Conflict is the heart of fiction, and nowhere is that more true than gaming.  In the past, I’ve designed settings that ran facefirst into the question, “…but what do you DO with it?”  It’s my hope that with HORIZON, I can answer this clearly, early, and with a lot of sweet options.

Recently, I wrote a bit (in a different game) discussing John Carpenter’s The Thing, one of my favorite horror movies, because it really is a picture perfect example of threat and how to handle it.  In The Thing there are environmental threats (the antarctic winter outside), social threats (the increasingly paranoid humans, all trapped together) and one big icky threat (the Thing, which looks like chewed food and makes people look like chewed food).

You may have noticed that HORIZON has three social groups, the Walkers, the Riders and the Above.  They all have their individual strengths, weaknesses, preoccupations and stereotypes of one another.
The Walkers see themselves as the hard-workin’, underappreciated, sensible salt-of-the-earth types who may not have a lot of fancy property but by gum they know the value of family and loyalty.  HORIZON’s values voters, if you like.  They see the Riders as brash, uncouth, violent and dammit, just too sexy to tolerate.  As for the Above, they might as well be another species, with their lives of learning and privilege and owning things.  Where the Above lie on the continuum between awe and contempt varies from Walker to Walker, but there’s just not a lot of fellow feeling.  They’re either regarded as straight up better (the way Americans tend to view celebrities) or they’re chiseling parasites who do more harm than good (the way Americans tend to view politicians).

Riders, on the other hand, are arrogant, stylish, competent and courageous.  That’s what they like to see and try to be.  The precious things of the Above may be interesting or attractive, but most Riders would rather be known for making that perfect long-distance bow shot right up the stag’s nose (to leave the pelt intact) than have any object owned by anyone, anywhere.   (A really good horse might be an exception, but Riders tend to view horses less like possessions and more like life-partners.)  They consider Walkers their inferiors, a grasping and sometimes pitiful class that produce necessities.  The best Walkers can rise above to become Riders, and the worst Riders can fail to the point that they lose their mounts and are forced to grub in the soil to survive.  Sad, but that’s social mobility for you.  As for the Above, they’re too smart for their own good and get to make a lot of decisions that they think matter but which, to the Riders, are inconsequential.  They’re soft, unless they started out as Riders.  Riders who go Above are respected for their abilities, because you don’t get that kind of acceptance unless you’re really good at what you do but… they’re seen as sort of treacherous.  Or maybe perverse.  Either way, they succumbed to the temptations of power and possessions, rather than remaining true to what matters — honor, speed and the bow.

Then we get to the Above, who prize display, status, ability and cunning.  They’re the holders of specialized knowledge (what there is of it), the people who can tell you why your stock aren’t thriving, who can treat your daughter’s fever, who can build you a better bow or put a better edge on your axe than you’ll get with a flat stone.  More than that, they consider themselves the leaders.  Walkers are trying to stay alive day-to-day, and Riders are like overgrown children, concerned only with glory and blood.  Those Above play the long game.  The chief among the Above literally set the course for the whole tribe.  If they decide poorly, the Walkers wind up scavenging fields that have already been picked over and the Riders have to uncomfortably share hunting grounds with other tribes.  If they make the right choice, things are better for all and no one even knows what they did.

So: We now have three social groups, focussed on pragmatism, ideas, or awesomeness.  We have three categories of threat, environmental, violent, and social.  The focus of the gaming group determines what kind of conflict is likely to pull them in.

If you have a group of Riders, it’s going to be about prowling through the woods, running into tribeless bandits and fighting them, or Riders from other tribes (who may want a friendly horse race, or to have some light fistfighting for bragging rights, or who may want to knock you out and brand you as a slave, depending), or squabbling with Riders within your tribe, or you could wind up hunting that thing that leaves huge footprints and has been dragging off Walkers’ animals in the night.

Walker groups, on the other hand, are going to focus more on survival issues and the tough choices that arise when there just isn’t always enough for everyone.  Illness and famine and injury are a big deal when you have to move yourself every day to keep up, or else be left behind, alone, in a wilderness that slowly closes in as your people get farther and farther away.  But if we’ve learned anything from zombie movies, it’s that every survival conflict scenario is fertile soil for interpersonal conflict.  Walkers are a good choice for more investigative games, because the kinds of mysteries that occupy Walkers are the kind you can’t ignore – the kind that kill.  What is dragging off the animals and why are the Riders afraid to go after it.  Who’s pilfering from the stores and how they hell are they getting away with it?

Those Above are also clearly a class with plenty of social conflict potential.  They adjudicate disputes, settle problems, inevitably leave one side unsatisfied and, let’s not forget, own everything.  They’ve got the most to lose and they’re the ones making the decisions that could send them to war against another tribe for the first time in generations, or else escalate the tensions within a tribe into open warfare for the first time ever.  If the pressure on the Walkers arises from being unable to control their own destinies, the pressure on Those Above comes from knowing that hundreds of innocents might suffer every time they make a bad decision.

