Part 2 of this post.
by Jason Morningstar
Winterhorn is a freeform game about government agents trying to bring down a group of political activists. I should warn the reader that it is more of an “educational game” than a “recreational game”, and as might be expected, it will challenge players on many fronts: on the front of discussing social realities, on the front of game design, and on the front of emotional management.
Let’s talk social realities first – Winterhorn allows you to use violent, coercive, negotiation, and manipulation tools to suppress an activist group called WINTERHORN. If you play this game purely recreationally as a one-shot, there’s a good chance you’ll feel like subjects of the Stanford Prison Experiment by the end of play. It pushes you to treat these activists as insurgents, as dangerous, and most importantly, as names on a page. It’s easy in the game to dehumanize them, because dehumanizing them expands your options for neutralizing the organization. However, while Winterhorn does a cynic’s job of mirroring how real-life agencies might treat political activism, the onus is on your as a player group to talk about and examine how you feel about the game, and what you learned during the game. The game itself is certainly an experience, but a lot of the catharsis that you get out of it comes from reflecting on how a given game went. Reflection is very much a part of the game. This can be challenging for many gamers, who want the actual play to be cathartic in and of itself.
Let’s talk design next – Winterhorn follows the general tradition of a lot of Bully Pulpit published games and especially Jason Morningstar’s game design philosophy of excising the GM so that there is no one player with centralized and disproportionate power compared to other players. As someone who is personally very pro-GM, I’m usually skeptical about this tradition. However, Winterhorn in particular does a great job of selling it – the instructions very clearly delineate which roles go to which players, and the adjudication of the game is admirably balanced between every single player, who together fulfill all the roles of a traditional GM. The explicit structure outlined in Winterhorn is a breath of fresh air compared to more vague GM-less systems where the system just…promises the players that things will work out, and then things often don’t. However, in creating this shared-power GMing style, Winterhorn requires a lot more administrative commitment from each player than most tabletop RPGs. Let me provide an example:
As you can see from the above roles, Winterhorn demands a non-RPG role from each player, so that players are shifting between their “in-game” role and their “out-of-game” role. Tricky for people new to tabletop RPGs, and can easily break their immersion. The fact that Winterhorn is a partial LARP makes it even more challenging, because it requires players to really act like government agents, reading and discussing reports and creating a case board for each member of the opposition.
Finally, the game can be emotionally weighty. Whenever the government agents commit to an action, you don’t really get to pick how it resolves – that’s adjudicated by a system of cards, and some of the results are, while clinical in phrasing, somewhat horrifying in their implications. Regardless of whether people died or not (on your side or on the opposition’s side), you are expected at parts of the game to pick up a phone and pretend to take a call from your boss. This only happens if your bosses are upset at you, and you effectively act out a one-sided phone conversation for the benefit of the other players when this happens. These moments are deeply ambient, but require a certain amount of emotional commitment that is more common with LARPs than with typical tabletop RPGs. Fortunately, due to how dark (or I suppose merely morbid for those who view this with humor) the game can get, the developer provides built-in safety tools for players to use should they need them.
I highly recommend this one-shot for an experienced group of role-players whom you trust. I think the experience it offers can be poignant or it can be chilling, and ultimately the game is more about cathartic and curated experience of stress than it is about generating fun. Nonetheless, I think the experience it provides is well-worth your time if you are committed to serious, non-campy roleplaying experience, all bundled within a tightly-designed 3-hour experience. Grab Winterhorn from Bully Pulpit Games.
by Impossible Dream
Dread is a game of horror and hope, where the resolution mechanic is a Jenga tower.
I have run more games of Dread than any other one-shot on this list, primarily because it’s so easy to pull out at any house with a Jenga tower…and because the Jenga tower is such an evocative prop to use. You can play it drunk. You can play it with kids. You can play it with adults. You can play it at summer camp. You can play it as an improv exercise. For a horror game, it’s remarkably versatile.
(Granted, Dread is not so much a game as assisted storytelling. All the same, it’s a great gateway drug to newbie role-players and is low-enough-commitment as to be effortless.)
