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.

powers in the soft horizon

JB planted this seed in my head and now it is growing.

In the Soft Horizon system there are a couple of things that happen as characters advance and they aren’t perfect. First, you tend to just get better at things and so eventually you fail less. And that means that some major steam in the system leaks out. That’s no good.

Second, your advancement lacks diversity. Sure you can advance specializations, but even that is just getting better and better. You are refining your capabilities but not really expanding them. Since we want the Soft Horizon to eventually get downright magical, advancement should nicely lead us there.

So JB suggested some exceptional abilities. Stunts, if you must, but let’s not call them that. Powers maybe. So try this:

Once you have a d12, you open up the ability to gain Powers with advancement.

Whenever you roll an advancement you can instead add a Power. Your d12 takes you well out of the ordinary and into the legendary. You are being revealed as a citizen of the multiverse and not just your home plane.

So far in my head, Powers are just selected from a list. I’d like them to be generateable somehow but I’m still thinking about that.

A first effort would be to make them literally exceptional — a power lets you break a rule. So let’s look at a few of those:

Saviour. When you heal a community’s wound you get a scar with that community. As with pillar, it extends by healing more communities.

Leader. On a legendary success you can introduce an NPC that saves the day. They are your pal. Add a bond with that NPC. Tell us more about them. Again this extends by adding more NPCs. This is not strictly a power that increases your ability but rather it makes more people who know and love you. It extends your narrative persepctives by adding more people.

Inventor. On a legendary success you can introduce some Loot that solves the problem. You get that loot. Describe it. Give it dice (either 3d6 or 1d8). Take this multiple times to improve the loot. Loot scale: (3d6 or 1d8), 2d8, 1d10, 2d10, 1d12

Ascend and get your crocodile head and halo today!

Ascend. You achieve your true form. You get a new head. You are no longer a citizen of any specific place. You realize a new purpose. Add a debt.

Tough as nails. One of your wounds does not count against your muscle skill. I think this can increase in the obvious way: take it again and your first two wounds are ignored. This starts to put you in superhero territory pretty fast!

Will of steel. One of your debts does not count against your mind rolls. As with tough as nails, this increases in an obvious fashion.

Planewalk. You can shift to a new plane. Describe how that happens. This might need a session limit (like once per session). Can you take someone else? I think you have to, really, for the game to work (preserve party integrity). How might it increase though? Maybe the next step allows you to open a gate for a period of time in which anyone can come through? The time period expands perhaps?

Pillar of the community. When you heal a community’s debt you get a bond with that community. Because this is a bond on your character sheet, you can use it even in circumstances that have nothing to do with that particular community: people have heard of you and your deeds and respond to that. I think this logically extends by simply bonding with more communities.

I think these things might chain — maybe you need to Ascend in order to unlock some powers?

Any further thoughts?


The Soft Horizon is a series of games. Currently The King Machine is available (and it’s really really good), Sand Dogs is coming soon, and the Handbook is being assembled — soon Patrons will have a glimpse.

gods, demigods, and heroes

What if gods have nothing whatsoever to do with people?

I don’t mean that they ignore them or refuse to commune with them. I mean that they have no relationship with humans at all?

We’ve invented gods largely as explanations. We have gods of things, gods that explain lightning, famine, plague. And as we’ve added our own explanations through observation and analysis, our gods have become more esoteric but still explicative, now chased into the remote corners of spaces unknowable. Gods now explain why we exist, what comes after, and guarantee that there is a point. They are present to give a face to a concept and to let us know that there is a plan, that it’s all fine, that there are reasons.

So what would a god look like who is not any of those things?

In Sand Dogs the tombs that stud the desert are the places where gods dwell. I was going to say “the homes of gods” but that’s not really right because the gods don’t have homes. They aren’t sitting inside the tomb watching Deity TV. They don’t have lunch. They are just in there somewhere, inert, for reasons of their own. And these gods are unfathomable. Not unfathomable in the sense that they know so much and have a plan that’s just too complex for us. Unfathomable in the sense that they are thinking and doing things that are not just beyond us to understand because we are too simple, but they are beyond us to understand because they have nothing to do with us. They have bigger fish to fry and at different time scales (and directions).

This god thought that Leonardo da Vinci was a good touchstone for all humans but also decided that the most important bit was the beard and not the face. And what are eyes even FOR anyway?

