sand dogs playtest

I released the first playtest draft of Sand Dogs the other day, though for a while it’s available only to patrons. But what exactly do I expect from a playtest?

Well this is pretty late in the metaphorical game. The mechanical aspects are largely already complete and delivered in The King Machine, released in September. So for the core mechanisms of the game I’m not looking for input. And really, for a public playtest I wouldn’t be looking for that anyway. I split playtest into two distinct categories and the mechanical tinkering I do with people I know and love and trust completely. Now you, dear reader, I love as well, but I don’t really know you and so I can’t really trust you. I think you’re wonderful but I don’t know who you are.

What you can do, however, is even more important because I cannot trust people I know and love and trust to do it because they already know how the game works. I need other people to tell me if the text works.

This could be you!

This is impossible for me to do because as I read I fill in gaps with stuff in my head. If something’s missing I may never spot it. If things are not in a useful order, hell how would I know, I only see one page at a time and I’ve seen them all a thousand times already. For me the text is a giant amorphous mass and not a sequence of instructions. For this step we need fresh eyes.


That’s you. Really that’s nearly everyone that’s not me.

So if you grab a copy of Sand Dogs here’s what you can do that’s valuable to me:

Read it. I mean, obviously, right? I need it read. If you read it, take a moment to tell me whether it made sense, whether you had unanswered questions. Often at this time I get a lot of lists of typos — that’s super valuable as well, but not exactly what I need. I need to know if the text delivers a game and if so which game (so I can compare with my intentions). Step one is, does it make enough sense to sit down and try to play?

Play it. Well, we call it playtesting for a reason I guess. If you play it I want to know things like, did you have to go back to the text? What for? And most importantly, were you able to find what you needed? Easily? These things really come out in play because when you’re confused about a game in play it’s urgent and that’s when the text’s organization needs to lead you in the right direction. People talk about “rules getting out of the way” and this is not what they mean but this is more important: do the physical representation of the rules (the book) get out of the way and let you find the information you need and know is hidden in there somewhere? The text is a teaching tool first, but forever afterwards it’s a reference and it needs to succeed in both roles. Does it?

Or this. When it’s done.

Talk about it. Genuinely independent games (by which I mean a one or two dedicated losers like myself doing everything to get the game to print by themselves) need word of mouth to survive. If you love it, please in the name of all that’s holy, talk about it. If you only just like it, talk about it and talk about what you would improve. If you don’t like it, talk about it and especially talk about what you like and don’t like. No matter how you feel, talk about it: it will make it better and it will get it heard about. Visibility (I know I mixed a metaphor: sue me) is so very hard to get. You are how it happens.

Tell me about it. I need to know. I put it out there for my own nefarious purposes and not just as a patronage perq.

Thanks fiends. I genuinely think the Soft Horizon series is the best work I’ve ever done. It’s for grown ups. It’s fun. It’s sandboxish. It’s weird. It’s easy and fast. And it works online.

And I love you. I wouldn’t steer you wrong.

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.



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…



When I was young — say between 15 and 21 — I pretty much exclusively ran sandbox games. Hex crawls, really. I’d make a map, usually a huge map, with some named locations on it and a lot of different terrain and then set off the adventure with some very basic kicker, like a rites-of-passage quest to get 12 Amusing Things. And then the game would essentially be driven by random encounters and me ad libbing Story off of randomly generated magic items and my colourful place names. This was very satisfying gaming.

I’ve run plenty of unsandboxy games too. What would a good word for that be anyway? Mission-driven gaming was my favourite — spies with an objective, that kind of thing. Episodic. Still plenty of ad lib since all I’d write down was the mission brief and then wing everything else. Sometimes the mission brief was crazy simple, a phone call perhaps, with someone hysterically wailing about carnage at the Michael Jackson concert.

Turns out it was werewolves.

So sandboxery isn’t ad lib. I can ad lib at least two ways.

So what is it? Am I sandboxerizing now with the Soft Horizon games? Let me tell you how they run and you can tell me.

A Soft Horizon game starts with characters, an organization they belong to and a kicker. The kicker is a problem the organization has that needs solving. It’s vague. Something like “a client got de-certified here; find out what’s up”. And then there’s a place that’s randomly created with just a couple of phrases. And then there’s the over-arching conflict of the plane. In The King Machine it’s the fact that the King is bad and the King’s bad actions are ruining a Good Thing here. There’s some advice about what that might entail. In Sand Dogs it’s the fact that there are tombs full of sleeping gods and improbable goods and people are literally dying to turn that into wealth.

And then as the players address their central conflict they screw up and the system generates new problems. As ref I pretty much just ad lib descriptive text around that problem and then go with the flow. All I have for plans is a sheet that has one or two ideas for “starting some shit” should things slow down.

So is that sandboxery? There’s no map (well there’s a relationship map). There are no encounter tables (though the game twists around a die roll that performs the same twist-the-plot function as an encounter table). It feels pretty sandboxish to me.

But then I’ve heard people say that sandboxing requires a lot of prep because you never know which way the players will go next. Well the system seems to do that for me just fine so is that not sandboxing? Do I need to prep a whole world? I never did that. Maybe I never sandboxed.

What the hell have I been playing all these years? Does it lack a category? Or are categories mostly bullshit? Or somewhere in between — maybe no category can really embrace anything but rather has some idealized play and then almost everything is clustered around the tails of that bell curve.

Could you maybe plot gaming on two axes, say Plot Planning and World Planning and find categories that way?

Is that useful? Where are your actual favourite games rather than my straw man? Are they sandboxes?

So where would we put an optimal sandbox game? From some of the things I’ve read we’re looking at:

graph 2

Is that right? Doesn’t seem to cover all the talk about sandboxing but certainly some of it. Maybe the whole left hand side is sandboxish.

Where are your games on there? What would you call that? Are all hex crawls sandboxes? Certainly all sand boxes are not hex crawls.

Most importantly though, if I tell you my game is a sandbox and you buy it and then disagree, are you going to be upset?

graph all

sand dogs actual play session three

Only got in an hour before a headache defeated me. Still, nice conclusion to build on next week!

