Consider this scenario. I’ve seen it more than once so I think it might be interesting.
As ref, you describe a place that will definitely kill the characters if they enter. You don’t intend the adventurers to go in there — it’s just an illustration of the capriciousness of the owner. The adventure is somewhere else. So, say: the open archway is completely clear of sand, unlike where you’re standing outside of it. And right inside are the skeletons of three people who are dressed just like the people you know were exploring here last night. It looks like they crossed the threshold and died instantly then decomposed over at most a few hours.
From my perspective as ref I have made it totally clear that this path is barred. What I am selling here is the death of the friends not a puzzle. However, players will usually see a puzzle. So:
“I want to go inside and see what happened.”
Hmm, okay. It’s certain death. That doesn’t sound like fun. How about we tie a roll to it?
“Hrm okay. Let’s have a KNOW check then.”
Now this requires elaboration. The player may well think that failure means you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Success means you KNOW what’s going on. But this doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. I dunno means they go ahead and die. I know means I reveal it’s insoluable and the move on. Neither are very fun sounding. And what RISK would I apply here? Fail and die and also trigger a risk? Seems weird. Succeed and you can’t go there but also trigger a risk? Mmmmmaybe, sure. Success with no risk? It’s a hard success to celebrate so, hmmm, no.
And it fails to address the misunderstanding between ref and player. It maybe reveals it. So instead: explain the misunderstanding (you are humans, you can do this) and consider what the player really wants: they don’t want to know whether they can enter. They want to enter.
This reframes the player’s position in the context of the roll as “Do I KNOW how to enter safely?” At this point as ref I would be confident saying:
Risk is REVELATION (because I have an idea — the revelation will be that on entering you get the eternal enmity of the owning god but we won’t say that out loud right away).
Fail is death. You KNOW you can just enter. But you can’t. This is extreme but we’ve already established in the narrative that it’s lethal. Say it out loud. The player can still decide against acting. They want to enter but given the evidence maybe it’s wiser not to try. Not only will they die, but thanks to the risk their they die entering and the god (which in this actual case the players need to continue the path they’ve chosen) hates them.
Success with risk means that the revelation happens and the character knows away around the certain death. This is the divergence from the main narrative that risk tends to produce.
Success without risk means that the character knows a way around the certain death and the ref should narrate at will with this new direction. The god is apparently fine with this.
What I take away from this is that revelatory checks should do more than just reveal a fact. They should acknowledge the further intention of the player — what do they want to do with that knowledge — and play with that instead.
Sometimes the resolution system in a game is the game. You spend most of the time resolving or trying to get to the point where you have to resolve. You’re looking for a fight, for skill checks, for conflicts. And these conflicts largely define the play — the narrative is a string of resolution rolls and their interpretation.
Soft Horizon, I just realized today, doesn’t operate that way. The meat of the system, the thing that drives moment-to-moment play is in fact the interpretation of oracles. The nature of community relations and their bearing on the characters. And critically, the debts that characters owe to other entities. This is not present as a roll, as a check, but rather is underlying the ad lib work the ref is doing.
What the system provides instead is pivot points: places where things go where the ref wasn’t expecting. When a risk is realized it creates a design space for the ref: you must now decide how this risk realization changes the direction of play. Some are automatic — if someone is HARMED they take a WOUND and they will want to resolve that before anything else. The direction of the narrative pivots around their self-interest to get rid of the hindrance on their character.
More nuanced is COST — the character now has a DEBT to an entity. They owe them something and until it’s resolved, the character is often at a disadvantage. This is really a quest mechanism except as ref you are going to have to think it up on the fly. Where your narrative path was heading one way, now a character needs it to go another and so off you go. A pivot. A hinge.
It’s very hard to railroad anyone in this. The pivot points aren’t entirely up to you.
All of the risks (except the runt of the litter, INEFFECTIVENESS) are roughly like this. While only HARM and COST have a mechanical bearing, let’s look at the rest.
SPILLOVER creates a moral debt on the player not a mechanical debt on the character. Someone or something that shouldn’t have been harmed has been harmed and it’s the fault of the player’s character. The player will often feel compelled to fix this because being a fuck up stings extra when someone else gets hurt. Players that don’t feel this moral tug will be less likely to turn this into a pivot. Players that do will often use more energy to fix it than they would trying to fix a mechanical DEBT.
CONFUSION turns the situation from clear, directed action to unclear, undirected action. It pivots travel into study. It pivots combat into reconnaissance. What you knew is no longer certain. You’re lost. You don’t know who the enemy is. Something that made sense is wrong. It diverts action into search, movement into thought.
REVELATION forces the ref to invent a new hook, to bring in new information that they probably didn’t plan to bring in. Maybe that valuable thing isn’t really valuable. Maybe that uninteresting NPC is profoundly important. The narrative landscape changes. Again, the ref can’t really plan for this since it derives from the conflict which derives from play. This is huge creative space for the ref to pivot the whole narrative, revealing a deeper truth than what was previously thought to be complete.