That doesn’t mean that they don’t intersect with us. They do. We will meet gods in Sand Dogs and they will be strange and weirdly half approachable. They make an effort to seem humanish but they are bad at it. They will choose icons from our histories (and from histories that don’t exist in our world but do exist in others with humans in them) and sort of be like them physically. Sort of. They will make strange choices that to them make perfect sense. But they appear humanoid only so as to make the meeting and communication slightly less bizarre and not because they have motivations that have anything to do with us.

Gods travel the planes at will. Since there are infinite planes there are multiples of that infinity of purposes for gods. Since humans do no appear on all those planes and even where they do, those humans have nothing to do with you, gods can have incredibly rich, compassionate, intense feelings for people somewhere. Just not here and not you. Imagine an entymologist with a passion for the ticks that live off reindeer in Siberia. Now imagine that scientist on vacation in Mexico, lying on the beach, bothered by sand fleas. You are the sand flea and not the tick. The scientist is not near you on business and even if they were, you would not be that business.

Gods leave garbage lying around. It’s just stuff they don’t need any more. Its purpose is as unknowable to you as their thoughts. But this stuff has properties. It has behaviours. But from your perspective and like the gods, they lack a purpose. Or rather whatever their purpose is, it’s not a purpose that intersects with your needs. But their incidental properties might! Or might not. In fact this garbage might be crazy dangerous. What does a god care? Yes this is drawn very much from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel, Roadside Picnic and it’s important. It asks what a story looks like that’s just not about us? What if our story is the story of intersecting with this other narrative, this impenetrable story, that has nothing at all to do with us? Our story is still important (the most important) but we are forced to confront the fact that not everything is about us.

And this is intended to be consternating. We want the story to be about us. Not just our story but their story. And so we bend a little. We invite the characters, eventually, into the grander story.

And at that point, perhaps, they too become as gods.

doing well

mood.pngSometimes I am doing what I’m good at but not having any fun doing it. Now my father would tell me that sometimes it’s not any fun, any of it, but it still needs to get done. But what I’m good at should be fun. Right?

But maybe sometimes it’s just the case that nothing’s fun and that’s a brain problem not a fun problem.

I am fortunate, however, in that there are at least three things that I’m good at and when one is not fun it’s often the case that another is. My craving for novelty is so shallow that the other thing is novel enough.

I’m good at making games. At least, I’m good at making games that I like to play (and that’s good enough for me). And so when the other two falter I can often get in the groove and write and lay out that game. Since I now have several games in the pipeline I’m no longer in a situation where I am wondering what to do. There’s plenty to do.

When that’s dragging (like when I have a ton of tables to typeset and fuck that) I can still lean on work. At work I design software systems — multiple components that communicate together to solve a problem — to ensure the security of a safety-critical infrastructure. That’s pretty exciting. There are a lot of similarities with game design, actually, and not just because there’s a crapton of writing that needs to get done. It also involves problem analysis and breaking out solutions that work together to meet those needs. It involves finding components that work together without being so coupled to each other that changing one destroys the other. It involves finding a method to turn a complicated issue into a series of executable and explainable solutions. And it involves a lot of explaining. And math.

And when all that’s dragging I draw. I’m not a great artist (not fishing here — I know enough about illustration to know my limitations) but I love doing it. It requires little to no initial analysis. It needs no words. It’s just a matter of moving an image from inside my head to outside my head. And while it happens I get to enjoy the media I use. Drawing is simple, tactile, emotional fun.

Interestingly, when I fall back on drawing, when nothing else at all is fun, it breaks the barrier. Not always but often. When the drawing is done something plugged is unplugged. The other things seem fun again.

So thank you joyless paladin, unable to be excited by the heroic swing because of the burden, the loss of momentum, and the inadequate rewards. You summarized the mood and invalidated at the same time. That’s heroic.

What this means is that Sand Dogs layout is back on track.

Postscript: yesterday The King Machine was the deal of the day at DTRPG. We sold a lot (relatively I mean) of copies. It was marked up so hard that not a lot of money got made but far more importantly there are more eyeballs on the pages. If you got a copy, I hope you dig it. If you dig it I hope you shout out about it. I hope you play it. I hope it brings you joy. It was a joy and a relief to make.


auto-observational design

Playtesting is always full of opportunities. Let’s look at two different things and see how they come together because of play and offer a design method. Not the only one, not a whole methodology, but rather a tool for your toolbox.

