Actual Play – Durance Play-test (11/19/2011)

Host: Sean Nittner
Players: Sean Nittner, Karen Twelves, Eric Zimmerman and Chris Bennett
System: Durance (Play-test)

Karen saw a tweet from Jason that he wanted play testers for Durance and quickly hopped on it. She rounded up some locals (and me) and we play-tested the game. As I was the one who read the rules in advance, I acted as host, though there was a lot I missed on the first pass to there was quite a bit of looking things up as we went.


Jason included 16 questions feedback questions he wanted, which I will include at the bottom in the “Thoughts on the Game” section. From my initial read of the game, it had very clear Fiasco sensibilities, nuanced for this particular game, but still very Fiasco. There was a lot front loaded into the setup (creating a planet, colony, setting the tone, and making colonial notables) and not much in the how to play this game section. That isn’t a critique, there wasn’t much needed. Play begins with someone asking a question, everyone else framing a scene that could answer that question and then everyone playing out the scene (as their respective colonial notables) until there was a moment of “uncertainly”, in which case dice are rolled and the “uncertainly” sheet tells you if a scene is resolved through servility, savagery, or through the tone (determined during setup). There is also a high chance (50% if my math holds) that two of the three dice will match, in which case the scene is interrupted by an event.

In our case we had seven scenes, the last one we hacked in the Fiasco ending montage mechanic as we wanted to put an endcap on the game, so only six of them had conflicts. In one case there was no uncertainly, so we didn’t roll dice, we just narrated the obvious results. In the five scenes we did roll, we got doubles in four of them, and only in a single scene did an element win out, which was tone (Depravity in our case). I can’t imagine that is typical play, but in five scenes, if the chance of doubles is in fact 50% (someone check my math), then getting doubles four times isn’t all that improbable either. End result, a lot of characters ended up having their desires thwarted but happenstance…something I was rather fond of.

Planetary Survey

We went around the table selecting elements that were good or bad (atmosphere, climate, etc) and wounded up with [ACF] Numalla:

Survey: A small planet filled with life in all its variety, with predictable and mild weather patterns and large freshwater oceans. Perfect for a colony.

Revised Survey: Active volcanoes pepper the entire planetary surface, a point apparently lost on the survey team. The atmosphere is choked with ash and debris. The intelligent primitives here are implacably hostile to us. We cannot survive in a place like this forever.

We were pretty excited about this planet. In the wrapping up section we added some details about sights of wealth based on your protection from the ash (like quality of air filters, outside boots, etc).

Colonial Record: [WYZ] Capitol

Everyone eats the same meals in the ambitiously-named Capitol, regardless of which outstation they reside in or what sort of work they are forced to do. Everything in Capitol is orderly and done according to established procedures, even the summary executions. For those who comply with regulations, life is only marginally terrible. For those who resist – and their numbers are growing – it is going to be extremely terrible.

The colony sounded fun as well, we decided that there were seven different meals, one for each day, and that day, that is ALL anyone got to eat (for any meal). They were of course all protein synthesized cardboard but they vaguely taste like: Mango Monday, Vanilla Tuesday, Cup-A-Noodle Wednesday, Pizza Thursday, Brownie Friday, Tandori Saturday and Seafood Sunday. Presumably on Sunday, they were actually fed real seafood, but the specifics were very hazy.

Colonial Notables

Creating the notables was less straight forward than the planet and colony. Directions for that were easy but when we got to notables there was some confusion about terms (like sable and lag) as well as some contention about the seriousness of the title Dimber Damber (Crime lord). None of us could quite wrap our heads around then name drawing all that much respect and not surprisingly our Dimber Damber ended up being a very Jack Sparrow kind of character, including an oath to “never be sober”.

This is what we ended up with:


Govener (not represented) – Mitty Glour
Captain of the Marines – Rustis Colt (represented by Karen) – I will never tolerate weakness.
Prude Robbes – Free Woman (represented by Chris) – I will never be a victim.
Hamer Kilch – Marine (represented by Sean) – I will never kill a man.
Ophira Willis – Clergy (represented by Eric) – I will never let myself be saved


Dimber Damber – Irwin Fowderhop (represented by Eric) – I will never be sober.
The Clicker – Ed Sheppet (represented by Sean) – I will never do anybody any favors.
Ticket-of-Leave Man (not represented) – Lynard Grison
Lag – Anders Wringhaull (represented by Karen) – I will never rat out my mates.
Wrecker – Monrad Kilch (represented by Chris) – I will never take charity from anyone.


