Bad Games People Still Play: One Word Stories

It’s the Late-Nineties. Autumn. The whole family is home, dinner having just ended. There’s a big storm tonight. Rain pounds on the roof, wind whips tree branches against the windows. The power goes out.


You have no cell phones. No lap-tops. No Nintendo DS, no PSP. It’s black for a long time. Your eyes have finally adjusted when a candle is lit. It’s set on the dining room table, light scarcely reaching the kitchen. The room is thick with unfamiliar shadows, and the rain keeps on. The family gathers back around the table, around the communal light. It’s too dark to read or draw, so what do you do? Sit and play ‘One Word Stories”.


This is a go-to game for many people and families. And it can be fun, for sure. It’s not a bad game outright, but I still put it in my ‘Bad Games People Still Play’ series, because it could be a lot more fun. For those unfamiliar, it’s simple to explain: You go around the circle, each player saying a single word, so as to tell a story. Any story. Usually it results in a couple of run-on sentences and general confusion. It is possible to excel at the game though, forming complete thoughts and some semblance of narrative.

But the pace of the game can hinder things. If players need time to think up their next word it interrupts the flow of the sentence, and thus of the story. It stops sounding like a coherent voice, the illusion of a single storyteller is weakened. Worse still, if the pace slackens players forget what was already said in the story or sentence. Narrative is lost and rambling begins. People sometimes zone out altogether, and the whole train is derailed.

Quick, somebody rerail this thing!

Quick, somebody rerail this thing!

Even if your crew is quick-witted and possess long attention spans, stories are not usually very funny, interesting, or coherent. They tend to run off on tangents, or get caught up in lists of adjectives.

A typical story sounds like this: “There once lived a crazy man, who had three slimy old bears, which ate some good carrots and soup which was hot and salty and made out of beans. One day the bears ran to the park to find some gold ducks who…” What happened to the man? Why are we off talking about bears and soup? As a general time killer, the game might suffice. But it certainly could be improved upon.


One helpful change is the addition of pen and paper. By writing out the story, players can think about their next word without interrupting the flow of the story. It also allows players to read back what’s already written, and work in the context of the entire story. Coherent and interesting stories are more easily produced. When you are finished writing, one player can read the whole story out loud, the illusion of a single voice regained, this time with no awkward pauses.

Alternatively, players can write a single letter at a time, for more minute tinkering with language. Making haikus one letter at a time is particularly satisfying, since they are short and the connotation of it being poetry lessens players resolve to make sense. Similarly, players can create drawings by adding a single line at a time.

Though it might be polite to keep the length of your line to a minimum.

Though it might be polite to keep the length of your line to a minimum.

Adding pen and paper has another benefit. Since not all players need to be listening to the flow of the story, you can have a separate paper for each player. The end of a session results in a bunch of stories or drawings to be shared and enjoyed.

But what if its too dark for paper, as in my opening scene? What if there’s no paper or pens around? What if the family is being held hostage – blindfolded, hands tied behind backs, only wishing they knew a silly storytelling game to cut the tension? Well I still think we can do better than one word at a time stories.

A simple change could be made by having players speak a whole sentence at a time. This could help with coherence, but could also be problematic since sentences have no fixed length. Outgoing players may use long, dramatic and rambling sentences, while shy players could opt for short, empty sentences and the storytelling may become lop-sided. Similarly entire sentences give single players too much power. All it takes is one smart-aleck to say “And then he died” to ruin a good yarn.

Looking at you, Super Mario Bros 2.

That and “It was all a dream” are the two biggest cop-outs for endings. Looking at you, Super Mario Bros 2.

Instead how about keeping the single word rule, but having each player repeat the story from the beginning at every turn? This would improve coherence, and have players stretching their powers of memorization. However, the longer the story grows, the more tedious the retelling becomes, and the more likely players will forget words. It could be made into a memorization competition this way, but such a slant would take the emphasis off storytelling. Players would not bother constructing an interesting plot if they were concentrating on winning.

Madlib Adlib

My last suggestion is what I call ‘Madlib Adlib”. One player is chosen to tell a story on the spot, but at any given point another player may point at the storyteller or say “stop”. Then whoever called stop chooses the storyteller’s next word, and they continue with the story as though that chosen word was exactly what they were going to say next. When the story finishes, another player becomes the storyteller.

This variant creates a coherent story, since it largely comes from one voice, and is told at a pace which promotes the remembering of context. But the interjections of other players keep the story from being coherent to the point of boredom. It throws wrenches in the story, taking it down strange and unexpected pathways.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow -" "Pepper!" "...pepper, and sorry I could not travel both..."

“Two roads diverged in a yellow -” “Pepper!” “…pepper, and sorry I could not travel both…”

Having different roles to play can be beneficial. By having ‘unbalanced’ play, there is can be less stress put on shy players, and outgoing players can strut their stuff as the main storyteller. Each has their own important role, and their own distinct source of fun.

The fun of playing the interjector is in seeing how the storyteller connives to make sense of your word, and in attempting to throw them for a loop. While the fun of being the storyteller is being able to improvise a story without all the pressure of creativity, since any lulls in the story will be snapped up by interjections. Just by connecting the dots, the storyteller gets to feel that they have the most strange and amusing anecdote to share.

So the next time the power goes out, pretend the handheld electronics did too and tell stories like its 1999.

Only without all the Y2K paranoia.

Only without all the Y2K paranoia.

Know any good storytelling games? What did your family do when the power went out?



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