soft horizon status

The Soft Horizon project is in full swing, of course. I’ll recap the concept: I want to make a game that echoed my experiences reading Heavy Metal when I was younger — I want games that produced a similar kind of psychedelic anything goes (but not gonzo) experience. And I want there to be many places, many “issues” to play through. I want both Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius and The Immortal’s Fête and these are very different. And I want characters to ultimately move between them — visit different planes. And I want it to feel…serious. Serious in the way Heavy Metal often felt serious even though it’s not actually all that serious. Not “let’s talk about politics and relationships” serious but with real-seeming goals and real-seeming opposition and solutions that felt practical or even necessary. Not comic, maybe, is all that I can say. Yet potentially absurd.

Soft Horizon character Kar
Very early character sheet for Soft Horizon.

I experimented with a lot of ways to do this starting in 2009 or so. World generation re-using Diaspora, for example, was tested. It was cool but not quite right. Bolting the whole thing onto Fate was tested, but I kind of grew away from Fate. The feeling was too generic and the system more fiddly than I wanted. I wanted something that would cater to the same sort of creative energy I had writing my stream-of-consciousness novel, Myriad. It’s a bad novel. I’m serializing it at the Patreon page because it’s kind of fun serialized. But it’s not a good novel.

But it’s good gaming. A lot of bad media is good gaming. It almost seems as though bad media is better for good gaming than good media is. But then I have to define “good” and then the discussion goes to shit. We like to pretend things we love are “good” or even “great”. What I usually mean is that the media is not “sustaining”. Not “nourishing”. It doesn’t lead us to self discovery in any useful way. It doesn’t improve the way we tell our own stories. Anyway, feel free to dismiss that as elitist. I am elitist: I think some things are vastly better than other things, and more often than not those really great things are harder to absorb. Internalizing valuable new ideas is usually work and work-in-consumption is antithetical to a lot of perfect-for-gaming media. Conan has nothing really to teach me, but visually and energetically it spun out a lot of great gaming for me.

conan
Maybe not nourishing but easily as satisfying as any Snicker’s bar.

Anyway, the source material for Soft Horizon is not great media. But it is evocative (and comes with extremely good artwork) and that’s really all we need for a game: a sense of place that makes us want to elaborate for ourselves. Maybe a character that we’d like to explore (though I feel like that’s a bit of a trap, a mismatch between the “one big hero” model of most source media and the “group of equals” model of most games).

So the solution was to break Soft Horizon up into separate games, one per plane. Each one is self-contained but uses the same core rules, so there is a sort of Soft Horizon system but it’s not something you have to buy separately. Each game runs on its own power.

The King Machine is out and available.

coverCurrently I’m working on Sand Dogs. While I’m still playtesting, I’m mostly developing little specializations for this game. The core system is (largely) unaffected. So at the same time as I’m playstorming new mechanisms I’m laying out for a public playtest package. This is actually eating the most resources for me because a lot of that work is boring — re-writing extensive material from The King Machine to fit the new context. And I am not good with boring work. Oh, and re-formatting tables. I have to do that too. I’ve been publishing the playtest actual play transcripts here but I don’t know how interesting they are to others. Maybe more for posterity than for you. But I’ll try to keep that up.

One thing I’ll say about Sand Dogs so far is that everyone “gets” the aesthetic without much prompting. There’s something visceral about it. The King Machine is much weirder and much more entirely in my head and so harder to get people to engage with, but Sand Dogs has many media touchstones that give everyone a running start. It’s got desert tombs, aircraft, machine-guns, half-tracks, Webley revolvers, and everyone seems to smoke. Really, I don’t think I started that but my players are all figuratively lighting cigarettes in their narration. That’s fine, there’s no lung cancer mechanism.

One character certainly has a pencil moustache. That’s highly desirable, very Airtight Garage.

So the timeframe for a playtest release is mid-December now. And that places publication in January earliest, so I’ll miss my goal of three releases this year for the VSCA. I will soothe my internal project manager with Christmassy things.

