i made a mistake

In one of my recent Sand Dogs playtests I made a grave error.

Our heroes got lost in the desert and suffered from a risk realised: HARM. The realisation was that they all suffered from sunstroke from the extended time exposed to the elements. They each get a WOUND: sunstroke. That was fine.

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An appropriate Soft Horizon wound gives you a real problem to solve.

The mistake was I decided that realistically, once they found water and shade they were fine. This completely undermined the system, which depends on a WOUND being a significant drawback and requiring time and narration to resolve since its resolution introduces a SCAR which is a net benefit.

I was still thinking old school, still cheating to move the narrative towards success, towards the existing established goals. The system doesn’t reward that. It rewards leaning into the problem, dealing with disaster. I should have made the WOUND worse to keep myself from doing this: dying from exposure, maybe.

The result of my error is that a potentially interesting problem which needed solving and would divert the narrative in a new direction got trivialized in order to let me pursue the existing narrative. And the result of that was that play sputtered for a bit unnecessarily and, worse, the players were deprived of a new twist to handle.

Those twists are the beating heart of Soft Horizon game play.

So I had a session that I felt a lot of stress starting because it didn’t start anywhere interesting and that’s a failure because reducing my stress is exactly why I wrote this system the way I did. I undermined my own solution to make me and no one else happy! Old habits are so very hard to break.

So don’t do that. Lean into it. If the dice say things are awful, make them awful. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

sand dogs v0 doc

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Time for a break then back to the digging.

The first draft of the playtest doc for Sand Dogs is now publicly available! If you give it a spin or even just a read, please reach out. And share as far and wide as you like.

This doc is obviously incomplete but it’s also certainly enough to run a game — it’s all we’ve been using for the past six weeks or so. Much more is coming, including ways to develop tomb artifacts, gods, and stuff like that.

If you dig it, consider grabbing a copy of The King Machine (same system), which is on sale for less than 5 bucks in PDF until next year. You can have a very monkey Christmas with that.

wormholes and waystations

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My art, but it feels thematically consistent.

Today I’m going to look at Joshua Kubli’s magnum opus, Wormholes and Waystations. Joshua keeps a current set of links in its own doc, including contact info. This is an enormous tome, nearly 400 pages of material, that delivers a space-opera OSR experience. It cleaves close to type, not providing rules that guarantee the theme but rather providing extensive rules for making characters, vehicles, and equipment that are consistent with the theme. That is, we build all the things that live in this universe and get a data dump of the state and history of the universe and then go. We don’t get rules for how to push the narrative to deliver the theme but rather trust the simulation to provide it as an emergent property.

Except in one little section you could almost miss, a gem: the type of ship the characters fly determines the mission type, and the mission is ultimately the driver, or at  least the kick-off, for the emergent narrative.

I usually have a problem with these kinds of games because they lack the focus to deliver what they claim they will deliver — they claim to generate a certain kind of story but in reality they set up the precursors for that story and then mostly hope that’s what happens. Fortunately, whatever happens is usually fun — it’s the claim that the game makes a particular thing happen when the game doesn’t actually have rules to do it that I find irksome.

However, in this game that one page of information out of nearly 400 does what it says on the box. Some examples:

Noble: Luxury vessels are manned by the wealthy, so the crew might be guards and servants for a pampered dilettante, or an idealistic and meddlesome
diplomat.

Odd Jobs: Give the PCs a Multi-Purpose ship if the plan is for them to travel from one world to another, taking any sort of job they can get. Multi-Purpose ships are also
good for piracy and smuggling; they’re fast, well-armed, fairly tough, and can still carry a fair amount of cargo.

Patrol: Patrol ships are good for a lighter-duty military campaign, or for law enforcement and bounty hunter vessels.

Scout: A new planet every week to explore and exploit! Give them an Exploration ship if they’re going to boldly go seek out new beings and new societies every few sessions.

Right there is the heart of the game: this is what you’re going to do and the system will provide all the pieces needed to deliver it. And most of the game is those pieces.

Character generation is enormous and detailed an a lot of fun. I’d compare it to Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera except this is more fun and less tedious. I’m a sucker for the bits of games where you make things and this game has tons of that.

This is a complete game but could benefit from your eyes on the text: does it do what it claims to do? Is it clear what you should do during character generation? From moment to moment in play? Is there more here than there needs to be? Not enough?

I’m certain it plays just fine: the basic model of play is time-tested. Does the text deliver it?

My personal observation is that it would be a better game if that mission section had more detail, even if just some oracles, some charts that triggered ideas in the ref’s brain. Develop each into a genuine inspiration for jumping into the action rather than the tantalizing but tiny offering that’s there now. If it had the same energy applied to it as other sections of the game have I’d be very enthusiastic about giving it a spin.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

too good to be true

2g2bt-titleThe first game in progress I’d like to highlight is Michael Prescott’s intriguing Too Good To Be True. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game but very interestingly it centers its focus on the battlefield: it’s a kind of narrative wargame! I wish I’d thought of that. You can grab the 0.14 beta of it if you want to give it a read or, better, a spin. Judging by the blog posts I’d guess that it’s progressed since that document having collided with a bunch of actual play through The Gauntlet.

Players are members of a mercenary company that has a randomly generated history (my favourite kind of history, obviously) and hopefully some built-in problems to solve.

Players get both a character and a mecha playbook to start with — so you are both the person and the machine — and each has very distinct features and functions. Mecha, for example, have armament, armour, and auxiliary equipment categories that carry over to the battlefield rules. Mercenaries have a lighter set of stats since the set of moves are essentially common to all. But they are distinctive, having a list of “specials” that they can choose from as they advance.

I find the idea of taking PbtA to the wargame environment downright delicious.

This material is certainly in a playable state and I think that’s what Michael needs now: play to test both the material and the text. If you dig the idea of tromping around a battlefield in a giant machine, I’m going to ask you to grab this and read it and, if you can, take it to your table. Even if you just read it, report back here–the author has said that there is some concern that it’s too terse. Is it? What needs padding out? Let’s make sure Michael gets some visibility and maybe even some concrete input to work on.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

making stuff

5848ec39-2cf8-4f8f-80a7-1c2fde24ddc4I’d like to try a little experiment. Please comment or send me mail and tell me about what game you’re making. How far along is it and what can we see right now? I would like to start talking about games that are getting made rather than abstract design questions and theory posting.

So what are you making?

I’ll try and write a post about each one, getting you some (what little I can do) visibility and maybe start discussion about the obstacles you have yet to hurdle and how we can help get around or over them.

So what are you making? Let’s all celebrate it and examine it. Stay positive, but usefully critical. I’ll moderate comments.