The Adventure Zone: Dust – Setup

tl;dr On this episode zero for this Urban Shadows campaign, the GM introduces the world and the players describe their characters. There’s some tweaking to get a tight fit of the  engine to a fictional Old West milieu, with additional tweaking of character playbooks. Worrying portents for this campaign as this soap-opera system is layered over a murder mystery plot.

Episode: 0 (1?)
Season: Dust
Podcast: The Adventure Zone
Game-masterTravis McElroy
Griffin McElroy as Errol Ryhuis
Justin McElroy as Augustus Parsons
Clint McElroy as Gandy Dancer
Game engine: Urban Shadows
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This campaign of the Adventure Zone has me really stressed out. I like Travis McElroy’s work as a GM in TAZ Nights, the mini-campaign that the McElroys ran for their bonus content on the Maximum Fun pledge drive. He’s got a real creative sense of world-building and he does a good job leading the players through the game. It’s also always great to hear someone besides Griffin take the GM reins in TAZ, not least because it lets Griffin be a player, at least for a little while.

But I think Travis is trying to take a very powerful game engine, Urban Shadows, and turn it to a task it might not be suited to.

Urban Shadows is a system that’s really nicely crafted for inter-party intrigue, shifting alliances, and conflicting motivations. Its central conceit is that supernatural forces — vampires, psychics, demons, werewolves, and fairies — are struggling for supremacy in a big city. Powered by the Apocalypse games are also really interesting for the GM, because so much of the NPC threat map depends on, and flows out of, character choices. So a typical US first episode might have the players pick and lay out their first characters, name and describe their allies and enemies, and then start moving against them and each other.

Travis has done something significantly different. First, he’s chosen a setting that’s not “urban” — an Old West territory named Crescent, which has at least one town, Dry River. It’s not clear how well that’s going to work, but then again, Dry River can’t be that much smaller than Hays, KS, and Critical Hit seems to be doing OK with their US campaign.

He’s also got a pretty detailed universe, in which a vampire family and a werewolf family, both mining dynasties, vie for economic and social control of Dry River. It’s an interesting idea and slots nicely into the faction mechanism of Urban Shadows, but it might be a little tight, since technically vampires and werewolves are both in the Night faction in US. I know, I know, but it’s gonna come up at some point.

One thing the boys decided was to avoid entirely the social issues around racism and misogyny in America in the 1800s by making this an Old-West-ish universe, rather than the actual Old West. That feels a little neat in some ways, and kind of buys into a white-washing of that history by e.g. cowboy movies, but at the same time it lets us enjoy the adventure without a lot of really heavy material. If we can smudge the edges of medieval Europe to get high fantasy, it seems at least as reasonable to smudge the edges of the Old West and get cowboy gothic.

The party is pretty interesting. Justin’s created a ghost character, Augustus Parsons, who haunts his former cashew company and broods over wrongs done in his lifetime. (I figure if we can ignore that the Old West was racist, we can probably also ignore that cashew is a tropical fruit.) He’s got a few interesting NPCs, including a living daughter and his successor as CEO.

Clint also picked an interesting character; a wizard named Gandy Dancer. She’s an orphan, raised by railroad workers, who now studies magic in order to overcome death. Her railroad connections and her haunted-doll sidekick seem ripe for interesting plot development.

Of the three, probably Griffin’s character concerns me the most. First, because he chose to tweak the werewolf playbook by having a character that is always half-wolf, and never goes through a transformation, which is a major part of that archetype. Second, because the werewolf is so much connected to gang and territory in US — it seems like a hard playbook to use for the game that Travis wants to play.

Because the show ends with Travis’s opener: there’s been a murder in Dry River. The scion of the vampire family has been found dead, with one of the members of the werewolf family looming over him, covered in blood. The party, all employees of a Pinkerton-like service called Grayson, have to solve the murder before sunrise, or the tension between vampire and werewolf will destroy the town.

It seems like an interesting story, but I’m not sure US will be good to explore it. It feels like it’s pulling these characters with their various motivations into a plot that’s not really aligned with their main interests. In other words, it feels much more DnD or FATE than PbtA.

I hope that Travis and the party are able to resolve this tension between the engine and his story plans. To be fair, he originally wanted to create a new engine just for this setting, so he’s fitting US onto his existing idea. I’m just hoping that the fit works.

Great production as usual, per TAZ’s high standards. Griffin did new theme music for the Dust campaign, which is maybe not as epic as the great Amnesty theme, but works well here.

But ultimately I had to give this episode a lower-than-average rating. As a listener, I’d like to not have to worry about whether things are going to work out with the campaign. I want to fall into the fiction. I hope this all comes together.