I’ve been using a simple technique for game development lately that has paid off extremely well: scaffolding. Now I’m certain this is not novel and that someone smarter than me has already elaborated it in a more beautiful blog under a more euphonic name. Perhaps even in a book. But since you’re reading this now and I’m writing it now (whenever now is in this context) here’s my personal (re)discovery.

A rough sketch of a spaceship somehow evokes “scaffolding”. It doesn’t really but it’s a cool spaceship.

The idea is simple and predicated on two things that may or may not be true for you. They are true for me:

  • a piece of a game can be tested without the presence of the whole game
  • setting elements can be tested without any particular system

Now this isn’t an article that will claim that there is no such thing as an integrated system (where all pieces work together to create the experiences) and nor is it going to claim that setting and system are separate. Far from it. But I do think that you can reveal information about little bits in isolation from each other. Valuable information. The whole is necessary to create the final experience, but the bits can be tested individually and discarded early if they suck.

So I build scaffold games. These exist only ephemerally, and only to test something. I might take one and build it into a real game. I might not. But the principle is:


That is, game elements that haven’t got to the table haven’t been tested. You have to play. But how do you play when you have no game? Invent enough game.

So, for example, let’s say you have a cool piece of a setting idea. Giants with villages for heads. What happens when you encounter one? What do they want? How do they impact the rest of the world? You can invent this and hope it works. Or you can test it. The advantage to testing it is that not only does it get tested, but it also tends to get elaborated in play. Often in ways you would not have anticipated.

So go to the table with the setting idea, set up a scene, and just roll a d6 for resolution as called for. That’s your scaffold: that d6. It’s not your system, it’s just there to make the other element testable.

Conversely, let’s say you have a rough idea for a resolution method and no particular setting or them. Invent the barest, stupidest, most obvious setting and drop some players in the middle of it with only the new system (incomplete as it is; wing the missing bits) and drive the system around.

So go to the table with the system idea, set up an arbitrary scene, and get going. Hit the ground running. That stupid, obvious setting is your scaffold.

These events are scaffold games. They aren’t your finished product. They might not even turn out to be part of your finished product. But they let you talk about your development in terms of play rather than hypotheticals. It’s one thing to say (and believe) that this mechanism causes this, this, and this other kind of tension. It’s much more valuable to say it actually happened at the table. Or didn’t.

And you know what else you can avoid? Calculating odds. Deciding what odds you want and then contriving dice to make that happen has a missing premise that you should expose: the assumption that those odds are fun. Play will tell you whether the dice are fun without requiring that you do the math (or more likely fire up AnyDice). You can always come back to the math. But if it’s fun then you don’t really care.

So is that obvious? It wasn’t for me. Build a minimum game that plays to test the bit you need to test.

Digging’s hard work. But you gotta dig.

One side effect is that a scaffold can sometimes become a load-bearing structure. This is what happened with the Soft Horizon system and what will soon be Sand Dogs: the desert-dwelling dieselpunks were just a dumb idea to let me quickly test the core system. And I kind of got into it. Did some drawing. Liked the characters, as distinct from just their representation. So I kind of got a second game for free just by building the envelope around the scaffold.

And of course there’s something buried in here: I don’t really want to talk about design unless we can frame it in terms of play. This isn’t news. But it’s not a principle that’s used enough any more. The first response to “what do you think of my dice game; are the probabilities right?” should be, “well how does it play?”

Play your damned games.

old ramblings #3

From September 2018.

One of the objectives of The King Machine is to make reffing the game as easy as possible. I love making maps and spending time on prep, but I don’t want to need to do it. I also love ad-libbing, ideally based on the other players’ actions, but I do it better when I have cues. So we built in all these things.

Risk. Every resolution roll has a risk that’s selected by the referee. And many rolls will realize these risks even if they succeed. So the risks can propel the narrative in new direction: if you’re being chased and risk spillover, for example, you might successfully get away but injure or kill a bystander in the process. That’s going to have consequences I can build into future scenes!

