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


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).


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.


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…


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?

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

sand dogs actual play session three

Only got in an hour before a headache defeated me. Still, nice conclusion to build on next week!

Brad: So! Jesus and Hoberman are sitting on top of a pyramid poking a hovering metallic sphere while Duarte is walking the perimeter and spots incoming vehicles. Some cars and three buses. Looks like the work crew is returning. Anyone recollect any details they want to make sure we recall?

JB: Pretty sure we had decided it’s time to go.

Dune: There are advancing unknowns.

Brad: What do you do?

JB: “Let’s get the hell out of here!” I am scrambling down to get to our vehicle

Dune: I fire up our ride.

JB: Did we find some fuel?

Dune: “Where to?” (Like a taxi driver)

Brad: Yes, plenty of fuel and water

Jesus: “YOu sure we want to abandon this great loca—” (watches Hoberman skid down the pyramid). “Oh.” Jesus follows him down and looks for a grenade launcher, or SMG

JB: “Well we could lay an ambush but not from up there. They’ve probably already seen us.”

Toph: “Yeah, yeah”

Brad: You have whatever you took with you when you fled the other fight. Some small arms, nothing special (nothing Lootworthy). Feel free to describe your rapidly scavenged weapons.

Dune: Same ol’ handgun for Duarte.

Toph: Jesus runs out to the shed with the radio, and finds a spear-gun that the last radio operator had used when on leave and sport fishing. There were three javelins nearby, each with fishing line attached. Jesus leaves the photo of the Marlin being held by its tail, a trophy from a forgotten cruise years before.

Brad: haha; Okay that’s a surreal vignette on this desert world but we’ll run with it.

Dune: i love it

Brad: Let’s say, and it hints at the Soft Horizon, that you have no idea what that marlin thing is or why it was caught in a reservoir.

Dune: You can’t see the gorilla, but the hand holding the line is awful hairy?

JB: Yeahhhhh

Brad: Or for that matter what the hell a speargun is for. Someone at this camp was a planewalker!

Toph: heh, I just see a weapon

Dune: Anyways, if we want to set up an ambush, we should drive the car in an obvious direction and cut them off as they pass in pursuit.

Brad: The vehicles are getting closer. They don’t look like military vehicles. No mounted weapons and no armour.

Dune: cut them off with some off-vehicle ambushers.

Brad: Car’s not drivable as I recall — no tires.

Dune: oh we have no vehicle then? is our ride further away (i recall hopping off and walking to the pyramid)

Brad: You just have the motorcycle & sidecar

Dune: (but i also assumed we retrieved it when we set up camp for the evening) yeah that one… let’s roll!

Brad: Duarte runs for the motorcycle as Jesus emerges from the shed with the speargun, looking at it quizzically. But fondly.

Dune: I would like to observe for signs of allegiance.

Brad: You have maybe 5 minutes before the convoy arrives. Dune: markings you mean? On the motorcycle?

Dune: I mean the convoy… any way to determine who they’re with? where they’re from? We can already see it’s non-military. makes, symbolism, formation?

Brad: The buses bear not so much a military marking as a logo. Commercial maybe? You don’t recognize it.

Dune: I think we should spy on them. I can drive the car away, but I’d like to know what they’re up to. Either of you feel sneaky and lucky enough to not get caught?

Brad: 5 minutes: where do you want to be when they arrive?

Dune: (car meaning moto and sidecar)

Toph: I’ve got the radio.  Jesus suggests hiding near the perimeter fence, on the inside.

Brad: Radio is heavy — think 1930s military. It would be a hard haul on a backpack but can be stored in the sidecar.

Toph: “If you guys set up a distraction, we can see how they react. Maybe chase you for a bit.  It’ll be interesting to see what they choose to protect.”

Dune: We’ll take the radio in the sidecar and listen to the airwaves.

Toph: can I have a transistor or something from it

Dune: (or wait did you mean to take the radio with you?)

Toph: The can wrapped with wire?

JB: “That’s a cute stratagem.”

