Desert duster fantasy

After writing the Fantasy Heartbreaker essays (2002 & 2003), I knew I’d be playing a lot of them. It was harder to convince people than I expected, so I eventually resorted simply to forcing them upon players. Lately, apparently it’s become easier, so that interested parties throw in with me in playing Legendary Lives and Darkurthe Legends. My next foray into these troubled but not shallow waters is Undiscovered, specifically its only sourcebook supplement, Discovering Dusters. Our group includes Helma, Sam, and Lorenzo.

Of all the hearbreakers, this title is atypically bland and among the least exciting to me, except for the exact angle of this particular character ‘race.’ I’ve been developing my understanding of what interests me about it so much, as you can see in Monday Lab: Halfbreed, especially my additional bit (linked in that post) with examples including the dusters.

In non-symbolic fantasy role-playing terms, dusters are simply the coolest option in the game and also unusual in terms of hobby tropes: serpent people, but rather than being scaly or snake-headed, they are shapeshifters, not only into snakes but also snake-like monsters. The supplement clarifies that they are the only nonhumans in the setting who can interbreed with humans, and provides a nuanced look at half-dusters, who must have one parent of each type and are thus represent individual dramas, and dravers, who are effectively humans with a fair amount of duster ancestry, and thus present more of an undramatic (but still charged) ethnicity or tendency.

Symbolically, the content unsubtly, I’d even say straightforwardly draw upon Native American issues, plains & desert, general invocation regarding spirits and totems, there’s a tipi on the supplement cover, the entire duster concept is defined by ethnic cleansing and disenfranchisement, they have low affect (a lot of “impassive Indian,” with implications of “how” and “ugh”), and of course, the whole halfbreed concept in the first place. specifically . I wrote about it extensively in my Comics Madness posts What you mean “we?” and Who is Coyote (warning: lots of TMI).

I’ll repeat from my introductory video for the players (first in the playlist): the question is not whether this sort of invocation is intrinsically good or bad, nor whether it’s been done badly more often than not (it has) – the question is whether we can do it not badly. My position is that this is a worthy challenge and not to shrink from it. I think a big part of that entails not forcing it or reaching for messages, but working mainly from within the setting-fantasy, but also individually riffing on the relevant details which seem likely to us to be legitimately dramatic rather than troperiffic.

Anyway, in case it’s not clear, we’re completely ignoring the majority of the setting, not merely “far off,” but eliminating it. There aren’t any alfar, dwarves, et cetera, nor any psionics, nor Empire of Vrod, nor many of the other concepts or rules that occupy most of the game text. Unlike my games of Legendary Lives or Legends of Darkurthe, both of which adopted the in-game setting in full, we’re rewriting the whole book into “desert duster fantasy, subset human contact, period.” Player-characters must be desert dusters, half-dusters, or dravers.

So far, we’ve met to finish character creation and share ideas or questions about the rules in use. My screen capture was disobeying me following the latest platform and program updates, so our meeting is audio only (we could see each other at the time). I was able to fix it so the play sessions will be visible.



20 responses to “Desert duster fantasy”

  1. Situational Weirdness

    The discussion about weirdness caught my attention as it brought up something I had not thought of before: background weirdness overshadowing the characters. And this would seem to me to be a common phenomena in certain games. Especially games with a strong and weird IP behind them. 

    • I am wary that I may be

      I am wary that I may be getting too simplistic or too comfortable with my mantra about "maximum of one, minimum of the other, either is fine, but not both." I use it for a lot of things and maybe it's not always right.

      But in this case it does make sense to me. I'd like the dusters to be impressive to the human characters in much the same way they are to us as players, even though the human characters are living in a fantasy adventure setting too. I've been thinking a little bit about what NPC wizard-types would be like, so that they don't shrug and say "whatever" when they see a duster transform from snake to person.

  2. Session 1!

    In which I decided to pull a somewhat cheap trick of dropping the player-characters into a set-piece, then running flashbacks to discover how they each related to the events/location. My main hope was not to front-load or enforce too much in terms of their emotional and fictionally-causal commitment.

    Here's the direct link to session 1 inside the playlist.

    Anyway, as far as actual prep and backstory are concerned, all I did was make a simple relationship map, time it in terms of by-the-text longevity rules (for humans, dusters, half-dusters, and dravers; all different), and distribute it across the three locations/origins chosen by the three players.