Experienced GMs don’t even need to buy this to play it – that’s how simple the premise is. Get players to characters and start telling a horror story. Periodically ask one of your players how they react to a situation. If their reaction has a chance of failure, ask them to pull a block from the tower. If their reaction is truly outlandish, ask them to do multiple pulls from the Jenga tower. Eventually, the Jenga tower will fall – that leads to catastrophic failure, and the player responsible for that fall will meet a tragic end – death, loss of memory, insanity, becoming a cultist, whatever. Rebuild the tower and continue until all the players have met a tragic end. It’s delightful at ratcheting up the tension.
Why is this #6 on my list? Well…I’m personally really into development of player skill. The stakes of this game are fairly arbitrary, the value of strategic or lateral thinking is zilch (everything depends on your Jenga pulls) and eventually everybody is gonna meet a bad end. It’s my go-to in more situations than the above games, but I tend to enjoy the above games more when I do get a chance to play or run them.
If you’re gonna get it, nab the Dread of Night or Dreadful Annalise bundle from DriveThruRPG to get an extra game for your money – remember, you can always remix horror games back into Dread, which is the real strength of a rules-lite horror system like this. You can take your Call of Cthulhu group and run them through a scenario using Dread rules as a base. It works like a charm.
#7: THE WITCH IS DEAD
by Grant Howitt
Have a free, one-page game about murder, magic, and adorable woodland critters. What more can you ask for!?
This game is so short that you will instantly be able to tell whether it’s up your alley or not – see the game here, and support the developer here if you wish to buy it. Grant Howitt, the author, has a ton of charming one-page RPGs in his arsenal of games. But in this particular one you get to play as a Magpie who has the magical ability to make magical dinners appear out of thin air!? I’m sold, why aren’t you!?
Grant Howitt synthesizes the emergent complexity of random tables with the elegance of punchy, ready-to-go narratives so well that I’d recommend just stuffing his games in your pocket to share with other tabletop enthusiasts. They’re niche enough that I think they lose a bit of the magic when you replay them with the same group, but they have so much pep and charm to them that they remain undeniably some of my favorite one-shot games. Look into his larger projects such as Spire (a game of anarchist Drow!) and too – while not suitable for one-shots, they’re quite excellent for similar reasons.
As for buying The Witch Is Dead, find it on itch.io.
#8: DUNGEON WORLD
by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel
Dungeon World will always have a near and dear place in my heart because it’s the very first tabletop roleplaying game I was GM for…but it’s actually a difficult game to recommend.
I do still recommend it for one-shot games, and it’s really good for those. The reasons it is difficult to recommend have a lot to do with campaign play, as well as the expectations and habits that Dungeon World teaches.
For now, let’s focus on its strong suits – Dungeon World is remarkably quick to get going for how complex it is (arguably the most complex game on this list). The reason it works so elegantly is because of an innovation from the Powered by the Apocalypse game lineup – the Playbook. A Playbook is a customized character sheet/guidebook that each player gets – it goes a long way in teaching players how to play just by looking at it, and because it is custom-made for each class (the Cleric and Ranger have unique playbooks, distinct from one another) it cuts out a lot of the unnecessary page-flipping past other classes and reading of rules that don’t apply to you that happens in most tabletop RPGs.
Dungeon World also has a lot of little streamlining quirks that help you get to the action quicker, because the core resolution mechanics of the game, Moves, always push the narrative forward – you never have a failure that results in nothing of note happening, even if you time Moves relatively poorly.
I actually started my D&D experiences with Dungeon World…and I’ve even run it for my grandparents, speaking primarily in Chinese. It worked very well for both of those purposes. As a teaching game, it engenders good habits on both GMs and players, giving you a sense of what decent pacing feels like and gently guiding you to “yes, and” conclusions. As a game for foreign-language-speakers, it is simple enough to convey while complex enough so as to not feel patronizing.
I have some more complicated reasons why I no longer play Dungeon World much and have trepidation about it, but I leave those for another blog post.
Find Dungeon World here.
All images are taken from the respective games’ own artwork, with the exception of the header image, which was designed by Toror. His work can be found here.