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Saturday 12 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: The Rustbelt

RPGPundit Reviews: The Rustbelt

This is a review of "The Rustbelt: tales of tenacity, depravity and hope"; allegedly "a roleplaying game" written by D. Marshall Burns, published by "Beyond the Wire". It is a print edition, 155 pages, with a colour cover (coloured like rust, obviously) and b&w interiors with some very few b&w "artsy-style" photographs (mostly of scenes of urban decay) for illustration.

So, the back cover of the book makes it clear that in spite of the front-cover's claim of being "a roleplaying game", the purpose of the game is to create "player-authored stories". In other words, its not a roleplaying game, its a storygame. Its also Misery Porn. The game establishes right in the introduction that "basically the GM will plunge the PCs into an untenable situation, and the players will decide how their PCs deal with it", and "this game is about people who live in a world gone wrong and how they cope with that".

The Wench, who is only the most peripheral of gamers herself, and certainly not a fanatic by any stretch, took a look at this book before she went off to her trip to Canada. Her opinion? She said to me, "No one will buy this!"
She might be wrong, of course, a tiny number of Storygame Swine may buy the game, if it proves fashionable enough to them, but really what she meant is "why the fuck would anyone want to play this"? Its presented on the back cover as a "post apocalyptic RPG". But we're not talking RIFTS or Gamma World here. No; the apocalypse it posits is a "slow apocalypse where infrastructure has rotted away" and "the Rust" (which is described as an "active, metaphysical presence permeating everywhere... twisting everything and everyone toward corruption") is gnawing at "civilization, the laws of nature, and the hearts and minds of men".
So this isn't an RPG, where you're playing in an emulative world of mad-max craziness; you're not out to loot ancient ruins or blow up Coalition Mecha, or whatever. No, here what you're doing is "emerging stories" about "people (who) find themselves in situations no one wants to be in, and how they deal with that". In other words, misery porn about ennui over urban/rural decay. Yeah, that sounds like terrific fun.

Just to make sure the reader gets it really clear in his head that this is not a game where he's supposed to do cool shit, or other immature things like have fun, the author hammers it all down by adding "the characters in this game aren't heroes"; and "a character hasn't shown his true colours in this game until he's been hurt".

So the basic premise of the "setting" of this storygame, if it can be called a "setting", is that something called the rust has been slowly worming away at society, and even at reality. The players are meant to portray ordinary people (the text repeats itself again "no heroes like in the comic books... no big villains either"; you're not allowed to have clear moral lines), getting to watch the rust slowly claim their world.

Character creation, in good Forgist Swine re-education as they attempt to redefine "rpgs" as storygames, make a point to explain to the reader that you have no control over what happens to your character, and that you'll probably only use the character for "one story" (because of course, Forge games are microgames; and long, exciting RPG campaigns are anathema to their thinking). Of course, one could argue the author is being overly ambitious; its doubtful most people would want to play one game of Rustbelt.

Characters are created with a series of traits: Hunger, Vice, Faith and Woe. Seriously, for fuck's sake, "Woe".
Hunger is your "fundamental need", Vice is an addiction of some kind that "helps you cope" with the misery of your life, Faith is what you believe or hope in to "guide your worldview", and Woe is your regret or remorse.
In addition to this, you get attributes: Tough, Savvy, Grizzled, Slick, Thorough, Personable, Cagey, and Uncanny.
There is no actual system by which to determine the numerical values for any of these traits or attributes, you're just supposed to pick numbers within the range (up to 20 in each of the traits, up to 10 in each of the attributes; with the note that any attribute that you put at 10 gets the qualifier of "freakish", as in, "you're so good there's something wrong with you").

There are no skill rules, nor equipment rules; why would you need either in a non-rpg, after all? You're told you just have what makes sense for your concept.

Finally you have some "pools of points" called Blood, Sweat, and Tears; you get 20 points in each to start, and (to make it really really fucking clear that this is a Forge game, gimmicks and all), they are represented with poker chips. These are I guess the "hit points" equivalent, if you end up running out of Tears points, you are "emotionally overwrought or depressed as to be useless", if you run out of Sweat you're exhausted, if you run out of Blood you're (almost) dead. If you're out of these, you can "push" them by using up other chips, except Blood, once you're at zero blood if you "push" to keep doing something, you die.

There follows fairly extensive (13 pages worth of) rules governing how psyche (traits) are used, all of it very abstract; events that affect a trait are responded to by relying on another trait, having an "outburst", or reducing points in the trait (how many? that's up to you. Did I mention this isn't an RPG?).

