a blast from the bast: optima

This is from late 2009, after release of Diaspora and, more significantly, being (correctly, I think) criticized for using Optima as body type.

The choice to set Diaspora in the typeface, Optima, was not a casual one. It was considered, nuanced, and ultimately probably wrong, though the vision — the text as I hoped it would be — would still be set in Optima.

First and most obvious, Optima is the titling Face for Traveller (albeit the oblique in that document). Certainly Diaspora contains many homages to Traveller and setting the text in Optima was something that the original authors of Traveller probably could not readily do. So in the sense that we were updating that game, I chose to also update the physical text. I wanted to at least in part be what that could have been if done with modern tools and the same early vision. So, homage.

It was more than that, though. Optima is a heavily modulated sans serif, which is a rare beast. It lacks terminal ornamentation, yet its strokes change from thick to thin as though drawn by a human being with a brush. It is both man and machine. This was thematically consistent. Optima was also a Linotype font — it was designed for use in a machine that performed typesetting by taking keyboard input and actually casting a slug of metal type inside a compartmentalized foundry. An assembly line took the input, chose letter forms from molds, poured molten metal into them, cooled them, and dumped them into a page board as a complete line set in metal. When complete, the typesetter would remove the page of type and use it to perform letterpress printing or to press a proof for photography as part of a lithographic process.

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This kind of early mechanization has parallels with the Diasporan view of technology: the first step in automating a process is to make a machine that does exactly what the process did. It was a long time before we cut the metal type out of the process altogether. Imagine a machine that actually performs molten metal casting in its innards — a word processor with a foundry inside it!

The fact of this early mechanization imposed restrictions on font design. One could not kern letters (because the type was set as a line, unlike the later Monotype machines which set by letter and could be manipulated at that unit) and so fonts built for the linotype have horizontally truncated f’s. They lack elaborate tails and serifs. The upper case Q never swoops into neighbouring territory. The idea of being constrained by technology is part of the Diasporan theme, and so again, Optima resonates. Another Linotype choice would have been Palatino, but this quasi-Renaissance letter form didn’t have the stark industrial feel of a sans serif face. Nonetheless, we do see use of Palatino in the text — the fiction blocks are set in Palatino Italic.

We could summarize that by saying that Optima is, at its very core, a “retro” choice. Not just because it’s old, but because it is representative of the way that nascent technological upheavals force art and culture. Before we figure out how best to use technology, it already begins to mold us — to determine how best humans are used in the service of technology.

The downside to Optima was something that did not show up in proofing the text: Optima is meant to be set with metal and so it assumes the high resolution of analog production methods. It is a beautiful and highly legible font digitally at 1200 dots per inch. It remains elegant at 300 dpi (common laser printer resolution) provided the black is consistent. Sadly, with an inconsistent black and low resolution, the strong modulation of the type can undo it — the thin lines become swamped by the thick. The d, the f, the c all start to look a little blobby and anemic by turns. So when I discovered that our printer’s blacks were less than perfect, my delight in the finished product was wounded. Not slain, but injured. And so the best and well considered intentions of the human behind the technology is undermined by the technology itself.

And so, this is a kind of apology. Diaspora could have been more legible with more attention paid to the demands of technology. Fortunately, the failure is thematic: should I, the conscious, free-willed, human mind sacrifice my vision — even my autonomy, to some extent — to service a technology’s failure? Perhaps I should — Optima itself is just such a compromise. And as technology advances we make these same kinds of compromises: we answer the phone even when we don’t want to, we treat humans as machines when we talk to them through a machine, and we choose convenience over beauty to stay ahead of the game. And these choices are part of what Diaspora explores. And so it’s a failure I embrace.

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)

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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.”

Introductions:

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

Risks:

  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

linkies

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).

Leonardo.png
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.