wormholes and waystations

My art, but it feels thematically consistent.

Today I’m going to look at Joshua Kubli’s magnum opus, Wormholes and Waystations. Joshua keeps a current set of links in its own doc, including contact info. This is an enormous tome, nearly 400 pages of material, that delivers a space-opera OSR experience. It cleaves close to type, not providing rules that guarantee the theme but rather providing extensive rules for making characters, vehicles, and equipment that are consistent with the theme. That is, we build all the things that live in this universe and get a data dump of the state and history of the universe and then go. We don’t get rules for how to push the narrative to deliver the theme but rather trust the simulation to provide it as an emergent property.

Except in one little section you could almost miss, a gem: the type of ship the characters fly determines the mission type, and the mission is ultimately the driver, or at  least the kick-off, for the emergent narrative.

I usually have a problem with these kinds of games because they lack the focus to deliver what they claim they will deliver — they claim to generate a certain kind of story but in reality they set up the precursors for that story and then mostly hope that’s what happens. Fortunately, whatever happens is usually fun — it’s the claim that the game makes a particular thing happen when the game doesn’t actually have rules to do it that I find irksome.

However, in this game that one page of information out of nearly 400 does what it says on the box. Some examples:

Noble: Luxury vessels are manned by the wealthy, so the crew might be guards and servants for a pampered dilettante, or an idealistic and meddlesome

Odd Jobs: Give the PCs a Multi-Purpose ship if the plan is for them to travel from one world to another, taking any sort of job they can get. Multi-Purpose ships are also
good for piracy and smuggling; they’re fast, well-armed, fairly tough, and can still carry a fair amount of cargo.

Patrol: Patrol ships are good for a lighter-duty military campaign, or for law enforcement and bounty hunter vessels.

Scout: A new planet every week to explore and exploit! Give them an Exploration ship if they’re going to boldly go seek out new beings and new societies every few sessions.

Right there is the heart of the game: this is what you’re going to do and the system will provide all the pieces needed to deliver it. And most of the game is those pieces.

Character generation is enormous and detailed an a lot of fun. I’d compare it to Fantasy Games Unlimited’s Space Opera except this is more fun and less tedious. I’m a sucker for the bits of games where you make things and this game has tons of that.

This is a complete game but could benefit from your eyes on the text: does it do what it claims to do? Is it clear what you should do during character generation? From moment to moment in play? Is there more here than there needs to be? Not enough?

I’m certain it plays just fine: the basic model of play is time-tested. Does the text deliver it?

My personal observation is that it would be a better game if that mission section had more detail, even if just some oracles, some charts that triggered ideas in the ref’s brain. Develop each into a genuine inspiration for jumping into the action rather than the tantalizing but tiny offering that’s there now. If it had the same energy applied to it as other sections of the game have I’d be very enthusiastic about giving it a spin.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

too good to be true

2g2bt-titleThe first game in progress I’d like to highlight is Michael Prescott’s intriguing Too Good To Be True. It’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game but very interestingly it centers its focus on the battlefield: it’s a kind of narrative wargame! I wish I’d thought of that. You can grab the 0.14 beta of it if you want to give it a read or, better, a spin. Judging by the blog posts I’d guess that it’s progressed since that document having collided with a bunch of actual play through The Gauntlet.

Players are members of a mercenary company that has a randomly generated history (my favourite kind of history, obviously) and hopefully some built-in problems to solve.

Players get both a character and a mecha playbook to start with — so you are both the person and the machine — and each has very distinct features and functions. Mecha, for example, have armament, armour, and auxiliary equipment categories that carry over to the battlefield rules. Mercenaries have a lighter set of stats since the set of moves are essentially common to all. But they are distinctive, having a list of “specials” that they can choose from as they advance.

I find the idea of taking PbtA to the wargame environment downright delicious.

This material is certainly in a playable state and I think that’s what Michael needs now: play to test both the material and the text. If you dig the idea of tromping around a battlefield in a giant machine, I’m going to ask you to grab this and read it and, if you can, take it to your table. Even if you just read it, report back here–the author has said that there is some concern that it’s too terse. Is it? What needs padding out? Let’s make sure Michael gets some visibility and maybe even some concrete input to work on.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

making stuff

5848ec39-2cf8-4f8f-80a7-1c2fde24ddc4I’d like to try a little experiment. Please comment or send me mail and tell me about what game you’re making. How far along is it and what can we see right now? I would like to start talking about games that are getting made rather than abstract design questions and theory posting.

