Actual Play – Durance (3/24/2012)

Players: Karen Twelves, Chris Bennett (Host), Mia Blankensop, and Sean Nittner
System: Durance (play test)

This game was something of a heart breaker for me. Not because it wasn’t good, but because we struggled so much to make it work and while I really wanted to embrace the mechanics they often felt at odds with the fiction.

The Setup

First off, the setup just rocks. Both times we loved this. As far as play test advice goes. Don’t change this. I love it.

Planetary Survey: BCD (Tywnn’s World)

Survey: I have named this planet after myself because it is such a promising prospect that I am sure to be enshrined forever by this action. Twynn’s World has a stable geological profile, a gentle climate, and abundant water. Recommended for colonization. –Twynn, Captain, Survey Vessel Frederick Valentich

Revised Survey: The atmosphere is dense and difficult to breathe, making field work slow and painful. Local flora is alternately aggressive and explosive. Intelligent creatures are very hostile. Coming here was a mistake.

Tywnn’s World seemed so exemplary it was named after it’s founder (the Tywnn family).

It, like all world in durance was supposed to be a picture perfect place for a penal protectorate. Only it wasn’t. Here were the details we added.

  • Alien life was intelligent in a hostile. Small fire breathing creatures with a taste of human flesh.
  • The atmosphere was dense and heavy, barely breathable by humans, but went down just down fine for the Nioth-Korgai (locals).
  • The local flora is explosive, specifically the “fire sprouts” that grow safety for a time but mature into very fragile pods that explode into flames when agitated. If kept under control they can be removed before maturing, only they just grow so fast, and who has the time to tend to them.

Colony: UYZ (Temporary Settlement Orange)

Man, I just love that name. I mean fuck. Temporary Settlement Orange.

Although food is carefully rationed in Temporary Settlement Orange, there isn’t enough to go around. The colony’s secret police apparatus is frequently compelled to disrupt protests and petty rebellions, and the instigators receive horrific public punishments. Each of the three sub-colony outstations was designed around a different industry, and their success has been decidedly mixed. Better living conditions and more food would probably help.

We decided that the three sub colonies were industrial in nature, producing things the colonies needed (mining, construction, and air filtration). The colonies were some distance apart and traveling that distance was dangerous due to the inhabitants. We had picked “deception” for our theme so we decided (once we got there) that there was corruption at every level, secret police in cahoots with the natives, the Dimber Damber and the Governor plotting, etc.  This played out nicely in game as well, so I was pretty happy.


Govnever: Pereman Willis (Mia) – I will not let the thing I have created be lost (in this case the colony).
Free Colonist/Swell: Halia Stakens (Karen) – I will not let an innocent suffer.
Marine: Sergeant Prude Colt (Chris) – I will not rat out my mates.
Emancipist: Vella Croffin (Sean) – I will not betray my beloved Levey Pilver (Dimber Dambers)

Dumber Damber: Levey Pilver (Karen) – I will not show mercy to those beneath me.
Minion/Abbott: Anders Fowderhop (Chris) – I will not betray my mother’s memory.
Bolter: Keecham Kitch (Sean) – I will not let the Dimber Damber get the best of me.
Convict/Sable: Edie Kidel (Mia) – I will not take charity.

The play is the thing.

We spent a lot of time doing the setup. Probably over an 90 min. It was fun, but did eat into our play time a lot.

We had six scenes total, and the were long. Usually 10+ minutes each.

Only one scene (I think it was the first) was resolved by a die roll. The Dimber Damber and the Abbot were speaking about Vella (the Abbot has failed to retrieve her from the mining colony, and suspected she was avoiding the Dimber Damber). Levey and Anders argued about how to proceed and the die roll came up that savagery dominated. Karen described Levey killing the only witness to their conversation (one of the alien locals paid to escort/protect Anders). Taking it to the dice felt natural and helped end the scene. Every scene after this we resolved on our own, but many felt like they were dragging.