Cues. Sometimes the back-and-forth at the table stalls or slows. Everyone experiences this. Whenever this happens, the ref has a list of options to jump-start the narrative. Things like start some shit: introduce an immediate threat. Or recall a missed hook: that hint you planted earlier that no one grabbed? Make it important now. These are things any good ref depends on anyway, but we’ll list them explicitly because not everyone is a veteran. And not every veteran remembers to mix it up a little and try something different. It’s nice to have a list.

Deadlines. When things get urgent, we make them mechanically urgent. You are now fighting a deadline and there are specific things you might do during the game that will mitigate that deadline or, more likely, tick that clock one closer. This gets people focused on the action. Characters no choosing a specific direction and acting on it? Make it urgent. Make every action count towards or against the deadline.

Mechanized difficulty: The ref never sets a difficulty level so you don’t have to worry about setting it correctly or fairly. The system handles that. You just set the scene, listen, and then guide the conflict with a risk. The story will flow out of that with minimal direction from the ref. There’s all the usual room for creativity, but you don’t need to fabricate numbers to oppose an action. Just get on with the action.

a little business

The energy and space (notional) I have to create comes from Patreon. Without my incredible backers, lengthily thanked in every 2018 book, the VSCA would not be coming back the way it is to bring games I care about. So please consider dropping a regular penny in the jar.

Sales through DriveThruRPG (RPGNow) and Lulu, especially of physical books (just because I like making books a lot, not because I make more on them. I don’t), are also a big fat motivator. Seeing people buy, read, discuss (for heaven’s sake link me into that conversation!), review, and play these games motivates me to make more. You’ll also find links to some free toys at the VSCA main page if you dig.

All this business stuff, this money, does is make room in my life for me to write and draw and construct and playtest. It lets me wonder about ways to adapt role-playing games to my changing life and my changing needs and since we are all growing older, I think these adaptations will have an impact on you as well. So that’s the semi-regular plug: if you dig what you’re seeing, please consider supporting it. Get a book, drop a buck in the jar, or re-share something you read and thought was nifty.

Addendum: if you’re from Sweden, could you leave a comment and let me know what drew you here? The majority of my visitors this week are from Sweden. I’m curious!

magicians in the soft horizon

Sometimes those aetheric goggles show you more than you wanted to see.

Magic is always a pain in the ass. How do you balance it, how do you differentiate it, how do you keep it under control: these all wind up either driving a boring system or a subsystem with all the complexity that implies. Games that are about magic fare better since you don’t need to differentiate it at all and you can go berserk with the system.

So Soft Horizon is obviously tending towards the simple. A subsystem is right out. So how can we manipulate the existing system, following the style rules of change being additive and contextual, to get a magic system?

First off, anything can be magical by describing it as magical. This is the undifferentiated method: magic is just magical narration. This is fine if you want to magical incidentally in the world. But what if the world demands magic? Then you want something meatier. So let’s balance effect and cost to get something we didn’t get before. And let’s try to make it get better in a useful fashion without adding too many new rules.

We’ll lean on risk. In Soft Horizon games every conflict has a risk. And we’ll make magic a specialization. So if you add a specialization with the prefix sorcerous (say you specialize violence with sorcerous six-shooter) then that specialization starts at d8 instead of the usual d6. That’s your magical benefit: bigger die. And the narrative oomph of having a sorcerous revolver of course.

Now the cost. We’ll define sorcerous as running the additional risk of self-harm. So whenever you bring that die into play, you add harm to the existing risk for the conflict. If it was originally waste, now it’s waste and harm. If you screw up, you get injured in addition to all the other crap that goes down. Just to cover special cases, if the risk was already harm, now its scope expands: everyone in your group gets wounded.

Of course as soon as you build a special case you want to generalize. So what do the other risks look like as schools of magic?

Spillover. Demonic magic. Every time you use magic innocent people get hurt. If that’s already a risk then you cause a plague.

Waste. Well you gotta draw your power from somewhere. Call down a pillar of fire on that swarm of scarabs and if the risk gets realized, it uses all the gas in your car and the air in its tires.

Revelation. A seer or oracle perhaps. When you weave your magic you have visions and they are always bad and true.

