Soft Horizon SRD

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.

Resolution procedure

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:

die result
1-3 fail and risk is realised
4-6 succeed but risk is realised
7-9 succeed
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

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.

Playing safely

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.

script change

By Brie Sheldon. This is a rich tool set and sees heavy use at conventions.

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.


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.

A bond

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.

A flashback

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.

An organization

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.

Instigating action

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>












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 (”
  • 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.


Version 20190205-1906

Soft Horizon SRD (2)


terror of the scientific sun

I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20.
I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.

It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.

I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.

What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.

Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.

For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.

During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.

My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.

When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.

asskickBut the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?

These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.

The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and hoe it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.

The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.

ally zombieAnd finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.

So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.

It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.


The King Machine is available in print from Lulu, in PDF and print from DTRPG, and in PDF only (50% off until March 2019) at


nanite-borg-gold-detail logoTime for a little experiment. While there is not a lot of choice for hardcopy publishing, there are choices for digital. And, better, some give much better margins than the Big Place For Game PDFs You Already Know About.

So I’m adding the non-Fate VSCA offerings to a storefront at If it seems useful and if the operators there seem responsive to the special needs of role-playing game sales, I’ll add more.

For the month of February, have 50% off there. I’ll post the Soft Horizon SRD there when the latest rev goes public.

Thanks as always for your support. Patreon is paying off, keeping the game-related bills paid and that’s a huge relief. The King Machine is selling, slowly, but increasingly, and I think when Sand Dogs comes out (which is a more mainstream setting) we’ll get even more traction.

Love to you all!

new school old school

Sure, OSR lacks a decent definition. Many have tried. Let’s not try again.

A lot of attention gets paid to the mechanisms and the meta-mechanisms, things like stats & skills; roll to hit, roll for damage; hex maps; rulings not rules; and like that. But that might be a little superficial — after all, I think every one of us has occasionally found a game that hits a sweet spot while at the same time having mechanisms we thought we would dislike. What is that sweet spot, and what would it look like on an OSR game?

Now, I’m pretty old and was teethed on Basic Dungeons & Dragons. I played Traveller and Twilight:2000 well into the 80s. Later I’d get back into gaming and it would be D&D again. I know the old school. I grew up there and I literally taught there.

I find, though, that my game design does not map on to that old school game design at all, but my play does map onto my old school play. So I’d like to wonder out loud about that now.

The Soft Horizon system is sort of powered by (more set off by) the apocalypse. But there are no playbooks. Instead there’s a very simple skill system — there’s a small set of skills (we call them methods, but whatever) and you have all of them at some level or another. That’s because I like my character definition generalizable — I want a set of blocks to fit together to make who I want to play. I don’t really want classes and playbooks smell of classes to me. Again, leaning more towards Traveller in some ways, but definitely Old. But even that’s a little superficial. I talked about how play is old school, and not specific system elements.

Map.pngA critical element of play for me is exploration. Characters are going to new places and solving problems there, both their own problems and the problems of the people they meet. By my recollection of old school gaming I have to place exploration, whether revealing the contents of hexes or just narrating a new space to be, as an element of the OSR. You don’t need a literal map (it’s only one tool that enables this function). You just need the game to have a focus on exploration in some form.

Another element is discovery. This goes hand in hand with exploration but I more mean finding out secret knowledge, making connections between disparate things. Unveiling mysteries to discover more mysteries. In Soft Horizon games I make this happen in very different ways than in my old gaming days — instead of the ref inventing it, the system delivers it or tricks the ref into delivering it at the last minute — but it’s the same objective, the same function.

biostorm.pngAnd then there’s wonder. You discover something truly fucked up. You develop an image in your head that’s mind-blowing. A seeming contradiction reveals that the whole universe is not quite what you thought. It’s that pot-smokers whoooah moment that makes everyone sit back a second and take it onboard. And then start spewing wild theories for the why of it. That wonder comes from making sense of contradiction and from everyone being surprised at once. Ref included. That’s something that many struggle to find and it’s not in the basic mechanisms of a world simulator. It might be in your awesome cover image or interior illustrations. It might be in some fiction. But those only happen once each and then you’re done. A system that’s really, solidly OSR needs to deliver it reliably. It needs to be intentional. I don’t know how well I solved this but goddamn I took a stab at it.

