Heist films and TV shows have been around for a while, from the original Ocean’s 11 to the newer Ocean’s Eleven and shows like Leverage. More recently, we’ve started to see more heist games come to RPGs, especially as heists cross over with fantasy in novels like Mistborn and The Lies of Locke Lamora.
The newest fantasy heist game to hit Kickstarter is Dusk City Outlaws, designed by Rodney Thompson, one of the designers of such hits as Lords of Waterdeep, Star Wars Saga edition, and a little game called Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. We asked Rodney a few questions about Dusk City Outlaws and the game design process behind it.
For those who haven’t checked out the Kickstarter, what’s the elevator pitch for the game?
Dusk City Outlaws is a tabletop roleplaying game where the players take on the roles of criminals belonging to the eight cartels that rule over the underworld of a massive fantasy city. The players are brought together to do a Job, and must come up with a plan, do legwork to set it into motion, and then pull off that plan. The game comes as a boxed set and is meant to be played with no prep time once all of the player know the rules.
What stands out for you as particularly unique in Dusk City Outlaws, especially for those who might already own some other heist games?
The fact that it’s meant to be played on a moment’s notice is a big one; it really leans on the physical components that come with the game to make it the kind of game that can be pulled off the shelf and played in a matter of minutes. I think this is a big one; it comes as a boxed set because that makes it easier to have components that the players can share and pass around easily, making character creation very fast. The game is also very much a sandbox, and player-driven; there’s no “right” way to do the Job, and it’s up to the players to come up with a real plan that takes into account all of the obstacles that are out between them and their goal. If they fail to take something into account, well, that plan might go south, and they might need to scramble to come up with a new plan on the fly, or hope they have backup plans in place. The game also has a streamlined narrative dice system, a combination of percentile dice and custom dice made just for this game, that takes a lot of the advanced prep burden off of the game, letting dramatic twists and turns happen in the moment.
People may know your work from your time at Wizards of the Coast. Following that, you went to work at Bungie. How has your work at both companies influenced your development of new RPGs?
I learned a ton working at Wizards of the Coast, and was fortunate to work with some super talented people on some amazing projects. Along the way, I got to help design an edition of Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), and I learned a lot about exactly how complex a game like that can be. When you’re making a new edition of a game like D&D, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right; you have a 40+ year legacy to honor, and a legion of fans who you need to make happy and who all want very different things.
I think the biggest influence my experience at Wizards, and also at Bungie working on Destiny (another complex game), have had on my is that it made me want to make a game with simple, streamlined mechanics that encouraged creativity and spontaneous exciting moments. Dusk City Outlaws is not a deeply crunchy game full of character optimization; it’s a much more narrative-focused game, something that puts a lot of narrative and worldbuilding control into the hands of the players. The mechanics that are in place focus more on setting up exciting situations and putting the players in a position to do something awesome. I wouldn’t necessarily call it rules-light, but it is rules-lean.
How structured is the play of Dusk City Outlaws? Are there other games that might be a useful point of comparison?
This is one of the things that’s a bit different about Dusk City Outlaws. In some ways it’s very traditional, in that the game plays out chronologically with the events of one scene having direct impact on the following scenes. However, as a means of helping prevent complete analysis paralysis that often comes with sandbox settings, the game is structured into daytime segments and nighttime segments.
Time is the true limited resource in the game; you only have so many days to pull off the Job. So, as you go out and do things in the city, there’s a very measured pace to the passage of time. You have planning scenes (which have an actual, real-time 15 minute time limit on them to keep the game from devolving into hours of just talking about the plan), and then legwork scenes where you go out into the city and put your plan into motion.
Each player takes the lead on one legwork scene, setting up where it takes place, what that character is doing, and what they are trying to accomplish. The Judge introduces obstacles and complications into the scene, and other players then jump in to tackle them so that the leading player can focus on the scene’s main goal. Eventually, the players have to execute their plan, and then the final scene of the Job plays out.
What’s been the process of designing Dusk City Outlaws? How involved was the playtesting process?
It started out pretty simply as I just had a critical mass of ideas that I wanted to get into the game. I actually got the core rules down and on paper in just a few days. Most of the first draft of specialty and cartel sheets I wrote on flights to and from Dallas, TX on a trip to a convention where I was a guest. The rules-lean nature of the game made it pretty easy to hit the table right away, and in fact over the course of playtesting I’ve probably spent more effort cutting unnecessary things from the game than adding new systems. That’s been nice; starting with a very flexible base resolution system and some more abstract resources that can represent a lot of different things has made writing the game more a matter of interpreting simple mechanics than trying to make a mechanic to cover every possible outcome.
