Sub-title: On How Playing A Game Wrong Will Make It Not Work as Well

First off, this is definitely not a rant or anything. I really like the game and I actually enjoyed playing it. I’ll talk a bit about the game and talk about what went wrong with my playthrough and why.

So, Durance. I’ve been excited about this game for a while. I backed it on Kickstarter and got the book in the mail a couple weeks ago. Read through it near-immediately and was ready to try it out. Luckily, I had that chance last weekend.

The short version of the premise: worlds are over-populated and there’s too many prisoners, so they’re sent off with some Authority to colonize planets. The colonization of Australia is a very direct inspiration. I like to call it Australia in space.

It’s GM-less and everybody gets to play two characters. A member of the Authority and a Convict. There’s a delicate balance of power, called the Ladder. Various roles hold different positions, with the Authority being headed by the Governor  and the Convicts by the Dimber Damber (say that over and over, it’s fun). Everyone gets a character on each side. At different power levels, so no one gets to be the Governor AND the Dimber Damber.

Every planet & colony that prisoners are going to have been surveyed and each have 6 elements that basically show them to be great prospects. Of course, those are wrong. In fact, half of each are wrong. Players take turns at the table determining which parts of the survey are wrong and which are right. They may include things like a good climate, alien life, and access to water. The colony survey might have to do with availability of space (and how cramped people have to live) or how evenly justice is applied. Those aspects all help color the colony and the players can flesh it out a bit.

The last piece is Drive. Every colony is driven by two things. One is servility, one is savagery, and the third is chosen from a list of 6 (by taking turns and eliminating). The last one might be “safety” or “control”. These drives are how things get resolved on the colony.

Lastly, every character gets an oath, this is something they’ve sworn not to do. There’s a nice list in the book to choose from, but you could come up with your own. The basic form is something like “Even though everyone is seeking <unique drive, e.g. SAFETY>, I will never do <something> to get it.” So the oath is always connected to the chosen drive of the colony. Then it becomes the players’ responsibility to put characters in positions where their oath is threatened and they might have reason to break it.

Eventually characters will start breaking oaths, things on the colony will change, and the story will head towards a conclusion.

And, since it’ll be natural for a lot of people to draw a comparison with Fiasco, it’s worth pointing out the major difference. Scenes are not limited. They’re not going to run out, so you don’t have to worry about using them up. A scene can be as light or as heavy as it needs to be.

Scenes are determined in a two-part process. One person will be the Guide. The Guide is meant to be an impartial observer and should not participate in the scene when at all possible. The Guide will look at the notable characters (PC’s), their oaths, and the unique drive. Then they’ll craft a question they want to see answered. Then it’s up to everyone else to set the scene and choose the players to be in that scene and then play it out. If there comes a point where the answer to the question becomes uncertain the guide should roll on the 3 available drives and based on that choose what drive will bring out the answer. Maybe someone bows down (servility) or in a fit of rage murders someone (savagery). Again, the Guide shouldn’t be involved directly, so when they determine the drive at play, it’s up to the players to interpret what that means in the scene.

If someone breaks an oath in the scene, there’s a few special actions that happen, and that character is considered no longer to be notable. They should fade into the background of the story and no more questions should directly involve them. Once a certain number of characters have died or broken an oath (about half), it signals the story is coming to a close and everyone should work towards that in the upcoming scenes. The book suggests about one more round of questions to wrap things up.

What Went Wrong

I’ll say it again like I did up top so it’s clear. I actually had a good time with the game.

But, we definitely struggled with it. Part of that was that none of us had played and I’d only read through the book once.

But, really, what went wrong the most? And this should really come as no surprise, we just flat did things wrong as far as the rules were concerned.

The book suggests (and I think it should probably more than just a suggestion) that the Guide be aggressive when asking questions. Determine facts (don’t contradict anything already established). An example would simply be killing someone. It doesn’t happen in a scene, it just happens. But the question should be aggressive and provocative.

I think we were all too much in a Fiasco mind-set and were more focused on getting the scene set instead of just asking a powerful question and seeing where that went.

Also, we failed to really bring in most of the planetary/colony descriptions. They just all kind of fell to the wayside for some reason. Maybe we didn’t talk about those details enough in the beginning (probably).

We did kind of poorly with our Oaths. We forgot to really tie them directly with our unique drive, which left them feeling much less focused. We still broke some oaths, but without considering the drive when paired with an oath we all (there were 3 players) had a really hard time crafting situations for people to break their oath. Numerous times we’d say “I’m just having a really hard time figuring out what would cause them to break their oath.” I’m certain that’s because we weren’t considering the drive along with it.

We also struggled, as Guides, to find those moments of uncertainty. We all found them to be really elusive for some reason. And, now that I’ve read through the rules again, it’s because we missed a key connection. The uncertainty should focus on the outcome of the question. I can absolutely see how that would make those moments a lot clearer in play.

So, it was a great learning experience. Many times you learn more by failing than by a rousing success. And failure is a strong word. I think we all three enjoyed the game, even though we all struggled throughout. After I decompressed a bit (con weekends are always draining as much fun as they are) and re-read the book  a lot of things became much clearer.

I like when a game is designed well enough that when some things don’t work well, I’m still able to have fun in the moment and then later examine what happened and find really obvious answers in the book.

I feel like I’m now in a great position to play the game and have it go 1,000 times better now and I absolutely look forward to trying it.