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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 Legends of Darkurthe. 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.


Actual Play


Sean_RDP's picture

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. 

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

LorenzoC's picture

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.

Ron Edwards's picture

Look what you did! I had to record this for a reply.

Ron Edwards's picture

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.

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