Brad: You can pull a vacuum tube from the radio, T

Dune: “No time to waste, revs…” (oops that “revs” wasn’t supposed to be in-quote)

Toph: The Jesus, vacuum tube in his satchel pocket, goes and buries/conceals himself near the perimeter, but with an eye on the door of the Radio room.

Brad: Okay I have Jesus concealed by the fence, Duarte on the bike, … Hoberman?

JB: Um I guess I’ll hide behind a bush. Or, yeah, in the car upon blocks

Dune: nice… I’m already zooming away… [dust trail]

I just love the trucks in Sorceror.

Brad: The vehicles arrive — a couple of beaten up Benz jeeps, a roadster, and three buses — trucks really — with huge grills.

JB: That is indeed a mighty grill

Brad: The trucks are covered flatbeds. The cars stop and a handful of people spill out in good desert garb, not military, but certainly expiditionary. They have handguns.

JB: Well that’s not ideal

Brad: One has some kind of huge smoothbore shotgun, probably single shot. Two of them pull the cover off the first flatbed revealing a dozen people in work clothes. And chains. What do you do?

Toph: (no one chased the dust trail? Jesus continues to watch)

JB: What kind of arms do I have? I don’t remember

Brad: Ah thanks for the cue! One of the men shouts and points at the dust trail.

Dune: I look over my shoulder. Any pursuers?

Brad: The woman with the shotgun raises a pair of dainty opera glasses to her eyes. Says something to the others.

Dune: (perhaps a spear handed to you by Jesus lol) (or more likely a shotgun)

Brad: They start putting the cover back on the truck. What do you do?

Toph: (there’s one flatbed or two with slaves?)

Dune: dozen(s?) oh mb i meant a dozen slaves in one at least

Brad: Two flatbeds, a dozen revealed in the first

Toph: Jesus continues to watch.

JB: HOw many are the slavers?

Brad: They cover up the flatbed again and the shotgunner yells some orders you can’t here. (5 JB)

JB: OK, I am trying to signal to . . . Jesus is here, right?

Brad: One of the others goes to the tool shed and swears loud enough to hear.

JB: CAn I like flash at him with a mirror?

Brad: Yes Jesus is here nearby — behind you. You’re in the broken car.

Dune: Jesus is there.

Brad: Sure

JB: BAsically signalling “let’s go” – I think we can take them.

Brad: One of the slavers takes a compass bearing pointing towards Duarte’s rooster tail of sand.

Toph: Jesus springs up and sprints towards the flatbed. The speargun is loaded, and he’s going to take a single shot at the woman with the opera glasses, and then he’s going to hop into the flatbed that is being covered up (the driver is no doubt helping with this, process, and will have left the cab door open). If the keys are there, he’ll drive away. With the slaves.

JB: Shit. OK, I’ll uh, work with that.

Brad: Sounds like VIOLENCE

JB: I’ll cover Jesus, then head towards his position .Yuuup

Brad: and your goal is to steal the truck?

JB: And I am awesome with this soup wound. Heck I’ll try to steal the other truck

Brad: Risk is spillover, Toph. Big bore on that shotgun. Anyone helping?

Toph: (what were you signalling? If only there was a way to send more than a basic “go” with a mirror flash)

Brad: Just the d10 then?

Toph: (dust trail to distract and deplete?)

Dune: i don’t know if my dust trail counts as help but it’s certainly providing a bit of distraction

JB: I’m helping with my own VIOLENCE

Dune: i think it makes sense to combine their efforts and consequences >shrug<

Brad: Hoberman shouts useful instructions for a d6. Maybe not that helpful.

Toph: Violence.

JB: Uh I”m down on physical stuff still. What’s a d6 minus a step?

Brad: No I think they’re ignoring the dust trail as soon as the violence starts. JB: nothing

mechanical: roll VIOLENCE with help from KNOW->VIOLENCE to steal the truck

Toph rolls d10 and gets 6.

JB: Right then. Sorry

Brad: But you can have the d6 violence from knowledge

Toph: ok

Dune: agreed

JB: Just running for that other truck I guess. Oh, right. OK

JB rolls 1d6 and gets 5.

Brad: Not that it matters.