WASTE creates a scarcity that wasn’t there before. You’re travelling from A to B and in the middle you run out of fuel. Or food. Or ammunition. This pivots the narrative to the story of either re-supply or living without.
DELAY makes something the players were going to encounter pass by. Got a meeting with the mayor? You missed it and that has repercussions. Trying to get to the airship dock before your ride leaves? You blew it, now what? Trying to get out of town before the invading force breeches the wall? No luck, you’re now in the thick of the invasion. It pivots away from an expected rendezvous and into whatever happens if you miss it. The creative space here is relatively small but easy. And the pivot is no less extreme than the others — everything can change by missing a vital appointment.
So the system provides pivot points and you don’t need a lot of these to make the narrative run like hell. One or two a session is fine — any more than that and you probably want to lean on the less disruptive ones occasionally, INEFFECTIVENESS say, just to rein in the chaos. Or, you know, go nuts. Embrace it.
Is it weird that one of the things that eases my anxiety as ref is to be forced to ad lib in specific ways? I find it makes detailed prep irrelevant, which means it’s very hard to show up unprepared. That’s where my anxiety is alleviated.
Here’s a thing that happened in a game once (many many years ago — we may have just cracked open the box on a the freshly published Twilight:2000) that I never ever want to happen again.
The characters were captured by some bad guys. Insert cool imagery here (I think it was a beached supertanker re-purposed as a fortress). Guards come and point to one of the characters. “You, come with me. It’s time for your execution.”
The player nods. “Okay I go with them.”
“The guards lead you down the makeshift steps — very rickety. What do you do?”
“Go with them.”
“You emerge suddenly into sunlight. It’s dazzling. Everyone covers their eyes for a moment to get used to it. What do you do?”
“They tie you to a post and shoot you.”
What the fuck happened here?!
A bunch of things. As ref I thought I gave several opportunities for action to get out of this but the player never bit. Looking back on it now I see exactly why.
First, the player trusted the ref and did not believe the character would be killed so ridiculously. But the ref (me) had switched gears. This was serious business and there were ways out, but the player had to act and to take a risk. The player didn’t act because they didn’t get that this was their moment. They thought the moment to act would be later and trusted me not to kill them before their chance. To my mind, once we had poor Tim tied to the post, there was no way not to kill him. It was the stated intention, game mechanism would not longer save him (we weren’t going to roll hit and damage for a firing squad), and I felt bound to follow through.
Second, it was a system where the ref sets difficulty levels and the player assumed that at each possible action point the player decided action was riskier than inaction. They didn’t know what the difficulty would be and made an assumption. Based on prior gaming with me, for sure. But they didn’t know, they didn’t ask, and I didn’t offer. Because that’s how we played games then!
Third, the words “what do you do?” had no culture associated. It’s not a phrase that the rules command you to say to indicate you are expecting action. It’s just words in a conversation. It has no weight. I intended it to have weight but for that to happen we’d have had to have a discussion about it and agree on that. And frankly none of us were that self-aware about our gaming to realize that that was even what was happening.
Finally, everyone knew I fudged the dice. They were reasonably sure I would fake a bad roll at the critical moment and let them squeak out. But I had no more rolls to roll, in my mind.
Now there are things you can do about this without changing the rules, but they all involve changing the people and changing people is bullshit. You could say “well, players should be more proactive”. What if they aren’t? You could say “well, players should ask about difficulty levels and possible actions”. What if they don’t? Should the game just fail embarrassingly (and it did — the player was pissed, I was flustered, and we stopped early)?
How about we change the rules instead?
If difficulties are fixed then the player knows what’s what.
If the risks have to be declared then the player can make substantive choices.
If the ref never rolls dice then the ref never fudges dice.
If the culture is that the question “what do you do?” invites concrete (go to the dice) action then the cues are real cues and not just part of a conversation that might only be conversational.
So in some ways the Soft Horizon system is designed to heal this 25 year old wound.
There are no difficulties. What changes when you roll is the risk, not the difficulty. When you roll you already know the odds of success and the ref has already communicated (in a vague way) the risk of failure (or imperfect success). As player you already know you can succeed.
The ref never rolls.
“What do you do?” is codified in the text. This is what you say when you expect the players to act. Maybe not go to the dice, but certainly narrate something pro-active, something that progresses their interests. It’s a declaration that what the player says next is important.
Yeah I stole all this from smarter people. I’m not proud. It works.
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.
Soft Horizon System Reference
Each time you sit down to play is a session.
One person will take on the role of referee: they will guide the rest through the rules, mediate disputes, and indicate when a conflict happens. They will also prepare new material for the next session’s play. Everyone else will be a player, controlling the actions and reactions of a character in this world.
During the first session the referee will guide the players through creating the characters and their organization. Then they will generate a community — maybe the place the characters were born, maybe a place where they all met, or maybe just a place they are about to visit. But a place that has problems and capabilities and opportunities for danger and strife. This will colour exactly what the player characters are up to when we begin.
