A Conversation About Durance With Jason Morningstar and Steve Segedy of Bully Pulpit Games

Today I’m talking to Steve Segedy and Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games. Bully Pulpit has been consistent making exciting, innovative games for the past several years including Grey Ranks and Fiasco. Here we talk about their newest game, Durance.

Jason and Steve

Tom: Durance just Kickstarted to great success. It was fully funded in, what, 18 hours and a final tally at almost $28000. That’s awesome!

Jason: Yes it is!

Tom: First and foremost, give us the lowdown about Bully Pulpit Games. How are you each involved?

Jason: We’re equal partners and good friends. I do a lot of game design and Steve does a lot of editing, print fulfillment, layout, accounting, ordering, customer service, and many more things including game design. It is not an equitable division of labor.

Tom: What Durance is all about?

Jason: It’s a game about power and the limits of control, as filtered through the inhabitants of a failing penal colony. More pragmatically it is a GMless game for 3-5 people, playable in two hour chunks, of variable overall length, with two protagonists per player that are shared by everyone.

Tom: The idea of playing two characters with opposite goals or at least opposing goals is really intriguing. Has it been difficult for players to handle?

Jason: The only time it ever gets slightly problematic is when both characters need to be in the same scene. But character ownership in Durance is lightly held so it just takes a little negotiation to sort that out.

Tom: I think I know where the name/title came from but enlighten us.

Jesse Parrotti’s cover for Durance

Jason: Durance is an old and out of favor word that is a synonym for bondage or imprisonment.

Tom: Where did the idea for Durance come from? What inspired it?

Jason: Game Chef! last year there was “Shakespearean Game Chef” and the ingredients really spoke to me in relation to themes of isolation and brutality. It made me think about the colonization of Australia in the 1790’s. The game grew from that.

Tom: Game Chef is very fertile ground for games. There have been several in the last few years that have come out of it.  So,as a Kickstarter backer I have an ‘in progress’ draft of the game. It seems to be very much about social conflict. This is a reoccurring theme for you, Jason. Why is that?

Jason: That’s an astute observation. The answer, I think, is that I privilege (real) player over (imaginary) character, and the really, really interesting stuff on an interpersonal level is always how we deal with each other as human beings.

Tom: How very true. I appreciate that you are investigating those dealings through games. It is something that is not done well or even addressed in many games.  Also Mood plays a big role in Durance. Which Drives you focus on definitely help set the mood of your game. You talked a lot about hitting the right mood in The Fiasco Companion. Why do you need to keep reminding us how to do mood in a game? Give us a couple of tips on how to maintain mood in a game.

Jason: Mood/tone/atmosphere/vibe is easy to generate – every group does it. But unless you are intentional, you’ll generate the same one all the time. I try to put in little cues to get you to talk about it with your friends, so it is on your mind as you begin to shape the experience of play together. Be intentional, say “let’s make our game tonight melancholy” or “let’s make this very absurd”. It works,a nd it is fun to challenge your own tonal prejudices and comfort zones.

Tom: You’re right. It’s so easy to slide into the same thing each game. And while that can be fun, it’s also fun to do something different. ‘Be intentional’ is great advice. Now, the game has some set characters that are integral parts of the game and are in every game. Where did the name ‘The Dimber Damber’ come from?

Jason: It’s Georgian slang for a criminal boss.It’s a term that was used and was relevant in the 1790’s. I like it because it is such a blatant statement of power – this person can call themselves whatever they want, even something ridiculous, because nobody dares laugh or protest.

Durance’s Notables chart

Tom: Notables – each player having two ‘opposing’ characters is a cool concept. How did you settle on that?

Jason: It stems from the idea that you’re exploring power, really. By creating two characters on opposite sides of the divide (a convict and, essentially, a guard) you can’t get entrenched in one world view as easily. By requiring unequal parity (you can’t create two characters at the same level of power), that same imbalance is further emphasized. You can’t help but see righteous and criminal, high and low.

Tom: As I said earlier, it’s a fantastic concept. I’m really looking forward to trying it out. On to Oaths. They remind me of ‘Compels’ from FATE. I like the idea as it will make for some really neat situations. How did you come up with this?