JB: OMG not terrible

Dune: hah

Toph: SO with spillover, I succeed and JB gets shot, right? 😀

JB: (-‸ლ)

Dune: 😀

mechanical: 6 means the spillover risk is realised. Ref must improvise the result!

Brad: Jesus leaps from cover and fires the speargun at Opera Glasses. It hits her center chest and she swivels trying to figure out what’s happening while pulling the trigger on her punt gun. It blows her driver in half and shears through the bonnet of one of the flatbeds. Steam erupts.

JB: Well that’s two down

Brad: Duarte you hear a huge firearm report from the camp. Still charging, Jesus makes it to the wheel of (which vehicle?) Hoberman makes for his own vehicle muttering something about going for a headshot to avoid accidental fire from the shotgun.

Dune: I do a cool 180 maneuver. (it’s not at all cool, actually lumbering and awkward) Heading back into action.

JB: The other truck with human chattel in it

Brad: You nearly spill the Ural — this is not a maneuverable bike with an empty sidecar — but get around and head back at top speed. JB you’re behind the wheel of one slaver transport. The other is disabled. Toph where are you?

JB: Any guns in there?

Toph: I was heading for the one that had been uncovered. It’s now disabled?

Brad: Yes you reach it and it’s screwed. One tire is out, the radiator is blown out, and it’s covered in blood.

Toph: In that case, I head for the roadster, f it’s empty.

JB: I’ll start up the truck and see if I can ram anything the bad guys are using

Brad: One of the remaining slavers runs for the shed. The other two are trying to figure out what the hell is happening, drawing their pistols.

JB: Also bellowing at them to surrender “STAND DOWN AND YOU WON’T BE HARMED” Not very believable I guess

Brad: The truck starts up smooth, JB. You immediately drive over one of the Benz jeeps, crumpling  the rear half under the massive truck. There’s shouting from the flatbed behind you.

JB: Hee hee hee

Brad: Jesus reaches the roadster, a nice open topped vehicle made for straight well-paved roads.

JB: Once I think the bad guys’ escape is cut off I’ll see if I can’t free the people in the truck

Brad: Duarte arrives, taking a little jump over the dune by the gate.

Dune: awesome

JB: so cool

Brad: The remaining slavers are totally confused and upset. The two outside the shed drop their guns and put their hands on their heads like they are familiar with a stop by the Desert Police.

Toph: KEys in it? If not, hides behind it.

Brad: The last one is still holed up in the shed. What do you do?

Toph: I’ve got the vacuum tube, so the radio’s out.

Brad: Smart

Dune: I’ll drive up and collect the weapons from the surrenderers.

JB: OK, I”ll dismount the truck, keeping the keys (if it uses them).

Brad: JB, you said you were releasing the human cargo — you look in and realize they are probably safer from the sun under the cover than standing in the heat. But you find a key from one of the slavers to take off the long chain that loops through all their foot bindings. There is no sound from the shed.

JB: I ask them to stay here until we know it’s safe, but that they are free

Brad: Duarte has the two surrendered slavers face down in the sand, disarmed. “Been free before, mate.”

JB: “yeah, it’s no picnic”

Toph: Jesus notices the abcence of gunfire and pokes his head up. He walks towards the others.

Dune: “That was easy. Is that everyone?”

JB: “There’s one holed up in the shed, I think.” “Wow, Jesus, you made one hell of a mess. Impressive.” “What the hell is that gun anyway?” I assume the hurt people are dead people?

Dune: “Hey, You. In the shed. Come outta there!”

Brad: Opera Glasses is still and glassy eyed. The one hit by the punt gun is in two pieces.

Toph: DOn’t know, but the spears have strings attached. He points to the one he left trailing behind him, and currently tying opera gLasses to the dune buggy.

Brad: No sound from the shed.

Dune: I’ll approach the shed and take a spot with at least partial cover and a view of the door.

Toph: “Come on out, or we drive the truck over the shed.”

Brad: No sound from the shed.

JB: “Damnit.”

Dune: I pick up one of the hostages from the ground. Go open the door and tell your friend to come out.One wrong move and we blast ya.

