Missive 03 - details, devils, dungeons
Late November 2022
We’ve been building a bunch of new worlds here at Far Horizons – or should that be exploring? We’re building up a new little community of our members and fans who’ve been alienated from other parts of the internet, and that feels cozy and nice. And then we’re exploring some of the darker recesses of our collective’s imagination, where demons fight fae overlords in a technicolour cyberpunk fever-dream. More on that another time.
Using the former, we’ve been exploring the latter. What’s the best way to make a setting so that it satisfies that tension of bountiful detail and fruitful void? Do you want a rich world painted in vivid prose and real characters, or is vibes enough?
The consensus feels like giving players concrete details is perhaps okay for a scenario or module, but when it comes to a game, we want more “targeted vibes”. Blades in the Dark is cited as the example of what that means – players are given some little nudges as to what the setting is about, with a few quality examples as to what to do with those vibes.
That said, some people really struggle with “vibes-based” settings. To contrast that, Spire: The City Must Fall is a great example of a rich, detailed setting, with lots of wonderfully fleshed out factions and NPCs, but with a little less room for flexibility at the table. That can be a boon for people who want to play a game of this kind but perhaps want to use something written for them rather than rely on their own stretched imaginative faculties.
Duamn Figueroa Rassol, one of our beloved members and creator of two incredible low-prep games (Deep Nightly Fathoms and Noctis Labyrinth) which provide targeted, actionable setting details that are supported by fantastic art and layout which provide the “vibes”, says:
The problem is that the traditional publishing space placed setting creation on a pedestal. The reality is that reading an encyclopedic treatise on a fictional world has little to do with the act of playing a game.
Setting is just another game design tool, like art, layout, or mechanics. And like any other tool, it can be badly used.
Setting writing is oftentimes redundant and self indulgent, a very nice thing to read at home but completely removed from the table. When overdone, it becomes detrimental to text organizations, clutters useful information, and can lead to decision paralysis.
To reflect on this personally as a creator in the story game tradition: Often in the past I’ve been guilty of writing both enormous, overblown settings information for largely self-indulgent purposes (looking at you, At last sibling, They are leaving). But in other cases, I’ve done literally the opposite: tapping into the “this is the modern world” idea so to avoid writing any setting information whatsoever. I’ve often thought that both have, in a way, failed me in my mission of tying mechanics to narratives. So thinking about this more deeply is really important to the work of a designer.
(I’ve got a copy of Noctis Labyrinth in my rucksack that I’ve been meaning to dive into. It’s a very good example of how to provide a scenario, setting, and rules text in a combined format, and one that I think people should look at.)
We’re now members of the Indie TTRPG Newsletter Ring, a way to keep connected as the community fragments. All of the newsletters in our Recommendations list are those on Substack that are part of this ring.
This issue we present an excerpt from the Mythoi newsletter by A.C. Luke. This issue is from October 17th 2022, entitled Out Ride the Headless!
Mythoi – A relentless column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs.
The headless horseman rides in search of revenge. His head has been struck from his shoulders, and now someone must pay. An omen of death, he represents the past and its relentless pursuit of us into the present. And in Ireland, he goes by dullahan.
The most famous headless horseman might be from Sleepy Hollow, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one. So, strap on your boots. Let’s go for a ride.
The dullahan is a headless phantom, an omen of death that rides a black horse through the Irish night1. Also called Gan Ceann2 (Irish for "without a head"), he brings his decapitated head along for his rides, holding it high in one hand. In his other, the dullahan wields a whip made from a human spine, which he can use to flick out the eyes of those who watch him. His horse is often headless too, or at least flaming eyes.
When he’s out, pray the dullahan doesn’t stop outside your house—if he does, someone inside is soon to die. Don’t open your door as he rides by either unless you want him a bucket full of blood to your face. Still, that’s not as bad as if the dullahan’s severed head speaks your name. If he does, it’s already too late. Still, if you’re desperate, it’s said that he has an irrational fear of gold, which might be used to ward him away.
Depending on the story, the dullahan is a phantom, a fairy, or both. He’s also a common associate or lackey of the banshee, another Irish spirit whose presence presages death. In these cases, the dullahan is likely using his other ride.
Keeping in touch
Twitter falling to bits is still on our minds. We know people are moving on from it onto other platforms, and we want to keep in touch with you. You can do that through a few ways, all of which are listed on our new profile page, but to summarise: this newsletter (and feel free to comment on the posts!), Twitter (for now), and through Mastodon dice.camp/@FarHorizonsCoop. The instance dice.camp has recently closed itself to new admissions, but you can join a different instance, such as tabletop.social, and still follow people on dice.camp. Mastodon is confusing!
We’re investigating a couple of other things too, like Substack’s chat options, as well as Hive and Cohost. But, whilst we want to be where our audience is, we don’t have infinite resources to throw at social media accounts; it’s likely we’ll be focussing on one or two places only for now.
