Image by Johann Zoffany

Story games are great fun, but who has the time? Gathering with your dearest friends, entering a land of whimsy and wonderment, and embarking upon life-changing adventures… ugh. That’s four to six hours of sheer delight!  Some of us have TV shows we want to watch. Can’t we game more efficiently?

Luckily, some games out there have been constructed with an eye towards speed, allowing you and your friends to build a world and tear it to pieces in an hour or less without sacrificing the good times that come from creating a fun story. These shorts can be brought out at a moment’s notice, and they’re great games to have on hand, even for people who do have time and energy to spare for regular roleplaying sessions. If you have a regular gaming group, these games can fill the time if someone is running late; when they show up, you’ll be ready to wrap up and move on to another adventure.

1. Fight a Demonic Steed in The Mustang

The Mustang Banner Image

A demon has been terrorizing your town. It looks like a wild horse, but no horse could be this large or violent, and no horse could belch flame the way the mustang does. You and three companions have gathered together to kill the thing.

The Mustang is a Southern Gothic horror story game by One Seven Design for exactly four players. Each player portrays a character who will be instrumental in defeating the demon. Cassie has a shield made of sheet metal and rope to protect you from the mustang’s fiery breath. Jack has a rifle, and he has etched crosses on every bullet. William is a man of faith and reads from the good book to protect you all. The final character, unnamed and mysterious, will either deal the killing blow to the demon or die trying.

The Mustang delivers a specific narrative rather than creating a story and characters from scratch; all that setup is done for you. Your job is to step in, in media res, and complete the story. From the first moment, you know what the problem is and you know exactly how you are going to be instrumental in solving it.

Mechanically, it’s incredibly simple. The three support characters will each flip one coin to determine their fate. Heads, it’s good; tails, it’s bad. What that means is for the individual player to determine, but when there’s a fire-breathing demon horse about, it should be easy to imagine some bad outcomes. The final player, the one who intends to deliver the killing blow, flips three coins to create a slightly more nuanced outcome. Still, it boils down to “did this go well or poorly?”

This specificity of the setting is what makes The Mustang such a useful short-form game. There is absolutely no downtime in which players think about who they are and why they are off on an adventure. Nor are there moments where the players are left wondering what to do next. It doesn’t need to be a fast-paced game; in fact, it works best when you treat your descriptions and coin-flips with some thought and gravitas. But it’s never aimless.

A game of The Mustang tells a complete short story in as little as twenty minutes, and unlike many short-form games, it is made to build to a satisfying conclusion. It is also notable for requiring very little in the realm of resources: the rules fit on one sheet of paper, and all you need are three coins. You could play The Mustang while waiting in line at the post office, if you felt like it.

2. Try, Fail, and Rebuild Yourself in Kintsugi

A broken and repaired piece of pottery.

You are an artificial person… a robot, or golem, or homunculus, freshly-imbued with life. Your potential is unlimited, but your skills are… lacking. To put it another way, you can do anything, but you can’t do anything well.

Luckily, you can make yourself better. Kintsugi, by David Shirduan, is a 200-word-long game about being an artificial person who achieves their ends by repairing themselves every time they break. Obviously, the size of the game makes it a contender for very short play; at 200 words, you could print it out on a business card and keep it in your wallet for robot-game emergencies. Explaining the rules takes about a minute, no matter the experience level of your players.

Everyone starts off with one skill: Do Anything. This sounds powerful, except that Do Anything is locked at rank two. In order to succeed at a task, you need to roll a six-sided die and get a result less than the rank of your skill. In this case, the PCs will clearly fail at most tasks they attempt. But when you fail at a task, you can alter yourself to become stronger in that particular area, giving yourself a new skill at level three or improving an existing one by raising its level.

In-universe, this represents your character adding new components to themselves or mutating in response to your circumstances. If you fail to build a wall using your Do Anything skill, you can give yourself advanced arm servos that give you rank three Stonemasonry. The more you fail at a task, the better you become at it… to a point. If you fail when your skill is at five, the maximum possible level, that part of you breaks beyond repair, and you’re back to being unskilled in that area.

It’s a fascinating system because it eschews pre-game character creation entirely without making the players use a pre-gen character. All you do is decide what kind of artificial beings you are and why you were created, and then you’re thrust straight into the action. On paper, characters are identical at the beginning of the game, but they quickly become very different. The skills your character gains are based on the actions you attempt. The longer you play, the more characters differentiate. Someone who wants to be a fighter will get skills to help them fight while someone who wants to be sneaky will get good at sneaking. The more you focus on a task, the more quickly you will excel at it. This allows the game to have mechanically complex and nuanced characters but without wasting time on pre-game character creation. The instant setup makes it a great choice for gaming on short notice, but the system is still robust enough that it could be used for a longer game or even a short campaign.