Play begins and proceeds as a shared story instigated by the referee. They will describe a scene with your characters and will ask you, “What do you do?” What you say you do determines what happens next. You will try to erase your debts and wounds, because they reduce your ability to influence events. And you will pursue the mysteries that interest you. Try to get into trouble. You’ll like it.
Eventually you will come to a situation that needs resolution, where it’s not clear what happens next and something is at stake. When this happens, we get out the dice! The more often the dice come out, the more effective your character will become.
Whenever a conflict arises that needs to be solved by the system, the referee frames the conflict by setting the stage and the risk. The player involved and the ref will agree on an appropriate method and the player will narrate the effort. Anyone who helps can offer a method and narrate their assistance. The ref may then choose to reconsider the risk. All dice are thrown and the success chart is used to determine the outcome.
As we will see, it will be valuable for players to each have their own set of dice and ideally each in a different colour so that when the pool is evaluated we can determine which player is primarily responsible for the victory. Or takes the burden of the failure.
Note that recurring “What do you do?” This phrase is magic. This deliberately hands the narration to the other players. This is how the ref indicates that the others need to react. When you use it, make sure you first offered something worth reacting to. And when you answer this question as a player make your answer an action. Don’t speculate. Act.
You’ll need to come to the table with pencil and paper (or electronic equivalents) and dice. Sand Dogs uses polyhedral dice: you’ll want a few d6, d8, d10, and d12. You can set your d20 and your d4 aside for this.
When playing online by text chat (such as Discord or IRC or Hangout) you’ll find a shared document that you can all edit at the same time useful as well.
When a situation clearly requires resolution (which is when something is at risk and the result is uncertain), apply this procedure. This is the only time you need divert from the conversational exchange of narration that makes up most of your role-playing time.
The referee frames the scene which requires resolution.
The first player to respond with an action that maps to a method is going to throw dice. They are the primary. Players cannot use a method that has no dice (either from wounds, debts, or being denied).
The referee suggests a risk and a method. If all agree, the primary brings the die indicated on their character sheet for the selected method. If it’s a specialization, they get the die for both the specialization and the base method.
Others may offer help with a method of their own or something from their loot. The primary may add resources such as loot, bonds, or scars.
The primary rolls the dice and chooses which die will be used for resolution.
If the die is from a source other than the primary, any realised risk may be on that person.
If the die shows its maximum value, it may trigger a progression. The source of the die gets the benefit and chooses what happens.
The referee looks up the value in the result table and narrates the result, narrating any risks that are realised and handing out wounds or debt as appropriate. If the success of the action indicates that an existing wound or debt should be resolved, they will narrate that as well and suggest a bond or scar to replace it.
A conflict worth going to the dice for is one in which there is something of substance to gain, there is a possibility of risk (thought it might be unclear what the risk is at this point), and the outcome is uncertain.
“I want to steal some cookies” is not a conflict. You can have the cookies. Nothing is at stake, nothing substantial is to be gained, and there’s no obvious risk worth taking.
“I am starving, poor in a strange city and want to root up some grub illicitly” is almost a conflict. The ref might then go on to describe that there is in fact a market stall full of cookies run by an alert looking merchant. Now getting those cookies is a conflict. We agree that the method is just mischief here and then decide the risk.
Every action that needs a roll needs a risk. Risks are one of cost (potential debt), harm (potential wound), delay, spillover, ineffectiveness (only as a last resort because boring), revelation, confusion, and waste.
Cost. Realizing this risk will create a debt. Something valuable is lost or maybe you’re just out of cash. You might lose some loot instead of taking on a debt.
Harm. Someone is going to get hurt and suffer a wound. It’s possible that the entity wounded is an association rather than a character. The harm might be a debt instead, even when the character is using violence. Sometimes the psychological fallout of combat is more important than the physical.
Delay. That thing you needed to do really fast is going to take longer than expected. Use this risk when everyone is in a hurry. What are the consequences of being delayed?
Spillover. Someone or something not in the line of fire is going to suffer. A valuable object is destroyed. An innocent is killed or injured. This risk realised is a potential moral failure to deal with—you might have to knife that merchant to get the cookies.
Ineffectiveness. If you fail, you fail. What does it mean to succeed ineffectively though? That’s what should make this a rare choice. Use it when you can reduce (but not deny) an attempted advantage or if you come across a situation we haven’t thought of. Keep in mind the success scenario though.
Revelation. Something you didn’t want to be true is true. This can be a fact the ref has been saving for just such an occasion or it can be something new that just struck you. If you have an organization, a revelation might place a wound or debt on it.
Confusion. You lose track of what’s what and where what is. You might be lost, surrounded by smoke, dazed.
Waste. A resource is reduced. You’re out of fuel, ammunition, food and you could have avoided it.
Risks can be specific, local, or global (this is their scope) and this should be spelled out by the ref before the roll (though not necessarily with precisely those terms—you should narrate elegantly, beautifully, and not mechanically if you can). A specific risk will impact only the rolling character (or someone else specific if the rolling character has no dice). A local risk will impact the rolling character and all who help. A global risk will impact the whole group.
