Ask the Archive: Starting Points

While Ellie W is taking over as society archivist and librarian, the Nightflyer still remains a place to talk about the items in the archive and what you could do with them. If people are interested, I can turn this into a regular column providing advice on which games in the archive would suit a particular GM or player’s needs. First up: what games are a good place to start for first-time GMs?

I figure that as far as supporting a GM goes, a game has three pillars to cover:


A game that presents a strong setting or game tone can be a huge boon to GMs – it makes it easy to get players on the same page as you as far as character concepts, appropriate actions and story expectations go. A game gets bonus points for putting out a setting with enough high-level details and broad strokes to get a clear idea of how its societies function, but avoiding getting bogged down in details – this minimises the obligation on you and your players to read umpteen pages of setting minutia before getting stuck in.


Most systems occupy a point somewhere between no-rules freeform

and exhaustively-detailed crunch. I’d say both are unhelpful to starting GMs – the first puts all the weight on the GM to adjudicate the effectiveness of PCs and justify challenges, while the second can be a huge headache to remember and adjudicate or to stat up effective opposition in.

GM techniques

Some games are better than others at teaching GMs how to run them. There’s a bunch of different skills a GM has to employ over the course of a game – plotting out interesting scenarios, building antagonists and encounters, managing pacing and distributing the game’s focus between characters, and so on – and while they take a while to learn games can help you get started with them.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through some of the games in the archive and say why I feel they’re good for new GMs.

Traditional Fantasy

Swords and bows, elves and dwarves – everything an adventurer could want.

Dungeons and Dragons

The behemoth that created and in many ways defines the hobby, D&D has likely been the starting point for more GMs than any other game. While other games may provide a simpler, more freeform, or less combat-focused experience, you can count on D&D to provide lots of character options, a mechanics-dense system for crunch-oriented players to get their teeth into, and robust GM advice. I’d particularly recommend 4th edition, as it has clear and cleanly presented rules, fun things for every player to do, and incredibly comprehensive and well-written advice for GMs on statting and running encounters, plotting an adventure, and providing cool monsters for you to use.

In the Archive, the Rules Compendium gives you the basic system, the Monster Vault gives dozens of creatures to use complete with tokens and battlemaps, the various Player Handbooks give character options, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives you advice on running the game and creating adventures.

13th Age

If you’re in the mood for fantasy adventure but want something with a stronger setting, more room for player creativity, and less fiddly rules, 13th Age may be what you’re looking for. I’ve already gone over it a bit here, but 13th Age has a few advantages over standard D&D: First, the setting has plenty of strong flavour, but is primarily defined by the opposing machinations of 13 Icons. These figures – some good and some evil, some supporting the status quo and some undermining it – allow local plots to be easily tied into global plotlines, and the Relationships characters have to these Icons give them a hook into the bigger picture.

Second, each player defines One Unique Thing about their character that makes them special. This can be mundane (you have an incredible alcohol tolerance), supernatural (you were born with wings), political (you’re the first elf to be born in five centuries), or something else, but they immediately provide a cool fact about your character and something to hang future plots off.

Finally, its combat is dynamic and tactical without being too complex – while it can use miniatures it doesn’t tether them to a grid, and character and monster abilities are written to be dramatic and powerful without needing bookkeeping.

Dungeon World

If you want to run a game of fantasy adventure but don’t want to learn a bunch of mechanics, or want to put more emphasis on creativity and improvisation, Dungeon World could be the game for you. Built on the incredibly flexible and flavourful Apocalypse Engine, Dungeon World puts all the mechanics you need on a couple of sheets of paper and lets you get straight into roleplaying. Dungeon World can be a bit more challenging for new GMs – the flexible combat means there’s no initiative order to take care of balancing PC screen time for you, and you need to be able to think on your feet and adjust the scenario according to player input – but it makes up for this by creating great stories without needing mechanical competency from the GM.


The things that lurk in dark alleys, scuttle and scrape in shadows, and threaten to overturn your perceptions of reality…

Vampire: the Requiem (2nd edition)

Previously reviewed here under its old name, Vampire is a game about the secret society of bloodsuckers that hide in the shadows of the modern world. The new edition comes with lots of advantages:

  • The different vampire clans have a range of terrifying and amazing powers to choose from, giving characters interesting things to do from the start.
  • Rejiggered systems that cut straight to the drama – everything from XP to status effects are presented in a simple, easily-understandable manner and push the drama along.
  • A range of detailed cities to set your game in, and a ‘default’ campaign in the form of the Strix – owl-demons made of shadow and flame that bear a strange malice towards vampires.

