out of my comfort zone

I keep trying to up my art game. I’ve been playing around with improving my shading skills, trying new brushes, and generally just trying to more…gooder. When you practice at this you constantly get better, but you get better slower and slower until you suddenly get a lot better and then the curve starts over getting slower again.

You can force that reset.

IMG_0621One way to force it is to try something outside your comfort zone. Now I’m normally all about pencil and ink. When I first started drawing it was with technical pens. Straight from blank page to ink on paper. I was not very good, but I got a little better. Today I still love ink; I love line work. I love an outline for making an image concrete.

IMG_0618One day Juan Ochoa showed my a trick. At first tricks seem like cheating but tricks are not cheating. Tricks are ways that a decent artist gets better results faster. Anyway, Juan’s trick is this: do your ink. Then create a new layer under the ink and paint your values. Your grey scale. Your shading. Very cool, this lets you do some shading and looks swell. But that’s not the trick. The trick is, when you want to add colour, add another layer between the ink and the values and set the layer to multiply. What this does is add the value of the lower layer to the current layer. What that means is that you can paint flat colour and the shading layer will come through, shading your colour. This gives you the illusion of having mixed a bunch of colour shades when in fact you just did the grey scale in one pass first. It’s not perfect but it looks good and it’s fast. It’s a trick. A very valuable trick.

Anyway, I needed to force the plateau again and what I’ve been doing feels half way to, well, painting.

It’s not.

I grabbed some new software for this — I love using the Adobe Sketch app for ink and values illustration but it’s limited for painting. So on a recommendation I got Procreate. It’s solid. Good brushes and a good blender. And I started painting.

IMG_0623.pngIt’s not the same. It’s a much more interesting problem to mix shades but the side effect is that you get some hue variation as well just because you’re imperfect. And that’s actually better. It’s more real. Things reflect all kinds of different colours and your eye notices even if your brain doesn’t process it analytically. Consciously. It matters.

And there are tricks. And they are not cheating. I swear it. For example, I used a fair amount of cut and paste in this one so far. But it’s far faster to cut and paste and then correct colour, change up texture with the blending tool, and so on than to repaint identical objects identically. I can barely draw a straight line let alone the same one twice.

So now I’m on that upward slope again, learning new tricks. Even if it is, at the moment, just to go back to Elysium Flare ships.

when the system engages invisibly

When playtesting it can be frustrating to get a session where there are no rolls. After all, you’re trying to test the system and where was the system? But the system is more than the dice you roll — there are other mechanisms, usually, and there is also the negative space: when the roll doesn’t happen because of what it would mean if it did. That is, when the system engages the story by being declined. Exactly because of what it will do.

Yes, this is a true story.

Our last playtest session had no rolls. So how did the system engage?

Negative space: there was one situation where an action led to an offer of a roll but was declined.

JB: So no passages leading off? Just a fuck-you huge pit? I’ll try to commune with a vegetable machine. Like grab a less mobile appendage and see if I can somehow mind-meld or something.

Brad: You see nothing that seems sentient. Just vegetable labour. So nothing talks. But that sounds like SOCIALIZE to me with risk HARM. Only because you want to get close to what’s essentially industrial machinery.

JB: Hmm. [examining character sheet which has DENY for SOCIALIZE] Ah, fuck it.

Brad: But your scar counts.

JB: So 2d6 or just 1?

Brad: They aren’t insects, so 1d6. Very probable injury.

JB: Seeing the OSHA-violating implications, Marc beats a hasty retreat.

A good conflict system means that sometimes you don’t go in guns blazing: it gives you measurable factors to weigh and decide. Sometimes you do, though.

So nothing happened but we have an interesting choice: Marc isn’t that confident in his new ability to communicate with alien vegetable monsters, and also reinforces his denial of SOCIALIZE as a method. It’s not what he’s good at, it makes him uncomfortable, and adding the significant risk of an industrial accident, he lets that opportunity go by. The system is doing what it’s intended to do: the player plays into the choices they made about their character (denying SOCIALIZE in this case) and the player is making risk calculations based on the risk and sometimes not taking an action. The possibility of information from the vegetable machines is abandoned and a different path must be taken through the narrative because of the system. Working as intended.

This is the same as a party in a D&D campaign deciding to rest for the night because they are wounded, branching the narrative from pressing on wounded through the wilderness to resting, telling campfire stories, and getting jumped by bugbears while asleep in their armour. Negative space is important: if every choice to engage the dice is answered with “yes please!” then there is a missed opportunity for the system to forge another path.

And then there’s instruction to the ref. In Sand Dogs there is a ref prep sheet, just a few lines, and one of the prompts is “introduce someone interesting”:

Brad: You hear a high pitched buzz of insect wings. A speck on the other side of the pit slowly resolves as a large flying insect person. What do you do?

Dune: Hail!

JB: I’ll wave at them.

Dune: Duarte waves his arms as well.

Brad: The bug thing flies over the pit to you. It is multi-segmented like a flying centipede and has dozens of arms and/or legs. As it comes close it strokes a beard of tiny eating legs thoughtfully. “I thought you were Tik but you are not!”

JB:  “Tik has asked us to help.”

Brad: “Help how? This vegetable machine thing makes no sense at all. What was she thinking?” It throws a dozen limbs upwards in exasperation. “Would it be rude for me to land?”

Dune: “Please land.” I make room.

Brad: It lands. “Kanikalakiwinazzztakila. You may call me Kan.” It waits expectantly.

Yes, sure, you can add an NPC any time you want without a rule. But I have a rule: when you’re in a lull, wondering how to push things forward, check your prep sheet. And one of the things there is to invent someone interesting to talk to. System engaged. Kan now exists and branches the narrative. Casual statements like “flying insect person” turn into story inflections — if the characters make friends can they fly with Kan? That’d be handy.

You might think of it on your own. But with this you have a recipe and you won’t flounder because you didn’t.

Another ref cue is “recall a missed hook”. Ages ago the characters met and befriended a tough sand dog named Rachael but they left her in the previous plane. She wasn’t that interesting. So I find this cue and think, “maybe she is”:

Brad: Tik says “Well don’t I look foolish. What a waste of land the vegetable machines are.”

JB: “Harrison told you it would be good?”

Brad: “Not-Harrison did. Harrison just demanded things. I thought perhaps you were all mentally ill.” [Tik was under the impression until very recently that humans were a hive mind, all the same, because they look so similar and she had named them all Harrison.]

JB: “Well, he was.”

Brad: Tik says, “Well the meet is moot. Will you do a last thing for me? I cannot bear the waste.”

JB: “Sure.”

Dune: “Of course.”

Brad: Tik says, “Find not-Harrison and bring her to here. It seemed so important. She went by Rachael.”

Hurray! I get Rachael back into play. I liked her then and now she’s way more important than previously. Now it’s implied that she’s a planewalker and maybe an enemy or rival of this Harrison villain. The story opens up wide.

The system is more than just the conflict mechanism and its side effects. It is also in how the conflict system inspires people to sometimes deny operating it. And it is in all of the bits and pieces that guide the referee. Don’t focus too hard on your conflict system — there’s a lot of other game to play.


designing to counter ref stress

I design games for me. I sell them because I think some of you are enough like me to make them worth your time.

dinner diceI am coming to realize that one of the things I like is really an old-school feel to a game — that is, it’s about well-defined characters interacting with an environment to discover, explore, and grow. This does not, however, demand old school mechanisms: it’s not clear to me that they were ever the best way to do this. For me.