Task resolution, which follows, is extremely simple: you roll a d10 and add the appropriate attribute (like Grizzled), against a target number. If you don't make the target number you then get to CHOOSE whether you actually failed or not. If you want, then you failed, and suffer whatever happens as a result of that. If not, if you decide you want to succeed anyways, then you are "pushing", and will have to pay some kind of "price", probably in drama.
To be fair, in order to "push" you have to fulfill one of a number of criteria: either you have to be trying (in what you're attempting to do) to satisfy your "Hunger", your "Vice" or your "Faith", or trying to make up for your "Woe". Or you're using faith of vice to "steady your nerve". Or you're doing what you're doing for the sake of someone else you care about.

Mind you that before you get to any of this, that is, before even rolling, you have to state your "intent". As is typical in a storygame, your intent is a declaration of what you want to see happen in the game, which for no apparently good reason other than adding extra storygamey Jargon, is divided into the "Goal" and the "Task". The goal is what you want to happen, and the task is how you want it to happen.
The GM in turn declares what "The Danger" is; that is to say, what will happen if you fail. Again, proving its not an RPG, in a totally anti-emulative anti-immersive style, you are told what will happen already, before any rolling is done. The GM is also the one who decides what the difficulty rating is, and what attribute is the basis for the check.
You may end up rolling more than 1d10 in certain cases, but only take the highest rolled result.
After the task is resolved, "someone" (not necessarily the GM, the text explicitly states it can be "anyone") will "narrate what happened"; i.e. retell the whole mechanic in the form of a story.

There can also be opposed checks, which I'm guessing is where the author feels the real drama here; because remember, you don't just succeed or fail; if you fail a roll you can "push". SO in an opposed check, both sides roll the dice, and the higher number wins, but the guy who rolled the lower number can choose to "push", meaning the two are now equal, and then the winner has to choose to either "push back" or he's actually the loser. If he does push back you get a "Deadlock" (Christ, the jargon is thicker than an old London fog). In a Deadlock, either player is first given a chance to back down. If they don't, they both roll a d10, the difference in the roll is the new level of failure which the guy that originally lost must either choose to "give" or to "push back" yet again; if he does the victor can also choose to "push back". If that happens, or you roll a tie, the whole deadlock process repeats itself and can do so indefinitely.

There are also procedures for dealing with multi-party conflicts that are not strictly win/lose dualities, and some vague guidelines for how to handle other types of conflicts or situations that wouldn't seem to be immediately applicable to the standard storygamey task resolution.

The "cost" of "pushing" is called "The Price". This is figured numerically as the difference between the needed target number and the actual rolled failure. But it isn't always a standard numeric price; the GM can instead say that a possible price can be that "bad thing x or bad thing y" happens. Apparently, the GM is supposed to offer more than one possible Prices, but at least one of them must always be accepting the damage as a numerical cost in "blood" "sweat" or "tears". So again, in standard Storygame fashion, the GM is required to negotiate events with the players.

Combat is pretty much handled as just another kind of task resolution, with a few extra guidelines. Its all pretty vague, and I don't see anything that directly implied a fight had to be handled in any way even resembling emulation; if a person's intent is just "I kill this dude", then success would mean that yes, he kills the dude, fight over. But you can, theoretically, make a fight go on longer (why would you, if you can do that? I guess because its better for a dramatic STORY). The one main guideline is that there is a hierarchy of which tasks get resolved first: attempts at social influence, for example, always get resolved before physical violence; so a guy trying to just kill a dude might have to first get past another guy trying to intimidate him first, or to convince said guy not to kill the dude.

There is a table with what seem like relatively arbitrary damage ratings for various weapons, which I guess are the values of damage one takes if one doesn't "push" to avoid the "Danger" of "you will be shot". I don't really see why they bothered to put this in though, it seems like a mechanic that's so unwieldy and concrete in a system that is otherwise so disconnected and abstract in how it resolves things.

Similar issues arise in the descriptions of armor and guns; its like at times this storygame is trying to put on a thin veneer of being an actual RPG and failing miserably at it. It just looks weird, and pointless; like a transvestite with a mustache, its not fooling anyone.

Next we get to a description of "The Rust" itself; its a concept vaguely reminiscent of the sort of thing you'd see in a King novel: urban and rural decay as an evil disembodied entity. Its not just literal rust, its a force that wears away at people's mind and at reality itself, potentially creating places with weird phenomena, convulsions in space and time, the natural world turning on you, etc.
The reader is told that the GM is supposed to "present opportunities for corrupt behaviour, tempting and even encouraging the PCs toward it". And that its not enough to just "treat people like crap in order to benefit", the Rust wants the PCs to be "horrible for no reason at all".