Toph: Once the slaves are off the flatbed, Jesus goes over and starts an engine.

Brad: The slaver, pants wet with fear, goes to the shed and opens the door. He turns back to you. “It’s empty.”

Dune: Gesture for them to go back to the ground and then I’ll head into the shed to investigate.

mechanical: hint at the soft horizon ref move

Brad: The shed is empty. And the picture of the marlin is missing.


no dice

At first I just liked the idea: the ref doesn’t roll any dice. I don’t know why, but knowing myself as I do I suspect it was just the novelty of it. I frequently ref games and I am always rolling. What if I didn’t? Was there a reason I had to roll?

My first experiment with player-side rollers was in an early test of some ideas for a second edition of Diaspora. I did it in the most obvious fashion: rather than have the ref roll for non-player characters, the ref would just set a difficulty value. It bombed. It was boring as hell. I shelved the idea.

Then I played some Powered By The Apocalypse games. And it works there. Hmm. What’s the difference?

Well one difference is deeply systemic: in Fate the game works by simulating everything with the same structure. Characters are roughly the same whether they are in the hands of a player or the ref (don’t get me started: yes the ref also plays, but let’s acknowledge that they play differently and that this age old set of terms remains sufficient, however imprecise) and so it makes sense that everyone engages these characters the same way, including the ref. PbtA games don’t do this–the system is asymmetric. Opposition does not have the same systemic model that characters do. So with Fate I was expecting to have some fun as ref in the same manner as the rest of the table because that’s a thing Fate does. When I switched to player-only rolling I lost that expected fun. And there wasn’t much left for me because the system doesn’t provide any (because it’s not designed for this, not because it’s bad).

When I got player-side rolling working I found that the ref experience is fundamentally different. Mostly I realized that because I was not playing any characters (in a dice-rolling context, I mean) there was no pressure to be adversarial: there was no contest for me to try to win, whereas when I am piloting non-player characters on a combat map I am certainly playing to win. I make good tactical choices intentionally. I am trying to kill the player characters but with opposition that I have carefully crafted to be unlikely to succeed. Once I framed that in my head that way I realized I didn’t want to do that any more. It’s not something I want happening in a game, generally, as a design goal and so as a side effect it’s not desirable.

But there’s still the problem of having something to do. Absent the adversarial play in Fate, I was bored. But not in the various PbtA games. Why? I wasn’t sure and, as is my wont, I didn’t think very hard about it. I went straight to my own design. This is a deep character flaw of mine: when I play a game I like I generally start my own project and reconstruct elements of that game without thinking too hard about them. Instead I concentrate on thinking about how my new game works. My Fate games are games that I invented after a read-though and play of Fate — an imperfect read through and play. They are emulations based on my memory of what Fate is supposed to be and not literal Fate games.

And so with this Apocalypse thing.

That’s no sun! That’s a tomb!

So in Soft Horizon games I built one dominating thing for the ref to do: manage risk. The creative input of the ref is not adversarial management of threats but is instead the creative interpretation of risk. We use Rob Donohue’s risk list (because it’s brilliant) and it turns out it’s filled with creative opportunity. So, for example, let’s say (and this is a real example) characters are trying to escape from a bad military defense: the enemy is overrunning the defenses and it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. Players grab a motorcycle with sidecar, pile in their wounded, and head for the hills. Or rather, for the nearest city. We determine this will be a CHASE roll with risk DELAY. If they fail, we will interpret DELAY as getting captured. If they succeed but realise the risk, we will interpret DELAY as getting lost. That’s the first part of my creative load and it’s plenty fun but not adversarial: I’m not manipulating their chance of success, just setting the consequences of failure.

They succeed with risk: lost. And so I narrate a scene with them getting lost and we come to another check: trying to find their way. And that moves us in another new direction, again with my creative energy going into developing the risks into a coherent narrative.

One of the richer risks in this system is REVELATION. This will reveal some information that makes things worse. This is your plot twist. But you can’t plan it, because it doesn’t even come up until there’s a roll on the table and it needs to be in the context of the scene we’re rolling for. So as the ref I need to ad lib that revelation — if I had any plans, it’s a spanner in my own works. It’s as much a revelation for me as for the players!

