Author: Matt Snyder
Cost: $10 (print) / $5.95 (PDF)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2002-05-21
Dust Devils is currently published by Matt Snyder as a free game, available as a PDF download. In the future, it may move to a commercial venture, which I highly recommend, because it's a tremendously good and original design. (Editor's Note: Dust Devils has moved to a commercial venture.) It brings the Western back to role-playing for real, not as a stage-prop for same-old gaming. It offers three or four distinctive and effective innovations, all of which are highly focused on the primary goal of play.
That goal, and forgive the GNS stuff so soon in the review, is rampant Narrativism. The game is not just "Um, a western." It presents, articulates, and almost unerringly drives at the key Premise, which is basically, "Shoot, or give up the gun?" Every player-character is a walking time-bomb regarding this issue, in one form or another, including some that are not especially violent. The fundamental game mechanic, called the Devil, puts the character's "worser nature" into play either as a bonus or a penalty, depending on circumstances, and author power is very nicely embedded into the resolution mechanic.
I'll discuss the mechanic first, which uses traditional playing-cards and is based on poker hands. I think it is perhaps the best cards-mechanic I have seen in role-playing. To summarize: a character has four attributes, each associated with a suit. Resolution is handled by identifying two of the attributes as relevant, adding them together, and drawing that many cards. One may also draw more cards by spending chips, by doing something in accord with one's traits, and if one's Devil is positively relevant (it may well be a penalty). One may replace cards, from the deck, to the tune of one's scores in Knacks (skills). [Note: this qualifies as one of the few attribute/skill systems that I think is functional for Narrativist purposes.]
Highest poker hands across opposed characters win the conflict. Highest single card across all the hands determines who narrates the outcome.
Effects against the character (e.g. damage) are determined by using the cards in the effective hand, matching suits. If I get nailed by a hand containing three diamonds, the character loses three from the Diamonds-based attribute (Eye, hence penalties to mental acuity type actions for the time being).
Chips are the metagame mechanic, permitting extra cards to be drawn, extra cards to be replaced, or various other things like taking narration or improving the character's abilities. Chips are gained via successful resolutions.
1) It is not merely a dice substitute, unlike Armageddon, for instance, or any number of other mid-90s games that urged using cards as an "alternate" system for rolling d10.
2) It does not rely on strategy vs. one another, you don't bluff or otherwise play against anyone else, not even the GM. Thus it's not a "game within a game." (Note: it's not truly poker; one draws many cards but presents a five-card "sub-hand" for resolution.)
3) It is not independent of a particular conflict; hands are not held throughout play (unlike Castle Falkenstein), but rather reshuffled following each conflict and drawn only upon the need to resolve another one.
4) The cards provide a fantastic narration switching device, in that the holder of the high card, regardless of success or failure, is the narrator for the resolution of the conflict. It's a beautiful example of Fortune in the middle, in many different ways. I strongly recommend that people who play the game understand that the narrator has tremendous power, in terms of deciding whether to consider the content of the losing hand. In one scene during our game, the losing hand was used as damage just as the winning hand was; in another, the losing hand (although it was a gunshot as well) was ignored. I submit that this power be maintained and reinforced in the rules, rather than specified in any way.
5) It's not just a gimmick, because it's uniquely fun and usable to set the tone of play. Whether it's funny like Maverick or The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly; 40s-50s level like Destry Rides Again, High Noon, Red River, or No Name on the Bullet; or brutal and bloody, like The Wild Bunch or Unforgiven - the tone can be set with no need for system tweaking whatsoever.
All of the following issues have arisen during play in our group, and I'm including our recommendations for dealing with them.
We used two decks, one collectively for the players and one for the GM. Actually, it probably doesn't matter if the group all shares one deck during a single conflict - that solves the issue of ties, anyway. More importantly, though, the text should be very clear that draws are made for a single given conflict, such that all hands are reshuffled back into the deck(s) to await further conflict.
