James Wallis levels with you

Once Upon a Time in Texas

It’s almost twenty years since Atlas Games released the first edition of Once Upon a Time, the card-game I co-developed with Andrew Rilstone and Richard Lambert. Since then it’s sold around a quarter of a million copies, and is available in ten languages including the pirated Chinese edition. And Once Upon a Time 3rd Edition will be released in time for Christmas this year with all-new art and packaging, and some tweaks and refinements to the gameplay you know.

The game has also sparked the interest of many, many people around the world, who have found ways to use the game and its cards to do things we never dreamed of when we were prototyping the thing on the backs of old business cards at the start of the 1990s.

A couple of weeks ago I heard from Alex Gray, an old RPG designer contact of mine who played one of the OUaT draft decks with me at the Chicago WorldCon in 1992. He told me that two of his friends in the Austin improv scene, Firth and Arjet, are using Once Upon a Time cards as part of their shows at the Hideout Theatre. This sounded awesome, so I got in touch. Here’s Kristen Firth to explain:

Before the show we get audience members to fill out slips we’ve printed on color-coded construction paper, where we ask them for a location, object, or character type that might be in a fairy tale. (Originally we asked for a “character” but got a lot of already existing named characters instead of things like “princess”.) We put the suggestions in a hat, then grab one character and one object and use that to inspire the beginning of the show and protagonist. One of us runs backstage to get into a makeshift costume as that character, while the other begins narrating a story.

We tell the story via a bunch of improv scenes and occasionally more narrating. The non-protagonist ends up playing a lot of other characters, and the protagonist usually at least one or two others briefly as well. Throughout the show we periodically go to the hat and grab one of the three types of suggestions and incorporate it into whatever is happening at the time.

At about five minutes before our show time is up we get the people running the lights/sound at the theater to sound a horn (or whatever noise device they have), and we freeze the show. We go to a deck of ending cards from Once Upon a Time (including both the base game and Dark Tales expansion), choose a few cards randomly, then read them to the audience. Then we go through the choices and let the audience applaud for which ending they want to see. Then we unfreeze, go back to the story, and wrap up in the next five or so minutes ending with the sentence that they chose.

Honestly we could do the whole show with only the cards from the game, and that is how we rehearsed the format before the run. For our performances though we often try to heavily incorporate audience involvement into our various formats, so letting them supply some of the details does that very well. But having a well-constructed ending makes for a nice touch.

If you’re in Austin, go and check out Firth & Arjet at the Hideout Theatre. And if you’re doing something interesting or different with Once Upon a Time, please get in touch.

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