I'm a big fan of Fiasco by Bully Pulpit Games. (As they describe it: "A Game of Powerful Ambition & Poor Impulse Control". Basically a toolset for making your own improv game that models a Coen brothers film.) It's on my short list of "Man I really love this every time I manage to play it, and some day I'm going to build a group to play it regularly" games. Naturally when I saw the Kickstarter for Durance which is a similar sort of GM-less, no prep, improv-ish game system by the same developers I was intrigued and backed it. Even better I managed to snag a spot playing it at the Good Omens Con on July 7th at Endgame Oakland and I had a lot of fun with it. It's not Fiasco, which is both good and bad. But on balance I think more good than bad, especially since we still have Fiasco.
(Before going any further I should mention that I'm writing this up in part in response to Sean Nittner's play report so you can also go there for more info.)
Let me try for a one paragraph summary of Durance. It's a science fiction setting: some desolate planet at the ass-end of nowhere has been converted into the far future's Australia. There are convicts aplenty and an authority structure, as long as they can keep control of the situation. The game focuses on 10 characters who fall in two parallel ladders of five people. On the Authority side you have the colony governor, the govenor's XO, a free colonist, a marine, and a emancipist freed from the ranks of the convicts. On the criminal underworld you have the "Dimber Damber" (Crime boss, ruler of the underworld), the Dimber Damber's 2nd in command, a "Bolter" (escaped convict), a convict, and an Outcast or "Wrecker". While many of these characters represent an entire class of people the game explicitly encourages using just these ten characters. Each character is given a oath - something that he or she will never do, even to achieve their most heartfelt goals. Then players take turns being the guide and asking a framing question that establishes a scene.
A certain level of comparison to Fiasco is inevitable. They are both storytelling games, both are GM-less, they have no prep required, and they both are one-shot games. There's no campaign mode, in part because many characters won't make it out alive. But where Fiasco deliberately pushes the setting information to the playsets Durance has more assumptions built in. Where Fiasco only the vaguest and hand-wavy-iest method of conflict resolution Durance has more explicit ways to determine what happens. Where Durance has dice rolling in a scene that can introduce unexpected twists and turns Fiasco uses the dice very minimally, and always within a certain framework of player choice. In Fiasco you have one character and your interaction with the story is almost entirely through the the lens of your character. In Durance you have two characters but more importantly you don't have full control over them (you don't pick your own character's oaths) and your narrative control (as the Guide asking questions) is explicitly disconnected from your characters. The scene you frame with a question ideally doesn't have your characters in it and so that means your character's story comes entirely out of questions the other players ask.
Unfortunately the cats had a few … issues (the less said the better) and I was late getting to the con so I missed the colony setup. There is some sort of collaborative process by which certain things are determined about the planet and colony. (For example, our colony had a mild climate, favorable hydrology, high prosperity, and a motivated workforce. There was an intelligent native species on the surface, but due to extreme temperature issues most of the colony was underground.) There are also three drives in the narrative. Two of them are always Servility and Savagery, and the three is selected at the start of play. Ours was originally Control but during gameplay we changed it to Freedom.
I got there just as they wrapped up the colony stuff and so we dove into character creation. Each person picked one of the ten characters. We went around the second time with a few extra rules: you had to have one criminal and one colonist and you couldn't have both characters at the same power level in the social structure. I ended up playing the colonial X.O. (a Judge Advocate who used his position of authority to manipulate and control the other colonists) and the criminal outcast (the only person on the colony who was there voluntarily: he was a cop who framed himself in order to get sent to the colony in order to pursue his sister's killer. The criminals all hated a dirty cop worse than anything so he was outside all social norms, which was fine with him.)
This two characters per player thing was interesting. I expected to be more into my manipulative power-behind-the-throne authority character and in contrast was just flailing around for why my criminal outcast was so far outside the pale. I just blurted out "he's the only person crazy enough to come here voluntarily and framed himself" and then spun up the rest in justification of that first piece of nonsense. But somehow he came to life in that moment and we did more with the outcast than the judge for the first part of the game. I also think that was in part because Durance doesn't really flesh out any character relationships beyond the social structure. I just sort of attached Anders (the outcast) to the established Gunny Black story. Gunny's crime was killing his wife and I later said that Gunny's wife had been Anders sister. As I said later in the game, "Anders doesn't want to kill Gunny. That's too easy. Anders wants to destroy Gunny and only after he's lost everythng can he die." In contrast Dalvin (the judge) was passively gathering information through many scenes. He got his time in the sun at the end of it all, but he didn't have strong ties to anyone to start out and that made him sit idle a bit more.