…and so on. They all work. Of course if you roll well the risk is not realized. You get your effect without paying for it. And as your die gets bigger, the chance of this goes down. So advancement rules as they already exist take care of reducing negative effects of your magic.

old ramblings #2

Also from August, during the last few weeks of King Machine production. This game has since been published and you can grab it at DTRPG with all our stuff!


So what is The King Machine? Well sit down and I’ll tell you a story.

After we built Diaspora and could be forgiven to think we could design a game or two, we started designing more games. Hollowpoint was early out of the gate for weird reasons but Soft Horizon was my personal white whale. For almost ten years I have been fighting with this idea of plane-hopping psychedelic fantasy. Strange places, local happenings with larger, even multi-versial implications. Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius stuff — elegant imagery over stream-of-consciousness plotlines and constant anachronistic and common-sense defying collages of material with constant political undertones about freedom and class and self-actualization.

I have come to realize that the reason it has been stopped and started so many times is that it is just too big. Others have since taken a stab at it and none of the results are satisfying to me. None of my results have been satisfying.

So I decided to focus and write what I will call “scaffold games”. These are tight and tiny little games with a paste-on absurd setting just to test mechanism. To see how robust and simple a system I can use and still deliver the imagery. First was Sand Dogs which was successful for what it was. Then King Machine.

King Machine has had creative traction with me, though. It has grown into a complete game. It has forced artwork from me largely unbidden. It inspired some layout choices that I am in love with (it’s okay to be in love with your own work, right?). So what to do?

Well, right or wrong, smart or dumb, here’s what I’m going to do.

I am going to publish The King Machine as a standalone game explicitly linked to a nebulous thing called the Soft Horizon. It’s not about the multiverse but it’s a place in the multiverse.

Then, in the same format and with the same system, I am going to finish and publish Sand Dogs. Each is complete in itself. Each is linked to the other through the idea of the Soft Horizon.

Then I will write a Soft Horizon Handbook, which will be mostly tools to build your own game connected to the Soft Horizon. It will detail how to adapt the system and how to generate and elaborate new worlds. And how to connect them to other worlds.

And then for as long as I can think them up, I’ll make more worlds for the Soft Horizon. Each a self-contained game. You never need more than one book.

Whether this is a good idea or not, it’s a way to practically get this thing out of my head. And hopefully into yours.

who’s stealing my eyes?


Kickstarter has been a Very Big Deal for the indie RPG crowd. Where Print On Demand democratized the means of production, allowing anyone to enter the ring with a minimum (or even zero, if you do all the work yourself) capitalization, Kickstarter lets you capitalize and promote all at the same time. Kickstarters move massive numbers of eyes on any product sufficiently pretty to meet the Kickstarter bar.

This is a tremendous step backwards technologically and politically. It’s great for gamers and publishers.

Where POD opened up a whole new way to do business — you don’t need to do fulfillment, you don’t need to warehouse books, you don’t need a distributor — Kickstarter reinforces the old way. You will get enough money to print a bunch of books, manage warehousing, and (unless you want to be in a fairly special hell) hire someone to do fulfillment. POD simplifies and automates. Kickstarter enables the old mechanism to kick over one more time.

This comes with an undertone of disdain. Whereas in 2009 when we published Diaspora through then-revolutionary Lulu, POD publishers were the front line in the war to bring you more games, now they are increasingly seen as not publishing “real” books. And that’s only because now there’s a way to capitalize (interest free, though not fee free) old publishing methods so that you can do all those things “real” publishers do, but in your basement.

Let’s kill that right off the bat. Kickstarters are still amateurs (mostly) figuring out the things they need to do with the capital to get things done. They didn’t miraculously become pros while we slept. That’s why many of them fail when they could have succeeded with POD.

