Dust Devils

By Matt Snyder, published by Chimera Creative

Dust Devils was my 2002 Pick of GenCon

What I like about Dust Devils is that it's about people. It has no supernatural or science fiction elements. To get away with such a feat, the game needs two things: a good setting and a good way to handle social interactions.

Character creation is free-form and creative. The innovative stat is your "devil," representing the character's personal demon. Example devils include being a wanted man or a mean drunk. Mechanically, the devil can help you or hurt you depending on what you're doing.

In classic free-form style, there is a conflict resolution system that makes scant distinction between combat, skill use, and social conflicts. The system uses cards, with more cards dealt to characters with better scores, and victory going to the player with the best poker hand. Dust Devils takes the free-form angle a little further by saying that the players are free to invent details about the scenes, taking some of the role traditionally held by the GM. In fact, the introductory adventure leaves many details about what's happening in the town unspecified. There's something of a mystery to solve, but no ready-made solution for the PCs to discover. In addition to determining a winner, the conflict system also determines a narrator (usually the winning player). The narrator narrates the results of the scene, as guided by the results of the card play.

In some sense, your character is heading for a climax at which point they will have to "shoot or give up the gun." Characters "take damage" when they lose contests. When a character that undertakes a contest while the relevant attribute is at 0, that is the character's last scene. Win or lose, the character's career is over. If appropriate, you can use your devil score in place of the missing attribute.

I like the idea of a "last stand" and had something like it in Everway. Each Everway character has a "fate" that can resolve one way or the other. Not coincidentally, my GenCon pick of 2003 also has an "endgame" feature, albeit for the whole campaign rather than an individual.

I played one session of Dust Devils with the scenario in the game. We got some memorable interactions, but we were pretty disappointed with the session overall. Partly that's because the pregenerated characters didn't work for everyone, and partly because the game system didn't completely work for us. Here are my critiques. (One session isn't much to go on, but these are my opinions, for what they're worth. If you know the game better and disagree, post to my guestbook.)

If you play the intro adventure, hand out characters based on their devils, and let players set their own devil ratings. The devil rating is key to the character, and players need to be able to play characters with devils ratings that they can relate to. Also, be aware that the wrong name is used for the bounty hunter in the drifter's introduction.

Our most basic problem was with the conflict resolution system. As an example of our dissatisfaction, we didn't know how to handle a shootout. If going into a challenge with a 0 in the relevant attribute triggers your "last stand," does that mean you can't be killed until then? If your goal in a contest is to "kill the other guy" and you succeed, do you kill the other guy (regardless of the damage that the system deals)? The rules refer to iterative contests, as in a shootout; does that imply you're playing hands over and over again until someone's attribute is driven to 0? While we know that the game isn't about shootouts, a gritty Western game needs to be able to handle them.

Characters "take damage" when they lose contests. Damage isn't usually injuries. It can be loss of nerve or loss of face. Damage reduces your attributes (the four basic characteristics). The kind of damage is unrelated to the sort of contest. Mechanically, you have the same effect on someone by berating them as by shooting them.

When NPCs lose encounters, the GM records the damage. Between encounters with the PCs, the NPCs have opportunities to recover some of their "damage." As with Dying Earth, you have to track shifting scores of NPCs that enter and leave play. Not terribly tricky, but it's a surprising sort of bookkeeping for a GM who's used to a more orthodox RPG experience or to a more free-form treatment of social conflict.

Your "last stand" happens when you engage in a contest with an attribute that's been reduced to 0. All attributes "reset" between sessions. That means there's no progress from session to session toward your destiny. I expected the "last stand" to be something that you'd build toward from one session to the next. Specifically, if there's a mechanical element to your "last stand," then I expected the mechanics to support such a build-up. Your devil might build up over sessions, but your devil doesn't trigger your last stand.

Most of the game works along the assumption that players want their characters to win contests. For example, you can spend a chip to get an extra card in a contest (like "hero points" or whatever). But the rest of the game works along the assumption that players are trying to "play out" their characters, and that a failure is as likely to work toward that end as a success. In fact, you can't even get to your "last stand" without taking damage first.

Devil ratings are too low. They max out at 3, which is average for an attribute, so in the dramatic last stand, when your devil score is used in place of the zeroed-out attribute, it doesn't amount to much. Also, with only three levels of how strong your devil is, there isn't enough room to play around with the devil going up and down during a session. Maybe the Devil's max rating should be 5 instead of 3.

I recommend Dust Devils as an intriguing development in free-form RPG design, if not as an easy game to drop on the average gaming group.

August 2003