 

movie influences

Film has certainly influenced the games I play and the games I design. Which films?

rollerball

film-1The first game I ever designed was a Rollerball simulator. Based on a single and heavily edited viewing on television I decoded the rules to the sport and built an oval track game complete with the starting gun, motorcycles, the magnetic goal, and punching.

I was 11 or 12. The game worked. So right out of the gate I knew I could make games. It would be a long time before I decided I could (and that would come mostly by being handed a way — POD) make games for other people to play.

Did my game manage to capture the theme of corporate management and violence as entertainment? No.

But it was a functional simulation of a fictional sport and it was fun to play. It is gone without a trace.

the road warrior

film-2This film fed into our love of all things apocalyptic (since we knew we were going to die in atomic fire). It added wild cars, which we hadn’t considered, and consequently drove the purchase and near-constant playing of Steve Jackson’s Car Wars.

Weirdly (though we were older now) we did get the underlying themes and did start playing games about rebuilding community and about the difference between survival and thriving. Of course the games were still combat-heavy and centered on our gear, whether vehicles or weapons, but we were also exploring how we would cope should we survive the coming nuclear disaster. In fact I spent a day with my social studies teacher driving around Vancouver taking pictures of buildings. When I got them developed (you had to do that in the Old Days) I marked them up with a technical pen, adding the necessary destruction: our games were about surviving the thermonuclear holocaust in our home town. And my idea of post-apocalypse would always center about my home town.

This wasn’t fantasy for us. This was planning. We really thought this could happen. And yet it still didn’t influence me enough to make me learn how to drive: in an emergency I could perhaps be the gyrocopter pilot but not Mad Max.

reservoir dogs

filme-3This film is primarily about being cool above all else. Above intelligence, above compassion, above common sense. Everyone in this film is obsessed with how cool they are and, most importantly, that they are cooler than everyone else. The big surrender at the end is a surrender of cool, the agony of compassion betrayed, an actual uncool warm masculine feeling undermined and soaked in blood.

Of course this was part of what would be Hollowpoint — a game in which you can only be violent. There is no mechanism for anything else and so any compassion you bring to the game is all you. It is constantly undermined by the mechanism. Eventually your character is taken out, and while that is prosaically death, most players have their characters leave in disgust at who they’ve become–and then roll up a character who is worse and start play by giving the rest of the group shit for screwing up and losing a partner. That is, the scene starts by establishing your cool dominance.

2001: a space odyssey

film-4Finally a space ship that might actually work. A space station with spin gravity. Weightlessness on the transit from Earth to the Moon. And the quiet coldness of hard science fiction.

I was a big reader of classic science fiction as a kid and when I read science fiction now it is more often older classics than newer material. Sure, I dig The Expanse of course, but it’s an outlier. Now 2001 didn’t really influence in a sense — it more epitomizes what I wanted out of science fiction gaming and consequently what I wanted from an sf game. It didn’t make me play Traveller, but it acted as visual and thematic touchstones for it. We spent a lot of time seeking ancient incomprehensible artifacts. We constantly made ourselves feel that the immediate drama of being human was in fact tiny and pointless compared to what the universe was really about. And it wasn’t about us.

Of course this aesthetic would carry on to Diaspora.

the duellists

film-5The Duellists is a Napoleonic period piece about obsession. One character (Harvey Keitel) is obsessed with his honour and duelling the other character (Keith Carradine) to the death. Feraud (Harvey) is single-minded and uncomplicated but not above fear. d’Hubert (Keith) has a full rich story for his life and is continuously nagged, tormented by Harvey’s pursuit and their periodic inconclusive duels.

The two characters are opposing views of (in an extreme way) what it means to be male. The senseless pursuit of honour as an excuse for violence destroys every other aspect of Feraud’s life and he doesn’t care. He has defined himself by this pursuit of violence. And on the other side is a man who tries to live a full, thoughtful, and compassionate life but is constantly forced to address the obsession of another man.

I’m pleased that I can see this stress in most of my games. That there is always an acknowledgement of the compassion that humans (and men, from my own perspective) must fight to preserve in the face of a world that sometimes only offers us violence and stupidity as an option. If the game is going to have violence in it, it’s going to be an interruption and not the focus. My hope is that we will pick up the game and play d’Hubert and not Feraud.

