[Dust Devils] Fun with emergent stories

Started by Motipha, August 19, 2010, 08:01:14 PM

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So here's a thing I tried to do during our current Dust Devils game.  I'm kind of fascinated with the way that emergent story elements can come together in an RPG game.  As such, I wanted to try an experiment:  can I make a character with a powerful urge/motivation that I have not fully outlined, and have it emerge from group play in a satisfying way?  I imagine it like this:

1)  you explore who he is now by watching him in action.  The Big Thing is only alluded to, mentioned in passing, or displayed in behaviour and reactions.
2)  Then you reveal the big thing from his past, with thunderous music and divers alarums.
3)  Finally, you show how that big thing is finally resolved, and it's effect on the story and character.


The game is intended to only last two sessions.  My character was a man named Jack "Rabbit"  McCannry, a beanstalk of a may with twitchy nerves who has been in the town of Tranquility on the Texas/Mexico border a few months now.  He doesn't do much of anything, playing in the local poker games more to pass time and glean information about the goings-on around town than for any actual need to win. 

hands: 2 Eyes: 4 Guts: 3 heart: 4
He used to be a good man, now he's waiting
He's twitchy as a groom at a shotgun wedding
He's fast as a rabbit that's seen the shadow before him and knows deaths a'comin. (what?  Don't look at me like that, it's not a problem).
His devil is his need to know, set at 2 for the session.

I know something happened in his past, something that made him from the man he was to the man he is today (mostly a coward).  Stuttering and jumpy, he tries to avoid any and all confrontation while listening in on conversations, just staying out of sight.  What that thing is, I don't know.  What he's waiting for, I don't know.  What he'll do when it comes calling, no idea.  I made this clear to the other players as well:  I don't know what this thing is, feel free to drive narration or detail towards it, this isn't a secret I'm keeping it's a thing I want to find out.

First scenes:  He managed to talk his way out of a game with the local cardshark, was shamed as a coward by a protagonist NPC (The Vulture), and then accidentally started a bar fight when the card shark tried to rope him back in to the game.  After that he went for a shave at the barber where he overheard The Vulture and compatriots talking about why they were in town before sneaking off again.  In terms of the outline from above, this would be "exploring the character as he is."

At that point, I came to the realisation that I just couldn't play the character this way and find interesting things for him to be doing.  Whenever I thought about scenes to request, I couldn't really think of anything that interesting.  I could have focused on what he did for money, or set up more scenes for him to find out the goings-on around town, but the first was not what I was interested in and the second meant I would create scenes and then force the Dealer to make up information just so I could have it.  Not that the Dealer shouldn't be doing that, or couldn't have made for interesting facts or play, but it wasn't feeling like "our story" to do that, at least not right then and there.  In essence, I realised this first part of play meant I was playing non-protagonist until the big reveal might happen.

So I decided to just bring it to a head, get on to the big reveal:  The next scene I framed was to have a poker game with an out-of-towner, a man named Robert Henry Branson III from Philadelphia (Yankee Bob to the locals).  Well dressed, well looked after, avuncular and expressive.  He's in town on business and heading down to Santa Domingo (the sister town to Tranquility in Mexico).  I described Jack as chalk-white, sweaty and more nervous than usual, asking pointed questions about Robert who has no idea who he is at all.  There was a comment about Bob's pocketwatch, some more questions baout his business, and then a conversation about his kids.  At that point, Jack went a little nuts, forcing the game forward by demanding people play faster, and trying to really take Bob for all he's got.  I lost the conflict, so instead Jack lost most if not all his money in one hand (the damned yankee had a straight flush to beat my full house).  Jack lunges away, upstairs to the room he's renting, and you last see him taking a revolver out of his trunk and checking the cylinder.

So there we have it:  Most of the reveal.  We know whatever Jack was waiting for, it has to do with this man who a later scene with other PC's is linked to the railroad, and is talking about how a railroad might be coming through town.  It's got something to do with kids, or with family, because of how Jack reacted.  Most of the details are still sort of hazy, but it's enough to frame it without setting anything in stone

There are only two more scenes with Jack in the session. He finds out about the railroad coming through town and how it ties in to the local farmer who lost his farm in a poker game (the initial setup going in to the session).  Then we see him going out to talk to that same local farmer, Jack Weststone, to see why he deliberately set out to lose the farm as he wasn't one to gamble in the first place, and we find out his family was threatened by some goons in Santa Domingo who work for a mean bastard called Bullseye Jim.  We got to find out a little more about why Jack is who he is, always obliquely.  Parting line: Jack telling Frank "If you give up too much, you're left with nothing to live for."  Way I see it, this is the trailing aftermath of the Big Reveal, with Resolution coming in the next session.