Here is a brief breakdwon of the seven scenes we had. I’m not going to go much into the narrative, but more the scene structure.

Scene 1 (Director: Sean)

I looked at the Captain of the Marines and the Marine and saw there was really obvious conflict brewing between them. Also, with the wrecker and the marine being brothers, that seemed like a good wedge to drive between the two already antagonistic characters. It took me some time to word it but I asked:

What will Rustis do with the insubordinate marine Hamer after he refused to complete the mission of killing Monrad?

My first thogut was maybe that question was a little too structured, maybe I should just have said Hamer was insubordinate and leave it at that, but I really wanted to bring Monrad into the picture a well.

The players framed the scenes of Rustis giving Hamar a dressing down in his office, trying to get him to comlete the mission and when he refused to kill his brother, we rolled some dice.

Result: (4-4-1) A high—profile trial begins—or ends. In the narrative: Hamer was going to be court marshaled for all kinds of bogus charges. In retrospect that actually resolved the scene rather than interrupting it, but I’m glad we did resolve it, as that resolution spurned a lot of future awesome.

Scene 2 (Direct: Eric)

Question: What are Prude Robbes and Ed Sheppets going to now that their patsy is on trial?

The players framed a scene on the steps out of the colony that had relative privacy. Both notables were wearing their air filter masks, though Prudes was notable lower quality than Eds, punctuated by her frequent caughing.

The scene played out as Ed and Prude frustrated because they were going to have Hamer be their patsy for the assassination of the Governor, but now he was going to be put on trial. The decided in a rather circumspect way that if Monrad was dead, Rustis would drop the charges and they could probably convince Hamer than the Governor had ordered his brother murdered (a likely outcome in any event) and that the could probably have him do the job for real, rather than just be the fall guy.
Who was going to take care of Monrad though, became the point of contention. We rolled and our Tone: Degeneracy won out. Ed had an oath that he would never do a favor for anyone. So he agreed to kill Monrad himself, but Prude would have to debase her self and go down on him on the steps outside the colony, exposing herself to the ashen air in the process.

Scene 3 (Director: Chris)

Question: How will Ed kill Monrad?

We decided that Ed would want to have some plausible deniability and that meant throwing him off the roof of the only building in the colony tall enough to kill a man from the drop: the Governor’s palace.

Ed and Monrad had a question of whether or not Ed had the stones to do his own dirty work. Monrand threatened (or possibly warned) of a fire that would come and cleans the planet of the unpure, leaving only seven behind. If Ed were to join him there would be no more scarcity. Ed was a fan of the status quo, however, he was The Clicker, and in his mind that is exactly where he wanted to be. So he told his goons to toss him off the edge and when they proved to squeamish to do so, made to toss him off himself.

Dice were rolled and we came up with (3-3-1): A Croppie complains to Authority about his treatment on a remote farm. In the Narative. Down below at the door of the Governor’s palace a Croppie was wailing that his farm has been laid wast too and he needed aid. Marines came out to remove him from the Governor’s presence, but made it impossible for Ed to throw Monrad off the building without being spotted.

Scene 4 (Director: Karen)

Question: What happens when Ophira tries to convert Irvin?

We set the scene in Irvin’s opium den with Ophira lighting his giant hooka. She was accepted by him and welcome to sit beneath him. As Eric represented both Irwin and Ophira, I opted to play Ophira. With Eric’s permission I decided she had been converted to Monrad’s beliefs and called him the “Speaker”. She was looking to find the other chosen seven and offered to Irwin that if he stayed perpetually high on opium he would receive visions and be the “Knower.”

Iriwn was really down with this plan. No roll was necessary. He was more than happy to not only be the Dimber Damber but also be a religious figurehead with a spiritual responsibility to remain high.