So what are you making?

I’ll try and write a post about each one, getting you some (what little I can do) visibility and maybe start discussion about the obstacles you have yet to hurdle and how we can help get around or over them.

So what are you making? Let’s all celebrate it and examine it. Stay positive, but usefully critical. I’ll moderate comments.

soft horizon status

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.

Soft Horizon character Kar
Very early character sheet for Soft Horizon.

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.

Maybe not nourishing but easily as satisfying as any Snicker’s bar.

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.

coverCurrently 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.


movie influences

Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?


film-1The first game I ever designed was a Rollerball simulator. Based on a single and heavily edited viewing on television I decoded the rules to the sport and built an oval track game complete with the starting gun, motorcycles, the magnetic goal, and punching.

I was 11 or 12. The game worked. So right out of the gate I knew I could make games. It would be a long time before I decided I could (and that would come mostly by being handed a way — POD) make games for other people to play.

Did my game manage to capture the theme of corporate management and violence as entertainment? No.

But it was a functional simulation of a fictional sport and it was fun to play. It is gone without a trace.

the road warrior

film-2This film fed into our love of all things apocalyptic (since we knew we were going to die in atomic fire). It added wild cars, which we hadn’t considered, and consequently drove the purchase and near-constant playing of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars.

Weirdly (though we were older now) we did get the underlying themes and did start playing games about rebuilding community and about the difference between survival and thriving. Of course the games were still combat-heavy and centered on our gear, whether vehicles or weapons, but we were also exploring how we would cope should we survive the coming nuclear disaster. In fact I spent a day with my social studies teacher driving around Vancouver taking pictures of buildings. When I got them developed (you had to do that in the Old Days) I marked them up with a technical pen, adding the necessary destruction: our games were about surviving the thermonuclear holocaust in our home town. And my idea of post-apocalypse would always center about my home town.

This wasn’t fantasy for us. This was planning. We really thought this could happen. And yet it still didn’t influence me enough to make me learn how to drive: in an emergency I could perhaps be the gyrocopter pilot but not Mad Max.

reservoir dogs

filme-3This film is primarily about being cool above all else. Above intelligence, above compassion, above common sense. Everyone in this film is obsessed with how cool they are and, most importantly, that they are cooler than everyone else. The big surrender at the end is a surrender of cool, the agony of compassion betrayed, an actual uncool warm masculine feeling undermined and soaked in blood.

Of course this was part of what would be Hollowpoint — a game in which you can only be violent. There is no mechanism for anything else and so any compassion you bring to the game is all you. It is constantly undermined by the mechanism. Eventually your character is taken out, and while that is prosaically death, most players have their characters leave in disgust at who they’ve become–and then roll up a character who is worse and start play by giving the rest of the group shit for screwing up and losing a partner. That is, the scene starts by establishing your cool dominance.

2001: a space odyssey

film-4Finally a space ship that might actually work. A space station with spin gravity. Weightlessness on the transit from Earth to the Moon. And the quiet coldness of hard science fiction.

I was a big reader of classic science fiction as a kid and when I read science fiction now it is more often older classics than newer material. Sure, I dig The Expanse of course, but it’s an outlier. Now 2001 didn’t really influence in a sense — it more epitomizes what I wanted out of science fiction gaming and consequently what I wanted from an sf game. It didn’t make me play Traveller, but it acted as visual and thematic touchstones for it. We spent a lot of time seeking ancient incomprehensible artifacts. We constantly made ourselves feel that the immediate drama of being human was in fact tiny and pointless compared to what the universe was really about. And it wasn’t about us.

Of course this aesthetic would carry on to Diaspora.

the duellists

film-5The Duellists is a Napoleonic period piece about obsession. One character (Harvey Keitel) is obsessed with his honour and duelling the other character (Keith Carradine) to the death. Feraud (Harvey) is single-minded and uncomplicated but not above fear. d’Hubert (Keith) has a full rich story for his life and is continuously nagged, tormented by Harvey’s pursuit and their periodic inconclusive duels.

