I got my much awaited copy of DUST Adventures, the RPG by Modiphius Entertainment, set in Paolo Parente’s world of DUST, which has been used for model kits, a board game of world domination set in the same universe, comics and two battle games, one a more simplified and swift board-game battle – not too dissimilar to Rebel Assault (though it pre-dates it) and the other a more conventional wargame.
It’s fair to say that I’m something of a DUST fanatic and it’s also fair to say DUST has lost a fair bit of impetus recently due to changing partners from Fantasy Flight and getting embroiled – like so many people have – over fights about Kickstarter money. Here’s hoping the RPG and the new figure releases sets that in a different direction.
Modiphius, of course, are on the up and up – launching off their Cthulhu-themed world war two releases and branching out into a lot of other new projects. They’re definitely ones to watch if they don’t expand too fast – which is always a worry – or their Kickstarter led business model doesn’t fall through in the wake of all these other crowdfunding scandals which, to be fair, haven’t yet embroiled them.
So what’s DUST? DUST is an alternative world war two scenario wherein the German explorations in Antarctica lead them to discover an alien spacecraft buried in the ice and a surviving alien in a life support pod. The real pivot point of the alternative history doesn’t really come in until 1943 when Hitler is assassinated and the deployment of walkers – made using reverse-engineered alien technology and uniquely best suited to the combat conditions in Stalingrad lead to a German victory there.
With the removal of Hitler and the application of super-technology the Germans regroup and are able to go back on the offensive.
To cut a long story short we see the emergence of three great superpowers, the Axis, who are no longer Nazis (a shame really, since Nazis make great baddies), the Soviet Bloc – the SSU – which unites Russia, China and large chunks of South America following Marxist revolutions, and the Allies, which is mostly the United States and the former Empire of the United Kingdom, with a smattering of independent nations here and there.
England has been invaded in a successful Operation Sealion and even America is not untouched, suffering SSU incursions into Florida and Alaska. It’s now 1947 and the allies are hard pressed on every front still behind when it comes to technology and becoming increasingly desperate – when a UFO allegedly crashlands in Roswell, an event that may change the tide of the war again…
Aesthetically DUST has always been rooted in the pulps, bombergirls and pinups and that kind of fast-paced, weird war with uplifted gorillas, zombies, laser weapons, tesla weapons, supersoldiers and power armour has always been what the boardgame has been about, albeit with a harder more serious edge than some other treatments of the same concept.
With that out of the way let’s get into the game itself.
Characters creation is fairly simple, you toss a few points into a handful of statistics, select a few overlapping skill packages that represent your former life and experience and then you’re good to go. Characters in the DUST RPG are essentially the same as the heroic characters from the boardgame and wargame, super-tough heroes with special abilities that take them over and above the norm.
The game uses a fairly simple dice-pool system, again derived from the board-game and wargame and while you can use special dice (marked with targets, faction symbols and shields) you can – thankfully, also use normal dice counting 5-6 as the ‘target’ which is, typically, a hit. To succeed at a task you’ll be rolling a dicepool of Statistic+Skill and sometimes an Advanced skill on top. For example, a sniper might roll Mobility+Firearms+Sniper Rifle in taking their shot. Most of the time when you’re doing something of ‘average’ difficulty, you’ll be rolling to aim for two successes. Keep in mind that the whole system is skewed towards the heroic level, so an average person only has 1 in any statistic and probably only 1-2 in any skill, so some poor Chinese conscript is likely to only be rolling two dice with their attack and for those following along at home that’s only a one-in-nine chance of succeeding – without adding any more complications.
For players, they can push themselves beyond their normal capacity by using Action Points, a game-altering mechanic that along with their more unusual abilities lets them bend the game to favour the heroes. While there’s no explicit suggestion that the Games Master have Action Points of their own to spend, I would strongly suggest doing so.
The system itself is fairly intuitive from there, all the sorts of mechanics you’d broadly expect from a dicepool system. Damage gets a little complicated, especially compared to the existing boardgame where a point of damage is a casualty for a normal soldier and a level of damage for a hero. Here you get ‘capacity’ for mental damage, physical damage and non-lethal damage and everyone’s going to get at least two points in it, which can impact somewhat negatively on the pulp feel of gunning down whole units of enemy soldiers at a time and may have been an aesthetically compromising rules decision here.
The game is hardback and just over 200 pages in length, it’s well put together and full colour throughout, though a lot of the art has the muddiness and lack of clarity that a lot of game art does these days. The layout is a bit cramped and this is not helped by a nearly two inch border column either side of the page spread which is occasionally filled with sidebar information and in-game fiction, but more often left blank. The page real-estate this takes up could, perhaps, have been better used to space out and present some of the content in a clearer way, or to include more background information on aspects of the gameworld that are under-explained, such as Japan.
A major disappointment for me was the art, not so much its execution, but its content. There are too many photographs of miniatures in here, fair enough that the makers of DUST are primarily in the model business, but to me it never looks good for much the same reasons as TV show games never look that good if they fill their pages with still images from the show. Art just works so much better thematically. Still, it wasn’t just that but that the pinup aesthetic so integral to DUST’s development and history had been so vastly toned down.
Call it sexism or whatever if you like, but the pinup is emblematic of the era and has been integral to DUST’s appeal since its inception lending it its unique visual style and supporting its cast of what you might call ‘strong female characters’. For them to be downplayed and largely absent is extremely disappointing.
The other disappointment is the lack of expanded detail on the game world. I was hoping to find out more about the background of the game world than what I have already gleaned from the wargame materials but there’s not much extra here – something that would have sold the book to non-RPG fans who are just fans of the game and its world.
I give marks out of five, before anyone jumps on me, and three is ‘average’.
On style I have to, sadly, give the game a three out of five. While it’s competently executed the muddiness of the art and the seemingly deliberate avoidance of the pinup aesthetic dramatically compromises the presentation of the book. While the material in it is sufficient to play it is cramped, sometimes hard to reference and has a lot of wasted space.
On substance I again give the book a three. There was a missed opportunity here to expand on the game world’s background, tease material for forthcoming releases and go into detail and this was missed.
Overall that gives DUST adventures a 3, an average score, but this is largely down to my investment in the broader game world and the intellectual property as a whole.
I would still recommend the game, but contextually within the IP as a whole. DUST Adventures reads more like a companion volume to the rest of the material, rather than necessarily as a stand-alone game of its own.
I’ll still be playing it.