The core New World of Darkness system is also great for playing more traditional horror stories, where everyday people must investigate and fight for their lives against monsters, spirits and depraved maniacs.

Monsters and Other Childish Things

Ever had an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What if they weren’t so imaginary? What if they had strange hungers, plentiful tentacles, and caused as much well-meaning chaos as a poorly-housebroken puppy?

Monsters and Other Childish Things (reviewed here) is a simple, punchy game about childhood, imagination and responsibility. Monster creation is incredibly fun – basically drawing a picture of your monster, and assigning points to its various cool features – and the system is easy to get a handle on while still providing possibilities for drama. Finally, the book comes with dozens of different antagonists, and a starter adventure to get your game up and running.

Generic Systems

If you already have a setting you want to play in, or want to build one up with your players, a generic system might be a good choice for you.

The archive has two good fits for this: Fate Accelerated and Savage Worlds. Which one you should go for depends on your preferences: if you want a crunchy, tactical game go for Savage Worlds, while if you want a narrative-heavy game where characters are defined by their philosophy or history more than their strength or dexterity go for Fate Accelerated. Both games are very short books, have a system that’s easy to get to grips with, and have more supplements you can bring in if you want systems for specific things like magic or cybernetics, or settings to run your games in.


So there we go! To request a book from the archive, use the contact form on the right.

For the next column, I need your help: if you have a game idea and want to know how the archive can help, let me know!

New in the Archive: Bumper Bonus Round

Thanks to the recent generosity of a number of individuals the archive has grown considerably. I thought I’d use a single post to let everybody know the choicest books, as well as the complete list of books.

13th Age and 13 True Ways

Created by the lead designers of 3rd and 4th edition D&D, this game (and its expansion) aims to fuse the best bits of both – the tactics and mechanical rigor of 4th edition and the more freeform roleplaying focus of 3rd. The included setting is pretty standard fantasy, although it makes it gameable in a way few other settings do by defining a list of 13 ‘Icons’ that between them represent the various forces acting on the Dragon Empire. Whether they’re the order and civilization-loving Dragon Emperor, the cunning and icy Lich King, or the Crusader pushing back the forces of hell so his dark gods can devour the world instead, each has interesting quirks you can mine for plot seeds. Your character starts with relationships to this icons right off the bat that you can use to get aid from their organisation (if friendly) or enemies (if hostile), and the GM is encourages to use these rolls to work out what factions are involved in the plot of the week rather than deciding beforehand.

Character creation is reasonably simple; you pick a class (one of 15 from the simple Barbarian or Sorceror to the complex Wizard or Battle Captain), choose a race (the game comes with the fantasy staples, as well as simple rules to build your own), pick a few talents from the class to customise your particular character, and pick backgrounds (like skills but more flexible – instead of getting +3 herbalism and +2 healing you can instead put down ‘student of elven healers +3′ and use that for everything it’s appropriate for). The final step is to decide on your character’s One Unique Thing – something about them that no-one else in the world has, and that marks them out as someone worth paying attention to. This can be as simple and mundane as being the only elf in the world with human ears, or as weird as being a paladin so holy you came back from the dead as a skeleton. Either way they help the GM frame their campaign, and give you interesting things to do.

On the other side of the GM screen, the game comes with a bevy of different monsters to use, all with nasty tricks you can give them if you want to make encounters a little tougher. Monsters are a lot simpler than PCs to run, and have their average roll result listed for most actions so that the GM doesn’t need to bother rolling themselves.

13th Age is a lot of fun, and for me resolved many of the issues I had with recent D&D editions. If it sounds good, take a look!

Cthulhu, Cthulhu, Cthulhu

As is appropriate for an old library full of strange tomes, we’ve gathered quite a few books that focus on that most abhorrent and tentacled of entities. Of particular interest were three books: The Laundry FilesDelta Green, and Dreamhounds of Paris.

