Not surprisingly, I am a huge fan of BBC America, and end up TIVOing over a half dozen shows every week. I’ll end up happily sacrificing sleep to stay up way too late so I can watch them and keep current with the next episode, even if it means I’ll be bleary-eyed come the morning.
But to get to the point here, back in 2011, BBC America showed just one season of a science-fiction show called Outcasts. Set in the first extraterrestrial human colony on an alien world, the show featured exploration, scandal, mystery, insurrection, and political intrigue - all while a strange alien force stalked the inhabitants of this ten-year old colony. To make matters worse, the colonists knew they were all alone, unsupported by Earth which was in its death throes due to war and ecological disaster. It was bleak, tense, and well-acted – I was hooked instantly!
Although there was no second season of Outcasts, there is a game that has some of the show’s elements – in a bleaker, darker context, if that can be imagined. Just recently, I ran across a game called Durance by Bully Pulpit Games, a story-telling style role-playing game set on a prison planet, like a sort of Botany Bay in space. Here convicts, civilians, and the colonial government collide in a struggle for survival and domination – with the fate of the colony in the balance.
- Author: Jason Morningstar
- Illustrations: Jesse Parrotti (cover); Brennan Reece, Jesse Parrotti, Hason Morningstar (interior)
- Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games
- Year: 2012
- Media: PDF or Trade Paperback (136 pages)
- Price: $25.00 ($10.00 for the PDF from RPGNOW)
Durance is a role-playing game set in the distant future, where players portray various characters on a prison planet colony. The game comes complete with all rules required to play the game, including tables, charts, planet descriptions, and colonies. The book also includes four game sheets used during play to keep track of the colony statistics and the identities portrayed by the players.
The production quality of Durance is very good, with a logical presentation of information, a great looking layout, and some really engaging writing from the author. For the purposes of this review, I had an actual hardcopy of the game book, but one can assume that the PDF has the exact same contents.
The rulebook has both a table of contents and a two-page index which is quite ample for navigating through the pages. Important information, game play tips, and author’s notes appear in shaded boxes at regular intervals to help with understanding and enhancing the play experience.
The artwork in Durance is quite good as well, with an evocative cover, and a very cool mix of paintings and sketch art for the interior. The sketch art depicts various Notables (more on that below), and comes complete with edgy notes made by the “artist” who resides as a member of the penal colony.
Welcome to your own personal hellhole...
As mentioned previously, Durance is a role-playing game, but emphasizes the story-telling aspects of RPGs. In some respect it is much like the Amber RPG, except that it is not entirely dice-less, but only requires the use of three six-sided dice of different colors – obviously, not included with the book. The gameplay style stresses role-playing and narration to tell the story of the colonists on their alien world, rather like improvisational theatre. The game can be played by three to five players (the optimal is four) - and there is no Gamemaster!
The author depicts a universe setting which sounds quite grim, with a government called the Authority seeding a new colony with convicts, civilians, and a civilian government. There is a hierarchy or “ladder” on both sides of the law, with the governor, civilians, and a force or marines who act as guards and police on one side, and a crime lord, his minions, and various convicts on the other.
The game is set up in five stages, which are clearly defined by the author at the beginning of the book, and also at the end for a quick-play step-by-step synopsis. After copies of the note-sheets are placed where all players can see them, the next steps are to create the world and the colony, with each having three attributes decided upon by the players. For the world, there are six attributes in the initial planetary survey, and players take turns around the table choosing one attribute and eliminating another until only three remain. The same goes for the colony features, which is then looked up and the narrative of each are read to the players. There are ten planets and ten colonies listed, making quite a number of possible combinations to allow for interesting re-playability.
After the planet and colony are set, the atmosphere of the game is set up by determining what drives the colony’s inhabitants. A drive is chosen in a similar way to how the colony and planet were created, with each player in turn crossing one of six drives off the list until only one remains. Drives include such attitudes such as Control, Harmony, and Status to name three, and the drive is used as one possibility in which a “scene” or scenario is resolved.