Jason: To be honest I think it was a Game Chef ingredient. It made sense in context to position it as something you wouldn’t do, a line you wouldn’t cross, because in such a desperate setting having one of those would be entirely reasonable and entirely foolish. Lots of drama.

Tom: Guides is an interesting way to handle the GM role. I like the limited role the guides have.

Jason: Thanks, I borrowed a lot of that from Ben Robbins’ game Microscope.

Tom: The game has dice but they are only used when an answer to a question is not certain. That makes a lot of sense. Talk about how you decided on that.

Jason: I like random things that can surprise you or force the narrative in weird directions, but I always want them firmly in the hands of the players to interpret. This leans heavily on the players to not only interpret, but to adjudicate. Fiasco’s resolution is binary – black die or white die, poor outcome or good outcome. In Durance it is more nuanced. A scene will be resolved, for example, through savagery. What does that mean? There’s no “good/bad” there, no finger pointed (although there is an optional tweak if you want more mechanical guidance). But players have a lot more responsibility in Durance.

Tom: I like that Durance allows the players to decide and make decisions and not be driven by dice and luck. It’s, as you mentioned, a good reoccurring theme in your games.  I like starting or developing scenes with a pointed question. The example in the book is “I wonder if the Governor has the stones to put the Dimber Damber on trial, having sworn never to betray him?” You can just imagine myriad of paths that can come from that. How did you come upon this ‘mechanic’?

Jason: This is directly stolen from Microscope, which is a weird and brilliant game. The first time I played and saw how questions were phrased i thought “must steal that”.

Tom: Man, I really need to play Microscope. I like games that use questions to direct play. Dread, Psi-Run, and there’s another that I can’t remember all use questions in some way to inform the players and GM (if there is one) as to what the player wants from the game.

Jason: A Penny For My Thoughts?

Tom: Yes that one too. I like that mechanic so much that I’m using it in a game I’m working on.  I really like that you include a replay. I think every game should have one. It really shows you how to play, like a paper tutorial.  

Jason: I think they are valuable too. They are hard to put together!

Tom: Art – tell us about your artists. 

Some of Brennan Reese’s interior art

Jason:  We totally lucked out. So Brennen Reece is sort of a ficture ont he Story Games scene i guess, and he’s a really talented artist. He’s doing these sketches that are absolutely haunting, very lovely and terrible, and I think they strongly, strongly set the tone. And Jesse Parrotti is a super talented guy working in a lot of diverse styles, and he liked our concept and just clicked hard, and he’s killing it with the full color pieces. Part of our Kickstarter reward was an additional full color interior spread and it is really great. You get to see a Dimber Damber out for his evening constitutional and it is terrifying.

Tom: Steve, you’ve playtested Durance a lot I’m sure. Who was your favorite Notable to play?

Steve: I had a lot of fun with the Dimber Damber recently— I decided up front that he was a bit of a religious nut, tending to his flock of convicts. I quickly threw together a cosmology and a doctrine to justify his actions as he sent men to their deaths, or worse. It didn’t work out so well for him in the end, oddly enough.

Tom: Now to the Kickstarter. You blew past your goal of $5000 pretty quickly. With Bully Pulpit’s reputation you had to have a good idea that Durance would get a lot of support. Why did you set the goal so low?

Steve: There are some best practices from Kickstarter that suggest you want to set your goal as low as you can while still actually reflecting what you need to do the project. I believe the line was that you want to reach 30% of your goal as quickly as possible, as most projects that do this succeed. We chose $5000 because it was enough to cover our costs for a modest print run, and because it seemed a reasonable gauge of potential interest. While Fiasco is pretty popular, we weren’t entirely sure how well Durance might be received. We expected to exceed the goal, but not so quickly or by so much.

Tom: What else do you want to say about Durance?

Jason: This game is fun, intense and easy to get into. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people do with it. In some ways it is a refinement on the Fiasco aesthetic and in other ways it is a considerable departure. Steve and I both really love it!

Steve: In many ways, Durance has been an experiment for us, in terms of using Kickstarter, gathering creative contributions from backers, contracting lots of art, and trying new product formats. I’m excited to see how it all comes together!

