Posted on March 21, 2017
Dusk City Outlaws are my favourite Helsinki-based Ultras Group
This is a post about my enthusiasms, because it isn’t even a post about one of my games; it’s a post about one of JIM’s games. Or what will be his game. But it is a First Impressions post too, because I haven’t actually read the PDFs that he just sent over. So I’ll get back into that at a later date.
Anyway, JIM found a proposed game on Kickstarter and sent me a link to it before it had met its funding goal: Dusk City Outlaws. Enough of the write up had tickled him that he thought I should check it out. It was so far up my alley it could have been called David Alley, off Smith Street in Davidsmithtown.
There are a lot of games on Kickstarter, but I’ve never got into it. I count this as a good thing, because the last thing my broke ass needs is a new way to spend money on games. Saying that though, check this thing out: Rising Sun, by Cool Mini Or Not. Regardless of the game’s quality, those are some absolutely gorgeous miniatures to go with it. A ton of really gorgeous miniatures, as it happens, for $100. Oh god, it has less than two weeks to go.
In case you don’t want to visit the site above or just want the potted version: For $65 you could buy in on a game written by Rodney Thompson, who has been a co- on D&D5e, Lords of Waterdeep, one of the iterations of a Star Wars RPG. The game puts you in as a gang of thieves and sets you up to make a heist. Players have a small amount of possible skillsets and combine these with a small amount of possible backgrounds in the form of the cartel to which they belong, making for a wide range of characters, without having to have exhaustive customization.
Regardless of what type, structurally speaking, of roleplaying game it was, there was a lot to commend it: single premise (you are thieves pulling heists), single setting (one very large city), a coherent visual style to the art offered so far (okay, this is more of a pet peeve… Rise of the Runelords! Looking at you) and a solid pedigree behind its creator(s). None of these is individually enough to sell me a game, but when I think back on RPGs that did have that kind of focus (Ghostbusters, actually, is the nearest I can think of that met the first three points) we never played them for long, but each foray was memorably good.
The game is played over a series of discreet time periods. In between, players are permitted a timed (*dies laughing at the mere thought*) period of discussion to come up with a plan, after which, whatever you’ve got, you roll with it. As you get closer and closer to your score, the GM throws an increasing number of spanners into the works and you overcome those difficulties as you close in on the heist’s conclusion.
The game seems quite structured, especially with the idea of timed periods of play and an Act-based story where the acts ratchet up the risk. Maybe it’s because I know that just now, most of our group isn’t ready/capable to run a free-wheeling RPG campaign, but that really appeals to me. Playing Descent is a good lesson in why fewer decisions doesn’t necessarily mean less fun; if anything, it means more time for fun.
There’s nothing wrong with your more wide ranging, free-to-be-whoever-you-want-to-be RPG, but tightening the scope of who you can be and what you’re there to do has always provided short term jollies. I played an AD&D campaign once where we were all Clerics, a disparate bunch, to be sure, but all Clerics. Danger Room sessions of D&D-type games are pretty fun too. Ghostbusters, Paranoia, even Twilight 2000 were all focused on a particular type of character (i.e. A Ghostbuster, a disposable clone, a soldier) doing one particular thing that they knew they’d be doing from the start of the game (i.e. Busting ghosts, dying in the service of The Computer, surviving post-apocalyptic Poland). These games are more like puzzles than travel journals. Instead of tracking where you’ve been, what you’ve killed and how much XP/Gold you’ve spent, the pay-off is in solving a problem that was given to you at the start of the game (i.e. A ghost! A Commie! Another Commie… Hey, games of the 80s!) .
Because this was a Kickstarter though, and because it did exceptionally well, there are a lot of extra chips in the bag that caught my eye. In no order of importance:
- Other people involved: Thompson brought in established artists/designers from various sources (Adventure Time, MTG, D&D) and brought in other writers to create guest scenarios. I’m most excited about John Rogers (creator of Leverage, which I like, a TV show that features a gang of thieves with their specialties practically stamped on their heads, sort of like the A-team minus hand grenades) , Scott Lynch (on whom more in a minute) and Saladin Ahmed (of whom I am also a fan). The others I don’t know, with the exception of the Penny Arcade guys; I stopped caring about Webcomics a few years ago… because everyone did, I think… but their seriousness about creating good RPGs seems genuine, and they share my opinion that art is important for scene setting, so I’m keen to see the scenario they come up with.
- Man,.. remember webcomics? Weird, right?
- Short Rulebook and printed Character Cards. That they included a companion app in the stretch goals indicates that they understand how people currently want to play RPGS. Maybe it is aging, maybe it is laziness, but faster resolution of questions is at a premium, (said the old and lazy GM who doesn’t want to look up how to ride a hostile bear, Sean). Even a mediocre game that moves along at a good pace is better than a great game that can’t be played for long stretches because you are looking up rules.
