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[Dust Devil] mitigating Harm

Started by gooderguy, May 29, 2007, 04:47:19 PM

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i plyaed Dust Devils Revenged past this weekend, and it was awesome.  we had a great storyline and a fun time playing it out.  the one issue i had with the game was the dealing out of harm.  in my first hand, i had an NPC toss a few PCs around in a jail cell so he could escape being hung.  well, he had a 12 card hand and a 3 card draw, and ended up beating them all with a straight flush in spades.

i didn't have my pdf on me, so i couldn't check right away, but it didn't make sense to me that in the first scene of the game, two of the 3 PCs ended up in the End... so i thought, oh... maybe it's one hands harm rating minus the harmed character's hands harm rating... so i said, you only take two harm.

then when i returned home and referenced the pdf, i saw that the full harm value should be taken and so i'm wondering if that's a bit extreme.  with 10+ card hands often coming up, we had a lot of high harm-value hands.  at least one in every seen.  without my ad-hoc ruling, the game wouldn't have lasted at all...

my questions:
1. matt, (or anyone else familiar with DD) how would you have handled that scene?
2. is there anyway to mitigate harm during narration, with chips or something?
3. am i misunderstanding the system, or is the harm supposed to be that extreme? 

also something to note.  i come from a gaming background where conflict is good, and entering the END seems to make characters avoid conflict until they are ready to go out... especially if they have no chips.  but you can't earn chips outside conflict, so most likely, you'll be losing the hand, and taking harm just to get enough chips to heal.    i've played polaris before, and it has that similar quick-ending narrative feel, but i thought dust devils was supposed to last a little bit longer than polaris...

has anyone else encountered this issue?


Matt Snyder

Hi, Jonathan. Good questions.

First, let me ask, why did the Supporting Character have such an extraordinary hand? Was he that important of a figure in the game? (I get to this in #3 a bit below.)

Anyway, on to the questions.

1) There are any number of ways I might have handled this, I suppose. This simplest is just to give players Chips at the start of the game -- anywhere from 3 to 6 would be fine. If they had them, they can Fold, for example. Or, quickly enter a Recovery scene. If it really is a game-breaker for people, I might just let 'em say that was the "prologue," give 'em a recovery scene for free, and move on.

Another way to handle it (but earlier in the conflict) is to have the supporing character act counter to his traits and/or Devil and get some chips for himself!

2) There is no way to mitigate harm during Narration except during The End when the player Redeems characters. You probably already realize you can spend chips for Recovery scenes. (This may not solve the problem for you, because Recovery cannot restore Scores at 0 -- only Redemption can do that.)

3) The Harm is, usually, supposed to be that extreme! I say usually because I'm not sure of the specifics. But, particularly the new edition of Dust Devils is better suited for quicker games with few or only 1 session.

More importantly, if this supporting character was such a bad ass, why? What was his Devil? Was it really high? Why? Did it matter to the players' characters? If so, great! That's intentional. If not, maybe tone him down some so he's not the focus of the game's damage.

Hope this answers your questions. Keep 'em coming if not!

Most imporantly! THANKS for playing I love to hear about people playing Dust Devils. I had one of your players contact me via email, and he really seemed to have enjoyed it. That's awesome! I'm jazzed you guys had fun.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra

Eero Tuovinen

Wow, I was going to say a thing or two here, but apparently the new version of the game has revamped the damage and healing rules somewhat. I guess I'll have to get the new version at some point just to update my knowhow...
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


It almost seems like you are having to purposely go against your Devil to start saving up chips. It is like you are building up to that climatic ending: "I have tried to correct my wicked ways, but I can not ignore what is going on anymore. There's going to be hell to pay now!" or something like that. Did that make sense?

I am curious, what is the typical life span of a character?

I thought I might mention that the podcast "2d6 in a Random Direction" did a stellar review of this game on their latest episode:

Matt Snyder

Cooper, that makes lots of sense. It's one of the new editions aims to give players the opportunity to do just as you're describing. The choice remains theirs, however.

I have heard the wonderful review on Chris and Brian gave. It was very flattering, and I appreciate their positive review.

As for your question -- the typical lifespan of a character?

As I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear, the answer is "It depends." One of the new things it depends on is how many Chips the player has in store. With sufficient Chips, a character near The End can actually last through several more conflicts.

Without any Chips, I'd estimate (very roughly) a character will make it through about 4-6 losing conflicts. Maybe more. As Jonathan has shown, possibly fewer! Again, it depends on how much Harm the character faces and which Score that Harm affects.