In the current Sand Dogs playtest our intrepid heroes have left the world. So they are pretty much done with the Sand Dogs concept except as it impacted their character creation and development to date. New world! They are chasing the slaver Harrison who turns out to be a planewalker and since they freed his slaves and broke up his gang, he’s looking for greener pastures.

So I have to make a new world.

This is great because the next Soft Horizon book is to be the handbook which tells you how to make worlds. And I don’t know exactly how to do that yet. But I am an experienced referee of role-playing games and I’ve developed settings before. I have the intuitive talents to do this already.

The opportunity here is to design observationally. I have an artistic intuition about how to proceed but I need to formalize it so others can reproduce it. I could start by imagining a process but in this case there’s a more fertile possibility: I can just watch how I do what I do naturally and take notes.

I’ll work in cycles here — make a thing and then look back over what I did and turn it into a process. Now, I’m not done yet so I can’t tell you the whole process, but I can talk about the meta process — the process of developing the process.

The new world started with an image that I dropped on the table in a panic at the end of the last session as the characters arrived in a new world: it’s a jungle and there’s a huge ziggurat and it’s at the end of a long straight path of churned up earth: the ziggurat appears to have moved albeit very slowly.
Seriously that’s all I have to work with here.

But hang on let’s start there if that’s what we start with. We start with an image. How do you get an image? Imagine a place with at least two things that don’t fit together. When I think about how I got to that bit of loopy ad lib, I realize that’s what I did: invented a contradiction. A mobile building. A fixed structure that isn’t.

So now I have to wonder, what’s a good way to get to that? And how exactly did I do it? This is the meta-process: when you ad lib something cool, look back on your own process. How did you get there? Can you make that a procedure? Can you mechanize that, at least in part, so someone else can reproduce it? You did it. Tell other people how. That’s how writing game texts works.

Oracles of course.

My brain kicks out some random shit and I try to make sense of it. That’s the frame we build this house on: some random crap that you have to make sense of. That’s the heart of every great Traveller session: how the hell can there be a population of billions with stone age technology on a world with no air? Don’t start with “that’s stupid”. Start with “how do we explain that?” That’s where creativity thrives. Don’t block, as the improv folks say. Make it work.

So to start with I want to emulate the random crap generator that’s in my head. I talked before about using oracles and the random noun generator and that’s the model.

Start with a couple of random words. For the game text we’ll call them “elements” and we’ll have some mechanism to deliver them. Probably they’ll be printed in the margin of the book so you can flip to a random page and get an oracle. That’s pretty much an exact model for my brain anyway. But for now here’s the start of the process: get two random words. For my new world those are “wild” and “wander”. Everything about this world is going to be about either wildness or wandering or both. If there are fixed structures they wander. If there are civilizations, they are wild.

And there’s clue two: find the contradiction and develop that. If your element is “water” start thinking about things that can’t be water and make them water. Hunt the contradictions. That’s where the meat is.

A sartorial adventurer.

The next thing I did was draw. I want the players to immediately meet someone so that the world can be introduced through the eyes of someone who knows how it works. And whenever I do that I start drawing. So I drew this … person.

Obviously I’m not going to write a procedure that forces you to draw. That’s not practical. But at the heart of my instinct to draw were a couple of things: again I want an image. And I also want someone to meet, someone through whom the players can experience the world as a native. And so this is that person. But what can I tell you to do? And how did I get to this thing in the first place?

But maybe I’m missing the heart of this. Maybe the heart of this isn’t that I drew a cool insect guy. Maybe the heart is: create a non-player character to meet who illuminates the weirdness of this world. Yes, that’s what it is. That’s the next step. My personal process is to draw them first but that’s not the important part. Invent this character and then think about how they fit into this weird world. What does it imply about the culture? What does this character do from day to day? Is that typical (awesome, now we know a lot about the culture)? Is it weird? That’s awesome too because whatever it denies about the culture (making it weird) is just the complement of what the culture is. As long as the character is extreme one way or another, we can derive What People Here Do. At least some of them.

