In episode one of the Twitching Curtain, we discussed what games we thought were best for people new to story gaming. Lots of ideas were discussed, and it very much depends on your level of experience and what you’re interested in. But we managed to come up with a group of games that we think should be top of your list if you are looking to try out the hobby.
For the traditional roleplayer
If you’re group has played a lot of traditional roleplaying games in the past, James Joyce recommended Lady Blackbird by John Harper (free). This game, a sort of steampunk mash up of Firefly and Star Wars, pits the crew of the pirate ship The Owl against an evil empire. The game is only 16 pages long, including character sheets for six players and all the (incredibly simple) rules.
Joanna Piancastelli also recommended Lady Blackbird, but suggested that a hack of it, Always/Never/Now by Will Hindmarch (pay what you want), might be better for people new to story gaming. This game is cyberpunk rather than steampunk and has many of the same features as the original, but has a more structured plotline for the Gamemaster (GM) to follow, which they may find helpful.
James also recommended InSpectres by Jared Sorenson (Indie Press Revolution) as a game which is easier on the GM if they are new to that style of game. Loosely based on Ghostbusters and Scooby Doo, in InSpectres you play a group of licensed hunters of the supernatural. Joanna recommended One Last Job by Grant Howitt (pay what you want), which is about a group of desperate, unlucky individuals on a last job to set them up for life, and Powers for Good by Sage LaTorra (pay what you want), in which you play a group of superheroes. All three games are more open ended than either Lady Blackbird or Always/Never/Now, but are designed to be up and running in a few minutes and simplified mechanics.
For people new to roleplaying
Epistolary Richard suggested that for people who had not played traditional roleplaying games, games without GMs might be easier to get into. His recommendation was the shoujo manga inspired dating game G x B by Jake Richmond and Heather Aplington (they have also produced a boy only variant B x B and a girls only variant G x G exists – all are available from the Celstyle website). In this game, shy freshman Momoko goes on three dates with her classmates to see who she should go steady with. When it isn’t your turn to be on the date, you can still intervene by setting up hazards which may hinder how the date went – and thus make you look good by default.
Centralising around the three dates, the game is highly structured, has a definite ending, and the player playing Momoko provides the other players with feedback as the game progresses, in the form of cards. The game also only takes 90 minutes, ensuring that it is much less likely to outstay its welcome.
Richard also recommended Love in the Time of Seið by Jason Morningstar and Matthijs Holter (Lulu) as a simple GM-less game that can easily be picked up. In this game, you are all playing members of the court of a fictional nordic kingdom as the king prepares to marry his daughter off to a treacherous earl. As well as the king, the princess and the earl, the other characters in the game are a Seiðkona, or witch, and a knight who is also a werewolf. The players take turns exploring the story and it has a system of “ritual phrases” to encourage player interaction in a more collaborative way.
James and Anita Murray recommended Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne by the Pompey Design Crew (available here). Similar in some ways to Love in the Time of Seið, but with more structure, in this game one person plays a woman who has confessed to witchcraft and inflicting a city with plague while the other players play townsfolk taking her to Lindisfarne to be burnt at the stake.
It should be noted that both Witch and Seið contain adult content and strong emotional themes. This may work well with your group, or it may be a real hindrance depending on how comfortable they will be exploring still type of story.
Finally, one thing to bear in mind with all games like these in which all the players equally share narrative control is that they require buy-in from everyone. Games with a GM, to some extent at least, allow players to coast as the GM can simply focus the spotlight on more engaged players. In games without a GM, it can be very hard to get a lot out of the game if one or more players doesn’t want to actively participate.
I made the case for Fiasco by Jason Morningstar (Bully Pulpit Games), one of the more well known story games (thanks in part to its appearance in the first season of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop). In Fiasco you play people with “high ambitions and low impulse control”, desperate to make it big but probably doomed to fail; you explore the characters make their plans and then enjoy it as these plans go horribly wrong. The basic game comes with four settings to choose from – suburbia, a small American town, the Wild West and an antarctic base – and there are dozens of other playsets you can freely download from the publisher’s website (and even more unofficial ones!).
For me, Fiasco gives you just the right amount of framework to help inexperienced players get started with a game. The rules are simple and clear and the playsets allow a lot of scope and are full of ideas which you can use for inspiration, while still restricting you in such a way that it often forces you to go in unexpected directions. And one thing we all agreed on was that as a rulebook, Fiasco is one of the best laid out games available.
We did have some caveats however. I did say that as I’ve become more experienced as a story gamer, I have found the Fiasco’s system increasingly restrictive and clunky. James Joyce said that he had had experiences with Fiasco in which the game stalled after the initial set up as people struggled to turn the great ideas they had had into a workable story. He also warned against the natural tendency of a lot of first time players to try the more quirky playsets as opposed to the more mundane ones (we recommend you don’t try the Antarctic station playset if you’re playing for the first time, for instance). Joanna pointed out that compared to some of the other games in this article such as G x B and Witch, Fiasco games have very little structure.
But Fiasco is still a great starting point – “the gateway drug to story gaming”, as Anita put it. One of the ways in which the rulebook is useful is that it features an example of play to give you a clear idea of how the game works. A lot of rulebooks don’t have this. Fortunately, Epistolary Richard is in the process of producing a number of these to help people get started, along with a short video introducing each game. Check out his story game replays for G x B, Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne and Love in the Time of Seið.
So, those are our suggestions, but we’re very aware that this only scratches the surface! What story games would you recommend to someone who hasn’t played them before, and why do you feel they are especially accessible?