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Night Train Writeup

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

(And a very long writeup up my game at Savage Saturday Night during Origins 2012)

For those who don’t know, Night Train was part of Pinnacle Entertainment’s Dime Novel series made for the Classic version of Deadlands. The first half of these Dime Novels consisted of a fiction story involving the exploits of the undead gunslinger Ronan Lynch and his companions. The second half was a scenario version of the adventure that Ronan Lynch and company just went through, allowing a creative posse to go through the events their own way. (The fiction stories of the three Dime Novels were rereleased last year with new artwork of Ronan Lynch and company, but sadly they did not come with the adventure).

Night Train is probably the most famous Dime Novel because the scenario in the back of the original version had a reputation for killing off the entire posse. Perhaps the description for the product says it all:

Our undead gunslinger’s next adventure finds him in the town of Varney Flats just as the ominious Night Train rolls into town…This Dime Novel is our most famous ever, and launched the writing career of John “Total Party Kill” Goff. Survive this one and you’ve got some serious bragging rights, amigo!

Although I’d heard people talk about it, I’d never seen it run, so I decided to rectify that and run it at Origins 2012 during their Savage Saturday Night event. I created my own Classic-to-Reloaded Conversion to bring the scenario to the current Deadlands Reloaded (not knowing that an updated version of the scenario was already included in the new Deadlands: Last Sons). I submitted it to Pinnacle Entertainment, so hopefully it will join the ranks of their other Classic-to-Reloaded Conversions (downloadable here) soon.

To add to the fun, I statted out versions of characters from the fiction stories in the Deadlands Dime Novels as pregens. Players got to choose from Ronan Lynch, Hank “One Eye” Ketchum, Velvet Van Helter, “Bad Luck” Betty McGrew, and Thaddeus Washington (I also created a sixth original character, but she didn’t get used). Because these characters belong to Pinnacle, I’m not allowed to post the character sheets online, but I submitted them to Pinnacle and was told that there is a good chance that they will be made into an official download!

And what about those serious bragging rights for surviving? All players who completed the scenario with a surviving character got one of these buttons I made:

I was a bit surprised by the composition of the players who decided to play this super-deadly adventure. I anticipated having a table of six Savage Worlds veterans who were all familiar with Deadlands. Instead, I only had one player who met that criteria. Three of the other players at the table were familiar with Savage Worlds but not Deadlands and one of them had never played Savage Worlds at all! (There was a sixth player who sat in, but decided to switch games at the last minute, so we wound up with five players). I made it quite clear to them that they were all going to die, but they decided that they would happily continue on.

The Adventure

The game started with Ronan Lynch, Velvet Van Helter, and “Bad Luck” Betty McGrew arriving at Barlowe Station only to find that nobody was home. Ronan found that the station log said that a Black River train had been through just yesterday and Velvet noted that the pigs seemed to have been fed recently. Something definitely wasn’t right. That’s when Betty peeked through the window of the station master’s shack and saw a pool of blood on the floor.

Not sure if there was some rational explanation that would explain all this, Betty and Velvet cautiously knocked on the station master’ shack several times before deciding to break down the door. Inside, there was a drawer knocked over and three bullet holes in the wall near the window. And although there was certainly a large pool of blood, there was no body. What had happened here?

Meanwhile, Ronan decided to relieve himself in the Outhouse, but caught a faint whiff of something decaying down the hole. He found a hoe from the barn to fish it out and, after a few moments of searching, managed to latch onto something. With a lot of effort and strength, Ronan managed to bring up into the light…a withered body!

With the help of Betty and Velvet, Ronan was able to pull it out and examine it. There were dozens of what appeared to be human-sized rat bites on the body, and yet it was clear that the cause of death was blood loss. Nobody could recall there being any giant rats in the Weird West, but they checked to ensure that their weapons were loaded in case there were a few such creatures running around. The trio decided to bury the poor soul (with Betty saying a prayer over him), then rounding up the skittish mare and pigs to sell in the nearby town of Varney Flats.

