[The Rustbelt] Kid gloves are the sux

Started by Ron Edwards, January 20, 2011, 09:39:55 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Ron Edwards

About a month ago at the Dice Dojo, Peter, Megan, Phil, and Sam joined me for playing some games. I'd been wanting to get The Rustbelt going since my shiny new copy arrived and the cover text instantly appealed to the group, especially the phrase "Do the math." I am very psyched about The Rustbelt. It's a solid, brutal game, a definite systemic partner to Dust Devils, Sorcerer, and My Life with Master, yet with significant Color and thematic questions all its own. Characters look like a cross between A Boy and His Dog and For a Fistful of Dollars.

And if we stick for just a moment solely to Color, our game had it in spades. Visually, this story appeared in Heavy Metal. My favorites included the weird junk-sculpture one of the NPC friends was constantly refining and the baffled respect everyone had for it, or at least for his ruthlessness in maintaining it; and the twisted, wilting girder skeletons of skyscrapers whose stone/concrete had crumbled in heaps at their bases after the steel had given way.

I don't know if it's the time and rush to get to the location, the fact that it's always after a pretty long day, my general poor health this winter, or what, but I'm finding my GMing at the Dice Dojo to be extremely poor. Looking back at the relevant stuff in Gray Magick rules about nobility, demons, and lammasu, for instance, I totally blocked out major dramatic content that could have been central in our fight scene. I think I did a pretty good job for The Pool and for Zero, but otherwise, I've been decidedly off my game.

Or to admit the ugly truth, Psyche didn't go into crisis for anyone. Nor did Blood, Sweat, or Tears bottom out for anyone at any point. Not to mince words, this is highly uncharacteristic of me when GMing such a game. I could have hit harder - a lot harder, actually - and I don't really know why I felt a little uncertain about it at the time and erred so far on the side of softballing them.

A little discussion gave us our Situation: the setting was what was left of Las Vegas, and the characters were hard-job couriers keeping up the mail, bringing things from place to place, or escorting the odd traveler. The following lists their Hunger, Vice, Faith, and Woe in order.

Megan: Mama Dee, gun for hire - wealth, alcohol, that justice exists, violence vs. women
Phil: Yaimes, a farmboy - provide for a family, prize fighting, common decency, broken water reservoir (slacked)
Sam: West, a handy guy - making a mark in the world, fleeting love without caring, I am good, degenerative illness
Peter: Jordan House, a wheeler-dealer - restoring family's legacy, gambling, power of good organization, loss of the hotel's paper deed

The twelve NPCs the players came up with were a total blast and a lot of fun to play. Our initial scenes and interactions set in Las Vegas were rich in characterization, although I found myself a little off in response to the characters being effectively in "what can my pal tell me about the upcoming dangers" mode.

I won't go into all the details of my Spike and stuff, but play centered on how they were to go to this very isolated community with a bad reputation and fetch their cage-fighter for a big match. This was kind of a big deal because it was one of the first connections made with this outlying community. A certain amount of the initial role-playing established that the people there must have some kind of awful cybernetic-implant-type technology; one of the player's NPCs turned out to be an escapee from there.

Well, to get to the point, they get to the place (which is scary and totalitarian-like; they are not permitted in the actual compound) and are bringing back this closed horse-carrier type trailer, and have realized that whoever's in there is severely retarded. Then they get attacked by a bunch of real hooligans armed with rusty guns and machetes, led by a patriarch, and find they're trying to rescue the old guy's boy from the trailer.

Play did not spark. A couple of characters had built up some Tears and stress and stuff so far, but no one was in the Psyche red zone yet. And the fight, which should have dropped some Blood and got some Pushing going, went limp. And even when the fight changed into a more interesting scene due to unforgivable GM-manipulations on my part, the player-characters experienced little or no drama among themselves.

First, although I used very strong cuts and I think our scenes and general pacing moved along OK, nothing informational or emotional built in those scenes. I should have been playing NPCs into Psyche like a behavioral scientist and his Skinner box, not maundering along with little chats. So no one went into the fight on edge.

Second, I totally dropped the ball about the guns, in terms of Rustbelt-specific dangers and limitations. They were standard gamer-PC tools, and the player-characters used them like precision Swiss-made killing devices without any tension or repercussion. That made the machete-wielding attackers far weaker than they should have been. A couple of rolls didn't go my way either, so characters were taking little dribs and drabs of damage at most. More generally, the attackers were really weak-ass. I have no idea why I'd set the sights so low on the attackers' danger.

Third, in despair at all this halfway through the fight, I even devolved into inventing a direct sibling tie to juice it up, having the patriarch be Yaimes' father and the guy in the trailer be his brother. Yes. I hang my head at this degree of contrivance. It did in fact make the scene work and the fight turned into an interesting negotiation, but man, was it lame.

