Horizon: designing for Game Masters

This year, I plan to release Horizon, a new tabletop role-playing game where players create a community, its members, and play any combination of them as they go on adventures, changing themselves and the community in the process. This is the first of an ongoing series of blogposts about its development and the ideas behind it.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing on Horizon recently – nothing like the fixed deadline of a streamed playtest to actually force some work to happen! – and a lot of it’s been shifting from abstract ideas to concrete mechanics I can trial. With Horizon being my first campaign-scale system (my other games are really designed for standalone, one-off games that require little to no planning), I’ve found myself thinking about what it requires from Game Masters in terms of planning a game.

As a GM, I like to be able to plan for events/story moments/character beats, and improvise mechanics. For a while, because of the kinds of games I was playing, GMs I was playing with, or campaigns I was aware of, I was planning things almost entirely the other way around – going over stat blocks, planning out mechanics of traps, getting all the numbers and maths in place for locations and their effects, and having to spend so much time on this that more character-based work (for PCs or NPCs) would get crushed to a last-minute rush. It’s taken a while – of running games, of playing with different systems, of building confidence with alternative approaches – to get past those early mis-learned lessons.

So, Horizon leans into what I want out of a game – a means of planning that feels like a game in and of itself, that can be done either before a session or during one. It focuses a lot on specialised decks offering interesting combos of evocative prompts to allow for quickly imagining locations, people or creatures, and providing options of standalone events and character beats that can be combined in different ways to create different stories.

One thing I’ve found myself writing lately, which I’ve not seen in other RPG books (maybe I’ll later discover a good reason for that and it’ll get cut after more testing! And I will then blog about why, of course), is a beat-by-beat path for how to plan a session. I know sourcebooks that say ‘here’s some principles for GMing this game by’ or ‘if you want to make this kind of location, roll on these 3 tables or answer these questions to build the basics for a setting’. But this is more along the lines of ‘for this game, here’s precise steps for planning a campaign/adventure tailored to your player’s characters’, to make conjuring up satisfying stories from scratch less a) mystifying and b) demanding.

I’ll be able to share more details on the specifics soon (definitely going to at least wait until *after* this month’s streamed playtest, to see how that shakes out!), but for now it’s felt interesting seeing how much making a campaign system has made me think about how to make GMing as easy, intuitive and clear as possible. There’s a lot to do there – editing out jargon, trialling the system with different GMs, testing out different dice mechanics, and so much else – but I’m really enjoying it.

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