* * *

Hank “One Eye” Ketchum arrived in Varney Flats after a long day on the trail. He had left Dodge City later than anticipated because he had to get things straightened out after the mess with the Butcher on the Union’s Independence Day; making sure that the local paper didn’t publish anything strange, ensuring that the traumatized bystander after the first murder would get the help she’d need…and wouldn’t talk about what she saw, and telegraphing Roswell to let them know that he was hand-delivering something new for them to examine. He had The Butcher’s scalpel in his pocket. After all the chases, dead ends, and corpses he’d run into in 13 years since the maniac came for him, “One Eye” sure wasn’t going to risk the cursed relic with anyone but himself.

Going into the local saloon, Hank saw that its only patron was a well-dressed colored man who was sitting at the bar. Hank never did hold the ignorant belief that blacks were inferior (and thankfully, few did in the West) and so he had no problem joining the tinhorn at the bar. The man introduced himself as Dr. Thaddeus Washington and said that he was out searching for exotic specimens to study. Monsters. Hank thought about sending a telegraph to make sure that the scientist didn’t get any papers about Mojave Rattlers published, but he decided to let it go after he came to the conclusion that any “reputable” academic journals wouldn’t publish an article about so outlandish a creature that it couldn’t be real.

When they had finished their drinks, the two men went their separate ways. Thaddeus considered going to the buffalo hunter’s camp on the edge of town to ask if there had been any reports of strange creatures out on the plains, but went to the train station instead when he figured that being dressed in a three-piece suit was probably more of a hindrance than a help with such ruffians. Hank heard from the telegraph operator that the jail house held the notorious murderer Abner Knaggs. He was supposed to be held until the district judge came by to hang him, but the town marshal had disappeared yesterday and the operator was a bit scared that citizens were going to do the hanging themselves.

While wandering around town, Thaddeus saw a strange sight: a cowboy, a cowgirl, and a well-dressed southern gentleman were driving a mare and a herd of pigs into town. As they passed by, he thought he caught the smell of death off the cowboy. Just in case trouble was brewing, Thaddeus decided to report this strange sight to the Texas Ranger he met at the saloon. He found the man finishing up a shave and a hair cut and took him to the newcomers. Much to Thaddeus’ surprise, Hank greeted the man who smelled like death warmly…or as warmly as two soldiers on the opposite side of the war could.

“Ronan! Well, if it isn’t you again, ya damn Yankee!”

“Nice to see you again too, Texas! You ain’t turned into some axe-wielding murderer yet?”

“Over your dead body!”

“Why, do you want one too?”

The cowgirl, seeming very uncomfortable about the exchange, broke them up. In an effort to change the topic as quickly as possible, she started off introductions for those who hadn’t become acquainted. Right as Betty was fishing for the next topic to keep the men from killing each other in the street, the town deputy approached them.

“H-Howdy, friends,” the deputy stuttered. “You look like the, um, adventurous sort, and I was wondering if I could interest you in a little work.” The work turned out to be making sure that there wasn’t a lynch mob tonight at the jail where the murderer Abner Knaggs was being held. As Hank had already heard, the Marshal had disappeared and the deputy, although he wouldn’t admit it, didn’t have the grit to hold off a mob by himself. Ronan considered just letting the mob tear the murderer apart, until he heard that the deputy would give them the $100 reward for Knaggs if they could protect him. Split five ways, that was $20 apiece; a good sum of money for just one night’s work. Ronan decided that his own hatred for the man could be put aside for that long.

* * *

The newly sworn in deputies decided that the best plan to prevent a mob from lynching Knaggs was to keep it from forming in the first place. Figuring that people would get some “liquid courage” first, they went to the saloon, only to find Mayor Varney meeting with some “concerned citizens.” And he was fitting the bill for the liquor too.

