[Dust Devils] Using materials from Tales of Entropy

I'm gearing up to run my second game of Dust Devils.

In the discussion about my first game Forced Abortion Plot Ends in Bloodbath Paul and Eero discussed the idea of using materials from Tales of Entropy to prep Dust Devils.

I am not familiar with Tales of Entropy (though I've loosely followed discussions here at Story-Games) and the materials don't click with me (for Dust Devils, mind you).

The following Western scenario, Butcher's Crossing, for instance, leaves me puzzled as to using it for Dust Devils. It's nicely researched, it has nice characters and ideas (a secret buffalo herd) and it's free, but the conflicts seem internal and non-violent rather than external.

How can I make this work (with existing Dust Devils characters, if possible -- two PCs survived from the first game)?


  • The bit you're missing is the scenario prep rules in Entropy; the scenario is something that the players plug into those rules at the beginning of play to finish the scenario setup together. That's why what you see in the scenario database is somewhat cryptically incomplete for straight out putting it into Dust Devils.

    I'll paraphrase the salient points for how they'd be adapted to Dust Devils. It's pretty obvious how the games latch together if you've read both.

    Entropy style scenario start-up for Dust Devils

    First, translate the core character's stat block from Entropy into Dust Devils. Each scenario has one ready-made character who usually has some in-built thematic resonance, so you want to keep them. The interpretation should be pretty easy, just follow the DD chargen rules to make up a character sheet for the character described in the scenario; the Entropy sheet probably gives some hints as to what his Devil is like, etc.

    Get together with the crew, all of the rest is performed at the start of play.

    1) The Dealer reads the scenario text to the group. Treat it as a small storytelling exercise, try to be atmospheric about it. Introduce the core character, too. Discuss the milieu and whatnot, answer player questions about it.
    2) Each player creates and positions their own characters in free order by declaring which of the already present characters their character is opposed to. You can use pre-existing characters from earlier scenarios, but they need to get positioned anyway: you can't just say that you're playing character X, you need to pinpoint one of the other characters in the scenario as someone whose interests they contradict. Note that the first player must declare against the core character, as they're the only character in the scenario to begin with; players who declare later have more choices.
    3) The player who is last to declare their character has the option to take the core character for their own instead of declaring one more character; presumably they'll do this if the scenario is already full enough. If this is not done, the core character is left for the Dealer as a central NPC.
    4) After everybody's chosen their characters and you've drawn a nice little nemesis map to depict who opposes who in the scenario, create character sheets for the characters as per the Dust Devils rules.

    From that point on you can continue with the Dust Devils rules, or I guess you could also import the GM-less playstyle from Entropy with its round-robin scene framing and whatnot. Up to taste. If you go with the Dust Devils Dealer role, be prepared to frame scenes that expose the character conflicts and enable the characters to deal with each other, ramping up the interpersonal tension until somebody decides to get violent about it. Pretty much normal Dust Devils, except perhaps the collective scenario development method from Entropy makes what you're supposed to be doing a tad more clear; raw DD sometimes produces odd player characters who don't really have a motivation related to the scenario.

    The key point is that the players create their characters in the context of the scenario instead of in isolation: you read the scenario first, and then, in considerate discussion with the group, create characters who have clear stakes related to the situation and other people involved in the scenario. This produces the sort of tight blood opera scenarios that Dust Devils also likes, where the motivations are clear and conflicting between the various PCs.

    Applying the above to Butcher's Crossing, the thing you should mostly look out for is that the group needs to actually do real dramatic coordination in character creation/positioning: you fail as the Operator/Dealer if you let a player declare their character by saying something vaguely half-assed like "my character from the last scenario rides into town looking for work". You need to ask for more front-loading and commitment: as the scenario setup procedure states, the character needs to already have a living interest that sets them at cross-purposes with another character.

    Looking at the scenario, the central stakes in it relate to the last great buffalo herd and the decaying town of Butcher's Crossing, which used to make its living from the buffalo. The core character, William Andrews, can be interpreted as a romantic idealist for whom the realities of buffalo hunting may come as a shock later on in the scenario. A legit character declaration here could be e.g. picking up Miller, the buffalo hunter, and declaring him to be an unrepentant brute who enjoys blood-shed; the two characters are set in thematic contraposition by their differing viewpoints on the treatment of animals. Not saying that it's going to get into blows between them later on, but it is a premise that has to be dealt with in some way during the actual play.
  • Thank you very, very much for explaining this.

    I expected a conflict-laden relationship map to plug characters into (e.g. "X is your kid brother", "you want to humiliate Y to get revenge for Z"), but the process for creating this stuff at the table sounds both functional (e.g. creating opposition) and fostering player input (rather than having the GM decide how to incorporate the PCs). Very cool.

    Also, I may have to take a closer look at Tales of Entropy at some point!
  • I have some varied experience with relationship map scenario setups, and I have to say that I greatly prefer the way Entropy does it, in terms of general strategy: instead of having the GM sort things out in solitude, make a bit of a game of it.

    When running the scenario development, be sure to put a bit of salesman flair into it: explain the core character's motivations and dramatic premise very clearly, make promises about "what they'll do if nobody stops them" (maybe works better with a villainous core character, that one) and so on. "Now is the time to tell it if you've got it - does any of you have a character who could stand against this hero? Stand up if you do, let us hear it!" Work up the players a bit, and as individuals commit to character concepts, draw those in as possible new antagonists for the characters yet to be declared. "Oh, so your character's a native? OK, who wants to play the cattle baron greedy for Indian land? Any takers?"