In other details, there was a certain play-disconnect among people at the table, with two of the players not meshing well at all, with a certain lack of character presence in the fiction as a result.

The worst of it? Something just didn't grab hold. I'd mentioned in early play that there were many dangers out there in the hills, including a mysterious old dump/sinkhole thing. As play progressed, Peter was more interested in delving there than in the whole cage-fight thing and I found myself deflecting him back to "my" Spike, something I hate to do.

I'm thinking that the game deserves a certain amount more prep, and like Sorcerer, it's directly proportional to the number of player-characters involved. My prep here wasn't much more than what I did in the one-character session with Jari described in [Rustbelt] Opium, haunted memories, hatred in the dark, and killing your friend. For four characters (the absolute max I'd want to have for this game), I just didn't work up and have the social and geographical meat that I needed.

However, true as that might be, it still doesn't answer why, when wielding about as direct a physical threat as one could imagine (mountain men wielding machetes! I ask you!), I played it so tame.

All I can say is that character creation went exceptionally well and that at least I can see what I need to do better next time.

Best, Ron


Ive not read the rules to this game, so I dont know what Psyche etc.. are, but what is supposed to happen if 'Psyche goes into crisis'?  What is supposed to happen when blood, sweat and tears 'bottoms out'?

Phil K.


I hadn't noticed that your game was off, if that's any consolation.

Of the nights we've played so far, this is my least favorite session and it's largely issues with the setting. I simply do no enjoy apocalyptic fiction; if something is described to me as a post/pre/apocalyptic story, it more or less makes me want to ignore it entirely. Just a personal quirk.

In addition to me not buying into the premise entirely, there are some pretty harsh interpersonal clashes going on at the table. Two of the players just do not get along. They were both playing that night, so that makes things hard. There's no real solution to that, aside from what has unfortunately come to pass in that only one or the other will play on a given night.

On a personal note, I like to think that I was just slow that night and, normally, would have seen the whole "brutally experimented upon slave" hook without needing it explained to me...

The game itself was, mechanically, really interesting. Having not read the rules in-depth, I may be getting this wrong but my take on it was as follows:

Whoever wants something the most, and is willing to sacrifice the most to get it, will achieve a goal. It costs you sweat, blood and tears to do so but if you are absolutely committed to something, you can push yourself to the limit to achieve your goal. You can even push yourself to death to achieve your aims. That's just cool. The mechanics are just aching to be used to put the screws to players. Give them moral dilemmas that hit them a little bit, make them sacrifice to achieve their goals. Then BAM! hit 'em with the big one.

I'd love to play it again, even with the setting issues I have. Maybe a Western setting would help me with that particular personal hurdle.

Ron Edwards

Hi Steffen,

There are three sets of interacting scores in the game. The first is a list of ten relatively standard RPG attributes, which you use for direct accomplishments. Roll Cagey to sneak past the mutant lizards in the waste, that sort of thing.

Then there are three "damage" pools, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. If you lose relevant conflicts (achieve lower totals than opponents in rolling and adding attributes), then you lose the difference in the relevant pool. Tears going to 0 means you start losing Sweat, Sweat going to 0 means you start losing Blood. But you can lose Blood and Sweat directly too.

Now, if you want, you can take a failed roll and Push to succeed anyway. But you have to pay in Blood, Sweat, Tears, and/or specific narrated outcomes.

Those two sets of mechanics are pretty intimately related. But then you also have the Psyche scores, composed of Hunger, Vice, Faith, and Woe. I won't go into the rules in detail, but suffice to say that these have values which rocket up and down, and the higher they are, the more intense your character's behavior becomes. Therefore their connection to the other two score-sets is mainly behavioral, in that the character is making more and more desperate attributes rolls about more and more extreme stuff. Some applications of their values do things like replenish Tears, so there's some direct connection to the other scores too.

The internal Pysche rules are fun too - one of the simplest applications is that you can deal with stress on your Hunger and Woe by ratcheting up Vice and/or Faith. Characters in The Rustbelt tend to seesaw between addiction and zealotry, and they are at their most effective when they're paying terrible prices to succeed - think of Marv in Sin City, for example.

I hope that helps a little. The point is that the GM has to hit the players with stuff that leads to them losing rolls. Without that, no Pushing, and without that no real hits to Blood, Sweat, or Tears, and without any of that, there's not much room to "buzz" the Psyche scores. In our session, I think we managed to tweak all aspects of this system, but never enough so that the characters took fire, numerically speaking.