I mentioned the oaths before and they are a key part of the game. The oaths all come from a sample table, but the twist is you don't pick your character's oaths. You go around the table and pick an oath for somebody else's character. My judge would never tolerate incompetence, even to gain control and my outcast would never accept charity from anyone. The game encourages leaning hard on these oaths and it works better when everyone remembers that. This is one of the biggest departures from Fiasco and it was a bit difficult to wrap our collective heads around. The guide isn't framing a scene he's asking a question and letting the other players frame a scene that answers that question. The guide is encouraged to ask about oaths and push characters towards breaking their oaths. Breaking oaths removes characters from the game and causes all sorts of other mechanical effects. Our change from Control as a drive to Freedom was caused by the governor breaking his oath. When Anders broke his oath and accepted charity (getting another character to bring down Gunny Black because Anders was unable to do so) Anders was removed from play and also changed Gunny from the X.O. position on the criminal side down to the lowest "Outcast" caste. The main game clock is when enough characters break their oaths or die then the game closes out. When we got that and started asking the really pointed questions is when the game really came alive and started to sing. Somehow Fiasco has this web built that just collapses together into a mess but Durance requires a little more active pushing from the players. Honestly I'm not sure how/why it works in Fiasco it just does.
This post is getting too long (and I've been working on it on and off for almost a month now!) but I'd be severely remiss if I didn't mention the dice. In Fiasco there's a big pool of dice but they mostly just build the setting and then at the end of the game help determine your character's ultimate fate. They are mechanically important but they actually function as tokens more than dice: rolling them only happens at the very start, the very end, and a handful get rolled at the halfway point. In Durance there are three dice representing the the three drives. If a scene's end is unclear the scene's Guide locks down one die on its previous value and the other two are rolled. The high die tells the players which drive dominates the end. So you can roll dice every scene potentially and they can make the scene veer in unexpected ways. But there's more! If you roll the same number or two or three dice something crazy happens. We had a tie twice in our game and both times it strongly moved the fiction forward. When ties happen there's a big table of cryptic statements to apply. Our first time was a at the end of a good, but fairly dry scene and the tables spit out "Death, amidst mind-numbing terror". Suddenly our scene of wheeling and dealing at a religious service turned into a riot and the Dimber Damber was killed. What? All hell broke loose from there. (And on a personal note Dalvin was forced into action and grabbed a character and saved him, beginning his transition from passive spider in his web to eventual governor of the colony.)
The second tie was a tense scene. Dalvin and Irwin (the govenor) misjudged a situation and managed to get two criminals in a grab for a shotgun. That was not supposed to happen (from Dalvin's POV), but we needed the dice to figure out who won. We went to the dice and got something along the lines of "What you know could fit in a hat. What you don't know on the other hand?" (That may not be precise. I'm going from memory and to be honest at the time I was sort of like "What? Whatever fortune cookie table." And I was wrong because when Sean figured out what it meant we got another powerful drive forward.) We all sort of had to stop for a moment and think. But what it became as while we were trying to handpick the new Dimber Damber good old Gunny Black decided to he could just move up a rung on the power ladder and bam! Revolution! It no longer mattered which criminal the Authority liked because Gunny Black had the guns, he had the manpower and suddenly he had the governor! While I was sort of dissatisfied with the cryptic and random nature of the the thing at the time upon reflection it was a great moment. And the truth of the matter is that this moment is our game's equivalent of Fiasco's "Tilt" between Act 1 & Act 2. It was at this moment that the final plot elements started into motion and everything rushed to a finale from here. Remember when I said that somehow Fiasco just naturally collapses into a mess and Durance took some more pushing? That's true but this was the last push and I have to admit it was the game system that provoked it, whether I liked the table or not.
It's well past time for me to wrap up and post this. The short version is that I liked Durance and I look forward to getting my hands on a copy. I'd like to see the colony creation part that I missed (glares at Heisenberg & Schrödinger). I'll probably try to make some of my friends play it as soon as I have a full copy.