Some risks don’t need a scope, like spillover, as they impact someone else entirely.
Once risk is established, the dice are determined. The acting character’s method gives its die. If it has a specialization that’s appropriate, add that die. If someone is helping, they can add a die from one of their methods. If some loot is appropriate, add its die. And so on: anything with a die rating is potentially added to the pool.
Roll the pool and the player that started this whole thing picks one die as the result. Normally this will be the highest one, but we will see that there might be reasons to select another. Look up the value on the results table:
|1-3||fail and risk is realised|
|4-6||succeed but risk is realised|
|10-12||legendary: succeed and something awesome results|
When a risk is realised it comes true. When you risk harm you get hurt. When you risk delay you’re late. When you risk confusion you’re lost. If the die selected for resolution belongs to someone who helps, the realised risk is applied to them if the scope makes that appropriate.
When a success is legendary, it lacks a loser: a legendary success in a conflict between people (or even peoples) ends the conflict with both sides satisfied. Sometimes you can’t find a way to do this. Try, though. A violent conflict ends legendarily, knife at the throat, birthmark revealed, with the realization that the two are sisters. The knife is dropped, the conflict is over.
Characters have broad skill categories called methods. When narration turns into a conflict, the ref will try to determine which method is the best fit for the action the player has described. Then, after success or failure, we can narrate the details of what was done and how that worked out.
When selecting a method, whether as ref or player, focus on the the broader intent and not the details of the action. If the characters are trying to locate an object by interviewing people, the method is locate and not socialize.
Rescue. You save people and things. You’re handy with rope, diving equipment, ladders, whatever it takes. You’re not afraid of a fire nor being underwater. You can get a car out of soft sand and with enough dice you’ll wingwalk to a formation-flying partner’s plane to get their canopy open before the engine explodes. This is a muscle method.
Know. You know things or can figure them out. You know your way around the library and you dabble in pretty much every subject there is. You’ve heard of the most significant arcane works and know which ones are bullshit. You speak several languages and you’re keen to learn a new one. This is a mind method.
Violence. Fists, knives, guns, whatever: you are here to kick ass. It doesn’t solve many problems, but the ones that need it need you. You’re at home with a switchblade, a belt-fed crossbow, and a Lewis machine-gun. And in a pinch you’ll put their lights out with that shovel over there. This is a muscle method.
Socialize. You are the notorious people-person. You get along and you know what motivates them. And people know you—when you walk into a room and need a friend, one’s probably there even if it’s the prison guard. Maybe especially if it’s the prison guard. This is a mind method.
Endure. Sometimes there’s nothing specific to do. You just gotta keep going. Stuck on foot, low on water, you’re the one that makes it to the oasis. You can deal with torture, you can run for miles, you’re cool under fire, and you aren’t phased by distractions. You can for sure tread water until that boat gets here. Uniquely, an endure method can be tied to muscle or mind, depending on the situation.
Locate. You are great at finding things. Including yourself. You have a killer sense of direction and you can read pretty much any map. You know which way is west and whether that’s a good idea. You also know which way that giant scarab beetle went by the tracks in the sand. This is a mind method.
Fabricate. You make things and you fix things. Technology is your friend. Car died in the middle of the steppes? You can fix it. You know the egg trick with radiators and you can rig a steel mesh tire replacement from that crate of shed door hinge springs you happen to have in the back. This is a muscle method.
Chase. When things try to get away from you, you catch them. When you try to get away, you do. Whether it’s on foot, in a car, in a submarine, a hang glider, a sand skiff, or a skateboard, you get the most out of it. This is a muscle method.
Mischief. Whether it’s to create confusion, distraction, or to sneak and steal, you are an expert. You can hide, play practical jokes, divert an enemy, or disrupt an organization. And get away with it. This is a mind method.
All methods can be specialized either during character creation or as part of progression. When a method is specialized, the player invents an appropriate word or phrase and attaches it to the parent method. When rolling dice using a specialization you also use the die from its parent.
If the fiction permits it, another character can help the rolling character by adding dice to the pool from anywhere on their sheet — methods, resources, loot, whatever. As long as they have a story for it. If the risk is realised and has specific effect, it affects whoever’s die was chosen after the roll. If the referee prefers, each might bear a different risk.
If there is a fiction that supports it, anyone rolling dice can commit a bond or a scar to add its die or change the risk. A risk change is proposed and must be accepted by the table as “good fun”. If a resource die is the die selected for the resolution, any realised risk affects the resource as well as the character if that can be made to make sense.
If you use a bond and the object of that bond has a wound or debt, reduce the bond die by one step for each.
Example of changing a risk: My good pal (BOND) Larry holds them off while we flee! I’d like to change the risk to COST — maybe Larry gets killed or wounded here.
