For a couple of fistfuls of pure sand

Our two dusters and draver arrive near and along the Great River during their travels. The questions of why they’re here and what they want, individually, have just become pointier.

This post continues from Desert duster fantasy with session 8 in the embedded video, which is also hooked into the entire YouTube playlist.

For immediate context, we’re playing Undiscovered, with a strong focus on its supplement Discovering Dusters. issues & concepts for heartbreakers, recent Patreon post

This session is a little talky and decision-y, with less or even no spectacular action. However, it might in retrospect be our most important plot-type proceedings so far, because we are not playing “a party” and what happens does not include “guess what the GM’s thinking” or “hey everyone, the adventure is over here so pretend to ‘choose’ it please.” So you’re seeing what that looks like. (Acknowledging, too, that I’m still broken-up about the failed recording for session 7, which featured a hallucinatory dream-revelation, a brutal fight with hyenas, ethical crisis, and enjoyable table-talk musings.)

The players and I have talked more about the game recently, not all recorded. I’ll summarize them in the comments soon, including the issue of balance raised by Helma, and the issue of GM-advice raised by me.

For a bit larger context, my interest in this game arises less from its system (which is interesting though) than from its connection to the modern discussion of role-playing and racism. You can find this addressed as an ongoing topic here, including several seminars and Patreon posts so far. I’ve chosen to proceed in a highly-focused fashion; for the most recent links summary, see the previous Dusters post linked above.

In this case, the big issue is appropriation, and as it happens, both as an in-fiction setting issue and as an acknowledged and proceeding topic for us as creative people.

Given our group composition, too, play also includes just a nod further to “grown-up” topics, including the characters’ varying states of undress, cultural and age aspects of sexuality, and genital anatomy, all in a facts-of-life way rather than as central-theme or source-of-conflict.

The incredible lead image featuring the player-characters was produced for us by Matteo Di Domenico.


11 responses to “For a couple of fistfuls of pure sand”

  1. Session 9!

    Believe it or not, the interactions and personalities underlying this game have been in place since the beginning. The player-characters are not pawns … but they are in no way the people who – in the fiction – would most consider themselves to be the protagonists. Beware of people who think of themselves as the protagonists.

    Do not miss session 9, linked here into the playlist.

  2. to be or not to be

    I know that even the AG has enjoyed himself when the videos come up before I've recovered from play. Seriously, I'd like to put in some of my own thoughts after the last sessions, even so they still are kind of disconnected and fuzzy. Maybe somebody looking from the outside can help me make sense of it.
    Ron mentions appropriation here and I remember being very concerned about it before we started playing. I can honestly say, I've stopped thinking about it a while ago. The way my character acts and reacts is informed by who she is (both as a person and through her being a Duster) but it is happening without any effort from my side.
    Same goes when it comes to being a group (or not). We have no common interests at all. It may look so from the outside as we all try to get to the city to meet Cecibel but our reasons are so different that we may split up at any time. Though both Vephselk and Ithasha need Farith as an "entry-point" to human society there is no telling when/if they may seperate from him anyway.
    Protagonists, that was a funny one. No, I seriously doubt any of us sees themselves as the protagonists of something. And we would be rather happy if fate would get interested in somebody else (it might have helped if none of us ever had gotten near that infamous water hole or if we would have left without a souvenir) well, hindsight.
    What I have enjoyed most during the last sessions are the periods of dialog, us going on with Ron sitting there and looking very happy and content. It is the way the characters are themselves, you don't even think about what to say or how to say it. Personally, Ithasha can feel, say or do something and I sit there after the fact and wonder where did that come from? I would wish you all experience as those we have with this game.

    • A couple of thoughts about a

      A couple of thoughts about a couple of your thoughts …

      I'm discovering something about playing situations and characters so heavily-informed by Native Americans (and set in a fantasy analogue of the Mojave) while located in Sweden, at least as far as you and I are concerned. We probably all know about the prevalence of this symbolism throughout the history of activism in the U.S., and if anyone's interested, I wrote about it in What you mean "we" especially as discussed in the book Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power (cited in the link). In the U.S., pop culture and political activism have backed away from incorporating this particular experience or symbolism, since AIM and other Native American groups have successfully communicated that their cultural heritage is not available for anyone's cheap sentimentality or validation for one's own purposes, and indeed that "owning it" via that kind of casual use is straightforwardly part of what they oppose.