Playtesting has been pretty consistent for the last year. Since the game’s designed to be picked up and played easily, we’ve been able to test the game in a lot of different ways, putting the players in a lot of different situations. One of the hardest parts of playtesting was letting go of the game and giving it to other people to without me sitting in the Judge’s seat. As a part of playtesting, I’ve put the game in front of a lot of different people to see how the game performs for someone who has never played before. I think that’s going to be a common scenario for the game, and a lot of the game’s design is informed by the idea that players need to be able to grasp the game’s mechanics easily and understand who their character is right away.
What’s the balance between game design and world building in Dusk City Outlaws, and how do they inform each other?
The worldbuilding side of creating the game has been very focused in some areas, and very rough-sketch in others. There are some aspects of the setting that are absolutely necessary to have a clear vision for; the cartels are such a huge part of player characters, for example, that I’ve really spent a lot of time fleshing them out and working with my character designer, Joy Ang (of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time) to make sure that each one is very vivid and easy for a new player to “get” what it is about. Likewise, I’ve spent a lot of time working out the details of many of the antagonist groups, like the City Watch, the rival cartel (the Blooded), and the Pinkerton-like Dredgers. Those are really important to the Judge, because they put a nice, in-world skin on the challenges that they are putting in front of the players. There are also some mechanics tied into the various districts of the city; when you spend time on another cartel’s turf, you might attract some notice.
On the other hand, New Dunhaven is a massive city for a reason. I wanted a setting that was as broad and full of possibilities as the Hollywood version of New York City. I wanted a setting that could accommodate thousands and thousands of stories with no one batting an eye, which has resulted in a big, wide-open urban setting that leaves a lot of space to be filled in by the players. In fact, a big part of the gameplay is the players setting up scenes and doing a little worldbuilding in the process, and I wanted a setting that left players comfortable doing that, instead of constantly being afraid of creating something that stepped on the setting’s canon. In fact, the city map I’ve been using is vague and barely filled in, just because I don’t want the players constantly worrying about knowing every little detail of the setting. I want players to be comfortable creating things for their scenes, so a lot of the worldbuilding I’ve done is more thematic set-up work than detail-oriented.
How connected is Dusk City Outlaws to its setting?
In some ways, essentially connected. Half of your character is your cartel, which is intimately tied into the setting. The game’s mechanics assume certain things about turf, firearms, alchemy, sorcery, and the like that really make the characters’ narrative-bending special abilities work; playing a member of the Red Lotus Society, for example, means being able to get access to firearms, where the other cartels do not have as easy access.
That said, I think one of the things I want this game to become is the kind of game that you hack to make your own. That’s why one of the reward tiers for the game gets you the InDesign templates we’re using for every single game component, so that if you do want to kitbash things, you can do so in a way that makes it look just as nice as what comes in the box. I think that’s going to be really exciting, and I can’t wait to see what people do with it.
Tell me more about Heat – a concept I’m definitely familiar with.
Yeah! The idea of a Gamemaster resource is definitely something that’s been around before. It’s absolutely critical to Dusk City Outlaws functioning as a pull-off-the-shelf-and-play game, because it takes a lot of the burden of interesting plot twists off of the scenario itself, reducing the need for advanced prep time. As the players are on the Job and out in the city committing crimes, they generate heat, which is a representation of the city reacting to the players’ activity. You break into someone’s house, they go complain to the City Watch, the City Watch is on alert, and so forth.
As heat builds up, the Judge can spend it to introduce complications into a scene, which make life harder. So, maybe you think you’re going to have a nice, simple chat with a noble at her estate, but the Judge spends some heat to introduce an investigator for the Crown who is there on a separate matter and who could reveal the crew’s deception. If the heat pool builds up high enough, the Judge can spend heat on a Plot Twist, which fundamentally changes the nature of the scenario; examples include introducing a rival crew, or the whole thing turns out to be a trap laid by the city’s secret police, and so forth.
It lets the Judge read the table and see what would be interesting, and then provides some guidance on how to introduce a complication or plot twist at just the right moment. A lot of those things would normally be built-into the scenario, but in Dusk City Outlaws the Judge creates them only when needed, keeping the scenarios lean and easy to understand.
If backers want to learn more about Dusk City Outlaws, what should they check out?
The Kickstarter itself, and everyone that backs the game can download a print-and-play Quick Start of the game right now. It includes everything a group needs to play, except for dice and a timer. You can also look through the project updates for some deeper insights into all of the things I’ve been talking about; three days a week, I update the project with a blog about some aspect of the game. You can also go to Scratch Pad Publishing for the game’s main website.
Thanks to Rodney for answering our questions. Dusk City Outlaws has just recently hit its funding goal and will be on Kickstarter for two more weeks.