Another example perhaps: our escaping trio reach an old Tomb dig site that seems to be abandoned. They are suffering from sunstroke and one of them is injured. They are ostensibly slave-runners: they hunt down cities that keep slaves and disrupt the institutions that make that possible and free slaves. The nearest city, Morgenstern, is a place they often bring freed slaves to be safe. So in that context, they are making a MISCHIEF roll to break into a supply shed and I set the risk as REVELATION. My creative input: if this risk gets realised then in the shed will be evidence that Morganstern keeps slaves. I didn’t have that planned. In fact it wrecks everything. Awesome.

So that was the barrier and the solution: if as ref I am not participating in the adversarial simulation, what is there for me to do? How do I get to play? And the answer in the case of Soft Horizon is that I need to continuously create, to ad lib. And there is a mechanism that forces me to do that, that constrains what I will need to ad lib about, and that provides cues for how to proceed.

Well it turns out that’s something I like doing a lot.

vsca catalogue

diaspora cover lulu 441 thumbnailDiaspora

Me, Toph Marshall, Tim Dyke, and Byron Kerr wrote this together over a couple of years in an attempt to bring a Traveller aesthetic to Fate back when it was FATE. Derived from Spirit of the Century but with efforts to deconstruct and modularize. Gold ENnie winner for best rules. It’s about keeping your spaceship running while dealing with the political and trade frictions between a small number of very different star systems. Collaborative world design. You may have first experienced it as Spirit of the Far Future. Print and PDF.

This is a game we still play, though I think that the character and system generation stuff is better by far than the rest of the game. I mean it’s a good game, but the collaborative stuff really sings.

Deluge - Brad MurrayDeluge

I had a bug in my head about post-apocalyptic play and so wrote this little system-agnostic adventure generator that starts from the submergence of your home town. Lots of table-based oracles for creating desperate communities. Simple, fun, and crazy cheap (PWYW). PDF only.

I haven’t played with this in a while. Have you? I keep coming back to the idea of releasing a new edition with better tools and art.

hollowpoint cover frontHollowpoint

Written together with Toph Marshall before my move to Toronto and then laid out and finished amongst the boxes of my move. This is a custom designed system built up from a deconstruction of ORE and built to make face-paced action movie games. It probably first percolated up into my head after reading the graphic novel series 100 Bullets. It’s about being super competent at being bad. Your only options are different flavours of violence. An ENnie nominee for best game. Print and PDF.

This game is huge fun and always has been but suffers from a fatal flaw for my own use: the whole iteration-over-a-dice-pool concept just isn’t fun for online play. It kicks ass at a table with real dice, but the tactile allocation and manipulation of dice is necessary.


Now living in Toronto and isolated from my gaming groups, I built a game designed to be played by email. While the provided scenario is a sort of fantasy 17th century Europe and Africa, it’s been easily ported to space stations, colonies, and other settings. The idea is simple: you play a personality by writing letters to other personalities you know using email. The ref gets a CC: of all these and periodically publishes a newspaper that synthesizes these letters as current events. I think this game is a gas and it doesn’t require constant attention. I think there’s more to do with this concept. First time I’d use a cover from Juan Ochoa and he’s awesome to work with. PWYW in PDF form.

Haven’t played in a while but I see a game crop up online every now and again.

coverElysium Flare

It took a while to get this one out of my head. I’ve never much liked space opera as a genre but felt like one way to get an understanding of what’s to love would be to write one. This is another Fate rebuild, with a lot of simplifications and an amusing first-person space combat system. This gave me a chance to exercise some suddenly improving artistic skills as well as hire Juan again for some work. It plays lighthearted and galaxy-spanning with adventure cues ranging from stopping a galactic Horror to dealing with a paperwork nightmare on a world dedicated entirely to galactic bureaucracy. Huge fun to make and to run. First time I would use DriveThruRPG for both print and PDF.