Betty went ahead and blurted out that she thought the mayor was trying to instigate a lynch mob. Mayor Varney didn’t take too kindly to that, but tried to use his silver tongue to say it was just a meeting of concerned citizens talking about the state of the town. Thaddeus decided to test that claim by asking if they would be willing to help prevent Knaggs from being lynched. Mayor Varney casually said that he would do what was best for the town.

Hank decided that wasn’t good enough, so he grabbed the mayor’s shirt and told him that if he didn’t stop trying to form a mob, he would arrest him right then and there for malfeasance in office. That seemed to hit a nerve. Mayor Varney spat back that the Texas Ranger wasn’t in the South and didn’t have any jurisdiction in Kansas. Hank stared unflinchingly into the eyes of the mayor. “Wherever I go, the law goes. Do you really want to test that?” Mayor Varney blinked twice, then gave a sigh, telling the other bar patrons that their “concerned citizens meeting” had been cancelled. He said a few choice words to the posse as he headed out of the saloon.

The group took turns keeping watch in the saloon and patrolling around town to make sure that no other such meetings began. As it got later into the night, the town quieted down, but the group decided to take shifts sleeping at the Marshal’s Office just in case.

* * *

As the witching hour came upon them, Thaddeus and Betty were on watch when they heard a faint scream in the distance. Hank, who seemed to always be alert even when he was sleeping, shot up from his bed at the distant noise. With a bad feeling in their guts, the three woke up the remaining members of the posse to investigate.

The streets were clear and the night was silent, but Ronan put his ear to the Black River tracks and heard that there was a train coming. But what sort of train ran that late in the night? A train full of trouble it was decided. As if giving voices to their thoughts, the train whistle blew again in the distance. A train whistle that sounded remarkably like a scream.

Thaddeus and Hank took up positions in the train station to shoot anything troublesome that came out while Betty got up on the roof of the land office that had recently turned into a saloon. Ronan and Velvet decided to stand out in the open so that if there was some reasonable explanation for why the train was making a night stop, like an accident had happened, then they could talk with them.

As the train got closer, the air seemed to get colder and the shadows seemed to grow darker. A nearby tree caught Ronan’s eye and he unconsciously reached for his neck, feeling the scars from when he was hanged. When the train was close enough to see, Velvet briefly thought that he saw some sort of demonic face on the front of the engine, but soon realized it was a trick of the light. As the train slowed down, the chugging of the train engine seemed to resemble some sort of stampede of people coming to a weary halt. When the train finally crept into the station, Ronan noticed the number on the front: 666.

Moments after it stopped, the screaming whistle split the night air. Doors at both ends of the sleeper cars burst open with several dozen dark figures running in pairs towards the buildings of Varney Flats. Ronan and Velvet saw two of the figures pause for a second, then one of them jerked its head toward them, hissed, and led the second in a charge towards them! Ronan jumped out of the way in time, but Velvet wasn’t so lucky and the thing got a good swipe off of him with what appeared to be claws. In the dim moonlight, Velvet got a quick look at his adversary. All he could focus on was its full set of sharp teeth.

Hank lit a light in the train statin so he could more easily see who he was shooting at. Suddenly, the doors burst open and two figures charged in. They looked human enough, except for the pale skin, long claws, and sharp teeth. The intruders split up and attacked each of them. Hank tumbled out of the way while Thaddeus was only saved when the creature clawed his oversized gatling rifle rather than him. Thaddeus ripped off his Thermal Binocular Visual Enhancement System when he realized it was preventing him from seeing the obvious: that there was a creature right in front of him!

Betty heard the the doors to the building she was on burst open and figured it was only a matter of time before they got up to her vantage point on the roof. She lined herself up to shoot anyone that came through the roof access just as a pair of intruders busted down the door. Betty squeezed her trigger, and much to her surprise, her rifle bullet strung both of them straight through their hearts, slumping them to the ground. “Bad Luck” Betty decided right then and there that she did believe in that whole “karma” business that the Chinaman she met a few months back had told her about. If all the bad luck she’d had in her life balanced out with good luck right now, it would all be worth it.