The text is a bit ambiguous about how many cards, out of those drawn, are used for resolution. Some discussion with the author clarifies that one shows five cards for resolution, out of however many are drawn. This leads to a second issue: since the narrator of the conflict and its resolution is the holder of the highest card, is the highest card taken from the five cards being shown, or from any of the cards in the entire hand?
We strongly, strongly recommend that the highest card (which determines narration rights) should be in those five cards being shown. This puts a person into a very powerful decision situation - on a occasion, he or she would then have to give up a strong hand for resolution (say with a low-card Straight) in order to use a high card for narration. Again, all of us agreed that this rule would not be a bug but a very useul feature.
Folding needs to be in there as some sort of play tactic to cancel the conflict without resolving it - sort of a delay, or "not today" plot element. Not only is it "poker" in mechanics terms, but it also presents an avenue of conflict resolution that can keep characters alive and permit very refined pacing for the scenario using players' input.
The GM's default draw should be 5 card stud. Penalties should drop characters to 5 card stud, with leftover penalties removing redraws (ie cancelling Knacks) rather than reducing the draw.
When chips are spent to cancel damage, I think it should work differently from the way it does in most games. In most games, it would be like this: say I take 5 hits, and I have 2 left, with two points of armor - this means that I end up dead, with -1 in mathematical terms. Note that the Dust Devils text does not explicitly hold to the traditional mode, but that I think most role-players will treat that as the default - using chips like "armor," so that if you take 3 more than you have points for, you'd need three chips to cancel it.
I suggest instead that the concept of "negatives" be explicitly disavowed in the rules. If that's done, then one chip is always good enough to keep you from dying, per attribute reduced to zero.
Finally, the existing game text badly needs guidelines and standards for scenario preparation and resolution, but both of these are addressed later, after I ... um ... deal with the Devil.
I love the Devil in this game, although that's not surprising. It's very Sorcerer - kind of a combined Kicker, demon, and Humanity all in one. It's whatever behavior makes the character, on occasion, a bad person. It is used as a bonus for drawing cards, depending on the situation.
We used the variant that I suggested in the forums of setting the Devil quantitatively, from one to three cards, at the beginning of each session. This worked very well, and it was especially important for the final session as players had to think about how "driven" their characters were for the fast-tightening circumstances that would demand extreme decisions and actions.
The Devil is flatly the key to play. A scenario by definition offers the options, "Shoot, or give up the gun." There's no point to establishing a "villain to fight" or "mystery to solve" as the priority, as the PCs are much more than avatars for the players' tactics or media for their experience. Such a villain or mystery is valuable only as a path into the Premise.
The beauty is that every character with a Devil is, basically, unpredictable. One of the players stated that this mode of play is tremendously tense and satisfying, as any character will suddenly flash into an action or decision based on his or her Devil rather than the face usually presented to the world. The game never forces a player to do this, yet the effect is somehow to create a fierce, unpredictable result from character to character. The scenario turns into a matter of crisscrossing vectors of actions, especially if one or two NPCs have Devils of their own. Thus a terrifying web develops, not so much of intrigue as of response.
From a player perspective, there is no real point to "safe" play. One needs to be moving, for better or ill, and to be willing to put one's character into hot water. Character creation needs to reflect that a bit, perhaps in-play using flashback method (I planned to do this in our group but totally forgot). One player had a very hard time by trying to play a reasonable, stable sort of guy who approached everything decently; we're still discussing this issue relative to Dust Devils play and character creation on the Forge forums.
The major issues of GMing and play
Scenarios for Dust Devils rely strictly on raising issues, not on presenting a series of cool or otherwise-planned scenes. GM techniques for such play remain largely unarticulated in RPG culture. Dust Devils requires such text, in detail, because without it, the game frankly falls apart into either staging gunfights or endless wandering "what do we do?" play styles.
Two types of setting questions play a big role in preparation. I shudder to consider playing Dust Devils without some thought and discussion among the group about both of these.
