Actual Play – Emeralds in these Hills (7/7/2012)

Players: Sean Nittner, Timothy Sanders, Dennis Jordan, Nik Gervae, and Ethan Knudson
System: Durance

I am so glad I ran this game. My last two times playing Durance I wanted to like the game, but felt like I didn’t quite “get it”. This time, I loved the game, and would happily play it again.

In the first scene, I wanted to know about Anders. How far he was willing to go to kill Gunney Black. So I put him in a spot by asking “What will Anders do when the Governor sends Private Pennet to move him down to the tunnels?” This both threatened his oath (never to take charity) and potentially made it harder to reach his target.

The answer was that he would fight like a rabid dog, get shot in the shin and be dragged kicking and screaming into the tunnels, a year of his research on Gunney destroyed.  As we played, the questions drove towards powerful scenes just like that.


Setup took us about 90 minutes, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable 90 min. I think the Durance setup is even more fun for me than Fiasco setup, or Dresden City creation, because, while it allows for a lot of player contributions, it gives a really solid structure to build off of. It reminds me of burning characters in Burning Wheel, but much faster and for the entire setting and all the characters at once. This is what we got:

Colonial Notables

This characters really came alive as we asked questions about them and their relationships.  Rogan used to be the Dimber Damber but was usurped by Lora Balton. Wilton was his abbot but when Rogan flipped and got emancipated, Wilton was left behind and dropped down to Lag, blaming Rogan for his fall and for leaving him behind.

Gunny Black was sent here for manslaughter, killing his wife, who was Anders Praham’s sister. Anders was a cop who actually comitted crimes to get himself on the planet, but was disgusted with how far he had to stoop to be caught, as all the other parts of the authority were so corrupt, they kept trying to hide his crimes, rather than admit one of their own was on the take.

Irvin Walker was a religious man, one who promised a chapel that ALL could have access to. After the convicts on the surface had trashed the one he opened for them there, he erected another in the tunnels, protected by the Authority. This meant the convicts were regularly passing Authority check points “legitimately” so long as we were heading to service. So of course the church became the seat of political corruption and shady deals. Awesome!

Changing the Drive

One of the things I really like that Jason did with oath-breaking in Durance, is giving several options, one of which was to change the drive of the game. We started with control, everyone vying for power in a sea of corruption. When the Governor broke his oath though (and finally conspired with the criminals to get what he wanted) the drive shifted from control to freedom. We realized as ship was coming with more convicts, and if the ship was coming, as ship was going back. When the mood shifted some wanted to restrict freedom, others wanted to gain it. It was a great shift in the game’s mood.

Loosing characters

I’m so delighted that in the 3rd scene the Dimber Damber bit it. The Governor, wrecker, and bolter all broke their oaths.  The characters were really alive and dynamic. Tools of the story, rather than a commodity we were trying to maintain. It was a really satisfying experience.

Thoughts on this Game

Tied rolls did something very cool in this game. They turned it in a direction we would have never expected. In two scenes we had to people vying for control (our game’s Drive) and we went to the dice due to uncertainty. When a tied roll came up, it totally changed the trajectory of the game, in a fantastic way.

3rd Scene: The Swell Colt and the Dimber Damber Lora are brokering a deal in the only safe place they can, the Governor’s chapel. Persia, the bolter, has made the connection between the two of them and Colt is eager to see his finding turn into fame and fortune (he’s discovered an Emerald Mine in the hills) and wants to ship it off Planet. Each was pushing to get a better end of the deal (Dimber Damber wanting the bulk of the money, but also to keep everything under wraps, Colt wanting recognition and a say in the dealings) so we rolled the uncertainty dice. We got tied two, with a one. “Death, amidst mind-numbing terror.”

When we rolled the the whole table stopped for a moment? How was that going to fit. And suddenly it was obvious. Colt, unable to hide his zeal stood up to shout out his good fortune. Persia grabbed his coat and in doing so a ton of emeralds spilled out. Once the convicts saw them, they went mad with greed and a riot started. Trying to calm the riot Lora stood up, shouted for everyone to calm down, and in that moment, the “think with his gun marine Punnet” identified her as a the leader of this outbreak and put a bullet in her head.

Suddenly the game changed completely. The marine had fired his weapon in the chapel and killed the Dimber Damber. The criminals now had a huge power vacuum, and we pretty much spent the rest of the game figuring out how that vacuum was going to be filled.

The experience was never something we would have thought of as a group. In fact if someone had mentioned it I think we would have cast it off as ridiculous. But creative constraints are awesome. Now, this thing happened, we would have never expected and it changed the game completely. I loved it!

We had some discussion after the game about how having multiple notables, and not being able to frame a scene for yourself affected the game. I think this was a very intentional design from Jason as an attempt to shift the focus from “my PC as my avatar into the game” to “these are all the characters that we as a group are collectively interested in telling awesome stories about.” This is something I’really excited about personally because I think the my character is my avatar style of play leads to investing in a character doing “winning” when so often the best stories are about characters falling on their face. Not pathetically so, but tragically so.

During the Improv for Gamer’s workshop, one of my favorite exercises was called Death in 30 seconds. And I loved the idea that we had to have a 30 second scene where someone WOULD die. You can’t protect your character, you don’t want to protect your character, you want them to die spectacularly.

Ethan’s write up some bite sized AP, which can be found here:

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)

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.

The whole report