oracles for everyone

Okay here’s something I’ve done since forever. So long now that it seems obvious but it’s not. And it’s an RPG superpower if you’re the kind of ref that’s doing a lot of creating. I’ve touched on it before with respect to the tarot, but it’s far more general than that. I also embed it into games now.

Often all you need to get going is one kernel of an idea. Not a good idea and not a whole idea. Just an idea. And if you give yourself two, that’s even better. Once you have a couple of things (let’s call them nouns) you’ll find that your creative brain can take over — why do they work together, how do they clash — and build something interesting.

So let’s say you want to create a new monster. As with anything you want it to be about something, to have a theme, to have some cohesion. What I find (and find in others) is that if I start with a blank page I fall back on good ideas I had in the past. That’s fine, those ideas are still good,  but I really want new ideas. I want things I haven’t thought of before. And the best way to do that is randomness.

Out in the interverse there are tons of noun generators. They just pick from a random list of nouns. This turns out to be the most useful thing ever. Now, keep in mind that not all nouns are created equal. In fact only about one in five is worth your attention. But if you set that generator to make ten at a time and click a couple of times you’ll find two that excite you together.

These are oracles. Random words that trigger more creative work. You start with a context (monster, plane, city, disaster, whatever), you generate the oracle (or oracles) and then create.

Let’s make a monster for a wrecked space station (always have a context). This is not pre-cooked so it’s a genuine test of whether this works or not. It doesn’t always.

First run of ten I get:

  • Begonia
  • Chit-chat
  • Choice
  • Cost
  • Lion
  • Motion
  • Oval
  • Production
  • Vacation
  • Welcome

Lion is the obvious one so I’ll skip it. I’m torn, weirdly, between “welcome” and “motion”. “chit-chat” and “choice” are luring me too. Let’s take “welcome”.

Second run I get:

  • Cylinder
  • Diploma
  • Drum
  • Glut
  • Jam
  • Karate
  • Membership
  • Plot
  • Somersault
  • Tsunami

I like “cylinder” here, though I’m also thinking cool things with “tsunami” and “drum”. But let’s stick with “welcome cylinder”.

This is a pretty straightforward one. I’m picturing a hovering metal cylinder that’s designed as a kind of maitre d’hotel, a greeting bot. It’s smooth, featureless, because it’s designed to be deployed in a formal setting and it can be decorated as needed. Its sole job is to make people comfortable in their surroundings, to anticipate their needs, and get them situated.

IMG_20170907_131718But this is a monster. So it used to be a greeting bot.  Now it’s out of place in this context I’m trying to populate with monsters. Let’s say it’s a wrecked space station. So one of the things that still works in this damaged and decaying space station is the greeting bot. It really wants you to take a seat in the dining lounge. It’s very powerful, with effectors that can push and pull you with great strength. And the dining lounge is formal attire only — black tie, no space suits.

But the dining lounge is in vacuum.

Well that worked out! I got more than just a monster, I got a whole story. Oracles are magic.

I use these a lot in Soft Horizon games — there are a bunch of tables that are designed to just give you cues. For example, in Sand Dogs, one of the conceits is that the gods who sleep in the tombs have left their garbage around and it’s all intensely weird, unknowable. All anyone can know about a piece of godjunk is what it looks like and how it obviously interacts with its surroundings. Yes this is directly from the Strugatsky brothers but it’s not new to them. And this is still in flux but here’s what we have right now — there’s actually more but we start with rolling two descriptors, an adjective and a noun. Roll for each:

  1. Empty * Container
  2. Blue * Spindle
  3. Full * Page
  4. Jittering * Fuzz
  5. Golden * Ring
  6. Round * Cover
  7. Black * Limb
  8. Dead * Eye
  9. Ceramic * Engine
  10. Pliant * Tube

So if I roll 3,9 I have a strange artifact best described as a “full engine”. What is that? What does it look like? What does it do when it’s just sitting there.

There are more tables to help figure out what it “does”. Maybe it heats up, maybe it repels things, maybe it just hovers there. The point is, it’s weird, it’s inexplicable, and maybe it’s useful. Even if I can’t think of a use for it, I bet the players can.

In the Soft Horizon handbook there will be more general oracles. Certainly each plane will have an element, a single overarching concept that determines everything else about the plane. In fact since its inception this has been the one thing Soft Horizon has always had — planes have a theme, an element. An oracle.


People who love and play setting-heavy games are a whole ‘nother culture to me. It’s not for me, I don’t get it, and of course I acknowledge that they exist and that they are having fun and that’s awesome. I don’t like football but I don’t think you’re stupid if you like it.

But what kinds of setting are there? I can only talk about what I’ve seen and what I’ve made, but I think it covers the gamut. Shout out in the comments if you’ve seen something else.


There are games that present a full history. There’s a timeline of events that have happened and there are places and people (specific people) defined. The world is well detailed (though necessarily not remotely as well detailed as the actual world so there is still room to create though personally I have trouble finding it). Many licensed properties fit into this category.

This kind of game suffers if the players are not at least a little invested in understanding at least their corner of this world. And the ref of course needs to have an even greater understanding. This is essentially why I can’t game like this: I have a no homework policy* and this kind of setting demands homework. Like right off the starting line: you need a certain amount of information to create a credible character.

If you don’t do the homework or (worse, you’re like me) don’t care about the setting details you can still have some fun — lots of people are thick about their surroundings and current events, so there’s no reason your character will have to get everything right — but the other players will carry you. And they need to be prepared for that and willing to tolerate it.

This sort of game is perfectly inaccessible to me but when it works it creates wonderful rich narratives because of all the built-in touchstones to grab on to. It does not suffer a lot of player-created input. You pretty much have to be in love with the fiction.

shitloads of maps

There are settings that are well elaborated with lots of fiction and essays but are nonetheless deliberately incomplete. There are places, perhaps, but not people. There are past events but not an explicit timeline (though look out: one may develop over time as the property develops). These games provide you with a lot of rich material that you can pull together to make your own variant on the writer’s intended world. There’s lots of creative work that can be done by you and yet there are also solid touchstones to lean on.