Brad: So! Jesus and Hoberman are sitting on top of a pyramid poking a hovering metallic sphere while Duarte is walking the perimeter and spots incoming vehicles. Some cars and three buses. Looks like the work crew is returning. Anyone recollect any details they want to make sure we recall?

JB: Pretty sure we had decided it’s time to go.

Dune: There are advancing unknowns.

Brad: What do you do?

JB: “Let’s get the hell out of here!” I am scrambling down to get to our vehicle

Dune: I fire up our ride.

JB: Did we find some fuel?

Dune: “Where to?” (Like a taxi driver)

Brad: Yes, plenty of fuel and water

Jesus: “YOu sure we want to abandon this great loca—” (watches Hoberman skid down the pyramid). “Oh.” Jesus follows him down and looks for a grenade launcher, or SMG

JB: “Well we could lay an ambush but not from up there. They’ve probably already seen us.”

Toph: “Yeah, yeah”

Brad: You have whatever you took with you when you fled the other fight. Some small arms, nothing special (nothing Lootworthy). Feel free to describe your rapidly scavenged weapons.

Dune: Same ol’ handgun for Duarte.

Toph: Jesus runs out to the shed with the radio, and finds a spear-gun that the last radio operator had used when on leave and sport fishing. There were three javelins nearby, each with fishing line attached. Jesus leaves the photo of the Marlin being held by its tail, a trophy from a forgotten cruise years before.

Brad: haha; Okay that’s a surreal vignette on this desert world but we’ll run with it.

Dune: i love it

Brad: Let’s say, and it hints at the Soft Horizon, that you have no idea what that marlin thing is or why it was caught in a reservoir.

Dune: You can’t see the gorilla, but the hand holding the line is awful hairy?

JB: Yeahhhhh

Brad: Or for that matter what the hell a speargun is for. Someone at this camp was a planewalker!

Toph: heh, I just see a weapon

Dune: Anyways, if we want to set up an ambush, we should drive the car in an obvious direction and cut them off as they pass in pursuit.

Brad: The vehicles are getting closer. They don’t look like military vehicles. No mounted weapons and no armour.

Dune: cut them off with some off-vehicle ambushers.

Brad: Car’s not drivable as I recall — no tires.

Dune: oh we have no vehicle then? is our ride further away (i recall hopping off and walking to the pyramid)

Brad: You just have the motorcycle & sidecar

Dune: (but i also assumed we retrieved it when we set up camp for the evening) yeah that one… let’s roll!

Brad: Duarte runs for the motorcycle as Jesus emerges from the shed with the speargun, looking at it quizzically. But fondly.

Dune: I would like to observe for signs of allegiance.

Brad: You have maybe 5 minutes before the convoy arrives. Dune: markings you mean? On the motorcycle?

Dune: I mean the convoy… any way to determine who they’re with? where they’re from? We can already see it’s non-military. makes, symbolism, formation?

Brad: The buses bear not so much a military marking as a logo. Commercial maybe? You don’t recognize it.

Dune: I think we should spy on them. I can drive the car away, but I’d like to know what they’re up to. Either of you feel sneaky and lucky enough to not get caught?

Brad: 5 minutes: where do you want to be when they arrive?

Dune: (car meaning moto and sidecar)

Toph: I’ve got the radio.  Jesus suggests hiding near the perimeter fence, on the inside.

Brad: Radio is heavy — think 1930s military. It would be a hard haul on a backpack but can be stored in the sidecar.

Toph: “If you guys set up a distraction, we can see how they react. Maybe chase you for a bit.  It’ll be interesting to see what they choose to protect.”

Dune: We’ll take the radio in the sidecar and listen to the airwaves.

Toph: can I have a transistor or something from it

Dune: (or wait did you mean to take the radio with you?)

Toph: The can wrapped with wire?

JB: “That’s a cute stratagem.”

Brad: You can pull a vacuum tube from the radio, T

Dune: “No time to waste, revs…” (oops that “revs” wasn’t supposed to be in-quote)

Toph: The Jesus, vacuum tube in his satchel pocket, goes and buries/conceals himself near the perimeter, but with an eye on the door of the Radio room.

Brad: Okay I have Jesus concealed by the fence, Duarte on the bike, … Hoberman?

JB: Um I guess I’ll hide behind a bush. Or, yeah, in the car upon blocks

Dune: nice… I’m already zooming away… [dust trail]

I just love the trucks in Sorceror.

Brad: The vehicles arrive — a couple of beaten up Benz jeeps, a roadster, and three buses — trucks really — with huge grills.

JB: That is indeed a mighty grill

Brad: The trucks are covered flatbeds. The cars stop and a handful of people spill out in good desert garb, not military, but certainly expiditionary. They have handguns.

JB: Well that’s not ideal

Brad: One has some kind of huge smoothbore shotgun, probably single shot. Two of them pull the cover off the first flatbed revealing a dozen people in work clothes. And chains. What do you do?

Toph: (no one chased the dust trail? Jesus continues to watch)

JB: What kind of arms do I have? I don’t remember

Brad: Ah thanks for the cue! One of the men shouts and points at the dust trail.

Dune: I look over my shoulder. Any pursuers?

Brad: The woman with the shotgun raises a pair of dainty opera glasses to her eyes. Says something to the others.

Dune: (perhaps a spear handed to you by Jesus lol) (or more likely a shotgun)

Brad: They start putting the cover back on the truck. What do you do?

Toph: (there’s one flatbed or two with slaves?)

Dune: dozen(s?) oh mb i meant a dozen slaves in one at least

Brad: Two flatbeds, a dozen revealed in the first

Toph: Jesus continues to watch.

JB: HOw many are the slavers?

Brad: They cover up the flatbed again and the shotgunner yells some orders you can’t here. (5 JB)

JB: OK, I am trying to signal to . . . Jesus is here, right?

Brad: One of the others goes to the tool shed and swears loud enough to hear.

JB: CAn I like flash at him with a mirror?

Brad: Yes Jesus is here nearby — behind you. You’re in the broken car.

Dune: Jesus is there.

Brad: Sure

JB: BAsically signalling “let’s go” – I think we can take them.

Brad: One of the slavers takes a compass bearing pointing towards Duarte’s rooster tail of sand.