      Briefly, and limited by my limited experience, Swedish history includes a couple of twists and turns about that same issue. First, that a lot of social protest and activism here (I say "here" geographically, meaning where I sit as I type) incorporated the same symbolism just as in the U.S. It did not receive the same dialing-back process, so is still taken more-or-less as originally construed, with headbands, tipis, et cetera presented as aspects of activism or social awareness. Second, that it is tied into and inseparable from awareness and activism about the Sami history and modern presence in Sweden, including a similar history through the 1970s to the present, perhaps even a more positive and successful one. So before cringing abut or criticizing the use of Native American symbols in Swedish imagery, the context of successful Sami presence and politics sets up what is right to say or use that I don't really know and can't critique.

      What this has to do with our own game, I'm not directly certain, but I'm pretty sure that there is some web of indirect connections forming in my mind about it. I definitely agree with you that we are "in it as we see it," without second-guessing ourselves. That was one of my drives to play in the first place, in part actually to discover what we "are" or "feel" via doing, rather than claiming or saying.

      One of those weird indirect connections concerns Lorenzo, not specifically as himself but rather, for me, in considering how important Italian cinema and comics are to the western as idiom. Without Sergio Leone and similar filmmakers, and without all the fumetto (with a nod to the French and Belgian Blueberry), that idiom could well have died entirely by the mid-1960s. All American versions since were born in Europe, specifically Italy. What this means for us, I don't as yet have any idea.

  3. Any change in perspective on Undiscovered itself?

    As I have mentioned before, I really love watching these recordings. It's been a long time since I had anything in my life that was like "must see TV", but I've been watching these almost as soon as they come out. With that in mind, a question I had for Ron would be: now that you are well into this game, has your take on Undiscovered itself changed at all? That is, in the introductory video you mentioned that you were interested in this game primarily because of the Dusters and wouldn't be interested in a non-Dusters game (forgive me if I'm paraphrasing/misremembering this badly), have you become at all more interested in seeing what Undiscovered could do with a different focus (either non-Duster or Duster plus other Undiscovered setting content)? Similarly, for Helma, Lorenzo, and Sam: it seems like you have all been developing an appreciation for the system – is that the case? And have you had to revise any thoughts/judgments about the game that you had prior to playing?

    • I have to re-cast your

      I have to re-cast your question so it makes sense to me. It's not about revising anything.

      There are a lot of reflections and discussions in the recordings, sometimes during sessions and sometimes separately. Obviously for a game entirely based on skill resolution, we had to arrive at a meaningful notion of when to roll and when not to. I think our solution is functional and consistent with the rules, but you won't find it stated outright in the book.

      The game also features some weird artifacts, e.g., the unnecessary coating of experience points and levels, which we talked about during the last session or two. That one's interesting because the actual improvement system strongly favors avoiding combat through skills and engaging with one's character in immediate situations, so it has a strong identity of its own even as it pretends to be "like D&D." Another example is that magic is both uniquely non-reliant on skill rolls and remarkably powerful; neither of these are bad things, but they completely obviate common fantasy standards of niche-divided effectiveness and raised the discussion that's linked above.

      Anyway, I think the combination of recorded sessions, text discussions here, and other videos is pretty good to summarize how we've assessed the game, or rather, found our ways to use it. Unfortunately, the missing session 7 included a really good moment of group accord about "well, now we understand it, so let's do it," with many details about mechanics and character construction.

      I've browsed the text again several times, for lots of reasons, often merely to learn whatever it was we were or are doing in play. I've been trying to give the setting section a fairer shake this time too. Although I know the ins and outs of the system a lot better now, I'm still engaged specifically via the dusters, and via our non-textual and human/duster-only setting (or "environment" that hints at a setting). As before, besides this specific engagement, I don't have much interest – the material simply isn't inspiring to me, in a fairly extreme version of taming fantasy. In terms of play, there's really nowhere to go, no material or methods for play to produce anything but what it was at the start.