The way it shook out in play was... ok.  Mostly satisfying, but I definitely had to force the reveal so that I had enough direction for my scene framing.  I couldn't have the long arc that I was imagining because of two things: how Dust Devils plays and because we are only doing two sessions.  Two sessions really doesn't allow for that sort of laid back approach for the first bit: you gotta get something interesting going quickly.  And Dust Devils itself doesn't seem to lean towards that type of play:  it's very focused on The End.  When we talked about the game afterwards, everybody was of the mind that the game is much more about ending stories than it is about starting them.

I'm also a bit skeptical right now if this type of thing is really suited for a scene-request framework.  Dust Devils moves forward by having players request scenes and the Dealer setting them up per request.  Jack was a little too "in the shadows" to begin with for that to make much sense at all.  But having said that I could have asked for scenes that weren't so much about him doing things as they were about putting him in to situations and watching him try to worm out of them.  Which in essence the first couple of scenes were.  hrm.

Anyway,  I'm wondering about peoples reactions to this:  Is this something you've managed to do successfully in your own games?  How "natural" did the gameplay feel, and how much of it had to be deliberately considered in an Author-stance sort of way?  Thoughts on what systems are better/worse for this sort of thing?
My real name is Timo.


Mild correction, another PC informs me that the last line was: "here are some things that if you let them go, you got nothing else to hold on to. "  I only correct it because it's one of the best lines a character of mine has uttered.  self-congratulations over.
My real name is Timo.

Christoph Boeckle

Hello Timo

What an interesting experiment! I have no idea about how to do things better than what you learned from play. As you mention, it's up to you to bring the Reveal, nobody else will do it for you. Without knowing what it is, you'll be groping around, as is to be expected. Yet it sounds as if it's interesting to play a few scenes like this and then bring the Reveal, because it allows you to really adapt your character to the situation being played in. It's like finishing character creation during the first stages of play, a thing I've been trying to do without being able to put my finger on the important points. This report helps, thanks!

Also, I like how you characterized Dust Devils as being a game about ending stories. A good way to pitch the game to others.

Ron Edwards

Hi Timo,

I think I was able to isolate the single thing in your character write-up that led to your experiences in play.

"He used to be good man, but now he's waiting."

This is astonishingly vague. Furthermore, the "now" is especially static. I'll try to address both of these issues here.

1. Vagueness
The statements are usually more concrete in some way: social role, or personal habits. One favorite of mine is "Used to be a gunslinger, but now is the town drunk."

Phrasing the statements with this level of content makes a big difference in play. For one thing, it gives the Dealer something to do with you. He or she can have characters interact with you on the basis of either not knowing your past, or knowing it, which is very fun to do and fun to react to. For another, it provides you with imagery, mannerisms, and generally material for providing a vivid account to the other people at the table.

2. Stasis
The statements usually provide a certain amount of tension, resulting either in a current action that the character is already doing at the start of play, or in a dangerous responsiveness even if the character thinks he wants to do nothing or to be left alone.

To use my example above, the character might think he's content to drink himself to death, but the potential for lethal gunplay is still lurking around (especially if I were to rate the Past at 3 and the Present at 1) ... and the question is whether his old reasons for killing people are still valid to him, or perhaps they are not, and here is when we discover what his new reasons might be.

But "waiting," in your case, is literally a pile of nothing. It guarantees that your character is both doing nothing and will respond to nothing. If you'd included what he was waiting for, then maybe the responsiveness would be there. But as it stands, it's like a black hole for a GM - he can't see it and while trying to GM, will be sucked into it to no purpose.

Now, all of that turned out to be OK for you in play, because you basically jumped to the climax - to the end. This is not too bad a thing, because Dust Devils does have the tools to find a lot of fun in endings. But I think you are doing the game an injustice to say that it is about endings, and that what you did and experienced is the heart of the game.

With more concrete Past and Present statements, I think that more development, more consequence, and more complexity is likely to occur. I think that characters of this sort come into conflicts, and possibly enter Endgame, in circumstances that could not be predicted from their original sheet or even from the events of the first session of play. For such characters, jumping to the climactic "reveal" and into story-ending right away is a bit like premature ejaculation. I also suggest that Dust Devils is remarkably well-suited to this kind of character concept and emergent conflict, and that the game is generally not well served by one-shot convention or designated two-session play of the kind you're describing. Such play tends to create a cartoon of semi-insane western-movie stereotypes shooting one another.

I think that you, with this character, are avoiding the worst manifestation of this problem, which is good play and good attention on your part. But I suggest that with a longer-term, more concrete approach to characters and play, Dust Devils doesn't require such secondary, reparative effort on anyone's part, nor (again) your solution of jumping to the climax point basically from the moment you start genuinely playing (not counting waiting around for a while first, doing nothing).

On a mechanics note, I like to point out to people that the game includes a way for characters in Endgame actually to emerge from it, re-playable. Specifically, they need to be Redeemed by someone else. This, to me, is a major feature of the game's design, and although it's not required, I like to think that among all the player-characters in a given story, we might find one that is worthy of such a decision. Unfortunately, what you're describing tends to make this option less likely.