If you’re good at something you have the tools to do that job. However, sometimes you get something special. This something is loot and you could lose it as a risk realization. It’s not yours forever but it’s yours now. loot gives you extra dice for your roll, but the loot must make sense in the context of the method that’s in play for the conflict. It can give you more than one die.
Loot will often be associated logically (though not mechanically) with a method or a specialization. The referee will determine whether this is the case in any particular conflict. A character that denies that method cannot get dice from loot that is associated with it.
A player can bring in a flashback after all rolling is complete. The player narrates the flashback from their character generation, describing how it applies to the current roll. This narration can be as long or as short as desired. The flashback is struck from the character record — we don’t need to hear that story again — and the die result is improved by one level. A fail becomes a success with risk realised, a success with risk becomes a success, and a success becomes legendary.
Wounds and debt
A wound or a debt affects your rolls. They reduce your roll by one die (pick one) if you have multiple dice. If you have only one die, they reduce the size of the die one step. If your d6 is reduced, treat as a denial. wounds affect muscle actions. debts affect mind ones. Effects are cumulative. debts and wounds are facts—if your wound is a broken leg, then you’re not running anywhere. Weave it into the fiction. Physical wounds take time to heal, though a segue is fine.
If you have sufficient wounds that you all your muscle methods (including specializations) have been reduced below a d6, you might be dead. Do you want to be dead? If it makes sense in the narrative and you choose it, you’re dead. Make a new character. Start with an extra specialization with a d8 and either a bond with the gang or a bond with one of the surviving characters.
If you have sufficient debts that you have no dice in any mind method (including specializations) you might be so distracted that you must pursue other things. Do you want to leave the adventure? If it makes sense in the narrative and you choose it, you’re out of the adventuring business. Make a new character. Start with an extra specialization with a d8.
To fix a wound or debt you need to go through some story, some fiction in the game, that explains the solution. You may have to quest to find it! It may just be downtime to heal, or maybe you need new mechanical legs. It might be finding enough money to pay off Panko the loan shark or it might be doing them a favour to get you off the hook.
When a wound or debt is fixed, it becomes a scar or a bond. Change its text to be some way the wound (or the event of the wounding) permanently affects you, or the person the debt was paid to. When created a scar or bond has a d6. If you resolve a wound or debt and the fiction accounts for it, you can increase the die of an existing scar or bond instead of creating a new one—keep interacting with that person and that relationship gets more powerful.
bonds are easy to build—you make friends with whoever helped you solve your debt, and this person or organization is now available to narrate in to a future test for an advantage. scars are harder—a missing eye, for example, isn’t obviously something you can use to your advantage. So consider instead scars like “Hook for a hand” or “Surprise! I’m ambidextrous!”. Maybe “Always check doors and corners” as a psychological scar! When you write your scar, consider how it can be an advantage.
Any die rolled that shows its maximum value (6 on a d6, 8 on a d8, 10 on a d10, 12 on a d12) triggers an advantage. Only the die that determines the outcome in the pool triggers this and the primary in the conflict chooses which die is used to determine the outcome. Choose one advantage from:
- Promote the die to a the next higher die type, improving your method (or specialization) for next time!
- Add a new specialization under the method with a d6
- Add a new specialization under the specialization if you used one, with a d6
- Take one greater level of success
Note that you might roll a maximum number on a die that is not the highest result in the pool! You can choose to take it as your result and get the advantage or you can use your highest value and get no advantage.
If the die chosen to succeed indicates a progression and that die was supplied by someone helping, then the helping character gets the advancement and chooses whether to improve their method or improve the success.
If the die came from loot, there is no progression but you do improve the success.
Sometimes it’s urgent that something in the fiction gets done. You need to escape this land before the Royal Armada arrives. There’s a time bomb in the basement. A storm front is coming in that will wreck the battle plans. These are all deadlines.
When the ref crafts a deadline, they put a marker on the table (or your digital analogue) with four spaces. A line of four boxes is great.
Generally, whenever some factor delays the narrative, fill in a box and if some factor mitigates the deadline, empty a box.
When all the boxes are filled in, the deadline is past and the bad thing happens.
Advance the counter when:
- there is a mechanical delay: a conflict has resolved that realises a delay risk
- any time the ref asks, “What do you do?” and there is no answer that deals with the looming deadline
- there is a narrative pause to heal a wound
- there is a delay implied by the narrative, such as stopping to negotiate a loan
- there is mechanical revision to the actual deadline: a conflict realises a revelation risk, and that revelation is that the danger is much closer, for example.
Roll the counter back a tick when:
- a conflict is resolved successfully that explicitly modifies the deadline (say, for example a chase roll in order to move faster)
- the narrative implies that there is more time than previously thought.
If a conflict resolves relating to modifying the deadline in a legendary fashion, either wipe the track clear or remove it. Whichever suits the narrative of the conflict is fine.
Note that this mechanism means that the deadline will very often be reached: that’s okay. The deadline may well be inevitable. The intention is to add urgency to other actions, not to present an obstacle to be overcome.
