommend you grab some friends and a playset and give it a try.

I have played a few games of it, and each one has been better than the last. As I go I’m starting to learn what makes the game work well. Since Fiasco is essentially a story-creation engine, I found that what I learned can be applied to writing as well.

1) Each character has to have a need. Even if you don’t explicitly state it, you should know as the writer what is driving this characters decisions. If it makes sense to you it will make sense to the reader.

2) Characters should have connections with each other. If characters are working in their own little bubbles, they don’t have real reasons to be in scenes together. Give them reasons to interact that they care about and have fun from there.

4) Each scene needs a goal. This is so important in Fiasco as well as writing! I don’t like to think of where a scene is going to go. I like to think about where the characters want the scene to go. If they get it there or not, well, that’s the fun part about playing the game or about writing the scene. Either way, the goal is what drives the story.

5) Have fun! Relationships, needs, objects and locations are the building blocks. Make each block as interesting as possible. Everything has been written already except the things only you can think of.

6) As usual, all rules are made to be broken. If something isn’t working, don’t stick with the rules, just do what feels right and move along. Nothing sucks time and creative energy like trying to follow rules that aren’t clear or aren’t working.

Overall, the fact that Fiasco and the art of story creation use the same principles shows that the game hits upon the fundamentals of how stories work. And that is the beauty of it. It directs you to do what writers are supposed to do: tell a good story. It’s a great activity to help you hone in on what makes good fiction tick.

My first Jodorowsky Film

Below is an essay I wrote for a contest. I probably did not win, but I like it anyway.

I became a fan of cinema through the backdoor. Back in pre-DVD days a friend of mine collected bootleg VHS tapes of rare foreign, horror and art films. Being a collector myself of other things, I was completely entranced with the idea that there were movies out there that weren’t easily available for anyone who wanted to see them.

I mean, my favorite movie up until that time was Terminator 2. A great film, but not a particularly creative choice. So enter this friend, and my eagerness to experiment. He let me borrow copies of films from all over the world, from all different genres. Copies off or rare Japanese laserdiscs or taped off of Australian TV. It was a good selection. Argento. Jackie Chan. Raul Ruiz. Pasolini. Tinto Brass, etc.

Among that stack of tapes was a film called El Topo. Of course, just like the other films, I had never heard of it. And at some point I decided to give that one a shot.

It was late. Maybe after midnight. I didn’t have any expectations and figured I would just fall asleep if the film wasn’t any good. I won’t go into detail about what I saw unfold that night. We’ve all seen the film. But what I will talk about is what it did to me.

I had no idea what was going on in my head! I was drawn in and enamored and shocked and amazed and just all-around felt strange. It was an amazing experience. After the film ended, and the TV turned off, I lie there for I don’t know how long until I fell asleep and suddenly it was morning.

Upon waking, I did not know if it was all a dream. Seriously, I woke up and thought “My god that was a weird dream.” And for a while I was unsure if I fell asleep during the film or if I had actually experienced that.

So I watched it again immediately. Confirming the fact that the film does exist and that it was something that I had actually watched. Some guy thought of those things, filmed it, and now I was watching it in my house. That experience broke cinema wide open for me. From then on, I was a hooked on the possibilities, and had become a true fan of film and a true fan of Jodorowsky.

Deeper into The Room

Below is an essay I published in a print zine about the cult classic film The Room. If you have not seen it, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. And after you watch it, come back and read this essay. I think you will enjoy it.


Deeper Into The Room

by P.R. O’Leary

There is much to ponder about Tommy Wiseau’s film. But nestled amongst the few answerable and far more unanswerable questions is one that garners much discussion. What does the title mean? Many posit that it is simply a descriptive phrase. The film mostly takes place in a single room. But Wiseau is no slouch when it comes to symbolism, and care must be taken to approach an analysis of the title with more than just a passing glance. Like all things in The Room, the title is not just black and white.

When approached in an interview in 2010, Wiseau is vague about what it means. “[sic] The room is a special place. Is only you have the key for it. Same my. This is my place. This is your place. You as well. And I bet you have one other place which you actually call the room. Or their place. But I let’s call it the room, right? You the. Private place. You do whatever you wanted. That’s why we call it the room. We don’t call it our room. Okay? Yeah, all right.”

This evasiveness is typical of the auteur. He wants us to work at understanding his film and through that process develop a deeper understanding of ourselves. To begin we must examine the title literally.

In the film there are two main rooms: the downstairs living room, in which many pivotal scenes take place (the mother-in-law’s heartrending revelation that she has breast cancer, for example), and the upstairs bedroom in which the main character bares both his body and his soul. Both of these rooms are important locations in the story, but there is not enough evidence to support either of them being the subject of the title.

But what of Wiseau’s quote above? A tacit reading of the title is too shallow to fit his description. Wiseau could be implying that the room is not a physical structure, but one that we build around ourselves. Our “special place.” This has many implications. Johnny (played by Wiseau himself) has let some characters into his “room.” By letting his guard down, or “opening the door,” he has made himself vulnerable. And the one he has trusted most, Lisa, violated that trust, or to continue the metaphor: “vandalized Johnny’s room.” Hence the classic J’Accuse screamed by Johnny during his most pained moment, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”

This take on the title is reinforced with subtle symbolism that shows how the characters are confined and stuck in rooms of their own creation. The set design steeps the production in claustrophobia. From the sparsely furnished apartment to the four-poster bed ensconced with walls of fabric. Even the open-aired rooftop is obviously green-screened. It’s a brilliant choice to confine the characters even more.

When the characters do escape those confines, Wiseau shifts his symbolism from production design to the actions of the characters. He shows that even outside they remain contained, and are only able to throw a football very short distances. It is as if the walls are still there, preventing them from getting more than a few feet apart. When a character finally does try to escape, by running to catch a long football pass, he trips and falls. It’s as if Wiseau is punishing him for trying to leave the room without a key.

At the end of the film Johnny does find a key to his special place, thereby finding a way to escape. It’s a bleak, depressing world view, but it’s presented in such a way that the audience is more angry than sad. We are angry at Lisa. We are angry at Mark. Why? Because we saw how Johnny let them into his room. We saw how they took advantage of that trust and we understand how Johnny had no other way out.

The title, in the end, is obvious. The Room is indeed Johnny’s special place. One that was full of kindness and love, but was violated by those he trusted most. Ultimately, Tommy Wiseau makes us ask the question: Who would you let into your room? Each viewer will have their own answer. For Johnny, the answer is simple: Denny. Only Denny.