So aside from that, the new designs (the Soft Horizon work) are built to accomplish that but relieve my particular pain points. My stresses. The things that cause me to feel relief when a session is canceled (which is a sucktastic way to approach gaming). Here are my pain points:

Prepping story. I am not a plotter. I don’t want to plot. I want to discover and enable the players’ interests. Current designs therefore avoid this by providing motivation and twists mechanically. Motivation is baked into characters through WOUNDS and DEBTS: when you have one of these you need to solve it or your functionality is degraded. And they derive from prior action (though you get one for free when you start play) so they are regenerated throughout play. Twists arrive through the risk mechanism: when a risk is realised the onus sometimes is on the ref to create new information and inject it into the story. Weirdly, I am fine ad libbing this in a well defined way but not fine writing it as prep before play. I’m pretty sure I know why this is: I don’t like homework and so much homework becomes irrelevant in play. By contrast I find that inventing an amusing twist based on immediate information is fairly easy — and when it’s not, I offer a risk that doesn’t do that. Mmm, I’m relaxing already.

Figuring out what to do next. This is a place I need to prep — what will happen if the players aren’t moving forward in pursuit of their own goals? But I don’t want to do a ton of preparation — I want to do the minimum necessary to get play progressing. And so I have a set of very simple cues that you can fill out before play with one phrase or less. You won’t use all of them in play. You might not use any. And any that you don’t use stay on the prep sheet for later. So what happens is, before the first session when you’re super hyped and full of ideas, you jot down a dozen or so half-formed ideas based on cues provided. And then before every session you have a look and maybe update one or two.

Controlling player satisfaction. Making sure the players are happy is a major stress point and this is where system so often lets me down. It lets me down when it takes more time than it’s worth. It lets me down when the mechanism makes someone feel bad (they get mind controlled or they die or they lose a level from undead draining or whatever). So the system is fast. Nothing takes a terribly long time to resolve. There are specific mechanisms to stretch out the narration when one roll and a speech feel inadequate, but you choose to extend the process only when you want to extend it and not based on some external pressure like “it’s combat time”. And characters don’t die unless they want to. And it turns out that they want to more often than I thought. In fact they die (or otherwise choose to exit play) more often than in games I play where death is dictated by the rules. Because I usually cheat in those games.

Cheating. I don’t want to fudge the dice. I don’t want the onus to be on me to arbitrarily resolve something that should be mechanically resolved. But some games have random outcomes that are not fun. Not for me and not for the players. So instead two things happen in this game: results are always fun (or at least never not fun) and I as ref don’t roll at all. I can’t cheat if I don’t get to roll.

This is the purpose of the Soft Horizon games: quit making me feel sad about playing and happy about cancelling. Most other games, honestly, I’d rather just chat with my friends than play. But I didn’t realize that until I made a game that fixes it.

The Soft Horizon SRD is available for free from itch.io.

The King Machine, the first instance of the Soft Horizon is available in PDF and hardcopy at DTRPG.

blast from the past: saride

I love me some lizardfolk. Back before we built Diaspora we played some Burning Wheel in a setting we built with Universalis. Central to the story was the dominant species, the lizardfolk, or “Saride”. Humans were illiterate and could not forge steel Saride could but suffered cycles of civilization as their animal core eventually destroyed them. Recently some Saride had learned to eat fish, which at once satisfied their carnivorous needs and did not provoke their Bloodlust and this allowed these communities to interact safely with humans. Below is a revision of the Saride work we did, excising the Burning Wheel material. Enjoy!

“Saride” in their own script.

Lizardfolk (”Saride”, as they call themselves) have an affinity for all things objectively holy — that is, those things that relate to the side of Creation in the Fall. They are powerful carnivores and are fully literate. Since the war they have a racial hatred for all humans though there are individuals that reject this. They are exceptional weaponsmiths, holding the key to steel working, which only recently has been stolen by humans.


They are above all honourable, a trait that has been their downfall in war.

Lizardfolk spend a long time maturing — more so even than humans — during which period they are hatchlings. Some small percentage of hatchlings eat their sibling eggs if given the opportunity, which is usually a sign of serious mental deficiency. These eggeaters often revert to animal instincts, becoming outcasts and living wild and alone. These animal regressions may even revert to quadrapedal locomotion.

Technically lizardfolk are not reptiles as they are warm-blooded and are better described as ”saurian”. Their biological relationship is about midway between alligator-like large reptiles and the large birds. Their warm-bloodedness makes them well suited to most environments and they can spend as much time active as humans, though they prefer drier and warmer climates in general. They have powerfully muscled upper bodies, well suited to tool use including (maybe especially) weapons.

Lizardfolk suffer from the spiritual disease of Lust, and their entire culture is structured around ways to prevent it from triggering the next Great Migration. Individuals that are beginning to lose control are sometimes exiled where they may revert to animal nature or otherwise cope with their hungers. Sometimes, however, they are isolated within the military — used as the kernel of terrifying shock troops, spurred on to suicidal ferocity by the nearly insane among them.

In almost all lizardfolk cities, the core organisation is the Legion. The Legion is the only military organization and it has deep rules of etiquette and heraldry as it arose as an early solution to Lust: by placing strict constraints on behaviour, Lust can be somewhat ameliorated. This is the core of the Civilised trait (see below). Young lizardfolk are raised by no one in particular, though typically someone will take the role of Clutch-keeper and ensure that all the young are accounted for and taught cultural basics.

Lizardfolk in the city of Stonard have a unique stability insofar as they have the opportunity to take advantage of increased population density without increasing the density of lizardfolk as they live here side-by-side with humans. This co-existance of lizardfolk with humans may in fact be the solution to the Great Migration, contrary as it is to their instinctive hatred of (and desire to eat) humans.

Lizardfolk everywhere like games, but unlike their human counterparts, games of chance like dice or cards are not popular. Reptiles prefer games of strategy and there are several that have long cultural histories with rich strategic depth along the lines of both chess and go.

Lizardfolk always start in the Legion setting unless they are born in Stonard.

In the Legion a young saride will learn weapons and tactics and how to control their passions. If they fail at this control, they may still find a place in the military, though not as Legionnaires.

Saride that lose control or are born eggeaters may become outcasts. By most standards they are at least wild and often insane, but this is also a path to spirit binding: many great wizards are insane saride outcasts.

Some saride become scholars. This is a diverse category, including poets, navigators, cartographers, calligraphers, and astrologers. The scholar has high esteem in saride society: the are emblematic of a citizen overcoming Lust.

Saride born in Stonard are most often merchants and rhetoriticians.

Lizardfolk are natural carnivores and carry the natural weapons to prove it. They may use their needle-toothed jaws as a weapon when in inside arm’s reach fighting distance. The sharp bony claws protrude from their fingers and in the military these might be enhanced with steel gauntlets or finger rings.

Lizardfolk are honourable to a fault. This trait grants advantage on all tests that require honesty and fairness but a disadvantage on all tests that require falsehood, backstabbing, or deception.

Lizardfolk warriors are well versed in feeding themselves while on the battlefield, usually on the bodies of their fallen enemies. They see this as an honourable and even holy disposition of corpses though some species do not agree.

Animal reverts regain some of their ancestral sense of smell. Whenever their quarry is not actively attempting to disguise their scent, they gain advantage in tracking and observation. If they have been wild for long periods they often re-acquire quadrapedal locomotion, suffering some physical adaptation in the process. This makes them faster on all four legs than when bipdeal and Lizardfolk with this trait will often only stand on two legs in order to see further.

Lizardfolk at the heart of city culture are more resistant to their Lust. In this fashion both technology and art act against the great migration, and each civilisation lasts slightly longer. Indeed some saride have grown up with humans and only see them as prey in a suppressable way much in the same way as a human can see a cow not not immediately think of food.

The defining attribute of the lizardfolk is Lust. Their unquenchable Lust is the result of their designer’s intention: they shall be free in action but not in spirit. The presence of a fresh mammalian kill can drive a saride wild to eat. Or to kill. Nearby fighting may also provoke the response. For the particularly susceptible even a bad argument can turn into a frenzy of blood.

