creative burdens: invention and interpretation

Having talked previously about creative burdens, let’s break them down in the Soft Horizon.

There are two kinds of creative burden demanded from players in the Soft Horizon and (as expected) they vary by role: the ref has different demands from the other players.

During character creation, players must interpret their organization’s remit and specifiers to describe an organization that bonds them together and supplies an immediate goal. Let’s say you have rolled Commercial (remit), Industrial (specifier), and Secret (specifier). Player must now invent an organization that is fundamentally a profit-seeking entity and whose niche is industrial activity. And it’s a secret! They need to wonder what a secret commercial entity is (maybe its true purpose is the only secret?). They need to decide how one makes money off of industry and what kind of industry. And they need to think about industrial secrets. Pulling these three oracles together to create a description of their organization is the first significant creative burden in the game.

A very small land, high up, warm and serene, connected to the nearest other land by a flowing body of water.

The ref at least, though often all players, will develop a community along similar lines — they will interpret a set of oracles. So me might have oracles “enormous and needs gods”, “lowlands, cold and obscure”, “far from other lands”, and “occasional airship traffic”. We have a relatively isolated, enormous, low altitude flying mountain that needs gods. From this the ref will pile on some interpretation and make it connect to the organization and the characters.

When play begins, the ref will have filled out a prep sheet for themselves which summarizes their inventions and interpretations going into play. They will create the following:

  • An interpretation of the player organization’s big problem. For a commercial organization the cue is that profits are low. The ref will interpret this in the context of a community and create a specific problem that is immediate.
  • An invention of one or more fronts. Using the existing facts, imagine some opposition to the characters’ purpose or interests.
  • An invention of one idea to start some shit: a conflict to throw in the mix if things slow down.
  • An invention of one possible deadline to introduce.
  • An invention of one possible hazard to inflict.
  • An interpretation of one player’s bond as a problem.
  • An interpretation of one player’s scar as a problem.
  • An invention of an interesting NPC.

This list will get updated before every session. Each entry is a sentence or less–just enough to trigger the concept for the ref in play.

So much for pre-play play.

During play there is the usual conversation improvisation that is fundamentally interpretation of all existing data. This is highly creative and hopefully leads to conflicts which will generate more data for interpretation. The ref is also jump-starting things with information from the ref’s prep sheet which they will interpret in the context of the existing conversation to liven things up.

During a conflict the ref will invent a risk. They are cued by the type but the exact nature of the fallout that will happen if the risk is realized is their invention. This is, to me, the heaviest creative burden on the ref in this game and also the most fun. The risk is revelation, for example: what will be revealed that no one expected (not even the ref until now) if things don’t go exactly as planned? A betrayal perhaps? This is immediate improvisational creation in the ref’s hands.

Players will interpret their methods, their bonds, their loot, and their scars to develop the narration of the conflict and at the same time seek greater advantage. And in Sand Dogs, they may interpret a flashback cue to narrate a whole scene from their past that has bearing on the current conflict.

Those are the main creative burdens on the players in the Soft Horizon. There is no creative burden to create new rules or interpret new rules from existing rules (no rule zero). There is very limited creative burden to create an “adventure”. There is no burden to create maps or stat monsters or balance encounters.

The location of the creative burden is definitive. This is what makes this game what it is.

locating the creative burden

Arguably all RPGs place some creative burden on someone. It’s practically what they do: leave stuff out for the players to fill in. I feel like a critical difference between a role-playing game and a board game is exactly that: a space where there are no rules and yet there must be play.

Games like D&D (and many OSR games) are sometimes derided for where they place this creative burden: the whole “rulings not rules” is exactly a declaration of where the burden lies. It lies at least partly in the ref’s lap as the ref is expected to choose rules and even to fabricate rules on the fly in order to mediate play. One could see this as a defect, as an incomplete game, but if I’m right that all RPGs leave some creative burden somewhere then this is just a design choice and not a defect. No one “forgot” to put rules there. The rules are absent or partial in order to supply a specific kind of creative space for someone at the table. Hence, I would argue, the diversity of tastes in RPGs. Maybe even the diversity of RPGs as a whole.

