Once Upon a One Shot – Season One Recap

Season One Recap By Cameron McNary

When I started Once Upon a One-Shot, one of my biggest goals was to PLAY MORE NARRATIVE GAMES. I wanted to dive into the medium and swim around, see how deep the waters were. Four months later, I’ve made a pretty good start. Here’s what we played in our First Season of Once Upon a One-Shot, ranked from least-recommended to most:

8) COSMIC PATROL

Although it blasted off with Atomo-Rockets blazing and Amazon Women of Mars cleaving to and fro with their mighty axes, Catalyst Game Lab’s Cosmic Patrol was the one disappointment of the entire season, although even it had quite a bit to offer. It straddles the line between a one-shot narrative game and a more traditional role-playing game, and not always successfully. It’s idiosyncratic “space serials” setting was ill-suited to a one-off pickup game, requiring too much player knowledge of the world to get off the ground outside of an ongoing campaign. Other narrative games with unfamiliar settings (Durance springs immediately to mind) manage to bake the setting into the mechanics enough that you can discover it as you play, but Cosmic Patrol somehow fails to make that leap. Also, unlike the other games on this list, Cosmic Patrol’s narrative system didn’t take off and fly with a group of players who weren’t used to gaming together… even putting the setting aside, it felt clunky and awkward. Without a lot of the mechanics that the other games on this use to encourage (or force) collaborative storytelling, Cosmic Patrol relies on play group chemistry that simply isn’t always there in a pickup group. That said, its mechanic of rotating the role of Game Master between each scene is innovative, and adding the prefix “atomo-” to everything was a hoot and a half. I could definitely see playing it again with a more established play group who was up for an evening of blasting Moon Men with Atomo-Rays.

7) CAROLINA DEATH CRAWL

Jason Morningstar, creator of Carolina Death Crawl, Durance and Fiasco, is a man of eclectic tastes. If you’re playing a Jason Morningstar game, you can play a Polish child soldier coming of age in 1944 Warsaw (in Grey Ranks). You can play an adjunct faculty member who has to juggle departmental politics and possession by a soul-eating telepathic insect (in The Shab-al-Hiri Roach). Or, in Carolina Death Crawl, you can play a dissolute member of the North Carolina Volunteers, trapped behind Confederate lines after a raid gone bad, torn between shooting your commanding officer or drowning him in the swamp.

Jason Morningstar always picks themes and settings for his games that are particular and vivid (even Fiasco, which can be set just about anywhere you can find or write a playset for, hews to genre conventions that are so strong that you could almost call them a setting themselves). One of the things he also does well, which tends to make his games really hum, is to match that vivid setting with evocative mechanics. The attractively blood-spattered cards that make up the components for a game of Carolina Death Crawl are intriguing… but it’s not until you are required to sit down, in descending order of rank, in descending order of seat comfort, that you know you’re in for something special.

When one of you dies, and they have to stand up outside the circle of players, because they’ve become a “swamp haint”, and therefore cannot be among the living? That’s when the game really takes off.

My only problem with Carolina Death Crawl (and it’s one that it shares with the next two games on the list) is low replayability. The flavor of the game is so strong and so unique that it doesn’t fade quickly from the palate: once you’ve played through the game, you’re not likely to want to play again for at least a couple months.

6) THE QUIET YEAR

The post-apocalyptic world of The Quiet Year might seem cliché at this point, but the part of that world it chooses to examine (one quiet year of rebuilding before Winter comes) and the way in which it examines it (through a map the players generate as they play) combine to evoke a fresh take on the genre.

The Quiet Year’s strict rules about what one can and cannot say during one’s turn are very well thought-out, and the quality of the story space they wind up creating is a big reason why I’ve made a personal vow to strictly observe such rules in narrative games in the future. The Quiet Year weaves a sparse and often bleak story, but it’s often lyrical as well… Cormac McCarthy’s The Road came to mind often for me while playing it, although you could probably pitch it as “The Road… but with hope”. Either way, it was a wonderful emotional place to visit, and yet another nail in the coffin of the idea that game design can’t be art.

The main reason it doesn’t rank higher on this list is that it’s a game that you’re liable to “figure out” on your first playthrough. The second time I played the game felt much more mechanical, and we had a handle on the threats to our little community very early (which is not necessarily a good thing in a story about surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland). It’s another game that benefits from taking a month or two between p;laying.

5) DURANCE

Another Jason Morningstar special, Durance presents the prison colony experience – in space. Explicitly based on the experience of early Australian settlers, Durance can initially seem like a bit of a specific-setting retread of Fiasco… but it quickly reveals itself to be less humorous and far, far more brutal. If Fiasco is 30% dark and 70% humor, Durance is the opposite. In Fiasco, people will probably (almost certainly) die, go insane, or be broken as human beings. In Durance, they definitely will… and it won’t be pretty. The game’s mechanic of setting your characters between a metaphorical rock (their oath, the one thing they cannot or will not do) and a hard place (just about anything that means they’ll have to violate that oath if they want to survive) makes the game more psychological and personal than Fiasco, and summons up moments of honest-to-god pathos pretty regularly.

The setting is nuanced and textured in the way something based on a historical period can be, while still granting that wonderful aesthetic distance that only speculative fiction can. I was often reminded of a less action-antihero-ey Escape From Butcher Bay (a fantastic, and often underrated, Vin Diesel-starring video game with a similar setting and tone). There’s also the option presented in the manual to play the game in the original Australian setting – which I think might be fun with an experienced group. As it is, the scifi setting gives a group of players wonderful permission and freedom to tell stories about man’s inhumanity to man.

