Game box where a man with a sword is yelling at a crew of thieves running across rooftops, spilling their stolen goods.

Image from https://scratchpadpublishing.com

I think the heist story may occupy a special place in my gamer heart as a tale I greatly enjoyed in media such as television and movies, and yet wasn’t high on my list of adventures to attempt to emulate in tabletop gaming. When I was a fledgling gamer, a lot of cyberpunk and espionage games were geared around modeling the heist by giving extensive floorplans, exact details of where the cameras were located, and exactly how fast the reinforcements would arrive in the case of a botched skill check.

I was never comfortable with that level of detail. Most of the time, I was the one running the game, and I never felt like I could give enough details to be fair to my players. I knew I wasn’t able to juggle all the sweeping fields of vision, patrol patterns, and response times.

I also have to be honest about another aspect of the heist. I am very impatient. I love coming up with quirks when PCs are interacting with NPCs, and I’ll come up with all kinds of side quests on the fly if they wander away from my plot. But if the players take too long planning, I get anxious. It’s not just that I’m in a holding pattern, it’s that the more they plan, the more I feel like I “owe” them something for that planning, even if they completely misread the clues and wandered off the beaten path completely.

In recent years, there have been numerous games that have addressed the heist in a much more narrative manner, recreating the tropes of the heist without the people around the table rolling out actual blueprints or timing how long it takes for someone to map a lap around the block. We’re looking at one of these newer heist-centric RPGs today, with Dusk City Outlaws.

There’s Something You Oughta Know About . . .

I initially purchased the PDF of Dusk City Outlaws, but I was provided a physical review copy by Scratchpad Games. I had thought about reviewing the game based solely on the PDF, but given the design of the game, I felt it was better to wait until I had a physical copy, and that copy was provided by the company itself.

What’s In The Box?

As you might have inferred, this review is based on the physical copy of Dusk City Outlaws. Since the box contains more than just rulebooks and reference guides, we will be going over the components of the box as well. The boxed set contains the following:

  • Cartel Sheets (19 total)
  • Specialty Sheets (26 total)
  • Character Sheet Pad
  • Player Rulebook
  • Judge Rulebook
  • Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven
  • Deck of Quirks (60 cards)
  • Deck of Enemies (40 cards)
  • Deck of Time (20 cards)
  • Advantage Dice (4)
  • Challenge Dice (4)
  • Percentile Dice (5 sets)
  • Heat Tokens (30 total, in both 1 and 5 heat denominations)
  • Influence Tokens (18)
  • Player Component Tray
  • Judge Component Tray

The books are well formatted, with big, bold headers and various sidebars explaining rules or concepts in the setting. It’s very easy to read and follow. As a lover of bullet points, I was not disappointed. The artwork has an exaggerated style that is unique and attractive, and very evocative of the setting and its mix of influences. In keeping with the name of the game, much of the artwork is in red, orange, and dark blue.

Both the Player and Judge books are larger, square format softcover books. They are both on high quality, glossy paper, but the cover is the same stock as the pages, so I’m a little concerned about wear and tear over time. The Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven is a digest-sized paperback that clocks in at 240 pages, with a heavier cover and full-color art throughout.

All the Cartel and Specialty sheets are on cardstock and feel sturdy. The cards all look amazing. The Deck of Time and the Deck of Quirks have the game logo on the back, and the Deck of Enemies has the same artwork of the adversaries on the back, without the stats that appear on the opposite side.

The tokens are on heavy cardstock and seem like they will hold up well over time. My set has percentile dice in yellow, purple, orange, blue, and green, enough for four players and the Judge to have their own set right out of the box. There are also sets of advantage dice (d8s) and challenge dice (d10s) with special symbols on them.

I was surprised by the plastic component trays that came with the set. They hold the components nicely, and the sheets and Traveler’s Guide all fit into the covers that go over the trays. The only real downside I can bring up about the trays is that if you are a compulsive sleever of cards, the Deck of Quirks and Deck of Enemies overflow their compartments a bit, although you can still seal the plastic lid on the tray.

Player Rulebook

The Player Rulebook is 28 pages, including a player reference sheet on the back that summarizes some of the most commonly used rules for players. The first two pages are a summary of the components of the game, with the next 16 pages summarizing rules and the sequence of play. The last ten pages before the summary on the back-cover deals with campaign play.