Toph: Jesus springs up and sprints towards the flatbed. The speargun is loaded, and he’s going to take a single shot at the woman with the opera glasses, and then he’s going to hop into the flatbed that is being covered up (the driver is no doubt helping with this, process, and will have left the cab door open). If the keys are there, he’ll drive away. With the slaves.

JB: Shit. OK, I’ll uh, work with that.

Brad: Sounds like VIOLENCE

JB: I’ll cover Jesus, then head towards his position .Yuuup

Brad: and your goal is to steal the truck?

JB: And I am awesome with this soup wound. Heck I’ll try to steal the other truck

Brad: Risk is spillover, Toph. Big bore on that shotgun. Anyone helping?

Toph: (what were you signalling? If only there was a way to send more than a basic “go” with a mirror flash)

Brad: Just the d10 then?

Toph: (dust trail to distract and deplete?)

Dune: i don’t know if my dust trail counts as help but it’s certainly providing a bit of distraction

JB: I’m helping with my own VIOLENCE

Dune: i think it makes sense to combine their efforts and consequences >shrug<

Brad: Hoberman shouts useful instructions for a d6. Maybe not that helpful.

Toph: Violence.

JB: Uh I”m down on physical stuff still. What’s a d6 minus a step?

Brad: No I think they’re ignoring the dust trail as soon as the violence starts. JB: nothing

mechanical: roll VIOLENCE with help from KNOW->VIOLENCE to steal the truck

Toph rolls d10 and gets 6.

JB: Right then. Sorry

Brad: But you can have the d6 violence from knowledge

Toph: ok

Dune: agreed

JB: Just running for that other truck I guess. Oh, right. OK

JB rolls 1d6 and gets 5.

Brad: Not that it matters.

JB: OMG not terrible

Dune: hah

Toph: SO with spillover, I succeed and JB gets shot, right? 😀

JB: (-‸ლ)

Dune: 😀

mechanical: 6 means the spillover risk is realised. Ref must improvise the result!

Brad: Jesus leaps from cover and fires the speargun at Opera Glasses. It hits her center chest and she swivels trying to figure out what’s happening while pulling the trigger on her punt gun. It blows her driver in half and shears through the bonnet of one of the flatbeds. Steam erupts.

JB: Well that’s two down

Brad: Duarte you hear a huge firearm report from the camp. Still charging, Jesus makes it to the wheel of (which vehicle?) Hoberman makes for his own vehicle muttering something about going for a headshot to avoid accidental fire from the shotgun.

Dune: I do a cool 180 maneuver. (it’s not at all cool, actually lumbering and awkward) Heading back into action.

JB: The other truck with human chattel in it

Brad: You nearly spill the Ural — this is not a maneuverable bike with an empty sidecar — but get around and head back at top speed. JB you’re behind the wheel of one slaver transport. The other is disabled. Toph where are you?

JB: Any guns in there?

Toph: I was heading for the one that had been uncovered. It’s now disabled?

Brad: Yes you reach it and it’s screwed. One tire is out, the radiator is blown out, and it’s covered in blood.

Toph: In that case, I head for the roadster, f it’s empty.

JB: I’ll start up the truck and see if I can ram anything the bad guys are using

Brad: One of the remaining slavers runs for the shed. The other two are trying to figure out what the hell is happening, drawing their pistols.

JB: Also bellowing at them to surrender “STAND DOWN AND YOU WON’T BE HARMED” Not very believable I guess

Brad: The truck starts up smooth, JB. You immediately drive over one of the Benz jeeps, crumpling  the rear half under the massive truck. There’s shouting from the flatbed behind you.

JB: Hee hee hee

Brad: Jesus reaches the roadster, a nice open topped vehicle made for straight well-paved roads.

JB: Once I think the bad guys’ escape is cut off I’ll see if I can’t free the people in the truck

Brad: Duarte arrives, taking a little jump over the dune by the gate.

Dune: awesome

JB: so cool

Brad: The remaining slavers are totally confused and upset. The two outside the shed drop their guns and put their hands on their heads like they are familiar with a stop by the Desert Police.

Toph: KEys in it? If not, hides behind it.

Brad: The last one is still holed up in the shed. What do you do?

Toph: I’ve got the vacuum tube, so the radio’s out.

Brad: Smart

Dune: I’ll drive up and collect the weapons from the surrenderers.

JB: OK, I”ll dismount the truck, keeping the keys (if it uses them).

Brad: JB, you said you were releasing the human cargo — you look in and realize they are probably safer from the sun under the cover than standing in the heat. But you find a key from one of the slavers to take off the long chain that loops through all their foot bindings. There is no sound from the shed.

JB: I ask them to stay here until we know it’s safe, but that they are free

Brad: Duarte has the two surrendered slavers face down in the sand, disarmed. “Been free before, mate.”

JB: “yeah, it’s no picnic”

Toph: Jesus notices the abcence of gunfire and pokes his head up. He walks towards the others.

Dune: “That was easy. Is that everyone?”

JB: “There’s one holed up in the shed, I think.” “Wow, Jesus, you made one hell of a mess. Impressive.” “What the hell is that gun anyway?” I assume the hurt people are dead people?

Dune: “Hey, You. In the shed. Come outta there!”

Brad: Opera Glasses is still and glassy eyed. The one hit by the punt gun is in two pieces.

Toph: DOn’t know, but the spears have strings attached. He points to the one he left trailing behind him, and currently tying opera gLasses to the dune buggy.

Brad: No sound from the shed.

Dune: I’ll approach the shed and take a spot with at least partial cover and a view of the door.

Toph: “Come on out, or we drive the truck over the shed.”

Brad: No sound from the shed.

JB: “Damnit.”

Dune: I pick up one of the hostages from the ground. Go open the door and tell your friend to come out.One wrong move and we blast ya.

Toph: Once the slaves are off the flatbed, Jesus goes over and starts an engine.

Brad: The slaver, pants wet with fear, goes to the shed and opens the door. He turns back to you. “It’s empty.”

Dune: Gesture for them to go back to the ground and then I’ll head into the shed to investigate.

mechanical: hint at the soft horizon ref move

Brad: The shed is empty. And the picture of the marlin is missing.


no dice

At first I just liked the idea: the ref doesn’t roll any dice. I don’t know why, but knowing myself as I do I suspect it was just the novelty of it. I frequently ref games and I am always rolling. What if I didn’t? Was there a reason I had to roll?