This game shares the same replayability problem as the previous two games, although not to the same extent. It’s nowhere near as easy to “figure out” or “break” as those two games, and even with the very particular setting, the psychological depth of the mechanics gives you much more narrative space to explore. I’d say a month between games is plenty.

4) HOBBIT TALES

More of a storytelling game than a narrative RPG, Hobbit Tales is way more fun than it looks in the box. All the players are Hobbits, sitting around the bar, one-upping each other in who can tell the biggest whopper of a story… and who can interrupt and call the storyteller out for getting their “facts” wrong. That simple premise seems like it might leave players flailing with too much storytelling freedom, but the lushly illustrated cards ground the game both narratively and mechanically. Matching the colored symbols on the cards in your hand to the ones the current storyteller is laying down has just enough “game” to it to keep you engaged and on your toes with even the most stilted storyteller, and the illustrated bogeys on the cards give you wonderful narrative hooks when you do decide to lay them down.

The best thing about Hobbit Tales is how it manages to be more than the sum of its parts… it’s one of those games whose elements mesh together beautifully. Like a lot of the best games on this list (especially Microscope), it’s obvious that the designers playtested the heck out of it.

Bear in mind that although I said it’s more of a storytelling game than an RPG, you’ll find yourself role-playing within minutes of opening Hobbit Tales. The invitation this game lays out to take on the role of slightly-drunk Hobbits one-upping each other is just too rich to resist. It helps if you play it over a frosty beverage or two (it comes with themed drink coasters that are actually used in gameplay) – I laid out a pitcher of root beer when we played it for Once Upon a One-Shot. I heartily recommend doing something similar.

3) KINGDOM

Although it doesn’t soar to the same delirious heights or play quite as smoothly as it’s more expansive elder brother, Microscope, Ben Robbins’s Kingdom is still pretty fantastic. It’s designed to tell stories about communities – any kind of communities. The “kingdom” in your game might be a Wild West miner’s camp, an interstellar cruise ship, or a straight-up medieval fantasy kingdom. It’s up to you and your players.

The fulcrum of play in Kingdom isn’t individual characters so much as the way they exercise power in the community. There are three roles for characters to play: the ones with Power are the only ones who get to say what the community actually does. The ones with Perspective get to say what the consequences of those decisions will be. And the Touchtones decide what the people in the community feel about those choices.

Although it might seem at first that those roles would be out of whack in terms of how much power they have in the narrative (the Touchtones, in particular, are easy to underestimate), in play the balance works out beautifully. Add to that the fact that you can (pretty much) change role whenever you want, and it all turns into a fascinating dance between conflicting character interests and ideas about where the story should go. This separation of powers is a novel and challenging mechanic (in the good way), and it makes for some ripe storytelling opportunities.

The main reason that Kingdom doesn’t reach higher on this list is that the rules are a little involved… the number of different play phases and steps is significantly bigger than Microscope, and thus the game takes a little longer to get the hang of. I still haven’t had that singularly satisfying play experience with Kingdom that I had with Microscope the first time around. I know it’s in there, but the fact that it’s not quite as accessible knocks Kingdom down a bit in my estimation.

2) FIASCO

When I show people the Indie RPG section at Games and Stuff, if they recognize one title, it will be Fiasco. Part of that has to do with it’s relative longevity (it was first published in 2009, near the front of the current Indie wave), and part of it has to do with the fact that they played it on Tabletop. But mostly, people know it because it’s That Good. It gets played a lot, by a lot of people, and it deserves every bit of the recognition and widespread play that it gets.

When you buy Fiasco, you get one genre, one tone, but a bazillion settings. This season, we played the playsets Boomtown (in which we blew up a hotel), Lucky Strike (in which I got crushed by a falling crate of Nazi gold) and The Zoo (which featured the frozen corpse of a murdered peacock, which was merely a distracting doppelganger to the frozen corpse of the famous murdered peacock at the center of a web of lust and greed that filled our evening). I have played this game a LOT, and I am nowhere near done with it.

Fiasco’s influence is so pervasive that you often have to explicitly caution people against it – more than once, I had to step out of other narrative games to point out we were veering away from the spirit of the story we were telling and towards black Coen Brothers-style humor. I didn’t mind. Good play experiences can be formative: Fiasco was a lot of peoples’ introduction to narrative gaming, and with good reason – if you want to get someone started in the wonderful world of narrative RPGs, this is still the place to start.

1) MICROSCOPE

Now we come to the king of the heap – our big discovery this season. Microscope’s humble white-on-black cover (and infuriatingly un-evocative name – seriously, this is the best Ben Robbins could come up with?) hide the best narrative game I’ve ever played.

Designed to tell not just scenes or stories, but entire histories in the course of an evening, Microscope delivers on that seemingly impossible premise in spades. You can cover tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years in a single sitting and come away feeling like you’ve just told yourselves on of the best stories you’ve ever experienced. When it comes to narrative RPGs, the only characters that have ever really stuck to my ribs months later have come from Microscope (Bombshell, we hope you found some peace. You certainly deserved better.)

The secret of Microscope (aside from being polished within an inch of its life) is largely down to one thing: the freedom it gives its storytellers to jump about in time and in scale. When it comes to your turn, you can lay out what happened three hundred years before that, or a thousand years after. You can define a single scene, a greater event, or even an entire period of history. That kind of freedom can be daunting, at first, but only at first. People get into the swing of Microscope faster than any game I’ve ever seen other than Fiasco.

As I mentioned, Microscope is a polished little gem of a game. The essays and play advice that take up the latter half of the manual read like they could only have been written after extensive and strenuous playtesting, and the game itself bears that out. It just plays. It sings. Number one lesson from Once Upon a One-Shot Season One? Go play Microscope.

See you in Season Two.

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