3. Dance Your Way to Legal Victory with Sea Dracula

Some animal lawyers, led by the famous giraffe named Sea Dracula

You are a lawyer. You are an animal. And you are a dancer. Sea Dracula, by Jake Richmond, is a game about the lawyers in Animal City (a city which is, of course, comprised entirely of animals). The most famous lawyer by far is Sea Dracula, the giraffe who pioneered Animal City’s legal system. In the courtrooms of Animal City, rather than having one prosecutor argue with one defender, a half-dozen animal lawyers compete directly with one another; even if they’re defending the same client, they fight to defend that client better than the others. The main tool in their legal arsenal: throwing dance parties. This, if it isn’t clear at this point, is a very silly game indeed.

Sea Dracula requires players who have a certain level of comfort with one another. It’s loud, brash, goofy, and yes, it requires you to dance. Often! As in, you actually get out of your chair and shake whatever you are comfortable shaking in front of other people. When you’re talking about evidence and another lawyer objects to your chain of logic, you dance. When you call a witness and someone else wants to cross-examine them, you both dance. If you feel like taking a recess to have a dance party, every lawyer dances. The best dancer, as judged by the players who aren’t dancing at the moment, is awarded “lawyer points.” These indicate how much the jury believes you, which will ultimately determine who wins this particular case. The better you dance, the more points you get and the greater your odds of legal victory.

This certainly isn’t for everyone; many groups will be off-put by the sheer volume of nonsense here. The case your lawyers are working on doesn’t really matter, and it is explicit in the rules that things don’t need to make sense. You don’t need to think about the evidence and witnesses you bring into the trial; just shout out the first thing that comes to your mind and run with it. Logic and nuance take a distant backseat to a willingness to improv with gusto.

But if you’re willing to spout nonsense and dance your feelings, it can be tremendous fun, and it’s certainly fast; a group can zip through the minimal pre-dancing setup phases of the game in ten minutes or less. There’s no real story arc to follow, no character drama to hold onto; as soon as you get bored or (more likely) exhausted, rest your case.

4. Explore the Universe (Any Universe) with Lasers & Feelings

A starship surrounded by hearts and firing lasers.

You are the crew of a spacecraft. You’ve got lasers, which is to say, technology, logic, and the cold calculations of science. You’ve also got feelings: compassion, empathy, and whatever it is that makes humans special. That’s everything you need to take on the galaxy.

Lasers & Feelings, by John Harper and inspired by The Doubleclicks album of the same name, places you in a roughly Star Trek-inspired universe. The GM rolls on a table to generate a random space disaster, and the players try to solve it using a combination of intellect and heart.

While character generation is somewhat more in-depth than other items on this list, it mechanically boils down to one important choice: each character chooses a number between two and five. This number reflects the players’ relative skills with lasers and with feelings; a higher number means you favor lasers, and a lower number means you prefer feelings. The number comes into play when you’re taking actions. Using science skills? You want to roll under your number. Using emotions? You want to roll above your number. The GM gives you bonus dice if you deserve them.

It’s a simple system, but it works in creating characters who are reasonably balanced while still feeling distinct from one another. More importantly, it reinforces the core themes of the game and of the universe. Every task in the universe will either be a matter of lasers or feelings. It’s either an exercise in logic and science or love and empathy. But what’s even better is that this mechanic can be easily and fruitfully hacked.

Say space stories aren’t your thing. All you need to do is take a genre you are interested in and look at one of the conflicts or tensions that define that universe. Those are your new stats. In a fantasy realm, people may be divided between Spells and Swords. In Star Wars, the light side/dark side division could be reflected in Patience and Passion. Prohibition mobsters might have Guns and Guile. The stats you pick will drastically affect the tone of the story by bringing every action the players take back to a single, defining tension of the universe.

Lasers and Feelings might take a little more setup than the other games on this list, but it’s also the one which is most adaptable to your genre preferences. This makes it a great rule set to have in your pocket when people are running late to an ongoing, long-term RPG; rather than playing an unrelated micro-game, you can construct a Lasers and Feelings hack for the game you are actually there to play. Let the players portray NPCs from that game. Do some fun worldbuilding while you wait.

A story doesn’t have to be long to be good. In fact, excess padding often detracts from what makes a story interesting in the first place. In the same way, roleplaying doesn’t need to be about adventurers on an epic series of quests, climbing from first-level losers to god-slaying heroes over months or years of campaigning. Shorter tales are compelling, especially when they’re short enough that you can steer them to a satisfying conclusion. These games are all easy to start and easy to tell stories with. They might not be appropriate for extended campaigns or even playing for more than an hour or so, but they use their time very well.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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