My first experiment with player-side rollers was in an early test of some ideas for a second edition of Diaspora. I did it in the most obvious fashion: rather than have the ref roll for non-player characters, the ref would just set a difficulty value. It bombed. It was boring as hell. I shelved the idea.

Then I played some Powered By The Apocalypse games. And it works there. Hmm. What’s the difference?

Well one difference is deeply systemic: in Fate the game works by simulating everything with the same structure. Characters are roughly the same whether they are in the hands of a player or the ref (don’t get me started: yes the ref also plays, but let’s acknowledge that they play differently and that this age old set of terms remains sufficient, however imprecise) and so it makes sense that everyone engages these characters the same way, including the ref. PbtA games don’t do this–the system is asymmetric. Opposition does not have the same systemic model that characters do. So with Fate I was expecting to have some fun as ref in the same manner as the rest of the table because that’s a thing Fate does. When I switched to player-only rolling I lost that expected fun. And there wasn’t much left for me because the system doesn’t provide any (because it’s not designed for this, not because it’s bad).

When I got player-side rolling working I found that the ref experience is fundamentally different. Mostly I realized that because I was not playing any characters (in a dice-rolling context, I mean) there was no pressure to be adversarial: there was no contest for me to try to win, whereas when I am piloting non-player characters on a combat map I am certainly playing to win. I make good tactical choices intentionally. I am trying to kill the player characters but with opposition that I have carefully crafted to be unlikely to succeed. Once I framed that in my head that way I realized I didn’t want to do that any more. It’s not something I want happening in a game, generally, as a design goal and so as a side effect it’s not desirable.

But there’s still the problem of having something to do. Absent the adversarial play in Fate, I was bored. But not in the various PbtA games. Why? I wasn’t sure and, as is my wont, I didn’t think very hard about it. I went straight to my own design. This is a deep character flaw of mine: when I play a game I like I generally start my own project and reconstruct elements of that game without thinking too hard about them. Instead I concentrate on thinking about how my new game works. My Fate games are games that I invented after a read-though and play of Fate — an imperfect read through and play. They are emulations based on my memory of what Fate is supposed to be and not literal Fate games.

And so with this Apocalypse thing.

That’s no sun! That’s a tomb!

So in Soft Horizon games I built one dominating thing for the ref to do: manage risk. The creative input of the ref is not adversarial management of threats but is instead the creative interpretation of risk. We use Rob Donohue’s risk list (because it’s brilliant) and it turns out it’s filled with creative opportunity. So, for example, let’s say (and this is a real example) characters are trying to escape from a bad military defense: the enemy is overrunning the defenses and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. Players grab a motorcycle with sidecar, pile in their wounded, and head for the hills. Or rather, for the nearest city. We determine this will be a CHASE roll with risk DELAY. If they fail, we will interpret DELAY as getting captured. If they succeed but realise the risk, we will interpret DELAY as getting lost. That’s the first part of my creative load and it’s plenty fun but not adversarial: I’m not manipulating their chance of success, just setting the consequences of failure.

They succeed with risk: lost. And so I narrate a scene with them getting lost and we come to another check: trying to find their way. And that moves us in another new direction, again with my creative energy going into developing the risks into a coherent narrative.

One of the richer risks in this system is REVELATION. This will reveal some information that makes things worse. This is your plot twist. But you can’t plan it, because it doesn’t even come up until there’s a roll on the table and it needs to be in the context of the scene we’re rolling for. So as the ref I need to ad lib that revelation — if I had any plans, it’s a spanner in my own works. It’s as much a revelation for me as for the players!

Another example perhaps: our escaping trio reach an old Tomb dig site that seems to be abandoned. They are suffering from sunstroke and one of them is injured. They are ostensibly slave-runners: they hunt down cities that keep slaves and disrupt the institutions that make that possible and free slaves. The nearest city, Morgenstern, is a place they often bring freed slaves to be safe. So in that context, they are making a MISCHIEF roll to break into a supply shed and I set the risk as REVELATION. My creative input: if this risk gets realised then in the shed will be evidence that Morganstern keeps slaves. I didn’t have that planned. In fact it wrecks everything. Awesome.

So that was the barrier and the solution: if as ref I am not participating in the adversarial simulation, what is there for me to do? How do I get to play? And the answer in the case of Soft Horizon is that I need to continuously create, to ad lib. And there is a mechanism that forces me to do that, that constrains what I will need to ad lib about, and that provides cues for how to proceed.

Well it turns out that’s something I like doing a lot.

actual play

Here’s some actual play from my Sunday playstorming gang! First, here’s what I learned:
  1. KNOW needs some text to dissuade using it as a universal skill for assistance. I think it just needs to be clarified that using it must be active — research, reading, that sort of thing. You don’t just get facts to add dice to a situation.
  2. I see myself navigating around hints at rolls. I can see hat constitutes a situation worth a roll and what doesn’t but can I codify it so that you can? Have to re-read the text and see if it’s sufficient.
  3. I winged the weird tomb stuff but we need oracles for it to mechanize the process if someone isn’t up to that.
  4. Everything interesting twist was driven by the system. Forced to escape? System. Got lost and wound up at a tomb? System. Free city houses slavers? System.

sand dogs session November 18, 2018

Brad: I’d like to roll back our last session slightly. I loved the montage, but the positive wrap up was wrong.

JB:  Oh shit. I forgot. Sorry about always rolling goddamn 1s everyone

Brad:  So you’re in a defensive position with locals near a Tomb and are attacked by aircraft, armoured cars and infantry. Jesus shoots down an airplane and the other flees, ruining the attackers’ air cover. Hoberman gets himself shot trying to direct fire on enemy commanders — he’s lying in the dust gouting blood and shouting for a medic.

Brad: Duarte helps set up a defensive IED rig and winds up blowing open the barbed wire barrier and flipping the half-track, crushing your fuel and water supplies.

Dune (Duarte):  I did it.

Brad: SO! The enemy continues in, the armoured cars almost overrunning your position. The infantry is behind them, using them as cover. Your allies are steadfastly crewing their positions but it looks bad. What do you do?

mechanism: second half of a large scale conflict montage: interpretation and framing as a new problem to solve

JB (Hoberman):  _gurgle_ “It’s only a flesh wound!”