As lizardfolk are carnivores, food trade must revolve solely around meat. Farming animals is a dangerous pursuit for them and what animal farms exist have slaughtering duties carefully partitioned from other aspects of the industry. Hunters typically hunt alone and dress the kill well away from populations. They may even prepare the kill by smoking and/or salting well away from civilisation as well, making hunting a long term effort — the hunter must spend days or even weeks in the field carrying with them the equipment needed to preserve kills before returning. A necessary result of all this is that while lizardfolk vastly prefer a fresh kill, they will in populated areas have developed a taste for preserved or even partially rotten meat. Some of the most urban claim to have a preference for it.

When a saride goes wild, nearby saride may be compelled to do so as well. Consequently lizardfolk tend not to congregate in situations that may provoke a Lust response. They typically eat alone or in very small groups — no banquets or food festivals — and their spirit magics are also highly isolated. Similarly there will be no surviving lizardfolk populations that value combat as sport. Dueling will be strictly an honour matter to be settled out of reach of any others — even observers or seconds — and it would be considered the height of bad manners or even criminal behaviour to duel in a populated area.

This effect will also produce small unit strategies in order to reduce the risk of losing control of an entire army because of an exuberant few. The doctrine of fighting in rigid formation may act to reduce individual efforts outside the command as well.

Saride that have succumbed to their lust eventually affect those around them even when not overcome by it. Consequently saride that are becoming erratic or causing disturbances will eventually be isolated. Known dangerous backgrounds and occupations like spirit binders, combat veterans, and animal reverts will be ostracised. Scholarship and craftsmanship will be preferred in the urban setting for the purposes of congregation and consequently effective leadership of a lizardfolk society by the military alone is improbable and dangerous.

Lizardfolk take honour very seriously. Humans have cause to take their honour very seriously as well. When a saride discovers they have been lied to or that their reputation has been deliberately besmirched somehow, they will typically extract a most brutal and immediate revenge. Lust is not subtle. Society is therefore rigidly structured by etiquette and heraldry. Wherever lizardfolk must congregate in any numbers, heraldry identifies ranks of implied obedience as well as other more subtle cues to acceptable behaviour. Lizardfolk will be evasive rather than deceptive and will wield the truth bluntly as a weapon when needed. Lizardfolk do not haggle and may be offended by obvious incentives to do so — best to offer a fair price up front.

Lizardfolk do not have a family structure and consequently blood relationships are rarely known, let alone a resource of any use. Relationships worth mentioning are more typically debts of honour, long standing friendships or enmities, or professional relationships.

nerd family

This might not be popular right now because the reflex is going to be to start hunting witches.

For good or ill our little communities are a lot like gangs. Not in their mandate, but rather in what they provide below the surface of their stated purpose. People join to find some family. They join to be seen, to be supported, and to generate the comradery of the herd. They feel good. Even if you already have lots of great real family, having a family surrogate online is still great.

So when a gang is poisoned as has happened recently, we are going to have a lot of family members trying to save themselves. Trying to keep some sense of family. There are a lot of different ways they will try to handle this problem.

Some will stand by their existing family no matter what, even if it means swallowing the poison.

IMG_20160603_104159.jpgSome will abandon the toxic horror and set out on their own. They may find new family. That may be easy or hard depending on how they handled the horror. But it’s going to take a little work at least because they will carry the smell of it or, maybe worse, believe that they do. And noses are pretty twitchy right now.

And a lot will want to leave but believe they can’t. Especially if we are telling them they are witches and that witches must burn. And what they will do, generally, is stay where they are and suffer and support the toxic space.

I think that’s horrible for everyone.

So, for a while at least, I’d like to set aside the details of grievances with others that are not The Principle in this tale. Just for now and just the details. And for people earnestly seeking a new space, at least consider their needs. Keep your policies, even armour them up: please please eject all assholery. There’s no need to be soft on actual behaviour as it occurs. But give an earnest application the benefit of the doubt so that there’s at least somewhere to go.

If there are tons of awesome places to be other than the Toxic Horror Show and the only bar is that you can’t be an asshole, that will make it a lot more attractive to leave and to change.

There will be bad actors. But let’s not slam the gates closed from fear of them. There are real refugees incoming. Refugees from horrible regimes deserve a chance to start over.

the first rule of design club

I want a new club. It’s really an old club but let’s not talk about that. It’s a club of game designers that welcomes fresh faces. It’s not a club about game play or play styles. Just about design. If you agree with these principles, you’re already a member of design club.

it’s not about play style

It’s about design. We don’t critique play style. Sure you have to talk about play style because of the next rule but we’re not here to decide which play style is “best”. We’re certainly not here to talk about which play style you hate. We’re here to talk about design.

You can divorce your tastes from your ability to analyze design.

design deliberately

Rules exist for a reason. Yes all of them. So yes, you need to know what play style you want. Intimately even. You need to know that so that you can write rules that accomplish that goal. You as a design club member agree to talk sensibly and supportively and productively about how a rule helps achieve a goal even if you think the goal sucks. This is a technical exercise not an emotional one. I even expect you to go ahead and test a rules or set of rules that create a play style you hate and earnestly help people understand whether it does what they want and even how to get to the place they want.

Even if you don’t personally want to go there.

Part of designing deliberately is (perhaps gradually) shedding the urge to cargo cult. This is when you copy someone elses work in the hope that it does what you want rather than through understanding how it functions. We strive for deliberate design: each rule helps serve the greater purpose. Intentionally.

play or sit down

So much design discussion sits in a hypothetical state for a lot longer than it needs to. And when it hits the table it can be a shock. So be prepared to talk about how your proposed design plays, especially if you already have 300 pages of it. Let’s not hypothesize about how it might play, not in design nor in critique, but rather let’s test the shit out of our games, even if it’s alone, and find out how it plays.
How it might play is bullshit. How does it actually play?

I’ve talked before about methods for doing this. One is scaffolding, where you build just enough rough game around a rule to test it. Another is to create a play example: write the interaction between players in detail as though it was transcribed from the table. This is imperfect because there’s not really play going on, but you will find that this runs under a different simulator in your head than the one you use to write rules. And this simulator is way better at finding problems. In fact I often discover that my example deviates from my rules as I instinctively house rule the system I haven’t finished writing. Making examples is super powerful.

The problem with this is that someone’s already making this club. As soon as I had these principles formed in my head as bullet points, someone else I trust announced they were making a club like this. They are working out rules of interaction, a code of conduct. I was working out a purpose. So if we link up and are actually doing the same thing, I’ll let you know about that.

But in the meantime, even without a particular space to communicate, you can be part of this club. You know the rules.

Soft Horizon SRD

Soft Horizon System Reference



Each time you sit down to play is a session.

One person will take on the role of referee: they will guide the rest through the rules, mediate disputes, and indicate when a conflict happens. They will also prepare new material for the next session’s play. Everyone else will be a player, controlling the actions and reactions of a character in this world.

During the first session the referee will guide the players through creating the characters and their organization. Then they will generate a community — maybe the place the characters were born, maybe a place where they all met, or maybe just a place they are about to visit. But a place that has problems and capabilities and opportunities for danger and strife. This will colour exactly what the player characters are up to when we begin.


Play begins and proceeds as a shared story instigated by the referee. They will describe a scene with your characters and will ask you, “What do you do?” What you say you do determines what happens next. You will try to erase your debts and wounds, because they reduce your ability to influence events. And you will pursue the mysteries that interest you. Try to get into trouble. You’ll like it.

Eventually you will come to a situation that needs resolution, where it’s not clear what happens next and something is at stake. When this happens, we get out the dice! The more often the dice come out, the more effective your character will become.

