the soft horizon

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Picture a stack of old Heavy Metal magazines, perhaps miraculously old ones you haven’t read before. The pages packed with work from Corben, Giraud, Bilal, Voss, Druillet, Bodé. That’s the soft horizon. It a stack of universes of possibilities, of crazy visuals, of stories. But unlike your stack of magazines, they are all linked: the Archer from the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius might find himself in a bar by the seaside when the Plitch makes its appearance.

So the soft horizon or, if you like, the Soft Horizon, isn’t a game in itself. It’s an idea. But there are games! Each game is the best story in one of those magazines–the most startling visuals, the strangest setting, the best representation of the artist at that time, in that context. They might well be political because art is political, but mostly they will be weird and fun.

Mechanically, each game will use the same core mechanism, designed to elevate the weird, reward improvisation, and lighten the load on the ref. And deliver the soft horizon. Any character made in one game could wind up adventuring in another, perhaps raising the bar on “weird”. Your gorilla military lawyer from The King Machine might well find herself eventually digging for treasure with some Sand Dogs.

But the Soft Horizon will eventually also be a book itself — not a game, exactly, but a way to make more settings in this metaverse. So you aren’t limited to my games. They might make a starting place, but they certainly shouldn’t be the end or even the middle of your journeys. A handbook, really, to guide your own creative efforts, including not only advice and definition for the interface between system and setting, but also oracles galore to guide the process from the very beginning–the blank page–right up to game night. That’s the third (maybe) book in the series.

The second book is Sand Dogs. It’s coming out around the end of the year and you can read about it elsewhere. It’s Indiana Jones, it’s The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius, and it’s Roadside Picnic. And some other stuff. Even The Immortal’s Fête is in there. Hell there are so many references that you can dig through it for easter eggs just as your characters will rob tombs for the garbage of the gods.

The first book is The King Machine and you can get it now. It’s a quiet game about an interrupted utopia. A perfect world suddenly imperfect. Oh, and you’re an intelligent primate. But not a human.

That’s not nearly the end though, or at least I hope it isn’t. I’ve been reaching out to other writers to potentially try their hand at their own game in this psychedelic metaverse. Some are nibbling. Some have bit. I don’t have titles nor deadlines yet, but I can see the idea is expanding.

And so the soft horizon grows, both inside and outside of the fiction. Join us. What could be more exciting than an old issue of Heavy Metal that you missed? That you get to read now for the very first time?

a novel way to fly through space

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A typical space sperm retro-fit for a small crew. The lack of weapons indicates that tis is likely a scout vessel of some kind, perhaps seeking the source of these enigmatic an now essential alien cells.

For a long time it was taken as fact that it would forever be impossible to travel faster than light. Sure, there were a million research projects looking into promising warp fields, transfer beams, pi-muon flux destabilizers, and what-not but none of it bore fruit. And so the first starship was not so much invention as discovery: a backwards flash of negative light recorded by astronomers, a chance collision with the magNet of a Jovian research facility, and humanity caught its first starship.

The problem was, what they caught in the net wasn’t a starship. It was an enormous generative cell — a sperm cell — of unknown origin. Something deep in the chaotic complexities of its biology facilitated travel faster than light. Much, much faster than light. And so two projects began in earnest.

The first and most obvious was to expand the magNet project to catch more sperm.

The second was an engineering effort to modify the captured sperm so that humans could ride in it, guide it, and live in it. And, as it turns out, be sustained by it.

And so, now we have the FTL spermship.

Artificial vacuoles provide control spaces, and airlock, sleeping quarters and so on as needed, all without killing the host cell. Indeed, it seems to thrive, especially if its organelles are wired into a galley, allowing the humans to milk them for their strange and sustaining fluids. Giant alien ribosomes for lunch, juice from the mitochondrion (more powerful than the blackest cup of coffee), and constantly regenerated strips of dried monstrous lymphocite are available for any occasion. And the use seems to spur the health and even growth of the ship.

Questions remain, of course. How long will the sperm ship live? Anything organic likely has a finite lifespan but now the oldest spermships are a dozen years old and show no signs of wearing down.

