Planet of Disasters

January 19, 2012

I’m thinking “Horizon” wouldn’t just be the name of the game, but also the setting’s word for “world” — everything you can’t see immediately in front of you is “Horizon,” so it’s the word they use when they’re talking about the whole world, earth and sky and sea alike.

Horizon is not a friendly place.


First off, its seasons are extreme.  It almost never snows on the equator, but the farther you get towards the poles, the nastier winter gets.  Winter at the middle latitudes of Horizon is like winter in Alaska on Earth.  Go farther north and it gets worse and worse.  But by the same token, summer at those latitudes is quite pleasant: That’s when most equatorial real estate is hotter than any settled place on our world.
Just about any single place on Horizon is, at some point in the year, miserable to be.  The equator cycles through unbearable heat through warmth, through a pleasant winter, then heads back towards broiling.  The northern and southern ends of the realms of men are temperate in the summer, cool-to-cold in autumn and spring, and murderously chill in winter.  In between are areas that oscillate between miserable heat and miserable cold, with tolerable transitional seasons.

What do the people do?  Bundle up in winter, strip down in summer… and travel a lot.  The majority of humanity on Horizon live in nomadic tribes.  They cluster around the equator in the winter, then scatter out to the north and south as the weather heats up.  There is one human settlement that deserves the title ‘city.’


As you can guess, that sort of temperature swing wreaks havoc on the coastlines and weather patterns, making thunderstorms, snowstorms and hurricanes more likely.  Fortunately, the God Storm eats a lot of them.

You know how Jupiter has the great red spot, a permanent windstorm the size of a couple Earths?  Planet Horizon has a permanent storm too, though not so bad.  It’s the God Storm, and as the game opens, very few humans have seen it and survived.  A few crazy storm cultists try to sail out and commune with it during the winter when it’s at its least horrible, but few of them make it back.
The storm cult believes that it is literally the body of their god (though his spirit reaches anywhere on the planet) and it makes sea travel on the south and western side of the human-habited continent extremely risky.  That can and will change, but the game’s starting position has it regarded as an insurmountable barrier to exploration in those directions.  Sometimes, it pulls lesser storms into it and rips them apart.  Sometimes, smaller whirlwinds and monsoons are cast off it and reach the shores.  Such is the caprice of the Storm God.


Earth passes through a stream of meteoroids around November every year, giving us the Leonid meteor shower as a light show and, typically, some 12 tons of dust on the planet’s surface every year.
Horizon passes through a field of cosmic debris that’s much larger and chunkier.  Every year, peaking in the fall, big chunks of metal fall from the sky in a fairly narrow band around what would otherwise be a rather nice stretch of real estate.  But instead, it’s a region called the Ironfall lands, because it’s pocked with craters where meteorites have crashed down, uprooting trees, vaporizing the occasional pond, and wearing down the tops of mountains.

Because it’s geographically and seasonally isolated, Ironfall is eminently avoidable, and the tribal travel routes avoid it smartly.  It’s even possible to survive the Ironfall season in the Ironfall region, with moderate luck.  But over decades, building anything permanently there is tempting fate.

On the plus side, it’s an awe-inspiring light-show every year.  Moreover, it makes iron-mining pointless: There’s no reason to stay in one point patiently delving in the soil for metals you may or may not find when you can simply wait for some to fall from the sky.  As long as you’ve got someone burning charcoal for you, you can have high-grade iron tools without the bother of mining, and with very little smelting: The heat of re-entry removes most impurities before the star metal even arrives.

Next time: Society Without Settlements

Let’s artificially divide the mechanics of a game from its setting, for a bit. This isn’t hard: I think it’s actually easier to assume they’re two entirely discrete entities, “crunch” and “fluff,” a pair of grumpy odd-couple room mates. Once the dice hit the table, of course, they have to blend, or else blow each other up–FENG SHUI presents itself as a game of hypercompetent violent action, that’s its setting, but if the mechanics had bungled that by making effortless victory impossible, it would implode and self-contradict. ‘S all I’m saying.

