Playing Atlas Games’ Once Upon a Time with the Kid + embracing online gaming

Greetings Dear Reader! Picture me shivering slightly in the outside office I mentioned last week. I’m very much regretting having lost my fingerless gloves. Didn’t realize they’d become a mission-critical accoutrement!

My thoughts are with our gaming brethren in NYC. I hope you are all safe, sane, and healthy. Fingers crossed when I say this, but it appears our Bay Area quarantine is helping.

What’s in this Bunker, Anyway?

So, yes, once you find yourself on lockdown, which seems almost inevitable at this point, you start digging around in your game holdings. That box in the closet, or under the bed, or out in the shed finally sees the light of day. Sure, you could order more crap from Amazon, but isn’t this the moment your collection has been waiting for!?! Wasn’t this the point?

I started thrifting card games when Xander was born against bringing them out later in his childhood and, sure enough, later is now… and we have lots of time to fill.

Once Upon a Time by Atlas Games has been in my box of goodies for awhile. This week I finally got it out and gave it a good look. I have the second edition from 1995, and I feel like the rules reflect the sense that you can’t have a game where you just tell a good story. Oh, no. Winning! There has to be winning or it’s not a game, man. 1995 has nothing but side-eye for the card-based freeform I was hoping for. There are mechanics for playing Interrupts and getting all your cards out of your hand, etc., etc.

Non-Compete Clause

I don’t know about you, but is the problem with story-games that people don’t interrupt each other enough?

So, at your house you can have fights and terrible arguments and watch your 7-year-old say, “I hate playing games with you, Daddy!,” as he slams his bedroom door OR you can just bury those Interrupt cards in the bottom of the box where they belong. And if you’re a purist that needs convincing, remember that job one is keeping your kids engaged. Lots of tick-tocks to fill, people! Ain’t nobody around here thinks we are headed back to school in April. (Update: just found out that kids are supposed to go back to school on May 1. Spoiler Alert: They’re not going back then, either.)

Choke Up on the Bat

That’s a sportsball thing. I’ll say it in plain English. The recommended number of cards for a two-player game of Once is 10. That makes it a long story for a younger kid, so Xander and I tried a hand of 7. It works great. The story gets a pleasing twist or two, but isn’t long enough to start meandering. Also, instead of each getting an Ending card that we’re trying to get on the table, I put out a couple of face up random ones and we just see which one we’re headed towards as we go. Yes, Baby’s First Play to Find Out.

once_standingWait, This is Like a Whole New Game, Why Bother?

I’ll admit I’ve gutted the Once rules to turn it into a mushy freeform, but it actually works. The card art is damn good in the way of Tarot and your better oracle decks. Every card brings something, but there’s a fluidity to the meaning. It helps that the cards have text on them, too, so you can play with the idea of the word as well.

Also, reading! All the reading Xander does on the cards doesn’t seem like work to him. And since we keep the cards to ourselves, it builds the idea of keeping your cards to yourself; that’s a giant piece of card game tech Xander hasn’t quite gotten until now. He has a long way to go before he finds his poker face, but it’s a start.

It’s Okay to Lead

We alternate going first, but either way I make a big bold statement about the story right away. This is something I’m hoping he’ll model, but it also gets us on path to “somewhere” right away. I never negate what he does, but I try to amp it up if I feel like the story needs it.

In one of our games he led off with the Empress card, but with little embellishment. Right away I knew I wanted to help make this a strong character. So, I played down the Sword card, and I said a little something like this…
“The Empress doesn’t trust her own court, because when she sits in judgement she sides with the smallfolk more often than she does with the Dukes and Duchesses. So late into every night she practices where her magical sword, Truthbringer!”

So, now I’ve created a whole situation off the back of that Sword card, and a woman with a weapon called Truthbringer sounds like someone to contend with! It might be tiresome to play like this every turn, but there’s nothing wrong with boldly setting the scene early on.

If you’ve got kids, dig around in the bottom of your box of funk. There may be something in there you’ll enjoy. I’m really glad I got out Once Upon A Time. It’s finally earning that spot on the shelf!

Bonus: Notes on Online Gaming

Growth mindset. I didn’t grow up with it. My parents were perfectionists, and that’s what they taught me to be. Now I’m getting great practice making peace with that as I transition to online gaming. As I said to a friend recently, “I don’t love it, but it’s all we’ve got now.” The Games must go on.

My buddy MadJay brought me into his burgeoning media empire to play Champions Now, the story-game reinvisioning of the classic superhero property from Hero Games. There’s a ton I like about it, and now that the game engine has gone on a diet, it’s perfect for online play. I’ll post about the game content, and the podcast episode that’ll be edited down from our session, but for now I want to talk about the experience and the tools.

It’s the first post-quarantine game I’ve played, and that in and of itself was relieving. I had a weekly game for years and my main group is still building up the skills to get online. I found that Jay and I chatted for a surprising amount of time, but I wouldn’t have wanted a minute less.

Jay’s die roller of choice is the bare bones Roll for Your Party. (It has some nice tricks up its sleeve if you’re in the market for a roller for online play.) Since I did a ton of Champions back in the day, mechanics weren’t an issue and we were up and running in no time. I used to be an actor, so keeping an audience in mind came as second nature. At least I think it did… maybe I’ll cringe when I hear the playback!

In any case, Jay and I amused each other, and in my experience a lot of the best entertainment starts that way. Also, it was just me and Jay, one player and one GM, which I don’t ever remember doing. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the spotlight, or the flexibility of just asking Jay for set-ups or moments in the game.

So, a good start!

This weekend I’m going to run my group through a session of On Mighty Thews, a Conan-inspired story-game, and then’ll we’ll attempt to take on playing D&D together on Roll20. Wish us luck. We’re not quite geezers, but we ain’t young whippersnappers, either. Growth mindset!

Okay, gotta run, my ass is freezing to this seat—but stay healthy, Dear Reader, and if you can, stay home.

The Shape of Things to Come?

One thought on “Playing Atlas Games’ Once Upon a Time with the Kid + embracing online gaming

  1. Not sure if I’d call Dad a perfectionist, exactly, but I definitely struggle with growth mindset, too.
    I’d love to know what the Empress ended up doing with Truthbringer.
    Also, I’d love a copy of the adorable picture of Xander at that end.


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