    As usual, the players – a new composition: Sam, Helma, and Lorenzo – have provided inspirations and creative bars that pull my best self forward. I also think, collectively, we are discovering the power that lies in the game. As with all the heartbreakers, it requires some digging and some openness. I am finding more to say about these games, as a group.

    • A couple of observations from

      A couple of observations from this particular session.

      The first pertains to the way the game has started to show up its colors in actual use. The setup of activities isn't particularly unique, but there's two features that emerged in a way that stood up for me.
      One is that the vast number of skills does not (or did not for us) operate in the way that probably a superficial analysis would indicate. Very often when faced with immense lists of incredibly detailed skills/activities the temptation is to assume that the goal is to map out precisely any possible activity – for anything that could happen, you have the perfect test to emulate it. But when you start playing, it becomes apparent that the process is reversed: the many, many skills make it so that what you did actually put on your sheet is what you're going to look for, in action. It's not "this happened, so let's figure out the right skill" but "given this situation, do you have anything that could be useful here?". 
      Combine this with the second point – which is that almost every skill has its own text and effects and exceptions – and I think there's the potential for these skills to actually direct the experience and create tone and color depending on what the players envisioned and chose. Contrast this with other games where every character gets all the skills, at different levels of effectiveness, and I think it's interesting how crucial the fact that you may not have the right skill or even be able to roll in a certain situation ends up being. I think this will prove important in the long run, and I foundt it surprisingly enjoyable (and somewhat liberating).

      The second is that there's a few instances that in retrospect seem to me like they could be considered teachable moments on the sheer power of intention and trust at a gaming table. Having no idea whatsoever of how a scene could end up looking, often with very explosive and surprising statements from the "GM", and yet you push a little, and you find the other person working with you, and playing off what you said, and eventually everything gets a momentum that is impossible to engineer before play. You cannot recount or describe these moments – to say "you had to be there" is probably excessive, because I think they're very identifiable even in video form, but it's one aspect of the activity that defies translation in another medium. I knew nothing about my character and now I'm already extremely invested in him, after little more than 2 hours.

  3. Session 2!

    Lots of death in this one: hatching basilisks, walking (fighting) corpses, sacred death-water … I preserved our rules-learning dialogue as well, so you can see what it's like to feel your way into unfamiliar rules.

    Here's the link inside the playlist.

  4. Session 3!

    I'm finding a nice combination of prepping material / seeing what happens. This session brought up some interactions, played through intuitively and without regard to expectations, which provide enough content for half-a-dozen Monday Labs.

    Also, before play, we discussed a few things: Helma wanted to know if the characters were supposed to team up, Lorenzo wanted some cultural context for his character's fighting skill, and we debated how the herbalism and poison rules interacted.

    Also also, the final part of this session raised a lot of long-standing questions about "GM makes suggestions," which I think I'll include in a short video reflecting on the game so far, to be added soon.

    Here's the direct link to the session inside the playlist.

  5. Session 4!

    Finally caught up to real-time posting; this is the direct link to the session inside the playlist.

    I think this is where the four of us finally clicked with the system, and even came to appreciate its curious obsession with very small details about skills.

    • Plus a two-part reflection at

      Plus a two-part reflection at this point of play, inside the playlist here. It's related directly to the issues discussed at Seminar in the past month or so, regarding failed resolution.

    • Thanks, that wraps up a lot

      Thanks, that wraps up a lot of the scattered thinking and discussing we've been doing over the game. I'll say that the game's dedication to at least explore the idea of failure and its consequences is admirable, despite the obvious shortcomings. 

      There's one thing that isn't directly related to the larger subject but that was provoked by the reflections on the hyena bites and Sam's absolutely brilliant reaction to it. The game suggests a gruesome process of fixing bones and sewing wounds shut, which is certainly evocative but got me thinking about the entire "what are these hit points for?" thing.

      It's actually not the first time that moment of play comes to my mind this week: I'm watching a french fantasy/historical show (La Revolution) and the first episodes show the consequences of someone suffering a gangrenous leg wound and being denied amputation. Aside from the constant pains, the fevers, the excruciating dressing and undressing of the wound, you get to see the bones become brittle and rotten and snap at the slightest solicitation. 
      Circle of Hands touches on this type of problem, to the point of being explicit about the sheer lethality of puncture wounds and how in an environment where you don't have access to modern medical science this type of occurrence is not just lethal but the doorway to a long, agonizing demise.

