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Durance

I had the chance to give Jason Morningstar's new game Durance a go at the weekend.

The game is in the hard sci-fi genre and centres on a prison colony located on a planet that turns out to have serious problems supporting human life. Currently the game is open-ended so it aims to create a situation with conflict in it and then lets the players explore it.

Play

The game is GM-less and uses a rotating GM model where the active player frames scenes for the characters of other players with a goal of answering a particular questions. Similar to Microscope, except that the guiding player tends not to actively participate in the scene. The guiding player also has the authority over the narration of a scene's resolution.

Players have both an authority character and a prisoner character allowing you a way into both sides of the story.

Mechanic

Durance only has one real mechanic, called Uncertainty. Essentially if scenes cannot be resolved through discussion then dice are thrown. The three dice represent Savagery, Servility and Tone. Tone is determined by the players during the creation of the game parameters.

Only two dice are thrown during Uncertainty and the directing player decides which dice are to be thrown. Resolution is then based on which of the dice are showing the highest value. Servility means the triumph of authority and hierarchy and Savagery means the victory of violence.

For our game we selected the Tone to be Degeneracy which was interpreted as being victory as a result of destroying either society or the self.

Feeling

I was expecting a prison-drama kind of game that focussed on the relationships between the guards and the prisoners and of their parallel but very different hierarchies. That aspect was there but interestingly the mechanic treats both sides equally resulting in some ludicrous resolutions in terms of the background for the game. It also means that there is not that much difference between Authority and Prisoner characters except for the narrated colour.

In my view the two sides should be quite asymmetrical: Authority has power and resources but also the responsibility of keeping the whole colony going. The Authority figures have vast capabilities compared to the prisoners but a lot of problems that need their attention. Prisoners have time and an unrelenting focus on a few things, usually getting free and getting even. I can't remember the quote but to paraphrase the prisoner thinks of the unlocked door more than the guard thinks of locking it.

As a group we chose quite a desperate situation for the colony and then proceeded to ratchet up the tension with failing crops, hostile alien biology racking the bodies of prisoner and guard alike and supply ships that failed to arrive. In the end the prisoners ran amok and guaranteed the death of the colony by destroying the means of escape and the research into the alien infection. It was interesting to think what might have happened had the authorities been more ruthless.

The game was satisfying but apart from an interesting situation and mechanism for creating the flawed world the colony is situated in there is not a lot to keep you coming back. I definitely want to play it again but if the mechanics don't reflect a prison situation it might be better to use two different social groups that are much more equal. Mars Colony's political parties seem to be a better fit. Of course that might not suit the miserablists amongst us but it would align the mechanics and the fiction better.

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