We’ve also opened up our Discord server to non-coop members to come along and chat, and to get our project updates a little in advance of the newsletter (because it takes a week or so to put the newsletter together). It’s a fairly quiet space but we try to have interesting and engaging conversations about games and game design often. We’d love it if you could join up!
Far Horizons Guide to Cults
No news is good news on Far Horizons Guide to Cults – editing and the last bits of writing continue apace. Writers are waiting on editors, and the project is waiting on edits to get finished. All the while we’re watching art roll in from various directions, and it’s all very exciting. Hopefully more to share with you next time.
(While we’re here, project lead and KS-host of the Far Horizons Guide to Cults Falconian Productions has another project on Kickstarter at the moment, The Blood: Expansions, a tabletop RPG about vampires as creatures of modern magic. It’s already funded so you’ll just be making it even better. Maybe check it out if you have a moment.)
The first project in the A Thousand Burning Stars series is O Morningstar!, which has been edited and laid out and which is just waiting for the proofreading pass and for the promo cycle to ramp up. We’ll be pushing this a lot in the next few weeks. It’ll be available at Itch.io and on DriveThruRPG, and we’re hoping to collaborate with Tabletop Hotdish to get a softcover zine edition in people’s hands next year too.
Main project writer and Satanist minister Jamie O’Duibhir has this to say on O Morningstar!. I wanted to share it with you in full because I think it says some really interesting things about what the game is about.
In Judaism, Satan is better translated as "The Accuser" who acts as a foil for Job. That's about all there is to that character. Pretty underwhelming, isn't it? The Accuser isn't even necessarily evil, so much as an antagonist in the literary sense of "the one who works against the protagonist." As Adam Kotsko points out in his book, Prince of this World, Judaism's central character of evil is Pharoah and by extension the Egyptian empire. The liberation and subsequent foundation of a nation people is the basis upon which Jewish people have built large portions of their identity.
Christianity, on the other hand, connected a bunch of disparate characters: the serpent in the garden, The Accuser, Lucifer, and the Roman Emperor Nero all into one figure who we know either through religious teaching or cultural osmosis as Satan. Throughout history Satan has been attributed to all manner of evils: left-handedness, mental illness, folk beliefs and practices, sexual orientations, communism, and so on and so forth. Christianity may not hold land and titles the way it did through large portions of recorded Western history, but its cultural impact and incessant need for expansion has many of the same imperialist hallmarks of the empires of old.
There has been another interpretation that, while there are many theories to its origins, is largely attributed to the Romantics (Percy Shelley, William Blake, and so on) who were labelled as 'agents of Satan' and rather than try to decry the absurd claims they leaned into it. They reveled in the branding as Satanists. They cast Satan as figure of rebellion against tyranny, against dogmatism, and oppression. It is in this interpretive tradition that I became a Satanist minister.
O Morningstar is game centered on the idea of Satan as maligned and puts players in historical moments with other figures who were maligned and hated by those in power, those with the ability to propagate a narrative. This game asks you to give Morningstar a new story, to tell her story and imagine how they must feel and react to dominance and oppressive nature of Heaven. It asks to reevaluate the assumptions of that old time religion, the assumption that Christian = good, that Heaven is place of reward.
Inspired by Jamie’s training and work as a Satanist minister, O Morningstar is coming December 16th 2022.
As a slight aside, I recently heard the Ghostpuncher Corps discussion episode Let’s Talk About The Devil where one of the hosts discusses Satanism as a lens for the practice of activism, creativity, and anarchism. Despite Ghostpuncher Corps being one of the more gonzo actual play podcasts out there, this was a fascinating discussion of personal faith and collective religion, the likes of which I’ve never heard in discussions of mainstream religion. Well worth a listen.
A Thousand Burning Stars
The next project after O Morningstar! that is Little Gods. It’s being spearheaded by Sam Zimmerman, and it’s got a fantastic team working on it. We have the first round of edits from Magnus T. Hansen ready to incorporate. Once Sam finishes incorporating the changes, then we hand the text off for proofreading. In the meantime we’re just waiting on illustration work from Carly A-F and then it’ll all go to layout from the aforementioned Duamn Figueroa Rassol.
Here’s a sample layout of the cover image, which is what got me so excited because it reminds me of the image of Cloud Strife looking up at Midgar in Final Fantasy VII, which made me all kinds of nostalgic. It’s scheduled for release on January 24th 2023.
After that, I Was Alone So I Set A Fire is being planned and the team assembled. In writer Brandon George’s words:
[It’s] a cooperative, board game-style dungeon crawler in which players start separated from one another in a labyrinth and have to find each other and escape. It uses a standard deck playing cards, each corresponding to often whimsical dungeon room prompts that players must use one of their skills to pass. As players find one another, they are able to roll for prompts together and combine their supplies, therefore giving the game an inverse difficulty curve as they come together and help one another.
I Was Alone is almost written and ready for editing by Jon Boyle, proofreading by Jamie O’Duibhir, and illustration and art lead by angela dan quidam. It’s scheduled for release in February 2023.
That’s it for this missive. Until next time – make cool games. wage class war.
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