Dust Devils is a rules-light storytelling game that focuses on tales of redemption in the Old West. It takes role-playing in several unusual directions, but it is sufficiently clever that everyone should at least give it a read!
Characters have a mix of quantitative and descriptive characteristics. The most important is amongst the latter: the Devil, which is the ugly side of their personality or past that they are trying to fight: appropriate examples include any of the seven mortal sins.
The game is essentially storytelling until a conflict arises. During conflicts, the object is to build the best poker hand; the interesting twist is that a character’s statistics, past, and (especially) Devil determine the resources available for constructing that hand. In essence, this works like a dice pool mechanic, because “stronger” characters receive more opportunities for success but have no guarantees of victory.
A second twist is that the conflict’s Narrator is the player with the single highest card in their poker hand, who need be neither the GM or the victor. The narration is fairly free, although the winner must achieve their goals, and the “Harm” to each character is fixed by the cards. Once one of a player character’s attributes reaches zero, their end is near. The player automatically becomes Narrator of their final conflict and gets some bonuses to help ensure a memorable end, including harming other characters and also redeeming them.
The book contains a fair amount of advice (as well as a sample scenario), which is quite useful given the game’s unique goals. Every character will die, and players need to buy in to this to enjoy it. It’s also a collaborative game – although there is a “Dealer,” who sets up some of the story, every player can become Narrator during conflicts. And finally, it is an antagonistic game – player characters can easily face off against each other, and some groups won’t enjoy that.
The book also contains a handy guide to Western history and good movies, novels, and characters that can inspire a Dust Devils game. Finally, this updated edition also includes three variant rules and settings, which port the game to new genres. These include Deathwish, about conflicted spies in the Cold War, RONIN, about warriors in feudal Japan, and Concrete Jungles, about unsavory urban characters. The first and last work well; RONIN is a good idea (especially given the connections between samurai films and Westerns), but the idea of resolving samurai duels with poker hands just doesn’t work for me.
In summary, Dust Devils is a unique, well-constructed rules-light game tailored to a very specific – but compelling – kind of story. Provided your group will buy into this type of story, you can tell some truly memorable stories of devils and redemption.
Note: I received a free review copy (in pdf form) of this title through DriveThruRPG.com.
[4 of 5 Stars!]