The Laundry Files is an adaptation of Charles Stross’ Lovecraftian spy thrillers, in which magic is nothing more than a complex series of equations that melt your brain if you try to perform them mentally and that reach out into the dark space between dimensions to summon power. It follows that after the invention of the computer, magic got a lot easier and the various cults that worship the outer entities got a lot more troubling. Our only defense against these threats is the poorly-funded, barely-remembered, so-classified-it-doesn’t-have-a-name security department that lives above Capital Laundry Services in London. Armed with a little knowledge, a few occult cantrips, smartphones loaded with reality-twisting apps and the occasional firearm, it’s your job to slow the world’s descent into madness a few more days. Just try not to die – the paperwork for converting you into a residual human resource is hell…

Taking the idea of security forces against Cthulhu across the pond, Delta Green is a game of government conspiracy and dark horror. You play members of the eponymous paramilitary organisation, born in the aftermath of the U.S. government’s 1928 raid on the coastal town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. For four decades Delta Green investigated and fought back the various horrors of the mythos – deep ones, cultists, things which lurk in angles – until a botched operation in Cambodia lead the government to close them down. Although stripped of official sanction, the remaining members swore an oath to continue fighting even as they started new careers as scientists, spies and security guards. Now the organisation communicates through dead drops and secure servers, using the federal bureaucracy to fight against the dark forces that have infiltrated every branch of society – from UFO hunters stumbling upon something they cannot understand to the secretive dark conspiracy of Majestic-12. Delta Green has a lot more of a government conspiracy vibe to it – think the X-Files, or Fringe – deception is a right, truth is a privilege, innocence is a luxury. The book comes with adaptations to the Call of Cthulhu system, background details on every US government agency as inspiration for character’s day jobs, enemy organisations like a criminal syndicate of occultists, immortal nazis serving a risen Hitler, and the extraterrestrial Mi-Go, and two scenarios and a short campaign to run players through.

Finally, Dreamhounds of Paris returns to the classic Cthulhu time period of the 20s and 30s. Written for the investigation-focused Trail of Cthulhu, Dreamhounds charts the rise and fall of the surrealist movement and extrapolates their real-life fervour to create a global psychic revolution into a war of conquest waged across the landscape of mankind’s dreams. Play as two-fisted filmmaker Luis Bunuel, American expat photographer Man Ray, or impish young painter Salvador Dali in a intricately-detailed Paris taking you from the 1920s to the occupation, and from the mundane world to the nightmare-stalked, cat-filled landscapes of distant Ulthar. This book includes a timeline of the real-life surrealist movement, descriptions and discussions of their art and what they were hoping to achieve with it, 19 different pregenerated characters to play as, and a guide to the surreal landscape of the dreamlands and its strange inhabitants.

I’m not planning on standing again as archivist after this term, but while I still have the books let me know if you want to give any of them a look!

Here’s a full list of the new additions:

Vampire: the Requiem (1e): core book, The Invictus, Ordo Dracula, Lancea Sanctum, VII, Bloodlines: The Hidden.
Vampire: The Masquerade (Revised)
Vampire: The Masquerade (2e)
Wraith: The Oblivion (Revised)
Mage: The Ascension (Revised)
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (Revised)
Exalted (1e): Core Book, The Dragon-Blooded, The Lunars, The Abyssals, plus a lot more supplements.
Burning Wheel and Character Burner (2E)
Gary Gygax’s Necropolis
Midnight: Fury of Shadow
Spycraft (2e)

From the Vaults: Oxford in the Larger World of Roleplaying

628x471As the Archivist, I have a box full of old editions of the Nightflyer back when it was a print magazine. While I was organising and clearing out excess copies, I started reading them and found some very interesting articles. As I thought the society might appreciate seeing what people thought was interesting and important in past years, I’m going to be posting some of these ancient articles over the next few weeks. First up: a depiction of OURPGSoc’s characteristic roleplaying style from 10 years ago.

By Hanbury Hampden-Turner, Michaelmas 2004.

One thing that several visitors to Oxford have mentioned is that they do (or do not) appreciate the ‘Oxford style’ of roleplaying. It should first be pointed out what an achievement it is to get such a distinctive group of people together that such a description is possible. Many clubs and groups don’t seem to have much in common with each other, and it’s common to get a society without any common identity at all. At least part of this must be down to the Oxford society game, an institution that, whatever its faults, means that large numbers of members role-play with each other in the same game every year. That’s not common in the wider world, and leads to a far greater cohesiveness than we would otherwise have.

But it has other effects as well. One of the most popular comments, for good or ill, is that Oxford people are loud! The set up of the society game means that influence is roughly equivalent to how many people listen to you, and being confident and boisterous is far more common that it might be in a tabletop. In one of the Oxford-Cambridge joint games the players were city leaders discussing the defence of the city against a threatening horde. One of the Oxford players asked if he could make a speech, and his Cambridge referee agreed. His comments as to what dice he might roll were made to an empty chair as the player climbed up onto the meeting table, sword drawn, and started to roar about pride, guts and glory.

