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Author Topic: [Dust Devils] Teetering on the Brink  (Read 1989 times)
Eero Tuovinen
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« on: June 10, 2005, 05:31:29 AM »

Interesting game of Dust Devils last night. I'm again playing with the teens around my childhood neighborhood, this time at one player's house. Summer vacation remixes the player pool, we had two old ones and one new player.

So, we started with a discussion of what to play. This is important to me, because that's normal interaction, not gamer-interaction. You get to talk with the new player without all the baggage. I introduced some games I had with me, Forge stuff. We talked about Dust Devils some more. One of the old players wanted to try it, and I myself fancied it as well. Compared it with Deadlands, talked about lasersharks.

Problem - the new player seemed bored with talking, and threw some pointed comments. I confronted it and asked what's wrong. Explained that I value commitment and action very much, so if there's some way to help him actually participate and say something, all the better. He blamed being tired after work and complained about thinking that we were going to play something, not figure out what to play. That's cool, he doesn't want to talk about it. Perhaps doesn't have the words for what's bothering him?

We started chargen. Dust Devils is one game where I don't hesitate doing a chargen first, even when I have to start play right away afterwards. It's important to get characters the players like, the chargen system is fun and simple, and it's not that hard to fit a scenario to the characters. I used Hanged Man, the example scenario from the book. At this point I'd got two facts of preference out of the new player - let's call him player A for clarity. 1) he's a Glorantha fan, 2) he doesn't want a basic fantasy game.

We created some characters. Here they are:
Jim Collins, a carpet-bagging real estate cheat. Devil: Greed
Leon Stuart, a former Southern officer, outlaw. Devil: Racism and hate for civilians, fascism
Jimmy, an old, drunk miner. Devil: Lust for boys

The new player, player A, played Jimmy. I applauded his suggested Devil; although rather nasty, it was also a genuine contribution and seemed to be on the line with the way the game was shaping. (The character had, the player told us, snapped and raped his own son. Go figure.) The characters were rather dark. I myself expected the officer-outlaw to rise to be a hero in the situation, curbing the villainous other characters. He didn't seem the bad sort, compared with the blackmailing, frauding con-man Jim Collins and the failed miner "Jimmy".

Anyway, a couple of new players showed up at this point. The more the merrier, I think. Haven't roleplayed with the new guys before, but DD is a simple enough game, and tends to reward player interaction by supporting the structure. Later on my judgement proved correct - the game'd have crashed horribly without the new players. Here's their characters:
Gaylord "mad coyote" Rourke, a former soldier and outlaw. Devil: Agression, war trauma
Tom Meredith, the sheriff of Last Oak. Devil: Pride

Now, the actual session. Here's a short outline of the plot events:
1) Captain Stuart the outlaw comes to town, sees "himself" hung up and meets with his old pal, Gaylord the mad coyote, who participated in the hanging, thinking it a jolly good joke. No important game mechanics yet
2) The sheriff goes to have a little chat with the new strangers (Captain Stuart and a couple of his men). Stuart and Rourke decide to beat and humiliate the sheriff in front of the whole town. The sheriff takes a moderate hit on Heart, especially.
3) While the outlaws proceed to rob the sheriff's office of guns and move towards the bank, the sheriff himself is left to rally the citizens. Jim Collins the carpetbagger reveals to the citizens the sheriff's mulatto son, hidden by the mayor from the rather racist townsfolk. (The mulatto son stuff was all in the character background, the player just used the opportunity.) The estate cheat forces the sheriff to sign over his valuable farm lands in exhange for talking the townsfolk to resist the outlaws. The sheriff's Heart drops down to zero.
4) The sheriff proceeds to confront the outlaws, finally dying, never flinching from serving his Pride. The outlaw Rourke cackles maniacally and makes it clear to the townsfolk that Last Oak belongs to the Stuart gang, now. The sheriff met his final conflict, utilizing his Pride Devil to try and fail in apprehending the criminals.