      Obviously, the game itself isn't a failed design. We couldn't be enjoying ourselves this much, without rewriting and effectively designing, if it were. Anyone who finds a point of engagement like I did can play the hell out of it like we're doing. I think doing that requires considerable strength of purpose, though, and with few if any pleasing moments of system/setting discovery like those I've had with Legendary Lives and Darkurthe Legends.

    • If I can contribute my own

      If I can contribute my own personal observations, I'll just say that I walked in without particular expectations. Ron gave us a very informative overview of why he wanted to play the game and what he found interesting in it, and it was enough for me to be intrigued.

      I did give the system a read before we started and as it often happens, I spotted a few things that I felt would be issues (but then weren't) and didn't notice a few that I think are. 

      Again, Ron (and I'd say the videos and our discussions) covered what we discovered and learned better than I could, but I will take this chance to bring up a couple issues that aren't important enough to warrant taking time while we play.

      I feel the game is perfectly fine as it is, and as Ron said, that it really thrives through the use of all those skills and abilities that the people who wrote it put a lot of love in. This could be a really pedestrian game but what strikes me is how almost every skill and ability is written as if to answer the question "what would this look like in play? why would it be fun to use it?" rather then "we need this skill if this and this happen".
      This narrows the skill's usage (this is a game where you have Jumping, Acrobatics, Mountain Climbing and Wall Scaling as skills) but it makes using everything meaningful. 

      There is also an element of creativity in the writing of skills and abilities that makes what you pick interesting with little concern for "effectiveness" or "optimization". It's a game where you feel your character is living within a context rather than having adventures in it, if you want. There's lots of cool ideas (the shaman/bard making people dream and collect bonuses based on those dreams is the type of thing that gets me going).

      As for the "bad", I think there's a few things. The life point system is bollocks. I, as a not particularly proficient level 7 character, have 66 hit points. Now, I attack 3 times every 2 turns, and I deal 1d8+2 for every successfull attack. If I were to try and kill myself (or an equivalent monster) I would take some 10 turns to do so. Monsters deal much more reasonable amounts of damage and of course by making a combat oriented character you get better… but not that much better. Your ultimate, 200-points-in-combat-skills maybe produced 15 to 30 damage per turn, and Ron teased us about things with north of 300 hit points. 
      Ron would have a better perspective on this, but I'm extremely skeptic about the idea that without Helma we could have won any of the fights we've been in.

      Another thing is the fact that the game suffers a bit from stinginess with points. It's clear that you're meant to progress and accumulate points but honestly, the %s are a bit too low for that. With decent agility and a modest investiture of points (10 or so over 100 at character creation) you get a 25% chance of actually Scaling Those Walls, which means… you'll never going to try it. I'm saving up since level 5 to get to the last step of Blacksmithing that will allow me to actually make weapons. If I were to try and get my Monster Knowledge skill to levels were not only I get good stuff out of it but also I have a fair chance of success I would need 100 more points – 10 levels of just that. Right now I've invested 1/3 of my initial character budget in it and I'm at 36% chance. 
      And this is kind of bad because my impression of the character is that he's actually good at this – I wager there's not many people in the region who invested as much of their life/xp in becoming so good at this – but I think I've succeded at ONE Monster Knowledge roll in the entirety of our play time. I think my mistake was trying to be both a blacksmith and a "proto-biologist, but I felt that narrowing myself down to a few skills at maximum proficiency would betray what the diversity and richness in skills offered. What's the point in having the range of skills that allow you to build a somewhat believable human being if you end up creating a guy who's only good at blacksmithing (but he's really good at that!)?

      This is something I've recurrently noticed in confronting point buy systems with games with classes or booklets or similar things. When you're given the chance to create your character, you end more often than not having to superspecialize to be actually good at something. To actually get the kind of skillset your stereotypical low level rogue or ranger would have, you need a boatload of points. And it's slightly frustrating because you want to use these skills! I wanted to be good at drawing, but it does so little and it's almost impossible to afford without having to be terrible at everything else. Contrast this with Runequest or Burning Wheel and I think you get healthier progression systems. 

