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!


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