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 itch.io.


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 itch.io. 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?

intense play in sand dogs

Yeah we had some intense play and some interesting flexing of the rules yesterday. Here are some high points. I’m paraphrasing in all cases:

Scene: our heroes have come to the edge of a clearing as they track their nemesis, Harrison. From cover they see Harrison and three flunkies talking to two bug monsters (bug monsters so far have been very friendly) and the bugs have weapons on Harrison et al.

Toph: I approach under a white flag offering to explain the situation.

Me: Hmm, okay, well that’s clearly SOCIALIZE…

Toph: No, I don’t want to explain the situation. I’m trying to get close enough to murder Harrison.

Me: Ah. Normally I’d call that VIOLENCE but I think here what’s really important is the deception. So MISCHIEF. And the risk is CONFUSION.

So what’s interesting here? Well, obviously the first thing is that the actual intent of the player wasn’t stated clearly at first and so there was some necessary back and forth to get at the nub of the action. This is good: there are conflicting instincts at play. On the one hand you want your text to be a good read, to be poetic, and to preserve secrets until the last moment. But also you want to be absolutely clear what method to bring to bear. So we go back and forth a little to get there.

One of Harrison’s punks, now defunct.

So Toph’s character Jesus gets close enough and rams their strange artifact, the “pliant fuzz” down Harrison’s throat. The power and function of an alien artifact is mostly narrative: it’s incomprehensible, it has some properties that are absurd but well defined. The rest is in the hands of the players. So they can inexplicably serve the narrative already established by the dice with complete freedom. Here’s what’s certainly true about the pliant fuzz: its mass is much much higher than it should be and it’s dangerous. The results when successfully murdering someone with it are spectacular (and cause CONFUSION since that risk was realized): Harrison dies horribly, the fuzz explodes all over things, those with guns all open fire, grenades go off, everyone runs for cover.

Fun stuff.

The next point that was illuminating was when Dune’s character Duarte opens fire with an alien gun on Harrison’s remaining cohorts. He knows nothing about the gun and it has 3d6 — that means you get a lot of dice but they all kind of suck. There’s a lot of room for risks to get realized but also succeed.

Dune: I fire the vegetable gun at Harrison’s men! I wonder what it does?

Me: Okay that’s VIOLENCE obviously, with a risk of CONFUSION [I figure the gun is noisy and makes a lot of vapour].

Dune: [rolls dice and gets success with risk]

Now this is part of a montage and I’m juggling the actions of three different people roughly at the same time. I realize at this point that another character’s action is much better if it risks CONFUSION and that Dune’s action is obviously better risking SPILLOVER.

Me: I think SPILLOVER is better here actually. You open fire and there is a huge eruption of noise and vapour. Thousands of 15cm quills are launched into the clearing killing all of Harrison’s men and one of the two bug people.

Dune: Oh no!

I goofed. I shouldn’t change the risk after the roll since declaring the risk is an opportunity for the character to change their actions. And the players are really fond of the bug people so this result is actually quite traumatic. It’s also a really powerful and unexpected twist in the story which is exactly what the system is supposed to deliver.

So if there was an X-Card on the table I wouldn’t have been too concerned — I would expect Dune to tap it if this was unacceptable (which would have been totally reasonable either because it was too cruel or because I got the rules twisted up). But we don’t generally play with one in this particular group (there is already a very high level of trust) so I am a little on eggshells over this result. What to do?

Talk it out. I explain the problem. We talk about X-Cards. Dune assures me that he doesn’t need an X-Card in order to tell me to back the fuck up — that is, we do have an X-Card in that everyone agrees they are fine with stopping play at any time if it goes down a path they are not cool with.

Relief. I thought we had that relationship but I haven’t clarified it. Clarifying it takes a load off me: we actually do play with the X-Card just not literally and I didn’t know for sure we did. Now I do. And I also know now that if I ever run a con game or otherwise set up for people I don’t know, I will use the X-Card at least because it starts that conversation before it’s necessary.

You can get Sand Dogs when it’s ready. It’s one of a series of games set in the multiverse of the Soft Horizon, and you can get the first one, The King Machine, now.