Forced to think about that, of course I need to think specifically about the creative load that Soft Horizon games force on players. And now that I have this formulation, this perspective in my head it’s a design tool. Doing anything deliberately is a tool for design, and understanding what your options are extends what you do deliberately. Because I guarantee that if you are designing a role-playing game you are certainly placing creative burdens in specific places. You just might not have thought about it in those terms. You probably do it intuitively. Now you can look it in the eyes.

In Soft Horizon the critical place where we lay out a creative burden is on the ref when setting the risks. When a conflict is asserted a method and a risk are chosen. Choosing the risk is easy: you just choose between harm, cost, waste, confusion, revelation, delay, spillover, and ineffectiveness. That’s no burden. But as referee what you need to do next is plan in your head what will happen if that risk gets realized. That’s your creative load. It’s immediate and it’s improvisational. It’s where the ref brings skill to the game.

Whoah watch the range! You might HARM yourself.

Some are easy. If we’re risking harm then someone’s going to get wounded. Same with cost — someone gets a debt. Those are your easy outs.

Spillover is almost easy. Someone who’s not a player character nor an enemy is going to get hurt. Or something is. You need some creative juice to make this have an impact but not much: an innocent coming to harm already carries weight.

Waste usually springs to mind because you already have an idea. You get in a firefight with risk waste and your gasoline tanks are all punctured. Someone throws a grenade in your water supply. Something you need is gone.

Confusion will mean that player characters no longer have clarity about what’s going on. The easiest to come up with on the fly is them getting lost. But it might also mean that they no longer know friend from foe. Or even who they are (a short term amnesia might be a confusion result). You can be a little creative with this risk.

Delay is only interesting if someone has a timeline. If they do have a timeline, this one will spring to mind instantly and often because almost every conflict does delay. Your creative burden is to make a delay relevant.

The most interesting is revelation: the conflict outcome will reveal something unexpected. This can be hard because the best ones are ones you, the ref, weren’t planning either. These can make the campaign take a hard turn into new territory which is refreshing as hell. It’s also easy to shy away from, to protect yourself from derailing your own plans. I would encourage you to embrace it, let the system drive off your rails. That’s what it’s for.

That’s not the only place where a creative burden is placed on the players, but it’s the most deliberate, it’s the most intentional. It’s there for a reason. It’s there to challenge me, when I play, with something I’m pretty good at and keeps me from doing things I’m comfortable with. There are plenty of other examples, though, because it’s the heart of any role-playing game: when does it demand the players make shit up? That’s what we’re here for.

So in the “rulings not rules” discussion my problem with where the creative burden lies in D&D and similar is not that it feels under-designed. It’s that it places the creative demand inside the system instead of inside the story. The question it demands I answer is “how do we make the system handle this” and not “what’s the story here”? This is obviously just a matter of taste when you see it in this light.

So where is the creative burden in your favourite game?

intense play in sand dogs

Yeah we had some intense play and some interesting flexing of the rules yesterday. Here are some high points. I’m paraphrasing in all cases:

Scene: our heroes have come to the edge of a clearing as they track their nemesis, Harrison. From cover they see Harrison and three flunkies talking to two bug monsters (bug monsters so far have been very friendly) and the bugs have weapons on Harrison et al.

Toph: I approach under a white flag offering to explain the situation.

Me: Hmm, okay, well that’s clearly SOCIALIZE…

Toph: No, I don’t want to explain the situation. I’m trying to get close enough to murder Harrison.

Me: Ah. Normally I’d call that VIOLENCE but I think here what’s really important is the deception. So MISCHIEF. And the risk is CONFUSION.

So what’s interesting here? Well, obviously the first thing is that the actual intent of the player wasn’t stated clearly at first and so there was some necessary back and forth to get at the nub of the action. This is good: there are conflicting instincts at play. On the one hand you want your text to be a good read, to be poetic, and to preserve secrets until the last moment. But also you want to be absolutely clear what method to bring to bear. So we go back and forth a little to get there.

One of Harrison’s punks, now defunct.

