Backlog Burnout: Durance

Boy this is an interesting game to read in 2020.

Durance is a one of many tabletop RPGs designed by Jason Morningstar, a prolific figure in the indie RPG space known for experimental, often GM-less games. Morningstar’s most famous work by far is Fiasco, the game of Coen Brothers-style misadventure and failure which is very possibly the single most well-known indie RPG, and is often considered an excellent entry point into the hobby and into indie RPGs. People deeper in the space will probably also know Night Witches, his Powered by the Apocalypse game about the famous battalion of Soviet airwomen, or The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, the black comedy about conspiratorial, backstabbing academics who may or not be possessed by a malevolent roach god. A game from Morningstar’s library I hear a lot less talk about is Durance.

Durance, like Fiasco, is a rules-light GM-less game with a heavy emphasis on collaborative storytelling with scant actual dice mechanics. The game is about playing out the stories of a sci-fi penal colony, a sort of Space Australia. This colony was a cynical silver bullet for the galactic Authority that rules the universe: they can solve their burgeoning prison populations by just shipping them to the ends of space, they gain additional colonies out at their fringes, and, as the convict population labors and eventually earns their freedom to become emancipated citizens (and hopefully become more productive in the meanwhile), the colonies are also substantial financial investments.

However, the planetary surveys used to determine where these colonies will go were half-assed by greedy corporations hoping to rush into free money on the backs of what is essentially chattel slavery with the serial numbers filed off. As a result, these colonies ended up being established on barely-habitable hellholes which couldn’t sustain the food production needed to fully support the colonies. This food insecurity leads to a desperation from the colonists, which in turn led to increased authoritarianism from the Authority government in the colony in an attempt to curb the ensuing lawlessness, as well as the creation of a fairly robust outlaw presence in these colonies, as colonists would rather gamble their lives to feast as criminals than starve to death under the Authority’s yoke.

The society of your penal colony is described by two parallel ladders of hierarchy, one representing the Authority’s social structure which is controlled by the colonial Governor on top, and the other representing the structure of the outlaws with a Dimber Damber (an old timey British term for the leader of a group of thieves) in control. Players each create two characters, with the stipulation that the two characters must belong to different social orders (Authority or Outlaw), and be at different positions on the social ladder. Perhaps you might control the Governor, but also a mere lowly cutpurse.

I love this setup for the simple fact that Durance is a game that is fundamentally about class, being explicitly about the history of Australia as a penal colony but also functioning pretty well as an implicit allegory about the American prison system. Stories about class conflict thrive on drawing comparison between the haves and the have-nots, and forcing players to adopt the mantle of two characters on different tiers of an explicit social hierarchy solves a problem RPGs about class can occasionally run into, where a party has narrative pressure to all belong to a similar caste, and thus the story doesn’t have the same flexibility to explore the hierarchical structure from all angles. After all, it can be hard to justify why a noble is spending all their time hanging out with some guttersnipe, and having a party where elites and common folk go gallivanting around the setting together in harmony does make the class hierarchy feel less rigid, which isn’t necessarily bad, but does have an effect on the tone of the story.

Your characters are mechanically defined by very little, namely, well, their name, the side of society they belong to, their rank, and an Oath: some sort of moral boundary that the character will never cross for any reason. “I will never return to the bonds of servitude”, “I will never kill a man”, “I will never put others before myself”, that sort of thing. Of course, Oaths are definitionally a bit of reverse psychology: by declaring one, you are indicating to the table that you want scenes with this character that will test their Oath and create conflict because of it. If your character has an Oath never to kill, you’re inviting the table to create situations in which not killing someone is extremely inconvenient for the goals of the characters.

Whenever a character breaks their Oath (because, inevitably, they will break their Oath), it is treated as a catastrophic shift of the status quo. The breaking of an Oath immediately triggers two effects: it forces some character (not necessarily the one who broke the Oath) to be moved to somewhere new on the hierarchical ladder of the colony, and it renders the oathbreaking character immediately unplayable. The breaking of an Oath is a mechanized, canonized character arc end, one which is guaranteed to have massive, reverberating impact on the story by forcing a change on its most fundamental system.

I gotta be honest, though, Durance has made me come to terms with something about myself, something that means Durance isn’t staying in my collection: I really like rules, man. Not, like, laws and stuff, those are for nerds, but game mechanics. The problem I found myself running into with Durance is that it’s just too freeform, and I wasn’t able to conceptualize the moments in stories I would tell in this game because there just weren’t any mechanics.

I haven’t mentioned Durance‘s resolution mechanic yet, and that’s mostly because it’s relatively scant. The explicit guidance of the book is that if you’re sure how a scene should end, it should just end that way, with no mechanical intervention. The only time you are to invoke the resolution mechanic, according to the text, is when the outcome of a scene is extremely unclear. Resolution involves a triangular set of traits including “Servility”, “Savagery”, and a third trait determined by the table, where dice are rolled for each of the three traits, and any trait with a higher dice result that the one clockwise to it is a valid choice to be invoked to the resolution of the scene. So, if you roll a 6 on Savagery but a 4 on Servility (clockwise to Savagery), and a 5 on Status (your table-selected trait clockwise to Servility), the scene will be resolved with Savagery triumphant. What that means is completely up to the table, and the book itself notes that this system is loose enough to produce basically any result with any successful trait. Ultimately, this system is simply a guide for the narration when it might otherwise hit a roadblock.

That’s… basically all of the rules right there, and it’s just not enough for me. The thing I love about game systems, the thing that makes me look at 400 page RPG rulebooks and 80 hour computer RPGs the way an expert horologist looks at the inside of a clockwork watch, is the way that rules come together to guide, influence, and change the narrative of the game. The rules of a game define what a character can do, they define what aspects of a character and the world matter, they describe when success comes to the characters and the nature of the success they find, and that mechanical scaffolding guides the way stories are told in the way a trellis guides a vine. Without that trellis, the vine of the story can go anywhere, and you’re just telling freeform stories, which I do enjoy, but isn’t necessarily what I come to games for.

Ultimately, Durance is just not the kind of game I’m ever going to really latch on to. The systems as presented are interesting, but insufficient for me to really cling to and grow around. I do like the idea of an RPG designed to handle class struggles, and I might end up bolting something like Durance‘s class hierarchy onto another game, but I find myself wanting to explore these themes more, not just narratively, but systematically.

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