Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tommy's Take on Dust Devils

I love westerns.

One of my favorite games is Deadlands, in both Reloaded and Classic incarnations.

I'd heard of Dust Devils as being the best western RPG ever, and it seems as though it won an award saying something to that effect back in 2002. This is the Revenged Edition, which was released last year, with More Stuff, including some alternate genres.

The PDF is $10, black and white, and lacks bookmarks. The layout is light enough that I don't think it would really need a dedicated printer friendly version, but I could be wrong.


Up front, we learn that the author considers it a "story-telling game", which kinda jibes with my reading. It's not a traditional RPG, anyway.

Dust Devils pays much respect to Unforgiven, which is always a good selling point, as I rather loved that film...and that's apparently the kind of western it is meant to emulate.

The kicker in the game is that all characters, no matter who they are, have a "Devil" inside them that they need to deal with.


Characters have four stats: Hand, Eye, Guts and Heart, which are keyed to playing card suits Spades, Diamonds, Guts and Hearts in order. You divide 13 points up among them, no Score exceeding 5.

Every character has two Traits. In today's parlance, they would be similar to FATE's Aspects, as they can be used to provide a bonus, or to earn chips when invoked in a negative fashion.

Next, you determine the character's Past and Present, which are essentially one word descriptors detailing what they did, and what they do. Four points are divided up here, to show which holds a larger sway over him.

Then, you pick the Devil, which is the dark driving force inside the character that they have to deal with. Devil has a rating as well, from 1 to 3, that shifts from session to session, as the player sees fit.


Conflict resolution requires the players determine what their character wanys, and to determine who is opposing them.

Resolution uses a poker deck, and the best poker hand in each conflict wins. The number of cards are based off of the two Scores used in each conflict, which the Dealer has final say on. For instance, trying to take down a rampaging drunken bear of a man with your bare hands might be Hands and Guts. If your Hands are 2 and your Guts are 4, that's six cards.

You may have an applicable trait, like Bare Knuckles Brawler. That's a bonus card.

Your Devil can also affect things: If you are acting in accordance with your Devil, that can provide bonus cards...if you are trying to fight it, that can take cards away. For instance, if your Devil is Bloodthirsty 2, and you are trying to drop your opponent with minimal damage, you could lose 2 cards...but if you have no qualms with crushing his wind pipe and biting his nose off, then you may wind up with 9 cards to make your poker hand with...but a bar full of horrified people staring at you afterwards.

Finally, if you Past or Present are relevant to the situation, you can discard and draw a number of cards equal to their rating. From there, you make the best five card poker hand that you can.

If you are opposing multiple people and you only beat some of them, you may or may not succeed, depending on what you are trying to accomplish and who you beat. People that lose out, take Harm, which reduces their Scores. The amount of Harm inflicted depends on the Poker Hand. High card is 1 Harm, Royal Flush is 5 Harm.

Whoever has the highest card in play gets to be the Narrator for the Conflict. They HAVE to make sure the Winner's goal succeeds regardless...but they have leeway on everyone else, as well as where Harm is inflicted at.

Anyone that has a Score drop to 0 is just limping towards death. The moment that they have to enter an action requiring that 0 score, The End is near.

When The End arrives for a character, that Player gets to narrate their big swan song.

Poker chips come into play, and players can earn chips by fighting their Devil, acting in opposition to their Traits, and wagering chips in Conflict. The chips can then be spent to gain additional cards during the Deal, discard and draw new cards during the Draw, to Fold (and remove themselves from a conflict...and thus harm), to become Narrator, and to restore any Score that has received Harm but not reached 0, to delay The End by using the character's Devil in place of the depleted Score, and to Harm or Redeem (heal, essentially) other characters while narrating your own End.

A very nice chart is placed following this, breaking all that down in easy to read format.


This is kind of a "here's what your getting into" chapter. It talks about players forcing Conflicts, sometimes with each other (the game certainly does not actively discourage it), as well as some other, none conflict stuff like Stud Hands, which are essentially Hazards. They are rated (with examples) from Minor hassle (3 card draw for the Dealer), Big Challenge (5 cards), Difficult Problem (7 cards) and Biblical Calamity (9 cards).

Tips are provided for generating NPCs on the fly, and some basic GM advice, liking making sure the characters' stories intersect, and knowing when to rein them in or cut them loose.

A mini-situation is provided, involving warring cattle barons and a Romeo and Juliet twist, complete with NPCs.


This is a discussion of the genre, with some notes on how some famous characters from western films may look in Dust Devils, as well as a list of seven recommended films, complete with a paragraph or so on how to rip them off for your own game.

A list of other recommendations, both book and film, are also presented.

The second half of the chapter focuses more on the "real" West, and how it might apply to a Dust Devils game, such as the harshness of the weather conditions, life for cowboys as technology encroached and the frontier disappeared, and so on. It's some pretty good material that doesn't feel as preachy as I've come to expect from this sort of thing.


These are three alternate settings, using modified versions of the Dust Devils rules.

Deathwish, the first of the settings, unfortunately has nothing to do with revenge driven action films (like Deathwish, for instance) and is all about James Bond type stuff. I think it's probably a little more appropriate when you focus more on source material like 24 and The Bourne Identity, rather than James Bond, but that's just me.

Deathwish swaps out the Scores with four new ones, but they serve the same mechanical purpose. Past and Present become Specialties, Traits are replaced with Loyalties, and Devil is replaced with Deathwish. A lot of leeway is granted with loyalties, which can include agencies, countries, people or ideologies.

Incredibly fiting is the next setting, Ronin. Given that a number of westerns were reimagined samurai films, twisting a western game into a samurai game is oddly appropriate. The four Scores are replaced with Water, Wind, Earth and Fire. Water is martial ability, Wind is intellectual capacity, Earth is brawn and Fire is passion. Honor and Spirit replace Traits, and Talents replace Past and Present, though every character has the Bushi Talent and one other talent. Duty replaces Devil.

Two sample Ronin are provided, to give you some idea as to how character creation differs. Mechanically, the poker trappings probably feel the most out of place here, but I'll give it a pass because of the samurai-westerns link.

The final setting is Concrete Angels, which is meant to evoke source material such as Sin City. The four Scores become Trade, Resource, Violence and Emotion, and uses higher point totals. Additionally, characters now have an Archetype, choosing between one of four (each tied to a Score).

Traits are now Vices and Virtues, and Angles replace Past and Present. The Devil is replaced by The Zero, though it functions the same.

Honestly, none of them feel as cool as the western setting, but that may be a tad bit of bias on my part, as I do love Westerns so.

An Afterword is included, followed by a number of Game Play Aids, including the Poker Hands chart how to earn and spend chips, and a character record sheet which actually holds to sheets (print them off and cut them in two).


For those who care about such things, it's definitely closer to a "Story game" than a "role-playing game". It also will not be replacing Deadlands at my table anytime soon.

That said, I would gladly give it a go in its primary, Western incarnation. I have no real desire to run it in the alternate settings, though...although, some combination of Deathwish and Concrete Angels might work to produce a decent 100 Bullets-style game, and that could be cool.

At 70 pages, it's probably a little light for $10, but I wouldn't give it a thumbs down...just not an enthusiastic thumbs up.