Except in Hollowpoint. In Hollowpoint you more likely play Feraud through to his logical end. See the film. It’s not what you think.

Also, check out the design on that poster. You can’t really think I wasn’t influenced by that.

influencization

So then we get to a long stretch of gaming that, frankly, is mostly playtesting new games. In this period we made Callisto and Polyp (a free incomplete game that’s very fucking weird) and little else, mostly still trying to get a grip on Soft Horizon and what it would be. We played some other games but I’m hard pressed to think of many that were influential. Many were interesting, sure, but they wouldn’t really change the way we design games.

And then some were a bust (for me: YMMV, IMHO, &c — I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t love these games. There is lots to love. I just didn’t love them). But a couple were influential.

dungeon world

influences -3.1.jpegThis was my first exposure to a “Powered by the Apocalypse” game and I used it to extend a Whitehack campaign. It didn’t work out — for the content, Whitehack was much superior.

But key Apocalypse World concepts got delivered to the design brain, and those would have legs. In fact that would be the start of the Soft Horizon re-design. Some parts of it were really well-suited to the way we were playing: online.

Now a lot of the mechanism formalizes good play behaviour. As such it’s not novel — I already knew what to do — but as mechanism it was hard to slip and play badly. And some of the mechanism severely cuts down on prep by allowing for some cheap prep to reflect off character action and create new situations that were unanticipated by all players.

So it gave me player-facing dice. Since the ref doesn’t roll, this reduces the mechanical action-reaction rhythm of most games which can bog down online play. It also had impacts I related elsewhere (link above). This was something worth stealing.

It gave me fronts, which is an inexpensive way to prep. Here’s something bad in the world that will impact characters. Bring it in when things come to a lull. Colour other interactions with the fact of it.

It gave me GM moves, which are a list of things the ref can do. Sounds really obvious, but codifying the ref’s behaviour options is super powerful because it gives you a list to pick from. It’s hard to get stuck in a rut (which does happen to me when forced to invent constantly from whole cloth) when you can pick from a list. You pick things you might not have thought of.

It also convinced me that I am not interested in that kind of fantasy any more. But it basically made Soft Horizon go. You can get The King Machine now and take it for a spin. It is probably the best game I have ever written.

misspent youth

influences-3.2Robert Bohl’s killer game, Misspent Youth made me think deliberately politically. Mostly Robert did that, really, but the game provided an example. He also let me swear.

The game itself is clean and deliberate, lessons that reinforced what I already learned from Shock: Social Science-fiction. This wasn’t news by now, but more examples are always good.

But mostly it’s a game that’s deliberately and unapologetically political. It got me to research the politics of oppression — and especially how they develop to oppose, infiltrate, and divide resistance — which would factor highly in Soft Horizon games. This game turned The King Machine from an amusing echo of a non-existent strip from Heavy Metal into a real game that meant something to me.

honourable mentions

There are a lot of games that I wouldn’t say were influential but that I nonetheless appreciate and steal from.

I nicked the dice mechanism from Blades in the Dark. I have serious philosophical problems with the game. I don’t like it, though mostly not for mechanical reasons. But I do love the “roll dice, pick highest” mechanism. It has a surprising number of axes of information for narration if you keep track of which die came from where.

The oracles I developed to make Elysium Flare work would follow through, streamlined and improved, to Soft Horizon. A lot got tested in the comfortable couch of a Fate game that would let me go in a more interesting direction later.

Night Witches made me think about things that will make it into a later game. I’ll talk about that then. Vehicles, women, war.

Fiasco is just awesome. I will never make anything like it.

previous influences…

 

hardcore sandboxery

Before I get into this let’s be clear: I’m not trying to define “sandbox”. I’m trying to understand it. I might want to use the term to market a game and I don’t want to lead anyone astray. Unfortunately I’m discovering a lot of variation in acceptable definitions.