Dune:  I can rush to aid Hoberman.

Toph (Jesus):  As Jesus sees the plane go down, he releases his finger from the trigger, and looks for his brother. As he scans around he hears the explosion, and sees Hobermann go down, shot.

Toph:  “Get him in here quick!” he shouts, leaping back to the front.

Dune:  I’m just not very good in combat it seems. I do have a bond with Hobs.

Brad: Duarte runs to help Hoberman. It’s not too bad, but you need to get him somewhere safer and cleaner.

Toph: The half-track spins around, and heads towards Hobermann and Duarte.

Brad:  The half track is flipped but you can steal a motorcycle.

Dune:  “Get up, ya dolt.” As I help him to his feet and put his arm over my shoulders so we can walk together and I can bear the weight.

JB:  I’ll do my best to be the lightest burden possible

Dune:Maybe may I use Locate to find a good spot or a good path?

Brad: Jesus arrives in a cloud of sand with a hefty Ural motorcycle with sidecar. You pile Hoberman in and I guess Duarte perches on the back.

Dune:  or is that not what Locate’s for?

Brad: I think this is Chase to escape the scene, rolled by Toph.

Toph: Motorbike it is.  Look, there’s one with a sidecar!

Brad: Anyone got a way to help?

Dune:  Oh Chase is cool. We’re just going to abandon the outpost? Is it overtaken? I feel like we owe these folks.

The inevitable Ural with sidecar. What would dieselpunk be without the Ural?

Dune: Well, I’d help like I said. Lookout.

Brad:  Locate is good to find a path through the chaos!  d6 and d8

Dune: Hooray d8

Brad:  Toph you might have a Flashback you can make relevant?

JB:  Ooh! Flashbacks! I was just thinking we should use ’em. Hm, “none of it mattered in the face of the War”. What does that even help with? Moping?

Toph:  Flashback:  I was bused for smuggling antiquities. I remember when duarte saw me standing in the customs line at the border, he shouted my name, whcih wasn’t the one on my passport. Jerk.

Brad: I think the risk is either DELAY (you get captured) or CONFUSION (you get lost). Of the two I’ve had less luck with capture as being interesting.

mechanism: clarify the risk for any roll

Toph: I stole a motorbike then, too. Capture makes better sense to me. I’d like that on the table. (don’t know how a 4-6 would read then, though) maybe it’s two levels of delay? 1-3 = capture, 4-6 = lost?

Brad: haha good enough — I have one problem though. I haven’t written a way for flashbacks to help you. I guess just an extra die but it’s a one-time thing? If so it should be a d10 or something.

Dune:  Capture is Failure? I was just wondering about that. How Flashbacks come into play mechanically ( if they do)

Brad: DELAY is the risk. I guess fail would be capture, success+risk is lost!

Toph: (d10 is a lot — obviously useful. Is it being “burned”?

Brad: Yeah you can only use a flashback once I think. Don’t need to hear the story twice.

Toph: Then, I think I escaped on foot that time.  People don’t just leave keys in motorcycles.

Brad:  haha

Dune: Flashbacks are defined on the spot or these are the ones from our career? So save it for another roll?

Toph: go with d6+d8? (yes)

Brad: From the career — elaborated on the spot.

Brad: Yup d6 and d8

Dune:  If they’re from our career, then maybe there should be some uncertainty baked in, so you _learn something_ when you visit it.

Brad: We’ll set it aside to think about. To the dice!

Toph: rolls d6 and gets 5.

Toph: rolls d8 and gets 6.

Toph: Success (escape) with delay (we’re lost)

Brad: Jesus’s driving is insane and effective. He tries not to let slip that half the insanity is just him not finding the right gear. Damn these foreign transmissions.

Brad: But Duarte points the way through the mess, out the razor wire hole and through a blind spot in the oncoming enemy using a ditch gouged out by the fucked up explosives.

Brad: It’s dirty and dusty and you can’t see shit and by the time the gunfire slackens or becomes so distant you can’t hear it, you’re lost. You’re in the desert, a friend (brother) injured, on a motorcycle with what must be terribly limited supplies. What do you do?

JB: ow ow ow ow ow

Brad: Oh yeah it’s very bumpy.

Dune: lol

Toph: The smoke rises behind us, and a secondary explosion goes off. “That was the fuel,” Jesus notes, as he looks over his shoulder. 

Brad: (JB you’re not disabled but all your MUSCLE methods are down one die step)

Toph: “Can you stop the bleeding, Duarte?”

Dune:  “How you doing, Hobs? Hang in there.” I apply pressure to the wound.

Brad: Hoberman is stable, just in pain.

JB:  I guess I can help since my medical knowledge is not MUSCLE-based. Oh. OK, so it’s pretty well down to time now

Brad: Not roll-worthy. The mechanical effect is sufficient. You have no direction to travel, unknown supplies.

Toph: Jesus flicks the fuel guage with his finger. It’s not registering, and though he knos he filled it, he does see a hole in the tank. Near the top, but clearly some fuel has been lost.  “We had a landmark?”

Dune: I look around. “We need to figure out how to get to [dirt-town].”

Brad:  You can’t see the city towers any more. But there’s a lot of dust over some of the horizon

Dune: I’ll take stock of what we have. Any storage on this sidecar/bike?

JB: “That could be dirt-town, or it could be that opfor.”

Brad: “dirt town” is Morganstern, btw

Brad: There are some cans and luggage strapped to the sidecar. Whatever was in it you threw out. Some nice clothes, a day’s worth of hard tack, a few liters of water, and one can of gasoline. What do you do?

Dune: I toss Hobs a pack of cigarettes. “We got a bit of water and fuel. Should take us somewhere, but which way to head?”

JB: lights up because it’s tough and cool and will certainly not kill me slowly

JB: “I know a lot of things but I’m pretty useless for orienteering.Like if you want to prove the earth is round, I could show you that.”

Dune: I can make a smoke signal maybe? A signal that might be picked up and understood by [secret society]?

Toph: Can we get a north? Tying sun’s position to the approx time of day?