Obviously there will be more and more material but the important part is the meta part: if you do something intuitively then analyze it and figure out what a procedure might be for other people to replicate it. Maybe not your procedure exactly but one that gets close to it. Think hard about how you think hard and write it down.

oracles for everyone

Okay here’s something I’ve done since forever. So long now that it seems obvious but it’s not. And it’s an RPG superpower if you’re the kind of ref that’s doing a lot of creating. I’ve touched on it before with respect to the tarot, but it’s far more general than that. I also embed it into games now.

Often all you need to get going is one kernel of an idea. Not a good idea and not a whole idea. Just an idea. And if you give yourself two, that’s even better. Once you have a couple of things (let’s call them nouns) you’ll find that your creative brain can take over — why do they work together, how do they clash — and build something interesting.

So let’s say you want to create a new monster. As with anything you want it to be about something, to have a theme, to have some cohesion. What I find (and find in others) is that if I start with a blank page I fall back on good ideas I had in the past. That’s fine, those ideas are still good,  but I really want new ideas. I want things I haven’t thought of before. And the best way to do that is randomness.

Out in the interverse there are tons of noun generators. They just pick from a random list of nouns. This turns out to be the most useful thing ever. Now, keep in mind that not all nouns are created equal. In fact only about one in five is worth your attention. But if you set that generator to make ten at a time and click a couple of times you’ll find two that excite you together.

These are oracles. Random words that trigger more creative work. You start with a context (monster, plane, city, disaster, whatever), you generate the oracle (or oracles) and then create.

Let’s make a monster for a wrecked space station (always have a context). This is not pre-cooked so it’s a genuine test of whether this works or not. It doesn’t always.

First run of ten I get:

  • Begonia
  • Chit-chat
  • Choice
  • Cost
  • Lion
  • Motion
  • Oval
  • Production
  • Vacation
  • Welcome

Lion is the obvious one so I’ll skip it. I’m torn, weirdly, between “welcome” and “motion”. “chit-chat” and “choice” are luring me too. Let’s take “welcome”.

Second run I get:

  • Cylinder
  • Diploma
  • Drum
  • Glut
  • Jam
  • Karate
  • Membership
  • Plot
  • Somersault
  • Tsunami

I like “cylinder” here, though I’m also thinking cool things with “tsunami” and “drum”. But let’s stick with “welcome cylinder”.

This is a pretty straightforward one. I’m picturing a hovering metal cylinder that’s designed as a kind of maitre d’hotel, a greeting bot. It’s smooth, featureless, because it’s designed to be deployed in a formal setting and it can be decorated as needed. Its sole job is to make people comfortable in their surroundings, to anticipate their needs, and get them situated.

IMG_20170907_131718But this is a monster. So it used to be a greeting bot.  Now it’s out of place in this context I’m trying to populate with monsters. Let’s say it’s a wrecked space station. So one of the things that still works in this damaged and decaying space station is the greeting bot. It really wants you to take a seat in the dining lounge. It’s very powerful, with effectors that can push and pull you with great strength. And the dining lounge is formal attire only — black tie, no space suits.

But the dining lounge is in vacuum.

Well that worked out! I got more than just a monster, I got a whole story. Oracles are magic.

I use these a lot in Soft Horizon games — there are a bunch of tables that are designed to just give you cues. For example, in Sand Dogs, one of the conceits is that the gods who sleep in the tombs have left their garbage around and it’s all intensely weird, unknowable. All anyone can know about a piece of godjunk is what it looks like and how it obviously interacts with its surroundings. Yes this is directly from the Strugatsky brothers but it’s not new to them. And this is still in flux but here’s what we have right now — there’s actually more but we start with rolling two descriptors, an adjective and a noun. Roll for each:

  1. Empty * Container
  2. Blue * Spindle
  3. Full * Page
  4. Jittering * Fuzz
  5. Golden * Ring
  6. Round * Cover
  7. Black * Limb
  8. Dead * Eye
  9. Ceramic * Engine
  10. Pliant * Tube

So if I roll 3,9 I have a strange artifact best described as a “full engine”. What is that? What does it look like? What does it do when it’s just sitting there.

There are more tables to help figure out what it “does”. Maybe it heats up, maybe it repels things, maybe it just hovers there. The point is, it’s weird, it’s inexplicable, and maybe it’s useful. Even if I can’t think of a use for it, I bet the players can.