I’m thinking of games like Reign and Hârnmaster here (though Hârnmaster maybe got a little out of control as it developed the Encyclopaedia Hârnica).

These are fun. Often you can throw out the setting if you like since it’s rarely integral to the system. You can do only as much homework as you want and fill in blanks for yourself. And maybe most importantly, since there’s not much of a timeline, the other players (the not ref players) don’t need to do a ton of homework. Sure, it’s probably a good idea to read up on the dwarves if you’re playing a dwarf, but it won’t be critical. You’re unlikely to make some horrid social gaffe because there’s just not a lot of detail to get wrong.

These give you a lot: they give you a map. A sense of place. Without that gift being a burden. This kind of setting is a great place to start, in my opinion: a lot of hard work is done for you and in enough detail to get you excited about play. A good map is worth real money. They often come with a burden of fiction — usually bad fiction — but you don’t have to read it. It’s atmospheric, illustrative.

implied place

Traveller subsector, generated at randome with the rules. A whole universe of new places.

Ah, my personal preference. There are games that imply a place — whose system generates or is just perfectly consistent with some sort of platonic ideal of the setting. You don’t need to read a lot of essays about how the universe works nor do you need to understand your place in a timeline: the system, used as directed, ensures that anything you do is consistent with the setting.

While I think for sure that Dungeons & Dragons fits in here, I think the first game to really score a direct hit in this category was Traveller. In its first incarnation it was settingless — you were encouraged to play Starship Troopers inspired games or Star Wars inspired games. Anything with lasers and shit. But there really was a core setting hidden in there — the character generation made middle-aged people with careers. The starship creation system created very specific kinds of space ships. And the world and subsector generation system established a specific kind of place — but not a specific place. My own ideas about what the Traveller universe should be are consistent with the rules and to some degree generated by them.

You can pick up the game, play according to the rulers, and the implied setting is delivered to you. For the players this is a zero-homework game. For the ref there may or may not be some preparation required. In the best examples the prep is mechanically directed to some degree. This is where Soft Horizon games sit.

no place

And then there are games with no place, with no implied setting. These are games that, rather than try to give you a place to live, give you a playstyle to play. Anywhere you want to enjoy that play style will work. Since the burden is on you to build these places, these games often have substantial support in the form of supplied settings. The two richest lines have to be GURPS and Fate.

These games are usually described as “universal” but they aren’t. Yes, the setting space is infinite but the play style isn’t — each has a very specific style of play delivered by the system as these things must be. Certainly there is some flexibility — there are often ways to manipulate the system to vary somewhat from the expected norms of play — but if you play the system you get the game, and these systems deliver particular kinds of play.

But not setting.

So if you play a game set in Middle Earth using GURPS, I guarantee you will get a very different experience of play (and a very different narrative) than if you play it with Fate.


As with any categorization scheme, this one is bullshit. These aren’t strict categories so much as they are modes in a distribution curve — there’s plenty of fuzzy space, gray areas, and overlap. But they do help me identify what I like and why I don’t like what I have come to dislike. For me, the games I keep coming back to and inventing are those with implied place.

Do your favourite games fit into this scheme? Is there a space I’ve missed that’s not clearly an overlap or an outlier?

  • I have a no homework policy: I never expect the players to go away and do stuff on their own between games. I’ll elaborate on this later but basically it comes from the experience that no one does it anyway, when they do it’s not to my liking, and basically that trying to schedule other peoples’ time for frivolity away from the actual frivolity is bullshit.

2018 in review

2018, despite being a shit year for pretty much the entire planet, was a good year for the VSCA. For me.

On the home front, though Jackie’s mobility and other functions continue to decline thanks to Multiple Sclerosis (you want to help cure something horrible? Send your Christmas money to the MS Society of Canada) other issues are largely under control. My place is still a mess, my time soaked by pretty much everything and Jackie unable to assist, but that’s really a minor issue. There were no major hospitalization incidents and mania and psychosis are under control. That’s pretty good. That lightens my load a little and is a big factor in the rest of this review.

This project also got me drawing again. That’s a Really Big Deal.

Elysium Flare got released! And it’s my first full-colour project. We even managed to bring in some art from Colombian art-genius, Juan Ochoa. It’s a really lovely book and a tidy little Fate-based science fiction game. It features a lot of loose setting material out of my own head and represents my best effort at grabbing some enthusiasm for space opera as a genre. Now look, I had fun making it and I think it’s a great little game. And it’s beautiful, especially in hardcopy. But I’m not likely to do space opera again unless it’s pretty psychedelic and I’m not likely to do another Fate game.

This project also got me to figure out the Drive Thru RPG POD system. It’s convoluted and frustrating but it works. As a publisher experience, Lulu is much nicer but you can’t beat the integration and the storefront of DTRPG. Both make nice books.

We started and then abandoned a Diaspora second edition. That’s probably not ever going to happen.

I started the Patreon to keep this new effort running and it’s been very powerful for me: feeling like I owe people regular product makes me make it. I can’t emphasize enough how well this works for me. Thank you to all my patrons: you have made this a great year.

lazer-owl smallI almost secretly released a little zine-sized product called anomaly digest. It’s for sale in hardcopy only and it’s at cost — there’s no profit in it. Add it to your cart when you buy everything else! It contains a number of little adventure hooks and mini-dungeons created as part of the RPG Talk (that’s a Discord invite link) regular content contests. I don’t participate in these any more since it kicked me into making games and that’s where the energy goes now. This went our as a physical reward to some patrons.

bonobo anthropologistAnd finally the Soft Horizon gelled and I got out the first issue, The King Machine. A game I’m really proud of, but I’ve talked about it elsewhere.

And now the second issue is out for playtest (really a textual playtest — the game itself is already heavily tested but now I need to see if the text works). So Sand Dogs could be out in January.