Character creation is basically picking a Cartel Sheet and a Specialty Sheet, and then drawing three quirk cards and picking the one that you like the most. Between the specialty and the cartel chosen, your character will have several things they know going into any job without making any checks, some things they can accomplish by spending influence, some gear, and a list of skills ranked at a specific percentage.

All characters start with 100 Luck, which is a buffer against being attacked, and can also be spent to boost skills. Getting help from other players, or doing something especially favorable for your character, allows you to roll advantage dice. Spending luck or doing something in less than ideal situations causes you to roll challenge dice. The symbols on the dice cancel each other out, and they don’t alter your ability to succeed, but they may let you learn something extra, do extra damage, take more damage, or build up more heat.

Once you are out of luck, Judge characters can force you out of a scene if they are making a social attack, or they can start causing you to take real wounds, if the attack is physical. When making an attack or attempting to reduce the luck of a challenge, the best thing you can do is roll as close to your skill number as possible, as the number you roll equals the damage you do in luck.

Heat builds up naturally as time progresses, but certain actions, like firing a gun or committing a crime against a noble, can cause even more heat to be generated. The Judge can then spend that heat to make life more difficult on the players as the job progresses.

The Deck of Time measures how many segments the crew has to pull their job. Each segment some heat automatically builds up, and the crew must decide if they will do legwork (learning information and setting up favorable situations), plan, or rest (to recover lost Luck or heal wounds). If the crew decides to plan, the Judge sets a timer and lets them make plans for 15 minutes of real time, then the segment is over.

The job will have a set number of obstacles that have to be overcome to be completed, and through legwork the players can find out what some of these obstacles are and mitigate or lessen them before they play the final act of the job.

Campaign play involves players earning XP as a crew and progressing story conflicts. When a crew completes a job, they get XP tied to that faction. They can spend it to gain advantage dice or to gain the effects of influence when spent. Story conflicts are broad themes that a character works towards resolving as they play, such as “I’ve got a bounty on my head.” When they lead a legwork scene, they can introduce that as a potential complication in the scene, and when there have been ten complications along that story conflict, the conflict will reach its climax – usually during a job – and afterward, the character picks a story award. Story awards often grant situational bonuses, or additional resources under the right circumstances, but can also be a means of retiring the character with some control over how that character’s story resolves.

Judge Rulebook

The Judge Rulebook is 48 pages. The first 15 pages expound on the rules from the Player Rulebook, summarize how to run scenes, give more details on spending heat, lay out how to construct a job and the challenges that comprise that job, and then present two pages of options and variants to the standard rules. There are eight pre-written jobs to use that round out the book, with a Judge Reference page on the back.

The jobs essentially lay out what the objective is and what any additional side goals may be (which can earn the crew more XP than just doing the bare minimum). There are a set number of obstacles to doing the job, and each of those obstacles has a list of information that the PCs may know or discover, summarized by information that players with a certain knowledge know automatically, things that require a legwork scene to learn, and deeper secrets. The jobs also have customized expenditures of heat that are tailored for that scenario.

This isn’t really an “expected” order of events. Once the Judge lays out the number of segments the crew has until they must pull off the job, the player leading the legwork scene explains what they want to get out of the scene, and where they want the scene to take place, and the Judge determines how many obstacles will stand between the players and their goal. More likely developments are represented with the custom heat expenditures (for example, explaining what kind of NPC is likely to show up in some areas to complicate the job for a certain amount of heat).

Legwork may be freeform in many ways, but there are guidelines for the Judge on how many challenges to put between the PCs and their goal. Additionally, the exact obstacles for the final goal are clearly expressed, and the degree of information handed out is succinct and bullet-pointed. If a character gains a boon on their successful check to find out about an obstacle, there is a clear list of deeper secrets to choose from, if the player wants to find out more by spending that boon.

Because each crew member has certain areas of knowledge, the information handed out to players with that sphere of knowledge preloads the crew with several leads to start their legwork. Given that an average job might hand out knowledge based on six or seven categories, it seems unlikely that the players will ever be starting out without some starter clues from which to make their plans.

Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven

This book is a digest-sized, 240-page guide to the setting. It gives details on the city, neighborhoods, history, and factions at play. Each chapter contains a few headers introducing broad topics, and a few sidebars, including the Thief Signs sidebars, which is usually a paragraph or two that explains how the information in a given section is relevant to the criminal organizations of the setting.

The setting has enough interesting details to make it functional, but it avoids hard dates, and the further away from New Dunhaven the lore gets, the broader the descriptions get. Elderland, the Vladov Empire, and Taona are extremely vague, other than being generally European, Russian, or broadly Asian in influence.

