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)

New for the Archive: Blood and Smoke – The Strix Chronicle

123898Tonight, you become one of the Kindred, the beautiful and the damned who hide behind our ordinary world. Driven by a hunger like fire, you will struggle to maintain your humanity while immersed in a vicious society of monsters.

But the sharks you swim with aren’t the only ones out there. Your Kindred are the smart, sexy vampires of pop culture, but you are haunted by the Strix — the grisly, demon-possessed corpses of folklore. They slaughtered the Night-Senate of Rome, drowned the tombs of the Princes of Alexandria, and warred with the Plague Lords of Transylvania.

Tonight, they’re loose on the streets of your city. Time for the sinners to become the saints, and the hunters to become the prey.

Vampires have almost as long a history with roleplaying as dragons, and since 1991 White Wolf have been releasing a series of different takes on the bloodsuckers of the night. Blood and Smoke is the newest version, and it updates 2004’s Vampire: The Requiem by tweaking the setting so it feels more dynamic and punchy, rewriting the rules to simplify the cruft while making your character’s decisions and actions more impactful and dramatic, and giving dozens of plot seeds to make a full chronicle out of, ranging from local to global scales.

No matter which scale you choose, the new rules put your characters at the forefront. The experience system now gives you immediate rewards for achieving your goals but also for throwing them into danger and getting caught up in the intrigues of others, and the Condition system gives mechanical heft to your character’s feelings of regret, dominance, inspiration or guilt. Together they give players plenty of incentives to get their character neck-deep in drama and intrigue while firmly establishing the few things their characters truly care about even in undeath.

The included chronicle deals with the Strix, mysterious owl-spirits of smoke, hunger and death who have rose up in modern times bearing countless grudges against the vampires of current nights. While they’re the main focus of the storytelling sections, along with comprehensive systems for their strange powers and abilities, the book gives plenty of attention to the dangers and opportunities of vampire society. Glamorous and monstrous, the many strange ways vampires have structured their lives from Beijing to Berlin are detailed here, and it gives you plenty of grist to run a game with even if you’re not particularly interested in the Strix.

This book contains everything you need to run the game, as all relevant rules from the standalone New World of Darkness corebook and God-Machine Rules Update have been included in here. If you’re interested in giving the book a look,

Archive Bargain Sale!

Hi all,
As part of my effort to trim the archive down a bit and make it more useful, I’m having a sale of some of the books of the archive this Saturday. Come along to the archive’s home at 1 Galpin Close between 10:30 AM and 4 PM to browse through the books in the archive and take some of them home. All books will be sold for a uniform £2 each. To get an idea of the books available for you to buy, have a look at the spreadsheet. Books will be sold on a first come, first served basis.

New Books for the Archive: Monsters and Other Childish Things

Monsters2CoverWhat if your imaginary friend was real? What if they were a twelve-headed frog from another dimension who hangs out with you because they think you’re destined to be the God-Emperor of the Multiverse, even though you’re flunking 7th-grade Math? And what if you didn’t just have to worry about the school bully but also his new ‘stepmother’ who you saw shedding her human skin behind the 7-11?

This is the world of Monsters and Other Childish Things, the newest addition to the society archive. Everyone plays a kid who’s formed an inexplicable bond with an inexplicable entity that’s mostly invisible to adults, and now must deal with their monster’s hungers and hobbies as well as their test scores and family life. When you mix in other kids with monsters, and cultists, MIBs and mad scientists all having nefarious designs on you and your monster, there’s plenty of problems to deal with.

The system is pretty simple. Kids have stats (guts, hands, feet, brains, face) and skills within those (Feet has P.E. for running and punching, Brains has Out-thinking for battles of wits, Guts has courage for staying your ground, etc). When you make a roll, you pick up a number of d10s equal to the relevant stat + skill and roll them, looking for matches of numbers – two 6s, five 2s, etc. The number on the dice is the quality of the roll, and the amount of dice is the speed. Different circumstances will call for quality or speed, and in combat it means your attack and your initiative can be tied up in one roll.