Whenever a conflict arises that needs to be solved by the system, the referee frames the conflict by setting the stage and the risk. The player involved and the ref will agree on an appropriate method and the player will narrate the effort. Anyone who helps can offer a method and narrate their assistance. The ref may then choose to reconsider the risk. All dice are thrown and the success chart is used to determine the outcome.

As we will see, it will be valuable for players to each have their own set of dice and ideally each in a different colour so that when the pool is evaluated we can determine which player is primarily responsible for the victory. Or takes the burden of the failure.

Note that recurring “What do you do?” This phrase is magic. This deliberately hands the narration to the other players. This is how the ref indicates that the others need to react. When you use it, make sure you first offered something worth reacting to. And when you answer this question as a player make your answer an action. Don’t speculate. Act.


You’ll need to come to the table with pencil and paper (or electronic equivalents) and dice. Sand Dogs uses polyhedral dice: you’ll want a few d6, d8, d10, and d12. You can set your d20 and your d4 aside for this.

When playing online by text chat (such as Discord or IRC or Hangout) you’ll find a shared document that you can all edit at the same time useful as well.

Resolution procedure

When a situation clearly requires resolution (which is when something is at risk and the result is uncertain), apply this procedure. This is the only time you need divert from the conversational exchange of narration that makes up most of your role-playing time.

The referee frames the scene which requires resolution.

The first player to respond with an action that maps to a method is going to throw dice. They are the primary. Players cannot use a method that has no dice (either from wounds, debts, or being denied).

The referee suggests a risk and a method. If all agree, the primary brings the die indicated on their character sheet for the selected method. If it’s a specialization, they get the die for both the specialization and the base method.

Others may offer help with a method of their own or something from their loot. The primary may add resources such as loot,  bonds, or scars.

The primary rolls the dice and chooses which die will be used for resolution.

If the die is from a source other than the primary, any realised risk may be on that person.

If the die shows its maximum value, it may trigger a progression. The source of the die gets the benefit and chooses what happens.

The referee looks up the value in the result table and narrates the result, narrating any risks that are realised and handing out wounds or debt as appropriate. If the success of the action indicates that an existing wound or debt should be resolved, they will narrate that as well and suggest a bond or scar to replace it.


A conflict worth going to the dice for is one in which there is something of substance to gain, there is a possibility of risk (thought it might be unclear what the risk is at this point), and the outcome is uncertain.

“I want to steal some cookies” is not a conflict. You can have the cookies. Nothing is at stake, nothing substantial is to be gained, and there’s no obvious risk worth taking.

“I am starving, poor in a strange city and want to root up some grub illicitly” is almost a conflict. The ref might then go on to describe that there is in fact a market stall full of cookies run by an alert looking merchant. Now getting those cookies is a conflict. We agree that the method is just mischief here and then decide the risk.


Every action that needs a roll needs a risk. Risks are one of cost (potential debt), harm (potential wound), delay, spillover, ineffectiveness (only as a last resort because boring), revelation, confusion, and waste.

Cost. Realizing this risk will create a debt. Something valuable is lost or maybe you’re just out of cash. You might lose some loot instead of taking on a debt.

Harm. Someone is going to get hurt and suffer a wound. It’s possible that the entity wounded is an association rather than a character. The harm might be a debt instead, even when the character is using violence. Sometimes the psychological fallout of combat is more important than the physical.

Delay. That thing you needed to do really fast is going to take longer than expected. Use this risk when everyone is in a hurry. What are the consequences of being delayed?

Spillover. Someone or something not in the line of fire is going to suffer. A valuable object is destroyed. An innocent is killed or injured. This risk realised is a potential moral failure to deal with—you might have to knife that merchant to get the cookies.

Ineffectiveness. If you fail, you fail. What does it mean to succeed ineffectively though? That’s what should make this a rare choice. Use it when you can reduce (but not deny) an attempted advantage or if you come across a situation we haven’t thought of. Keep in mind the success scenario though.

Revelation. Something you didn’t want to be true is true. This can be a fact the ref has been saving for just such an occasion or it can be something new that just struck you. If you have an organization, a revelation might place a wound or debt on it.

Confusion. You lose track of what’s what and where what is. You might be lost, surrounded by smoke, dazed.

Waste. A resource is reduced. You’re out of fuel, ammunition, food and you could have avoided it.

Risks can be specific, local, or global (this is their scope) and this should be spelled out by the ref before the roll (though not necessarily with precisely those terms—you should narrate elegantly, beautifully, and not mechanically if you can). A specific risk will impact only the rolling character (or someone else specific if the rolling character has no dice). A local risk will impact the rolling character and all who help. A global risk will impact the whole group.

Some risks don’t need a scope, like spillover, as they impact someone else entirely.

Once risk is established, the dice are determined. The acting character’s method gives its die. If it has a specialization that’s appropriate, add that die. If someone is helping, they can add a die from one of their methods. If some loot is appropriate, add its die. And so on: anything with a die rating is potentially added to the pool.

Roll the pool and the player that started this whole thing picks one die as the result. Normally this will be the highest one, but we will see that there might be reasons to select another. Look up the value on the results table:

die result
1-3 fail and risk is realised
4-6 succeed but risk is realised
7-9 succeed
10-12 legendary: succeed and something awesome results


When a risk is realised it comes true. When you risk harm you get hurt. When you risk delay you’re late. When you risk confusion you’re lost. If the die selected for resolution belongs to someone who helps, the realised risk is applied to them if the scope makes that appropriate.

When a success is legendary, it lacks a loser: a legendary success in a conflict between people (or even peoples) ends the conflict with both sides satisfied. Sometimes you can’t find a way to do this. Try, though. A violent conflict ends legendarily, knife at the throat, birthmark revealed, with the realization that the two are sisters. The knife is dropped, the conflict is over.


Characters have broad skill categories called methods. When narration turns into a conflict, the ref will try to determine which method is the best fit for the action the player has described. Then, after success or failure, we can narrate the details of what was done and how that worked out.

When selecting a method, whether as ref or player, focus on the the broader intent and not the details of the action. If the characters are trying to locate an object by interviewing people, the method is locate and not socialize.

Rescue. You save people and things. You’re handy with rope, diving equipment, ladders, whatever it takes. You’re not afraid of a fire nor being underwater. You can get a car out of soft sand and with enough dice you’ll wingwalk to a formation-flying partner’s plane to get their canopy open before the engine explodes. This is a muscle method.

Know. You know things or can figure them out. You know your way around the library and you dabble in pretty much every subject there is. You’ve heard of the most significant arcane works and know which ones are bullshit. You speak several languages and you’re keen to learn a new one. This is a mind method.

Violence. Fists, knives, guns, whatever: you are here to kick ass. It doesn’t solve many problems, but the ones that need it need you. You’re at home with a switchblade, a belt-fed crossbow, and a Lewis machine-gun. And in a pinch you’ll put their lights out with that shovel over there. This is a muscle method.

Socialize. You are the notorious people-person. You get along and you know what motivates them. And people know you—when you walk into a room and need a friend, one’s probably there even if it’s the prison guard. Maybe especially if it’s the prison guard. This is a mind method.

Endure. Sometimes there’s nothing specific to do. You just gotta keep going. Stuck on foot, low on water, you’re the one that makes it to the oasis. You can deal with torture, you can run for miles, you’re cool under fire, and you aren’t phased by distractions. You can for sure tread water until that boat gets here. Uniquely, an endure method can be tied to muscle or mind, depending on the situation.

Locate. You are great at finding things. Including yourself. You have a killer sense of direction and you can read pretty much any map. You know which way is west and whether that’s a good idea. You also know which way that giant scarab beetle went by the tracks in the sand. This is a mind method.