So there is a way, I think, that these games are OSR in spirit. They are hand made. They favour player development of character. They lean into exploration and discovery to reveal wonder. The target play is OSR. I for sure found a mechanism that does it for me, every time. I have no reason to believe that you are all that different.

soft horizontal monsters

Currently there is no mechanical representation of monsters, enemies, gods, traps, or anything really. I’d like to keep that but perhaps monsters (as a generic term) can be represented as a set of narrative cues instead. That is, they don’t have a mechanical response but they tell certain kinds of stories. Consider:

  • Monster name
  • Description
  • Amusing quote (following the MtG pattern perhaps)
  • Introductions
  • Risks

Let’s look at the two that aren’t obvious, introductions and risks.

Introductions are ways the thing is introduced to the party. They are narrative diversions and slot into the ref’s prep areas of “start some shit” and “create a hazard”. They are cues for the ref that can be brought in on the fly. Let’s have an example monster.

Muck Cell (aka Jellysand)

ochre jelly.png
Hmm, this one seems to be occupied.

The muck cell is a huge single-celled organism that devours everything it comes in contact with. It disguises itself by hiding under a thin layer of earth or vegetation. If it has already devoured something recently its digestive power is reduced.

“You escape with some bad chemical burns on your thighs and you have no trousers now.”


  • Someone stepped in it. RESCUE is required.
  • Everyone is suddenly attacked at once. Time for a MONTAGE.


  • HARM: someone gets badly burned. The digestive system of the beast has burned or partially dissolved a character.
  • COST: something important gets dissolved. Some loot is ruined or create a DEBT based on something lost that’s close to a character’s heart.
  • CONFUSION: fleeing in terror leaves everyone lost. This thing is terrifying but not too fast. The whole party might be lost or it might be split up.
  • REVELATION: this thing has eaten something or someone you care about recently. This is a chance to poignantly reveal the death of a beloved NPC. What is the impact of that on the story? Go in that direction now.

So introductions are purely narration: this is what happens when you encounter the thing. We’ll provide some options so that there are different ways to stumble upon it. They imply, however, a mechanical impact, an action that might need to be taken. This shouldn’t be taken as gospel however! Let the narration take its course and see what happens. It may well be that the players find another way to approach the problem. If not, use the recommendation here.

Similarly, risks are ideas for how to put risk on the actions that follow. These might not work if the narration plays out other than expected: they are there to give you something to fall back on and a way to plan if you feel you prefer to plan a little more than me.

As with out ref prep sheet, these monster sheets are ideas. Cues. Ways to spark your own creativity but also something to lean on if your creativity falters. They are there to reduce your stress.

creative burdens: invention and interpretation

Having talked previously about creative burdens, let’s break them down in the Soft Horizon.

There are two kinds of creative burden demanded from players in the Soft Horizon and (as expected) they vary by role: the ref has different demands from the other players.

During character creation, players must interpret their organization’s remit and specifiers to describe an organization that bonds them together and supplies an immediate goal. Let’s say you have rolled Commercial (remit), Industrial (specifier), and Secret (specifier). Player must now invent an organization that is fundamentally a profit-seeking entity and whose niche is industrial activity. And it’s a secret! They need to wonder what a secret commercial entity is (maybe its true purpose is the only secret?). They need to decide how one makes money off of industry and what kind of industry. And they need to think about industrial secrets. Pulling these three oracles together to create a description of their organization is the first significant creative burden in the game.

A very small land, high up, warm and serene, connected to the nearest other land by a flowing body of water.

The ref at least, though often all players, will develop a community along similar lines — they will interpret a set of oracles. So me might have oracles “enormous and needs gods”, “lowlands, cold and obscure”, “far from other lands”, and “occasional airship traffic”. We have a relatively isolated, enormous, low altitude flying mountain that needs gods. From this the ref will pile on some interpretation and make it connect to the organization and the characters.

When play begins, the ref will have filled out a prep sheet for themselves which summarizes their inventions and interpretations going into play. They will create the following:

  • An interpretation of the player organization’s big problem. For a commercial organization the cue is that profits are low. The ref will interpret this in the context of a community and create a specific problem that is immediate.
  • An invention of one or more fronts. Using the existing facts, imagine some opposition to the characters’ purpose or interests.
  • An invention of one idea to start some shit: a conflict to throw in the mix if things slow down.
  • An invention of one possible deadline to introduce.
  • An invention of one possible hazard to inflict.
  • An interpretation of one player’s bond as a problem.
  • An interpretation of one player’s scar as a problem.
  • An invention of an interesting NPC.

This list will get updated before every session. Each entry is a sentence or less–just enough to trigger the concept for the ref in play.

So much for pre-play play.

During play there is the usual conversation improvisation that is fundamentally interpretation of all existing data. This is highly creative and hopefully leads to conflicts which will generate more data for interpretation. The ref is also jump-starting things with information from the ref’s prep sheet which they will interpret in the context of the existing conversation to liven things up.