      So back to hit points, wounds and the healing skill: there's an interesting tension between the idealization of what a life of fantasy adventuring would be, and the brutal ease with which it would actually turn into an unromantic, miserable and downright lethal affair if we were to actually implement that "realism" that is so easily invoked in certain discourses about tabletop roleplaying games features. 

      I wonder if any game actually got away with that while staying enjoyable. CoH's very direct and honest approach of "the world is like this, but it will never happen to the player characters because we don't care to see that" works very well for me, but Undiscovered's stepping just short of mentioning sawbones – out of nowhere, where you consider how the rules on damage actually work – is certainly notable.

    • There are lots of role

      There are lots of role-playing rules which attempt to be clinical and realistic, as I'm sure you know, and I agree that they usually result in some strange, unspoken amalgam of results in play. To a great extent the solution in Circle of Hands was simply to choose one of those in-play, table-built compromises and say "that's the rule."

      One of the key games in the hobby's history for this topic is the original Cyberpunk (1989), often called "Cyberpunk 2013," which cited real-world statistics about gunfights to eliminate most of what people obviously thought and applied in role-playing games (as well as movies and TV). Significantly, it eliminated hit points or any equivalent, using only degrees of injury at body locations.

      Another important text is the original Hero Wars (2000), which includes a solid section about clinical ("realistic") injury – specifically that fiction does not apply such things to characters except at dramatic moments, if ever, and that role-playing games had walked themselves into a fairly silly compromise between applying real-life tissue trauma all the time, and therefore had been forced to apply magical or magic-like healing all the time in order to compensate for it. (Jokes about calling out "Medic! Cleric!" when hurt go all the way back to the 70s.) This game applied the "not as bad as it looked" concept, which had formerly appeared in simpler form in Over the Edge (mentioned here because Robin Laws was involved with both of these games) – during the fight, you take severe damage, but always described as what it feels like rather than how it is, and then after the fight, depending on the outcome, you often find the injury is less severe than it seemed. This is absolutely standard for most fiction and works very well in play, although it did not sit well at all with the RuneQuest fanbase, who were quite accustomed to and perhaps fetishized exactly the thing that the Hero Wars text explicitly criticizes.

    • I remember you mentioning

      I remember you mentioning this elsewhere, and while I never had the chance to play Hero Wars, it does sound like a perfectly functional solution. That looked like something that could have killed me, but it I made it to the end and it's not so bad after all. You can even add in some sort extra color with the heroine/hero suturing her own wounds or some short term triage. The image of John Rambo stopping a bullet wound from bleeding him out with some more gunpowder instantly comes to mind. Or when one guy is almost dead and then fully functional some moments later thanks to a big bandage (think Lt. Gorman in Aliens). Nothing to do with realism but with keeping the consequences in play (and more importantly, in the narration) by making them playable. Not "this must exist because that's how things would be" but rather "this exists, let's play it". If it makes sense.

      Sticking to games, Healing Surges worked this way for me in D&D4E. You may get very close to death in combat (running out of HP), but if you make it, Healing Surge will allow you to keep functioning – it wasn't so bad, you bandaged the wounds efficiently, you recovered from the shock, you're back to fighting capability (for a few times per day). This was received at my tables rather nicely (compared to the general negative reactions invoking "realism") because it nicely framed danger in a way that was functional to play without losing teeth – if you died, you died, but if you didn't, you could keep playing.

      As an aside, I was reviewing a few games last night regarding this topic and Blades in the Dark caught my attention for two reasons. One is that once again it's a game that prescribes some potentially very gruesome consequences (broken bones, impalements, electrocutions) but this time with much tidier guidelines (this is what's happening, the entity of the harm tells us how bad it is) with some really generous recovery rules (but then again, this makes the adventuring process work). I've often been critical of certain BitD elements (and if I have to be honest, while reading up on this I've stumbled in some words on the value of failure and consequences on page 166 that go stright in the opposite way of my priorities and actually sparkled some reflections) but I think in this aspect it's definitely worthy of consideration.

