soft horizon: the basics

Capuchin scout
In The King Machine you can play a capuchin monkey. I mean seriously, what else do you need to know?

At the heart of the games The King Machine (available now) and Sand Dogs (available soon) is the Soft Horizon system. This system is designed just for me: it eases my stress as ref.

The heart of the resolution system is very simple, and very amenable to play by text chat (which is how we playtest). Every character has nine stats (or skills or whatever) called methods. Each is assigned a die, either a d6, a d8, a d10, or a d12 (but you need to advance quite a bit to get one of those).

When the conversation of role-playing reaches a logical conflict that merits resolution, the dice come out. Based on the narration first (please don’t search your character sheet and tell me “I use Socialize” — tell me what you do and we’ll work out the method together) an appropriate method is selected. The player gets that die to bring to the pool.

Then the ref will set the risk. This is stolen entirely from Rob Donohue who is a genius. Don’t worry, I told him I was stealing it. It’s not the first time I stole it but it’s the best time I ever stole it. The risk determines what’s going to happen if things go bad. It’s nice for everyone to know this up front.

Then we figure out who else can help. Does someone else have a story to offer that merits addition of one of their methods? Maybe someone has some loot to deploy in the situation (loot has dice too).

All the dice are rolled. The highest die determines the result (this is a lie — actually the player who started all this chooses the die because there are sometimes reasons to choose a die other than the highest). This is simple:

1-3: fail and the risk is realised

4-6: succeed and the risk is realised

7-9: succeed with no strings attached

10-12: succeed legendarily

Realising risk drives the game forwards. It creates new plot twists (revelation, for example, reveals some new information no one expected including the ref). It changes or adds motivations (harm gets you wounded and that becomes a priority to resolve since it reduces the die on half your methods). This is just for me: I like to ad lib but I need a cue and this system keeps the cues flying. If you are the kind of ref that plans a lot in advance, this game will not work for you: the system itself will drive off your rails.

Because the system drives the narrative, the ref’s preparation is simple: list some ideas for what to do in a lull. Here’s the actual cheat sheet for the ref:

START SOME SHIT ideas:

SET A DEADLINE ideas:

CREATE A HAZARD ideas:

CALL IN A BOND ideas:

MAKE A SCAR A PROBLEM ideas:

INTRODUCE SOMEONE INTERESTING ideas:

DRY UP A RESOURCE ideas:

RECALL A MISSED HOOK ideas:

MAKE IT NIGHT ideas:

Start some shit is fed by preparing a few simple fronts, a streamlined version of the same thing found in, say, Dungeon World.

Set a deadline triggers a countdown clock towards some event. When play addresses the event on the horizon, it doesn’t tick. Whenever someone answers “What do you do?” with something that doesn’t address it, the clock ticks down. Until it happens.

Create a hazard invites you to simply demonstrate how dangerous the world is. Sandstorm, someone slips on the mountain pass, whatever. If the players had their characters in a dangerous environment, this is when you show them how dangerous.

Call in a bond triggers a feature on the character sheet: a bond is a connection between a character and someone else. And that someone else needs your help.

Make a scar a problem triggers a different kind of character feature: when characters heal their wounds they get scars. These can be used to advantage, but the ref can also stir up trouble with that alien artifact you use as a prosthetic hand.

Introduce someone interesting is your chance to bring in that NPC you love. The cheat sheet is where you make that note so you don’t lose your cool character idea. It may never happen, may never be the right time, but this sheet is your quiver and that mechanic who loves to gamble and knows where the rocket launchers are kept is your arrow.

Dry up a resource is any idea you have for making things scarce. Being out of gas or water or food in the middle of the wilderness demands attention.

Recall a missed hook is really just for me. I have a tendency to leave weird shit on the table. An explosion destroys the house you’re all in and although you are largely unscathed the place is levelled. Except for a very fragile looking vase. Now that’s a hook in plain sight but players often miss them. Leave them there, don’t press it. But use this to bring it back into play if things get slow.

Make it night is there to avoid Endless Day Syndrome. Sometimes a game that propels itself just keeps going: there seems like no good moment to break in and get some sleep. So force it in a lull. And maybe that’s when some shit gets started.

The point of these is to reduce my stress. I need a palette of simple one sentence or even one word ideas to draw from in a lull. I have to say though that the system generates so much ongoing movement that I rarely have to pull one out. Mostly the players generate all the plot I need to keep things moving at a very fast pace.

Obviously there’s more to these games than this and each has its own setting-specific variations and oracles to help get into the feel of the game. But this is the core and if you know this you can sit down and play. You can pretty much sit down and run it.

6 thoughts on “soft horizon: the basics

  1. I like a lot what you’ve been describing (makes mental note to get King Machine already). I’ve been tinkering with a system all year here and there and a couple of your posts have helped me realize where I was failing to achieve one of my design goals, while your descriptions of Soft Horizon address another of my goals. This is great. I’m not quite in a game design frame of mind again, but I keep filing away these little realizations and ideas for that time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am reading The King Machine right now (beats work!) and I fucking love it. Soft Horizon, Methods/Risk or whatever you call the core system is likely to become my new goto system for pick up games like Over the Edge used to be. I could also see running that Achtung Cthulhu! campaign with this. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

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