The Soft Horizon project is in full swing, of course. I’ll recap the concept: I want to make a game that echoed my experiences reading Heavy Metal when I was younger — I want games that produced a similar kind of psychedelic anything goes (but not gonzo) experience. And I want there to be many places, many “issues” to play through. I want both Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius and The Immortal’s Fête and these are very different. And I want characters to ultimately move between them — visit different planes. And I want it to feel…serious. Serious in the way Heavy Metal often felt serious even though it’s not actually all that serious. Not “let’s talk about politics and relationships” serious but with real-seeming goals and real-seeming opposition and solutions that felt practical or even necessary. Not comic, maybe, is all that I can say. Yet potentially absurd.
I experimented with a lot of ways to do this starting in 2009 or so. World generation re-using Diaspora, for example, was tested. It was cool but not quite right. Bolting the whole thing onto Fate was tested, but I kind of grew away from Fate. The feeling was too generic and the system more fiddly than I wanted. I wanted something that would cater to the same sort of creative energy I had writing my stream-of-consciousness novel, Myriad. It’s a bad novel. I’m serializing it at the Patreon page because it’s kind of fun serialized. But it’s not a good novel.
But it’s good gaming. A lot of bad media is good gaming. It almost seems as though bad media is better for good gaming than good media is. But then I have to define “good” and then the discussion goes to shit. We like to pretend things we love are “good” or even “great”. What I usually mean is that the media is not “sustaining”. Not “nourishing”. It doesn’t lead us to self discovery in any useful way. It doesn’t improve the way we tell our own stories. Anyway, feel free to dismiss that as elitist. I am elitist: I think some things are vastly better than other things, and more often than not those really great things are harder to absorb. Internalizing valuable new ideas is usually work and work-in-consumption is antithetical to a lot of perfect-for-gaming media. Conan has nothing really to teach me, but visually and energetically it spun out a lot of great gaming for me.
Anyway, the source material for Soft Horizon is not great media. But it is evocative (and comes with extremely good artwork) and that’s really all we need for a game: a sense of place that makes us want to elaborate for ourselves. Maybe a character that we’d like to explore (though I feel like that’s a bit of a trap, a mismatch between the “one big hero” model of most source media and the “group of equals” model of most games).
So the solution was to break Soft Horizon up into separate games, one per plane. Each one is self-contained but uses the same core rules, so there is a sort of Soft Horizon system but it’s not something you have to buy separately. Each game runs on its own power.
The King Machine is out and available.
Currently I’m working on Sand Dogs. While I’m still playtesting, I’m mostly developing little specializations for this game. The core system is (largely) unaffected. So at the same time as I’m playstorming new mechanisms I’m laying out for a public playtest package. This is actually eating the most resources for me because a lot of that work is boring — re-writing extensive material from The King Machine to fit the new context. And I am not good with boring work. Oh, and re-formatting tables. I have to do that too. I’ve been publishing the playtest actual play transcripts here but I don’t know how interesting they are to others. Maybe more for posterity than for you. But I’ll try to keep that up.
One thing I’ll say about Sand Dogs so far is that everyone “gets” the aesthetic without much prompting. There’s something visceral about it. The King Machine is much weirder and much more entirely in my head and so harder to get people to engage with, but Sand Dogs has many media touchstones that give everyone a running start. It’s got desert tombs, aircraft, machine-guns, half-tracks, Webley revolvers, and everyone seems to smoke. Really, I don’t think I started that but my players are all figuratively lighting cigarettes in their narration. That’s fine, there’s no lung cancer mechanism.
One character certainly has a pencil moustache. That’s highly desirable, very Airtight Garage.
So the timeframe for a playtest release is mid-December now. And that places publication in January earliest, so I’ll miss my goal of three releases this year for the VSCA. I will soothe my internal project manager with Christmassy things.