Monsters are a bit different (and very fun!) To generate a monster, you draw a picture of them and circle interesting bits – their big rubbery body, their ragged wings, their tentacle-y face and their maddening non-euclidean geometry, for example. Then you distribute 10 points between the different locations, and each point gives that part more health and more abilities to pick from. The system’s very flexible, and if you’d prefer to there’s a full system for randomly generating monsters. Monsters have their own personality, a way of hiding from mundane observation (shrinking really small, turning into a teddy bear, etc) and a favourite thing the kid can bribe them with. Monsters also love fighting each other, and for good reason; the winner of a battle between monsters gets to bite off bits of the loser and incorporate it into their own weird body.

As the books were bought in a deal with Arc Dream publishing, we have the entire game line in the archive. Here’s what else you can find:

  • Bigger Bads: A sourcebook on making your monsters huge. No, bigger than that. No, even bigger. Also includes a bunch of tips and tricks for running the game, and whole bundle of antagonists to use in your game.
  • Road Trip: A full campaign to use, where the weirdest summer vacation ever takes your players across the country following mysterious postcards and a cult trying to bring about the apocalypse.
  • Curriculum of Conspiracy: a fully detailed school to send your players to, with evil plots among the faculty and monsters and popular kids for the players to deal with.
  • The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor: In this 1930s alternate setting, characters are orphans with mysterious pasts and creepy monster-like powers sent to the manor of reclusive Dr. Candlewick. Players untangle the mysteries and plots of Candlewick Vale, make connections with its monstrous residents and try to uncover their past. This book’s highly recommended if you’re looking for an alternative to the core setting, and really works in evoking an A Series of Unfortunate Events atmosphere.

If you’re interested, fill in the form on the Library List page and I’ll get the books to you!

New Books for the Archive: Fate Core

Have you ever wanted to play a kung-fu gorilla fighting ninja assassins from the future? A dashing young inventor using her gadgets to escape her father’s assassins? Or a cyborg policeman trying to keep the peace on Mars? Name your setting, and Fate Core can make it happen.

Fate Core is the newest iteration of the Fate system, and in the 10 years since its first edition the designers have created a slick system that’s simple to use but has plenty of depth. What makes the system so flexible is that it doesn’t concern itself with minutia like the range of a pistol or the jumping distance of an adult horse, but with the core concepts that make up your characters and the approaches they take to solving their problems.

This manifests in Aspects, short and snappy statements about characters, places and situations (Sucker for a Pretty Face, Dressed to the Nines, Silver-Tongued Scoundrel, Raging Inferno, etc), and Fate Points, chips you can cash in to invoke an aspect and get a bonus but only get back from your own aspects getting you in trouble. Together they create a natural rise and fall to a session; you’ll suffer setbacks just as much as fight your enemies, but it all helps you towards the final confrontation.

Character creation is pretty simple; each character has 5 aspects including one High Concept and one Trouble that between them give your basic character concept and what’s interesting about them, and picks some skills (Fists, Athletics, Lore etc) to particularly excel at. Finally, you pick three Stunts that boost or alter your skills and you’re done. The strength of the skill system is its flexibility – the core system handles guns and magic with equal aplomb, and even contains guidelines on how to make your own skills and stunts if you want to.

FAE-Bookcover_300x450Although Fate Core is pretty easy to pick up, Evil Hat Games went the extra mile to create a version of Fate designed explicitly for pick up and play games; Fate Accelerated. This 50 page book takes the further simplifying step of removing skills and replacing them with Approaches (Careful, Clever, Flashy, Sneaky). Thus the game doesn’t care what you do but how you do it, creating instant characterisation and even more flexibility – there’s no need for a magic subsystem when what matters is how flashy or clever your wizard is being with their magic.

If you have an idea for a game setting but aren’t interested into any particular system, I’d recommend you give Fate a try. The book’s light and easy to reference, the system’s very easy to pick up, and it’ll handle any setting you throw at it. As a plus, both games are available for free or pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat’s website!