- Blueprints, decks of cards and the suggested use of an egg timer. Because one of the things that have always been fun about RPGs are the tangibles. Whether its the miniature you got for your Gnoll Druid, the painstakingly hand-drawn Tarot deck you made for that one scenario of Kult, the poker chips tossed across the table to represent your luck, the map you spent the entire campaign making, or your sheaf of clipped articles from 1920s newspapers; the props of RPGs are fun and they tend to make players happy. They are something tangible from this otherwise entirely imaginary realm you are collectively creating.
So, excited about this game, since I love confidence tricks and fantasy settings and streamlined RPGs, I reminded JIM about it often enough that he bought into the Kickstarter, which I don’t think he’ll regret. Working off the Cinema Ticket formula, $65 is going to seem like money well spent if we manage to play through the four basic provided scenarios. Which is easy for me to say, because it wasn’t my $65. I’m saving my $65 for these awesome burning skulls. What’s the Kickstarter, but for bad ideas people have but don’t want to pay for themselves? GoFundMe? GoFundMe some flaming skulls, internet.
The game isn’t due for release until around Christmas 2017 although the PDFs were thoughtfully sent out before then and seem to be constantly updating based on how the game progresses towards finished during playtesting (also thoughtful). Being this into an idea isn’t going to allow me to just switch that off until 2018. That’s not how the Tetris-blocks fall in my gamer brain. I’m going to be thinking about this until I play it. So, reading over the description again, I spotted that one of the sources of inspiration was Scott Lynch, an author. Never heard of him.
A quick trip to my local online library showed that they had the books of Scott Lynch, specifically the Gentlemen Bastards series. So I borrowed the first book, gave it a whirl and fucking loved it. Couldn’t put it down.
Set in a close fantasy analog to Venice, (albeit with long-dead-alien superstructures dotting the city, and a bay practically brimming with sharks and sea monsters) the story follows an orphaned boy who is brought under the care of a priest of the not-completely-officially-recognised God of thieves. He grows up to lead a crew of thieves who steal for the sheer love of stealing. And they make it their lives work to steal almost exclusively from the noble class, who would otherwise be protected from their attentions by a secret agreement between the city’s Duke and the city’s Godfather. Thus, the Gentlemen Bastards have to avoid detection by their targets, the city’s police (secret or otherwise) and the criminal underworld of which they are a functioning part.
The author unapologetically uses Venice and Italian culture and that helps save a lot of exposition and scene setting. If you know anything at all about renaissance Italy, you’re pretty much caught up on the state of play with regards to geography, history, city states, cuisine, language, relations with the German-analogs to the north, technology and class structure. This lets him focus on what’s different about the world – the alchemy, the Unionized magic users, Man vs Shark Gladiatorial games, the interesting pantheon of gods and their various churches, the impenetrable glass towers and masonry that dot the city and glow of their own volition after sunset, giving the city a few extra hours of daylight. There’s a time and place for extensive, painstakingly original worldbuilding but it tends not to be in the same time and place as good dialogue and fast-paced plot. The GB series is of the latter sort, with a few well-chosen elements to make setting specific.
The characters are good too, the protagonists being a playfully skilled bunch of con artists and thieves. The relationship between the crew and especially its orphaned-conniver-turned-Mastermind, Locke and its orphaned-fat-kid-turned-Enforcer, Jean is the central thread through the book and on into the second.
(If I had a mild criticism of the book it’s that there are – I think – five women in it, only two of whom have more than a handful of sentences. Ain’t nothing wrong with mono-gendered stories, it’s just odd. I recently paused my revisitation to the Wheel of Time series because I’m at the point in the story where a group of women we care about meets up with a whole bunch of women we don’t care about, discovers another bunch of women we haven’t had time to care about and then they all argue and jostle their way to meet another big group of women we don’t know so that they can do more arguing and jostling. 99 problems and a Witch is every single one of them, why are there so many Witches? So this feels like a strange complaint – I stopped a book because it has so many nearly identical women I can’t keep track of them, now there are (almost) none. There is an off-page female presence which is well done, in the form of an absent crew member, and I don’t know if she’s going to show up, or stay just out of reach like a larcenous Maris Crane. I hope it’s the former.)
As mentioned, I tend to love confidence stories and there was a point in this book when I was already enjoying the con and thought it was clever and rolling along nicely. Then it turned a corner, and I broke out in a grin, because then it became a really good con story and it became clear that the author was going to go all in. And those corners pretty much kept on coming throughout the story; confidence games, by their very nature, involve twists and Lynch is pretty good at writing them without them feeling like aren’t-I-clever moments or procedural (one of the downsides of Leverage, in that you know when the show has 5 minutes left to go, things have to come to a head).
Two thumbs up, for what it is worth. In the acknowledgements, Lynch namechecks the RPG that in part inspired the book, and so now the book helps inspire its own RPG. Not bad.
Meanwhile, I’ve brushed up on my fiddle game and stuck in my old Assassin’s Creed discs and am currently poncing around Venezia with my hood up, skipping through all the exposition scenes and just making as much mischief as I can, while I wait for the long, straight block to fall.