Scene 5 (Director: Sean)

We were digging Ophira as a false prophet figure. She was creating these roles rather than allowing the fires to choose them. So I asked “What will Monrad do with the false prohet?”

The players framed the scene with Ophira being let in to Monrad’s cell (where Ed was holding him, but was given orders by the Dimber Damber to release him) and she tried to convince Monrad to flee with her and find the other chose ones. He was enraged that she thought she could name them. We took it to the dice.

Result (1-1-6). Someone important is murdered—or simply vanishes. Unable to sway him and unwilling to back down herself, Ophira murdered Monrad in his cell (smashing his head in the door many times in fact). She would find herself another speaker!

Scene 6 (Director: Eric)

Question: What happens when Rustis finds out Prude is having sex with Ed?

This was pretty hot. We knew what kind of woman Prude was (think Sherry Palmer from 24) and how little tolerance Rustis would have. When Ed sent Rustis Prude’s face mask with a note “You left this on the stairs” it was as clear as him telling Rustis to his face “I’m fucking your wife.” The fought, Prude trying to convince Rustis she was doing it for his good, so that Ed would kill the Governor and Rustis wold take over the planet. We rolled dice!

Result (1-1-4) Croppie workers discover something ancient and terrible. In the Narrative: Not only had the Governor dismissed the Croppie that came complaining, she ordered him executed, and every other Croppie from that farm. Apparently they were getting to close to something…Well they found it, a weapon that put the power of the planet’s volcanoes in their hands. They used the weapons and the volcanoes around the colony erupted, sending lava over the walls.

Scene 7 (Director: Chris)

Chris called for a “wrap up” scene to end the game, very much like Aftermath from Fiasco. We were running out of time so each of us narrated the final actions of our colonial notables during the croppie revolution. As one of the notablse was already dead, we only had seven left so we used that coincidental number to depict our seven notables making it to safety. Some fled outside the colony, others went to the palace, determined to kill the governor (and collective succeeding).

Our end was a little contrived but sure as hell satisfying.

Thoughts on the game.

Here are the feedback questions Jason put in the play-test and our asnwers:

1. Who played? Name names if you want playtest credit.
Chris Bennett, Sean Nittner, Karen Twelves, Eric Zimmerman

2. Setup – how long did it take from sitting down to being ready to begin play?
20-30 mins of reviewing rules and discussing game.

3. Were there any roadblocks or confusion in the construction of your planet/colony/notables?

  • The planet construction was easy, notables was slower because we couldn’t find the oaths–were looking for a page with a heading like the lists of planets and colonies, didn’t see it right at the bottom of the notables page.
  • We all liked that the planet and colony creation was a creatively restrictive, but got overwhelmed by the number of notables and possible subplots.
  • It also would have been nice to spend more time evaluating how long they’d been on the colony, and what level of technology they had. For example, everyone could have gone around and stated one type of tech that was available.
  • We were unsure who should start Step Three.
  • We wanted to know how many digits/letters should be in the convict number.
  • We weren’t sure if roles aside from the Governor, Free Women, and Sables could be female.
  • We wanted some room to put in other notes about the planet/colony. As is we used the “notes” section to copy the planet/colony info. But then as we added our own flourishes (Tandori Saturday and Breath Filters as signs of wealth) we didn’t have a place to put them.

4. What planet and what colony did you use?

5. Did the names and roles get absorbed easily? Were they used in play?
The names came easily, the roles were a bit harder. We kept having to refer back to the description to remember what everyone’s job was. I don’t think that we called anyone by their title in play.

6. Did “I will never” oaths get used to drive play? Did they feel weird?

  • They drove the character’s decisions but didn’t always influence how scenes were established.
  • There was one exception to this. The first scene I framed (which started the game) was based around the Oaths. Hamer (the Marine) would never kill a man and Rustis (the catptain) would never tolerate weakness. I asked the question “what will Rustis do with Hamer after he refuses to kill his brother Monrad?” (who was the wrecker). That was entirely based on oaths.
  • Nobody broke their oaths, either, in part because we didn’t quite understand it.
  • We also rarely had scenes resolved. Of the 5 rolls we did, 4 came up as doubles, so we had an event interrupt the scene. I think if we had more scenes dominated by savagery, servility or depravity (our tone), more oaths may have been broken.
  • Ladder changes seemed like they should be caused by big story changes in narration, not personal crises.
  • Also, if one person breaks an oath and moves up, but it wasn’t in relation to an upper rung, why is that person displaced? Does the player with authority for that character get a say? It seems logical that the head of the marines could go down to a regular marine and there be more than one marine, but can there be more than one Governor?