And then there was the impending for real death of G+ which forced me to make some plans about where to communicate and get communicated at. That bore this blog, a remake of my old one (and I’ll repost some stuff from there occasionally), and some exploration of other spaces. So far I can be found at:

soft horizon: the basics

Capuchin scout
In The King Machine you can play a capuchin monkey. I mean seriously, what else do you need to know?

At the heart of the games The King Machine (available now) and Sand Dogs (available soon) is the Soft Horizon system. This system is designed just for me: it eases my stress as ref.

The heart of the resolution system is very simple, and very amenable to play by text chat (which is how we playtest). Every character has nine stats (or skills or whatever) called methods. Each is assigned a die, either a d6, a d8, a d10, or a d12 (but you need to advance quite a bit to get one of those).

When the conversation of role-playing reaches a logical conflict that merits resolution, the dice come out. Based on the narration first (please don’t search your character sheet and tell me “I use Socialize” — tell me what you do and we’ll work out the method together) an appropriate method is selected. The player gets that die to bring to the pool.

Then the ref will set the risk. This is stolen entirely from Rob Donohue who is a genius. Don’t worry, I told him I was stealing it. It’s not the first time I stole it but it’s the best time I ever stole it. The risk determines what’s going to happen if things go bad. It’s nice for everyone to know this up front.

Then we figure out who else can help. Does someone else have a story to offer that merits addition of one of their methods? Maybe someone has some loot to deploy in the situation (loot has dice too).

All the dice are rolled. The highest die determines the result (this is a lie — actually the player who started all this chooses the die because there are sometimes reasons to choose a die other than the highest). This is simple:

1-3: fail and the risk is realised

4-6: succeed and the risk is realised

7-9: succeed with no strings attached

10-12: succeed legendarily

Realising risk drives the game forwards. It creates new plot twists (revelation, for example, reveals some new information no one expected including the ref). It changes or adds motivations (harm gets you wounded and that becomes a priority to resolve since it reduces the die on half your methods). This is just for me: I like to ad lib but I need a cue and this system keeps the cues flying. If you are the kind of ref that plans a lot in advance, this game will not work for you: the system itself will drive off your rails.

Because the system drives the narrative, the ref’s preparation is simple: list some ideas for what to do in a lull. Here’s the actual cheat sheet for the ref:










Start some shit is fed by preparing a few simple fronts, a streamlined version of the same thing found in, say, Dungeon World.

Set a deadline triggers a countdown clock towards some event. When play addresses the event on the horizon, it doesn’t tick. Whenever someone answers “What do you do?” with something that doesn’t address it, the clock ticks down. Until it happens.

Create a hazard invites you to simply demonstrate how dangerous the world is. Sandstorm, someone slips on the mountain pass, whatever. If the players had their characters in a dangerous environment, this is when you show them how dangerous.

Call in a bond triggers a feature on the character sheet: a bond is a connection between a character and someone else. And that someone else needs your help.

Make a scar a problem triggers a different kind of character feature: when characters heal their wounds they get scars. These can be used to advantage, but the ref can also stir up trouble with that alien artifact you use as a prosthetic hand.

Introduce someone interesting is your chance to bring in that NPC you love. The cheat sheet is where you make that note so you don’t lose your cool character idea. It may never happen, may never be the right time, but this sheet is your quiver and that mechanic who loves to gamble and knows where the rocket launchers are kept is your arrow.

Dry up a resource is any idea you have for making things scarce. Being out of gas or water or food in the middle of the wilderness demands attention.

Recall a missed hook is really just for me. I have a tendency to leave weird shit on the table. An explosion destroys the house you’re all in and although you are largely unscathed the place is levelled. Except for a very fragile looking vase. Now that’s a hook in plain sight but players often miss them. Leave them there, don’t press it. But use this to bring it back into play if things get slow.

Make it night is there to avoid Endless Day Syndrome. Sometimes a game that propels itself just keeps going: there seems like no good moment to break in and get some sleep. So force it in a lull. And maybe that’s when some shit gets started.

The point of these is to reduce my stress. I need a palette of simple one sentence or even one word ideas to draw from in a lull. I have to say though that the system generates so much ongoing movement that I rarely have to pull one out. Mostly the players generate all the plot I need to keep things moving at a very fast pace.

Obviously there’s more to these games than this and each has its own setting-specific variations and oracles to help get into the feel of the game. But this is the core and if you know this you can sit down and play. You can pretty much sit down and run it.

conscript wednesday

Technically a blast from the past, this is resurrected from the old skunkworks wiki — a constructed script for our lizardfolk overlords from a Burning Wheel game in the ancient past.

The Anatake


Literacy in humans originates from the lizardfolk and has recently spread to humans since cultural contact with the lizardfolk has progressed beyond territorial warfare. The alphabet of the lizardfolk, the ”anatake”, is not particularly well suited to the human tongue and it remains to be seen how the language and the alphabet will evolve under their use. As there is no formal method for transcribing the ”anatake” to human languages, spelling will vary widely from place to place and time to time.

The ”anatake” is a composed syllabary. It is not ideographic and while it is essentially alphabetic, pure separation of consonant and vowel does not exist in the lizardfolk tongue and is consequently poorly represented in the alphabet. The ”anatake” is written from right to left. Each syllable is composed of a main stem or ”pane” (meaning exit) and a decoration or ”faru” (meaning entrance). The exit stroke is the vowel that terminates the syllable and the decoration is the consonant that begins the syllable. When preceding vowels are necessary (as in ”anatake”) they are free-floating characters.

The ”anatake” is best suited to a brush or oblique cut quill, but can be cut in stone with simple tools with only some minor stylistic changes to reduce curvature.


In the ”pane”, pronunciation is roughly standard for Latin alphabet transliteration of Japanese. That is, ”u” is pronounced like ”oo” in ”boot”, ”o” is a long ”o” as in ”boat”, ”ai” is a long ”i” as in ”bite”, ”i” is pronounced as ”ea” in ”beak”, ”a” is a simple ”ah”, and ”e” is pronounced as ”eh”. Vowels have no special modifying characteristics as they would in English. Adjacent pronounced vowels are mysterious to lizardfolk and consequently letters like ”w” have no obvious translation. It remains to be seen how humans will adapt to this.