In my playing of the new edition, I've not seen anyone lose a character to The End and sit on their hands watching others play for anything longer than 1 final conflict scene. Characters almost always last until the end of a night's session.

And, longer play is certainly possible -- several sessions, for example. Perhaps as many as a dozen sessions, though I've not played that many personally. One alternative way to do that is to look at the Deathwish rules for some optional rules about Harm and high action.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra


I am currently running a game of Dogs in the Vineyard, and I am not sure if we are playing it correctly because two out of three of the players have characters that would be better for Dust Devils (BTW, Dogs rocks). So, when we get finished with the next two towns, I am wanting to switch to Dust Devils to get down and gritty. Buy then, Deadwood Season 3 will be out on DVD (well, on Netflix), so I am sure all of my players will be bothering me for a few games of Dust Devils anyway (it may leave us asking ourselves "What Would Al Swearenger Do?").

I also am looking forward to using the Concrete Angels setting because my wife wants to play a "Sin City" like game.


So, just to clarify for myself:

Character A is in conflict with B and C, A wins. His hand does 5 harm.

He does 5 harm to B and 5 harm to C?



P.S.- As the only man who lived through that game, we ran some 'juiced up' devils. They went up a rank everytime we denied them if I remember correctly. I'm not sure how our rules set against the games standard rules, but damn, that was hella fun. I'll leave it to Gooderguy to fill you guys in on it!


well, the game was specifically designed to be run as a one-shot, so i DID give them 4 chips right off the bat, but i also started everyone's devil out at 1, and to heighten the intensity, allowed it to increase when they 'acted against it' which worked well for the story, amping up as the conflicts added up. 

the NPC in question was one of the main supporting characters.  specifically, he was the catalyst for the whole story.  i built the character just as i would build a normal character.  i also gave him 4 chips, but he didn't use them in this scene.  his devil was recklessness - he had accidentily killed a family in a fire when robbing their house for another of the NPCs.  his recklessness was a main part of the town's problem. 

the conflict scene involved two NPCs - the sherriff, whose devil was Fanatic, the Reckless outlaw, the Vagrant PC, and the Coward preacher PC. 

the scene was set in a jail cell, where the Reckless outlaw was about to be taken out and hung.  The Vagrant PC was causing trouble with the Sheriff so he could get the outlaw alone and punish him for what he'd done, and the outlaw decided to take advantage of this and break free.  so the intents were set up like so.
Sheriff - close the jail cell on the vagrant so he could take the outlaw to be hung
Outlaw - knock the sheriff and the vagrant on their ass so he could escape
Vagrant - cause such a ruckuss that the sheriff needed to go for help
Preacher - calm everyone down so he could perhaps get to the bottom of the situation

well, the sheriff lost to everyone, the vagrant beat the preacher, but the outlaw beat the sheriff, the preacher, and the vagrant with a straight flush in spades.  in the harm rules, that does 4 harm to all three opposing character's, right?

i'm not sure, cuz its been ages since i read my friends copy of the original game, but i remember that the dealer's hand was a 5-card hand, and he spent chips for extra cards. player's who beat him got the chips.  now that this is all changed, and i feel harm is more intense, i believe harm is slightly TOO intense.  there's no reason for any hand to deal more than 3 harm.  especially if the NPCs are getting fully statted.  an average NPC hand starts at 7, without trait and devil.  3, 4 and 5 harm hands are going to be thrown around every scene.

and skatay asks a good question.  does A do 5 harm to both B and C?  in the rules it says that the narrator decides who takes what harm.  i believe in this case, only the sheriff and the preacher took harm.

in my gut 'game design' instincts, the solution i feel would be to bring it back to the days of 1-harm per conflict, although our method of winner's harm value minus losers harm value worked well and ended up in a really cool, conflict ridden storyline.  i'm just not sure that the design intent works well with the harm values assigned.  the way it works seems counter-intuitive.  it gives the message that conflict is bad and supports character's who shy away from conflict.

what exactly is the design intent?  i love how the End works... but it shouldn't be quite so easy to reach.  there should be a way to mitigate harm to mirror that slow creep towards the End that is common in westerns. 

Matt Snyder

I'm not sure, but it sounds like you're doing a few non-standard things. So, what I'd like to do is sort out where you're using non-standard rules so that we can figure out whether the Harm rules are indeed too nasty for your tastes.  Do you have access to the new edition in PDF or print? That will help us get on the same page.

First, the "up the Devil when they act against it" idea is interesting, but definitely not standard. Players set the Devil from 1 to 3 at the start of each session, and there it stays.

