10 December 2012

Game Review: Durance

I backed the Durance kickstarter, on the strength of Bully Pulpit's previous work (especially Fiasco). I was a little dubious based on the very specific focus of the game, but after reading and playing it I feel like it will have a fair amount of replay value.

The very specific focus is that you'll be telling a story about a space penal colony where things are going bad. It's a SF take on the Australian first fleet and the early days of Sydney (in fact, there's a chapter on using the game for the historical scenario, if you want to try that).

You can see that the system is closely based on Fiasco, with most of the game being free narration and roleplaying. However, there are plenty of extra bits that give a particular spin on things.

To start with, you define the planet and colony. There are six features that initial surveys said were beneficial. You take turns picking one to be true, and another to be false. Once you have defined all those, you can look up your specific world and colony in the rulebook: each possible result has details listed to use in your game. Then you pick what drives your colony - there's a list of six possible drives, and you take turns deleting one until there's only one left.
Then you create two notable characters to play. One will be a convict, the other a free person or agent of the Authority. Your two characters must also be of different ranks - each side of the colony is divided into a ladder, from the top dog (colony Governor, or the convict bigwig the Dimber Damber) down to the lowest of the low (convicts who have served their sentence on the free side, and the lowly political prisoners and ruined convicts on the other). Each notable also has taken a solemn oath, which may be picked by another player for you - that is done turn by turn as well. A final discussion about relationships and implications of the notables picked finishes up the colony setup.

Play then begins, with no one GM as you might expect. Instead, you take turns as scene guide. The guide's job is to pose a question, like "I wonder how Freesh the bolter [an escaped convict] is surviving out in the wilderness?" or "I wonder what the governor does when he finds out his captain of marines was murdered in cold blood?". The other players then set a scene exploring that question and play out what happens (possibly with a few more questions asked along the way). In general, you aim to include your notables in the scenes as much as you can.

Uncertainty in the resolution of a scene is worked out via a choice (after a dice roll by the guide) of which of the colony drives is used in the situation. The choice is between "servility", "savagery", and the particular drive you picked for your colony in setup. The die roll provides some randomness, restricting which drives may be chosen. When the resolution method is picked, the actual resolution is played out by the group.

I've played only a single session one shot, but we had a great time. The setup gives you both an unstable, failing, colony and a bunch of characters with various issues and relationships that push them into action. The oaths, in particular, very naturally push your play of the notables into certain patterns - especially some of the crazier ones (I had a character who had sworn "to never keep a promise"). We wrecked the colony - the senior Authority notables and the Dimber Damber were all overthrown, and a republic declared. But with my promise-breaking convict in charge, we knew that it would not go well.

The resolution mechanics and story guidance are just enough to get things going the right direction - it shares that light touch with Fiasco. The individually generated planet and colony also assure that each game with have its own particular flavour. For example, our planet was so hostile that none of the colonists left the town. Only the wretched bolters attempted to live out in the wild, fighting off the natives and scratching for alien moss to eat. Most of the game took place indoors to avoid the harsh climate.

Overall, recommended. Especially if you're a Fiasco fan who is interested in exploring and even darker story.

Links: Durance at RPGNow or IPR. Fiasco at RPGNow or IPR.

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