The Independents: Dust Bowl Galaxy

You are in a tin can with half a dozen other scoundrels and there is literally nothing outside for light years. You are tumbling through a bitter galaxy that used to have a lot more people. You are going where many others have gone before. The trick is surviving to come back. You are looking for a new rock for your people to call home. And once you find it, the refugees can leave their overcrowded slums to become settlers so you get rich doing the right thing – just this once. On an unrelated note, you are not pirates. “Not in this port, officer.” Such is the world of a space western game with quick-shooting dice, details in the cards, and a wrecked and dangerous universe to rediscover: Dust Bowl Galaxy by Ilya Bossov and Lagging Dice LLC!

There was a shining, bright future . . . but towards the end there it was only bright because of all the fires. The Great Galactic War did a pretty good job of wrecking everything, between the doomsday weapons and automated world burner fleets and tailor-made plagues. Now? Your civilization consists of scraps subsisting off of even more pitiful scraps, and the only real chance at anything better is going to mean leaving your home system behind and finding some new system, resource, or ally to make the difference. Your ship? Cobbled together from different modules, most of them salvaged from some other ship that flew to pieces. Your crew? Ranging from the Humans+ that arguably started the whole mess to sentient fungi to living rocks to hive-mind swarms of space ferrets. Your odds? Good luck, and remember that you can make your own by drawing your weapon faster than the other sentient.

Here at CHG we’re no strangers to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, nor the Westerns-where-the-direction-isn’t-what-matters genre. Dust Bowl Galaxy first stood out a bit by combining the two, but then the copy that landed in our inbox caught my eye for a lot of other reasons. Lucky me and lucky you, creator Ilya Bossov was willing to answer my questions about the game! So, what gave Ilya the idea for DBG, sparking the thought ‘this is a game that should be made’? What kind of stories does Ilya want the game’s players to experience?

“Stargazing is where it all started. What’s it like out there? What is out there? And how will it change once we get in the middle of it? Our universe is humbling. “Space is big. Really, really big.” It’s got to have everything in it, we just haven’t discovered it yet. So here’s a game of possibilities, you can put together any kind of alien creature out of evolutionary traits, each written on a card. You build a spaceship you fly between the stars the same way, with each module being a card. This grants players ownership and agency, and keeps the sense of wonder and exploration with randomly assembled star systems and planets and anomalies.

But it’s also a space western. Dust Bowl Galaxy is not a happy place. There are authorities to stand up to, environmental crises to manage, horrible plagues and monsters to skidaddle from and mysteries to solve.”

DBG works off of a dice pool system, rolling d6s (nowhere near Shadowrun numbers, though). The GM announces a difficulty rating for whatever a character is trying to do, and the dice are rolled. Rather than trying to count up ‘hits’ or successes, however, you’re trying to build ‘stacks’ of dice with the same result. If you rolled 1-2-3-3-2-3, for example, you’d have a stack of two 2s, for a total of 4, and a stack of three 3s, for a total of 9. You get to choose which stack to use for the check, since you already know the difficulty you need to match or exceed; this is important because you also need to keep another stack for ‘Attention’ which will be the difficulty other characters have against you in a fight. So if the difficulty was 3 I’d probably use the stack totaling 4 (unless I really wanted to succeed by a wide margin) and keep the stack totaling 9 for my Attention later.

If you have Advantage (trying to find a needle in a haystack with a metal detector) or Disadvantage (trying to bandage your friend in the pouring rain) you add extra dice or remove dice from your pool before rolling respectively, with the number depending on how severe the (dis)advantage is. Another interesting quirk is that results of 1 are referred to as ‘bullseyes’, and can be added to other stacks. Our previous example had one 1, which could be added to either the 4-stack or 9-stack to raise their total. So what would look like an abysmal roll or a glitch in other d6 pool systems might actually be a stunning success! Why did Ilya go with this particular resolution system? Were there any inspiring influences, or was it a lightning bolt of an idea?

Anydice.com is an excellent website for any aspiring designer trying to figure out unique dice mechanics. So I did some number crunching. I wanted to do something similar to early versions of Shadowrun, but less crunchy and more curvy. If you put in these dice rules as written, you will see that it has a hump similar to a normal distribution curve, but it has hedgehog spikes all over. The 1s being wild cards made those spikes less pronounced, which is a good thing. The important part about the dice system is about player choices and agency. You have some agonizing decisions to make, whether to save your best roll for later, when you have to defend yourself, or go all out (and possibly in a blaze of glory). Priorities. I love dice and I love stacking them and this game is all about stacking dice and going “all in” with them like casino chips.”

The other core thing to note, mechanically speaking, are those cards Ilya mentioned: 237 of them, and they’re used for just about everything from player abilities to random enemy generation to ship construction to the formation of star systems. The core book lists all of the different options out well enough, with a relatively easy way to use your standard 52 card deck for most of them . . . but I have to say the actual cards available on DriveThru are pretty nice looking. So I asked Ilya: why go with the card idea in the first place, and what do they contribute to the game on both sides of the ‘GM’s screen’?

“There is no screen in the game. I don’t like game master screens, unless their whole point is to be a holder of cheatsheet information, in which case your system is too complex. Too often they are used to cheat players out of danger, accomplishment or fairness. Nothing more awkward than realizing that the DM just cheated to either save your life or deny you a cool moment, even if that moment would be your death.

So yeah, cards. What’s the point? Speed of play. Makes it fast to whip out enemy ships to fight and random star systems to explore. They also can be used as imagination prompts to help create unique alien species (for both the players and the GM), as a loot distribution mechanic (you play blackjack with loot cards while salvaging).