Realizing that his pistols weren’t going to be as useful in close combat, Hank pulled out his bowie knife and began slashing at the creature that just tried to bite him. After a few tense moments, the creature overextended itself and Hank was able to give it a good stab in the stomach, slumping it the ground. He then turned his attention to the one attacking Thaddeus, who was still honing in on its prey, despite the fact that the prey had just unloaded a dozen bullets into it. Hank crept up behind the creature and, in well-practiced form, slit the throat of the monster. He kept the pressure on until he was able to break the creature’s spinal column and sever the head from the body.

Thaddeus took a few deep breaths while trying his best to ignore the grisly sight. “Nosferatu,” he said slowly.

Hank looked up. “What?”

“Nosferatu,” he repeated. “Although its overall morphology is somewhat different from the concept of the traditional, or Carpathian, form, I believe it is, nonetheless, a nosferatu. A vampire, if you will.”

“Well then, Perfessor, how do you kill a ‘noseferret?'”

“Nosferatu? There are many myths from different cultures about how to kill such a beast. Exposure to sunlight is shared by most such legends as fatal to vampires. Others assert that holy water, garlic, or a stake to the heart will also be fatal.” Thaddeus glanced a look at the headless body at Hank’s feet. “I believe that decapitation is also an acceptable way to kill a vampire.”

Thaddeus noticed that the first nosferatu that Hank had stabbed began to twitch on the ground. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a splinter of wood and drove it into its heart as hard as he could. It stopped moving. Hank sauntered over and in one quick motion severed its head. “Just to be safe,” he assured him.

* * *

Velvet and Ronan weren’t faring nearly as well in their fight against their nosferatu. Velvet pulled out a Soul Blast against one of them, but it barely scratched the skin of the monster. He was about to grab Ronan and teleport out of there when the thing grabbed onto Ronan and bit him in the neck. The other nosferatu drew his claws deep into Velvet and his green velvet suit started to mix with a dark blood red. Velvet was shocked that he didn’t die from that.

Suddenly, a shot rang out in the night and the nosferatu in front of Velvet hissed as it fell forward. Velvet looked down at the bullet wound in the back of the nosferatu and up towards Betty up on the roof of her post. The distraction seemed to be what Ronan needed to get free of the nosferatu wrapped around him and as soon as he got away, a second shot rang out, piercing the remaining nosferatu in the heart. Velvet pulled out a few glowing cards and touched them to himself, which seemed to stop the bleeding. He did it again but this time touched them against Ronan and his nasty neck-bite started to heal.

* * *

The ear-splitting scream of the train whistle pierced the night once again. The posse realized that the nosferatu were heading back to the train, this time with a pair each carrying a townsperson! Betty shot one of them, which caused its partner to abandon the screaming woman they were carrying. Ronan, being the heroic man that he was, charged into combat with another pair, ignoring the fact that he almost died from fighting just one of them. The rest took pot shots at the passing nosferatu, but didn’t dare to go toe to toe with any. Hank went around the train station to try to pick off those as they boarded, but couldn’t line up a good shot without risking a hit to one of the townspeople.

The two nosferatu engaged with Ronan decided to abandon their prey and booked it towards the train. As soon as they arrived, the night train’s whistle screamed one more time and the train started moving. Hank bolted towards the engine. As the train went by, Betty took a breath and fired a shot at the conductor. Despite the range and cover, she managed to get a shot straight to its legs. Hank jumped onto the locomotive and kicked the conductor out. For good measure, he decided to fulfill his pledge to “shoot it or recruit it” as it tumbled to the ground.

As the train sped away, Hank realized that whatever he would have to do he’d have to do alone. Apparently the nose-ferrets didn’t think anything strange about the train leaving the station, since the conductor apparently followed protocol when he got the train moving. Hank’s first idea was to blow up the boiler, but he didn’t have anything to cause an explosion. So he pulled the throttle to full and stuck his bowie knife behind it, jamming it open. With any luck, it would be derailed. Then he took a leap of faith and tumbled off the train.

