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

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