Even the city is mainly given “functional” details. There is a map showing what cartels control what sections of the city, but other than the broad strokes of slums, commoner, merchant, or noble district, the book seldom zooms in on specific neighborhoods, although the broader entries above have some example names for some of those districts.

The guide provides the level of detail I’ve been increasingly enjoying in-game settings — there is enough detail that two different Judges will likely recognize the city from one another’s games, but no one is going to correct you that district A is right across the canal from district B.

Between the cartel sheets and the information given out in the various jobs, much of the setting information is conveyed. If you picked up the box and wanted to play it only reading through the Player and Judge books, you can do that and not feel like you missed much vital setting information. In fact, I ran two jobs as a playtest before I finished this book.

That said, if you want to get the most out of campaign play, where characters are creating long-term story conflicts and adding recurring allies and villains to a game, it is much easier to do with this information. Many of those conflicts and ancillary characters are going to be more interesting when they aren’t drawn from the same pool of power groups that are directly associated with the jobs that are being done. I particularly liked the secret police, elite private detective agency, and zealous anti-criminal citizens organizations that are presented as complications to otherwise straightforward jobs.

Other Components

Image from https://scratchpadpublishing.com and shows the deluxe tokens instead of the standard cardboard influence and heat tokens.

While the Judge Rulebook has statistics for general categories of opposing NPCs – such as minions, antagonists, minor, and major villains – the Deck of Enemies has much more specific examples, such as bounty hunters or sorcerers. These cards have artwork on the back showing an example of this type of NPC, and on the other side there are stats that the Judge can use to run them. Many of these characters have their own special rules that are quickly summarized in their stats, such as giving the Judge a new way to spend heat when they appear in a scene or adding challenge dice when a given action is attempted in their presence.

The Deck of Time is a set of cards with the time of day on one side, and a reminder of the heat generated when a segment ends. If the crew has three days to do a job, there would be three day cards and three night cards – and a visual reminder of what time of day is current for the segment is important, as some of the specialty sheets have abilities that trigger depending on the time of day.

The Deck of Quirks is one of the means that can be used to customize a character. The default method of using it is to draw three cards and pick the one quirk that the player most likes for that character. Quirks include things like having specific contacts, having a skill not listed on the character’s specialty sheet that may be useful in some jobs, or knowing something about a topic that is not already granted to the character by their cartel or specialty sheets.

Image from https://scratchpadpublishing.com

At The Table

While I don’t always get a chance to playtest a new game before I can review it, having the physical copy of the game, and knowing that it was designed for minimal preparation, I asked some of the members of my regular game group if they would be interested in a playtest. Because of this, we had the opportunity to see the game in action.

Without reading through the Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven, just flipping through the cartel cards gave a clear idea of the setting and the various themes of the cartels. Between the images on the cards and the sheets, and the available gear, the components communicated a lot about the setting without the need for heavy research into the setting.

We played through two jobs. One was a job that I outlined myself, and the other was a job from the example jobs in the Judge Rulebook. The players played different characters for both scenarios to give them a wider range of how the different cartels and specialties played. I did have a few players that weren’t happy with any of their potential quirks, so I let them shuffle and redraw their cards to pick a better quirk for their concept.

Because the game is designed to be played with minimal prep, I decided I wanted to try to come up with a job without any previous work, in addition to running a job from the book. I wrote down what the job was, what the objective was, and how many complications the PCs would have to deal with and decided I could fill in their automatic knowledge on the fly. I would come up with information on the obstacles as they did legwork.

This taught me a valuable lesson—all the well-structured answers about all the relevant topics in the example jobs let the Judge relax a lot when they are running this game. Trying to make sure you are giving out relevant and useful information in legwork scenes when you haven’t planned out the facts of each of the relevant obstacles or complications is a little bit exhaustive, because those details will become relevant once they start to connect to other details. Unlike some other games where you can abstract large sections of a heist, you are detailing the ending of the heist, and then letting the PCs back-fill those details. I would recommend that any Judge who is going to run their own jobs look at the example jobs and make sure they have a similar level of detail on all the components that are going to come into play in the final scene. You don’t have to do any complicated number crunching, just have an organized list of things that fall under the categories of knowledge, as laid out in the assumed job structure.