Dune: (I imagine a hazy sky like where I am in California right now, where the sun is ambiguously positioned)

Brad: Yeah there should be some basic trickery with the sun and a watch that can point you at Morganstern. A LOCATE check.

JB: Ha ha not touching that.

Toph: (risk?)

Dune: I look up and wipe my sweaty brow.

Brad: Risk for a locate check is now HARM. You are exposed to the elements. Duarte is the one with the skills; anyone helping?

mechanism: set the risk

JB: I could maybe help with KNOW?

Toph: d6 in Rescue —

JB: I know the trick, I just am less good at the execution

Dune: I will accept any help that applies. LOCATE first…

Dune: rolls 1d8 and gets 1.

JB: aaahahahahahahhaaaaaa

JB: rolls 1d10 and gets 1. SWEET FUCK

Toph: this is the best game ever

Dune: I scratch my head. The blurry sun looks like it’s in two places at once…

JB: and so their desiccated corpses were found, mere meters from food, water, and shelter

Dune: Quietly to myself “Did I hit my head? Why is this so difficult.”

Toph: Jesus follows Duarte’s directions, guided by Hobermann and speeds off into the desert. It’s a smooth ride, and they make brilliant time, until, three hours later, it’s clear that they have no idea where they were.

Dune: “I know what I’m doing, Hobs! Stick to your books.”

JB: So I guess we’re DEHYDRATED now? Or something?

Dune: “I swear Morganstern should be right here…”

Brad: Duarte determines that you should head straight for the sun. At this time of day, it’s in the direction that Morgenstern is in. It’s not.

mechanism: execute the risk

ref move: bring in a tomb

Brad: Or rather it is, but that’s not the sun. After several hours of travel in which you use up all the water and most of the fuel, the “sun” resolves out of the haze as some kind of massive reflecting sphere hovering above the apex of a pyramid-shaped Tomb.

Dune: tosses Hobs a shovel

Brad: You each have the WOUND: Sunstroke

Dune: “What the fuck is that?!”

JB: urk

Toph: Does the sphere offer any shade?

Brad: The tomb has signs of being an active site. There is a wire fence around it out to a few hundred meters. There’s a supply hut made of corrugated iron. And there’s a vehicle with no tires up on blocks. The only thing that DOESN’T seem like it’s active is the fact that there are no people.

Brad: What do you do? You are dizzy, nauseated, and very very unhappy.

Toph: “Start at the supply hut, says Jesus through cracked lips. “They might have water.”

Dune:  Any chance to approach undetected?

JB: “Let’s head over there. Maybe if someone is there they will kill us and end this misery”

Toph: Jesus doesn’t like Hobermann’s negative talk in the back. “If that’s what you want, we can arrange it.”

Brad:  The motorcycle stalls and dies and you’re forced to walk the last few hundred meters to the supply shed. There’s no risk of being detected — no one is here. You DO know that Tombs are very dangerous places close in and you should watch what you touch.

Dune: “It’s quiet…” We’re looking for water. Carefully 😀

Brad:  The supply shed is locked with a heavy chain. Of course. The vehicle on blocks looks like it has a full set of luggage still strapped to it. What do you do?

JB: Raid luggage

Dune: Dismantle the locking mechanism.

Brad: Duarte; picking the lock sounds like mischief.

Dune: …sounds like a job for Jesus.

Brad: Hoberman: you make your way to the vehicle and tear open the luggage. A lot of mining equipment. And big weird goggles. No water

Dune: “Jesus, think this thing’ll break if we just, I don’t know… shoot it?” I aim my pistol…

Brad: Jesus, you have some explosives from the motorcycle luggage you could use to blow the lock.

Toph: “Wait”

JB: Mining equipment . . . pickaxe to leverage the chain? EXPLOSIVES YES GOOD IDEA

Dune: waits…

Toph: “We can try that as a backup.”

Dune: looks at Jesus…

Brad:  Certainly there are heavy tools that could maybe crack the lock or the door.

Dune: maybe unhinge it? maybe dig into the shed? up to Jesus.

Toph: Jesus is going for the lock. Mischief.

Dune: RISK?

Brad: How are you tackling the lock? (I’ll decide risk based on that)

Toph: SLide the pin-kit out of my belt. It’s nothing fancy, but I can take it through customs. Normally art is kept behind locked doors

JB: Oooh, pro

Brad: Excellent. Risk is REVELATION. Anyone helping this MISCHIEF? (d10 on the table but remember these are flat distributions)

mechanism: set the risk — note that revelation has a potentially delayed effect: i know what it will be but it needs the right break in the narrative

Toph: (adding a d8 is worhtwhile; a d6 doesn’t change much.)

Brad: Nothing actively hurts; any die helps.

Dune: “Where’d you learn to do that?” Just continuing to develop my new(ish)found relationship with my brother. Don’t expect it to help really.

JB: What can’t KNOW do?

Brad: KNOW can’t DO anything. Just know things.

JB: Well do I know things about locks? I’m just concerned I can be like “I know about this” for anything. That don’t seem right

Brad: I think if we were studying how to pick this lock, KNOW would factor in. Not in this case. But I will write a note.

Brad: I think this is just Toph’s d10. Let;s roll. Risk is REVELATION

Toph rolls d10 and gets 5.

JB: YAY-ish

Brad: A few minutes and the heavy lock pops open. Turns out it’s not an uncommon brand, frequently used in bank vaults and art museums.

JB: “Those Abus guys know how to make a lock.”

Dune: expects zombies to start spilling out from the shed

Brad: The inside of the shed is hot hot hot — corrugated iron — but there are a couple tons of water in a huge bladder and what looks like … a payroll strongbox, unlocked. What do you do?

Toph: Water from the bladder. We want to find a clean way into it, and a way to reseal it.

Brad: There’s a big valve. It’s intended to attach to a hose, but jury rigging access to it is no problem. You get tin cups from the motorcycle.

Toph: We might not drink it, but putting some on our lips and tongue will help with the feeling of swelling. Rubbing it on my scalp will help cool things down, even a bit.

Dune: I’ll go build a quick filter for the water… with sand or cloth… whatever we’ve got.

Brad: The water seems pure and clean, maybe a hint of quinine.

Toph: “now we just need some gin”

Dune: “It’s so hot, it’s almost like it’s been boiled. But still won’t hurt to filter it.”