* * *

Back in Varney Flats, the remaining townspeople gathered in the street. Although the people were looking to Deputy Parrish and Mayor Varney for direction, the two men had more faith in Ronan and company.

“Knaggs has been captured,” Deputy Parrish stammered. “The whole reward, $100 in gold eagles, is yours if you bring him back alive.”

Varney cut in: “And I’ll offer $20 of my own cash for everyone one of my citizens you bring back alive.”

Just then, there was a tremendous din from several miles to the north. A large fireball brightened the horizon, which Ronan swore looked like a skull. Seems that the Texas Ranger managed to get the night train to go fast enough to derail on some turn a few miles out.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ronan calmly said, “I’m sorry Mayor. They’re gone.” He turned his back and took a few steps before adding, “For what it’s worth, this won’t happen to any town ever again.”

GM’s Notes

Wow! What a ride! Unfortunately, the session didn’t turn into all that happy of an ending because they didn’t rescue the captured townspeople, but they did manage to destroy the Night Train without any player character casualties (although there were several very close calls)! So I was pleased to hand each one of the players an “I survived the Deadlands Night Train” button!

Does that mean I didn’t run it right since I didn’t have a TPK? Some might say that, but I think I still ran it just fine.

I decided to allow for “accidental heart shots” much like the “accidental head shots” from Daring Entertainment’s War of the Dead. If they got two raises on the Fighting or Shooting roll, then they hit the heart of a Nosferatu (without any extra damage associated with it). Little did I know that “Bad Luck” Betty would be rolling those two raises regularly! Since the player for her had never played a single session of Savage Worlds, I figure that this was beginner’s luck.

Also, I decided that instead of having it so nosferatu were only allowed to be Shaken, but not wounded, a nosferatu that took a wound would be on the ground for one round before they got right back up. I did this to allow for a situation where they could “hold them back.” If  Thaddeus hadn’t staked the one Hank stabbed in the stomach, it would have come back up.

Perhaps these two changes made the scenario a bit easier than it should have been, but ultimately, I’m proud of how the scenario turned out. Everyone had fun and it was became a very memorable Night Train experience!

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Deadlands Developments

Today I’m dutifully doing a discourse describing Deadlands developments. Yep.

Independence Day Dime Novel Cover

They didn’t stop The Butcher, but at least the scenario finally felt right.

First, I would like to say that I have finally run a successful session of Independence Day, one of the Deadlands Dime Novel adventures. I ran it almost a year ago but the scenario really suffered because of issues with the The Butcher’s invulnerability. When I ran it last month, it fell flat because I kept trying to bail the players out of failure. But the third time’s a charm and I finally got the scenario right.

With my brother and his friend having to cancel their D&D game, they asked me if I had an adventure to run. We wound up deciding on doing Deadlands and I had Independence Day already prepped since I ran it last month. The duo wound up excelling in the investigation and were able to figure out The Butcher’s identity even before the last few clues came out. Unfortunately, they were not able to discover The Butcher’s weakness and died trying to fight him. This time, I didn’t bail the characters out of their failure. Ultimately, the game wound up being better because of that and, although they were a bit disappointed to have not stopped The Butcher, the players were happy with the scenario in the end.

Turns out that while I’ve been running some Classic adventures, Pinnacle has been hard at work with all sorts of new Deadlands stuff. The fan-maintained Big List of Pinnacle Products shows that there are a whopping 14 supplements/adventures in the pipeline! And that’s not counting Deadlands: Hell on Earth Reloaded coming out this summer.