But, that probably didn't cause any problems early on unless the Outlaw's Devil was higher than 3 or something. (What was it, out of curiosity?)

Second, I'm not sure, but you mention a couple tricky things about Chips.

1) You say that the players WIN the Chips when the Dealer spends them. This is non-standard. In the old rules, the players just got the Chip from the Dealer, win, lose or draw. In the new Rules, this just doesn't happen at all because the Dealer "wins" chips for his characters just as players do, and spent Chips all go to the Bank.

2) You mention that the Dealer "spent chips for extra cards." This raises a big alarm! Any player can only buy ONE extra card this way (and then later, ONE extra draw card). Did you purchase more than one card this way? That would account for some of the generous probability in winning with a Straight Flush (an AMAZING hand).

Third ...

Quotewell, the sheriff lost to everyone, the vagrant beat the preacher, but the outlaw beat the sheriff, the preacher, and the vagrant with a straight flush in spades.  in the harm rules, that does 4 harm to all three opposing character's, right?

Actually a Straight Flush actually does 5 Harm to all three opposing characters if they were declared as opponents. It appears that they were. Therefore, they must take 5 Harm. This is a change from the original rules, in which case the Narrator pretty much decided what happened.

Straight/Royal Flushes are VERY deadly. The will put ANY character at The End because they do 5 Harm to one Score, and 5 is the maximum value for a Score.

Here's another way to not enter The End so soon: Don't play the Straight Flush! There's no requirement to play the absolute best hand. If you're the Dealer (or anyone at the table, really), and you know your Straight Flush will end the game earlier than people want, don't play it. But, you might not have realized that at the time, which is understandable.

Fourth ...

Quotein my gut 'game design' instincts, the solution i feel would be to bring it back to the days of 1-harm per conflict, although our method of winner's harm value minus losers harm value worked well and ended up in a really cool, conflict ridden storyline.

I've not seen either of these ideas in action. The "Harm minus Harm" routine is interesting. The 1-harm thing confuses me. It'd work fine for a longer game, I guess, so long as the Harm wasn't easily Rocovered But, do you mean "back to the days" as "the way I used to play"? Because that rule is also non-standard.

Quotewhat exactly is the design intent?  i love how the End works... but it shouldn't be quite so easy to reach.  there should be a way to mitigate harm to mirror that slow creep towards the End that is common in westerns.

Dust Devils is a game about resolving (i.e. reckoning) a main character's story. The End is the climax of that. I'm bummed out that it was too easy for you to reach, but I also want to make sure you're following the rules closely enough to make that call. Right now, your application of the rules as presented seems very unusual. Which is fine! I don't mind if people have fun with it, tweak it, absolutley! Even if I DID mind, how the heck could I stop you? I can't!

At the same time, I just want to clarify that what you're playing is close enough to what I've designed to make it a real concern for others playing.
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra


sorry.  i thought i was clear.

i played the game with the new revenged pdf.  the game worked smoothly and awesomely as written EXCEPT for the issue about harm. 

(the point about dealer spending chips to get cards and players getting those chips if they win was in reference to my memory of the old system, and a question about why it changed.  i did not play that way this weekend, but that and the 1-harm per conflict lost was how we used to play back in '02.  we kind of played all that from memory, cuz we didn't bring the game around with us, it was so simple.  maybe we were wrong but that's neither here nor there.  all in the past, as they say.)

so, to clarify... i followed the rules to the letter for PC and NPC creation.  we started everyone's Devil's at 1.  knowing we were only gonna play one game, and wanting to heighten the drama/fully explore the system, i imposed an ad-hoc rule of 'go against your devil, it increases and you get a chip' which simulated a 3-session game where the devil modulated.  (i feel the story moves so quickly, even with the devil at 1, that it's rare to have any second session to choose another devil rating.)

the issue arose in the first scene, 2 or 3 of the characters would have reached the End because of an amazing hand. i doubted myself, and followed my instinct to do the harm-minus-harm... it worked/flowed wonderfully, and even that was still rough on the main characters (as it should be)