  • The characters were framed for a botched job
  • They had to recover the evidence that would clear them with their own cartel before the false evidence about the job was delivered to agents of the Black Council
  • We ended up with multiple troops of randomly summoned distractions, and a church assassin that our Forsaken made into a recurring ally once he explained the situation

The second game we ran went much more smoothly from my perspective. I ran one of the jobs from the Judge Book, and it felt like I could relax and react to whatever crazy scheme my players came up with, because I had some clear lists of information to hand out to them when they did their legwork scenes.

  • One of the players took an assassin and attempted to take out an NPC that would complicate the job later during a legwork scene — this went spectacularly wrong, since no one else followed him into the legwork scene, and the NPC was a major villain
  • Another player that received the “Seduce Someone” skill from their quirks engaged the same NPC, but this time set up a date away from the site of the final scene, with the intention of standing them up on that date and keeping them away from the climax of the job
  • Thanks to the previous botched assassination and other mishaps, I managed to introduce a second assassin to the scene, as well as a watch officer and his second
  • After a massive display of sorcerous power that accidentally set fire to part of the district, the target was acquired and the job was done

I was really impressed with how smooth the game ran when using the pre-written jobs. The players had a lot of fun and expressed that they would like to play the game again in the future, but they weren’t certain that the long-term campaign play looked as robust as they would like. I think a lot of this can be attributed to not having enough setting information to come up with deeper conflicts or recurring NPCs, and not having time to put some of the story awards into context when paging through the book. That said, characters don’t change much mechanically, gaining favors, more resources to spend, and narrative permission to do things more than any change in core abilities.

Gaining Influence
 The rules for legwork, the timer on planning, and the clear format and structure of the example jobs make it very easy to roll with whatever crazy plans the players may come up with, while keeping everyone focused on playing the game and maintaining the pace. 

The stated goal for this game is to be an RPG you can pick up off the shelf and play on those nights when you don’t have something else planned, and it works exactly as intended. It is easy to pick up on the mechanics, and to get an impression of the tone and themes at play. The artwork not only sets the tone, but because of the construction of the components, players will see that artwork more often than they would in other games. The rules for legwork, the timer on planning, and the clear format and structure of the example jobs make it very easy to roll with whatever crazy plans the players may come up with, while keeping everyone focused on playing the game and maintaining the pace.

Heat

The artwork does a wonderful job of showing a diverse range of characters, including people of color. The setting book even goes out of its way to explain that New Dunhaven has a much more enlightened view of gender roles and interpersonal relationships than we might even see in the real world. That said, the world doesn’t draw on many cultures for its tropes outside of Europe and Asian.

Running example jobs is great, but a Judge that wants their own scenario needs to get familiar with the assumed structure and put in a little extra work. The campaign progression rules may not be robust enough for players that like more granular advancement, or advancement that allows for more dramatic change in the character they are playing. Getting the most out of campaign play involves investing more in the setting, and while the setting is enjoyable and engaging, that runs slightly counter to the pick up and play design philosophy.

The rule summaries on the back of the character sheets, Player Rulebook, and Judge Rulebook are great, but they could have used the chart for weapons and the charts for spending boons and drawbacks to fully eliminate page flipping.

Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

If you even vaguely like the idea of a fantasy heist game, this is a great game to have in your gaming library. There have been many times when I have wanted to play an RPG at a moment’s notice, but even some games with minimal rulesets felt like they required too much effort to easily throw together a pickup game. While I didn’t have the opportunity to try the game with people that have done little to no gaming, with the clearly presented components and the regimented table management built into the game, I feel like new gamers could really engage with this game quickly.

This feels like a good “bridge” product, no matter what someone’s primary RPG introduction might be. It contains many elements that are present in other modern games, but those elements are introduced in discreet, easy to process packets. The specialty dice introduce the idea of a secondary axis of success and failure without making the dice interpretation complex, and the primary resolution is still the purview of the d100, which may help to keep people that aren’t fond of specialty dice happy.

The game also introduces other modern game elements, such as spending a resource to resolve certain actions instead of rolling for those actions and having a pool that represents a buffer against attacks that can also be spent as a resource. These mechanics can serve as a bridge for explaining similar concepts that might appear in other games that the players may not have encountered.

What do you think of games designed for minimal prep time, or even for pickup games? How much prep is too much, if you want to start a game at the spur of the moment? What games already exist that do something similar? What other genres would benefit from having this kind of “pick up and play” design? I’d love to hear your ideas on these topics, so please take some time to respond below—I’ll look forward to hearing from you!