If the party chooses to address the source of the deadline itself instead, run with it. When the story demands that the track go away, it goes away.
Large scale conflict
Sometimes a conflict is bigger than one player solving something, like a battle. In this case each character should supply their own scene–entirely local to them–in the larger conflict and roll for that. This establishes scenes in a montage for the larger scale conflict.
Once the montage is done you’ll have a set of events that have succeeded or failed, with and without risks being realized. From that, stage a resolving scene taking into account what happened in the montage. If things went badly, stage a desperate escape scene perhaps. If things went well, maybe the conflict is how to mop up or who to save. In any case, the resolving scene is a normal scene with one player as primary and it completes the conflict. Set the risk accordingly.
The ref will follow the players’ lead unless they run out of motivational steam. In such a lull the ref will do one of:
start some shit. Something from the environment or the past starts a fight. Get into the action right away. War kites swoop in! Someone desperate busts in. Your loan comes due and the goons are at the door. This is a great way to start a campaign; get the blood pumping as soon as possible.
set a deadline. Ramp up the tension by planting a metaphorical ticking bomb. Or a non-metaphorical one! Something has to get done fast. Or else!
create a hazard. Someone falls, a flood rushes through, a fire starts. Walking along a slippery path? Someone slips and falls. In a seismically active area? Someone trapped in the rubble after the quake.
call in a bond. Bring a character’s bond into play as a conflict. Think of this part of the character sheet as a menu of ways to make the plot twist.
make a scar a problem. Bring in a character’s scar as a conflict. Another menu! Those steam powered legs are out of juice.
introduce someone interesting. Bring a new character on scene that has motivation and personality and knows at least one player’s character. You get someone cool to talk to and maybe they have a problem or are a problem that needs to get solved.
dry up a resource. Out of money, food, water, gas—the characters are missing something they need. Make it urgent. In the desert? Fuel and water. Flying? Whatever’s holding them up.
recall a missed hook. What about that sandcrawler? The strangely pristine vase? If you planted something and the players never picked up on it, find a way to re-insert it. Make it more important than ever.
make it night. Play can sometimes feel like an endless day as thing keep happening. Every now and then set the sun and make the players figure out how and where to sleep safely. It may not create a conflict but it will punctuate the day and reduce the feeling that the day will never end.
enter the soft horizon. Introduce some information indicating the Soft Horizon, the multiverse. Hint at the Gate. A planewalking NPC maybe. Bring the game into the multiverse.
While there are very few intrinsically difficult topics built into this game, all role-playing games occasionally tread dangerous paths. Topics of racism, slavery, sexual violence, and murder can easily turn into something upsetting or worse for a good many people.
We encourage you to play safely. That’s not to say that you ought to steer clear of topics that you want to address in good faith, but that you should have a mechanism at hand to allow players to opt out, skip the scene, or re-write it. There are two excellent methods we can recommend.
By Brie Sheldon. This is a rich tool set and sees heavy use at conventions. https://briecs.itch.io/script-change
the x card
Likely the most well known safety tool, the X card is extremely simple, recognizable and widely used. John Stavropoulos provided and continues to develop the tool. http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg
Character generation is often specific to each Soft Horizon game. A basic method that we used in early playtesting is just to assign dice:
Recall that the available methods are: Rescue, know, violence, Socialize, Endure, locate, fabricate, chase, and mischief.
Begin with 3d8 and 5d6.
First choose one method to DENY. You never use this method.
Next, distribute your dice, one to a method. You don’t need actual dice at this point: just note beside each method which die type you have assigned to it.
Now you can specialize. You have 1d10 and 1d8 for specialization. You may invent two specializations—these are subcategories of an existing method—and put these new dice in your specializations. Your species will specify one method that must be specialized. So, for example, you might give CHASE a d6 and specialize it with MOTORCYCLES and give that your d10. You are a motorcycle hero. You can invent any specialization you like: if it’s on your character sheet it’s true.
This is a way in which you, by defining your character, help define the world.
Finally, write for yourself one bond. This is a person or organization that you are attached to and who might change how you react to the world. Making a bond with a mentor or with some expert that you might bring into play is always a safe choice. Making a bond with a lover or even a child will be even more rewarding, reinforcing your relationship with occasional mechanical power.
Specific Soft Horizon games may or may not include the flashback mechanism. If they do, they will also specify how to add it to your character. You can simply have the players each write two sentences, each an event in their path that they might want to elaborate in play as a flashback.
Characters should belong to a common organization. Defining this organization is detailed in specific Soft Horizon games.
The organization all the player characters belong to. It defines your initial purpose, your initial problems, and the resources you might have to back up your endeavours.
Every character starts with a d8 bond with the organization. Usually you would describe this bond as your role in the organization, but if you have a better idea, use it!
To define your association, roll a d20 three times on the table below.
The first is the remit of your group. It’s what you do and who employs you. The other two are specifications: just additional descriptors for your purpose. Determine amongst you what the result means. The remit comes with an initial debt to solve (which will initially degrade your bond to a d6, so it’s very important to address that debt immediately).