1) What era and type of western film are we talking about? They are really, really different across the decades and studios. This is not to say that one particular sort ought to be chosen in kind of a "purity" sense ("Oooh, don't mix the Wayne and the Eastwood, they don't get along ..."), but rather that the actual films be referenced in terms of defining, for the group, what the hell they're doing.
2) What era and locale of the scenario are we talking about? One answer might be "generic MGM Old West," which means some kind of vague-ass generic landscape somewhere west of Chicago and somewhere east of the Pacific Ocean, between 1810 and 1910. Or perhaps the answer could be much more specified to time and place. Choices about this can play a big, big role during play, even if the answer is the generic one.
I'm a bit more of a historical purist, so our group, for instance, settled on Nevada prior to the railroad but after the Gold Rush; I further specified it to Truckee Meadows (Reno) in 1850, just after the Donner Party tragedy.
The game text would benefit greatly from a breakdown of what these choices can lead to during play.
The other issue is the system and what kinds of techniques of play it encourages. The Pool-based concept of traded narration forces a great deal of loose-ness and Premise-focus, as opposed to pre-planned events (particularly climaxes) and hidden information to "solve." Imagine Tombstone without pre-planning the climax at the O.K. Corral, and you're on the right track. (All right, you'll also have to pretend it was a good movie in all sorts of other ways, but never mind that.) In fact, I suggest that people who are interested in the traded-narration technique but are uncertain about the efficacy of The Pool dice mechanic will find Dust Devils tremendously satisfying.
In my experience, the tasks of GMing games of this sort (which includes Hero Wars, Ayria, The Pool / The Questing Beast, most applications of Sorcerer, and Orkworld) include the following:
1) Converge the player-characters' paths, not necessarily of the literal characters, but of the problems facing the characters - hence Character B interacts with or sees the person that Character A just had a run-in with.
2) Tighten the commitment of players to the issues faced by their characters. Sympathetic and unsympathetic NPCs are certainly the key, but it's also specific to the western for the law vs. lawlessness, the integrity of the town or ranch, disputes over land and across cultures, and the very geography all to create what is, basically, an insurmountable ethical problem. What is law, in a frontier? When is simply shooting another person to solve a problem a good thing to do? When is it a bad thing? Thus the circumstances of the scenario, and how they all feed into these issues, need to be presented - people pick up on them quickly and adopt them into the characters' conflicts with no prompting, as long as they're there.
3) Twist the circumstances using the actions of NPCs as they respond to the various actions of the player-characters. In other words, the scenario must be dynamic and at least some NPCs must have a lot of power to change things, at least as long as they're still breathin'. Such twists do very well to lay some violence or its threat upon the characters' heads - not to prompt them in a given direction, but to raise the bar regarding the extreme measures required for the resolution, whatever it may be.
4) Finally, the GM's task is to let go of the scenario control, such that the entire remaining effort of play is devoted to nodes of pure response among the player-characters, whether at cross-purposes or in tandem being irrelevant. NPCs' responses and values can still play a big role, but they take on a "be done" quality rather than a further-complication quality.
Play-guidelines and examples are especially needed for the climax of the characters' stories, in which the Devil drives (or doesn't). It's not how the situation works out, or even whether the character lives or dies, but whether the Devil has cursed the PC yet again, or even more problematically, proven to be the only route to a tarnished success. How does the play-group recognize that such a time has come? How does it "all throw down," so to speak, in a way that doesn't blindside or railroad anyone? I think that the game has all the mechanics it needs to accomplish this, but the game text still lacks focus in helping others to see how to do it.
I submit that Dust Devils is the only RPG ever to have captured the thematic western as the priority of play. Its system is eminently suited for it, both in terms of play-function and Color. Given further material to address the issues I've raised, multiple examples from actual play, and the right sort of art, this may well be one of the best games ever to have arisen from activity at the Forge. I fervently hope it receives the further development it deserves.