      Again, none of this is crippling but if I were the authors and I was reviewing the rules for a new edition, I'd definitely look there. It's self-sabotage for what is otherwise a very charming skill system.

  4. kind of an answer to Jon
    Would I play a non-Duster game with Undiscovered as the base of it? No. Why? That is somewhat more difficult to answer and I may well repeat things that Ron or Lorenzo already said. I do like the way we use the system but even though we did not change any rules as far as I know (aside from the fact that we skip rolling for success when we level up and improve our skills) we do a fair bit of filling the gaps. That makes this very much our game and less generic Undiscovered. Would it be possible to play without filling gaps, sure, but that would be a completely different experience.
    While trying to make sense of the extensive skill lists I was wondering how we would be able to make that work but it really was not a problem at all. So that would be a revised thought I’d think.
    Still, what makes our game of Undiscovered shine for me is the different personalities of Ithasha, Vephselk and Farith as well as the way they are navigating the cultural differences not only visible in the encounters between Dusters, Draver and Humans but even between groups of Dusters that are living in different environments.

    • I’ve been thinking about this

      I've been thinking about this too in reference to another 'race' in the game, the seraphs. To back up a little, when I only had the core book, the dusters stood out immediately as the most "play me" option, and the seraphs took solid second place, whereas all the rest flatlined for me. So when I saw Discovering Dusters (I don't recall when or where), I bought it instantly, like, if you'll forgive the pun, a striking snake. I'd buy an equivalent text about the seraphs with a little less urgency, but would only pick up such a text for any of the others out of completism. [Clarification: the last point is hypothetical; Discovering Dusters was the only 'race' supplement published.]

      That hasn't changed. I know the rules in practice a lot better now, so the seraphs' special relationship to magic and some of the player options for them are clearer to me. And I've spent a little more time doping out the relations of seraphs to the overall setting history, which is a bit meatier than for the other races – it involves the original god, who's all about magic and who was slain by his less-ineffable progeny, and a whole time-travel loop is involved, so they're both from before-time-began and from the future. So they have an otherworldly identity which has at least some genuine "fantasy" to it.

      I could have some fun with that, but it lacks the serious ethnic bite of the dusters / half-dusters / dravers, and that's why it's in second place for me. There's spectacle but little resonance. Significantly, it doesn't inspire me to use the in-text setting any more than the dusters did, i.e., not at all. I'd have to put as much or more into my preparation for a setting, or solid evocation of one, as I did (am doing) for the dusters, for less excitement and sense of purpose.

    • Thank you Helma, Ron, and

      Thank you Helma, Ron, and Lorenzo for satisfying my curiosity with thoughtful responses. Inspired by your game, I am tempted to take a closer look at Undiscovered and add it to the list of games that I am "daydreaming" about playing at some point, but it does sound like what makes your game so compelling has a lot to do with the spark of your collective interest in the specific Duster material. I remain curious as to what I'd make of it if I took a closer look at it, though.

  5. Session 10!

    Bringing us hard toward some conclusions … and conclusions, in the thoughtful sense, as well. Here's the direct link into the playlist.

    Compared to some of the other games throughout 2020, this process of "ending" in both logistic and thematic terms isn't forced so much as simply the outcome of forces set in motion. As long as I keep playing the interested parties and honor the landscape we began with, things happen and situations change.

    We aren't finished yet, and I can't anticipate how many more sessions will tell the tale (in the literal sense) … and most significantly, despite an ending's obvious imminence and my direct and unavoidable play of the concerned NPCs, its actual location, content, and array of forces in opposition are completely unknown to me. When we get there, then we'll know.

  6. Session 11!

    Here's what I had in my notebook as I considered canceling play just a few hours before our scheduled start. I recorded some thoughts about my preparation circumstances afterwards, presented here.

    And here's the direct link to the session, inside the playlist. As you'll see, we have hit a crux point in the very best possible mode in the creative transition from "what might come of this" into "it was inevitable."

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