Once the stage is set, the players choose two characters to portray from among the Notable Personas in the colony (or just called Notables). There are eight Notables on each side of the law, organized into “ladders” of power and authority. For instance, the Governor is at the top of the civilian side, while the Dimber Damber (crimeboss) tops the convict side. Below them are their enforcers: the Judge Advocate and Captain of Marines for the Governor; the Abbot and Captain Sharp for the crimelord. And so on down the rungs of the ladder to the bottom where Emancipists (former now rehabilitated convicts) and Wrecker (useless political prisoners) fall into place. I have to say I particularly liked the slang used to define some of the titles on the ladders, reminding me a bit of Victorian cant for thieves and villains – and their marks.
Going around the table again, players select one Notable to portray, and can name that person (or roll randomly first and last names from a chart provided), and design his or her personality. The players go around the table twice, picking one Notable from both sides of the law, with the stipulation that each persona must be a different rung of the ladder.
Finally, each character is assigned a solemn oath to keep, which has dire consequences if broken. Moving around the table, players select an oath for another player’s character, selecting from a set of 36 possibilities found in the book. So one player might assign an oath like “I will never trust again” to the Dimber Damber (being portrayed by another player), setting that character up to be quite paranoid and suspicious.
The author does a good job of going through these steps, explaining each part of the process, and providing references to pages to find answers and information. The steps will doubtless begin quite quick for players who have played a couple games of Durance. The author has also written an example of four players going through these processes to provide a sample of play.
As previously mentioned, there is no GM, so each player takes a turn at being the Guide, and setting up a scene by posing a question to the group involving various characters and circumstances. One example given in the book is: “I wonder if the Governor has the stones to put the Dimber Damber on trial, having sworn never to betray him.” These sorts of questions set up the scene and the characters in it, as well as puts pressure on a solemn oath which might be broken. Ideally, the Guide then, well, guides the scene, using short questions to enhance details, but leaves the other players free to improvise.
When a tense moment occurs in a scene, when there is uncertainty as to the outcome, it is resolved using the dice. Each color of dice is assigned to one of three outcomes: Servility, Savagery, and the Drive chosen earlier by the players. At the start of the game, the first player selects a number for each outcome on the dice, and when it comes time to resolve an uncertainty, two of the three dice are rolled and placed back on the outcomes. The highest resulting roll is the outcome that the scene must steer toward, which allows the Guide to influence the direction it is likely to go. If the dice results in a double, then a minor random event will influence the outcome, rolled from a tables at the back of the book. If the roll results in all three dice being the same, an epic event occurs, interrupting the scene with a powerful new change of tangent to the storyline – possibly with deadly ramifications for the Notables.
Oath breaking is a major event, and changes the course of play considerably. The oath breaker Notable is demoted on the ladder and becomes a minor background character for the rest of the game. The colony’s Drive changes as well, and Notables can be moved up the ladder or even from one side to another as the narrative fits. This is another feature that will ensure that each game of Durance is quite unlike any that have happened before.
The game (as well as the narrative) ends when more than half the Notables have broken their oaths, died, or are otherwise removed from play due to role-playing circumstances. As with so many other RPGs, there are no winners or losers, but it’s all about how the tale is told that creates the memorable experience.
The author does point out that the game was inspired by the arrival of the First Fleet to Fort Jackson (Australia) in the year 1790, and can be played just as well in the original setting. Clearly, with a little work it is also adaptable to any number of fantasy settings as well, offering a wide range of venues to serve as the backdrop for the game.
Overall Score: 3.9 out of 5.0
I’m really impressed with Durance overall, and I think the game will have a lot of appeal to a wide range of role-players. The game is quick to set up, short in duration (an evening of 2-4 hours according to the author), and allows all the players to get in on the role-playing action without relegating one person to being a GM.
For fans of story-telling intensive RPGs, this one seems to provide a great framework which can be used in a wide range of settings. And the science-fiction setting created by the author is certainly a dark and powerful one in which to set a game.
Durance is a complete and solid game for the price, and available in both trade paperback and PDF format, making it readily available to all gamers and budgets.
So until next Review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 4.25
- - Design: 4.5 (Excellent layout and writing; good organization and game process)
- - Illustrations: 4.0 (Cool cover and interior art; awesome sketches and the little story told by the “artist”)
- Content: 4.0
- - Crunch: 4.0 (Rules light but it makes sense; easy to learn and replay)
- - Fluff: 4.0 (No lack of fluff here; plenty of material to extemporize upon)
- Value: 3.5 (The rulebook is a bit steep, but the PDF is easily affordable to most gamers out there!)