Recall that every wound and debt the association has reduces the bond die by one step.
|die||as remit||as specifier|
|1||military: owned by a government, it executes violence. debt: Pursued by an enemy.||works with other militaries or in a military role. Mercenaries!|
|2||commercial: owned by a body of investors, it generates profit. debt: Not yet profitable.||interacts with commercial entities or incidentally generates profits.|
|3||secret: owned by unknowns and has shadowy purposes. debt: Someone knows who you are.||operates under the radar.|
|4||charity: owned by its membership, it benefits others. debt: Someone wants you to stop.||provides beneficial works for others and if it is profit seeking, it never seeks profit from those it directly helps.|
|5||political: owned by its membership, it changes the policies of the State. debt: Opposition is on the brink of violence.||manipulates political connections.|
|6||rescue: owned by a government, you assist those in danger. debt: A distress call is incoming. Start with an incoming message: someone is in trouble!||provides assistance in dangerous circumstances.|
|7||medical: owned by a government, delivers life-saving technology and skill. debt: Someone nearby is injured or sick.||has the capability to deploy life-saving technology and skill.|
|8||criminal: owned by a single person or oligarchy, the purpose of a criminal association is to profit in violation of the law. debt: The last heist went bad.||the association’s methods are frequently illegal.|
|9||academic: owned by the public, it is motivated by discovery, analysis, and teaching. debt: An unvisitied location has revelatory information.||the association is involved in research and publication.|
|10||industrial: owned by another corporation, it makes things. debt: Short on fuel.||the association is involved in manufacturing or refinement.|
|11||exploratory: owned by individuals, it travels to document little known places and things.debt: You have a new map with blank spaces.||the association is nomadic, searching out its remit in far-flung locales.|
|12||entertainment: privately owned, it provides frivolous creative works for audiences.debt: They never heard of you here.||part of the association’s work supports the entertainment industry.|
|13||cultural: government or privately owned, you facilitate artists, poets, and the like, ensuring their works are seen by many. debt: A new poet has been discovered in this area!||the association supports or augments cultural endeavours.|
|14||ancient: this association has changed hands and character thousands of times—it now could be owned by anyone. debt: Something once vital is no longer relevant||the association does whatever it needs to survive today. It is clogged with self-justifying processes and bureaucracy.|
|15||security: you ensure the safety and security of persons, organizations, or things at risk. It might be privately owned or it might be an arm of a government. debt: A client is in grave danger.||one function of the organization is to provide security or security-related materiel.|
|16||religious: owned by your membership, you are dedicated to perpetuating and expanding belief in their philosophy or mythology. debt: There is proof your god doesn’t exist.||the organization caters to or is an arm of a religion. This might be a mystical science, deriving from contact with a real god in a particular Tomb, or it might be complete nonsense.|
|17||training: you train and certify individuals and organizations. It may conduct audits. debt: A client has been declared incompetent.||one function of the organization is to train or certify.|
|18||detective: someone needs to find out who murdered who! You are an investigative organ that digs up the dirt. debt: A client is wanted for murder.||one function of the organization is to investigate breaches related to its mandate.|
|19||agricultural: your purpose is to provide farming resources and expertise to allow communities to survive. debt: A critical crop here is dying.||one aspect of the organization is a wealth of agricultural data and expertise.|
|20||archaeological: the organization investigates the past by unearthing it, maintaining a vast knowledge of cultures and artifacts. debt: A new site has been discovered.||one function of the organization is to manage and maintain archaeological sites and artifacts.|
wounding an organization
Organizations carry wounds and debt just like characters, inflicted when the a character’s bond with the association is used and causes a realization of risk. They reduce the character’s bond die with the group.
Organizations heal their wounds and debt as well, creating their own scars and bonds.
An organization’s bond is a person or organization that the association has paved the way for characters to talk to—a letter of reference, perhaps.
An organization scar is a permanent fixation of the association, a thing it always tries to fix, mollify, or otherwise interact with.
Running the game
After the first session, prepare for play! But don’t panic, it only takes a few minutes.
Take the list of moves and fill out at least three with possible moves to make during the next session. This list is a good base for your preparation—keep adding ideas to it so you don’t have to wing it when play hits a slow point.
The soft horizon
All worlds are linked to other Soft Horizon worlds, and you may one day visit these realms, continuing your good works for your company, your guild, or whatever association binds you, in other planes of existence.
A front is an entity that creates conflict. To do so they oppose something. You can make it an association or a person or an idea.
A front is also a recurring or persistent threat. It requires more than just a roll to defeat, so it comes back into play again and again. To get rid of a front, players will need to execute a long term plan starting with a lot of information finding.
This is an imagination pump to drive start some shit ideas at least. Describe at a minimum for each front (and have at least one, but add as needed):
Who it is.
What their objective is.
Who is in direct conflict with them.
Players will pick sides when a front comes into play. Be prepared for them to pick the front you though they would oppose. Roll with it.