The roll of the director felt very unfamiliar. Shine the spotlight on people or events and then ask a question that the other players create a scene to answer. It sounds cool but in effect our directors kept wanting to take part in the scene creation. Also, since it is the director, not the players that call for a die roll, the one time I did, it kind of ruined the scene for the players (who didn’t want it to go to uncertainty) so I ended up backing off and asking clarifying questions instead.

I was very disappointed  at how hard it was for oaths to break. The game said we should be pushing towards that but I met with stiff resistance when I tried to push it.

I looked at these too characters/oaths and thought, I can make one of then break:

  • Halia Stakens – I will not let an innocent suffer.
  • Edie Kidel – I will not take charity.

So, when I directed I asked. What will Halia do about Edie starving to death? The other players framed a scene where Halia found Edie in her greenhouse stealing food. That seemed like a lot of good potential and I figured that either Edie was going to take charity from Halia (Edie breaking her oath) and accept food or Halia was going to cast Edie out (breaking Halia’s oath). Instead they negotiated a bargain where Edie would steel something for Halia. To me this didn’t feel like it addressed the intent of my question, which was “who is going to break their oath, and what does that do?”

My attempt to resolve the scene by going to dice didn’t feel right, so I asked the question “What does Edie need to do to make Halia sympathetic to her?” It turns out neither player really saw that kind of charity or sympathy evolving out of the scene and so they agreed on making a deal instead.

The other major factor wasn’t so much that nobody wanted their notable to break an oath, but that they couldn’t see how doing so would change their status. Edie was a sable, pretty much the lowest class you get.  Halia was a botanist (Swell) and we didn’t see either one of them changing. Chris suggested Edie moving up to being a botlter under Halia’s employ but that didn’t seem to fit either.  We talked about this a lot in game and after and I got three things out of this:

  1. The rules may say we should break an oath, but the fact that the oath is the only thing that gives the notables character makes players adverse to doing so (it’s like you’re killing the high concept of their character).
  2. The discomfort of trying to figure out where the character should change in the social status is also a deterrent from oath breaking.
  3. We felt that in order for breaking an oath to have meaning, first the importance of the oath (in tact) needed to be displayed. This would effectively mean that the oath must be challenged at least twice (once to show it as a defining characteristic of the notable and once where it changes) to have an oath breaking be satisfying in the narrative.

Later we tried asking an oath breaking questions more explicitly. When Mia was directing she asked about what happens when the Dimber Damber is cutting Keecham Kitch out of money from the mining operation. Karen and I ended up going to head to head, each first representing our character’s oaths (Dimber Damber wasn’t going to give mercy to Keecham and Keecham wasn’t going to give in to the Dimber Damber). Each of us made a show of force, but then I could see the scene stalling out. It almost felt like the pre-rpg rules experience you have as a kid of “I got you” “no you didn’t” “yeah i did” ad nauseam. So I thought, even though I wasn’t the director that I had three options:

  1. Give. Have Keecham bow to the Dimber Damber and break his oath.
  2. Ask to go to dice for resolution.
  3. Keep arguing.

I opted to go for the first one. I didn’t want to keep arguing (the scenes were going long as is) and I thought it would be cool of Keecham gave into the Dimber Damber but asked for the position of Captain Sharp in return (which would satisfy his requirement of changing status). Also, I considered the die roll possibilities (savagery, deception or servility) and decided that if servility dominated that Keechem would give, but if either of the other two dominated, I didn’t see how it was going to work. Like I just couldn’t see how we were going to come to a consensus on what savagery or deception was going to mean amongst ourselves. That worked but it left me feeling disappointed on several levels:

  1. I didn’t feel that I could strongly advocating for a notable. Like, if I wanted to say “Yeah, this guy is going to stick to his guns” the other players could say “well, so is the this notable” and we we’d be at a standstill.
  2. I wasn’t confident the dice could resolve it. Unless the director took over to describe how the die roll should be interpreted, I could see the die result causing further deliberation.
  3. Even after the scene ended, and the status has changed, I still felt like it left the two notables having the same kind of antagonistic relationship with each other. The Dimber Damber gave Keecham the title Captain Sharp with no intention of letting him keep it (or live for that matter) and Keecham was still planning to try and usurp the Dimber Damber as crime lord. So, we moved some things around on a piece of paper, but I didn’t feel like the characters grew or changed.

