Downfall is a story game about creating and destroying a culture with a tragic flaw. During the creation portion, you choose a characteristic that is going to be the defining aspect of this new society… and is going to lead to its ruin.
The world-building portion is extremely satisfying — Sam Ashwell’s post gives a good overview of the general concept and functionality here.
In the session I played recently, we started with the flaw of Egalitarianism and a couple of related images (water, lakes, towers), and fairly soon had sketched out Titan Prime, a colony of turrets on an otherwise inhospitable moon. The original colonists had come from Earth generations before, but further ships never arrived, and the colony was now operating more or less independently, recycling all of its water and conserving its resources.
In the next stage of world-building, we established traditions of public and private fashion (everyone always wore uniforms in public); funerals (people were dehydrated for their water, then buried anonymously); justice (judge and jury roles were assigned by lottery, though once you’d been lottery-drafted you did receive some training); family (children were always fostered to someone other than a birth parent); and relationships (there was a complex system to make sure that you didn’t date your birth-sister even despite the fostering scenario). This is a fairly detailed place to get to on a half hour or so of gameplay, and I could easily imagine blending this with other campaign styles, or going over to a game of Microscope here to flesh out the historical events around the story.
The play of actual scenes, I found less tightly constructed.
Ours focused at least as much on the protagonist’s personal life as on the Big Problems of the society. That’s largely, I think, because we tended to frame scenes pretty conservatively, moving the story on only a little a time, and letting the hero’s relationship to the Pillar (their lover) become pretty central. It was still a good and interesting play, in a setting that intrigued me, but I felt like the ruleset depended a fair amount on the players to develop antagonistic scenarios that would blend the hero’s life and the society they belonged to.
And perversely, that had me looking back to the setup phase — which I consider very effective on the world-building front — and wondering whether there should have been more: more to establish the hero’s stakes in all this, and friction in their relationship to the two other mandatory players. (This is something that, e.g., Fiasco does well: by the time you start play, there’s an established relationship between every pair of ongoing characters.)
Maybe that’s something not all players would need. But a playthrough of Downfall can have as few as six role-played scenes, small enough to do in an afternoon, so you don’t want to burn too many scenes in philosophical conversations about the status of your society that don’t yield high-stakes results.
So to play it as a one-shot with less-than-expert players (I’m counting myself here), it might be worth including some extra lines of setup about the tensions between the characters, and exactly what stakes they have in seeing their homeland continue with / break away from the status quo.
More experienced storygamers might not run into this issue, though. And the game is well worth a look from the beginning for the way it ties together world-building with a the establishment of a tragic thesis: overcommitment to [some characteristic] always leads to destruction.