Let's stop here for a while. First, I was pretty surprised by the players of Stuart and Rourke when they escalated the simple tough-talk conflict with the sheriff into "let's force him to lick clean the hung man's boots, and kick him, too!" I was like, hey, that's something that leads to deadly conflict straight away. The mood was very close to getting personal, I was reminded of the kind of games I participated in when in high school - anarchistic romps through happless NPCs, blowing things up for no reason. The situation stayed in control mainly because I never hinted at being judgemental over what the players chose to do - I just congratulated the player of the sheriff for his brave convinctions, and suggested picking a more poweful Devil for the next character; this one never made the player really doubt his course, I explained, which is a clear sign of the Devil being too tame. If nothing else, the players now knew that I would do nothing to control their choices.

Furthermore, the new player A, the player of Jimmy the miner, hadn't done anything at all at this point. I had opted to not pressure him, waiting for the situation to play out, which would give me an opportunity to cut a scene for him. Meanwhile, I was thinking, it's quite a rare character who does nothing when the town is suddenly taken over by outlaws. And if this is one of those passive players who just want to look, well, he isn't bothering anybody.

So... as far as I was concerned, the situation didn't look too good. Getting to do horrible things tends to distance players from their action, which lessens the overall commitment to the SIS. The game was in a very real danger of careening out of control, with all the players just starting to blast each other and throwing the SIS context out of the window. The cure I understand now better than before: in this situation the players who recognize the danger need to dwell deeper into the SIS, to enforce it and bring the others back as well. I did this to the best of my ability, talking about the horrified townsfolk, and cutting to new scenes with the robbers fortified at the bank and the townsfolk planning their next steps at the saloon. The other players luckily followed the lead, getting back to it with no problems.

However, we broke for a break at this point, moving in from the chilling evening (we were playing in the garden of the house at this point). I took the opportunity and talked more about narrativism (or "morality play", which is a very exact, very layman term for the same thing) and the purpose of the game. The players should be seeking the moral limits of their characters. Ideally they are not just bastards with no psychology, that wouldn't become interesting. I as the GM would do nothing to rein them in, the whole purpose here was to see if the characters would be lackeys for their Devils instead of free men. I would just put them in ever worsening situations, seeing what depths of degradation they'd sink to.

Anyway, we all got time to regroup from the surprising start. The player of the sheriff came back with a new character:
Merril Randolph, the mayor of Last Oak. Devil: Lust for power
I framed a couple of scenes, too. The citizens tried to call for help using the telegraph, mad coyote Rourke was robbing the telegraph/post office of valuables. It was night, and only the brave widow Clara Hardin dared to leave the saloon to brave the dark and the outlaws. At this point the session finally clicked with the player of the mad coyote. The players fully expected him to go for the big three (murder, arson and rape; would have pretty much finished the game, I guess), but instead Rourke chose to scare the woman out and destroyed the telegraph. It was kind of a "Beauty and the Beast" moment. I could well see the other players connecting the scene with my cermon about the purpose of play just before.

Anyway, the rest of the session in short form:
5) The mayor negotiated with the outlaws at the bank. The player of captain Stuart made it very clear that the outlaws were rather shaken about how their "joke" escalated into murdering the sheriff. They'd be willing to release their hostages and leave, if they were given food and horses. They'd take the gold from the bank if they could before the morn, but otherwise it'd have to stay. Interestingly, the players first wanted to avoid conflict, afraid of the awesome violence powers DD engenders. Then they couldn't just RP the negotiation because tid-bits came in the way ;) So conflict it was, stakes being the negotiation. The players agreed, on my suggestion, to limit their hands to pairs at most, to limit damage. (This is one of my little variant methods, I'll write about it more at some other occasion.) Everyone kibbitzhed in there, trying to get both sides to break the "deal" of pairs. And what do you know, the mayor played a fucking royal flush while the outlaw did the pair he promised! The mayor player just couldn't believe that the other player would play the promised pair... The results of the negotiation were release of some hostages and gunfire from both sides, as Jim Collins and his rifle broke down the exhange.
6) The carpetbagger Collins volunteers to ride for help. Instead, he circles the town and enters the bank, making a deal with the outlaws for half of the vault. They just wait for the rest of the Stuart gang now, which'll bring the cannon and more men at dawn. (The cannon and the gang were all created at chargen.)
7) The mayor organized a defense for the town, planning an ambush. The Stuart gang rides to town and falls into the ambush, escaping with heavy casualties. Stuart, Rourke and Collins are left in the bank while the citizens celebrate. Citizens and the mayor got a massive hand, while the outlaws 7 card stud was crafted by me through pain and sweat into a straight. Wasn't enough, which was a shame.
8) What followed were a number of hostile maneuvers between the outlaws and the townsfolk: Collins brought Rourke as a "prisoner" to the saloon, the two shot the mayor and took the women and children hostage. Jimmy the miner bombed the bank, forcing captain Stuart into the saloon. Stalemate was broken when the outlaws crossed Collins and bailed with horses, leaving him to get caught by the venomous mayor. This was a great number of extremely dense and complex conflicts. The outlaws managed to escape mainly by choosing to state it as an intention in the third or so massive group conflict, while Collins was intent on killing the mayor, and the mayor was intent on killing Collins.
9) The story ended with the Stuart gang obliterated, but the friendship of Stuart and Rourke reaffirmed. Stuart seems not to realize that his misfortune is fully the fault of his crazy friend, who started the whole business of making the sheriff lick the boots of a dead man.