7. Was the structure of society clear, and did it mesh with the planet and colony?
The upper rungs seemed clearer than the lower ones.

The last rung, which was supposed to be “off” the ladder was confusing. Why wouldn’t a “wrecker” for instance be a convict rater than being off the radar? As it was presented visually, it looked like the last group was still on the ladder, but at the very bottom. I think they should be separated visually from the rest of the ladder, even if only by a line between them and the ranks above.

8. Was the information design of the handouts clear and easy to use?

Perhaps from a design standpoint the bottom rung should have been a line break so that visually they weren’t part of the ladder.
The oaths could be more clearly marked.
There could be more room for notes regarding the planet/colony (a summary of the notes from the list, along with our own details).

9. Uncertainty – did it make sense? Was it interesting, engaging, fun?

At first we didn’t realize that we didn’t have to role uncertainty for every scene, after that it seemed to work okay, though sometimes the outcomes didn’t quite match what we would have hoped for the scene.
We wrote the color for each of uncertainty die by the place where it sits on the map.

10. How often did scenes include uncertainty?
5 scenes.

11. How often did you have ties when employing uncertainty, and when you did, was the injection of events useful or problematic?
4 ties! The interruptions were sometimes very apt, other times very out of left field, which lead to some shakey justifications to tie it into the plot.

12. Duration – How long did you play for?
75 mins in set up, 2hr 15 min play. We only got through 7 scenes. Most of the slowness was due to us figuring out the rules, etc.

13. Did you reach a satisfying stopping point? Did the lack of a structured arc cause any problems?
We had to wrap up early due to time constraints, otherwise we might have finished in another hour. The lack of a structured arc made us a little uneasy. Without a strong, constructed relationship map, the possibility of subplots became unmanageable; as a result we narrowed our focus to two subplots, completely ignoring one notable and the “NPCs” without oaths.

14. Did you ignore, skip or change any rules?
Since we had to wrap up early for time, we took the last scene as a chance to sum up each character’s story. Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we criss-crossed up and gave every notable (except for the two oath-less NPCs that didn’t come into play) a short scene (like in the wrap-up in Fiasco) that buttoned up their story.

15. Was the replay useful?
It helped us find some examples of oaths when we couldn’t find them at first!

16. Could you imagine playing Durance in colonial Australia in 1790 instead of a sci-fi planet? Would you want to?
Yes, we could imagine it, but no, we might not want to play it. There are clear Aussie overtones (like in the names), but a sci-fi setting gives us much more freedom to create the world.

(From Eric) I initially shouted my preference for playing it historically, when we went over that question. This has more to do with my (un)natural draw to all things Ozzie than anything rational. When others pointed out that historical details could prove stumbling, my excitement was a bit more muted.

On the flip side, the fact that this was sci-fi, I had a problem with the British flavored names and some of the obsolete slang. A white-washed future rubbed me the wrong way. I was tempted a couple of times to use a non-European name for a character (and considered making the clergy character a Hindu), but at the same time, I didn’t want to force some token character.

I mention that mostly because it fed into my excitement about playing historically, just as it worked against the sci-fi trappings.

Another exciting direction (which we didn’t discuss as a group, as it occurred to me later) is a historical fantasy about colonizing the Terra Australis continent, which could keep the “planet” & colony creation (tweaked, and hitting home that this isn’t real Australia, it’s a fantasy twist) and the historical flavor. You still might run the risk of light hearted genocide, bad accents, and “did they have coffee/canons/iPads” types of issues, but it hews closer to the freedoms found in using a sci-fi setting. (I also think of this as more of a potential playset that I’m inclined to delve into more than a suggestion that the creative needs a 180 degree rethink.)


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