While I was at Fabletown and Beyond, I picked up three card games from the good people at The Source Comics and Games (who sponsored the convention, but also happen to be where I buy my comics every week). The other two were Gloom and Ghooost!, but the first one I got – the one I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it – was Once Upon a Time from Atlas Games. It’s not a new game, but Atlas recently came out with the 3rd Edition with new art and an expanded set of cards. The reason the Source was promoting it though was because it’s so appropriate to a convention centered around myths and legends.
Once Upon a Time isn’t just appropriate for its fairy tale subject matter. What made me want it was the way it encourages and teaches storytelling. The rules are simple: each player is dealt a hand of cards with story elements on them. There are people, places, and things, but also events and descriptors. Each player also gets a card with an ending printed on it. The object is to tell a story that uses each of your story elements and your ending, but the rest of the group is also in on the story, able to interrupt each other and take control, trying to incorporate their own elements and get to their own endings.
It’s become a favorite game at our house (especially since David’s allowed to include Pokemon characters in the stories) and I love how it teaches good storytelling. By nature, the stories created in the game are evolving, ever-changing beasts, so there’s no Three Act Structure or Write What You Know or a lot of the other formal rules that writers get used to, but Once Upon a Time allows players to challenge each other if a player’s contribution doesn’t make sense. It encourages patience with younger or less-articulate players, but there are explicit rules about introducing elements gratuitously just to use up cards or coming out of nowhere with an ending that doesn’t flow from the story.
Those are great lessons for storytellers and I’m excited that the game has us talking about them with my son. He also enjoys trying to make each game a sequel to the last. We haven’t let him make that an official house rule, but he’s thinking about serial stories and continuity and that’s fun to see.
What I’m getting out of the game though is the opportunity to stretch my imagination in a way that I don’t always get to when I’m writing from my outline and notes. I get to as I’m creating my outline, but once that’s done and the work begins, Once Upon a Time is a fun tool for keeping my imagination flexible.