But the big news this week was Pinnacle’s new setting: Deadlands Noir. Instead of being set in the Weird West, Deadlands:Noir is set in 1930s New Orleans. The description says that typical player concepts include “steely-eyed private dicks, fast-talking grifters, wild-eyed inventors, and shadowy houngans” and you can bet there’ll be mafia too. Oh, and lots and lots of obligatory New Orleans Hucksters (and I thought they were surprisingly many of them floating around the Weird West as it is!). As a fan of the general Deadlands metaplot, I have to say that I’m wondering how this will all fit in (and why Stone is going to be around, as has been hinted at). At this point though, it’s all speculation, so we’ll find out.

Unlike most Pinnacle products, this one is an experiment in crowd-funding using Kickstarter with individuals pledging money ahead of time so that the product can be created. Each project has incentives that backers receive for pledging more, like signed copies of the books. Turns out that their $8,000 goal was raised in less than 24 hours! As of this writing, they are 345% funded and are planning on releasing their “stretch goals” to give extra benefits to backers if they raise enough money. Pinnacle hasn’t announced them yet, but my guess is that it will be more adventures and cut-out “figure flats” like they have with their other products.

Now that the description is out of the way, it’s time for my take on the whole thing. Kickstarter seems to be an increasingly popular means of generating funds, especially from game companies, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before Pinnacle gave it a shot. And it’s clearly worked for them with support shattering their expectations with hundreds of backers willing to invest in their product, sight unseen (certainly the Deadlands reputation helped, but they don’t know what the product will actually be like yet). It was a pretty good business move I think. Overall, I think that Kickstarter is starting to become a bit too saturated and that eventually there is going to be some backer fatigue, but for the time being, Pinnacle took advantage of the situation.

The setting itself is interesting, but I can’t say the hardboiled genre it seeks to emulate is entirely my cup of tea. Maybe it’s the fact that’s it’s more gritty and less optimistic than I like my settings to be. Or the meandering monologues become a bit too much after a while. I went ahead and backed the project because it’s Deadlands, but I don’t think it will wind up on my must-play list (although for what it’s worth, it took me a long time to warm up to the idea of a post-apocalyptic Deadlands (that would be Deadlands: Hell on Earth), so maybe I will warm up to this as well).

I’m also a little concerned because the hardboiled genre involves a lot of investigation, which is often a difficult thing for GMs to run properly in a role-playing game. My guess is that there will be some new mechanics to keep things fast, furious, and fun (probably spend a Fate Chip to automatically get a clue or something). I also anticipate a modified version of the Social Conflict rules in Savage Worlds Deluxe to better handle interrogations.

At the end of the day though, I have to admit that playing a private eye huckster does sound really sweet!

What Encourages or Discourages Avoiding Combat?

Due to changes in my schedule, I’ve decided to move my “new post day” from Saturday to Wednesday. This should result in a much more reliable weekly posting schedule from now on.

The RPG Blog Carnival topic for the month of April was “Combat Avoidance” and was hosted by Exchange of Realities. Yeah, I know it’s May now, but it is a topic that I really want to talk about.

Combat has always been the heart of role-playing games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming where there is nothing but combat! I’d estimate that 95% of the role-playing games out there have some sort of rules about how to handle fighting and combat (with the remaining 5% being either aimed at kids or deliberately made so as to avoid combat). Although the GM has a lot of say into how much combat there is in a game, I think that there are definitely some external factors that encourage or discourage avoiding combat during gameplay. I would say that the big ones are the expectations of the setting, the expectations of the system, and the danger level to characters.

Expectations of the Setting

Here are the first lines in the “Makin’ Heroes” chapter of Deadlands Reloaded:

Strap on your six-guns and saddle up, amigo. It’s time to make your salty gunslinger, mysterious huckster, or savage brave.

And here is an excerpt from the “Characters” chapter of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild:

Whatever their motivation or purpose, most characters created for The One Ring are individuals who have chosen to abandon their day-to-day activities and become adventurers. They are not soldiers or captains following the commands of a lord, nor are they subtle wizards trying to weave the threads spun by fate: they are bold souls putting themselves in peril by their own free will, sometimes simply for the love of adventure itself.