Fabricate. You make things and you fix things. Technology is your friend. Car died in the middle of the steppes? You can fix it. You know the egg trick with radiators and you can rig a steel mesh tire replacement from that crate of shed door hinge springs you happen to have in the back. This is a muscle method.

Chase. When things try to get away from you, you catch them. When you try to get away, you do. Whether it’s on foot, in a car, in a submarine, a hang glider, a sand skiff, or a skateboard, you get the most out of it. This is a muscle method.

Mischief. Whether it’s to create confusion, distraction, or to sneak and steal, you are an expert. You can hide, play practical jokes, divert an enemy, or disrupt an organization. And get away with it. This is a mind method.

All methods can be specialized either during character creation or as part of progression. When a method is specialized, the player invents an appropriate word or phrase and attaches it to the parent method. When rolling dice using a specialization you also use the die from its parent.


If the fiction permits it, another character can help the rolling character by adding dice to the pool from anywhere on their sheet — methods, resources, loot, whatever. As long as they have a story for it. If the risk is realised and has specific effect, it affects whoever’s die was chosen after the roll. If the referee prefers, each might bear a different risk.


If there is a fiction that supports it, anyone rolling dice can commit a bond or a scar to add its die or change the risk. A risk change is proposed and must be accepted by the table as “good fun”. If a resource die is the die selected for the resolution, any realised risk affects the resource as well as the character if that can be made to make sense.

If you use a bond and the object of that bond has a wound or debt, reduce the bond die by one step for each.

Example of changing a risk: My good pal (BOND) Larry holds them off while we flee! I’d like to change the risk to COST — maybe Larry gets killed or wounded here.


If you’re good at something you have the tools to do that job. However, sometimes you get something special. This something is loot and you could lose it as a risk realization. It’s not yours forever but it’s yours now. loot gives you extra dice for your roll, but the loot must make sense in the context of the method that’s in play for the conflict. It can give you more than one die.

Loot will often be associated logically (though not mechanically) with a method or a specialization. The referee will determine whether this is the case in any particular conflict. A character that denies that method cannot get dice from loot that is associated with it.


A player can bring in a flashback after all rolling is complete. The player narrates the flashback from their character generation, describing how it applies to the current roll. This narration can be as long or as short as desired. The flashback is struck from the character record — we don’t need to hear that story again — and the die result is improved by one level. A fail becomes a success with risk realised, a success with risk becomes a success, and a success becomes legendary.

Wounds and debt

A wound or a debt affects your rolls. They reduce your roll by one die (pick one) if you have multiple dice. If you have only one die, they reduce the size of the die one step. If your d6 is reduced, treat as a denial. wounds affect muscle actions. debts affect mind ones. Effects are cumulative. debts and wounds are facts—if your wound is a broken leg, then you’re not running anywhere. Weave it into the fiction. Physical wounds take time to heal, though a segue is fine.

If you have sufficient wounds that you all your muscle methods (including specializations) have been reduced below a d6, you might be dead. Do you want to be dead? If it makes sense in the narrative and you choose it, you’re dead. Make a new character. Start with an extra specialization with a d8 and either a bond with the gang or a bond with one of the surviving characters.

If you have sufficient debts that you have no dice in any mind method (including specializations) you might be so distracted that you must pursue other things. Do you want to leave the adventure? If it makes sense in the narrative and you choose it, you’re out of the adventuring business. Make a new character. Start with an extra specialization with a d8.

To fix a wound or debt you need to go through some story, some fiction in the game, that explains the solution. You may have to quest to find it! It may just be downtime to heal, or maybe you need new mechanical legs. It might be finding enough money to pay off Panko the loan shark or it might be doing them a favour to get you off the hook.

When a wound or debt is fixed, it becomes a scar or a bond. Change its text to be some way the wound (or the event of the wounding) permanently affects you, or the person the debt was paid to. When created a scar or bond has a d6. If you resolve a wound or debt and the fiction accounts for it, you can increase the die of an existing scar or bond instead of creating a new one—keep interacting with that person and that relationship gets more powerful.

bonds are easy to build—you make friends with whoever helped you solve your debt, and this person or organization is now available to narrate in to a future test for an advantage. scars are harder—a missing eye, for example, isn’t obviously something you can use to your advantage. So consider instead scars like “Hook for a hand” or “Surprise! I’m ambidextrous!”. Maybe “Always check doors and corners” as a psychological scar! When you write your scar, consider how it can be an advantage.


Any die rolled that shows its maximum value (6 on a d6, 8 on a d8, 10 on a d10, 12 on a d12) triggers an advantage. Only the die that determines the outcome in the pool triggers this and the primary in the conflict chooses which die is used to determine the outcome. Choose one advantage from:

  • Promote the die to a the next higher die type, improving your method (or specialization) for next time!
  • Add a new specialization under the method with a d6
  • Add a new specialization under the specialization if you used one, with a d6
  • Take one greater level of success


Note that you might roll a maximum number on a die that is not the highest result in the pool! You can choose to take it as your result and get the advantage or you can use your highest value and get no advantage.

If the die chosen to succeed indicates a progression and that die was supplied by someone helping, then the helping character gets the advancement and chooses whether to improve their method or improve the success.

If the die came from loot, there is no progression but you do improve the success.


Sometimes it’s urgent that something in the fiction gets done. You need to escape this land before the Royal Armada arrives. There’s a time bomb in the basement. A storm front is coming in that will wreck the battle plans. These are all deadlines.

When the ref crafts a deadline, they put a marker on the table (or your digital analogue) with four spaces. A line of four boxes is great.

Generally, whenever some factor delays the narrative, fill in a box and if some factor mitigates the deadline, empty a box.

When all the boxes are filled in, the deadline is past and the bad thing happens.

Advance the counter when:

  • there is a mechanical delay: a conflict has resolved that realises a delay risk
  • any time the ref asks, “What do you do?” and there is no answer that deals with the looming deadline
  • there is a narrative pause to heal a wound
  • there is a delay implied by the narrative, such as stopping to negotiate a loan
  • there is mechanical revision to the actual deadline: a conflict realises a revelation risk, and that revelation is that the danger is much closer, for example.

Roll the counter back a tick when:

  • a conflict is resolved successfully that explicitly modifies the deadline (say, for example a chase roll in order to move faster)
  • the narrative implies that there is more time than previously thought.

If a conflict resolves relating to modifying the deadline in a legendary fashion, either wipe the track clear or remove it. Whichever suits the narrative of the conflict is fine.

Note that this mechanism means that the deadline will very often be reached: that’s okay. The deadline may well be inevitable. The intention is to add urgency to other actions, not to present an obstacle to be overcome.

If the party chooses to address the source of the deadline itself instead, run with it. When the story demands that the track go away, it goes away.

Large scale conflict

Sometimes a conflict is bigger than one player solving something, like a battle. In this case each character should supply their own scene–entirely local to them–in the larger conflict and roll for that. This establishes scenes in a montage for the larger scale conflict.

Once the montage is done you’ll have a set of events that have succeeded or failed, with and without risks being realized. From that, stage a resolving scene taking into account what happened in the montage. If things went badly, stage a desperate escape scene perhaps. If things went well, maybe the conflict is how to mop up or who to save. In any case, the resolving scene is a normal scene with one player as primary and it completes the conflict. Set the risk accordingly.