The two characters are opposing views of (in an extreme way) what it means to be male. The senseless pursuit of honour as an excuse for violence destroys every other aspect of Feraud’s life and he doesn’t care. He has defined himself by this pursuit of violence. And on the other side is a man who tries to live a full, thoughtful, and compassionate life but is constantly forced to address the obsession of another man.

I’m pleased that I can see this stress in most of my games. That there is always an acknowledgement of the compassion that humans (and men, from my own perspective) must fight to preserve in the face of a world that sometimes only offers us violence and stupidity as an option. If the game is going to have violence in it, it’s going to be an interruption and not the focus. My hope is that we will pick up the game and play d’Hubert and not Feraud.

Except in Hollowpoint. In Hollowpoint you more likely play Feraud through to his logical end. See the film. It’s not what you think.

Also, check out the design on that poster. You can’t really think I wasn’t influenced by that.


So then we get to a long stretch of gaming that, frankly, is mostly playtesting new games. In this period we made Callisto and Polyp (a free incomplete game that’s very fucking weird) and little else, mostly still trying to get a grip on Soft Horizon and what it would be. We played some other games but I’m hard pressed to think of many that were influential. Many were interesting, sure, but they wouldn’t really change the way we design games.

And then some were a bust (for me: YMMV, IMHO, &c — I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t love these games. There is lots to love. I just didn’t love them). But a couple were influential.

dungeon world

influences -3.1.jpegThis was my first exposure to a “Powered by the Apocalypse” game and I used it to extend a Whitehack campaign. It didn’t work out — for the content, Whitehack was much superior.

But key Apocalypse World concepts got delivered to the design brain, and those would have legs. In fact that would be the start of the Soft Horizon re-design. Some parts of it were really well-suited to the way we were playing: online.

Now a lot of the mechanism formalizes good play behaviour. As such it’s not novel — I already knew what to do — but as mechanism it was hard to slip and play badly. And some of the mechanism severely cuts down on prep by allowing for some cheap prep to reflect off character action and create new situations that were unanticipated by all players.

So it gave me player-facing dice. Since the ref doesn’t roll, this reduces the mechanical action-reaction rhythm of most games which can bog down online play. It also had impacts I related elsewhere (link above). This was something worth stealing.

It gave me fronts, which is an inexpensive way to prep. Here’s something bad in the world that will impact characters. Bring it in when things come to a lull. Colour other interactions with the fact of it.

It gave me GM moves, which are a list of things the ref can do. Sounds really obvious, but codifying the ref’s behaviour options is super powerful because it gives you a list to pick from. It’s hard to get stuck in a rut (which does happen to me when forced to invent constantly from whole cloth) when you can pick from a list. You pick things you might not have thought of.

It also convinced me that I am not interested in that kind of fantasy any more. But it basically made Soft Horizon go. You can get The King Machine now and take it for a spin. It is probably the best game I have ever written.

misspent youth

influences-3.2Robert Bohl’s killer game, Misspent Youth made me think deliberately politically. Mostly Robert did that, really, but the game provided an example. He also let me swear.

The game itself is clean and deliberate, lessons that reinforced what I already learned from Shock: Social Science-fiction. This wasn’t news by now, but more examples are always good.

But mostly it’s a game that’s deliberately and unapologetically political. It got me to research the politics of oppression — and especially how they develop to oppose, infiltrate, and divide resistance — which would factor highly in Soft Horizon games. This game turned The King Machine from an amusing echo of a non-existent strip from Heavy Metal into a real game that meant something to me.

honourable mentions

There are a lot of games that I wouldn’t say were influential but that I nonetheless appreciate and steal from.

I nicked the dice mechanism from Blades in the Dark. I have serious philosophical problems with the game. I don’t like it, though mostly not for mechanical reasons. But I do love the “roll dice, pick highest” mechanism. It has a surprising number of axes of information for narration if you keep track of which die came from where.

The oracles I developed to make Elysium Flare work would follow through, streamlined and improved, to Soft Horizon. A lot got tested in the comfortable couch of a Fate game that would let me go in a more interesting direction later.

Night Witches made me think about things that will make it into a later game. I’ll talk about that then. Vehicles, women, war.