You can add a front as a new node on your relationship map if it doesn’t already have one that reflects it.
Inconsistency & paradox
So in the world of the King Machine there are no native sources of petrochemicals.
Characters are, however, encouraged to have, say, a motorcycle if they want one. Or at least be good with motorcycles.
Let’s look at two ways to handle this since one leads to nothing and the other leads to something.
Since the world is very open for interpretation and magic is certainly one way you can handle any discrepancy (like how is that trees fly?), one approach would be to say that the motor is magical in nature or that there is a magical fuel. That is, say that the inconsistency (need fuel/no fuel) is resolved by an intrinsic property of the world (magic) that creates an analogue of the technology.
This is too easy. It goes nowhere. It invites no examination nor exploration. And any interesting aspect you develop from it springs whole cloth from “magic”: that is, there’s not a logical path to follow since it’s turtles all the way down now.
The King Machine, for example, is one plane in the Soft Horizon, a multiverse of worlds with myriad variations on physics and magic. One of the conceits of the King Machine is that you begin with no particular connection to the Soft Horizon but rather learn of it or get forced into it as part of your mundane (for you) adventures in your home plane.
So let’s look at some alternatives to “it’s magic” that go somewhere.
You have some fuel. You don’t really know where it came from—same place as the motorcycle, likely. You need more fuel. This is limiting (you may not get a lot of use out of that motorcycle) but invites a whole adventure arc: where does fuel come from? Where did the motorcycle come from? If I find a bonobo merchant who sells it, where did they get it from? How can I secure a reliable source of it? This is interesting because the answer at its root is: the fuel came from somewhere over the Soft Horizon. Another world. This scarcity drives a character down a path that leads to the rest of the universe. That’s what we want from this game.
Here’s another: something magical attached to the motor generates fuel somehow. This seems worth exploring as it’s apparently a perpetual motion machine in the making. Of course this magical component is stealing fuel from another plane in the Soft Horizon! Maybe from some weirdly connected dieselpunk garage in the Sand Dogs world. And I bet they are going nuts trying to figure out where the fuel’s going. So this one looks hand-wavery but it actually has two avenues of investigation that reveal the Soft Horizon: the motorcycle owner might take an interest in the engine and discover the tiny portal to another world (and then logically wonder about expanding it). Or the folks getting thieved across the multiverse might take an interest and find a way to stop the flow. Or catch the thief.
So don’t just wave your hands. Find an explanation for the paradoxes of the King Machine that hint at or even invite you to the worlds beyond that Soft Horizon. “It’s magic” is not powerful enough in a world with richer possible explanations baked in.
As the ref you have the duty of instigating action when there is none or when it’s a logical outcome of player action and there are a few methods already listed. 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
When in doubt, stir things up. Look at your fronts and activate one — perhaps it’s time the Zeerian bounty hunters caught up. Maybe that war you have in your community map is flaring up right in the characters’ faces. Or perhaps there’s just some treacherous terrain that suddenly requires a rescue. Make it immediate, demanding a response.
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.
Some good deadlines might include a race to a new tomb, an impending attack from a powerful community, or even the awakening of a god. Or, in a community that depends on a woken god, perhaps the god’s departure.
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.
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
This might be a chance 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.
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
Critical resources include gasoline, water, and even vehicles themselves — a vehicle breakdown in the middle of the desert demands some kind of action. Or just cash: in town, out of money and fuel, what must the next step be? Whatever it is, it will push the story forwards.
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.
Ref’s prep sheet
Here’s your prep cheat sheet. Before the first session, fill this in. No need to fill it all in, just whatever you think will be interesting. Before every session, scan it and revise or add as desired.
The location named ? is: <describe a place, draw a relationship map>
Our heroes’ purpose here is: <interpret their association’s debt as a specific objective>
Who <person or organization>
Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>
Conflicts with who <who opposes it>
Who <person or organization>
Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>
Conflicts with who <who opposes it>
Who <person or organization>
Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>
Conflicts with who <who opposes it>
START SOME SHIT ideas:
SET A DEADLINE ideas:
CREATE A HAZARD ideas:
CALL IN A BOND ideas:
MAKE A SCAR A PROBLEM ideas:
INTRODUCE SOMEONE INTERESTING ideas:
DRY UP A RESOURCE ideas:
RECALL A MISSED HOOK ideas:
MAKE IT NIGHT ideas:
This document is copyright 2019 by VSCA Publishing. However we grant you the following additional rights:
- You may use any text in this document verbatim for your own works provided you cite it as “From the Soft Horizon System Reference Document by VSCA Publishing (https://vsca.ca)”
- You may copy, host, or otherwise distribute this document with text unmodified (you can reformat, add backgrounds, convert to a web site, or anything else you like) however you please.
- Yes this includes making your own game.
- You may not, of course, claim a derivative work is an official Soft Horizon product. You can certainly say “made for the Soft Horizon” or “made with the Soft Horizon” or really pretty much anything except imply it’s official.