    I've found over the years that I like gamifying as many steps of roleplaying as possible, so this sort of little gamely oriented character creation gimmick works wonders for me. Having to define your character in terms of stakes ownership (who gets those buffaloes and what do they do with them?) and dramatic opposition (who is the natural antagonist for this character?) is much better than going "do whatever you want, as long as it's a western!".
  • +1
    A map, of relationships or other, is a game in itself. This cross-pollination sets an example of good practices, without the need for a harsh frame, and anchors players into the game.
  • I did not run Dust Devils yesterday after all because I was pressed for time and still unsure of my prep (though not of the process, i.e. I lacked ideas for the buffalo scenario).

    We played a hack of John Harper's nice little zero-prep RPG Lasers and Feelings called Cyberpunk. I still got a lot out of this short thread, though, and have a stronger interest in Tales of Entropy now.
  • Johann,

    There is no need to prep for Entropy's relationship map (the players do it all), and you can't prep for actual play, since you don't known who the characters will be...
  • That would be the case for Entropy itself, Paul, but I think that it's a good idea to get your bandolier of bangs in order for Dust Devils. The Dealer is, after all, responsible for framing entertaining scenes. In Entropy the players take turns framing scenes, which lessens the load on any single imagination.

    The Entropy scenario prep does mean that you don't know who the player characters will be, but that's really just more of a condition than a problem - you prep around the situation laid out in the scenario rather than any individual characters. There'll be time during the session to figure out how the prepped ideas align with the characters.

    For example, you should probably think in advance about the kinds of western story crisis situations and complications that might come between a man and his greed-justified buffalo genocide. Perhaps a sultry barmaid might try to finagle the details about the hidden valley from a member of the expedition? Maybe a competing buffalo hunter decides to violent means to get a jump on the last buffaloes? Maybe the core character starts suffering from abattoir nightmares? Maybe the buffaloes are all already dead when the crew arrives, and they only thing they bring back from the hidden valley is bovine influenza?

    That's all bangs are, pertinent ideas. I can empathize with a GM who doesn't quite know what sorts of twist and turns to frame; sometimes you're running a drama game in a somewhat exotic setting and it takes a moment or two to figure out some content that matches the milieu and the plot. It doesn't hurt to have some remotely pertinent possibilities floating about in your cranium.

    On the other hand, Paul's right in that a major part of the dramatic lifting work in this sort of game should come from the player characters themselves. If you do the character creation and positioning well, you should be able to frame at least half of your scenes simply by picking two characters and giving them an opportunity to interact. Either they're enemies ready to fight for the bone, or they aren't, in which case they'll have an opportunity to talk about their mutual enemies. That, plus modulating between set-up and resolution scenes gets you 70% of the scenes in a typical blood opera.

    I'll also note that the scenario under consideration here isn't the easiest Entropy scenario - I would consider it advanced for how internal and subtle the potential conflicts in it are. The scenario text doesn't outright say what it's about, for instance, unlike many Entropy scenarios; you sort of have to figure it out yourself that the buffaloes are a metaphor for the end of wild west era, and the core character is a man seeking after a dying dream. How this translates into "my character wants to kill your character for reason X" is an interesting creative challenge, to be sure!

    (And I do mean challenge, not a problem - I think that this sort of thing is the meat on the bone of a story game.)
  • I did indeed jot down some bangs, like an encounter with a rare albino buffalo, but I was dissatisfied. The albino buffalo, for instance, shows I'm not confident in the poignancy of 'the last herd of buffalo', even though it's basically the same thing (something rare and beautiful, easily destroyed and/or exploited).

    I think the metaphorical end of the wild west era is more subtle than the Romeo and Juliet scenario linked above. Then again, maybe I was lacking faith in my players...
  • It would actually be pretty interesting if the players all opted for relatively low-tension stakes and positioning, and the scenario would be played out mostly as a slice of life story about the last buffalo hunters, no interpersonal violence necessary. The Dealer could just while away time by discussing buffalo hunting and the men involved in it. The last big hunt would be an obvious centerpiece, with all the grotesque atmospheric elements included. Characters would eat buffalo tongue while carcasses are left for the birds. The last scene would involve one of the buffalo hunters declaring that he's moving to Detroit, on account of there being no more buffaloes to hunt. Another would be busy counting their bills - finally enough money so his daughter could wed properly, all thanks to that one last buffalo heist.

    It'd be sort of like Moby Dick, except with buffaloes, and no killer whale anywhere to be seen. A complete travesty insofar as the proud tradition of Dust Devils tomfoolery is concerned [grin].
  • Whoa, you guys are talking about my underground punk game, whee.

    Speaking about Dust Devils and Entropy, there is a scenario I wrote especially thinking of Dust Devils. It is called The Iron Horse and can be found here. I've played it and it worked quite well. It also has very concrete and potentially deadly conflicts present.

  • That looks cool and definitely has a Dust Devils (and - to a lesser extent - Dogs in the Vineyard) vibe, with a former gunman upholding the law, religious fervour, a new saloon and the railway. Thanks for pointing it out!
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