So Toph’s character Jesus gets close enough and rams their strange artifact, the “pliant fuzz” down Harrison’s throat. The power and function of an alien artifact is mostly narrative: it’s incomprehensible, it has some properties that are absurd but well defined. The rest is in the hands of the players. So they can inexplicably serve the narrative already established by the dice with complete freedom. Here’s what’s certainly true about the pliant fuzz: its mass is much much higher than it should be and it’s dangerous. The results when successfully murdering someone with it are spectacular (and cause CONFUSION since that risk was realized): Harrison dies horribly, the fuzz explodes all over things, those with guns all open fire, grenades go off, everyone runs for cover.

Fun stuff.

The next point that was illuminating was when Dune’s character Duarte opens fire with an alien gun on Harrison’s remaining cohorts. He knows nothing about the gun and it has 3d6 — that means you get a lot of dice but they all kind of suck. There’s a lot of room for risks to get realized but also succeed.

Dune: I fire the vegetable gun at Harrison’s men! I wonder what it does?

Me: Okay that’s VIOLENCE obviously, with a risk of CONFUSION [I figure the gun is noisy and makes a lot of vapour].

Dune: [rolls dice and gets success with risk]

Now this is part of a montage and I’m juggling the actions of three different people roughly at the same time. I realize at this point that another character’s action is much better if it risks CONFUSION and that Dune’s action is obviously better risking SPILLOVER.

Me: I think SPILLOVER is better here actually. You open fire and there is a huge eruption of noise and vapour. Thousands of 15cm quills are launched into the clearing killing all of Harrison’s men and one of the two bug people.

Dune: Oh no!

I goofed. I shouldn’t change the risk after the roll since declaring the risk is an opportunity for the character to change their actions. And the players are really fond of the bug people so this result is actually quite traumatic. It’s also a really powerful and unexpected twist in the story which is exactly what the system is supposed to deliver.

So if there was an X-Card on the table I wouldn’t have been too concerned — I would expect Dune to tap it if this was unacceptable (which would have been totally reasonable either because it was too cruel or because I got the rules twisted up). But we don’t generally play with one in this particular group (there is already a very high level of trust) so I am a little on eggshells over this result. What to do?

Talk it out. I explain the problem. We talk about X-Cards. Dune assures me that he doesn’t need an X-Card in order to tell me to back the fuck up — that is, we do have an X-Card in that everyone agrees they are fine with stopping play at any time if it goes down a path they are not cool with.

Relief. I thought we had that relationship but I haven’t clarified it. Clarifying it takes a load off me: we actually do play with the X-Card just not literally and I didn’t know for sure we did. Now I do. And I also know now that if I ever run a con game or otherwise set up for people I don’t know, I will use the X-Card at least because it starts that conversation before it’s necessary.

You can get Sand Dogs when it’s ready. It’s one of a series of games set in the multiverse of the Soft Horizon, and you can get the first one, The King Machine, now.

powers in the soft horizon

JB planted this seed in my head and now it is growing.

In the Soft Horizon system there are a couple of things that happen as characters advance and they aren’t perfect. First, you tend to just get better at things and so eventually you fail less. And that means that some major steam in the system leaks out. That’s no good.

Second, your advancement lacks diversity. Sure you can advance specializations, but even that is just getting better and better. You are refining your capabilities but not really expanding them. Since we want the Soft Horizon to eventually get downright magical, advancement should nicely lead us there.

So JB suggested some exceptional abilities. Stunts, if you must, but let’s not call them that. Powers maybe. So try this:

Once you have a d12, you open up the ability to gain Powers with advancement.

Whenever you roll an advancement you can instead add a Power. Your d12 takes you well out of the ordinary and into the legendary. You are being revealed as a citizen of the multiverse and not just your home plane.

So far in my head, Powers are just selected from a list. I’d like them to be generateable somehow but I’m still thinking about that.

A first effort would be to make them literally exceptional — a power lets you break a rule. So let’s look at a few of those:

Saviour. When you heal a community’s wound you get a scar with that community. As with pillar, it extends by healing more communities.

Leader. On a legendary success you can introduce an NPC that saves the day. They are your pal. Add a bond with that NPC. Tell us more about them. Again this extends by adding more NPCs. This is not strictly a power that increases your ability but rather it makes more people who know and love you. It extends your narrative persepctives by adding more people.

