Storytelling Card Games

Those who read this blog already know I’m a big fan of roleplaying games. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in 1981 with Tom Moldvay’s Red Box set, shortly followed by Dave Cook’s Expert Set. Since then, I’ve played every edition of D&D at least once. In fact, the current edition (5th) is the first one I haven’t bought into since I started playing 35 years ago (for reasons I’m not going to get into here).

And D&D is hardly the only RPG I’ve bought and played—well, mostly run—in all those years. There’s something about roleplaying games that I absolutely love, and I’d always rather run a game for a bunch of friends than see a movie, go out to a bar, or watch a sporting event.

Having said that, I also enjoy a good boardgame. Lords of Waterdeep is a current favourite, along with Legendary and a couple of others. And then there are card games, and video games, and…

I noticed I had already written about two different RPGs recently, so I thought I’d take a break and write about another kind of game I enjoy: card-based storytelling games.

I’m going to mention three really fun games that are pretty easy to play, not terribly expensive, and that provide an interesting story-based gaming experience. These are not the only games of this type, but are the ones I’ve personally played and enjoyed.

Once Upon A Time

Published by Atlas Games

Despite its name, Once Upon a Time has nothing to do with the television show. In fact, this game has been around for far longer than the show and is currently on its third edition.

This was the first card-based storytelling game I ever tried, and it still holds a special place in my heart. In the game, each player is dealt a hand of cards that contain places (e.g. the forest), or characters (e.g. a knight), or situations (e.g. lost), or items (e.g. a key). Each player also receives an Ending card, which contains an ending to their story.

The first player begins to tell a story, and when she includes an element that appears on one of her cards, she gets to play that card. The idea is that the player will continue to tell a story that ultimately weaves in all the elements on her cards before coming to the ending outlined on her Ending card.

But, if the storyteller mentions an element in her story that happens to appear on a card held by someone else, that person can play his card to interrupt the story and take it over.

For example, if the first player is telling a story about a brave knight and she says that the knight crosses a bridge and a troll jumps out to attack, another player holding the “Monster” card can play it and interrupt the story. That player now takes over the story from that point.

However, when you interrupt the story, you cannot just start over. You have to take what has already happened and continue the story in a coherent manner. So the interrupting player couldn’t just forget about the knight—that character could only be left out of the story if the interrupting player could justify it in the context of telling an interesting story.

The player who finishes the story by playing his or her Ending card is the winner.

I’ve played this game a number of times, and it’s always a lot of fun. The stories do meander a bit, of course, but there is always a lot of laughter and it’s great to watch people trying to weave in elements from another player’s story while shifting it towards their own cards.

Hobbit Tales

Published by Cubicle 7 Games

The full name of this game is Hobbit Tales from the Green Dragon Inn. The game is published by Cubicle 7, which is the company responsible for The One Ring Roleplaying Game—one of the best games ever published for a play experience that truly emulates its source material.

Needless to say, Hobbit Tales is themed around those little furry-footed folk from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The premise is that the players are a group of hobbits sitting around in the taproom of an inn, sharing stories of their strange adventures.

The first player (narrator) draws a hand of cards from the Adventure deck. These represent things that can happen in the story. He then draws two more Adventure cards and places one face-up at the beginning of the story board (a board with space for five cards) and one face-down at the end of the story board.

The narrator then tells his tale, using the first face-up card as the beginning of his story. He tries to weave the story so that it leads to his next Adventure card in his hand, which he plays when he is able to add that element to the story.

However, the other players each have a hand of cards from the Hazard deck. These cards represent forces working against the narrator-as-character (rather than the player). At the bottom of both Adventure cards and Hazard cards are special symbols. When the narrator plays an Adventure card on the story board, the other players check their Hazard cards to see if any of their cards carry matching symbols. If a player has a Hazard with matching symbols, she can play the card and introduce that hazard into the story.

Without repeating all the rules here, the hazards can result in the narrator running out of Adventure cards before he reaches the end of the story board. In that case, he must improvise, drawing new Adventure cards from the deck and playing them immediately, and then trying to weave those elements into the story.

Successfully-completed stories result in the awarding of cheers tokens (based on various factors). Once all the players have had a chance as narrator, they compare their number of tokens, the person with the most tokens is the winner.

This is another really fun game. The main difference between this and Once Upon a Time, is that the narrator doesn’t switch from person to person in a single story. Rather, each players gets to tell his or her tale, with a few hazardous additions from the other players.

What’s also neat about this game is that the cards are also designed to work with The One Ring roleplaying game. The One Ring has a great set of mechanics to emulate the journey aspect that was such a large part of Tolkien’s stories, and Hobbit Tales includes rules that allow the use of the cards with that mechanic in The One Ring.

Gloom

Published by Atlas Games

Of all three games I’m mentioning here, Gloom is perhaps the most creative and amusing. Like Once Upon a Time, this is another Atlas Games product—they are the company that also publishes the roleplaying games Ars Magica and Feng Shui 2, both fantastic games that do very different, and interesting, things with the roleplaying game experience.

In Gloom, the players are also trying to tell stories, but these stories are dark and somber, and are meant to come to a bad end.

Each player selects a particular family, each member of which is represented by a single card. The objective of the game is to play horrible tragedies on your own family, thus lowering their self-worth, before killing them off one-by-one. In the meantime, you play joyous events on your opponents’ family members to increase their self-worth (and thus score fewer points when that family member is killed off).

What’s really neat about this game is that the cards are transparent, so both happy occasions and terrible tragedies can be played on each family member, and the players can see all the modifiers at a glance, since the lower cards can still be seen through the cards on top.

The intent of the game is that the players are required to narrate each tragedy or happy event as the cards are played, so that what emerges is a convoluted story of twists and turns as each family’s members are killed off one-by-one. Needless to say, this is a game played entirely for laughs—the somber mood is fully tongue-in-cheek.

The one thing that detracts from this game is that the storytelling element does feel a bit tacked-on. The story itself has no specific requirements. You could play this game entirely without telling any story at all and all the mechanics would still work fine (which is something that couldn’t happen with either of the other two games I’ve mentioned here).

But despite that, this one is probably my favourite of the three games. The cards just drip with flavour, and I find them to be really inspiring in ways that the generic story elements of, say, Once Upon a Time lack. With multiple expansions available, there are many families from which to choose, and a whole host of tragedies and happy events to inflict on your poor family members.

Conclusion

I love stories [no shit]. And storytelling can be a fun, collaborative effort within the framework of a fun game. Each of the above games bring something different to the table. Once Upon a Time has an almost free-form structure with very few, simple rules. Hobbit Tales has a bit more structure to it and is a bit more constrained, but plays with a fictional world which most people are at least passing familiar. And Gloom is tightly-focused with more gamey elements, but a ton of flavour and more baked-in humour than the others.

If you like card games, roleplaying games, or shared storytelling, take a look at any of these games. You might find something you’ll really enjoy.

Do you know of other great storytelling games that are not quite RPGs? What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments below.

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