Here’s what you need to do to get a book into customer hands with Kickstarter (and this is not a criticism of any of these things; I only point out that each is a risk):

  • Succeed in a Kickstarter campaign (meet your goals). This should have it’s own bullet list of things because this is not simple. Anyway if you don’t do this you have no capital and you spent a lot of time to go nowhere.
  • Develop a relationship with a printer.
  • Do all the stuff you need to do anyway to make a book, whether POD or otherwise.
  • Finish without spending your profit.
  • Warehouse a thousand books.
  • Get a thousand books into envelopes and shipped to customers (and hope shipping fees don’t eat your remaining profits).
  • Get your remaining books into stores or sell them out of your basement.

The whole point of POD, often overlooked, was to reduce risk and capitalization. The marketing phase can fail and not hurt you because each book you sell goes directly to your bottom line right away, so if you’ve shouldered all the burden of writing, art, editing, and layout yourself then that’s just profit. Sell 1 book and you made money. Sort of; you spent your time. And that’s the heart of it: if you made the book yourself because you loving doing that, capitalizing a print run is all risk. If you can get rid of that bit then you’re finished and can go to the next project.

All of this is good for independent publishers of course. Any way you can get your vision into the hands of others is great. But there is an enormous political difference between POD and Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is conservative. Maybe not quite regressive (1), but not progressive: what it does is help you capitalize. The core methodology did not change; it’s still pure investment capitalism, you just have access to a bunch of pre-sales money with which to do all the usual capitalist things. It invites you to the table, which is a step forward, but it’s the same old table. You get to be a tiny Boss.

POD is progressive. It lets you convert your labour directly to benefit without turning you into a Boss, and without investment. You’re beholden to no one until you sell. And that’s important: you are free as in birds. Once you take a stack of money on the promise of production you are beholden to others until you deliver. Those are chains.

Those might be chains you’re cool with. Personally I have to ration that particular kind of stress–there are enough demands on my heart without it. I just want to make games and get paid a little by people who decided it was worth it after it already existed. When they can read reviews or see their friends’ copy. Not based on a promise conducted with the purpose of gaining your trust.

Oh, and POD need never go out of print. To keep your book available forever just ignore it. That also was progress. But the system thrives on scarcity as much as it does on speculation.

You will probably sell more books with Kickstarter. You might make more money. There is space for the books to be much prettier.

With POD you’ll just remain free.

(1) I think it actually is regressive but in this fashion: we got a progressive technology that let you actually change the process — you don’t need capitalization (that’s a big big deal) and you don’t need to manage the details of print, production, storage, nor fulfillment. With Kickstarter you are back to needing to care about those things. That’s the backwards step.

old ramblings #1

From August, 2018

I’ve found that sometimes when I say “conflict” in a discussion there are varying definitions at work that muddy the discussion. Rather than try to argue my definition is right, I’m just going to say “this is what I mean when I say conflict” and then we can share the definition and get on with the actual discussion that uses it.

conflict: the presence in the fiction of at least two goals, at least one of which is exclusive of the other. That is, at least one of these goals cannot be achieved if the other can. We will ignore conflict outside the fiction since you need to handle that yourself.

So then we can talk about resolution in more concrete terms.

non-violent resolution: a reconciliation of the apparently conflicting goal without suppressing any party’s need for that goal to be achieved. Such as:

reconciliation by analysis: we discuss the goals and break them down and realise that they are not actually exclusive or that they can be done in an order that removes the obstacle of exclusivity. For example, A wants a thing. B wants the thing destroyed. During discussion we discover that it’s fine if A uses the thing and then destroys it.

compromise: during discussion we determine that there are partial goals we can each adopt that are sufficient for our needs and that don’t trigger the exclusivity.

deferral: during discussion we determine that one of our goals is much more important than the other and that we can share the problematic goal rather than pursue our original preference.

socially violent resolution:  we will try to suppress the others’ need for their goal without trying to injure them. Violence in this case is the fact that we are not going to discuss this but rather enforce our goal regardless of the merits or details of the other.

trickery: we will trick them through deceit into adopting our goal or abandoning theirs.

intimidate: we will threaten them with injury or other loss unless they adopt our goal or abandon their own.

dominate: we will exert out authority to command them to abandon their goal or adopt ours. This is probably just another flavour of intimidate since this authority often derives from some threat that can be implicitly applied.

physically violent resolution: we’ll abandon the mental arena altogether and use physical presence to intrude on the conflict and change the playing field.

block: physically block access to the goal

kill: ignore the conflicting goal and instead remove the actor themself.