What exactly is the origin of these cells? The radiant is somewhere out in Sagittarius but that’s a big piece of galactic real estate. And who says it’s even in this galaxy? But what sort of mammalian monstrosity (and genetic analysis of these cells does indicate that they are, improbably, mammalian) ejaculates these faster-than-light cells into the void? And where and what exactly is the recipient?

But maybe most importantly, how does life aboard ship change a human crewmember, with the constant proximity, contact, and even ingestion of alien cellular material? What will we become now that we can travel the stars? And what will we find, whatever we are when we get there?

Certainly we know now that the universe is vastly stranger than we previously thought.

one good image

That’s all I need. That’s what runs a whole session and maybe a whole campaign. Give me one good image.

It doesn’t need to be a photograph or a painting or a drawing. In fact usually it’s not — usually it’s not even the right image but rather maybe a misreading of a passage in a book. So it’s half mine. And sometimes it’s nine-tenths mine and I can’t even place the kernel of it, the source seed that I used to grow it into mine.

A jet airliner, broken, the fuselage bridging two mountain peaks, a crevasse below. Whirling snow, shrieking through the hollow cabin. And ghosts. A woman in leather and sheepskins and brass walks through the relative quiet of the cabin turning the tiny handle on a not-music box. And the ghosts enter the box one by one. She collects them.

A hundred kilometer tall column constructed by who knows what and who knows when fell to the desert floor here a hundred thousand years ago, now forming a startlingly regular mountain range that the geology does not demand. Water condensing at altitude runs down from it in the meter-deep channels carved into it. If you could stand in just the right place you could make out the decorations for what they were. Drawings? Writing? Abstractions? Is the permanently lost secret valuable. Will the builders be back?

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A woman with a crocodile’s head, maybe.

A literal water world. 5,000 kilometers to the core.

A pyramid on the moon.

A city built into the skull of demon, still warm a thousand years after it died.

A bustling marketplace of stone and silk suddenly filled with violence, generations of peace ruptured in a moment.

That’s basically the minimum I need to launch a game. Armed with that image I’m ready to expose it to the players and their creativity and let them wonder out loud, explore, and otherwise elaborate for me. This is improvisational jazz with the image as the theme we return to again and again, but extend and inspect. When I start this off I usually have no idea what is going to develop. Or I have an idea but I am prepared to surrender it if the players build something more beautiful or more compelling.

So games that require mechanical preparation–stat blocks, rooms that connect to rooms, and so on–are a liability here. They are fun but they are not this. I need my map to be largely blank with an improbable note here and there. Gnoll pirates here. A keep facing empty desert. A hole in the ocean.

So what do you need? What’s the minimum you need to start a game running? What do you need to keep it running?

doing it all yourself

I’ve always operated the VSCA on a zero-risk model: I’m not betting any money on this gig. And I consider the obligation of a Kickstarter a significant risk, so that’s out too. That means I do everything myself or with partners. So I need to cultivate sufficient (I won’t say professional) skills in writing, artwork, and layout. And I need to find the time.

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Sometimes you need to get out the diesel-powered sand ionizer and dig your own holes.

It’s impossible to separate talent from training, so I’m not going to say that anyone can do this. But i do think anyone can learn anything to a sufficient degree if they want to. Do you want to?

Writing comes very naturally to me but in part because I type very quickly. And I didn’t write all that prolifically until I learned to type. I suspect that making the mechanical selection of letters nearly effortless is a big part of being able to write a lot of material of decent quality: your brain is not spending energy trying to make the words come off the keys. That energy gets spent creatively instead. That has to be a big factor. So if you want to write, I recommend you learn to type. Remove that obstacle at least.

And read. Read diversely. Read voraciously.