Tom: Now a quick Fiasco question. A couple of recent posts about Fiasco talk about it encouraging character failure. One blogger says, “For one thing, the game goes out of its way to encourage failure. The book goes on and on about it, and people who like the game seem to like it at times merely because it’s a foregoneconclusion that pretty much everybody’s going to die at the end….I think a good story can result from a game of Fiasco, but I don’t think that in order for that to happen, all players must meet with disaster. I think it’s enough that the game sets the characters up to be in conflict with each other from the outset, so it’s not possible for every character to succeed all the time.” I have heard a similar comment or two from people with whom I play. Why do you think Fiasco has this reputation? Why so much focus on failure? Or are people/players/commentors missing the point or creating something that isn’t really there?

Jason: There are several factors at work here. One is that failure is fun, and cathartic, and in direct opposition to 30 years of roleplaying tradition. There’s a large segment who genuinely like to play gonzo crazy disaster sessions, where the whole point is to go big, to flame out in the most spectacular way, and so forth. That is a way to play and bunches of people really enjoy it. So there’s that, no harm no foul, go nuts, play to fail. Looking at the way the game is structured though, it’s clear (and intentional) that failure is a sliding scale you don’t have complete control over, and mechanically a general spread from low numbers to high numbers is statistically likely in the Aftermath. Some will win, some will lose. How you parse those results is up to you, but a table full of total failure isn’t actually very common. Finally, I find that the aftermath is more resonant when you’ve agreed on a tone (see question 6 above) and don’t push super hard. Let stuff happen. If it turns out your guy is the one who is a total dickhead, go there. You’ll probably end up with a high number at the end. If the opposite is true, play the innocent dupe as hard as you can and throw the spotlight onto the others to provide sharp relief. You will probably end up dead, because that’s how the game is structured.

Tom: Yeah, it is structured that way. I’ve experienced both being the jerk who survives (well, almost) and the sacrificial lamb/scapegoat who gets killed somewhere along the way. That character, by the way, ended up with a copper statue in the town square. I notice that you reiterate ‘Be intentional’. That resonates with ‘Be obvious.’, advice from a lot of indie game designers. They go hand in hand I think.

Jason: A good resource for general advice in this vein is Graham Walmsley’s book Play Unsafe.

Tom: I know you usually have several game ideas in the hopper. Can you tell us about a couple?

Jason: Sure, I’m working on an Apocalypse World hack where you play secret police in a totalitarian society, and a children’s RPG about corpse-snatching in the 1880s, and of course my white whale, Medical Hospital. I also recently wrote a larp called The Climb. There’s always something.

Tom: I haven’t played Apocalypse World but that hack sounds fun. I’m a big fan of George Orwell and 1984. I’m intrigued by how totalitarian societies arise and rule. A children’s rpg and corpse-snatching – that doesn’t seem to fit. I’m very interested in this because I have a 10 year old who loves rpgs. Huge Icons fan.

Jason: Kids like gross stuff and dark themes, they can be pretty hardcore. They are exploring these issues on their own anyway. I’ve playtested my game once with a dozen kids, ages 12-14, and they really enjoyed it. They got to murder people and dig up bones and generally be badass criminals, and the game respects their agency to explore those roles a little in a spooky fun way. One girls’ mom hung around, clearly dubious about the whole enterprise, but pretty soon she was really into it too, suggesting ways to acquire fresher corpses by poisoning hospital patients.

Tom: And Medical Hospital’s heart still beats. That’s good to hear. And strangely comforting that it can take you a long time to make a good idea work. I have hope for my game yet.

Man, that was a really great interview. It’s always a blast talking to you both. Durance looks like a real winner to me. And I’m really glad that it has done so well on Kickstarter.  Even though the Kickstarter campaign is complete, you can learn more about Durance by going here.

Thank you Steve and Jason for a fantastic interview. I’m really stoked to play Durance soon. I’m excited about all the cool extras that backers are getting too. Thanks for all the fun.

Thank you readers for joining me for another Conversation. Check back soon for more interviews, reviews, and thoughts as I go forth and discover the interesting and obscure in gaming


All pictures are used with permission of Bully Pulpit Games.