All of which made him a target. Out Cambridge colleagues were carefully and methodically working behind the scenes, trying to intrigue, support and counterplot, and setting yourself up as a n obviously influential figure was to their minds a recipe for disaster. Most of the memorable performances that day were from Oxford, but the careful behind the scenes plotting was dominated by Cambridge. In the end their characters probably achieved more, and our characters were more distinctive personalities. Our Cambridge hosts, much to our surprise, declared the former to be a more important measure of skill at the game.

A judgement I suspect most of us would disagree with. But it must be admitted that Oxford players make notoriously bad co-conspirators. Keeping one eye on a good story, and one eye on a good portrayal of an often badly flawed character, an Oxford player often ends up with characters that effectively self-destruct. In the Thieves’ Guild society game, a secret PC conspiracy called the Chimera came to light when one of the members made a full public confession and then committed suicide during a meeting. Suddenly the hunt for the rest of the members of the conspiracy was on. As one player said to me, “yes it’s very dramatic, but you can see why my character didn’t join them, now can’t you?” I would suggest that there’s no point having secrets unless they come out, and no point having a conspiracy unless it is uncovered, but others might argue that there is no point having a plan at all unless, at least on some level, you want it to actually succeed. Is it better role-playing to contrive to fail? As one player of a detective memorably said: “I don’t really investigate anything, I just lead the police around until we find out whose turn it is to confess this week.”

While the commitment to the plan might be in doubt however, the plan itself is another matter. Oxford plans are marvelous creations, intricate, detailed, and above all unusual. Above all, that is, including such minor details as practicality, realism, and downright good sense. One vampire game I played in had a character arrange for a hoax fight in an alleyway, to draw in a passer-by, to mug him, to get his driver’s license, to visit the police yard, to claim a clamped van, so he could drive it around. This plan was explained to me while the player was sitting in the minivan we’d hired that evening for less than thirty pounds. In all the society games I’ve seen, more characters have died from exploding food than in combat. Again I think this makes for far more interesting games, but it can be a problem. Some genres rely on a clean, simple and fast flowing style. Gangsters probably shouldn’t be getting into the rival gang’s nightclub posing as health and safety inspectors, and elder vampires should be fearing bands of desperate or vengeful kindred, not vanfuls of thirsty transgenic mutant fanged ghoul ostriches.

New in the Archive: Unframed – the Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Improvisation is a crucial skill for a GM: whether you prefer to preplan you sessions in exhaustive detail, or to make it up as you go along, you’ll need to know how to take in the player’s input, keep the game moving, and react to the unexpected curveballs your players throw at you. Unframed is a book designed to teach you those skills, bringing together essays from GM and game designer legends to give readers tips on story planning, NPC roleplaying, and how to adapt to player’s preferences. It’s an entertaining and interesting read, with something interesting for novices and experienced GMs alike. I’m going to be posting more articles on GMing soon, but for now here’s a free excerpt:

Improvising Dialogue Sequences by Robin D. Laws

Robin D. Laws’ newest roleplaying game is Hillfolk, in which you weave an epic of dramatic interaction in an age of hungry empires. Previous RPG designs include The Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Feng Shui, and HeroQuest. His fiction projects include eight novels and the short story collection New Tales of the Yellow Sign. He comprises one-half of the Golden Geek Award winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, and can be found online at

As a GM your most extended exercises in off-the-cuff invention occur during dialogue sequences. Internalizing the simple structure behind character interaction in fiction, scripted and improvised, allows you to sharpen these scenes, making them fun, memorable, and rich in story opportunity.
Petitioner and Granter: Understanding the Scene
A simple structure powers scenes of any character interaction in drama, fiction, cinema, or TV. One character wants something from another character.

  • Wash wants Zoë to show that she cares more about him than she does about Mal.
  • Cersei wants to reestablish her position of superiority over Tyrion.
  • Loki wants Thor to let him out of his cell.

The first character makes a petition of the second character, hoping to get that thing. That makes the first character the petitioner. The character hearing the petitioner has the power to grant this request. That makes the character the granter—although granters refuse requests as often as they grant them. In the above examples, Wash, Cersei, and Loki take the roles of petitioner, while Zoë, Tyrion, and Thor are the granters.

(If this all sounds familiar to you, you perhaps recognize it as the heart of my game Hillfolkand its DramaSystem rules engine. The terms petitioner and granter come from The Conversations, a book-length interview of the legendary film editor Walter Murch by novelist Michael Ondaatje.)

