Victory Requires the Threat of Defeat
One thing I’ve learned in my time as a GM: a satisfying victory requires the threat that the heroes can be defeated. What that threat is depends on the genre. In a Pulp setting, the threat might not be the Nazis themselves, but rather what the Nazis would do if they’re not stopped. In a horror setting, the threat is the “things man was not meant to know” and whether the heroes will survive their encounter with them. If that threat isn’t there, the victory can be hollow. Personally, I think that’s why dungeon crawls aren’t very interesting; there’s little threat that the monsters will kill the heroes and there’s no threat that the monsters will do anything if the characters just walk away from the dungeon.
For the finale of my summer Deadlands mini-campaign, I decided that I really needed to up the threat level. This was a campaign for “Legendary” level characters and the stakes were literally the safety of the world. Their experience against Los Diablos several sessions earlier did present a huge threat (and four characters died from it) but I figured that their victory at the end of this campaign would be so much more satisfying if they were facing an enormous threat of defeat. In other words, I wanted them to have so much to lose that if they won, their victory would be so much more meaningful.
I won’t give too many spoilers about the ending to the Devil’s Tower campaign itself, but the heroes quickly discovered that they were literally trying to prevent Hell on Earth (the sequel setting to Deadlands exploring a possible future where the heroes lost and the power of fear completely destroyed the world). In order to prevent it, they had to find a portal to the Hunting Grounds and take the Heart o’ Darkness through to somewhere else.
They didn’t have much difficulty reaching the portal, but when they did, they found someone else was already there to stop them:
Now Stone is the biggest, baddest undead gunslinger of all time. As I mentioned in an earlier post, he is essentially the most powerful person in the entire setting, gets supernatural powers from Death itself, and is just about evil incarnate. If his presence wasn’t enough to make the posse shaking in their boots, he demonstrated why he’s called the “Servitor of Death” by pulling out one of his Colt Dragoons, fanning the hammer and killing half of the scientists in the room, holstering that gun and pulling out the other, fanning the hammer again to kill the other half of the scientists, and then holstered that and drew both (magically reloaded!) all in the span of a few seconds!
There was a rare moment when the players themselves were spooked along with their characters. They had one, maybe two combat rounds to save the world or die trying (which would mean that evil had completely won).
The posse’s “nun with a gun” fired at Stone hoping to kill him swiftly. The shot would have killed any other man, but this was the Servitor of Death! He fell down, only to stand back up again and give an angry snarl as he fanned the hammer and four bullets hit the nun in the head, killing her instantly.
Zed the Huckster tried unleashing some powerful magic to detain Stone long enough for them to make it through the portal to the Hunting Grounds. But a curious thing happened. Instead of flinging a razor-sharp card at Stone, he watched in horror as he flung a card at one of his allies, killing him instantly.
You see, Zed had taken the Veteran o’ the Weird West Edge and paid a huge price for power. It turns out that his consequence was that he was terminally ill and, unbeknownst to him, he’d actually died early on in the campaign and had become a Harrowed, meaning that he was dead, but a manitou was inside his head keeping him alive. The manitou stayed hidden until the very end when he temporarily took control of Zed’s body in order to make him attack his friends instead.
The surviving characters knew they had to make a plan fast or else they would die, Stone would have the Heart o’ Darkness, and Hell would come to Earth. So the next player up decided to try a different tactic: RUN!!!
He made it through the portal through the Hunting Grounds just in time and Stone started chasing after him. Where did they end up? I decided to leave that ambiguous. But Stone did not reappear from the portal and the Heart of Darkness was no longer around. Neither of them could threaten the world any longer.
They had managed to save the world, but many heroic individuals died in the process. The sole survivor, Andrew Lane, left Devil’s Tower to tell the tale of the heroic deeds of those who sacrificed their lives to save the world.
I think it’s good to have pyrrhic victories like this from time to time. If role-playing games always ended optimally, then victory wouldn’t mean as much because the threat of defeat just wasn’t there. They can be happy that they won, but the fact that they lost so much means that it’s more meaningful and any future victories they have will mean more because there was loss this time around.
All in all, I’m happy with how the campaign turned out. I send an e-mail to my players compiling a list of each character’s fate over the course of the campaign and how they contributed, directly or indirectly, to the final victory of the campaign.
And in the end, all my players, even those who didn’t have surviving characters, had fun. And isn’t that the whole point of a role-playing game?