The ref

The ref will follow the players’ lead unless they run out of motivational steam. In such a lull the ref will do one of:

start some shit. Something from the environment or the past starts a fight. Get into the action right away. War kites swoop in! Someone desperate busts in. Your loan comes due and the goons are at the door. This is a great way to start a campaign; get the blood pumping as soon as possible.

set a deadline. Ramp up the tension by planting a metaphorical ticking bomb. Or a non-metaphorical one! Something has to get done fast. Or else!

create a hazard. Someone falls, a flood rushes through, a fire starts. Walking along a slippery path? Someone slips and falls. In a seismically active area? Someone trapped in the rubble after the quake.

call in a bond. Bring a character’s bond into play as a conflict. Think of this part of the character sheet as a menu of ways to make the plot twist.

make a scar a problem. Bring in a character’s scar as a conflict. Another menu! Those steam powered legs are out of juice.

introduce someone interesting. Bring a new character on scene that has motivation and personality and knows at least one player’s character. You get someone cool to talk to and maybe they have a problem or are a problem that needs to get solved.

dry up a resource. Out of money, food, water, gas—the characters are missing something they need. Make it urgent. In the desert? Fuel and water. Flying? Whatever’s holding them up.

recall a missed hook. What about that sandcrawler? The strangely pristine vase? If you planted something and the players never picked up on it, find a way to re-insert it. Make it more important than ever.

make it night. Play can sometimes feel like an endless day as thing keep happening. Every now and then set the sun and make the players figure out how and where to sleep safely. It may not create a conflict but it will punctuate the day and reduce the feeling that the day will never end.

enter the soft horizon. Introduce some information indicating the Soft Horizon, the multiverse. Hint at the Gate. A planewalking NPC maybe. Bring the game into the multiverse.

Playing safely

While there are very few intrinsically difficult topics built into this game, all role-playing games occasionally tread dangerous paths. Topics of racism, slavery, sexual violence, and murder can easily turn into something upsetting or worse for a good many people.

We encourage you to play safely. That’s not to say that you ought to steer clear of topics that you want to address in good faith, but that you should have a mechanism at hand to allow players to opt out, skip the scene, or re-write it. There are two excellent methods we can recommend.

script change

By Brie Sheldon. This is a rich tool set and sees heavy use at conventions. https://briecs.itch.io/script-change

the x card

Likely the most well known safety tool, the X card is extremely simple, recognizable and widely used. John Stavropoulos provided and continues to develop the tool. http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg


Character generation is often specific to each Soft Horizon game. A basic method that we used in early playtesting is just to assign dice:

Recall that the available methods are: Rescue, know, violence, Socialize, Endure, locate, fabricate, chase, and mischief.

Begin with 3d8 and 5d6.

First choose one method to DENY. You never use this method.

Next, distribute your dice, one to a method. You don’t need actual dice at this point: just note beside each method which die type you have assigned to it.

Now you can specialize. You have 1d10 and 1d8 for specialization. You may invent two specializations—these are subcategories of an existing method—and put these new dice in your specializations. Your species will specify one method that must be specialized. So, for example, you might give CHASE a d6 and specialize it with MOTORCYCLES and give that your d10. You are a motorcycle hero. You can invent any specialization you like: if it’s on your character sheet it’s true.

This is a way in which you, by defining your character, help define the world.

A bond

Finally, write for yourself one bond. This is a person or organization that you are attached to and who might change how you react to the world. Making a bond with a mentor or with some expert that you might bring into play is always a safe choice. Making a bond with a lover or even a child will be even more rewarding, reinforcing your relationship with occasional mechanical power.

A flashback

Specific Soft Horizon games may or may not include the flashback mechanism. If they do, they will also specify how to add it to your character. You can simply have the players each write two sentences, each an event in their path that they might want to elaborate in play as a flashback.

An organization

Characters should belong to a common organization. Defining this organization is detailed in specific Soft Horizon games.

The organization all the player characters belong to. It defines your initial purpose, your initial problems, and the resources you might have to back up your endeavours.

Every character starts with a d8 bond with the organization. Usually you would describe this bond as your role in the organization, but if you have a better idea, use it!

To define your association, roll a d20 three times on the table below.

The first is the remit of your group. It’s what you do and who employs you. The other two are specifications: just additional descriptors for your purpose. Determine amongst you what the result means. The remit comes with an initial debt to solve (which will initially degrade your bond to a d6, so it’s very important to address that debt immediately).

Recall that every wound and debt the association has reduces the bond die by one step.


die as remit as specifier
1 military: owned by a government, it executes violence. debt: Pursued by an enemy. works with other militaries or in a military role. Mercenaries!
2 commercial: owned by a body of investors, it generates profit. debt: Not yet profitable. interacts with commercial entities or incidentally generates profits.
3 secret: owned by unknowns and has shadowy purposes. debt: Someone knows who you are. operates under the radar.
4 charity: owned by its membership, it benefits others. debt: Someone wants you to stop. provides beneficial works for others and if it is profit seeking, it never seeks profit from those it directly helps.
5 political: owned by its membership, it changes the policies of the State. debt: Opposition is on the brink of violence. manipulates political connections.
6 rescue: owned by a government, you assist those in danger. debt: A distress call is incoming. Start with an incoming message: someone is in trouble! provides assistance in dangerous circumstances.
7 medical: owned by a government, delivers life-saving technology and skill. debt: Someone nearby is injured or sick. has the capability to deploy life-saving technology and skill.
8 criminal: owned by a single person or oligarchy, the purpose of a criminal association is to profit in violation of the law. debt: The last heist went bad. the association’s methods are frequently illegal.
9 academic: owned by the public, it is motivated by discovery, analysis, and teaching. debt: An unvisitied location has revelatory information. the association is involved in research and publication.
10 industrial: owned by another corporation, it makes things. debt: Short on fuel. the association is involved in manufacturing or refinement.
11 exploratory: owned by individuals, it travels to document little known places and things.debt: You have a new map with blank spaces. the association is nomadic, searching out its remit in far-flung locales.
12 entertainment: privately owned, it provides frivolous creative works for audiences.debt: They never heard of you here. part of the association’s work supports the entertainment industry.
13 cultural: government or privately owned, you facilitate artists, poets, and the like, ensuring their works are seen by many. debt: A new poet has been discovered in this area! the association supports or augments cultural endeavours.
14 ancient: this association has changed hands and character thousands of times—it now could be owned by anyone. debt: Something once vital is no longer relevant the association does whatever it needs to survive today. It is clogged with self-justifying processes and bureaucracy.
15 security: you ensure the safety and security of persons, organizations, or things at risk. It might be privately owned or it might be an arm of a government. debt: A client is in grave danger. one function of the organization is to provide security or security-related materiel.
16 religious: owned by your membership, you are dedicated to perpetuating and expanding belief in their philosophy or mythology. debt: There is proof your god doesn’t exist. the organization caters to or is an arm of a religion. This might be a mystical science, deriving from contact with a real god in a particular Tomb, or it might be complete nonsense.
17 training: you train and certify individuals and organizations. It may conduct audits. debt: A client has been declared incompetent. one function of the organization is to train or certify.
18 detective: someone needs to find out who murdered who! You are an investigative organ that digs up the dirt. debt: A client is wanted for murder. one function of the organization is to investigate breaches related to its mandate.
19 agricultural: your purpose is to provide farming resources and expertise to allow communities to survive. debt: A critical crop here is dying. one aspect of the organization is a wealth of agricultural data and expertise.
20 archaeological: the organization investigates the past by unearthing it, maintaining a vast knowledge of cultures and artifacts. debt: A new site has been discovered. one function of the organization is to manage and maintain archaeological sites and artifacts.


wounding an organization

Organizations carry wounds and debt just like characters, inflicted when the a character’s bond with the association is used and causes a realization of risk. They reduce the character’s bond die with the group.

Organizations heal their wounds and debt as well, creating their own scars and bonds.

An organization’s bond is a person or organization that the association has paved the way for characters to talk to—a letter of reference, perhaps.

An organization scar is a permanent fixation of the association, a thing it always tries to fix, mollify, or otherwise interact with.

Running the game

After the first session, prepare for play! But don’t panic, it only takes a few minutes.