Roleplaying dialogue scenes work the same way. The only difference is standard to RPGs, in that they frequently feature an ensemble of protagonists. Often they’ll make joint petitions of a single character, speaking en masse. Slightly more rarely, they’ll be petitioned as a group, acting as a granter together. Often, you as GM will make a petition in a two-hander scene (one featuring two characters), your NPC and one PC. The PC may then take the petition back to the rest of the group and they’ll debate what to do about it.

The first step, then, in sharpening your improvised dialogue scenes is to identify the petitioner and granter. Thankfully this is a simple call—if an NPC proposes something to the PCs, the NPC is the petitioner and one or more PCs acts as the granter.

  • The March Warden (an NPC) asks the PCs to clear the great swamp of encroaching orcs.
  • Euston Chau (an NPC) asks Dominic (a PC and his wannabe son-in-law) to have Mr. Bright (another PC) committed to a mental institution.
  • The Mugwump (an NPC supervillain) tells Redblade (a PC vigilante) to lay off, or he’ll reveal Redblade’s secret identity.

Petitioning is active; it seeks to overcome the granter’s resistance to put a new story point in motion. Assuming you’re letting the PCs drive the story, they’ll be making more petitions of your NPCs than vice versa.

  • The PCs ask the old hermit they encounter out in the great swamp if he’s seen any orc activity.
  • Dominic asks Euston’s chief security officer why he cares so much about Mr. Bright being sent to an institution.
  • Redblade pressures the gatekeeper of a criminal dark data network for access to the Mugwump’s file cache.

Identifying the petitioner helps by requiring you to pin down what the scene is about. When you’re playing the petitioner, you usually know that from the outset. (Sometimes you’ll shift your NPC’s goal in response to what the player says, which is good. But you still know in the first place what the character seeks, and you still know even if that changes in mid-scene.)
When you’re playing the granter, you find out what the scene is about partway through, when the players make clear their requests. You know your NPC is being petitioned, and immediately or gradually come to understand what the petition is about. When you figure it out partway through, it’s often because the players are also trying to work out what they want from the character. Expect this to happen when you introduce a new NPC without establishing right away what her role in the storyline might be.
When a roleplaying scene seems shapeless, it’s usually because neither you nor the players know what its purpose is, and are muddling around trying to find it. With the petitioner’s goal identified, you see how it can proceed to a resolution.

Paradiso starts tonight!

paradisoA catastrophic apocalypse swept away The World That Was, leaving only those that sheltered in the eight domed cities. As centuries passed, the other domes were forgotten, only rediscovered 30 years ago as the domes’ residents started exploring the world outside their sanctuaries. Now, the construction of an amazing railway has brought the domes closer to each other than ever before, and rumours of ‘paradise’ seem almost within grasp. Will you join those meeting on the railway, as they decide the fate of the world?

Paradiso is the society game for Michaelmas 2014/Hillary 2015, and its wiki can be found at To make a character, come along to the first session at 7 PM tonight in the Oscar Wilde Room, Magdalene College, and the GMs will be happy to help you. If you can’t make this meeting, don’t worry – email the GM team at and they’ll guide you through making a character.

That is not dead which can eternal lie…

Cthulhu-1000x540With the new term, the Nightflyer is coming back into action! This week I’ll be putting up articles on new books in the archive, discussions on roleplaying, and a few gems from the old print Nightflyer, but for now I thought I’d welcome our new freshers and ask the readership what you’d like to read about on this blog:

  • Thoughts on roleplaying theory?
  • Stories of people’s experiences in games and at LARP events?
  • In-character fiction?
  • News about new RPGs for sale or being kickstartered?

Let me know in the comments!


Tabletops for Week 8

Today is the last tabletops session of the term, and my last as TABLO! Come along to the Harris Seminar Room at 2PM today to play:
New World of Darkness, run by me:
It’s graduation day at the Stevenson School for Gifted Children. You’ve gone up on stage to get your diplomas, local celebrities have made speeches, parents have told you how proud they are, all that kind of thing. Now the school’s grounds are full of marquee tents, loud music, food and celebration, but you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with the school today…
Star Wars: Edge of Empire, run by Owen:
The Bothan Connection:  Jovel Nial is a thief and murderer!  Join a posse that has banded together to track down the elusive Bothan slicer on her homeworld of Bothawui, whether for revenge, a snazzy ship or the sizeable bounty that’s been put on her head.
Hope to see a lot of people there!

– James