I don’t play this as much as I should, but I can’t get into Fate that much any more, especially for online play. The mechanical back and forth places more burden than I want on my time and resources when I’m limited (as I am) to a couple hours a week and entirely playing by text chat. Still, I wish I could play more. The playtesting was great fun and very funny.

Soft Horizon cover minaretSoft Horizon

The Soft Horizon had been brewing in my head since shortly after we released Diaspora. The idea was to build a plane-hopping game that would weave bizarre characters through Heavy Metal style psychedelia, evoking Moebius and Bilal and Voss and all those great artists who were clearly out of their heads. It didn’t turn out to be one game. Instead I’ve been reconstructing the playtest sessions as individual games using the same simple Powered by the Apocalypse inspired engine. Fast and failure driven, the games reliably take the narrative places no one intended. Each game is self-contained, having the setting and the complete system (tuned for the setting) all in less than a hundred pages.

king-machine-cover-alternateThe King Machine

This probably shouldn’t have been the first Soft Horizon game. It doesn’t derive from a known property but instead from an early playtest session brought into being by some random oracles and our own brains. It was initially conceived as a warning about democracy but took so long to make that now it’s just thinly veiled allegory for today’s world. You play intelligent non-human primates in a world of Roger Dean album covers coping with a utopia that suddenly lost its utopic engine: the machine that makes perfect kings. Print and PDF at DTRPG. I think this is one of the best games I’ve ever made.

I’d be playing this now if I wasn’t playtesting…

cover.pngSand Dogs

Coming soon! A dieselpunk tale in a world that’s all desert and studded with tombs full of sleeping gods. A mash-up of Indiana Jones, Roadside Picnic, and the Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius. You can’t buy this yet. I’m playing it. If you’re a patron you can get a laid out playtest package sometime in December.


And of course our Patreon is what keeps this stuff coming. It’s been an enormous influence on my productivity — we’ve never had a three-title year ever. We’ve never had a two-title year before. Even just a buck is awesome: it’s one more person I feel beholden to and therefore one more little push to get some more work out the door.


In software development a regression happens when you add a new function and in doing so accidentally break an old function. You protect against this with regression testing: you test all your old functions to make sure they still work as intended. One of the ways this can happen is when you import legacy code into a new project, code that was never designed to work in the new environment, and it has side effects that violate your modern requirements.

When we choose to look back to old games for inspiration for new games, we want to be wary of this too. One of the things we want to do is improve those games (otherwise why bother), to bring newer technology to bear where possible and desirable to make these old game concepts better. This typically focuses on the functional: what did these old games do, how did they do it, and then of course, do we still want to do exactly that and is there a better technology now that preserves the feel but improves the play?


I’ve been told not to use “however” but “however” is a pacing element a pause and an opportunity for you to anticipate where the text is going. So, however. Big pause.

George C. Scott, doodled instead of listening to a lessons learned review. My bad.

When we look back to art made forty years ago for inspiration we aren’t just looking back forty years in the history of the technology. We’re also looking back through forty years  of context, of culture. And we are necessarily looking back down forty years worth of change in sexism, racism, homophobia, and a host of other social changes. When we mine ancient artifacts we are also necessarily going to be dredging up side effects of that older culture, that context.

There is a lot of resistance to addressing this because cultural problems are messy and even today not everyone is going to agree what was “worse” and what was “better”. Even “genocide is bad” seems to be up for debate in some circles. Nor even which mechanical elements in that game ore are reflective of what’s worse. But also because some of the nostalgia for that earlier time, the reason for mining that old material, might just be a desire for a whiter, maler, more heterosexual context. And the idea that that might be true is rightly uncomfortable as hell. And one thing we nerds know about discomfort: we do not want to talk about it.

But when we make a game that incorporates or emulates material from that past we risk racist, sexist, homophobic regressions. And we don’t have a good way to test for it, especially if we want to ignore it even as a possibility: if you want to ignore an error your first step is certainly to avoid testing for it. Or rather, we do have good ways to test but we do not deploy them. So let’s look up from the dungeon map and take a step and acknowledge that this is a risk. That material with a forty year old context may have side effects (and possibly direct effects) that reflect that context. And that in some if not many cases that would be a bad thing. That would be regressive.