Drawing is something I used to do a lot and badly as a youngster. Then for a long time I didn’t do it because I was starting to see so many artists who are so damned good — trained artists whose skills I would never approach because I was not going to spend years in art school developing those skills. Then I decided I was going to do it anyway. I decided it would be okay to be good enough. In the past 10 years I have developed my skills substantially and not through formal training. Rather I spent my energy on good tools that make things easier (the tablet with a stylus and decent drawing software was a Big Deal) and drawing regularly. I also got over the idea that artists draw from their head. Artists uses reference photos or sculptures or people. Great art comes from paying attention to real things and paying attention to replicating them. And it comes (and here’s a secret) from convincing yourself that some or all of your flaws (and you will see all your flaws) are in fact your style.

People will tell you not to trace. Trace. Google image search changed the landscape–if I forget how a leg works I search for legs, drop one into my sketch as a reference layer, and draw legs.

People will tell you to develop your own style. Copy styles. Get comics (especially old issues of Heavy Metal for em), follow @MoebiusArt on Twitter, make friends with people like Juan Ochoa who will draw online with you if you’re nice. He is a pro; the real deal.

People will tell you that you need a talent. You need willingness, practice, and an honest eye. Talent might make you great but you can go a long way with a ton of practice and good reference models.

Layout is something I played around with since I first got my hands on a typewriter. I recall writing mission sheets for our Top Secret games and playing around with the extremes of what a typewriter can do for you as a layout machine. I tinkered with actual cut & paste and whiteout and photocopiers. And I cultivated a love for looking at books. Not just reading them, but looking at them. Looking at their arrangement, their typefaces, their balance between ink and page. And when I was done looking at them I started reading about them. There are lots of books about composing pages and choosing type. I didn’t read them all but I read a couple of good ones (Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style and Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information are classics). And then having learned some rules I played around with breaking some.

I’m not doing high-end top of the line work. I think my work has an elegance that at least I can appreciate, but I’m not a 50-cent-a-word writer and I’m not a $500 a piece artist and I’m for sure not a $100 per hour layout artist. But with just attention and practice and some honest reading I can be good enough to make what I want to make and do it without having to capitalize the project.

And every book gets a little better.

You can do this too. I know how much work went into getting a tiny bit better and very little of it came easy. People often tell me that I can do it because I have a talent — well I’ve seen talent, and this is just practice and a desire to figure out how to do it better. What stops you from getting better is not a lack of talent. It’s a lack of genuine interest. It’s the same reason I can’t play the guitar: it’s not because I haven’t got music in my bones (I don’t but it’s not why). It’s because I can’t play the guitar by picking it up and strumming. And as soon as I start exploring how to learn the damned thing I completely lose interest. Music is not my bag. Talent might make these things easy, but enthusiasm and practice is all you need to be adequate.

So don’t tell me you can’t. You can. You might not want to bad enough (and that’s fine — when I need a guitar solo I will be paying a guitarist), but if you do, you can.

But then there’s time. Where does the time come from?

My time comes from bits and pieces all over the place. I don’t watch television. I often have the television on while I write or draw or whatever, but I pretty much never just watch the television. I’ve cultivate time-in-bed and technology that lets me work there. If I go to bed an hour early, that’s an hour of work. I used to read in bed but now I play an audio book in bed while I work. I’m pretty sure I actually get more books in this way as well as more work. And I commute on transit which gives me two hours with nothing to do except research, practice, or do the work. You can spend 90 minutes in your car completely occupied with driving (though you can get an audio book in now so do that at least) or 120 minutes in which you can get some stuff done.

It’s not the case that I’m working every spare minute. It is the case that I make those minutes available.

Again this is more about deciding what you can sacrifice in order to find the space than it is about having it handed to you. As with the necessary skills, if you didn’t get it handed to you then you have to find a way to take it. Maybe you don’t want to do that. Or maybe there’s nothing you can sacrifice to the creative process.  But this is one way it’s done.

playtesting methods

When people say “playtest” they actually mean something you might not mean and I might not mean, so I’m going to break it down a bit.

Playtesting mechanisms and system (a bunch of mechanisms that interact) is something I do in a closed setting: people I know and trust, guided by me. It’s not something I would ever do blind, by sending it out to other people to test in their own environment. This is because mechanical testing like this is still highly fluid: I may well want to change things up as we play. It’s a highly experimental and mushy process.