One thing I note when I lay all this out is that physical violence is appealing because it short-circuits the whole messy problem of analysing goals and communicating effectively, even in bad faith. You ignore the goal and instead attack either the actor or their conduit to their goal.

This is obviously a subset of the many ways you can be wonderful or awful to each other.

games are mind control

When I write a game (or when you write a game) I am building a set of social constraints: the rules are ways you are allowed/expected to behave. When you follow my behavioural rules you (if I did everything perfectly) get an experience that I intended for you to get.

Games are mind control.

I am basically communicating to you a method by which you can communicate with each other that does something special. See all that “communication” in there? I’m going somewhere with that. Because communication in itself is political: I choose what to communicate, I do so with a purpose, and you do something with that communication. In one-way communication I change you. In two-way communication we change each other. Whether or not I have a political agenda is irrelevant: this is a very political space.

If I choose to control your mind in this fashion and do so with no political intent, I’m being naïve.

If I choose to control your mind in this fashion and do so with the express intent of delivering no political agenda at all, will that’s political as fuck. And also pretty damned clever. If you pull it off, you’re gifted. If you think you are pulling it off but are in fact just delivering content so universally accepted by your peers that it just doesn’t feel political (because it’s not challenging anything you care about: that’s why it feels apolitical) then we might be back to naïve again.

If you have a political agenda then you’re just being honest with everyone. It’s not especially clever, it’s just self-aware. I place a high value on self-awareness. I think it’s important. If you read and play my political game and think “wow I hate everything this stands for” then I’ve revealed valuable information to you. If you let me know, then you’ve revealed valuable information to me.

What I’m saying is that communication with any depth is always political. Communication with accidentally no depth is just goofy. Communication with deliberately no depth is a wild idea. I can hardly think of anything more political. Dadaism was profoundly political.

So where do games fall? Certainly accepting the status quo has to be political. Things are shit and need to change. Do status quo games lie here? Are we hiding something from ourselves?

Are games about challenging the status quo valuable? Do they result in any actual challenges? On the other hand, can any art fail to do so? In being at a minimum reflective of what’s going on, the game text serves at least as a record of someone struggling with the world. At its best the text creates play and therefore a series of experiences (people playing the game) that present these challenges, ask people to pretend to live these challenges. Ideas have been moved from author to consumer.

But here’s what’s interesting and I’m sorry I took so long to get here: when we pretend anything we run a simulator in our head. We simulate the things we pretend. We simulate how we feel to discover how we might react. You know what we use to do the simulation?

The same thing we use to actually experience it. We just temporarily re-wire the inputs. So there is a sense in which, when I get you to simulate something, I get you to “actually” experience it. Sure you have your simulation flag set, so you get to discard it as fantasy. But it turns out we’re not great at that: when we simulate sadness really well, we generate real tears. Simulated emotions are only barely distinguishable from real ones.

Role-playing games are mind control devices. Mind control devices are all political. Nothing could be more political.

flashback cues

So the style guide rule for Soft Horizon is that a game in the Soft Horizon doesn’t change the rules, but it might extend the rules to better fulfill the context of the new game. That is, changes must be additive and contextual.

In The King Machine you play a character that lived most of their life in a utopia that is now, very suddenly, a dystopia. Your background is of limited value to this story, so you sort of emerge anew and discover who you have to be now. Consequently character generation is very simple and fast and doesn’t come with a lot of background information: we’re going to find out who you are.

A wary Retrievalist hears scarabs nearby.

In Sand Dogs things are different. You grew up hard in a world that has not much of anything and what there is can get weird and dangerous. Your background will be very informative: it’s going to continue like this, only worse. So the game demands a richer character generation. We want to know how your hard past will inform you now.

Previously I talked about the life path system I’m working on for this. It remains simple (a design goal for all these games) but provides a past. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough. I want the past to be more mechanically relevant to the now. So what I’m experimenting with now are flashback cues.