During a conflict the ref will invent a risk. They are cued by the type but the exact nature of the fallout that will happen if the risk is realized is their invention. This is, to me, the heaviest creative burden on the ref in this game and also the most fun. The risk is revelation, for example: what will be revealed that no one expected (not even the ref until now) if things don’t go exactly as planned? A betrayal perhaps? This is immediate improvisational creation in the ref’s hands.

Players will interpret their methods, their bonds, their loot, and their scars to develop the narration of the conflict and at the same time seek greater advantage. And in Sand Dogs, they may interpret a flashback cue to narrate a whole scene from their past that has bearing on the current conflict.

Those are the main creative burdens on the players in the Soft Horizon. There is no creative burden to create new rules or interpret new rules from existing rules (no rule zero). There is very limited creative burden to create an “adventure”. There is no burden to create maps or stat monsters or balance encounters.

The location of the creative burden is definitive. This is what makes this game what it is.

locating the creative burden

Arguably all RPGs place some creative burden on someone. It’s practically what they do: leave stuff out for the players to fill in. I feel like a critical difference between a role-playing game and a board game is exactly that: a space where there are no rules and yet there must be play.

Games like D&D (and many OSR games) are sometimes derided for where they place this creative burden: the whole “rulings not rules” is exactly a declaration of where the burden lies. It lies at least partly in the ref’s lap as the ref is expected to choose rules and even to fabricate rules on the fly in order to mediate play. One could see this as a defect, as an incomplete game, but if I’m right that all RPGs leave some creative burden somewhere then this is just a design choice and not a defect. No one “forgot” to put rules there. The rules are absent or partial in order to supply a specific kind of creative space for someone at the table. Hence, I would argue, the diversity of tastes in RPGs. Maybe even the diversity of RPGs as a whole.

Forced to think about that, of course I need to think specifically about the creative load that Soft Horizon games force on players. And now that I have this formulation, this perspective in my head it’s a design tool. Doing anything deliberately is a tool for design, and understanding what your options are extends what you do deliberately. Because I guarantee that if you are designing a role-playing game you are certainly placing creative burdens in specific places. You just might not have thought about it in those terms. You probably do it intuitively. Now you can look it in the eyes.

In Soft Horizon the critical place where we lay out a creative burden is on the ref when setting the risks. When a conflict is asserted a method and a risk are chosen. Choosing the risk is easy: you just choose between harm, cost, waste, confusion, revelation, delay, spillover, and ineffectiveness. That’s no burden. But as referee what you need to do next is plan in your head what will happen if that risk gets realized. That’s your creative load. It’s immediate and it’s improvisational. It’s where the ref brings skill to the game.

Whoah watch the range! You might HARM yourself.

Some are easy. If we’re risking harm then someone’s going to get wounded. Same with cost — someone gets a debt. Those are your easy outs.

Spillover is almost easy. Someone who’s not a player character nor an enemy is going to get hurt. Or something is. You need some creative juice to make this have an impact but not much: an innocent coming to harm already carries weight.

Waste usually springs to mind because you already have an idea. You get in a firefight with risk waste and your gasoline tanks are all punctured. Someone throws a grenade in your water supply. Something you need is gone.

Confusion will mean that player characters no longer have clarity about what’s going on. The easiest to come up with on the fly is them getting lost. But it might also mean that they no longer know friend from foe. Or even who they are (a short term amnesia might be a confusion result). You can be a little creative with this risk.

Delay is only interesting if someone has a timeline. If they do have a timeline, this one will spring to mind instantly and often because almost every conflict does delay. Your creative burden is to make a delay relevant.

The most interesting is revelation: the conflict outcome will reveal something unexpected. This can be hard because the best ones are ones you, the ref, weren’t planning either. These can make the campaign take a hard turn into new territory which is refreshing as hell. It’s also easy to shy away from, to protect yourself from derailing your own plans. I would encourage you to embrace it, let the system drive off your rails. That’s what it’s for.

That’s not the only place where a creative burden is placed on the players, but it’s the most deliberate, it’s the most intentional. It’s there for a reason. It’s there to challenge me, when I play, with something I’m pretty good at and keeps me from doing things I’m comfortable with. There are plenty of other examples, though, because it’s the heart of any role-playing game: when does it demand the players make shit up? That’s what we’re here for.

So in the “rulings not rules” discussion my problem with where the creative burden lies in D&D and similar is not that it feels under-designed. It’s that it places the creative demand inside the system instead of inside the story. The question it demands I answer is “how do we make the system handle this” and not “what’s the story here”? This is obviously just a matter of taste when you see it in this light.

So where is the creative burden in your favourite game?