When transliterating it is common to use the ”u pane” for terminal consonants as in the terminal position a ”u pane” is barely pronounced in the lizardfolk tongue. Sometimes other ”pane” will be used however.


These entrances are all inscribed against the ”a” exit.


The origin of the ”faru” is not known, though presumably they are stylised from a previous ideographic character set. As the lizardfolk have been literate for a profoundly long time (while they appear to periodically lose technology they never seem to lose the art of writing and reading), the ”anatake” has undergone substantial normalisation since its origins.

Free-floating vowels

The free-floating vowels are used to precede the initial syllable when used in the lizardfolk tongue:


In human literacy these characters might be present before an internal syllable to indicate a dieresis or even stacked to indicate multiple vowel sounds as in, for example, the traditional transcription for Three Ways:

Transcribed literally as “tha-ri u-ai-su”


In some of the advanced cities of the lizardfolk a more cursive form is frequently seen. This is used more often in copies of books intended for rich patrons and are typically also illuminated.


Typographic details can vary quite dramatically in the e, a, and in some ways the u ”pane” without creating any ambiguity. The following variations on the a ”pane” are all feasible:


Obviously a stylistically consistent font can be made by inverting and reversing these for the e ”pane”.

The ”faru” are rather less amenable to variation and can rapidly lose their distinction if pushed too far.

Design Notes

In designing the ”anatake” I assume that the instinctive solution to creating a text from oral language is to map words onto symbols rather than phonemes as the phonemic structure appears to be the result of a deeper analysis — a greater level of generalisation than might initially be available to civilisations. The structure of the ”anatake” suggests, however, some of this deeper analysis in its construction and it might therefore even be the result of a later wave of lizardfolk to make sense of an earlier wave’s technology. That is, the reptiles may once have achieved the higher level of abstraction but when the technology was lost so was the context in which it existed. The ”anatake” would then be the result of a culture without sufficient context trying to make sense of an alphabetic system, ending up with the hybrid of a composed syllabary. The irony of this is evident in the Korean system of composed syllabary which is of explicitly modern design, though as a compromise between the power of an alphabetic system and the tradition of the existing Asian syllabaries rather than as the result of any lack of analysis.

It strikes me as interesting also that the inevitable battle between pronunciation derived purely from the written forms and pronunciation derived from the context plays itself out largely in the effort to abuse the ”anatake” by trying to get it to represent the human tongue, which is highly analogous to our own context-sensitive use of the Latin alphabet to transcribe English. The ”anatake” has a limited set of vowel sounds, for example, that are insufficient for English and has a pure syllabic structure that is also insufficient and therefore correct English pronunciation has to come from contextual interpretation of the letter forms that would not be necessary to the originators of the syllabary. In real languages forced to operate under the inadequately generalised Latin alphabet we solve this with contextually relevant groupings (”th” does not sound like a ”t” followed by an ”h”), contextual back references (vowels are elongated if they are followed several characters later by an ”e” as in ”rote” or ”lathe”), and diacritical marks. In Spiritus Mundi we have a world that is only now stumbling over these obstacles and will have widely varying unstandardised solutions.

There’s also an interesting translation problem that relates to the transliteration problem — when we talk about the human language of Spiritus Mundi, are we talking about English? The names suggest both yes and no. Does it make sense to transliterate English words into the ”anatake” if they are essentially translations of an unelaborated tongue? Further muddying this is the fact that we have used some certainly English words for names and some obviously Latin words as well, yet one of the tenets clearly indicates there is only one tongue amongst humans (and it’s certainly not believable that a society with only one language would have English as that language). This probably only bugs me and there can be no solution except to not transliterate English into the ”anatake” and that would suck so I choose to ignore the problem hereafter.

blast from the past: traveller musings

This first appeared on the now defunct skunkworks wiki for VSCA. It’s a love letter to the way I used to run Traveller and a response to canon fanatics on the Traveller Mailing List.

The Imperium According to Brad

There are many ways to interpret the setting details for Traveller — between multiple revisions of the game, board games with implied (and explicit) historical information , the ramifications of the technology, and the myriad actual games being played, the divergence is (pardon me) astronomical. So this here is just mine. When I run Traveller, this is the context.

The Imperium

The Imperium is an effort at maintenance — a philanthropic project that confronts the limitations of technology head on and makes hard decisions about how to minimize human suffering within that reality. It has no loftier (nor lesser) goal than the minimum suffering of Humaniti. The mechanism by which this is accomplished, however, is a vast disorder — a loosely connected and barely controlled balkanization of trillions. The secret to the success of the Emperor is an almost total release of command.

The Speed of Civilization

The core limitation of the Traveller universe is the speed of information. The only superluminal mechanism for transmission of information is the Jump drive which has a maximum range (approximately six parsecs) and a minimum time (a week). Nothing travels faster than that. We’ll take for granted that Special Relativity is wrong or incomplete so we can ignore causality issues. Anyway, this limitation means that you can’t maintain central control over any interesting distance — the minimum time between an event and your response is two weeks. The practical response time is vastly larger and the response must physically travel along one of a small number of calculable paths, making interception or blockade quite feasible. Empires that tried to maintain central control have fallen.

So this means that an existing high technology society cannot sustain neighbouring technologies — if a given society is suffering a major setback (war, future shock, catastrophic ennui) there is no certainty that it is possible, let alone economically viable, to sustain it externally. A critical tenet of the Imperium’s ruling philosophy, then, is that you can’t save everyone. The practical goal that follows is that there is a minimum level of technology that can be sustained on average given the limitations of travel speed and economics. That tech level, it turns out, is around 10.

The Imperium’s concrete efforts are to ensure that jump technology gets to societies that have lost it and to help create and sustain sufficient infrastructure to do so. They do not make any effort to control the leadership of these systems except where that leadership inhibits the primary goal of sufficient technology. The net result is a kind of feudalism and certainly the trappings of ancient feudal societies have been cheerfully adopted.