Each time you change careers, you write a flashback cue for the one you’re leaving. There’s a hint in each career — a cue for the cue if you will. So, for example, for Retrievalist (which used to be Stalker or Tombrunner) we have:

If you choose not to continue as a Retrievalist, add a FLASHBACK CUE: the time you risked everything to retrieve…what the hell is this?

And so you will write a cue that you can use once later for some advantage. So you might add:

FLASHBACK CUE: the day I recovered the Blasting Eye from the Thomas Gang who had hit a jolting ditch just outside the tomb and all caught fire. I caught fire too.

So to get your advantage in play, you’ll narrate a small scene going into detail here and the ref will nudge you with questions until we get to the part that gives you your current conflict some advantage. So what advantage?

I’m still thinking about that. Over on mastodon (I’m there) I posted:

What kind of advantage? Escalate a success? Add a die to the pool? Avoid a realized risk? Or maybe more darkly, apply a realized risk to someone else?

So escalate a success would to increase a fail to a success+risk or success+risk to success or success to legendary. That’s okay. Add a die is the same as everything else. It works but maybe not interesting, though since this is an expendable resource (you only use the cue once and then it’s gone) it could be a pretty hefty die. Maybe even a d12. I kind of like being able to stick someone else with your risk too: apply your harm to a compatriot, change who’s affected by a spillover result, &c.

Still thinking. Always thinking. Feel free to help me think

UPDATE: Nick Wendig offers:

@Halfjack Reroll a failure, since you learned your lesson in some mistake shown int he flashback?

…which in most systems sounds like a pretty good idea. In this system it’s very interesting given the system (roll your dice of varying types and select one for your result). Re-rolling has an amplified emotional impact when a large die rolls low (sad, against expectations) and you get to give it another try (relief, retry for expected positive result).

online play

I didn’t set out to write a game designed for online play, but I did design a game while playing online. So since the bulk of the mechanical playtesting took place online and the game got revise according to how well it played there…well, I guess I designed a game for online play.

You can still play at the table. It’ll be great.

Anyway, because it wasn’t initially designed for online play it’s not entirely clear what parts make that work. And if I’d started from scratch with that as the motive, I’m not sure these are the parts that I’d design. So here’s me disentangling the online-friendly bits and maybe I’m right. I know it plays, though.

“The true object of all human life is play.” ― G. K. Chesterton

First, by online play I’m talking about text chat. We play in a Hangout, using Google docs for supporting, persistent material. Many online approaches will be similar. Some will not.

There are no physical dice games. The position of the dice is not important. The dice have limited memory (you don’t need to go back again and again to the same roll for information). Games that don’t do this and make online play harder include things like ORE and our own Hollowpoint.

There are no positioning rules. So you don’t need a map. Maps are fun: by all means draw maps! But the system does not require you to keep track of positioning and so you don’t need a map that you constantly revise. You can make this work online but its can put gaps in your game as you tinker with your graphics tools.

Things resolve immediately. One roll. This means you can stop any time and you don’t need to preserve any game state. Once the roll hits the table and is interpreted, you’re done.

There is a very high degree of player input in the setting, and it’s spontaneous. While there are some touchstones for setting established, and there is some lonely prep work for the ref to do, there is no need for everyone to spend a lot of energy understanding the setting. It will evolve as  you play, as the players invent facts about their characters and the world. So you don’t need to keep secrets, own the book, or otherwise rely on shared content outside of the play space.

Adulting is too hard. Let’s play something else.” ― Tanya Masse

There’s a cheat sheet. The rules are summarized on a single page. No pauses to look things up, not much debate about how the rules work. This is important in online play because when people shut up you can’t tell what’s going on: is the player still online? It also feeds another goal: managing time. This isn’t about being online but it’s often why we’re online: we are grown ups with things to do and not enough time to create the whole physical social event of play.

I think that’s it. If you’re playing The King Machine and think of more — or think I’m wrong here — shout out! I’m still deconstructing my own game. So the next ones will be better and better.