  6. Fantasy Heartbreaker Observations

    I'm only caught up to the beginning of session 4, but I am really enjoying watching this game. I wanted to comment mainly to express how much I like it, but I also wanted to share two thoughts/observations:

    1) I have always found Ron's use of RPGS = musical instruments metaphor to be very apt and compelling. But watching this game it really hit home: partly because it seems clear that in playing Undiscovered the four of you are really picking it up and DOING something with it. It is, perhaps, especially noticeable here because it isn't clear that the authors of the game might have expected people would pick it up and do THIS with it, but, at the same time, it does seem to really support what you are doing with it. 

    2) Inspired by the discussions around Fantasy Heartbreakers in the Adept Play-sphere, I've pulled a couple off my shelf and have been going through them, with an eye to playing them once we're through with Legendary Lives (although at this point, I think we could have fun playing Legendary Lives for quite a while). In Forge: Out of Chaos, the skill list really makes perfect sense for a game that seems to be focused on dungeon crawling: lots of combat skills, lots of adventuring skills. Which is good because the game seems to be centered on that activity. Compare that to Legendary Lives, where you have a boatload of different skills, but the game also provides a lot of context (in terms of personal relationships and political content) to make that wide range of skills seem useful. Both of those seem very coherent. But then there's The Fifth Cycle, which along with the adventuring skills, has a lot of crafting/occupation skills. But unlike Legendary Lives, there doesn't seem to be much context (or kibble, to use Ron's phrase) provided for them in the text itself, which seems to assume that you'll be an adventurer exploring ancient ruins. That got me thinking about Ron's comments about the XP system in Undiscovered – that it seems like the design is pointing away from combat as the central feature of play, without the designers really being able to fathom making an RPG without a big combat system in the middle of it. My question: I wonder what use these crafting/artisanal/professional skills had in the home games of the people who made Fifth Cycle and Undiscovered? Were they doing something different in their games from what they present in the text?

    • … the four of you are really picking it up and DOING something with it. It is, perhaps, especially noticeable here because it isn't clear that the authors of the game might have expected people would pick it up and do THIS with it, but, at the same time, it does seem to really support what you are doing with it. 

      I have participated some odd dialogues about this point, over the years. Sometimes the creator, or someone thinking about what the creator would or might say (as if they were the creator), tells me that how we’re playing is what they would have wanted or advised or instructed about how to play, but that “the average gamer” or some such constructed presumed audience, couldn’t do it. So they “had” to present it as being all about leveling up, or gathering treasure, or some improved or corrected logic about doing those things.

      I've also noticed that when the creators are a group, that one of them tends to keep body-blocking the primary creator from individualizing the work in terms of goals and aesthetics, insisting that "you have to have" this or that D&D fantasy trope or game mechanic, often significant ones.

      … But then there's The Fifth Cycle, which along with the adventuring skills, has a lot of crafting/occupation skills. But unlike Legendary Lives, there doesn't seem to be much context (or kibble, to use Ron's phrase) provided for them in the text itself, which seems to assume that you'll be an adventurer exploring ancient ruins.

      As a secondary or footnote-type point, Fifth Cycle is the historically first game that I’d tag with the Heartbreaker label (1989), and it’s very much of a piece with the recent addition of a large skill list to AD&D, as well as with Rolemaster, its most obvious parent. Both of those games are notable for no really understandable reason to use the skills except as an elaborate, everyone-gets-to-do-it variant of breaking down the door set in front of you, because it’s locked, and it’s both present and locked because now we get to see you break it down. Considering the solidity and clarity of the Fifth Cycle rules in general, I’m convinced the creative group’s experience with the skills was more coherent and understandable than that, but the culture of play and text writing had no vocabulary to let us as readers know what they did.

      That reminds me: in Forge: Out of Chaos, the rules for breaking down doors are are  presented in an almost defiantly honest fashion, admitting and even reveling in the fact that this is a strategic confrontation for which you better be prepared, whereas in the above two titles one is left in vague-ass, dishonestly and inconsistently naturalistic territory about rolling any skill, e.g., “to cook” or “to track,” not knowing whether it’s because the situation is a dedicated obstacle or because the rolling mechanics are the physics of anyone and everyone doing this skill in this setting, ever.