In the Soft Horizon handbook there will be more general oracles. Certainly each plane will have an element, a single overarching concept that determines everything else about the plane. In fact since its inception this has been the one thing Soft Horizon has always had — planes have a theme, an element. An oracle.

soft horizon: the basics

Capuchin scout
In The King Machine you can play a capuchin monkey. I mean seriously, what else do you need to know?

At the heart of the games The King Machine (available now) and Sand Dogs (available soon) is the Soft Horizon system. This system is designed just for me: it eases my stress as ref.

The heart of the resolution system is very simple, and very amenable to play by text chat (which is how we playtest). Every character has nine stats (or skills or whatever) called methods. Each is assigned a die, either a d6, a d8, a d10, or a d12 (but you need to advance quite a bit to get one of those).

When the conversation of role-playing reaches a logical conflict that merits resolution, the dice come out. Based on the narration first (please don’t search your character sheet and tell me “I use Socialize” — tell me what you do and we’ll work out the method together) an appropriate method is selected. The player gets that die to bring to the pool.

Then the ref will set the risk. This is stolen entirely from Rob Donohue who is a genius. Don’t worry, I told him I was stealing it. It’s not the first time I stole it but it’s the best time I ever stole it. The risk determines what’s going to happen if things go bad. It’s nice for everyone to know this up front.

Then we figure out who else can help. Does someone else have a story to offer that merits addition of one of their methods? Maybe someone has some loot to deploy in the situation (loot has dice too).

All the dice are rolled. The highest die determines the result (this is a lie — actually the player who started all this chooses the die because there are sometimes reasons to choose a die other than the highest). This is simple:

1-3: fail and the risk is realised

4-6: succeed and the risk is realised

7-9: succeed with no strings attached

10-12: succeed legendarily

Realising risk drives the game forwards. It creates new plot twists (revelation, for example, reveals some new information no one expected including the ref). It changes or adds motivations (harm gets you wounded and that becomes a priority to resolve since it reduces the die on half your methods). This is just for me: I like to ad lib but I need a cue and this system keeps the cues flying. If you are the kind of ref that plans a lot in advance, this game will not work for you: the system itself will drive off your rails.

Because the system drives the narrative, the ref’s preparation is simple: list some ideas for what to do in a lull. Here’s the actual cheat sheet for the ref:










Start some shit is fed by preparing a few simple fronts, a streamlined version of the same thing found in, say, Dungeon World.

Set a deadline triggers a countdown clock towards some event. When play addresses the event on the horizon, it doesn’t tick. Whenever someone answers “What do you do?” with something that doesn’t address it, the clock ticks down. Until it happens.

Create a hazard invites you to simply demonstrate how dangerous the world is. Sandstorm, someone slips on the mountain pass, whatever. If the players had their characters in a dangerous environment, this is when you show them how dangerous.

Call in a bond triggers a feature on the character sheet: a bond is a connection between a character and someone else. And that someone else needs your help.

Make a scar a problem triggers a different kind of character feature: when characters heal their wounds they get scars. These can be used to advantage, but the ref can also stir up trouble with that alien artifact you use as a prosthetic hand.

Introduce someone interesting is your chance to bring in that NPC you love. The cheat sheet is where you make that note so you don’t lose your cool character idea. It may never happen, may never be the right time, but this sheet is your quiver and that mechanic who loves to gamble and knows where the rocket launchers are kept is your arrow.

Dry up a resource is any idea you have for making things scarce. Being out of gas or water or food in the middle of the wilderness demands attention.

Recall a missed hook is really just for me. I have a tendency to leave weird shit on the table. An explosion destroys the house you’re all in and although you are largely unscathed the place is levelled. Except for a very fragile looking vase. Now that’s a hook in plain sight but players often miss them. Leave them there, don’t press it. But use this to bring it back into play if things get slow.

Make it night is there to avoid Endless Day Syndrome. Sometimes a game that propels itself just keeps going: there seems like no good moment to break in and get some sleep. So force it in a lull. And maybe that’s when some shit gets started.

The point of these is to reduce my stress. I need a palette of simple one sentence or even one word ideas to draw from in a lull. I have to say though that the system generates so much ongoing movement that I rarely have to pull one out. Mostly the players generate all the plot I need to keep things moving at a very fast pace.

Obviously there’s more to these games than this and each has its own setting-specific variations and oracles to help get into the feel of the game. But this is the core and if you know this you can sit down and play. You can pretty much sit down and run it.