In the end both of my notables were killed to evoke an reaction from the Governor so we could see the Governor and the Dimber Damber go head to head with each other. Having the first notable (Vella, desired by both men) die seemed great for the story. It was going to get everyone agitated as she was supposed to be theirs.

Having Keecham die also allowed the conflict to escalate, so I was cool with him going down, but felt frustrated that my notable was killed because I as a player didn’t want to interrupt a conversation where two other notables (the DD and Governor) were talking. The conversation quickly painted Keecham as the fall guy and he was shot dead. I was fine with him dying but I was hoping either we’d have a die roll going on or that he would say his part and then we’d decide as a group which way it should go. We resolved it that as he died he implicated the Dimber Damber, and that fueled the conflict, so that was cool, but for a while I was like “wait, what just happened?”

At the very end of the game, three characters were dead (the Governor didn’t survive either, we had one bad ass Dimber Damber), one broke their oath and changed position (Edie, who took charity) and one changed position without breaking his oath (the marine Prude who showed up with the guns and took the Governor’s post after he died.

Here’s my take away:

Setup – Fleshing out the planet, colony and notables, was a ton of fun. Basically all the pre-play stuff is perfect. Want: Nothing, this shit is beautiful.

From what we could tell oath breaking and status changes being linked did not make sense or work well for us. Only one oath/status shift was done during the game and some oaths never got challenged at all. Players actively avoided breaking oaths because of the status shift consequences. Want: Offer other alternatives to status change after an oath breaking. Examples would be: element of the colony/planet shifts, another notable has a status change, event (from event table) occurs, notable removed from the game (dead, off world, NPC status), notable given to another players to advocate for, etc.

Scene/conflict resolution was tough. We were all a group of Fiasco players, people who are used to embracing failure, and when there wasn’t a mechanic to say you win/lose or come out good/crap, etc, we didn’t often come to an inherent consensus of which way to go. If felt like we were much more protective of our character’s interests than the game wanted us to be. Want: to see more direction for when to roll the dice and who gets to interpret their outcome (director, group consensus, etc).

The role of the director felt alien and alternately handicapped (not being able to contribute enough) or invasive (calling for a die roll when the players weren’t ready or didn’t want to resolve with dice). Want: More involvement with the directory up front (both so they feel they are contributing and so they aren’t stepping in on someone else’s scene when they call for a die roll)

One thought on “Actual Play – Durance (3/24/2012)”

  1. Some corrections to note (see below), we did think the Director needed to call for the dice, but anyone can. Here was the area we had trouble:

    The course of a scene may make the question’s answer obvious, but this won’t always be the case. If at some point you are uncertain about how the question will be answered, go immediately to the dice (See “If There is uncertainty” below). Anyone can call for this but the Director, who has a more critical and observational role, is the one most likely to recognize an uncertain outcome and prompt the players to go to the dice.

    When the scene is winding down, the Director should help bring it to a conclusion and then pass their responsibilities as Director to the player on their left.

    I don’t really get why but following both of those instructions (going to dice and the director wrapping up) was tough for us. It seemed that the players wanted to continue advocating for their notables and didn’t have a clear sense of how far they could go with that since they were taking both an actor and author stance. And often the language of author and actor stance is hard to discern “I want this” (as the character) vs. “I think it would make sense for this notable (that I happen to be playing) to get this” is blurry.

    Which really begs the question of how to you invest in a character, push hard for their goals, and then step back and take a story-centric view of what would be the best outcome? I know this is Fiasco 101, but without some kind of mechanic to bump off of (again, we could and probably should have rolled the dice more) it was hard to tell how to direct the narrative.

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