I am old and white and male. I wish I could get glasses for my brain that correct for this.

And if it’s a risk and if it’s undesirable (you decide for yourself but your decision will be telling) then we really ought to be testing for it. In fact it should probably be a priority in testing since it’s an awful thing to wind up shipping, it’s probably hard to spot, and it’s a genuine risk. The impact of a mechanically bad rule is usually that refs have to house rule around it, which they love doing. The impact of a socially, culturally bad rule is the propagation of bullshit that we as a culture have been trying to work past and through. Something we’ve made forty years of progress on, however small the actual progress may or may not be, and so something we should no more ignore than the changes in technology over that period.

Technology and society and culture are all equally “things we’ve learned”. They deserve at least equal weight as problems other, smarter people have confronted and solved or at least tried to solve. All this material needs some attention in order to make a great game out of old material.

The only way to make looking back progressive is to adapt it to lessons learned since then. Ignoring the progress is regressive. It’s just looking back and re-implementing old mistakes. As I write that I realise that people read both regressive and progressive as different kinds of criticism. Let’s also reclaim “progressive” then. Looking forward. Making things better. Building on technology to make even better technology. Let’s not be ashamed of being progressive. Progressive nostalgia sounds like a great goal.

Regressive nostalgia, even if it’s just because we’re not looking at our work hard enough, sucks. Forty years is a lot of learning to throw away. A lot of mistakes to ignore and re-make.

So, in the interest of offering solutions, here’s a way to find a sensitivity reader for your project.

thinks we dislike

I don’t care what you dislike.

I mean, sure, if we’re trying to figure out together what to eat or what to play or how to fuck, then yes, I care.

But if you’re crafting a post on the internet, a broadcast to everyone, about how much you dislike something…well, I don’t care. But moreover I don’t understand why anyone would. And I don’t think they really do. I think posts about what we dislike are mostly attempts to get someone to argue about it — picking an already contentious position (and artificially so because really, just how much negative energy can we really work up about a game aside from straight-up offensiveness) in order to get some fire happening.

In other words, it’s just trolling. Usually low grade and sometimes even not self-examined. It does generate “discussion” but rarely useful discussion.

This should be read as distinct from criticism. Criticism is awesome. But “I hate GURPS” or “I despise rules-light” topics are just self-congratulatory nonsense. Hurray you have a nuanced and emotional negative response to a role-playing game or even a category of role-playing games. Now seriously, think hard about that and wonder if you really want anyone else to know it, let alone engage you on the topic.

Tell me instead what you love.

I love this fucking robot toy.

Revel instead in what you like to play, like to make, like to run, like to draw for, whatever. Because that enthusiasm, even (maybe especially) when it’s also critical is contagious and productive. It lets other people admit their enjoyment. It lets people know not just what but sometimes how to craft something that certainly gives someone joy. I get far more from knowing a single example of what you love than a single example of what you hate because I am compassionate and want to make you happy — but one negative example is just the start of a list. Do you like ham? Hate it. Do you like turkey? No. When do we get to dinner.

I like blackened chicken. One assertion and we’re off for dinner. No enumeration required.

I totally love this fish rug.

And honestly I dislike so very few things and like so many things that if you say you love something then there is a pretty good chance I am going to get in on that conversation. Help celebrate it, understand the bits the irk and the bits that work, and maybe even get around to joining you sometime to enjoy it. If you dislike something it’s almost certainly going to fail to affect me at all. Even if you hate (such a strong word to apply to a role-playing game, especially when it’s the funny dice or roll-under that you HATE) something, I’m probably not going to engage. First, having that strong a negative reaction to something so lightweight is a pretty good indicator that no interaction is going to go well. Second, it’s unlikely you hate something I care strongly about, and even if you do, well, see “first”.

Enjoying things and celebrating things, and criticizing those things, from a position of love, is productive. It builds up, it repairs, it extends, it expands.

Hating things just tears something down and makes someone, somewhere, feel bad. There’s enough feeling bad to go around these days, and it’s mostly about vastly more important things.

So tell me what you love.