So when I talk about wanting to do damage to the characters with the machete-wielding attackers, it wasn't so I could knock down hit points and maim the characters, it was so we could see some Pushing and hence a number of mechanical angles which all shot toward more extreme, decisive, and consequential actions.

Best, Ron


Interesting -- a game where you have to fail in order to suceed. 

Marshall Burns

Hi Ron,
Thanks for posting the AP!

If it makes you feel any better, I've been guilty of all that stuff too. (Even, on one occasion, the guns thing, despite Unreliable Guns being a major deal for me Color-wise.) And, yeah, prep is a big, big part of it.

But another part of it is that, when pushing as hard as a Rustbelt GM needs to push, I have a tendency to start feeling bad about it. Which is something I totally shouldn't be worried about, like, at all, as long as I'm playing with, y'know, adults. 'Cause what happens is, there comes a time when the player's character is really and truly up against a wall, in a way that really matters to the player. When the desperation isn't just a genre thing anymore; it's visceral, and it's scary.

You can see it in their faces. The player realizes what he's up against, and his face just droops in despair. You can see him thinking, "There's nothing I can do!" He goes quiet, and seems to be about to disengage from the game. I (as GM) start thinking, "Holy crap, I took it too far."

But then, just as I'm feeling bad and about to take it back and try to smooth things over, the player snaps out of it and does something decisive. It's COOL AS HELL. It's like I said in the book: the harder you make it on the players, the cooler the shit that they come up with. 'Cause, as with Sorcerer and Dust Devils, there's NEVER a time when there's "nothing you can do." The system makes sure of it. Once the players figure that out -- well, man.

I still get that feeling like I'm being a jerk or whatever, but I just try to keep the above in mind and go with it. And then something cool happens and I realize that I was being silly to feel like that.

But, yeah, on the plus side? Those PCs are awesome. I love those Psyche traits. I would love to get handed a set like that. So many of them are close to parallel, but with enough of an oblique that begs for slowly-building PC vs. PC conflict.

Ron's summary of the rules is good. Except for this bit:
QuoteThen there are three "damage" pools, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. If you lose relevant conflicts (achieve lower totals than opponents in rolling and adding attributes), then you lose the difference in the relevant pool.

In trying to summarize concisely, that came out misleading. You can lose the difference if and when you Push, not directly from losing the conflict. However, Blood and Sweat can be directly damaged by violence, and Tears can be directly damaged by stress to the various components of the Psyche. Other than that, you only lose them when you Push.

I'm glad you like the mechanics! Yep, your impression of them is correct, including how they're set up to be used.

If it makes you feel any better, the Setting of this game can be customized very easily, about as easily as Sorcerer. The important bits are that a.) the setting is a place where hardship and desperation (in some form) are the norm, and b.) there is an active, omnipresent, impersonal force encouraging people towards depravity. There's even three examples in the book that you might take a look at: a Guy Ritchie street-crimey thing, a weird-fantasy sort of thing, and a Firefly ripoff, each of which take a different approach to the corrupting force (mundane, metaphysical, and metaphorical, respectively). So, yeah, Western would be easy to do.

(At some point I hope to release PDFs of more-detailed versions of these things as "Adapter Kits" for the Blood, Sweat, & Tears Engine, as well as one inspired by My Chemical Romance's Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.)



I have to say Rons post was perfectly timed for me, because I read it, then I went away and had an initial playtest of my own game, which didnt go that well, and then I recollected this thread and realized the importance of character-prep for the style of play that I wanted.  And the bit about kid gloves has given me insight into resource cycle balance before I have had a chance to get to that problem in play, and possibly circumvent it.


Fucking nailed it!

Had a really great playtest of Ingenero (see sig) tonight, and I specifically went in thinking that so far the players hadnt lost one challenge phase yet, or even been pushed at all, so when one challenge turns out to be  a bar fight early on, I pulled out this big mean sumabitch and gave him a bunch of knock down, drag out plays and went toe to toe with a PC with intent to maim and humiliate (the character's intent, not mine, mine was to challenge the players resources to the limit and see what hapened)

What happened was:  whilst previously the players didnt even have much of an idea about how the conflict res rules worked -- apparently you just rolled dice and what you wanted, happened....  This time the player was scanning his sheet for plays, applying various tactics, risking resources, sweating on the outcome of the dice rolls and laughing and groaning.  bar stools flew, tables were destroyed, and the PC finally emerged bloodied, somewhat chagrined, yet victorious.  Said player has burned resources restoring bruising and pride to his character and after another similarly challenging situation will no doubt get motivated to appreciate the parts of the game that result in gaining more resources, which have also to date been pretty much irrelevant.

kid gloves = the sux indeed