Fealty: The Exchange of Servitude for Jump Drives

The transaction that all systems in the Imperium undergo is an oath of fealty: the system agrees to have its economy and industry influenced (sometimes outright controlled but not necessarily) by an Imperial agent of noble blood. Their duty to the Emperor is to see to it that their charge attains and sustains at least tech level 10 — establishing a space port and the technology to make and keep making jump drives and therefore participate actively in interstellar trade. Their authority relies in large measure on the fact that he’s a conduit for improvement of the local way of life, but also on the military guarantee of the Empire — if things go badly the marines will show up. Not necessarily in any great hurry, but the Empire will assert itself.

These governor/observers usually carry some traditional feudal title like Duke or Count depending on the region, the social standing of the individual, the value of the holding, and the culture of the location. This Imperial delegate lasts as long as they are needed — sometimes that is decided by them, sometimes by the Imperium, and, in some unfortunate cases, it’s decided by the populace with the tacit approval of the Imperium. The actual mechanism of the observation and its connection to local authority is entirely at the discretion of this noble, but usually pursues an established ((Imperial Advancement Strategies|advancement schedule)). As long as they are demonstrating results their methods are rarely questioned.

The Reality of Technological Limits

Maintenance of a culture past tech level 15 appears to be impossible — no post-15 cultures have demonstrated any lasting stability and those currently at that state are all on the cusp of failure. The Imperium has tried to maintain these in the past but it is now considered an unarguable fact that these civilizations will fall. 15 appears to be a relatively stable level of technology and consequently this is the target technology level for all systems. It is not, however, commercially viable to try to do this outside of the immediate core of the Imperium, so the Empire stops pushing once a system can communicate and compete in interstellar affairs on its own.

A side effect of this is that the Imperial core worlds are all a little paranoid about technology — there is an effort (sometimes deliberate and sometimes unconscious) to fail to progress. Typically this expresses itself in an accretion of mysticism and in socio-political rituals around technology, limiting its efficiency and therefore its capacity to accelerate itself. Imperial core worlds are high tech places with low tech appearances. Swords are favoured over lasers, costume is highly decorative and hand crafted, the nobility ride horses to court, but everyone carries their hand computers and communications gear and is hooked into the world network. Technology has produced a great deal of leisure and luxury and the Imperials are determined to choke technological advancement with it. This as much as their goal of maintenance may explain the durability of the Imperium.

Client States

The systems that fall inside the Imperial borders that have shucked off the Imperial guidance are free to pursue their own interests as long as they do not disrupt Imperial interests. The obedience thus demanded from the Emperor is simple:

* You don’t interrupt the mail. The X-boat routes and the people and ships that ply them are absolutely sacrosanct. Problems with regular X-boat deliveries will result in the eventual arrival of the Imperial Navy and its Marines. Resolution will be swift and under the local discretion of the arriving military commanders (you can’t wait for clarification on orders with a six month turn around in the sticks).

* You obey interdiction zones. If the Imperium says you can’t visit a system, you can’t visit the system. An Imperial response here is usually restricted to systemic exploitation — systems are interdicted because it would be dangerous if colonised or exploited on a large scale. Sometimes, however, red zones can be very strict indeed with Imperial attention even to individuals crossing the line. Again, the threatened response is autonomous naval units with marine support.

* You don’t mess with the elevation exercises. Systems without jump technology are not interdicted, but any effort to keep the Imperium from achieving its goal of elevating the local technology to an interstellar one will be frowned upon. With ships and guns.

Other than that you are free to wreck your own and other civilizations through devastating local or interstellar warfare. Be careful of unplanned side effects that might attract Imperial attention though — when the Imperium chooses to end a war it takes the simplest possible route.

The Imperial Marines

Few things command faster compliance with Imperial dicta than the arrival of a squad of black and red battle dress uniforms — featureless visors, the whir of electro-mechanically enhance strength and mobility, and the blunt snouts of man portable fusion guns all contribute to the staggering awe inspired by these troops. Rumour of their dispatch is often enough to compel even the most stubborn rebel.

These troops are the expensive elite of a much broader organization, of course, but they are also the face of Imperial force, so while they are deployed as part of a more complex order of battle, they are nearly always present in every order of battle. The Imperium only sends troops when it intends to fight — there are no idle Imperial threats — so it never holds back to cut costs. The unit types available to any given deployment include:

Elite Imperial Guard

These are what you think of when you hear “Imperial marines”. They wear full battledress armour and wield FGMP-15s for all duties except boarding or the interdiction of high value structures, in which case they will carry a mix of Gauss rifles and laser rifles, retaining the FGMP as a squad support weapon instead of the standard longarm. These units are deployed to swiftly crush all resistance through sheer shock — they land without warning dropped from orbit individually and their missions are simple.

Imperial Interdiction Forces: Infantry

The IIF units are a little less imposing than the EIG but what they lack in enormity they gain back in number: the IIF deploys unpowered combat armour with FGMP-15 sidearms. The armour is lighter and cheaper but can’t be used for individual re-entry, so the IIF is deployed by carrier landing groups en masse. These units are used to occupy and defend ground taken by the EIG shock troops and will also provide the bulk of any counter-attacking forces.

IIF units will also maintain artillery components and nuclear damping units.

Imperial Interdiction Forces: Armour

The IIF infantry is supported by fast fire and maneuver grav tank platoons capable of delivering direct and indirect heavy weapons fire on distant targets. As they are extremely expensive to move (mass is cost when you’re shipping a hundred parsecs) these armour units are often built to specification at the nearest TL-15 industrial base and as a result will vary in specific loadout depending on local resources and, perhaps more relevantly, local terrain and opposition.

Armament will vary most widely ranging from rocket-assisted low velocity CPR artillery to VRF gauss anti-personnel only to Z-category fusion weapons. Closer to the Imperial core meson guns may also be present in some numbers.

Armour is always the most bonded superdense that can be manufactured and deployed on the frame and power supply: the marines like their armour invulnerable.

Supporting gear will include laser detection and counter-measures, a full range of target detection and acquisition electronics, and nuclear damping gear.