JB:  “I always need some gin”

Dune: We fill our canteens, then the jug that we had on the bike.

Brad: You slap some water on yourselves. It’s wonderfully cool. The sun is starting to go down and that’s pretty nice too. You fill your supplies.

Toph: No sign of the jeep’s wheels?

Brad: The payroll box beckons. It looks like it has some military hardware in it, desert tan and industrial strength.

Brad: No tires on the jeep.

Dune: (Do we know how the risk from lockpicking manifested?)

Brad: Not yet Dune but I’m working on it. 🙂

Dune: (Are we all criminals?)

Brad: Sort of, You free slaves.

Dune: I know what I’ll do. I’ll search for any indication whose site this is…any signature evidence would be good.

Brad: There’s plenty. In the payroll box is a radio and a stack of certificates of ownership signed by Morganstern city officials. Certificates of ownership for people. What do you do?

mechanism: execute the risk — that was the revelation

JB: Uh . . . wasn’t Morganstern supposed to be a free city?

Toph: “Slavers. Fuck.” says Jesus.

JB: “Goddamnnit.”

Brad:  Yes, JB.

JB: “Well that’s an unwelcome revelation.”

Dune: Taking them certificates… (burn them?)

Brad: In fact you have relocated freed slaves here.

Toph: “We burn nothing.”

JB:  “Yeah, this is evidence. Also these tell us just who to free. Among others.”

Dune: There’s no overarching law here. We are the law. (right?) “Good. We really need to find Morganstern now, to liberate these folks.”

Brad: Well generally the most organized armed force is the law, which is mostly each city states and whatever it can exert military power over.

Toph: “I’m always wary of someone who says ‘I am the law.'”

Toph: “Okay. we’ve got a pyramid out there with an orb on it, and we’ve got. evidence that Morganstern isn’t what we thought. I suggest we take some of these documents, and bury then.  Bury them here, near part of the fence we can find, so that we have a backup. Some we take with us.”

Brad: What now? You might have enough supplies to gear up the bike and get to Morganstern. The truck might be repairable. The radio looks like it’s in good shape. But man you are tired and the sun is going down.

Toph: “we can then either go into the pyramid, or , my suggestion, is to call whoever the fuck is on the other end of the radio.

Brad: Ah cool, you carefully hide some of the certs. Toph add that as LOOT so we remember it and give it 2d6 — it might be useful but as like as not carries risks.

Dune: Interesting. We can tune in and listen for any calls/signals. I wouldn’t know what to say if we called out. (though, Duarte likely would)

Brad: Anyone want to narrate the radio call? Your side anyway

JB: “Yeah, let’s just listen in before we give away our position”

Toph: Jesus turns it on. It’ll be on a channel that gets used. If there’s any traffic we hear it, but if there’s nothing in the first 10 seconds, well Jesus is not patient.

Brad: You turn on the radio and it hums and glows a little between the seams in the housing. Battery seems to be almost full but you know these things drain fast. There is immediate but sporadic traffic. Someone reciting numbers.

JB: I’ll write them down for later (crypt)analysis

Toph: coordinates? anything repeating?

Brad: It’s very faint and on a short wave channel — could be from halfway around the world or 10 meter away. There is a string of 32 numbers each between zero and 256 and they repeat continuously. At first glance they seem random.

Toph: Jesus copies them down on the back of a certificate.

Brad: You record the sequence and the frequency.

Dune: (I’m definitely curious about the tomb/pyramid, but I don’t know if we have any good reason to go tomb-raiding…) We ought to camp.

Brad: (It doesn’t feel like the focus right now but rest assured it’s not there for decoration 🙂

Dune:  Do we have fuel? I’ll check the raised car to see if it’s functioning… if yes, we may take it. If no, we will siphon fuel (if it has).

Toph: “Guys? Has the water helped? Are we bugging out or bringing them to us?”

Brad: I think I’m cool with saying that water and rest is good enough for sunstroke. I’ll let you struggle with imagining a scar to replace the wound. You have zero fuel.

JB: “I say lie low overnight. I think we all need some rest.”

Brad: And you’ll need a nights rest to clear the sunstroke.

Dune: I feel like I would want to be a infiltrate and liberate, rather than a smash and grab or a bait and trap.

Brad: The raised car has no tires and no gas. It might run, though.

Dune: But happy with any plan. Surely we need to rest. “Maybe you can figure out this code. What does it mean, Brainiac?” to Hobs.

Toph: Jesus heads out into the desert, and finds a place to sleep about 500m away.

JB: “Let’s have a look-see here . . . ”

Brad: It looks like it might have been jury rigged to operate a pump of some kind — there’s a canvas belt around one wheel but not attached to anything any more.

Brad: Jesus sleeps while Duarte and Hoberman play with the new reading material under the covers with a flashlight. In the morning you are rested but no wiser. You wake up early. The numbers have no meaning you can discern. It’s still dark but that will change fast in the desert. What do you do?

JB: First rule of cryptanalysis club is you do not use plaintext about cryptanalysis club I’m going to stare at that big disco ball for a bit

Dune: Yeah! I’ll search the perimeter for traps or obvious entrances… (in the natural light before dawn)

Toph: Jesus walks back in towards the shed, where he finds his companions. He’s got sand in his clothes, but he knows it was right to keep distance.

Brad: The sphere hovering over the top of the pyramid is about 10m in diameter and not perfectly smooth. Sort of a hammered look, many coarse facets.

JB: I’m also going to graph those numbers on a coordinate plane

Toph: He looks up at the sphere.  How high above the pyramid is it?

Brad: About a meter. Nothing appears to be holding it up.

Toph: “I’m climbing a pyramid. See if I can knock that thing down.” He picks up the most club-like sledge he can find.

Brad: As the sun rises you get your bearings. It’s nice and clear now. You’re pretty sure Morganstern is about 20km in THAT direction, which according to your notes would make this tomb G-415.

mechanism: city generation rules and relationship maps

Toph: I presume we’ve never seen a sphere like this I want to climb up.  Is it stepped? smooth planes?

JB: “What the heck are you doing, Jesus?”

Dune: Seems we’re inquisitive siblings. Curious family. 😀

The group and geography relationship map.