Inventor. On a legendary success you can introduce some Loot that solves the problem. You get that loot. Describe it. Give it dice (either 3d6 or 1d8). Take this multiple times to improve the loot. Loot scale: (3d6 or 1d8), 2d8, 1d10, 2d10, 1d12

Ascend and get your crocodile head and halo today!

Ascend. You achieve your true form. You get a new head. You are no longer a citizen of any specific place. You realize a new purpose. Add a debt.

Tough as nails. One of your wounds does not count against your muscle skill. I think this can increase in the obvious way: take it again and your first two wounds are ignored. This starts to put you in superhero territory pretty fast!

Will of steel. One of your debts does not count against your mind rolls. As with tough as nails, this increases in an obvious fashion.

Planewalk. You can shift to a new plane. Describe how that happens. This might need a session limit (like once per session). Can you take someone else? I think you have to, really, for the game to work (preserve party integrity). How might it increase though? Maybe the next step allows you to open a gate for a period of time in which anyone can come through? The time period expands perhaps?

Pillar of the community. When you heal a community’s debt you get a bond with that community. Because this is a bond on your character sheet, you can use it even in circumstances that have nothing to do with that particular community: people have heard of you and your deeds and respond to that. I think this logically extends by simply bonding with more communities.

I think these things might chain — maybe you need to Ascend in order to unlock some powers?

Any further thoughts?


The Soft Horizon is a series of games. Currently The King Machine is available (and it’s really really good), Sand Dogs is coming soon, and the Handbook is being assembled — soon Patrons will have a glimpse.

gods, demigods, and heroes

What if gods have nothing whatsoever to do with people?

I don’t mean that they ignore them or refuse to commune with them. I mean that they have no relationship with humans at all?

We’ve invented gods largely as explanations. We have gods of things, gods that explain lightning, famine, plague. And as we’ve added our own explanations through observation and analysis, our gods have become more esoteric but still explicative, now chased into the remote corners of spaces unknowable. Gods now explain why we exist, what comes after, and guarantee that there is a point. They are present to give a face to a concept and to let us know that there is a plan, that it’s all fine, that there are reasons.

So what would a god look like who is not any of those things?

In Sand Dogs the tombs that stud the desert are the places where gods dwell. I was going to say “the homes of gods” but that’s not really right because the gods don’t have homes. They aren’t sitting inside the tomb watching Deity TV. They don’t have lunch. They are just in there somewhere, inert, for reasons of their own. And these gods are unfathomable. Not unfathomable in the sense that they know so much and have a plan that’s just too complex for us. Unfathomable in the sense that they are thinking and doing things that are not just beyond us to understand because we are too simple, but they are beyond us to understand because they have nothing to do with us. They have bigger fish to fry and at different time scales (and directions).

This god thought that Leonardo da Vinci was a good touchstone for all humans but also decided that the most important bit was the beard and not the face. And what are eyes even FOR anyway?

That doesn’t mean that they don’t intersect with us. They do. We will meet gods in Sand Dogs and they will be strange and weirdly half approachable. They make an effort to seem humanish but they are bad at it. They will choose icons from our histories (and from histories that don’t exist in our world but do exist in others with humans in them) and sort of be like them physically. Sort of. They will make strange choices that to them make perfect sense. But they appear humanoid only so as to make the meeting and communication slightly less bizarre and not because they have motivations that have anything to do with us.

Gods travel the planes at will. Since there are infinite planes there are multiples of that infinity of purposes for gods. Since humans do no appear on all those planes and even where they do, those humans have nothing to do with you, gods can have incredibly rich, compassionate, intense feelings for people somewhere. Just not here and not you. Imagine an entymologist with a passion for the ticks that live off reindeer in Siberia. Now imagine that scientist on vacation in Mexico, lying on the beach, bothered by sand fleas. You are the sand flea and not the tick. The scientist is not near you on business and even if they were, you would not be that business.

Gods leave garbage lying around. It’s just stuff they don’t need any more. Its purpose is as unknowable to you as their thoughts. But this stuff has properties. It has behaviours. But from your perspective and like the gods, they lack a purpose. Or rather whatever their purpose is, it’s not a purpose that intersects with your needs. But their incidental properties might! Or might not. In fact this garbage might be crazy dangerous. What does a god care? Yes this is drawn very much from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel, Roadside Picnic and it’s important. It asks what a story looks like that’s just not about us? What if our story is the story of intersecting with this other narrative, this impenetrable story, that has nothing at all to do with us? Our story is still important (the most important) but we are forced to confront the fact that not everything is about us.