The Imperial marines are further supported by a broad base of logistic and command personnel wearing uniform cut black and red combat environment suits. The standard sidearm for support troops is the ((IMS-66 TL15 Snub Pistol)), an autoloading variant of the snub pistol loaded with self-guiding subsonic ammunition with a dual purpose explosive warhead and a sophisticated ranging and target marking system.

The Solomani

The Solomani are a loose confederacy of interstellar governments that achieves by accident what the Imperial devotes effort to. No central authority exists and efforts to make one happen are stillborn. The difference in actual effort results in a similar result but with a different statistical profile — Solomani systems have the same mean technology level but the distribution is closer to even. In the Imperium there is a big bump in the curve around tech 11-12 because of Imperial management policies. In the Solomani space there is no such bump — any efforts to elevate pre-interstellar cultures are purely local efforts.

Similarly there is no resistance to technological advance. Practically speaking this means that there are more TL15+ worlds than in Imperial space because there are no brakes on progress, but there are also many more recently fallen cultures that have reached there socio-technological barriers and been crushed back to pre-atomic industrial capacity. Or worse — there are plenty of scarred and empty wastelands in Solomani space too.

The nature of this near anarchy is such that further describing the Solomani as though they were a single entity is fruitless. Where they war with the Imperium their war is local in both effect and context for the Solomani even where it is of Imperial interest.

The Express

The Solomani do have an X-boat system and it is the reason they continue to exist as an interstellar entity, but it is not centralised as it is with the Vilani. Instead meddling with the Express is something of a cultural taboo — it’s simply not done. This means, of course, that it is indeed occasionally done, but it’s generally reacted to violently by all affected systems. It most often happens in times of war though its impact on systems nearby that are not involved in the fray makes it an undesirable tactic for the aggressors, almost to the point of being considered a war crime.

The Express is a system of private companies that manage the routes between themselves. In high density subsectors the competition is fierce and a valuable system may have as many as a dozen competing Express companies, some inter-sector and many inter-system. This system is less efficient than the Imperial X-boat network but is also completely unmanaged, making support of the system the problem of the interested parties rather than all citizens. In practice the differences are negligable. Basically in the Imperium your delivery is a near certainty with a very predictable schedule whereas in Solomani space your delivery is marginally less certain and you have a wide variety of choice for delivery speed, insurance, route, and of course, cost.

The Vargr

While not truly alien in any strict sense, the Vargr represent a problem in perspective as well as practical politics for the Imperium. They are loosely organised, much like the Solomani, but have much less of a pre-disposition towards order. Their internal communications are again similar to the Solomani but, due to their cultural tendency towards piracy, not nearly as reliable. This means that there really is no one in Vargr space for the Imperium to talk to — at least with the Solomani they can negotiate with the various Express companies and big traders, but with the Vargr the largest clans represent only a few thousand individuals at best.

The most obvious consequence of this is that, where the Imperium borders on Vargr space, a military presence is provided to deter Vargr piracy but no actual effort towards political contact is made. This seems to suit the Vargr just fine.

The Incursion Zones

The Incursion Zones are a series of systems in the ((Arbalest)) sector that have no clear relationship but that are the source of significant attention from an otherwise unaggressive alien species — the Khelkevarians. Each of the systems were colonised many years ago by designated Imperial colony forces but have been in a constant state of warfare since their inception. Whether they were previously occupied or have since been invaded is not clearly understood though the Imperium, in choosing the terminology of “Incursion Zones” has declared their position on the matter.


The first contact in the Incursion Zones occurred in the colony of ((Typhoon: Khelkevaria|Khelkevaria)), a habitable moon of a gas giant in the bio zone of a yellow star in the region. Early technology imports established an industry there in the lush jungles that proved a rich source of organics ranging in utility from tailored bacteria to anagathics. Valuable both for its stratgeic location on a single jump path through the Corridor and for these natural resource, it soon became hotly contested by a species that has come to be knowne as the Khelkevarians even though they do not originate from that system.

The Khelkevarian moon is a deep jungle with a dense canopy that reaches dozens of kilomters above ground. The base of the forest is an organic soup in a high pressure atmosphere while the upper zones are dominated by predatory avian species and flimsy light gathering foliage. Only in the middle zone is there a suitable region for habitation and this is where the colonies themselves lie — using the trunk and branch systems of the huge World Trees for both foundation and transportation in the mid-zone where the atmospheric pressure is roughly normal for human habitation.

It is in this forested world that the Khelkevarians, a pseudo-reptilian high technology race battle Imperial forces for control. No real attempt at communication has ever been made between the two forces and the war has raged for many years. The electromagnetic interference from the gas giant makes ship detection extremely difficult and so both sides regularly attempt rapid deployment of ground troops while larger scale naval battles occasionally break out in deeper space. Both are essentially attempting to blockade access to the surface and both are largely unsuccessful.

The Khelkevarians appear to excel in gravitics technology — in these areas they are closer to TL15.

Khelkevarian Assault Forces

The Khelkevarian invaders have substantial technological and industrial resources somewhere on the moon — something that is very easy to hide in the dense forest that covers the entire planetoid — and produce effective fighting forces well suited to the environment. They do not appear to be able to breath the atmosphere in the mid-world (nudge nudge) but may be more suited to the higher pressures below. Their technology level is approximately TL13 but they exhibit both higher and lower variations, leading to speculation that they have a widely spanning empire not unlike the Imperium in which some variation of technological capacity exists.

Incursion Troops

Human mercenary in a captured gravcan.

The basic unit of the Khelkevarian forces is the Incursor — a Khelkevarian in TL13 hardsuit combat armour with a “gravcan” on the lower half that can be detached instantly if needed. The gravcan provides rapid propulsion and lift allowing for speedy traversal of the World Tree branch networks. Incursors are typically armed with some Gauss rifle system, often the ((KM-119 Khelkevarian Close Quarters Gauss System|KM-119 system)) designed for very close quarters combat. These troops obviously specialise in very rapid deployment and ambush and will typically establish an ambush with two or more wings of reinforcements ready to exploit or extract the ambush once sprung. The Khelkevarians invented the gravitically polarised charge, TDX, that is now prevalent in Imperial forces and the Incursors always carry a great deal of it as demolitions charges or grenades.


