The other thing that keeps it going is the sales of games. Maybe you’re not into nebulous donations and possible future things like access to playtest docs. Maybe you want a thing, a really thing, you can hold and read and play. Well, buying VSCA games also keeps us running.
I’m thrilled by the engagement I’ve seen on these posts — plenty of conversation started on G+, Twitter, and Mastodon and that’s what I’m after! Keep it up, keep challenging me, asking questions, offering insights. I’m enjoying this too, but it’s you I’m enjoying.
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.
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?
In the upper right corner is a suitably subtle little icon, a few parallel lines, that indicates there’s more to see. What’s there is a set of links (among other widgets). I want you to click those — that’s partly why this blog even exists — but I also don’t want them to intrude on your reading. So I kind of shoot myself in the foot with this subtlety. This post is me digging the bullet out.
You can buy VSCA games from some of those links. We have made a diverse set of games, from Diaspora (a Fate-based hard science fiction game) to the latest work in the Soft Horizon series. These are all hippie games. They will insist that players have agency as well as their characters, that emerging stories are shared property, that there are important aspects of story other than violence (and sometimes shine a light on that by forcing you to be violent), and they are all in some sense political. Beyond the obvious “all art is political” political, I mean. So go buy those.
You’ll also find a link to our Discord server, where you can chat live and yell at me to my virtual face. I’d rather we just chat about the games, though, and maybe play some.
And you’ll find a link to the VSCA Patreon page. This one is really important: the regular if thin stream of income from Patreon is what keeps our tools sharp and lets us make time to fabricate games and think about them in public. It’s why there’s art, it’s why there are blog posts, it’s why I’m able to do this at all. Now, every month patrons re-evaluate where their money’s going and some drop out. I do that too. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the pulse and breath of the tool. It’s half of how Patreon metabolizes. The other half is new subscribers. So consider it, even just a buck, if you’re enjoying the blog, the chat, and most importantly, the games.
Part of the reason Patreon works is not even the money. Not directly, anyway. What happens is that I feel an obligation, keenly, to produce. When people are cheering me on even just by waving dollar bills, I feel like I have to make something for them. That pressure it what has turned the VSCA from a once-every-three-years publisher to a two- or even three-games-a-year publisher. Your support supercharges our output out of all proportion to the amount you choose to pledge. You make me owe you, and so far that’s proving to be all I need to deliver.
So, consider clicking the things and nosing around. Regardless of whether or how you support, getting more eyeballs is essential: when you repost, boost, review, or otherwise get our message out to your audience (who are people I don’t know and can’t reach!) then you expand our reach. Find us new people. Often someone comes by who I know fairly well but still never saw my posts and didn’t know we’re back in business. You enable that glorious shit.
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?
The energy and space (notional) I have to create comes from Patreon. Without my incredible backers, lengthily thanked in every 2018 book, the VSCA would not be coming back the way it is to bring games I care about. So please consider dropping a regular penny in the jar.
Sales through DriveThruRPG (RPGNow) and Lulu, especially of physical books (just because I like making books a lot, not because I make more on them. I don’t), are also a big fat motivator. Seeing people buy, read, discuss (for heaven’s sake link me into that conversation!), review, and play these games motivates me to make more. You’ll also find links to some free toys at the VSCA main page if you dig.
All this business stuff, this money, does is make room in my life for me to write and draw and construct and playtest. It lets me wonder about ways to adapt role-playing games to my changing life and my changing needs and since we are all growing older, I think these adaptations will have an impact on you as well. So that’s the semi-regular plug: if you dig what you’re seeing, please consider supporting it. Get a book, drop a buck in the jar, or re-share something you read and thought was nifty.
Addendum: if you’re from Sweden, could you leave a comment and let me know what drew you here? The majority of my visitors this week are from Sweden. I’m curious!
