If you build a map you pretty much have to do something with it. I was looking at maps the other day — nautical maps showing depths as contours — and thought I’d like to try a new technique or two and make a similar map for a science fiction game.
So what would the contour lines be on a star map? I decided they are hydrogen densities.
When you make choices like that and you are like me and want to create, this only raises more questions. Why would you chart hydrogen densities? What does it mean when a star is in a high density region? What about a low density one? Whole games are born this way.
So I built a toy. It’s kind of part of a game that doesn’t exist. It’s a thing you could use to run whole campaigns with your favourite system. A framework for exploration. Here’s the schtick:
You are c-luggers, traders in ramscoop starships that can get very close to the speed of light but of course not past it. You trade. The secret purpose of your organization is actually to keep civilization going — to prevent the inevitable falls you’ve seen a hundred times and to uplift the fallen so they can be functioning trade partners. And to keep your ships flying. Yes, I’m absolutely calling on Vernor Vinge‘s character Pham Nguyen from A Deepness in the Sky. I am unashamed.
You can move faster through higher hydrogen densities (though not the top end — that’s fast, sure, but risky as hell). Your subjective time that passes in travel isn’t much, relativity is your friend, but lots of time passes where you stop. Your old pals on Pig’s Eye are long dead, that’s a certainty, but what else has changed? You remember they were headed for a serious panopticon problem but can you get there in time to bring the social tech you found at the Younger Sister? Maybe you could take the fast route, through the high density zone and make it in time, but what if you’re both wrong and damaged by the fast path?
Oh well, find out when you get there I guess.
So I built a little on page toy — this map and some rules for how to move in it and how to determine what you find. If it’s a new place to visit, what is it like (in the narrow terms the toy cares about — you can use your system to provide the rest of the detail)? If you’ve been there before, how has it changed? And can you get your software updated? Surely there’s a certified software archaeologist around here somewhere.
You can get this at the Patreon page. It’s free now if you’re a patron (and if you are you are free to do with it as you please, including give it to others, talk about it, or just print it and keep it under your pillow). If you’re not, it’ll be available to everyone else on March 15, 2019.
When playtesting it can be frustrating to get a session where there are no rolls. After all, you’re trying to test the system and where was the system? But the system is more than the dice you roll — there are other mechanisms, usually, and there is also the negative space: when the roll doesn’t happen because of what it would mean if it did. That is, when the system engages the story by being declined. Exactly because of what it will do.
Yes, this is a true story.
Our last playtest session had no rolls. So how did the system engage?
Negative space: there was one situation where an action led to an offer of a roll but was declined.
JB: So no passages leading off? Just a fuck-you huge pit? I’ll try to commune with a vegetable machine. Like grab a less mobile appendage and see if I can somehow mind-meld or something.
Brad: You see nothing that seems sentient. Just vegetable labour. So nothing talks. But that sounds like SOCIALIZE to me with risk HARM. Only because you want to get close to what’s essentially industrial machinery.
JB: Hmm. [examining character sheet which has DENY for SOCIALIZE] Ah, fuck it.
Brad: But your scar counts.
JB: So 2d6 or just 1?
Brad: They aren’t insects, so 1d6. Very probable injury.
JB: Seeing the OSHA-violating implications, Marc beats a hasty retreat.
So nothing happened but we have an interesting choice: Marc isn’t that confident in his new ability to communicate with alien vegetable monsters, and also reinforces his denial of SOCIALIZE as a method. It’s not what he’s good at, it makes him uncomfortable, and adding the significant risk of an industrial accident, he lets that opportunity go by. The system is doing what it’s intended to do: the player plays into the choices they made about their character (denying SOCIALIZE in this case) and the player is making risk calculations based on the risk and sometimes not taking an action. The possibility of information from the vegetable machines is abandoned and a different path must be taken through the narrative because of the system. Working as intended.
This is the same as a party in a D&D campaign deciding to rest for the night because they are wounded, branching the narrative from pressing on wounded through the wilderness to resting, telling campfire stories, and getting jumped by bugbears while asleep in their armour. Negative space is important: if every choice to engage the dice is answered with “yes please!” then there is a missed opportunity for the system to forge another path.
And then there’s instruction to the ref. In Sand Dogs there is a ref prep sheet, just a few lines, and one of the prompts is “introduce someone interesting”:
Brad: You hear a high pitched buzz of insect wings. A speck on the other side of the pit slowly resolves as a large flying insect person. What do you do?
JB: I’ll wave at them.
Dune: Duarte waves his arms as well.
Brad: The bug thing flies over the pit to you. It is multi-segmented like a flying centipede and has dozens of arms and/or legs. As it comes close it strokes a beard of tiny eating legs thoughtfully. “I thought you were Tik but you are not!”
JB: “Tik has asked us to help.”
Brad: “Help how? This vegetable machine thing makes no sense at all. What was she thinking?” It throws a dozen limbs upwards in exasperation. “Would it be rude for me to land?”