People touched by the Rust become odd and act irrational, and those most badly affected literally become mutants or freaks; large hairy brutes, or tall gaunt eerie people, or greenish-tinged pseudo-goblins.

Cities are where the Rust has the least influence, though it can have stronger influence in the more run down or abandoned parts of a city. In the countryside, the rust is stronger, and the areas where the Rust has basically totally claimed the countryside, its called the Expanse; a vast wasteland of ruins and ghost towns; where the only place even moderately secure are the highways that connect cities. In the worst places of the Expanse, there are terrible monsters that man was not meant to know.
Even so, some people try to go into the expanse to find incredible treasures or gifts, and occasionally a tiny number of them come out alive with them, because the Rust uses this as bait to keep encouraging people to try going into the expanse.

This setting section isn't bad, it could be a decent sort of horror "slow-apocalypse" setting if it was just a little more oriented toward heroics and adventure. Unfortunately, it is predictably slanted toward the "theme" of ennui, of exploring the rust as decline, rather than on beating the shit out of the rust through virtue. What's implicit in the treatment of the rust is that its slow and inevitable, inexorably, its going to break down everything and win.
The author describes the "distilled core" of this game as "a place where hardship and desperation are the norm, and there are forces at work (ie. the Rust) urging people toward corruption and depravity".

Anyways, most of the rest of the book is a guide to how to set up an adventure (they call it a "Yarn", just to add another little piece of jargon), with advice to the GM (most of which seems absurdly off to me because it is the opposite of what you'd do in a roleplaying game), and interestingly enough, advice for the players! I guess that makes sense when, unlike in a roleplaying game, the players are assumed to be equal participants in creating the setting (inasmuch as they're creating a "story" together). The advice to the players suggests that they should want their characters to get into trouble, to risk things that matter, to "learn to give up"; in other words that playing the game with the safest survival strategies is not really the ideal way to play (understandable, in its own way, because it would reduce the "drama" of the "story").

The "GM Guide" session explicitly says not only that players can read that section, but that its strongly recommended they do. It also shows its Forgist colours by going into a spiel about the GM is not "Lord and Master" or "High priest of the rulebook". The "GM's duties" are described as "framing the scene" (you know, the way a banker in monopoly has to hand out the money?), moderating disputes between players, and "providing adversity" by doing things like representing the NPCs and the Rust. He's also advised to "spotlight the Psyche", to escalate the game gradually, and not to railroad.

The games appendices provide a script of a sample play (I'm left to wonder if it was a real one, or a staged one), and ways to shift the setting of the game to other concepts, like a fantasy game where "the Rust" could become "The Moss", a sci-fi game where the rust would be "the Dark" of space itself, or an urban crime game where the rust might become "The Heat" of the city.

Finally, you get a page citing the game's influences; they make a point there of citing the kind of books that hipsters love for this kind of thing, presenting an absurd level of pretentiousness. Seriously, citing any one of Homer and Shakespeare, William S. Burroughs, Borges, or Frank Miller as your influences for a game would be ridiculously pretentiously; citing ALL of them for the same game is just absurd. They also cite game authors; the list being both short and telling: Ron Edwards, Vince Baker and Clinton R. Nixon, the unholy trinity of Forge Swine. They also give a long and effusive thank you to the Forge.

So how do I honestly judge this game? If I were to judge it as an RPG (and remember, this game does claim to be an RPG (it says so right on the cover)), it would be an appalling appalling failure. I would rate it a zero out of ten, really, except that maybe the fact that the setting isn't completely lame might rate it a 1 out of ten (plus, I'm not sure if theRPGsite's rating system allows me to give it a zero).

As a Storygame, I would not be qualified to judge it. Nor would I care; my beef with it is mainly in that it pretends to call itself an RPG. And as an RPG, its crap.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell compact + Image Latakia

(originally posted April 6, 2012, on the old blog)


  1. I will note, too, the typical leftists/hipster/blue-stateist tendency to make the cities and urban areas the "safer" and "more resistant" areas to corruption and decay, while the "red state" areas are totally corrupted and fallen to the "rust" - very progressive, Swine.

  2. Does anyone actually play these games, or are they just conversation pieces?

  3. As far as I can tell, they may have been played once or twice by a tiny group of people, associated with the storygames community. Mainly they exist to be talked-about in a pretentious fashion.

  4. Of course, if it's not played, it helps reduce the requirement to actually write mechanics that are workable or fun to play