Dust Devils: Blast from the Past

Matt Snyder’s Dust Devils was the first RPG in the storygame style I really “got.” I’m going to run it for the first time in more than a decade (!!!) at RinCon in a few weeks, so I refreshed myself on the rules the other night. It’s quite a dive into the earliest ideas of what storygaming would become.

The very brief review, in case you’ve never heard of this classic: Everyone creates an index-card-sized character comprised of four stats related to the four traditional card suits, a past and present descriptor (also with stats divided between them), and their Devil. The Devil is the game’s killer app: a dark facet of your character that gives you real mechanical benefits when you play into it, and punishes you when you strive against it. Then the facilitator does a bunch of heavy creative lifting to make the characters face their Devils, ideally they face each other’s Devils, and eventually your stats take so much damage that you face The End, a special scene where your protagonist goes out in a blaze.

This model is so straightforward and tight that there are even three variant settings in the Revenged Edition I have (it’s the only one you can get any more, if you go looking for it). That fact, the “you can play superspies! Or samurai!” bit at the end of this slender book, was the first thing that cried out “early storygame” to me after reading. But the early storygame bits are baked in at every level.

Dust Devils is an excellent entry into the “conflict resolution” era of game design. That is, folks play and describe and build toward a conflict, and when a facilitator decides a conflict is at hand, then you stop narrating and switch over to the resolution game. In this case, it’s a hand of poker and a side-game of earning, betting, and spending chips. I gotta say, I can’t remember the last time I played an RPG that actually did straight conflict resolution. Maybe Primetime Adventures? It’s a little out of style now, and with good reason: compared to the immediacy of Apocalypse World style moves, the trindie return to skill checks like you see in Mutant: Year Zero or Band of Blades, the super-loose “talk until it feels right/answer hidden questions” approach of many freeforms, or even (explicit) conflict-less play like The Quiet Year or Fall of Magic, the authorial self-consciousness required to shape interesting conflict and recognize it for what it is is a bit out of fashion. But it works fine, it worked fine back in the day, and I’m looking forward to getting it back to the table.

Funny thing about the required authorship to play the game: I also had such intense experiences when facing my character’s Devils. The thing about your Devil is that not only do you name the dark drive (misogyny, greed, racism, cold-bloodedness, whatever), you also write a little sentence about your character’s perspective on why they are the way they are. Same with your past and present lines. The whole process can take a while — I’m hoping my table won’t get too tied up with making the perfect little gem — but I have found players get quite invested in the process. It really makes the players feel complicit in their characters’ decisions in a way that “it’s what my character would do!” just never can. In the hands of a good facilitator, your Devil is not an alibi, it’s a condemnation.

Happily, or maybe just necessarily, Dust Devils is explicitly about Westerns (the genre) and not The American West (the history). There are some nice essays in the book covering lots of cinema history, and several acknowledgements that it’s just really hard to address the history. It’s a problem I’ve been thinking and writing about for a very long time, and Dust Devils doesn’t do anything to overcome that. I mean, with an educated table you probably could build realistic and respectful past and present elements related to all the hard parts of the period and place: the role of former slaves, the genocide of Indian tribes, the intensely intersectional communities and what folks had to do to survive in them. The essential story of redemption the Devil mechanic makes possible, though, is very much a genre thing.

I have no idea how this game would do if it were released today. The Western-related rules are only 75 pages long, the actual rules-rules can easily fit a sheet of paper, it provides almost no help to the facilitator (other than provocative connections between Devils), it requires a bit of prep (NPCs have all the same stats as PCs and follow the same rules), and there is no specific setting or situation. It does ask the players a provocative question — do you give in to your Devil or are you redeemed? — but beyond that, everyone’s on their own. But like a beautifully crafted but primitive instrument, skilled hands can still extract a beautiful tune from it.

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