I’m going to cheat a little on this post, but I’ve recently seen a number of people talking about “GM Advice” sections and I have complicated feelings about those. I generally have either very specific advice or I have rules. I don’t really have general advice for you as ref. Be a compassionate human being when dealing with your friends while playing these games. That’s about it really.
But rules I got. Here’s the rules for the ref from The King Machine. If you read them with your head tilted at the right angle you will see that they are easily generalized. But they aren’t advice. These are rules.
You can buy your own copy of The King Machine any time you want.
As the ref you have the duty of instigating action when there is none or when it’s a logical outcome of player action. Back in the “the ref” on page 29 we listed the usual methods. Here we’ll look at them in more detail and in the context of this setting.
Note that “recall a missed hook” and “enter the Soft Horizon” don’t get any special attention here. They mostly derive from the narrative you have already established.
start some shit
The logical place to look for new and intrusive action is the king because the king is the wrong king. The king has their own goals and they are bad ones and will intrude on the players. In addition to the specifics of the king, all kings are oppressors and will act in some common ways.
The king will likely have military and police out looking for dissidents. This is an opportunity for direct action, like an encounter with an aggressive border patrol or a military raid.
The king will also have agents infiltrating every organization that isn’t directly affiliated with the crown: all effective and independent organizations are a threat. So expose a spy, narrate an assassination, describe the terrible results of sabotage or have something that should have been easy go wrong based on bad information from a royal stooge. The common element here will be that the effort is designed to impede the organization and that it will seem to originate inside the organization or another organization. Only the most ham-fisted infiltrations will obviously be the work of the king.
The king will also be pursuing their interests. Colonialists will be invading and oppressing. Hedonists will be collecting taxes and policing productivity. And so on. Starting some shit is your opportunity to indirectly play the king.
set a deadline
Deadlines are looming problems and to be tense they must threaten an existing objective of the characters. So whenever the players have decided on project that takes some time (travelling to a new place, conducting long negotiations, &c.) consider a deadline that gives them a timeline.
Travel is a good example because the flying Lands of the King Machine world leave space for long flight times. If the players decide their characters need to get to a new Land with a valuable object, a deadline might be that the King’s Patrol will be blocking that border as soon as they arrive and searching everyone—presumably for that valuable object! If the players beat the deadline, they don’t need to deal with the Patrol. Otherwise it’s search and seizure time!
call in a bond
One bond you can always count on is the organization the characters belong to. Look at the organization details and imagine a situation the organization is in that needs the characters’ action. A fellow Archivist is in trouble nearby!
Consider putting the object of the bond in mortal danger. If they were to die, that bond would go away and cease to be a potential mechanical advantage for the player.
make a scar a problem
There is little about scars that would be unique to this setting, but the interplanar nature of the Soft Horizon does present some opportunities. This might be a chance, for example to explain the inexplicable! If a character has a scar that appears magical or anachronistic (maybe a metal arm or prosthetic obsidian eyes), tie it to another plane. Perhaps someone outside this world wants it back. Perhaps it’s powered at the expense of someone in another world. And maybe that someone is empowered to do something about it.
introduce someone interesting
Aside from people who are interesting because of the state of your ongoing story, there are types of people that are especially interesting in this setting.
Agents of the king who are having second thoughts about their monarch might well come forward to the characters.
Members or leaders of other organizations that suspect the inter-organizational strife is artificial might open up an investigation into the king’s meddling.
Beings that are not of this world demand attention! Machine people, demons, and humans all must have come from somewhere else. This might even be the characters’ first inkling that there is a somewhere else.
dry up a resource
Regular life in the world of the King Machine is fairly mundane (aside from the flying mountains and such) and therefore so are the resource. Money, food, and water are all logical.
As with interesting people, this might also be an opportunity to engage the rest of the Soft Horizon. If the players have some loot that’s inexplicable, have it use up an interplanar resource, demanding not only location of the resource but also investigation into another plane. That gasoline teleporter in the motorcycle stops working because the gas tank it’s attached to in the world of Sand Dogs is dry. Or perhaps as pedestrian as being out of bullets, except no one makes bullets on this world. Where’d they come from?