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:

Setting

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.

Rules

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.

Horror

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.

Done!

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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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 robindlaws.com

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.

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: Fate Core


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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!