Notice something? They each describe the characters in their games very differently. The quote from Deadlands provides three archetypical characters, all of which are typically combat-oriented (even though you can play one that is not). The preceding sentence even makes pretty broad statement about Deadlands characters having six-guns. The One Ring however describes characters in terms of their love of adventure and specifically says that they are not soldiers (even though there is a “soldier” career). It’s quite conceivable that characters in this system would not be combat oriented, and indeed many of the characters in the source material, like Bilbo and Frodo, are not.

So which is more likely to avoid a typical combat, the “salty gunslinger” or the “adventurer.” Probably the adventurer. Why? Because that’s what the setting expects them to do. The setting also creates an expectation for what the characters’ default behavior will be when coming up against something hostile. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default behavior when confronted with a dragon is probably to fight it, not talk to it, and to only run if the fight is unwinnable. But in The One Ring, the default behavior would probably be to riddle with the dragon or run, but to fight it as a last resort (like if it’s burning Lake Town to the ground).

Expectations of the System

There’s a pretty easy litmus test for how much combat is expected in the system: how much of a character sheet is devoted to combat? Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons 4e 5th Level Dragonborn Rogue I found online using the standard D&D 4e character sheet. Aside from the sections on skills, senses, character info, gear, and arguably ability scores, the entire character sheet is devoted to combat (including 2 out of 4 pages devoted specifically to cards describing combat maneuvers). I estimate that about 85% of the character sheet is for describing stuff about combat. You might extrapolate then that 85% of D&D 4e is about combat, which in my experience (especially considering the official Wizards of the Coast convention games) is about right.

In fact, one of the big criticisms from D&D 3.x fans when D&D 4e first came out was that it was too focused on combat and not enough on role-playing. Often times they cited the fact that there weren’t profession skills or other non-combat character options. I won’t take either side on this, but I do wonder if part of the reason was that the D&D 3.5 character sheet from the PHB had about 60% of it devoted to combat, implying that combat only featured in 60% of the time.

So what does that mean for combat avoidance? With more space on the character sheet for non-combat related items, it would make sense that characters have more things to do to avoid combat. In D&D 3.x, you might have the means to avoid 40% of combats whereas in D&D 4e, you only have the means to avoid 15% of them. Now I’ll be the first to say that this is not a definitive measure and there are no doubt many factors, like GM play-style, that have a greater influence. But the fact remains that in a system where the important parts of your character are what they can do in combat, then it is less likely that it will be avoided.

Danger Level

On a more practical level, combat is typically avoided if there is a lot of danger of a character suffering ill consequences because of it. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators almost always avoid combat because there is a very good chance that they will die if they fight (or they will go insane, or both). Contrast that with a system like Hollow Earth Expedition where there is little danger of getting into a fight with Nazis, even if they have guns and you are using your fists. If combat is the most direct means of achieving your goals (as it would be if there are Nazis in the way of claiming the lost treasure) and there is little danger, then combat avoidance is very unlikely. The risk is small compared to the reward. But if there is a lot of risk, you might try some safer alternatives to avoid combat altogether.

I’ll reiterate once again that at the end of the day, the GM probably has more influence than these factors in determining how much combat there is. For instance, I’ve seen sessions of D&D 4e run without combat. But you might want to think about these external factors if you are wanting to encourage or discourage combat in your game session.

I Hate to See the Players Lose…

I’ve discovered something about how I GM: I hate to see the players lose. I love throwing enormous challenges in front of them, having characters make a noble sacrifice for the greater good, and beating the odds to pull out a tremendous victory (the Death Star trench run is one of my all time favorite movie sequences, largely for this reason). When all goes the way I’d like it to, it creates the sort of story I love to see: a story where a small group of individuals defy the odds and come out heroes.

Unfortunately, role-playing games don’t always go that way.