And this is intended to be consternating. We want the story to be about us. Not just our story but their story. And so we bend a little. We invite the characters, eventually, into the grander story.

And at that point, perhaps, they too become as gods.

doing well

mood.pngSometimes I am doing what I’m good at but not having any fun doing it. Now my father would tell me that sometimes it’s not any fun, any of it, but it still needs to get done. But what I’m good at should be fun. Right?

But maybe sometimes it’s just the case that nothing’s fun and that’s a brain problem not a fun problem.

I am fortunate, however, in that there are at least three things that I’m good at and when one is not fun it’s often the case that another is. My craving for novelty is so shallow that the other thing is novel enough.

I’m good at making games. At least, I’m good at making games that I like to play (and that’s good enough for me). And so when the other two falter I can often get in the groove and write and lay out that game. Since I now have several games in the pipeline I’m no longer in a situation where I am wondering what to do. There’s plenty to do.

When that’s dragging (like when I have a ton of tables to typeset and fuck that) I can still lean on work. At work I design software systems — multiple components that communicate together to solve a problem — to ensure the security of a safety-critical infrastructure. That’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of similarities with game design, actually, and not just because there’s a crapton of writing that needs to get done. It also involves problem analysis and breaking out solutions that work together to meet those needs. It involves finding components that work together without being so coupled to each other that changing one destroys the other. It involves finding a method to turn a complicated issue into a series of executable and explainable solutions. And it involves a lot of explaining. And math.

And when all that’s dragging I draw. I’m not a great artist (not fishing here — I know enough about illustration to know my limitations) but I love doing it. It requires little to no initial analysis. It needs no words. It’s just a matter of moving an image from inside my head to outside my head. And while it happens I get to enjoy the media I use. Drawing is simple, tactile, emotional fun.

Interestingly, when I fall back on drawing, when nothing else at all is fun, it breaks the barrier. Not always but often. When the drawing is done something plugged is unplugged. The other things seem fun again.

So thank you joyless paladin, unable to be excited by the heroic swing because of the burden, the loss of momentum, and the inadequate rewards. You summarized the mood and invalidated at the same time. That’s heroic.

What this means is that Sand Dogs layout is back on track.

Postscript: yesterday The King Machine was the deal of the day at DTRPG. We sold a lot (relatively I mean) of copies. It was marked up so hard that not a lot of money got made but far more importantly there are more eyeballs on the pages. If you got a copy, I hope you dig it. If you dig it I hope you shout out about it. I hope you play it. I hope it brings you joy. It was a joy and a relief to make.


super vigilantes

That I have trouble with superhero as a genre is no secret. And I do not think less of you if you like it. Really. If you like it and read the rest of this you’re going to get the feeling that I think less of you. I don’t. There is an escapist element and an element of hope that people need, perhaps, and that’s enough.

But not what I want to talk about.

Soft Horizon was almost a super hero game at one point but I diverged.

Recently I was tangentially exposed to a discussion of The Punisher and gun control. That discussion felt to me like a specific discussion of a more general problem with supers, and one that is existential for the whole genre. That is, the question was about whether the Punisher should have a position on gun control and whether it should be anti- and all the good stuff that goes with that (like demonizing those who want gun control or making them seem effeminate or obtuse). But the big question here is, who gives a fuck what the Punisher thinks? He’s a murderous vigilante. He’s off the rails. He already has no ethical ground to stand on so why listen to him at all on topics like that? And why would you, a reader/viewer, imagine that the writing was ever going to be nuanced when at its core it must somehow support vigilantism and therefore profoundly unethical behaviour? The most nuanced it can get still can only be about peripheral issues. The elephant in the room is undisturbed. And even when you poke it (Civil War) you still have to do it in a useless fashion.

Supers are about vigilantism and that’s not okay.

There might be supers who are not vigilantes. I’m not aware of them and not talking about them. But even those that work against cosmic threats (Silver Surfer might be the purest) ultimately have to engage with the mundane for context (otherwise it’s not so much supers as science fantasy) and when they ignore or override existing organizations of security and defense, they too are vigilantes.