Because I do this within a scaffold, it’s really more like playstorming: we’re playing and designing simultaneously, and this is why you need a certain amount of trust in your compatriots. Revealing your half-formed ideas leaves you more than a little vulnerable. Killing your idea even when it obviously sucks is a difficult process. Admitting your baby is ugly is something you should only do with friends.

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The text is the map to your game’s territory.

This is distinct from the blind playtesting that happens at the end. At this stage I’m not testing the mechanism at all: I don’t really care if someone doesn’t like a mechanism because I’ve already established that I and the gang of folks I test with do in fact like it. That’s all I really care about. So at this stage we are not testing the concept of the game–the ideal that I think or want the game to be. We are testing the text. Does the text deliver the game that I had fun playtesting?

So that’s the distinction. Mechanical testing is fluid, piecemeal, and requires trust and engagement. It’s best done with people you know, people whose opinions you value, and people you trust. And of course, people who are cool with dicking around with a new thing every week.

Textual playtesting is a process of validating the text. This is best done with strangers who’ve never seen the text attempting to turn it into play and comparing that play with the ideal of play that I’ve assembled previously.

I feel like this is best done completely separately or at most iteratively. But never both at the same time. People who are too close to the ideal of the game are poorly equipped to evaluate the text: they already have bits in their head and may well not notice their absence in the text. Similarly, strangers provide input on mechanical testing that is frequently not helpful or tangential: “I don’t like this”, “What if you did this thing I invented and love”, and so on.

So that’s where I’m coming with when I say “playtesting”. It’s not canon. It just works for me.

from the academic archives…how can being swallowed whole by a purple worm get worse? intestinal goblins.

The chief objective of the intestinal goblin is to increase the size of the worm to allow them to expand their family and the comfort of their surroundings. In order to do this, they have developed the skill of “ganglial manipulation”. It’s not clear whether this is technological, strictly manual, or magical, but intestinal goblins have at least one specialized member that can control what the purple worm senses. — Liam Albarus, “Intestinal Parasites of the Purple Worm”, undated submission to Diseases and Disorders In Fantasy Monsters

The Setup

You and your friends got swallowed whole by a Purple Worm. It happens. However, before you get started hacking your way out you notice signs of…life? Well of course. But maybe signs of…civilization? How could that be?! The gullet is littered with bones and candy wrappers and is covered in callouses as though many feet had trod this path before you.

It’s not as acidic as you’d been led to believe. And there’s a faint light from further down the throat.

Darest thou explore further? Of course thou darestses.

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The Dungeon

Whenever you are moving between rooms, roll 1d6 on the Intestinal Event table immediately and then move to the next room. Whenever you enter a room, apply the contents immediately!

Intestinal Events

1. Peristalsis! Immediately move into the next room and land out of control. Everyone is surprised! Things might get dropped. Peristalsis is always towards the Rectum. In the case of the Appendix there is only one direction to go.

2. Wild Dire Lymphocytes! A whole pack of them. I bet you wish you knew why they never attack the Intestinal Goblins.

3. Wild Dire E.Coli! A swarm of the disease-laden giant microbes.

4. Intestinal Goblin patrol. 1d4 Intestinal Goblin Soldiers about their business.

5. An amusing thing swallowed by the purple worm.

6. Acid reflux! Immediately move to the previous room and take acid damage. If you’re in the mouth already you don’t get to escape: you swirl around in the mouth and take double damage. Purple worms hate throwing up. Acid reflux is always towards the mouth. In the case of the Appendix there is only one direction to go.

1. The Stomach

This is where the Intestinal Goblin family lives. Here you find the Goblin Matriarch, 3 of her husbands (Goblin Soldiers), and 12 of her Goblin Children and their 2 pet Dire Mitochondria. All of the goblins are painted head to toe with a blue paste which is obviously some tribal thing. There are pots of the blue paste near the exit from the stomach.

The Intestinal Goblin family has a hoard of things that purple worms swallow. They have thrown away all the cash but other shiny objects have been retained.

The blue paste is an extract of Dire E.Coli. Covering oneself in it makes you invisible to Dire Lymphocytes.