      … My question: I wonder what use these crafting/artisanal/professional skills had in the home games of the people who made Fifth Cycle and Undiscovered? Were they doing something different in their games from what they present in the text?

      I’ve recently been able to articulate my thoughts about this more generally, as Undiscovered displays a lot of disconnect between “culture, ritual, art & craft, social role” with violence and danger as a subset of one’s situation in life; vs. “encounter foes, battle or avoid them, collect coins, level up” as the essential arena of play. The points of inevitable compromise between these are especially uneasy and sometimes nonsensical or jarring in this game, especially in contrast to early RuneQuest, which had an explicit “get out of it” process from monster/money/training into religious/political player-of-note. So I’ll provide yet another damn reflection video at some point soon.

  7. Session 6!

    I'll probably provide my internal process of why and how that conflict turned out the way it did. I will begin with the point that I did not simply "decide" that Crixos would not complete his spell. There were several mechanics involved, as well as my rubric/concept for his priorities.

    I'd really like to dissect it moment by moment (literally second by second, in terms of game mechanics), because the game has absolutely no mechanics for convincing or commitment. I consider the presence or absence of such things to be a feature, i.e., it "works" for a given game to have them or not have them, or if they're there, for them to work in this way or that way. Undiscovered is fine without them … but then it's worth considering what criteria you do use, particularly for NPCs, for critical decisions during moments of crisis.

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

  8. Session 7 with curses

    I screwed up the recording. Here is my inadequate summary and my memory of the included conversation.

    Yes, it was the perfect session of play + spontaneous chat about play so far, exactly the right thing for anyone learning about role-playing, or who simply enjoys it, to see.

    Here's the direct link into the playlist.

    • one players account of session 7

      Ithashas recollection from the night and morning spend on the sacred grounds of what I for myself call the Dragon Hill peninsula:

      I stand on the highest point of the hill. The river changed course so this place now forms a little peninsula with the hill rising on the land side of it. A battle greater than any before is unfolding around me. I can feel the powers of this place focusing in us who are calling the spirits of all elements I see them come. Earth, fire, water and air, they all follow our calling. The shamans of the tribal humans cry out in shock and fear as those they had summoned to their own aid leave them to congregate on the Dragon Hill. The tribal humans never again will fight us.

      Coming into myself I still can feel that sense of power.

      Then I realize that I have been sleeping on the ground. The others seem to have experienced the same events during their dreams. Crixos reaction is curios, he seems shocked and even disgusted by the realization of the finality of our victory. I still feel not fully myself, I need to clean both body and mind, so I walk between the huts, down to the river to wash and perform my Tattoo rites.

      When I come up again I stand face to face with a hyena. I had completely forgotten about them. It leaps onto me, sinking it’s teeth into my shoulder. I groan in agony, realizing I’ll never be able to shake it of. But I have given the promise of shelter and aid in this place to those humans and I will try to keep it. So I bury my fingers into the ground and focus on the hyenas surrounding Crixos and Listas, entrapping them in the earth that solidifies around their feet. Then something weird happens, the hyenas that attacked me and Farith do let go of us and even they start making their way to where the humans stand and fight. This gives me the possibility to summon an earth elemental that can help them to kill the animals.

      At this moment it feels like the grounds are shaking again and coming to life. The trapped hyenas slowly sink down into the earth. Even the spirits of the other elements in this place seem to awaken. This is no good, I have to tell the others to leave this place as fast as possible. I will try to stay a moment longer, maybe I can somehow stop what is happening …

      … well, Ithasha and I realize fast that the “Elemental Spirits party” is going to be pretty wild and there would be no way for Ithasha to get the genie back in the bottle so to say. So she leaves too, pretty much in the last minute before “somebody” grabs her and swings her around in some merry dance.
      Something that bothers Ithasha as she, completely exhausted, both mentally and bodily, joins the others is the fact that the hyena seemed to concentrate their efforts on Listas.