In order to support their vigilantism it is essential that writers paint the relevant organizations being superseded as inept. This is strictly an ethical dodge, framing the scenario as “vigilantism is fine if the organizations can’t or won’t do the work”. But in reality, however flawed they often are, these organizations do in fact do the work. And in a credibly (or at least charitably) story they would do whatever they need to do in order to keep up with the fast paced world of super-villains and galactic threats. They would hire the best skills. And those would be super-heroes. Even in administrative roles, they would certainly have supers with that (sadly underexamined) skill set.

They also have legitimacy of a sort. Certainly moreso than a superhero saying “trust me”. That’s harder to swallow today I know. But no matter how bad our institutions are, they are better than trusting a powerful stranger.

Let’s pause here and exempt the X-Men, at least in principle. Since the subtext there is about an oppressed group with special skills using those skills to protect themselves from a hostile world, it’s not necessarily about vigilantism. But it often is. And the institutions that would mostly reasonably respond to threats are painted with a black and white hostility and ineptitude. I don’t find these so much ethically vacant as simplistically defined. And then plenty of the stories are about them acting as vigilantes anyway, whether or not it’s because the rest of the world “just doesn’t understand”.

I cannot get onside with vigilantism just because however flawed the appropriate organizations are, they were at least designed with some semblance of checks and balances. Elected positions, oversight, public exposure. Of course they work against those checks and balances to protect themselves, especially when they act evilly. And of course the couch those efforts as necessary for efficiency and safety. They are imperfect and in many cases deeply imperfect. But they rely on a mutable and exposable institution to function. They aren’t a person. They are an organization, and the inner workings of an organization can be examined.

Not so for the vigilante. They operate according to their own motives, they select their targets based on their own calculations, and they are not beholden to anyone for their choices nor actions. There may be better ways to operate than existing institutions of security and defence, but trusting to a vigilante (no matter how super) is just a benevolent dictator in disguise and has the same problem: reproducibility. Even given a perfect vigilante, how do you guarantee that they are “good” in the future and how do you pick a new one when this one goes away? Vigilantes lack structure for reproduction. The very best are only good enough right now and in the past. Next week is up for grabs.

So supers are a no-go for me right out of the gate. They all operate unethically as an axiom of the existence of their stories and so within those stories their ethics are already undermined either within the text (they are vigilantes) or without the text (the writers must craft a universe in which vigilantism is somehow necessary because of implausible defects in the existing systems).

A world without supers. You play a brain coral.

This is not okay for me. I would love a supers story that genuinely confronts this (Civil War was definitely not it — that was fundamentally about supers who wanted to retain their autonomy, firm in their belief that they knew best: paternalistic horse shit). Maybe a story about an organization, complete with checks and balances, that represents what we might actually build if there were citizens with these extraordinary skills. Organizations that didn’t raise plot-necessary doubts and skepticism in a universe that has already demonstrated plenty of zany problems to solve. Organizations that function as organizations with behaviours that allow both mutability and reproduction of function. But maybe that would suck because maybe it’s actually the vigilantism that’s desirable. Maybe that’s the bit people love and since I don’t get it, the genre is forever beyond me. The individual hero who operates without oversight, the saviour, the prophet. That’s the super and that’s who I cannot come to terms with at all.

So why must any interesting stories about this problem of vigilantism ultimately be useless, underexplored, and ethically trite? Because it’s an existential question for the genre: without vigilantism the genre does not exist.

Postscript: as I went out for a smoke to think about this I realized that there is a supers show I like. The 60s live action Batman series. So why does it work for me? Superficially it might just be that it’s comic and does not demand much scrutiny. It’s just goofy and hilarious and never tries too hard to be taken seriously. But more deeply, look at the relationship between Batman and the police department: sure, the police are (comically) inept but they know it. And when they are over their head the first thing they do is call Batman. And Batman’s efforts are always to put the villain (back) in jail. Batman, in this incarnation is weirdly only barely a vigilante (I say weirdly because he’s sort of the canonical super vigilante) — he actually works largely within the institution however informally. He’s invoked by them and he delivers to them. He’s the most lawful vigilante we’ve got!