Toph: “Someone was guarding this place, now there’s no one. That sphere there is what makes this place different. Whoever it is, I want to ruin what they’ve got.”

Brad: The pyramid is not stepped but the facade has long since worn away and so the building stones are exposed. It’s possible to climb up but not easy.

Dune: Any tubes or equipment that looks like the truck pump was taking from the tomb itself?

Toph: Doing it.  “YOu guys coming or you playing with your numbers still?”

Brad:  Whatever equipment was here has been removed but there’s a shallow trench that suggests at one time they may have been pumping water into the sand to make it excavatable.

Dune: I’m still perimeter-ing… scouting the entrance and ground level of the pyramid exterior

Brad: The pyramid itself has no apparent entrances. It’s exhausting to climb but it’s not all that hard. The stones are about a half meter high each.

JB: Fine I’ll go up after him. Idiot

Brad: After a few steps up, you’re about 3 meters above the ground, you see that the next row is undamaged, unworn. Very smooth. The same kind of stone but like new. What do you do? (And it seems that every 7th row is like that.)

JB: “Huh.”

Toph:  See if Hobermann will give me a boost. If not, then take the sledge and make me some footholds.

JB: Wait wait. you mean smooth as in not stair-stepped? Or just that the angled blocks are like new?

Brad: Stair stepped but the step is smooth. No wear.

JB: No need for sledgery. “I don’t have a great feeling about these unworn stones” I’ll drop something expendable on one, cigarette butt or whatever

Brad:  You flick a butt on the next step and it skitters around like a bead of water on a hot griddle.

JB:  “Yeah don’t touch that. Frictionless? But then the next layer of stone wouldn’t stay . . . OK, that’s weird. No less than I’d expect of a tomb, but weird.” Is it possible to get to the next row up without touching that?

Brad: Duarte finishes his circuit of the structure. There are no entrances anywhere and nothing really to differentiate one face from another. JB: Half meter up and a half meter over, then a half meter up. It’s tricky but it won’t be a lethal fall.

Toph: “Push me up, Tactician. Let’s try t make this work.” Jesus pulls his gloves on, nd hovers his hand above the surface.  Is it radiating heat? More than it should from the morning sun?

Brad: No, less. It’s sucking heat from you.

JB: “OK, I’ll give you a boost. If we don’t find a way in, if we can harvest these ‘stones’ they probably have like a million uses.”

Brad: The brothers do their gymnastic trick. I think I’ll call that just ENDURE — it’s not hard but involves a weird angle and some time in that position, then a lot of arm strength. The risk will be HARM — if you blow it, you fall 3m down the stairs.

mechanism: set the risk — this is an obvious one

Toph: (HOb isn’t a brother, right? It’s Duarte, back there on the ground)

Brad: My mistake

Dune: I look up at my brother and old friend.

Brad: You’re all brothers now, born anew in combat together

Toph: WOn’t help when I need a new kidney, though.

Brad: Well surgical technology is such that it will help just as well. Executing this acrobatic? ENDURE + any help. Might need that new kidney sooner than later!

JB: (Trivia: they just stick the new kidney in there, so you have three, when you get a “transplant.”)

Toph: Yep. I’m going up. d8 in Endure.

Brad: Any help?

JB: I also have Endure d8, though d6 with my wound

Brad: Can’t hurt — your muscle is in this too.

Dune: I’m too far

Brad: d8 + d6

JB rolls 1d6 and gets 6.


Toph rolls d8 and gets 8.

Brad: haha

Dune:  WOW!

JB:  Can’t survive a pitched battle but we beat the shit out of these here stairs

Brad: Risk averted and Toph has an advancement — Endure to d10 or add a d6 specialization.

mechanism: advancement

Toph:  take the d10

Brad: Regardless, both hardy adventurers execute a flawless maneuver to lever Jesus up to the next stair. That problem solved, he pulls up Hoberman and they execute the maneuver 4 more times to reach the top.

Toph: Is this spehre sucking heat as well?

JB: Hm, I guess you can’t advance when wounded?

Brad: At the top (thankfully the top three rows are normal)…

Brad: You can’t advance if you didn’t get the high die. But that’s an interesting question anyway.

JB: Right. But I just spotted a perverse incentive

Brad:  Yeah if you’re wounded it’s easier to advance

Toph: But harder to succeed.

Brad: Right

Brad:  Hmm, anyway. Sitting atop the pyramid the sphere is right in front of your face. It’s big and not smooth, with rough facets like it was beaten into shape with a ball peen hammer. But shiny and brilliantly so. And nothing seems to be holding it up.

JB: Big round marimba. I mean steel drum

Dune:  golf ball 😀

Brad: Dune, you getting bored down there?

Toph: Hairs on my arm sticking up bcause of electricity? Bel buckle drwn to it because of magnetism?

Brad: Because you see dust on the horizon.

Brad: No it seems to have no affect on its surroundings at all other than the optical.

Dune:  I’m not bored.

JB: “Try hitting it with your wrench.”

Dune: Just watching from below.

Toph: “My brother wants a golf ball. Let’s send it down to him.” WHam.

Dune: If I can see them. Maybe I can just see that they disappeared at the peak.

Toph: “Oy!  look up.”

Brad: The wrench makes an unsatisfying click. You were expecting a bong or at least a ping but no. This thing is dense and does not resonate.

JB: Can we spin it?

Toph: DOes it budge

Brad: Dune, you can now see there are vehicles approaching. They are a few km away still.

Brad: It does not move.

JB: (Related, book recommendation: Revenger, Alistair Reynolds. Great tombs. Like, literally just like this.)

Dune: I whistle up to my brothers, and go tidy the camp (aka conceal our presence)

JB: I’ll toss some water on it

Dune: If they look down and seem me, they’ll see I’m hurriedly tidying.

JB: Maybe that’s what the pumping was about

Brad: The whistle from below draws your attention. There are vehicles heading your way. A halftrack, a couple of motorcycles. And three buses.

ref move: start some shit

JB: Oh, and I’ll look down since Duarte whistled. Yikes.

JB: “I think we better leave”

Brad: The water runs off the sphere like water off a sphere.

JB: Very funny, Infocom parser

Brad: How about we break there? A little early but the newcomers threaten a relatively complex response.