Take the list of moves and fill out at least three with possible moves to make during the next session. This list is a good base for your preparation—keep adding ideas to it so you don’t have to wing it when play hits a slow point.

The soft horizon

All worlds are linked to other Soft Horizon worlds, and you may one day visit these realms, continuing your good works for your company, your guild, or whatever association binds you, in other planes of existence.


A front is an entity that creates conflict. To do so they oppose something. You can make it an association or a person or an idea.

A front is also a recurring or persistent threat. It requires more than just a roll to defeat, so it comes back into play again and again. To get rid of a front, players will need to execute a long term plan starting with a lot of information finding.

This is an imagination pump to drive start some shit ideas at least. Describe at a minimum for each front (and have at least one, but add as needed):


Who it is.

What their objective is.

Who is in direct conflict with them.


Players will pick sides when a front comes into play. Be prepared for them to pick the front you though they would oppose. Roll with it.

You can add a front as a new node on your relationship map if it doesn’t already have one that reflects it.

Inconsistency & paradox

So in the world of the King Machine there are no native sources of petrochemicals.

Characters are, however, encouraged to have, say, a motorcycle if they want one. Or at least be good with motorcycles.

Let’s look at two ways to handle this since one leads to nothing and the other leads to something.

Since the world is very open for interpretation and magic is certainly one way you can handle any discrepancy (like how is that trees fly?), one approach would be to say that the motor is magical in nature or that there is a magical fuel. That is, say that the inconsistency (need fuel/no fuel) is resolved by an intrinsic property of the world (magic) that creates an analogue of the technology.

This is too easy. It goes nowhere. It invites no examination nor exploration. And any interesting aspect you develop from it springs whole cloth from “magic”: that is, there’s not a logical path to follow since it’s turtles all the way down now.

The King Machine, for example, is one plane in the Soft Horizon, a multiverse of worlds with myriad variations on physics and magic. One of the conceits of the King Machine is that you begin with no particular connection to the Soft Horizon but rather learn of it or get forced into it as part of your mundane (for you) adventures in your home plane.

So let’s look at some alternatives to “it’s magic” that go somewhere.

You have some fuel. You don’t really know where it came from—same place as the motorcycle, likely. You need more fuel. This is limiting (you may not get a lot of use out of that motorcycle) but invites a whole adventure arc: where does fuel come from? Where did the motorcycle come from? If I find a bonobo merchant who sells it, where did they get it from? How can I secure a reliable source of it? This is interesting because the answer at its root is: the fuel came from somewhere over the Soft Horizon. Another world. This scarcity drives a character down a path that leads to the rest of the universe. That’s what we want from this game.

Here’s another: something magical attached to the motor generates fuel somehow. This seems worth exploring as it’s apparently a perpetual motion machine in the making. Of course this magical component is stealing fuel from another plane in the Soft Horizon! Maybe from some weirdly connected dieselpunk garage in the Sand Dogs world. And I bet they are going nuts trying to figure out where the fuel’s going. So this one looks hand-wavery but it actually has two avenues of investigation that reveal the Soft Horizon: the motorcycle owner might take an interest in the engine and discover the tiny portal to another world (and then logically wonder about expanding it). Or the folks getting thieved across the multiverse might take an interest and find a way to stop the flow. Or catch the thief.

So don’t just wave your hands. Find an explanation for the paradoxes of the King Machine that hint at or even invite you to the worlds beyond that Soft Horizon. “It’s magic” is not powerful enough in a world with richer possible explanations baked in.

Instigating action

As the ref you have the duty of instigating action when there is none or when it’s a logical outcome of player action and there are a few methods already listed. Note that “recall a missed hook” and “enter the Soft Horizon” don’t get any special attention here. They mostly derive from the narrative you have already established.

start some shit

When in doubt, stir things up. Look at your fronts and activate one — perhaps it’s time the Zeerian bounty hunters caught up. Maybe that war you have in your community map is flaring up right in the characters’ faces. Or perhaps there’s just some treacherous terrain that suddenly requires a rescue. Make it immediate, demanding a response.

set a deadline

deadlines are looming problems and to be tense they must threaten an existing objective of the characters. So whenever the players have decided on project that takes some time (travelling to a new place, conducting long negotiations, &c.) consider a deadline that gives them a timeline.

Some good deadlines might include a race to a new tomb, an impending attack from a powerful community, or even the awakening of a god. Or, in a community that depends on a woken god, perhaps the god’s departure.

call in a bond

One bond you can always count on is the organization the characters belong to. Look at the organization details and imagine a situation the organization is in that needs the characters’ action.

Consider putting the object of the bond in mortal danger. If they were to die, that bond would go away and cease to be a potential mechanical advantage for the player.

make a scar a problem

This might be a chance to explain the inexplicable! If a character has a scar that appears magical or anachronistic (maybe a metal arm or prosthetic obsidian eyes), tie it to another plane. Perhaps someone outside this world wants it back. Perhaps it’s powered at the expense of someone in another world. And maybe that someone is empowered to do something about it.

introduce someone interesting

Aside from people who are interesting because of the state of your ongoing story, there are types of people that are especially interesting in this setting.

Beings that are not of this world demand attention! Machine people, demons, and humans all must have come from somewhere else. This might even be the characters’ first inkling that there is a somewhere else.

dry up a resource

Critical resources include gasoline, water, and even vehicles themselves — a vehicle breakdown in the middle of the desert demands some kind of action. Or just cash: in town, out of money and fuel, what must the next step be? Whatever it is, it will push the story forwards.

As with interesting people, this might also be an opportunity to engage the rest of the Soft Horizon. If the players have some loot that’s inexplicable, have it use up an interplanar resource, demanding not only location of the resource but also investigation into another plane.

Ref’s prep sheet

Here’s your prep cheat sheet. Before the first session, fill this in. No need to fill it all in, just whatever you think will be interesting. Before every session, scan it and revise or add as desired.


The location named ? is: <describe a place, draw a relationship map>

Our heroes’ purpose here is: <interpret their association’s debt as a specific objective>



Who <person or organization>

Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>

Conflicts with who <who opposes it>



Who <person or organization>

Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>

Conflicts with who <who opposes it>



Who <person or organization>

Objective <motivation that opposes someone elses>

Conflicts with who <who opposes it>












This document is copyright 2019 by VSCA Publishing. However we grant you the following additional rights:


  • You may use any text in this document verbatim for your own works provided you cite it as “From the Soft Horizon System Reference Document by VSCA Publishing (https://vsca.ca)”
  • You may copy, host, or otherwise distribute this document with text unmodified (you can reformat, add backgrounds, convert to a web site, or anything else you like) however you please.
  • Yes this includes making your own game.
  • You may not, of course, claim a derivative work is an official Soft Horizon product. You can certainly say “made for the Soft Horizon” or “made with the Soft Horizon” or really pretty much anything except imply it’s official.


Version 20190205-1906

Soft Horizon SRD (2)


more apocalyptica

Last entry I wrote about the impact of living on the brink of apocalypse though, in keeping with the theme here, mostly about how it impacted my gaming. My gaming was atypical even in the apocalyptic crowd though, it seems.

metamorphosis alpha coverFrom a young age I cared inordinately about science. My first “mutants” game was Metamorphosis Alpha and it was silly. I recognized it as silly. I knew mutation didn’t work that way. But it was also encapsulated — the story was that this was a kind of radiation in a particular place (maybe a particular universe) where this kind of mutation happened. That was fine by me. Internally consistent. There’s a vast generation ship (based at least in part on the classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, but there were other similar novels and short stories) and it goes through some kind of radiation event and thousands of years later you are a possibly mutated person on this ship but with no idea that it’s a ship. It’s a whole game with one built-in wonder gag (WE LIVE ON A SPACE SHIP?!) that only pays off once, really. It’s a cool concept, a classic game, very familiar mechanisms mostly about how mutation affects combat, and an opportunity to draw space ship floor plans. Fun stuff. It’s also, at its heart, comedy.

mad maxBut my apocalypse was fucking serious. It was the real thing and I pretty much knew, if not what that would mean, at least what the plausible parameters were. And so my apocalypse in gaming never had mutants. I never even bought Gamma World — it held zero interest for me. In fact I was kind of offended by its frivolity (as 14 year old no less): I was facing extinction here. My apocalypse looked like something between Threads and Mad Max, using a sliding scale depending upon my mood (we called depression a “mood” back then).