    • My recollection and

      My recollection and observations from the session:

      – it opened with a long and extremely vivid dream sequence that presented several fascinating hooks for my character – and a conundrum. Play is taking my character, Farith, in directions I didn't foresee when I first imagined him. For example, I didn't envision Farith to be so involved and touched by the intricate net of social, racial and political (I'd be tempted to say "family") issues that we are uncovering and encountering (and sometimes unearthing). I envisoned him as a reserved, not-socially-skilled bookworm (and I'm not betraying that expectation) but I'm discovering that for him it's impossible to not care about this stuff. Who he is, who the people around him are, how they live together and how they fight each other, what is right or fair. He just cares about people and this is a fairly odd thing for a character I play. 
      Now the dream clearly put us in front of a lot of wonderful and terrible sights, and an uncomfortable truth. I have been briefly tempted to have Farith react like Crixos did – we fundamentally witnessed a genocide – but I preferred to read the character's reaction and the feeling of victorious enthusiasm Ron described to us as being strongly invigorated and validated by having experienced the results of human and duster cooperation. 
      Something in the back of his brain is telling him that those other guys were human too and he has no certainty that he doesn't partly descend from them rather than the victorious invaders, but in the moment it was easy to silence those voices. If humans and dusters can do such great things together, then maybe people like him aren't a mistake. Crixos' involuntary insult did stick with Farith.

      – in the dream, several things caught Farith's attention. The savage humans controlled great beasts, and this is  certainly something that makes them and their lore more interesting to him. One key event was the fact that the savage humans seemed to be employing the same magical sources as dusters – totem/spirit magic – but the duster shaman seemed to be able to turn them against the humans and "steal" their magic. I'm picturing Farith mulling over this event in the same way historians highlight moments like the sinking of the invencible armada or the weather conditions in the battle of Waterloo. It's a watershed moment of great historical significance, and it has to become "a story". Or a song. I did pick up singing after all.

      – Without going over what Helma and Ron already have recollected, the events have brought Farith to have even more respect for (and caution towards) the shaman (she rescued them once again from deadly enemies with an incredible display of magics) and probably even more things to discuss with Vephselk. The dynamics are for me quite interesting: Farith is almost intimidated by Ithasha, whom he sees as the equivalent of a religious figure in a religion he doesn't understand and somehow feels inadequate for not understanding, because he wants to belong with what he feels is his people. But he's comfortable around her because while they're not close, she seems to end up on his side more often than not.
      While with Vephselk, considering the time they've spent together and the fact that her ambitions are so much more "human" and understandable, the relationship is more leveled and I'm figuring Farith feels close to being a friend with her, which includes the potential for punch-ups and unfiltered discussion. He's probably always expecting her to be a bit more like him than she actually is.
      And it's interesting how we're being pulled in different directions. Ithasha clearly has some rather deep issues with the spirit world we don't have insight on, Farith is drunk with all these discoveries and now extremely interested about Listas' family drama (and seemingly supernatural misfortunes). Vephselk… is a mystery, and I'm looking forward to Sam's next move.

      Moving briefly to the actual game, I think this session brought up some good discussion about some of those topics that inevitably emerge in this type of product – the role of magic, how "balanced" the rules are, skills and their purpose. I have run some math on builds and made a few reflections – nonmagical skills are cheap but not always so, for example Monster Knowledge has some spiffy benefits but if you were to invest the 100-something points you need to get them into some magic, you'd get a whole lot more out of your point budget. I'm rather confident that unless the Adventure Guide hammers you with half a dozen encounters a day magic isn't expensive enough to justify not making a magical, jedi-like gish character rather than a pure melee one. It's not super compelling stuff (even if it is, for me, but I'm quite weird on these topics) but I think the one aspect that really stands out is how proactive the magical skills are compared to the rest. Magic has a strong personality here, and in actual use, the difference between "I spend my points and this happens" vs "I rolled well, do I unlock some GM's insight on the issue?" is very apparent to me. Some of the ideas on magic are powerful – the shaman dreams mechanics are somewhat clunky, but underlying idea is something that would give the stereotypical bard-support-class a run for its money. And once again, it's incredibly proactive (the way Ron used it made me think of the divination magic he showed us in the Ottoman LotFP playtest – it could easily have evolved in that direction). Every time Ithasha uses magic, the world acknowledges it and I feel it couldn't be any other way. 
      I'm really curious about how Crixos' magic may manifest, now. Magic has a very strong voice, in this game (intended as how we're playing it, rather than the way the rules are written, as I don't feel I'm ready to cast judgement on that).

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