A mixed group, on the other hand, leaves all your options open and may be the absolute ideal for PCs because it’s so unusual.  What kind of Above hangs out with a Rider and befriends a couple Walkers?  The kind who plays by his own rules and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks!  As for Walkers who ‘get ideas above their station,’ doesn’t that just mean they’re not content to eat dust, that they want something more from life than its mere continuance?  Iconoclasts, dreamers and passionate ideologues are the kinds of characters who tend to come at a GM’s plots from weird angles, banging them into exciting new places and, often, generating new ones in the process.


Portable Culture

February 1, 2012

In my last update (of any length) I talked about the dazzling dangers that planet Horizon inflicts on those with the temerity to, y’know, DARE WALK ITS SURFACE. But living in the realms of men isn’t all thunderstones from the sky and searing heat and bitter cold.

It’s manageable it you travel. When it gets hot in the south, you go north and check out the game and fruit of lands that you haven’t visited for a year. When it’s cooling down in the north and the fish are starting to thin out, you move south. Famine’s rare because no one’s staying in one place long enough to reduce its edible species below the sustainability threshold. Moreover, a nomad population has a built-in population cap. So there’s always enough, if you work hard enough.

The tribes of Horizon are essentially snowbirds, writ large and armed with machetes.

This raises the question though: How advanced can a civilization GET without a sunk-in economic base. If you’re only in each region for one season of the year, how are you going to manage mining? If you don’t develop farming, who’s going to pay enough attention to figure out astronomy? Without reliable farm harvests, how do you get food supplies that can support survival-inessential people like judges and minstrels?

For the answers to these, I just take the license offered by a fantasy setting and cheat, cheat, cheat.

The mining question is easy, as I mentioned before: Having meteorite showers every year certainly leaves one strip of land uninhabitable in the long term, but there’s very nice iron to be had, if you can get to it first. If you can skip straight to ironmongery, why bother with bronze? Gold is nice, but you can find that by panning in streams, too (probably while looking for crayfish). It’s not essential.

Players who really want astronomy (which, as the computer game Civilization taught us all, leads to navigation) can fall back on the meteorites as well. You have crap like that flying out of the sky, you start to pay attention. Just as reasonably, mapping the constellations might seem like a splendid idea for people who are constantly on the move, especially through the Ironfall Waste. Pummeled by rocks for geological aeons, there are fewer prominent landmarks by which to steer, but you have to cross it to get away from winter’s chill and summer’s swelter. Sounds like a reason to guide yourself by the stars to me.

Finally, you have the question of the higher social classes and deeper thinkers—the kinds of people that a society’s hard-pressed to develop if comfortable survival demands perpetual motion. As a solution I propose giant turtles.

Not literal turtles, of course, but picture something tortoise-shaped, only the size of an Earthly suburban cul-de-sac. Call it 200 yards by 120 yards, big but not unmanageable. I see it with side-mounted jaws the size of a pine tree, restlessly sweeping any trees, shrubs or tall grass into its mouth, chomp chomp chomp, and it crawls forward on hundreds of legs, each the size of an elephant, flattening everything behind it but leaving a shorn plain ready for renewed growth. These creatures (called “suterraps”) were semi-domesticated generations ago and, while their top speed is 3-4 miles an hour, they never rest, never pause and are amenable to some human guidance.

On the suterrap’s back, you build the better class of home, along with your meeting halls, churches, ironmongeries, schools and similar structures required for heavy thinking and social evolution.

The suterrap is central to the Horizon tribes, the same way the horse was to the Mongols. They keep the tribes moving and unified, because the better things in life—governance, organization and culture—are all based on their backs. You can live outside their orbit, but it’s either a settled existence where the weather punishes you for a third of the year, or you’re a roving bandit preying off what you can trade for, steal from, or beg off the four big nations. Each of the four tribes has around a dozen suterraps and they spread out in their long, gradual orbits of well-worn migratory routes.

The social classes of the four tribes are all based on travel. Specifically, how you do it.

The highest class, as you might expect, are those who are smart or strong or ruthless enough to get someplace on a suterrap’s back. They’re known as ‘Those Above’ and they’re the elite.

The bottom class is the Walkers, though it’s a bit of a misnomer. Many of them have horses, ox-carts or other beasts of burden. But to them, a horse is just one tool among many. These people are mostly gatherers, woodcutters and pedestrians. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t run away from you, you get it from the Walkers.

In between those Above and the Walkers, you have the Riders. Nobody ever told them they aren’t the upper class. They grudgingly pay the Above with barter or respect, but to a Rider, there’s nothing better than ranging wide, hunting hard and being a swaggering macho badass. (I anticipate many player groups will favor Riders.) They hunt down stuff that won’t stand still—mostly game, but they’re also the rough militia, posturing and yelling at the Riders who follow different suterraps within their tribe, and getting rougher still with Riders of other tribes when they encounter them on the periphery. Because, after all, when you’ve got populations in motion to stay within constantly-shifting bands of tolerable climate, they’re occasionally going to bump into one another.

Next Time: Levels of Social Contact and Why That Makes for Cool Fights.

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.