Over on reddit someone brought up an interesting point that seems to demand another axis on my graph for sandboxes. I don’t want another axis because 2D graphs are very tidy and easy to make but if there are three variables then so be it. Let’s hope we only need three so I don’t have to draw a hypercube.

sandboxery v2
That green box is my loose hippie sandbox. The blue part is the hardcore sandbox. There are probably amusing names for other shapes in this space.

So over there the point was made that one factor in a sandbox is a lack of player agency. Not character, mind you, but player. That is, the player’s impact on the world is constrained to the actions of their character: they have no narrative authority outside describing their actions. They don’t get to name cities, declare species friendly, or announce that they found a speargun in the tool shed. The commenter places “sandbox” in direct opposition to “story game” over this exact issue. Maybe I’ll try and find the boundaries of “story game” another time.

This further seems to imply ownership: in a sandbox game the ref owns the world and its evolution. The players try to make a mark on it using their characters but they don’t have any authority over it. And in a sense they don’t own their characters either — since they have no narrative authority, they can’t raise new background information in the middle of play.

This makes a sandbox (or let’s call this a hardcore sandbox) a very small place, to my mind.

No ref, no matter how dedicated, can create a world with the same detail as the real world.

Players will read and retain only a fraction of what the ref creates and offers them to absorb.

Consequently, players have a fraction of a fraction of the knowledge about the world of their characters that a real person would. Removing narrative authority therefore shrinks the world: we could have the illusion that the world as described by the ref is really detailed, more detailed than the bits they wrote down, but only if the players can say things (through the characters’ mouths) that are true about the world. And the characters must know vastly more about the world than the player. More even than the ref — they grew up there. They went to school there. They spent 20, 30, 50 years there experiencing it inside the fiction. Characters must have an enormous amount of world information.

But the player can’t. It has to be simulated or the world shrinks to the notes of the ref. It is exposed as tiny.

There are a couple of ways to let it grow though.

One is to have the players ask the ref questions about the world. “Do I know more about this from my upbringing in this region?” or even “Could it be the case that this is true?” And the ref can add more detail to their world based on responses. This preserves the ref’s ownership.

But that feels, to me anyway, positively draconian. It places us in a position of almost worshipping the ref’s vision of the world.

Now for a long time that is exactly how I played. The ref was God and the players were peons within it, begging for information scraps. I enjoyed that a lot. It was a little suspicious how much I enjoyed that. So my preference now is the alternative: players can freely declare facts that fall into the scope of their characters’ experience. There is a sense in which this implies more trust — not more trust around the table but more trust from the ref for the player input. Trust is always complicated and so is power and this solution upsets some fairly traditional ideas about how that should be distributed (hardcore sandbox: the players trust the ref; the ref need not (and maybe doesn’t) trust the players).

But I get it. I’m starting to get a feel for what the sandbox is. The ref is running a world simulation and the players are interacting with it only through the interface of their characters. There is a comforting way in which this reduces the social interaction of play–I mean, everyone is of course socializing but it is not part of play. Trust and power hierarchies are strictly enforced. The game (not the play — play is fluid, jovial, human, questions, answers, jokes, sidebars, arguments, secret caresses under the table) has a rigid structure, like a video game: the characters are the avatars and the ref is the computer software. Boundaries are not crossed. That’s both appealing and repellant for me. It has a powerful structure that does not invite a lot of argument, which is slick.

If you spell it out.

But if you spell it out you kind of want to kick against it, to refuse being dominated. You might find you want to at least be allowed to (if not actually) push the world around as a player. You might be inclined to believe that your creative input has as much or more value than the ref’s in some contexts. You might then be invited to run your own sandbox, I guess.

None of this is spelled out in the Soft Horizon games and it probably should be. I expect the players to volunteer fiction outside the scope of their characters. It is not a hardcore sandbox. It’s a softcore sandbox, I guess?

more influences

universalis

influences 5Around the time we were playing with Burning Wheel we also got into Universalis, a GM-less universal system for developing a story with interesting people using a simple currency to trade narrative control. It has a nice rhythm, and with a little attention can be diverted from the gonzo towards something more serious. We used this to develop a setting for Burning Wheel play and frankly the developed setting was more interesting than the game itself was.

