designing for text play

The Soft Horizon games are getting playstormed entirely in text chat. While it wasn’t a design goal to create a game that plays especially well in this medium, it’s obviously a side effect since we have been discarding choices that don’t keep our play fun and fast and engaging. So to talk about what things facilitate this (or more correctly, what things don’t) I can’t talk about my intentions so much as decompose my system by observation of it in play.

Anyway, here are some of the things that I am pretty sure make online play sing.

no physical dice play

hollowpoint shirt 2
Good shirt. Bad text game.

There’s not need for actual dice. This might sound like something every game does but that’s not true: ORE for example needs to you to track sets and add/remove dice in rounds. So does our own Hollowpoint. This sucks in text-based play. You can do it but it sucks. It’s not fun. This feeds directly into the next one which is sort of a generalization of this one.

reduced state tracking

If you have a mechanism that depends on what happened in a previous mechanical exchange, you create a situation where you could forget things unless you share some space to write them down. A space that doesn’t scroll away. So, for example, chains of skill checks (extended challenges or something?) are a pain in the ass. Everything should resolve right away. The back and forth of traditional roll-to-hit-roll-for-damage-and-do-that-some-more can be fun in this medium but it’s less fun than just getting on with things with a single roll or a bunch of rolls that don’t depend on each other.

tracking position

It’s a lot more fun at a real table.

Having to break out a map slows things down a lot. There are things you can do to speed it up — using a Google Slides page is actually pretty tight — but the additional overhead is generally not worth it for me. For text based gaming that really runs smoothly, tracking positioning is a speed bump and not one that’s worth it. Everything has to pause while I draw a map and every time I update a map. Even if I’m having fun that’s not great for everyone else.

system summary

It really helps if you can get all of the system essentials on one page where you can see it while you’re typing to your friends. So Soft Horizon games have been pared down to that point: a page with risks, methods, the deadline rules, and the resolution table is all you really need to make play completely smooth. If I have to flip a lot through a book to solve something, it looks to everyone else like I just stopped talking and I think that textual “dead air” is something you should avoid just as you would in a podcast or radio program.


Similarly you want to reduce the amount of effort spent looking up the ref’s planning, so it better fit on one sheet as well. In order to do this we use the technique of “reactivity” — rather than the ref establishing and revealing, the ref reacts to the players. When there is a lull, the ref has a list of ways to break the lull. When the players fail, there is a codified result that propels the narrative. The ref really just needs one sheet of cues to refer to, and they really only need those if things stall. And after the initial staging of the game, they don’t often stall.

2 thoughts on “designing for text play

  1. The effort to be stateless (including not having dice pools, etc) is especially interesting to me. Even PbtA games, which try hard to put as much into the fiction as possible, have countdown clocks.

    How does this jibe with having a character sheet at all? Or should the character sheet fold into the one-page rules summary, which is tailored for each player?


    1. I think a character sheet, however brief, is an essential anchor for the player. Maybe only because some state might be inevitable and that’s the place to track it. Truly completely stateless? Maybe that’s another post. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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