so, i'm just wondering about some design issues i see with the game and how they spiral into each other.  perhaps i'm missing something.  i'm a huge proponent as playing games as they are written, so it's tough for me to justify 'modifying' such a great game, even if you (the designer) say it's cool.
1. my gut tells me harm values are either too high or the distribution is too unforgiving.
i'm just wondering how much playtest the harm rules got.  straight flushes will End any character, and i have to tell you, they aren't all that uncommon in hands that often hit 10 cards, +/- 3 from a draw.... 13-16 card hands. we got more than 6 in the 5 hours of play
2. the high harm values and their unforgiving nature suggest that players will back away from conflict scenes.
while this wasn't so much the case in my modified one-shot rules, i saw some players leaning in that direction and i really had to amp it up more than i feel was necessary.  luckily, they got the idea that it was a story of reckoning and were playing to lose, but we all felt the end came too soon, and kind of out of nowhere...
3. the BW style ruling of going against traits/devils to earn chips is a cool idea, but in my limited experience with Dust Devils, it often guarentees losing the hand, and thus makes players back away from conflict
going against your devil, or a trait, means you lose 2-4 cards... if you do that in a scene where your opponent is playing his devil to the tee, he has a 12 card hand and you have a 4 card hand.  so now you most likely have more harm to heal than when you started, and still only 2 chips more to do it with... kind of counter-intuitive

all that being said, i'm just raising these questions because i love the game so much, both my admittedly flawed memory of the original, and the design of the revenged edition.  i'm just wondering if some of the issues i've raised are intentional, and if so, why?  if they aren't intentional... do you see them as a problem in your experience running the game, or do these issues not come up too often?



one easy fix would be removing the jokers. wildcards in a hand really scale up the possibilities of what you can do with those cards.

I think everyone of the knockout hands included jokers.


Someone suggested the harm-minus-harm idea after the one-shot I ran.  I don't like it, personally.  It means that someone holding (say) a full house is at worst going to lose one stat point.  So there's no real fear, no bluffing, no thinking "Well, just how badly do I want this?"

I think in subsequent play, we'd see fewer trivial conflicts because we know how nasty the results can be.  If you can find any compromise in narration, take it.  Conflicts are for when you can't.

I did remove the jokers, though.

Ron Edwards


One design element which I think might be missed is this:

Individuals take Harm from opponents who specifically beat them in a given conflict.

If A is attacking B, B is attacking C, and C is attacking D, and D is attacking A ... then all superiority of hands that do not pertain to those attacks are ignored.

Let's say that B's hand beats C's hand. No problem. C takes Harm (all of it). Let's say C's hand beats A's hand ... that's irrelevant. C was not attacking A.

All of the characters above may potentially take Harm. But:

A can only take Harm from B or D.
B can only take Harm from A or C.
C can only take Harm from B or D.
D can only take Harm from C or A.

The rule is simple: if you attack someone and win, they take Harm; if you attack someone and lose, they Harm you.

To be clear, I'll pose a whole new scenario with new letters.

J is attacking K, K is attacking J, and L is attacking J.

J may take Harm from either K or L.
K may only take Harm from J.
L may only take Harm from J.

People tend to forget this because the rule that the loser always takes all of the Harm is quite important, and quite shocking to many readers. But they then extend that rule past its limits, to conclude (wrongly) that A would take Harm from C, who was not attacking A. Or in the second scenario, that K or L might Harm one another.

I don't know whether this particular fallacy was applied, in this case of actual play, but I can see it looming up in the conversation here.

Best, Ron


i'd have to run another game to see if taking the jokers out makes that big a difference.  i do remember a lot of jokers being played, so maybe that's all i need.

in the actual play, i was pretty clear on who took harm from whom, but i still feel that the biggest issue is derived from the avoidance of conflict.  in theory, if conflict is so dangerous, many players will back down from it.  i'm wondering if that's part of the design intent or not? force players to only involve themselves in the 'biggest' conflict (one most important to their concept)  that first hand was so hugely 'scary' to the players, that if we hadn't implemented the harm minus harm rule, they really wouldn't have jumped into any of the cool conflcts we didn't have.  jokers playing a big part, i guess i'll have to run another game with the rules as written to see if i'm perhaps overanalyzing the theory here.


Quote from: gooderguy on June 07, 2007, 03:47:52 PM
in theory, if conflict is so dangerous, many players will back down from it.  i'm wondering if that's part of the design intent or not?
Without meaning to speak for Matt, I think so.  Shoot, or give up the gun.  Every conflict you go into, you have to be thinking "Is this worth killing for?  Is this worth dying for?"

Everybody knows Jake is a cold-hearted SOB.  He doesn't give a damn about anybody.  Not any more.  But the green-eyed girl who came asking for his help...well, maybe she reminded him just a little of the daughter he had to bury all those years ago.  Now Jake's looking at a noose and the Sheriff asks one last time where the girl is hiding out.  If Jake gives the word, he'll walk free.  But the girl will go to the gallows in his place.

Can he stand aside and let that happen?  Can he live with himself if he does?