Now, the latter half of the session shone in terms of system function and player activity. Everybody had clear goals, and people liked the system very much. The story was very cruel and hard-boiled, but we managed to get it to a John Woo level of coherency - lots of violence, meaningless, but that's theme, too. The latter two of the new players - Rourke and the sheriff/mayor - both explicitly said that they were very impressed by the system. No indie experience from what I gather.

However, player A. He took to the latter part of the game in a rather... gamer-like way. First, he spent half an hour watching tv in another room at the start of the second half (boredom? demonstration? you tell me). That one's a classic. Then he just sat there, until suddenly throwing his lot in with the mayor. Jimmy the miner bombed the bank, and got the now orphaned mulatto son of the sheriff as his "reward" from the mayor. Then he skipped town ("because his Devil has been satisfied and he has no more reason to stay"), and the player created a new character that apparently had no name, but did have all fighting abilities maxed out. Then he proceeded to methodically declare shooting conflicts with the goal of killing the outlaws. Also, the contributions to the SIS were... flippant, and not very serious.

So it's pretty clear that that one player didn't like the game at all. All others, on the other hand, did like it, despite the rather anarchistic events. I myself at the end got the feeling that this was all some kind of repression reaction from the new players. It was like, we weren't really playing the game, we were negotiating and getting to know each other and this new mode of play. At the start they were all expecting that I'd step in to steer the boat, but when that didn't happen, the players took the handle themselves. After the game ended we stayed with most players to talk about playing another session. Everybody agreed that now that the terms of the game were clear, the violence would be much more subdued. It's now clear that the characters Stuart, Rourke and Collins are some motherfucking bastards, but the players are also interested in seeing if they can change, or if the world has a place for their brand of sinning. And that's what Dust Devils is about, isn't it?

--

Anyway, that's that. I also have some things to consider for the future. Foremost is figuring out what makes player A tick. Make no mistake, I don't want to relegate him into the jerk-bin; the other players all vouch for him being a fine GM and a good guy, for starters. So I figure that this is more of a massive communications breakdown (possibly caused by his passive expectations), with maybe a GNS discordance as well.

From what I heard after the game, the player in question prefers Runequest to Heroquest very strongly when playing in Glorantha. That, and his aimlessness during the game suggests that he's used to play where the player input is much more structured. Ideally there should be a mission of some kind, perhaps. Also, simulationistic experience is a given, being that he's an experienced roleplayer. His handling of the character as a one-motivation Devil-follower also indicates that he interpreted the Devil as a rping guideline, despite my repeated cermons about it's meaning.

I'm not sure if the player wants to play with us any more, but if he wants to, Dust Devils won't be the game, I'm thinking. Instead, I should figure out some game that supports the preferences of that player. Should be interesting, I haven't seen how the other players play in non-narrativistic modes (we've played pure nar for the whole spring).

So, questions:
- From the above, is there something specific I should be concentrating on when figuring out player A's probable GNS preference? Does anything strike you as key activity? Did I leave out something useful?
- Assuming that my guess of "simulationism with plenty of structure" is correct, any suggestions for a game along those lines? I'd especially prefer something with reasonable GM duties, otherwise I could just skip the system altogether. I can't think of anything right away.
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