Dune: “Please land.” I make room.
Brad: It lands. “Kanikalakiwinazzztakila. You may call me Kan.” It waits expectantly.
Yes, sure, you can add an NPC any time you want without a rule. But I have a rule: when you’re in a lull, wondering how to push things forward, check your prep sheet. And one of the things there is to invent someone interesting to talk to. System engaged. Kan now exists and branches the narrative. Casual statements like “flying insect person” turn into story inflections — if the characters make friends can they fly with Kan? That’d be handy.
You might think of it on your own. But with this you have a recipe and you won’t flounder because you didn’t.
Another ref cue is “recall a missed hook”. Ages ago the characters met and befriended a tough sand dog named Rachael but they left her in the previous plane. She wasn’t that interesting. So I find this cue and think, “maybe she is”:
Brad: Tik says “Well don’t I look foolish. What a waste of land the vegetable machines are.”
JB: “Harrison told you it would be good?”
Brad: “Not-Harrison did. Harrison just demanded things. I thought perhaps you were all mentally ill.” [Tik was under the impression until very recently that humans were a hive mind, all the same, because they look so similar and she had named them all Harrison.]
JB: “Well, he was.”
Brad: Tik says, “Well the meet is moot. Will you do a last thing for me? I cannot bear the waste.”
Dune: “Of course.”
Brad: Tik says, “Find not-Harrison and bring her to here. It seemed so important. She went by Rachael.”
Hurray! I get Rachael back into play. I liked her then and now she’s way more important than previously. Now it’s implied that she’s a planewalker and maybe an enemy or rival of this Harrison villain. The story opens up wide.
The system is more than just the conflict mechanism and its side effects. It is also in how the conflict system inspires people to sometimes deny operating it. And it is in all of the bits and pieces that guide the referee. Don’t focus too hard on your conflict system — there’s a lot of other game to play.
I design games for me. I sell them because I think some of you are enough like me to make them worth your time.
I am coming to realize that one of the things I like is really an old-school feel to a game — that is, it’s about well-defined characters interacting with an environment to discover, explore, and grow. This does not, however, demand old school mechanisms: it’s not clear to me that they were ever the best way to do this. For me.
So aside from that, the new designs (the Soft Horizon work) are built to accomplish that but relieve my particular pain points. My stresses. The things that cause me to feel relief when a session is canceled (which is a sucktastic way to approach gaming). Here are my pain points:
Prepping story. I am not a plotter. I don’t want to plot. I want to discover and enable the players’ interests. Current designs therefore avoid this by providing motivation and twists mechanically. Motivation is baked into characters through WOUNDS and DEBTS: when you have one of these you need to solve it or your functionality is degraded. And they derive from prior action (though you get one for free when you start play) so they are regenerated throughout play. Twists arrive through the risk mechanism: when a risk is realised the onus sometimes is on the ref to create new information and inject it into the story. Weirdly, I am fine ad libbing this in a well defined way but not fine writing it as prep before play. I’m pretty sure I know why this is: I don’t like homework and so much homework becomes irrelevant in play. By contrast I find that inventing an amusing twist based on immediate information is fairly easy — and when it’s not, I offer a risk that doesn’t do that. Mmm, I’m relaxing already.
Figuring out what to do next. This is a place I need to prep — what will happen if the players aren’t moving forward in pursuit of their own goals? But I don’t want to do a ton of preparation — I want to do the minimum necessary to get play progressing. And so I have a set of very simple cues that you can fill out before play with one phrase or less. You won’t use all of them in play. You might not use any. And any that you don’t use stay on the prep sheet for later. So what happens is, before the first session when you’re super hyped and full of ideas, you jot down a dozen or so half-formed ideas based on cues provided. And then before every session you have a look and maybe update one or two.
Controlling player satisfaction. Making sure the players are happy is a major stress point and this is where system so often lets me down. It lets me down when it takes more time than it’s worth. It lets me down when the mechanism makes someone feel bad (they get mind controlled or they die or they lose a level from undead draining or whatever). So the system is fast. Nothing takes a terribly long time to resolve. There are specific mechanisms to stretch out the narration when one roll and a speech feel inadequate, but you choose to extend the process only when you want to extend it and not based on some external pressure like “it’s combat time”. And characters don’t die unless they want to. And it turns out that they want to more often than I thought. In fact they die (or otherwise choose to exit play) more often than in games I play where death is dictated by the rules. Because I usually cheat in those games.
Cheating. I don’t want to fudge the dice. I don’t want the onus to be on me to arbitrarily resolve something that should be mechanically resolved. But some games have random outcomes that are not fun. Not for me and not for the players. So instead two things happen in this game: results are always fun (or at least never not fun) and I as ref don’t roll at all. I can’t cheat if I don’t get to roll.
This is the purpose of the Soft Horizon games: quit making me feel sad about playing and happy about cancelling. Most other games, honestly, I’d rather just chat with my friends than play. But I didn’t realize that until I made a game that fixes it.