2. The Appendix

In the Appendix hang dozens of nerve ganglia that attach ultimately to the gut-brain of the purple worm. From here the Goblin Navigator can make the worm do what it needs: move, fight, eat, poop. Anything.

You encounter the Goblin Navigator and his 3 pet Trained Dire Lymphocytes here, and he can use his attack action to cause one item from the Intestinal Events table to occur. His choice. If he chooses Peristalsis, he is not affected since he holds on tight. If he chooses Acid Reflux he does not move but does take acid damage. His pets have to deal with all the effects.

3. The Rectum

Here we find the rear-guard of the goblin tribe. In fact, from their perspective this is the front since this is the route that enemy tribes of Intestinal Goblins will take to enter the worm and steal it or plunder it. No one would enter from the mouth. That would be stupid.

There are 4 Goblin Soldiers here and each has a pet Trained Dire E.Coli. They are facing towards the anus and easily surprised if approached from the large intestine.

Bestiary

There are many strange things inside a purple worm, but the most deadly are the Intestinal Goblins and their pets.

Goblin matriarch

A powerful witch who leads this goblin tribe. She is fierce and ruthless and will do anything to keep her children safe.

Goblin soldiers

A tough but stupid veteran of The Wars, soldiers fight with found weapons and armour.

Goblin children

Weak, innocent, and friendly but willing to risk it all to save mom if it comes to that. Or their pets.

Goblin navigator

A canny shaman.

Wild Dire Lymphocytes

Dire lymphocytes protect the purple worm from invaders and the wild ones do so aggressively. Anything that doesn’t belong in the worm will get attacked and they will fight to the death. You can treat them like some kind of ooze or jelly. They dissolve you and move surprisingly fast.

They can’t see E.Coli or anything covered in essence of E.Coli.

Wild Dire E.Coli

Smaller than the Dire Lymphocyte, Dire E.Coli are not terribly aggressive in the wild. They will fight back if attacked.

Trained Dire Lymphoctyes

These are just like wild ones except they obey goblin commands.

Trained Dire E.Coli

These are just like wild ones except they obey goblin commands.

Trained Dire Mitochondria

Not much bigger than your forearm, these are just cute. Like greasy little wiggly sausages!

(this material was previously published in zines and other places)

relationship maps

Something I realized while tinkering on Monday (which is actually today — I’m writing this on Monday and scheduling it for later so it looks like I spread this shit out; sorry if your illusion is damaged) is that the BOND mechanism in Soft Horizon makes relationship maps.

So a BOND is a phrase describing a connection between your character and another entity. But it generalizes: the entity can also have a BOND with you, even if it’s not a character. So you can have a BOND with another character or with your organization or with a community. And conversely these things can all have BONDS with you.

Now in play you can bring out a BOND and add its die to your pool if it’s relevant. So if you can work the fact that you’re the navigator for your company (BOND: I’m the company’s navigator) then you get the die. But this is bi-directional, so if the company has a BOND with you, you can drag it in as a helping die.

So because it’s bi-directional we don’t need to show it with a source and a destination. We can in fact just use it to connect two entities. In other words, in a graph of entities, BONDS are the connecting arcs.

bonds as relationships
See, I told you so.

So does this actually do anything for you? Yes!

As a play aid this is actually pretty damned powerful. One problem with sticking aspects BONDS and SCARS on everything is it’s easy to lose track. You need to have everyone elses character sheet handy and you need a card or a doc entry for the community, your organization, and anything else that seems important enough to get representation. But surfing through these things is a pain in the ass and slows down conflict resolution.

But a map like this shows you at a glance who can help and how.

It also supplies cues for the story to bring it in! If you want to bring in a second order BOND (like, say a BOND that your organization has with another entity) it’s clear that your story needs to be about both of those entities. This opens up a good question–just how deep can you go? Third order BONDS? Fourth? Any? I’m inclined to say any just as long as you’re prepared to invent that story.

No, I haven’t dragged it into play so I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here. But I’m sure it’s useful. It’s a little suspicious that I have a good time drawing them. But no, that’s a distraction, it’s useful. Totally.

Is it? Play with it and tell me.