Kickstarter has been a Very Big Deal for the indie RPG crowd. Where Print On Demand democratized the means of production, allowing anyone to enter the ring with a minimum (or even zero, if you do all the work yourself) capitalization, Kickstarter lets you capitalize and promote all at the same time. Kickstarters move massive numbers of eyes on any product sufficiently pretty to meet the Kickstarter bar.
This is a tremendous step backwards technologically and politically. It’s great for gamers and publishers.
Where POD opened up a whole new way to do business — you don’t need to do fulfillment, you don’t need to warehouse books, you don’t need a distributor — Kickstarter reinforces the old way. You will get enough money to print a bunch of books, manage warehousing, and (unless you want to be in a fairly special hell) hire someone to do fulfillment. POD simplifies and automates. Kickstarter enables the old mechanism to kick over one more time.
This comes with an undertone of disdain. Whereas in 2009 when we published Diaspora through then-revolutionary Lulu, POD publishers were the front line in the war to bring you more games, now they are increasingly seen as not publishing “real” books. And that’s only because now there’s a way to capitalize (interest free, though not fee free) old publishing methods so that you can do all those things “real” publishers do, but in your basement.
Let’s kill that right off the bat. Kickstarters are still amateurs (mostly) figuring out the things they need to do with the capital to get things done. They didn’t miraculously become pros while we slept. That’s why many of them fail when they could have succeeded with POD.
Here’s what you need to do to get a book into customer hands with Kickstarter (and this is not a criticism of any of these things; I only point out that each is a risk):
Succeed in a Kickstarter campaign (meet your goals). This should have it’s own bullet list of things because this is not simple. Anyway if you don’t do this you have no capital and you spent a lot of time to go nowhere.
Develop a relationship with a printer.
Do all the stuff you need to do anyway to make a book, whether POD or otherwise.
Finish without spending your profit.
Warehouse a thousand books.
Get a thousand books into envelopes and shipped to customers (and hope shipping fees don’t eat your remaining profits).
Get your remaining books into stores or sell them out of your basement.
The whole point of POD, often overlooked, was to reduce risk and capitalization. The marketing phase can fail and not hurt you because each book you sell goes directly to your bottom line right away, so if you’ve shouldered all the burden of writing, art, editing, and layout yourself then that’s just profit. Sell 1 book and you made money. Sort of; you spent your time. And that’s the heart of it: if you made the book yourself because you loving doing that, capitalizing a print run is all risk. If you can get rid of that bit then you’re finished and can go to the next project.
All of this is good for independent publishers of course. Any way you can get your vision into the hands of others is great. But there is an enormous political difference between POD and Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is conservative. Maybe not quite regressive (1), but not progressive: what it does is help you capitalize. The core methodology did not change; it’s still pure investment capitalism, you just have access to a bunch of pre-sales money with which to do all the usual capitalist things. It invites you to the table, which is a step forward, but it’s the same old table. You get to be a tiny Boss.
POD is progressive. It lets you convert your labour directly to benefit without turning you into a Boss, and without investment. You’re beholden to no one until you sell. And that’s important: you are free as in birds. Once you take a stack of money on the promise of production you are beholden to others until you deliver. Those are chains.
Those might be chains you’re cool with. Personally I have to ration that particular kind of stress–there are enough demands on my heart without it. I just want to make games and get paid a little by people who decided it was worth it after it already existed. When they can read reviews or see their friends’ copy. Not based on a promise conducted with the purpose of gaining your trust.
Oh, and POD need never go out of print. To keep your book available forever just ignore it. That also was progress. But the system thrives on scarcity as much as it does on speculation.
You will probably sell more books with Kickstarter. You might make more money. There is space for the books to be much prettier.
With POD you’ll just remain free.
(1) I think it actually is regressive but in this fashion: we got a progressive technology that let you actually change the process — you don’t need capitalization (that’s a big big deal) and you don’t need to manage the details of print, production, storage, nor fulfillment. With Kickstarter you are back to needing to care about those things. That’s the backwards step.