I want a new club. It’s really an old club but let’s not talk about that. It’s a club of game designers that welcomes fresh faces. It’s not a club about game play or play styles. Just about design. If you agree with these principles, you’re already a member of design club.
it’s not about play style
It’s about design. We don’t critique play style. Sure you have to talk about play style because of the next rule but we’re not here to decide which play style is “best”. We’re certainly not here to talk about which play style you hate. We’re here to talk about design.
You can divorce your tastes from your ability to analyze design.
Rules exist for a reason. Yes all of them. So yes, you need to know what play style you want. Intimately even. You need to know that so that you can write rules that accomplish that goal. You as a design club member agree to talk sensibly and supportively and productively about how a rule helps achieve a goal even if you think the goal sucks. This is a technical exercise not an emotional one. I even expect you to go ahead and test a rules or set of rules that create a play style you hate and earnestly help people understand whether it does what they want and even how to get to the place they want.
Even if you don’t personally want to go there.
Part of designing deliberately is (perhaps gradually) shedding the urge to cargo cult. This is when you copy someone elses work in the hope that it does what you want rather than through understanding how it functions. We strive for deliberate design: each rule helps serve the greater purpose. Intentionally.
play or sit down
So much design discussion sits in a hypothetical state for a lot longer than it needs to. And when it hits the table it can be a shock. So be prepared to talk about how your proposed design plays, especially if you already have 300 pages of it. Let’s not hypothesize about how it might play, not in design nor in critique, but rather let’s test the shit out of our games, even if it’s alone, and find out how it plays.
How it might play is bullshit. How does it actually play?
I’ve talked before about methods for doing this. One is scaffolding, where you build just enough rough game around a rule to test it. Another is to create a play example: write the interaction between players in detail as though it was transcribed from the table. This is imperfect because there’s not really play going on, but you will find that this runs under a different simulator in your head than the one you use to write rules. And this simulator is way better at finding problems. In fact I often discover that my example deviates from my rules as I instinctively house rule the system I haven’t finished writing. Making examples is super powerful.
The problem with this is that someone’s already making this club. As soon as I had these principles formed in my head as bullet points, someone else I trust announced they were making a club like this. They are working out rules of interaction, a code of conduct. I was working out a purpose. So if we link up and are actually doing the same thing, I’ll let you know about that.
But in the meantime, even without a particular space to communicate, you can be part of this club. You know the rules.
I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20. I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.
It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.
I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.
What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.
Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.
For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.
During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.
My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.
When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.
But the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?
These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.
The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and hoe it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.
The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.
And finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.
So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.
It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.
Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.
A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?
Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.
I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.
The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.
A critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.
Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.
And then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.
So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.
Currently there is no mechanical representation of monsters, enemies, gods, traps, or anything really. I’d like to keep that but perhaps monsters (as a generic term) can be represented as a set of narrative cues instead. That is, they don’t have a mechanical response but they tell certain kinds of stories. Consider:
Amusing quote (following the MtG pattern perhaps)
Let’s look at the two that aren’t obvious, introductions and risks.
Introductions are ways the thing is introduced to the party. They are narrative diversions and slot into the ref’s prep areas of “start some shit” and “create a hazard”. They are cues for the ref that can be brought in on the fly. Let’s have an example monster.
Muck Cell (aka Jellysand)
The muck cell is a huge single-celled organism that devours everything it comes in contact with. It disguises itself by hiding under a thin layer of earth or vegetation. If it has already devoured something recently its digestive power is reduced.
“You escape with some bad chemical burns on your thighs and you have no trousers now.”
Someone stepped in it. RESCUE is required.
Everyone is suddenly attacked at once. Time for a MONTAGE.
HARM: someone gets badly burned. The digestive system of the beast has burned or partially dissolved a character.
COST: something important gets dissolved. Some loot is ruined or create a DEBT based on something lost that’s close to a character’s heart.
CONFUSION: fleeing in terror leaves everyone lost. This thing is terrifying but not too fast. The whole party might be lost or it might be split up.
REVELATION: this thing has eaten something or someone you care about recently. This is a chance to poignantly reveal the death of a beloved NPC. What is the impact of that on the story? Go in that direction now.
So introductions are purely narration: this is what happens when you encounter the thing. We’ll provide some options so that there are different ways to stumble upon it. They imply, however, a mechanical impact, an action that might need to be taken. This shouldn’t be taken as gospel however! Let the narration take its course and see what happens. It may well be that the players find another way to approach the problem. If not, use the recommendation here.
Similarly, risks are ideas for how to put risk on the actions that follow. These might not work if the narration plays out other than expected: they are there to give you something to fall back on and a way to plan if you feel you prefer to plan a little more than me.
As with out ref prep sheet, these monster sheets are ideas. Cues. Ways to spark your own creativity but also something to lean on if your creativity falters. They are there to reduce your stress.