The logistic and command arm of the Khelkevarians have not bee sighted and certainly not captured. They may not exist or they may not be distinct from the Incursors. Certainly when heavy weapons installations are established (such as the usual VRF Gauss brackets often installed on Khelkevarian owned branches) they are installed and manned by Incursor troops. There appear to be no distinct engineers or other supporting units.


Somewhere along the way marketing an independent game got way harder for me.

With Diaspora we had a lot of community contact during development through and many of the readers and posters there bought the game, wrote about their experiences, and voted in the ENnies. We won a gold for Best Rules. We sold (and still sell) a lot of Diaspora.

Three years later we released Hollowpoint. There was some engagement at but a lot of the contact was through the blue collar space blog (now defunct): existing VSCA customers looking forward to the next game. Hollowpoint sold well (not as well as Diaspora) and still sells. It’s a great game. We didn’t win an ENnie but we were nominated for best game. Given the sales (and therefore the voting body for the game) that’s not surprising. And I am very proud of that nomination.

Zero Dark Thirty was a casualty. I think I’m just still pissed that they stole my title for a movie.

Then there was a long break. I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, lost my gaming group. my wife got very sick, and generally I was unable to create. During this period Kickstarter emerged as a way to get enough pre-sales money to do big production books. Lots of colour, pretty product, and most importantly connection to a lot of people who seem very eager to put money down on product that won’t show up for a year or two. Also during that period started banishing any post that smelled like shilling your game to a subforum that no one reads. A new community emerged that made no sense to me and a valuable community for an independent community designer got shut down.

I tried a few little things in the interim, not trying very hard. Elysium Flare was baking in the back of my head. Soft Horizon was just being troublesome.

Well perhaps I waited too long. The original audience, the VSCA fans, had become dispersed. Some of them just grew out of role-playing games (not sure how that happens). They forgot who we are. The locations of the communities changed. There are more and they are stranger, full of young people (get off my lawn). There’s a lot of video and audio (which I really can’t use in my home). Kickstarter became sort of the only way to sell games.

So for me, mostly interested in making a book about a game, selling it to you, and then moving on to the next game, my market disappeared. Or went into hiding. My old home,, makes the pretense of being non-commercial by ghettoizing independent game announcements (though strangely there’s a whole thread just for Kickstarters pinned to the front page of tabletop-open — I am not sure I understand what privileges Kickstarter). And Kickstarter dominates — it’s kind of the only game in town. And I just don’t like it (for me, in my opinion, your mileage may vary, and all that good shit).

Worse for me, I think I pissed off some people with the power to generate buzz and thanks to the way the Internet works, when someone pisses you off you can kind of shut them off forever, meaning any miscommunication can become banishment with no chance of reconciliation — there’s no accidental meeting at a dinner party where you get drunk and in a maudlin fit explain each other to each other and bury the hatchet. Now you just get disappeared. Or maybe everyone grew up but me. I know at least one grew up and I miss him a lot.

That doesn’t mean there’s no way to do this any more. It just means that the ways changed (and in ways that are mostly social, not technological) and the audience got harder to find. And my tastes have changed as well and since I sell what I love to play, when my tastes change I have to actively try to find the audience that changed with me. That turns out to be very hard. Exhausting, even.

So I am at peak creativity — two releases this year and maybe a third (though more likely Sand Dogs will be coming out in 2019). More planned for next year. But at a low point in my reach, which is very demoralizing.

The games, however, are still going out since the zero-risk model is still in effect. This mess is not stopping me, just disappointing me.

blast from the past: agency

This post is a reprint from 2010, part of the lost archives of blue collar space. I’m bringing it out because it’s right at the birth of the whole play structure of Hollowpoint, a game of which I am very proud.

Story and RPG and Protagonism

Warning: this may ramble.

There is a lot of work on the table that tries to understand role-playing games in terms that we already know from trying to understand story. We’ve been trying to understand story (and story has been changing over this time, but also not, if you get my meaning here) for a really long time and so it seems natural to apply this knowledge to role-playing games. They do look like stories, after all. Well, at least after we finish playing and think about what happened, we hear a story in our heads. When we type up an actual play report, we present a story.

When I listen to the audio of an evening’s play, however, I mostly hear a social event in which a game is being played and some great scenes are being described. In a way it’s rather more like geeks talking about a film they loved and re-hashing their favourite parts than it is like an actual story.

So when people use theory to try and make role-playing games better at delivering story, I have to wonder if that’s really on the right track. Maybe role-playing games shouldn’t be stories.

The reason this struck me recently (it has struck me in the past too) is because we are in the process of critiquing the Game That Still Has No Name But Likely Will Be Called Hollowpoint or Ruthless (GTSHNNBLWBCHOR) and one of the criticisms external to play experience is that the tactically solid choice of sacrificing a character for resources and consequently getting a new character de-protagonizes the character. It creates a greater disjunct between player and character than we normally expect. The unstated implication of this critique is that this is a bad thing.

So this actually has several hidden premises which I will try to reveal in order to understand why this issue is not actually an issue in play.

One premise is that being the protagonist is a valuable story element to bring to a game. This is the deepest laid premise I think and one which is taken for granted in most games, so let’s look at it.

A tabletop game with four or five people interacting is not usually about a single hero and her sidekicks. Instead it is less artificial and more natural: it is about people who perceive themselves as the central element of the story even though they are not. This does not work well in a traditional story because the author is trying to forge a relationship between the reader and the story and the cheapest and most effective way to do that is to have her identify strongly with a character. We might call this character the protagonist. So having half a dozen protagonists dilutes the effect of the story by trying to sell the reader on investing in multiple characters. The difficulty here multiplies if the characters have opposing motivations, asking the reader to sympathise not just with multiple characters but with multiple distinct perspectives.