And I think that this is why my apocalyptic gaming became community-oriented. I never once bought into it as an adventure playground, a fantasy of a future with irradiated others to dominate. If there was violence or even plunder, it was because of scarcity and because our heroes had to choose to favour their community. They were protecting and preserving something and in so doing also had to recognize that so was the other side. We could certainly invent villains, people that were making immoral choices in order to survive, but also that they were dealing with a very bad fucking day as well.

I just wasn’t going to get onside with anything that made my apocalypse a sweeter pill to swallow: part of the horror I wanted to confront (that I was confronting, in some ways, already with the perfect certainty of impending disaster) was that everyone was going to be desperate. This is probably the origin of my interest in the moral quandry of everyone in a conflict having some kind of moral position to defend. Evil was not interesting. Desperation was interesting and to be desperate you must be trying to preserve something. So in my apocalypse the predominant theme was trying to claw back enough society to feel safe again (because I felt profoundly unsafe). And that makes arch moustache-twirling villains unappealing. And it makes the reconstruction of other survivors as monsters (mutants) whose needs can be ignored especially disgusting. My reaction was very visceral. Gamma World was off the table.

So I think that’s the path I travelled in that period, the reason why we wound up doing little desperate violent community studies. And also why we had Asskickers — the only way I was interested in violent dispatch of monsters was as comedy. And my apocalypse wasn’t comedic, so I invented something for the comedy.

I’ll talk about my Traveller games another time because they are something else entirely.

terror of the scientific sun

I think I was about 13 when I realized I wasn’t going to live to see 20.
I recall a vague terror of nuclear war before that and I recall thinking about fallout shelters and what to do if those sirens went off, but it was at the age of 13 when I sat far from home in the house of a friend of my social studies teacher playing D&D with the two of them (playing with adults! I was pretty fucking proud of that) and the air raid sirens did go off.

It was a test, of course, or a mistake. There was no warning that reached me.

I nearly pissed myself. Before that I had thought about post-apocalyptic gaming and toyed with “what would you do” scenarios but after that everything changed. Because I instantly realized that all my super-heroic ideas of post apocalyptic survival were entirely and perfectly bullshit.

What went through my mind when that siren went off was first, will I be close enough to just die outright? I sure hoped so.

Then, if not, where will I go? Who will I connect with to deal with the next days? For sure Mark and his pal here would do but I was already evaluating them and was pretty sure they were not going to be survival heroes. Nor, and I was increasingly becoming aware that this would be more important, did I feel that they were the kernels of a functioning post-apocalyptic community. Maybe Mark.

For many years after that, at least until I reached the surprising age of 21, I waited again for that siren. I heard it when it wasn’t there, heard it in the wind, heard it in the traffic. For at least eight years I was on tenter hooks waiting for that siren to indicate my life was over and the best I could hope for was to be at ground zero. Second best would be to be with people. Lots of good people.

During those eight years my gaming completely changed. D&D was phased out in favour of Traveller and then Twilight:2000. Throughout we mashed up every game system we contacted to do one of two things: either we played in an immediately post-apocalyptic world (which is to say that the session started with the sirens) or we played in a desperately stupid comic world of my own based on Jim Stenstrum’s Asskickers of the Fantastic comics. My responses in leisure were either preparation or escape.

My post apocalyptic gaming evolved from out-of-the-box Twilight:2000 to something other in very short order. The first games were war-porn survival tales during which I learned a startling amount about weapons. Enough that years later when I first fired a pistol and then an auto-loading rifle, I didn’t require any instruction. That’s pretty creepy, I think. I can still field strip a Walther P-38 I bet. But then they began to focus on us. On modeling us and what we would do and how we would do. I recall many wonderful (though short) games that involved establishing island communities. Creating sustainable locations. Thinking about logistics as well as defense. And above all, eventually, thinking a lot about people helping people get by.

When I thought I was going to die my “politics” were of a punk anarchist. When I realised I wasn’t (and started reading politics in college) I would have to align myself with socialism or even further left. Societies that protect themselves earnestly, practically, and down to individual needs were the only societies I wanted to explore.

asskickBut the other side of my gaming is harder to understand. Given that I was basically in a state of terror 24/7 we have to imagine almost anything I did was poisoned by that terror, so what do we make of the Asskickers of the Fantastic?

These were almost entirely ad libbed (and maybe the debut of my ad libbing successes). They all started with one image.

The Werewolves of BC Place started after a Michael Jackson concert. The team of Asskickers (kind of Ghostbusters crossed with the A Team) are contacted by venue management and show up at their office in the stadium. It’s a big office and it’s filled with body bags. He wants to talk about what happened at the concert and how it can be cleaned up — and kept quiet. Hijinks ensue.

The Shadow Over Ambleside begins with the shoe department at Woodward’s contacting our heroes because some of the shoes are being replaced with footwear clearly designed for no human foot. Antics (and failed sanity rolls) traversed the offices of podiatrist Dr. C.T. Hulu, the beaches of Ambleside (where Paul managed to rig an autowinder and flash to the action of his M-60, allowing him to take candid photos of startled Deep Ones in time to the gunfire), and the caverns under Woodward’s itself which, had anyone chosen to map it, would reveal a portrait of Bill Vander Zalm, the right wing loonie in charge of the province at the time.

ally zombieAnd finally, another traumatic event in my childhood surfaced as the New Coke Zombies, which were finally defeated by my friend Glen’s character, badly wounded but strapped into a motorized wheelchair armed with seltzer bottles full of 7-Up. Clearly no New Coke zombie could stand before the Un-Cola.

So essentially my gaming response to imminent doom was to oscillate between planning and panic. For eight years. Massively creative and desperate years.

It’s little wonder then that my gaming since then has become about building, about saving, and about repairing. And yet somehow still essentially, no matter how light the rules, very traditional. I really want to prod a traditional structure into becoming about these positive things rather than deeply encode these into the rules. I want players to discover that that’s what they are interested in and not just be compelled by the rules to address them, to have only those options. Partly that’s because choice really really matters, I think: to have many options open to you and then choose to repair a community is most meaningful to me. You could align yourself with the bad king. Nothing stops you. There’s no mechanical disadvantage in doing so. I trust, however, that when you develop your character and your organization and confront your first real problem, that you will choose to repair and to heal.


The King Machine is available in print from Lulu, in PDF and print from DTRPG, and in PDF only (50% off until March 2019) at itch.io.


nanite-borg-gold-detail logoTime for a little experiment. While there is not a lot of choice for hardcopy publishing, there are choices for digital. And, better, some give much better margins than the Big Place For Game PDFs You Already Know About.

So I’m adding the non-Fate VSCA offerings to a storefront at itch.io. If it seems useful and if the operators there seem responsive to the special needs of role-playing game sales, I’ll add more.

For the month of February, have 50% off there. I’ll post the Soft Horizon SRD there when the latest rev goes public.

Thanks as always for your support. Patreon is paying off, keeping the game-related bills paid and that’s a huge relief. The King Machine is selling, slowly, but increasingly, and I think when Sand Dogs comes out (which is a more mainstream setting) we’ll get even more traction.

Love to you all!