Fiasco is just awesome. I will never make anything like it.

previous influences…


hardcore sandboxery

Before I get into this let’s be clear: I’m not trying to define “sandbox”. I’m trying to understand it. I might want to use the term to market a game and I don’t want to lead anyone astray. Unfortunately I’m discovering a lot of variation in acceptable definitions.

Over on reddit someone brought up an interesting point that seems to demand another axis on my graph for sandboxes. I don’t want another axis because 2D graphs are very tidy and easy to make but if there are three variables then so be it. Let’s hope we only need three so I don’t have to draw a hypercube.

sandboxery v2
That green box is my loose hippie sandbox. The blue part is the hardcore sandbox. There are probably amusing names for other shapes in this space.

So over there the point was made that one factor in a sandbox is a lack of player agency. Not character, mind you, but player. That is, the player’s impact on the world is constrained to the actions of their character: they have no narrative authority outside describing their actions. They don’t get to name cities, declare species friendly, or announce that they found a speargun in the tool shed. The commenter places “sandbox” in direct opposition to “story game” over this exact issue. Maybe I’ll try and find the boundaries of “story game” another time.

This further seems to imply ownership: in a sandbox game the ref owns the world and its evolution. The players try to make a mark on it using their characters but they don’t have any authority over it. And in a sense they don’t own their characters either — since they have no narrative authority, they can’t raise new background information in the middle of play.

This makes a sandbox (or let’s call this a hardcore sandbox) a very small place, to my mind.

No ref, no matter how dedicated, can create a world with the same detail as the real world.

Players will read and retain only a fraction of what the ref creates and offers them to absorb.

Consequently, players have a fraction of a fraction of the knowledge about the world of their characters that a real person would. Removing narrative authority therefore shrinks the world: we could have the illusion that the world as described by the ref is really detailed, more detailed than the bits they wrote down, but only if the players can say things (through the characters’ mouths) that are true about the world. And the characters must know vastly more about the world than the player. More even than the ref — they grew up there. They went to school there. They spent 20, 30, 50 years there experiencing it inside the fiction. Characters must have an enormous amount of world information.

But the player can’t. It has to be simulated or the world shrinks to the notes of the ref. It is exposed as tiny.

There are a couple of ways to let it grow though.

One is to have the players ask the ref questions about the world. “Do I know more about this from my upbringing in this region?” or even “Could it be the case that this is true?” And the ref can add more detail to their world based on responses. This preserves the ref’s ownership.

But that feels, to me anyway, positively draconian. It places us in a position of almost worshipping the ref’s vision of the world.

Now for a long time that is exactly how I played. The ref was God and the players were peons within it, begging for information scraps. I enjoyed that a lot. It was a little suspicious how much I enjoyed that. So my preference now is the alternative: players can freely declare facts that fall into the scope of their characters’ experience. There is a sense in which this implies more trust — not more trust around the table but more trust from the ref for the player input. Trust is always complicated and so is power and this solution upsets some fairly traditional ideas about how that should be distributed (hardcore sandbox: the players trust the ref; the ref need not (and maybe doesn’t) trust the players).

But I get it. I’m starting to get a feel for what the sandbox is. The ref is running a world simulation and the players are interacting with it only through the interface of their characters. There is a comforting way in which this reduces the social interaction of play–I mean, everyone is of course socializing but it is not part of play. Trust and power hierarchies are strictly enforced. The game (not the play — play is fluid, jovial, human, questions, answers, jokes, sidebars, arguments, secret caresses under the table) has a rigid structure, like a video game: the characters are the avatars and the ref is the computer software. Boundaries are not crossed. That’s both appealing and repellant for me. It has a powerful structure that does not invite a lot of argument, which is slick.

If you spell it out.

But if you spell it out you kind of want to kick against it, to refuse being dominated. You might find you want to at least be allowed to (if not actually) push the world around as a player. You might be inclined to believe that your creative input has as much or more value than the ref’s in some contexts. You might then be invited to run your own sandbox, I guess.

None of this is spelled out in the Soft Horizon games and it probably should be. I expect the players to volunteer fiction outside the scope of their characters. It is not a hardcore sandbox. It’s a softcore sandbox, I guess?