So, from this we have to conclude that when a role-playing game is not explicitly about a single protagonist and her henchmen, we have a disjunct between traditional story-telling and what we want for fun play at the table. Fortunately, however, we are not speaking to a single reader — the whole table comprises a communal audience-as-author — and so we are not bound by elements of storytelling that assume one. As this is a novel (though not unique) form of entertainment — a story that is told only through its construction and that therefore has to be compelling in its mechanism (the process of construction) as well as in its output (the story, though clearly we want a better word) — it perhaps merits a more novel analysis.

This doesn’t speak to the fact that a player might want to cling to a character. That’s all cool and should have a reward attached so that they get something for fulfilling that desire, so that they don’t feel that striving for it is pointless. But shucking it does give you something that clinging to it doesn’t: the heroic sacrifice. If we hold the player-character connection (protagonization) as a sacrosanct feature of gaming, then we lose the capacity to have a heroic sacrifice, an ironic fatality, and all that other good stuff in the middle of play. And (as we will see) if we assume “play” means “long-term play” then we can only have it if we wait a long time first. And then we risk only doing it when we’re bored of the character, perhaps deflating our experience of the irony or the sacrifice.

The other premise is that this character will last longer than one or two sessions. If the game is run as a one-shot, then there is no strong binding between player and character anyway. This seems to allow us to emphasize the “life is cheap” motif of the game and deliver samurai-story gaming rather than long term heroic gaming. For sure there is no “hero’s journey” to be had here. There are no heroes, period.

Now this is not to say that feeding the character-player connection is universally (or even usually) wrong! Far from it. It’s a design principle that is common for good reason. Indeed it’s arguably the primary reason for all character advancement systems (the zero-to-hero model has always smelled like horseshit to me in the context of gaming, but that’s another post). But we need to occasionally wonder if there’s not some other things to experience that are also fun by dissociating ourselves just a little. By reveling in the superstructure in which characters play their roles as well as in the characters themselves.

I think that’s the place where GTSHNNBLWBCHOR wants to be. Emphasizing that life is cheap, that fatality is a tool, that you can’t sustain an adrenaline rush forever, and that the new guy, arriving with a history, has a story too.

ghost ship

Screenshot 2018-12-14 13.40.28
Did I mention the graphic design is great? It is. See?

Jay Iles wrote this awesome game.

It’s called Ghost Ship and it’s in alpha right now. You should go read it and play it. There are nearly 170 pages of it so set some time aside.

You were a person but now you’re dead. Fortunately for you, they scanned your brain and installed you in a space ship’s computer. Unfortunately for you, it’s not really your ship. You’re property, software, a commodity. But maybe you can become more than that as you gain memories and maybe some humanity. Providing your memories don’t become irretrievably corrupted. Or just wrong.

Right now Ghost Ship is kind of a box of parts (something the author herself has said). But wow, what cool parts. And the graphic design is vibrant and stark and evocative. And Juan Ochoa drew the robots.

It feels like a hack of Blades in the Dark but it runs pretty far afield (or maybe just far abroad), though keeping the mission + downtime (At Ease in this game) structure. There are subsystems for managing yourself, your software, your drones, and your ship. It’s quite complex and I can’t help thinking that it would benefit from a little refactoring: find some commonality and restate some of these detailed subsystems as special cases of some easily described structure. But then these subsystems are wicked cool and any one would be a very hard darling to kill.

I also got the feeling that Jay hasn’t quite decided what kind of game it is — it feels a little like there are different intentions colliding but I can’t put my finger on why. Do you feel that way? Have a better intuition for what’s causing it.

The highlight for me is the memory system: you have memories and they can be used to influence a die roll under fairly specific circumstances. But you are software and your memories are volatile and be corrupted which can change them in fairly specific ways (like, say, reversing the tone: your positive memory is now a horror). And it can get worse and worse until you lose the memory altogether. But you can try to repair it (complicated by the fact that you don’t remember what it was supposed to be). One could build a whole game around just this.

Ground rules for commentary:

  • be positive. That doesn’t mean don’t be critical, but if you have criticism be specific and don’t be hypothetical: if you think it doesn’t play, play it and prove (or disprove) your hypothesis.
  • be generous. Assume the author is at least as intelligent as you. Give them the benefit of every doubt.
  • discuss as though you will be criticised. Let’s make an environment where people want to discuss.
  • be concrete. Again. Talk about actual things not hypotheticals. Hypotheticals can often be better phrased as a question. Ask a question if you’re wondering! Comment if you read and don’t understand or played and had trouble.
  • praise where warranted. A post saying THIS IS AWESOME is just fine. Welcomed even.

i made a mistake

In one of my recent Sand Dogs playtests I made a grave error.

Our heroes got lost in the desert and suffered from a risk realised: HARM. The realisation was that they all suffered from sunstroke from the extended time exposed to the elements. They each get a WOUND: sunstroke. That was fine.

An appropriate Soft Horizon wound gives you a real problem to solve.

The mistake was I decided that realistically, once they found water and shade they were fine. This completely undermined the system, which depends on a WOUND being a significant drawback and requiring time and narration to resolve since its resolution introduces a SCAR which is a net benefit.

I was still thinking old school, still cheating to move the narrative towards success, towards the existing established goals. The system doesn’t reward that. It rewards leaning into the problem, dealing with disaster. I should have made the WOUND worse to keep myself from doing this: dying from exposure, maybe.

The result of my error is that a potentially interesting problem which needed solving and would divert the narrative in a new direction got trivialized in order to let me pursue the existing narrative. And the result of that was that play sputtered for a bit unnecessarily and, worse, the players were deprived of a new twist to handle.

Those twists are the beating heart of Soft Horizon game play.

So I had a session that I felt a lot of stress starting because it didn’t start anywhere interesting and that’s a failure because reducing my stress is exactly why I wrote this system the way I did. I undermined my own solution to make me and no one else happy! Old habits are so very hard to break.

So don’t do that. Lean into it. If the dice say things are awful, make them awful. That’s what’s supposed to happen.