But let’s take it as read that HORIZON’s rules match the setting. In actual fact, it’s more likely that the way the rules shake out and shape up is going to help determine the feel of the game as much as the monsters and societies and other stuff I describe. But let’s get at the stated elements described by Yours Truly and where they came from.

In short, what is HORIZON about?

In my mind, I call it “fantasy science.”

In fantasy, technology is discarded, magic is embraced, and the whys and wherefores of magic are often handwaved or ignored. In science fiction, technology is embraced, and often thought through very carefully as a foundation for character conflicts. Then there’s science fantasy, where technology is name-checked and invoked, but where the details are handwaved or ignored. To forestall any potential arguments, I love all three of these, but they’re different things.

With HORIZON’s ‘fantasy science’ I want to take the presumptions of fantasy–that magic exists and that people can learn it and do awesome stuff with it–but think them through with the care applied to hard SF.  Consider the common trope of ’emotion-powered magic.’  HORIZON’s going to have that (that’s why ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ are numerically statted) but consider what it means to have physical effects based on feelings.  Suddenly, what is (in our world) a blurry and self-reported mess becomes quantifiable.  “Sorry,” the prince can say, “I know you love me — you used a love-based spell to lift up seventeen pounds of rock, after all.  But SHE used the same spell and lifted twenty-five pounds.  I’m forced to conclude that her feelings are almost 33% more genuine!”

This impulse arose from an internet discussion of modern day “hidden magic” games, like UA and the World of Darkness. There’s always some excuse for why the magic is hidden. “People freak out when they see it,” or “It’s just not as good as technology so you have to be a little bit crazy to prefer it” or the always beloved age-old conspiracy. In HORIZON, I want to take that issue seriously. I want the setting to start at a level of development that’s just a few steps above neolithic, both for technology and for the understanding of natural law. In this case, ‘natural law’ includes magic. As the game progresses, I want to see the future unfolding. I want scientific and occult revolutions and discoveries happening to the PCs, at the game table. I want the PCs to be the Archimedes and Marie Curie and Alexander of their setting. Then, as history moves forward (supported by more “fluff,” setting material) you can see the history unfold. I want a hinged history of the setting that covers centuries, so you can play a sort of Led Zeppelin version of “Blackadder.” When the Axe-Hands invade, your PCs rally the tribes, fight the strangers, and make it a short and nasty war? Okay, in a hundred years that means X. Or your PCs settle down for a siege, change the culture so that even after the war, the tribes are militarized and at each other’s throats for a century of low-intensity-conflict? That means Y. Which setting do you want to continue the game in, or do you want to stay at the early era and continue to shift the future?

A lot of this is influenced, of course, by Call of Cthulhu. I’ve played CoC games set in both World Wars, in the twenties, in the thirties, in the nineties and so on. It’s not a time travel game, any more than HORIZON is, but I want it to have that same sense of sweep. Also to have the PCs be really, really important people.

More later, on how HORIZON is set on a planet of disasters.



January 8, 2012

Right there you’ve got my first stab at a logo for “HORIZON,” my next big game project.  (It’s meant to be an ambigram – that is, to read the same upside down and right side up.  I’m like a pervert for ambigrams.)

My goal for HORIZON is to design most of it in public.  The first draft is up in two formats: Bare bones PDF and even more bare bones .txt file.  It’s very early days, so I’m still beating on the mechanics with very large sticks, but my hope is to reduce the beating to smaller and smaller diameter bludgeons until it hardly needs to be struck at all.  In coming days, I’m hoping to enlist the aid of some friends and colleagues on this project, but I am, and will remain, very open to the comments of any real person who’s interested in the rules-engine design and who does not try to sell me any pharmaceuticals or miraculously inexpensive computer hardware.

More on the setting and my goals presently.