It’s also an eloquent way to build your ship and to later upgrade it. Need more guns? Add more gun cards. Are you too slow now with all the guns? Add more engines. Your ship isn’t built from some blueprint at some shipyard you’ve never heard of, your crew built it out of spare parts and salvage, there is no ship like yours. Building your ship is part of character creation: everyone is dealt a few cards, each person chooses a favorite from their hand, then the captain (who gets elected by popular vote) adds a couple more modules to make sure it can fly and support life as we know it.”

 

So how did the design process for DBG go? What did it look like Day 0, and how did it change between then and when the big red Publish button got pressed?

“First attempts at ship design were much more complicated, with hexagonal grids and a lot of bookkeeping. Life support systems used more math. Math is fun, but we can’t let that in the way of setting up encounters. The point of game design, for me, is to enable lazy game masters like myself to be able to improvise on the spot, drafting encounters as you … encounter them, with no homework whatsoever. The book goes into a good amount of detail on how to run a low-prep stress-free game. Once I realized that in order for the players to encounter an enemy ship the gamemaster had to sit down and draw one on graph paper and scribble all those notes for guns and engines, it had to get defenestrated. Murdering your babies is what game design is all about.

In the end, the spaceships you fly and blow up in your travel have all these fancy modules and special rules, but nobody has to write things down in the middle of a fight.”

Aside from the ‘core’ of the game, with its d6 stacks and random cards, there are a few interesting corner cases in the rules. For the first example, there are some simple and straightforward rules for large fleet battles and planetary invasions (we’re talking maybe a page and change for each). I was curious about the inclusion of such things, in what had up to that point felt very much like Post-Apocalyptic!Firefly, so I brought it up.

“It’s meant as a backdrop, since players will have just one ship under their command at most times. To allow the universe to come alive and be more than table setting. When you warp into a busy, inhabited system, you will see hundreds of drive plumes around the port, like bees around a beehive. And once you have a swarm of ships flying about, might as well have simple rules on how to resolve huge epic fleet battles. Just in case.”

A more involved exception to the normal flow of events are the rules for psionics! A little dash of ‘space magic’ dropped some fantasy into what was a pretty pure science fiction game. Why, and what does Ilya feel it brings to the DBG experience?

“Psionics are an optional part of the game, for people who like their sci-fi less hard around the edges. But they have a feasible explanation: the warp drive ships travel through other dimensions to reach their destinations in seconds, but there are multi-dimensional entities who live there and sometimes they get curious about the “shooting stars” they observe. Some make contact with folks in our world, either out of scientific curiosity or malice, and before you know it, physics is taking a nervous smoke break while reality is melting. It’s just fun to have apocalyptic psionics be part of world building, you know? And by world building, I mean, civilization collapsing. Because everything is better on fire.”

Any advice for prospective DBG players and GMs?

“Be lazy. Laziness is the engine of progress.”

So what’s in the future for Dust Bowl Galaxy, Lagging Dice LLC, and Ilya?

“Colonizing Mars, obviously. The oceans will boil off in 700 million years and on cosmic scale, that’s not a lot of time to get our act together. Here’s hoping this game will help interest the next generation of roleplayers about what’s on the other side of our night sky. Also one more reason why rules are kept so simple and approachable.

As to our little indie company, you can find out about our other games at http://feyhaven.com

Our next project will be a roleplaying game with only 99 cards, so it can fit into your pocket and be played without a table – on a hiking trip, in the airport, on a long ride – wherever you can’t roll dice, but can still have a conversation. The working title for it is Dashing Scoundrels. If you sign up for the mailing list on the website, we’ll keep you in the loop.”

Final words for our readers?

“We made this game to be fun for us at our table. If it works for yours, then our mission is accomplished. Dream big, explore and infect others with insatiable curiosity about the rest of our universe. There’s a lot out there. But above all, be excellent to each other.”

Dust Bowl Galaxy is quick to pick up and learn, easy to play, brings something new to the dice, and for a book that’s only about 94 pages long packs in a ton of character. I quipped about Post-Apocalyptic!Firefly up above, and while I wouldn’t reduce the game to that quip the vibe behind it comes from a tone so wry you’d think it was a strong whiskey. It goes from flavor text (“History is written by the winners, and in the absence of such, opinions diverge”) to the example ships like the HMSS Fissionchips, definitely making you think of your characters as ne’er-do-wells who certainly aren’t pirates, no sir officer. It also comes with a pre-made starting system and universe of sorts, the Hope System (with planets Misery, Sorrow, and Promise), presenting one potential version of the universe after the Great Galactic War to play in.

On top of that the pixelated art is charming and the Print-on-Demand book and cards are of good quality; one quibble is that the changing of chapters in the book isn’t very obvious when you’re just flipping through, but there’s a hearty table of contents and index to make up for that.

You can find PDF and PoD versions of the book and cards at DriveThruRPG/Cards, at very reasonable rates. Assemble your ship, gather your rag-tag crew, and head for the stars. There just might be a shining, bright future out there to rediscover among the embers of this Dust Bowl Galaxy!

Thanks to Ilya for sending us a copy of the game to review, and for taking the time to answer my questions!

Like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help us bring games and gamers together? Tell you friends about us! Follow one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to DriveThruRPG, where we get Affiliate credit to get more games to review! Finally, you could support us on Patreon, which lets us pay our writers, cover expenses, and save up for future projects.

Thanks for reading!

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