Most roleplaying games have a very slow start. A game master must do hours of prep work, and players must build complicated characters. That makes it difficult to change plans on the fly, or to add a friend that doesn’t know the rules system. Fortunately, there are gaming options that don’t need a GM and require no preparation for the story. These are great choices for one-off occasions, or for a group that has members joining and dropping out from week to week.
I’ll cover my three favorites. Each of these games are inexpensive as roleplaying games go, require materials you probably have on hand, and provide a different kind of experience than a traditional tabletop system. They’re an enjoyable way to tell stories together, and I find they challenge me to be a more creative gamer.
Group Size: Three to five
Playtime: Three to four hours
Theme: Plans going awry
Fiasco uses dice and randomized “playset” tables during the game’s setup to provide a framework that follows the theme you’ve chosen for your session. After the relationships and props of your playset are established, the game relies little on dice or mechanics. Players are free to succeed or fail however they want, but the group chooses mid-scene if it should end well or poorly for the character.
The flow of successes and failures are shaped by what the table finds interesting, funny, or dramatic. As the player leading the scene, you determine how your character either achieves their goals, or how their attempts at manipulation, tax evasion, or bomb disarmament will blow up in their face.
As a package, Fiasco gives players an experience of escalating conflict and delightful absurdities. There is a fixed number of scenes in each game, so as you approach the finish line, you’re forced to bring your tangled story to a dramatic conclusion. If your gaming group is in the habit of carefully formulating their plans during a typical adventure, these ad hoc shenanigans will challenge the group to improvise. And if you’re used to rushing in half cocked… god help you all.
The Quiet Year
Group Size: Two to four
Playtime: Two to three hours
Theme: Community building and exploration
The Quiet Year uses a group-drawn map and cards to build the geography, events, and conflicts of a small post-apocalyptic community. Unlike most roleplaying games, you are discouraged from playing individual characters. Instead, players embody attitudes within the community. The game leads you through a year of rebuilding, scarcity, and conflict, overshadowed by an impending crisis in winter. Each week is represented by a card that prompts players to expand the story through leading questions like, “What natural predators roam this area? Are you safe?”
When you are resolving a card, you have full discretion over the outcome. Other players can’t argue with your decision. However, if another player feels that your choices would cause dissent in the community, they can indicate this by taking a contempt token that represents a forming schism. These tokens encourage players to foster emerging conflicts, and even seek retribution for decisions they disagreed with.
The Quiet Year feels as much like a social experiment as a game. The contempt tokens and strict speaking rules illustrate how challenging it is to engage members of a community. Schisms formed over minor disagreements can linger for weeks, or complicate the community’s survival effort. This game is very different from most roleplaying games out there, and will give your gaming group something new to talk about.
Group Size: Two to five
Playtime: Two hours plus
Theme: Grand scale worldbuilding
Microscope is a worldbuilding game where you create a large timeline, and then fill in the details. You establish long swaths of history called periods, create smaller sections of time called events within periods, then call on the other players at the table to help you roleplay specific scenes within an event. This three tiered structure provides ever expanding possibilities for players. There are no limits to the number of periods, events, or scenes that can be created, and every turn you have new ideas to build off of.
The game puts a great deal of importance on narration. When it is your turn, you can use as little or as much detail as you like, but whatever you say is locked into the game. The ability to jump back and forth in the world’s timeline allows each player to make big decisions without ruining someone else’s fun. If you have a lot of ideas for a city that was just created, but another player creates an event where it is destroyed, you can always make events and scenes that take place at a time prior to its destruction.
Microscope engages the entire group in what is usually the private realm of a writer or game master. You are all contributing to a world on a grand scale, free to focus on the areas that interest you the most. And since the game discourages creation by consensus, players who normally defer to others at the table will take your group in new directions. You may even find that after a game of Microscope, you have a ready made campaign world, and a group that is invested in exploring it.
These games focus on aspects of storytelling and roleplaying that traditional systems neglect. If your regular game feels stale, they’ll provide a change in pace. On top of that, they require little preparation, making them usable for pickup games. If your gaming group is looking for a shorter commitment, or simply something new, give one of these a try.
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