If there is a spectrum of games on some linear scale of I-don’t-know-what, there is a scale where D&D is on one end and Universalis is the other. In that sense the game provided a kind of map — if there’s a known quantity over there and another known quantity waaaaaay over there, then that implies a space between. A huge space in between. So that was a map with a lot of blank space and such things invite exploration. I know that’s vague but that’s the way I felt: I was seeing a huge gulf of apparently unexplored space between this game and what I was used to.

And Universalis was another independent title, again whispering in my ear that I can make these things if I want.

spirit of the century

influences 6Well obviously, right? We played this and dug it because it was an engine. You fire it up, play by the rules, and get some pretty wonderful results. We rotated the GM role and got great results. This implied a framework for games that I knew I could work with.

I also really wanted to decompose it. It clearly had a lot of subsystems entangled in it that could be teased out, defined, made to do other things. It begged to be refactored.

It’s very broad, heroic stuff and so perversely it made me think about subverting that. And that’s when Spirit of the Far Future was born, which would soon be Diaspora. But this wasn’t a case where we looked at the game and thought, you know, this would be the perfect system for Traveller. Rather this was a case where we looked at the game and thought that rebuilding Traveller with it would be somewhere between perverse and pathological. It was a Bad Idea.

But that was a rationale, and all I needed, to start deconstructing the system in the ways I thought I saw were possible. And I was right. We didn’t go far enough, but we went in a direction that would certainly influence others.

We never played much SotC. A few sessions maybe, just enough to get a feel for the system so we could re-write it into a game we actually wanted to play. But it spawned Diaspora very directly and that game has seen a lot of play. Tons of play. Even when I started to grow tired of Fate, I still got a kick out of a Diaspora game.

And Fred and the gang were great to us. Encouraging, enlightening, supportive — just great. And so even if all the game influence was devalued, the influence that would stick would be the realization that the designers were just folks, and folks talk to folks. It humanized an “industry” for me (it’s not an industry).

reign

influences 7And then we started playing Reign. This game is built on the “One Roll Engine” and it packs a wollop: one roll is decoded in rounds, dice moved around, subtracted, compared, to get initiative, attack, defense, hit, damage, and hit location all in one throw each.

That’s really cool. It spawned Hollowpoint (again because I thought there was a way to pervert it).

But the key influence in Reign was the organization rules: rules for treating an organization to which the characters belonged as a character itself. With its own actions in the session and crossed influence: changes in the character play changed the organization play. Changes in the organization play changed the character play. And this drives a game — an organization to which characters belong (essential) that has its own motivation (also essential) is a super powerful motor to keep a game running.

It binds characters together without meeting in an inn.

It supplies common motivations. Characters might have their own little personal things they want to do, but the organization’s needs are something all can agree on.

It supplies resources. There’s money, people have heard of you, there are friends and there are enemies. Things that were hard to introduce were now just handed to us.

And then there was the way Greg Stolze, the author, was handling expansion. He was experimenting with different models for getting paid and that made us think about those things as well. The business side was being revealed to be as broad and poorly understood as the games themselves. So many things were possible.

shock: social science fiction

influences 8And then things got serious. This was the first game I played that was clearly and concisely about something. The mechanism was deliberate, doing exactly what it was supposed to do. That was something I wanted to emulate: I want to be intentional. Shock is intentional.

Shock is also spare. It doesn’t do anything but its intention. And Joshua A. C. Newman thinks really hard about how to do what it needs to do: he wants to have play emulate a certain kind of science fiction and then drills into the heart of that fiction to figure out what makes it go. Then mechanizes it. It’s game design as engineering.

My games aren’t that intentional. I can only hope they at least get mistaken for it.

previous influences…

next influences…

 

influential games

All the cool kids are doing a list of ten influential games. Let’s try this instead: I’ll talk about each of the games that influenced me. I dunno if we’ll get to ten. I may or may not do them all in one post. Let’s find out.

dungeons & dragons

influential 1Well, since this was the first role-playing game I played it would be pretty hard to say it wasn’t influential. But it was first only by accident — a game that happened to be around because someone got it for a gift and it had a compelling cover. So, influential because it was first. Influential because it hinted at other possibilities. But that’s about it — it only influences current design insofar as it influenced my influences. The whole model of roll to hit, roll for damage, the centricity of combat, the level and class architecture, and the presence of an advancement mechanism as a motivator are all things I’ve left behind. Even quasi-medieval fantasy is a lot more in my past than my present. It likely influences in ways I don’t recognize, but at the top level, the cognizant level, the level of my brain where I serialize ideas in language, it has no impact except sometimes as a list of things to avoid. It was first and that’s it.

