Reading The Rustbelt – tales of tenacity, depravity, and hope. by D. Marshall Burns

In February last year I had an email exchange with D. Marshall Burns. He was working on a game called The Rustbelt. I had just started thinking about the idea of breaking games into three parts Rules, Setting and Form, instead of the old way of just Rules and Setting. The Form was something magical that answered question of what a game actually played like, what implicit rules were assumed for the interactions around the table, and so on. How do you actually play a game?

I read the draft, sent some feedback and we discussed the Form of Rustbelt, then nothing happened for a while. I forgot about the whole thing, started a blog with game reviews covering games as if they were built from the three parts Rules, Setting and Form. Then Marshall posted about a pre-order on StoryGames, I ordered, and then, half a year later, I got a package in the mail. The Rustbelt, complete with a pre-order only CD with Rustbelt music.

The book

The Rustbelt cover

The Rustbelt cover

The 160 page book is a bit smaller than the usual 9×6 format, perhaps digest sized? Marshall has dome everything except the editing himself, including taking the B/W photos that are used for illustrations.

The layout leaves enough space for the text to read easily. But the high level of the language made it take an whole evening to read. I speak English as a second language, and even if I didn’t need to break out the dictionary it still threw me off the track a few times. A nice read anyway.

The setting
The setting in The Rustbelt is sort of a slow apocalypse in the making.

Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. The Rust slowly eats everything away. It wears a man down. Corrodes him. Changes him. Makes him do things he wouldn’t think himself capable of. If you had to, wouldn’t you?

The Rust, a mystical power that corrupts everything, eventually, is the apocalypse in the game. Technology fails and people fail. The world is a nasty place and the game is about the people that have to live in it.

If Summerland was the apocalypse envisioned by the BBC, The Rustbelt is the apocalypse by HBO, or possibly Quentin Tarantino.

The rules
The rules are all about choice. Roll to make an action, the dice say you fail, would you still like to succeed? What would you pay to make it so? The characters have three pools, Blood, Sweat and Tears, to draw from to push failed rolls into successful ones.

No skills, a character is assumed to know whatever is reasonable for his background, but stats, Tough, Savvy, Grizzled, Slick, Thorough, Personable, Cagey and Uncanny. Nice stats, eh? All characters also have Hunger (What they really want.), Vice (Stuff they fall back on to cope.), Faith(s) (Stuff they believe in.) and Woe(s) (Stuff they regret, and that gnaws on their minds.).

Everything seems geared towards sending the characters into a downward spiral of pain and misery. This is not a happy game.

Combat? Well, you could attack, or defend, or do anything else. See that? You have to choose, you can’t do both.

The form
Traditional GM, who actually is supposed to do prep after the characters have been generated, and players. There is a section with advice for the GM, most stress the importance of always offering the players a choice. And player advice, mostly that they should expect bad things, and live with them since they make for interesting stories.

Conclusion
The setting is good. There is enough to build games around, but not much in the way of reading material. The players are supposed to build their own setting before playing, with the Rust as a factor in the background. Having seen some postapocalyptic movies before playing helps.

The rules are good, or possibly excellent, I’d need to actually play the game to decide. But they do the job, they will support stories about people who face tough choices, and what those choices cost them.

The form is good. The game is clear on how to play it, and offers some examples in the text.

Will I play it?
I’d love to! Can I find a group for playing it? That might be a bit hard to do, and I wonder if it would suit itself to con gaming. The players should invest in the characters to make them really pop.

www.angelfire.com/indie/btw/ – Beyond the Wire Productions, the official site for The Rustbelt. At the time of writing it has been corrupted by the Rust, and you can’t buy the game there.

marksman45.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/the-rustbelt-pre-orders – Marshall’s blog post about the pre-order of The Rustbelt, shows a few pages from the book among other things.

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1 Comment

  1. marksman45 said,

    November 24, 2010 at 00:10

    Thanks for writing this up! I’m really glad you like it.

    Oh, and everyone: I got buy-buttons back on my site. The link above will work (angelfire.com/indie/btw). Check it out!

    (Did it really take half a year? Yikes, I’m sorry!)


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