Best, Ron


Hey Ron,

Interesting take on my past/present.  Given your perspective I must agree:  I was doing our Dealer a disfavour by not providing him a more direct and concrete present.  Even in retrospect I wouldn't change the past:  part of what I was going for was to find out about his past from the present, and I think "Was a good man" provides enough flavour for making him face up to what he's become.  In play it became obvious that "waiting" meant being a cowardly wastrel, but I'm not sure that would provide enough for the dealer to be able to work from.

Having just reread your reply, I'm now rethinking the past as well.  I seem to have taken the high-level colour of who he is and was (a good man, waiting) and put it in place of the strong declarative statement of the same (So say... a specified kind of businessman, a cut-rate card shark)

I also agree entirely: our approach of only doing two sessions does not do the game justice.  The OP was more outlining our impressions from the short game so far, and my comments about Dust Devils were less informed analysis than initial opinions.  I simply tend to state my opinions like facts, and I apologise if it was misleading.  We as a group are trying to get some basic experience with a whole bunch of games under our belt:  This is because some of us have only ever played about 30-40% of our game library ever.  As such, we're rushing through a number of games, to get that basic experience to be applied to later games.  it seems like a losing battle, but hopefully at some point we will have played most of these games at least once.   There's just too much awesomeness out there that I/we want to give a shot.
My real name is Timo.


This is Todd, the dealer for the Dust Devils game. 

We finished up the game on Wednesday with some fairly dramatic story endings for some characters and some fairly non-dramatic story endings for others.  I should state, first off, that I love this game.  On some levels, this is my dream game.  A cinematic western with card based mechanics.  I love it.

Having said that, I do feel there's something a bit awkward about the chis/harm mechanics.  I agree with Ron that the best way to play would probably be to explore the world you're creating together for a while.  However, I feel like the mechanics send you shooting towards The End pretty quickly.  Even with the chips, that is, because in order to get the chips you have to put yourself in harm's way AND (especially when getting chips from the Devil) lower your chances of winning.  That means that even if you wind up getting a chip or two out of a conflict, you might also wind up taking some severe harm. 

This isn't to say I don't LIKE the mechanic, just that I feel there's some tension between the way it operated in our game, which seemed to me to be right out of the book, and the possibility of fully exploring a world and characters.

For example, one player, Charles, playing a trader named Javier/Jay (depending on which side of the border he was on), met his End at the beginning of the second session.  I think he had three, maybe four, total conflicts.  He lost big in an early social conflict and never was able to rack up enough chips to recover.  His story was interesting, so no one had a problem with him going out early, but there would have been no way, any of us could conceive at least, to get him enough chips to save himself without probably taking himself out in the process.

Now PERSONALLY this doesn't bother me.  When I read Dust Devils, I came out of it thinking the same as Timo and the rest of our group: The End is the interesting thing.  To me, and this is part of what I love about it, this is a game where you create a western movie.  Western movies are very much about The End, in the book's sense.  They set up a tense situation, then you watch how everyone deals with it or doesn't, and usually either dies, retires, or rides off.  The book says that Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West were the two biggest influences.  Unforgiven gives you five minutes of Will Munny as a pig farmer, then two hours of him in the revenge business, a sizeable chunk of which he spends sick, which, in the game's mechanics, would probably be a hazard overcome by a stud hand.  Once Upon a Time in the West is decidedly about characters at their end.  Three of the five main characters die, one rides off into myth, and the camera pulls back off of one of them content in their new life. 

For my purposes, and based on my reading of the rules, that's what we were creating.  It almost seems to me like you would have to play very differently to really allow for some long term exploration.  Characters would have to avoid more conflicts, get into conflicts more strategically (to win chips) and do a lot of betting chips, to rack up enough of a stash that they could actually do things like heal themselves and redeem other characters.  That doesn't bug me, but it's not, to me, what the game seems good at doing and what I personally wanted to get out of the game.  I wanted a Leone movie, and that's roughly what we got.

Ron Edwards

That's fair, definitely. I do not want my posting here to criticize you. The game sounds like it was a hell of a lot of fun. The topic as I see it is talking about what the game itself can do.

My concern is to point out that the game does not have to be over before it begins, and I've pointed out some details of character creation that keep that from happening. Yes, it's about characters meeting their End, but the question is how to avoid a character's arc being nothing, nothing, nothing, oh my God, something, wham, The End.

In my experience, it's possible to play a solid series of sessions which take on that weird, surreally slow but menacing feel of both the films we're talking about. I don't really know how to describe it, but to me, both Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in West have a floaty, "never gonna end" feel through most of their middles without losing tension. Dust Devils does that really well, if that's how people's desires go, and without the Dealer playing softball either. As I see it, it also throws the question of who is going to end up how very much up into the air, which I think is a strong feature of the system.

Anyway, with any luck, I'll be seeing you guys at Adventure Games myself not too long from now, and we'll have some fun playing some more stuff.

Best, Ron