Let’s look:

Lists of monsters. Nope.

Lists of equipment. Nope.

Experience points? Nope.

Character classes? Levels? Maybe…nope.

Spell lists! Nope.

Alignment? Surely alignment! Nope.

Rolling for initiative at least?! Nope.

Stats and modifiers? Nuh uh.

Random encounters? Nope.

Races? Hmm, sort of. Sometimes. But warily.

The game is mostly a list of things I would gradually shed.

traveller

influential 2Now this game was influential. I’m very glad I discovered it so early because it immediately called into question all the things D&D was trying to entrench. No advancement (I know there are sort of advancement rules but seriously, not in the same ballpark at all). No magic. I was never a reader of fantasy anyway — I was a Clarke and Asimov nerd as a kid. We played OLD PEOPLE — sometimes as ancient as 40! Doddering! I found that weirdly exciting. I was going to play an adult and so presumably doing adult things.

That’s a big deal as an influence: doing grown up things in a world that feels real. Sometimes mundane things. Paying the bills. But adult. That’s a major sea change from D&D.

Replacing classes with life paths was also a big deal: it taught me early that not only were there a lot of ways to make a character but I only knew two and they were totally different! This implied that there were even more and even more divergent possibilities.

It also had complex construction rules for spacecraft and that suggested all kinds of things you could construct using this basic model: here’s some space, fill it with doo-dads that have different cost metrics (mass, credits, program space) and calculate stats from this list. Mind blown!

And then of course the rich random setting generation was obviously influential — we’d use it in our first game, Diaspora, and most afterwards.

It was still strangely combat centric and that combat was still roll-to-hit-then-roll-for-damage so I wasn’t yet exposed to alternatives there, but the rest of the game was so very different that it seemed like everything was questionable.

Traveller was revelatory.

There were lots of games played after Traveller but precious few I would consider influential. And then…

dungeons & dragons 3e

influential 3Yeah I don’t think there was anything really influential between Traveller in, what, 1979 or so and then this. Lots of games, but nothing I’d point to and say that shaped my tastes today and certainly not my design ideas.

But at some point in the late 80s I stopped playing role-playing games altogether and that lasted at least ten years. And then 3e came along.

When I saw it, it was the perfect time. I had some friends who were likely players. I was feeling a wave of nostalgia. I had a big table.

I prepped and ran long campaigns with new friends and old friends. I connected with my would-be co-authors. We had great times.

But as with D&D Basic, I don’t think it had an influence other than reinforcing the seminal: this was role-playing and I wanted to keep playing. And now maybe start writing. So an influence because it influenced me to get back into this stupid hobby.

burning wheel

influence 4The place where I bought my D&D stuff had some indie titles and one that I saw early on was this Burning Wheel thing. It hybridized fantasy with life path character generation. It had some compelling technology for rewarding certain kinds of behaviour. And it installed the idea that the traditional GM might be something you want some mechanical defense against — the idea that the role could be abused and that rules could help.

Sure, dice pools, and so on, yeah those were novel to me but not influential.

The influential thing here was first that this was put together by someone that wanted to, on personal budget. Printed in relatively small numbers. This represented something I could do. It wasn’t something that came from the glossy world of Publishing. It came from the world of gamers.

So the critical influence of Burning Wheel was the invitation to start designing my own games. The idea that my creativity might productively extend beyond just playing the game. And it made me think about the social roles of the people playing and about games as influencers of behaviour. Games as mind control, if you will.

Okay more next time. That’s good for today.

next influences…

sandboxery

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

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

Turns out it was werewolves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

graph 2

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

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

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

graph all