My long-running Necessary Evil campaign finally came to a close the weekend before last with the villains earning a hard-fought victory agains their greatest enemies with the odds stacked against them. And then in a final showdown with the Overmind, they had several very lucky rolls and pulled out a surprise victory, saving the world and saving the galaxy from the evil threat of the V’Sori. I loved it!

Since we had one more good weekend of gaming, I decided to run a Deadlands one-shot for the group. Originally they wanted me to run Night Train, which is so deadly that rumor has it the author gets royalties for every character killed in it (not really, but it definitely is a character killer). I had my misgivings about this scenario and with a few players saying they couldn’t make it, I ultimately decided to run Independence Day, in which they investigate several mysterious murders in Dodge City by The Butcher.

Independence Day Dime Novel CoverLast time I ran that scenario, it went well overall, but I had some issues with it that I planned to resolve the next time I ran it. I didn’t use the Adventure Deck and attempted to have a fight earlier in the scenario. (But the characters just wound up talking themselves out of it, which was good I guess. Note to self: next time start the game in media res with a small fight that gets them noticed by Earp and then starts the scenario.)

The biggest problem I had with the scenario last time was with the way The Butcher had invulnerability. I wound up just changing it this time to “he regenerates one wound each round” unless his weakness is exploited. I decided not to have him have a free soak roll because I had so few players. So far so good.

But this time when I ran it, the players were having a lot of trouble. After they had gathered all of the clues (knowingly or not), I told them that they needed to piece together the mystery and figure out who the culprit was. After about a minute of thinking, one of the players proudly declared “it must be the undertaker!” I nearly face-palmed myself right there. I had just offhand mentioned the undertaker picking up one of the bodies and apparently they thought that made him a suspect.

Had I been an evil GM, I might have let them arrest the undertaker and have them enjoy the night, only to have The Butcher strike again and get the heck out of Dodge (literally). Instead, I had the undertaker help them make some connections between clues, thanks to his love of mystery novels. It got them back on track at least.

They split up in search of The Butcher and unfortunately, one of the characters got a critical failure while trying to make a Notice check to find him. The Butcher got the drop on her and sliced off her arm to add to his collection (yup, really). With one arm severed, she tried to shoot with her off hand, but missed. The Butcher sliced her other arm and let her bleed out on the dirt. The other Huckster made it to the scene then, but in the first round suffered an ignoble death when The Butcher made a called shot to the head, and dealt 5 wounds, none of which got soaked. The Butcher had murdered two more people and could have walked away into the night, ready to continue his reign of terror in the next town.

The players were about to pack up, having failed to stop The Butcher, but I hated to leave them on such a tragic note. At first, I contemplated making both of their characters Harrowed until I decided having a Harrowed Huckster with only a head was just a bad idea. So I offered them my other pregenerated characters to come in as reinforcements. The Blessed was just lucky enough to stay alive, but the Mad Scientist wasn’t. Yet another replacement character came who I said had some ideas about The Butcher’s weakness. With a lucky shot, they exploited it and defeated The Butcher once and for all.

Unfortunately, this victory seemed hollow to me. They didn’t identify the culprit without help and went through three replacement characters before I more or less told them what The Butcher’s weakness was. I did it because I really hated to see the players lose. But in making sure that they didn’t lose, I made it so that they didn’t really win. Or at least it wasn’t the same.

It’s a lesson I had to learn: that even if you really want to see the players succeed, sometimes the stars aren’t right and they will fail. It makes the true victories more meaningful, I think, even if we hate to see the failures when they happen. And it’s almost just as bad to blatantly tilt the odds to prevent the players from losing.

What about you all? Have you had similar thoughts or do you have a different mindset when it comes to players failing?

2011 in Review

Happy New Year! The Gregorian calendar may have ended, but the world didn’t. And you know what? I predict that we’ll have the same outcome when the Mayan one ends. To celebrate the world not ending, I’d like to reflect a bit on what happened this past year, both in the role-playing game industry and my blog.

The Blog

First of all, this was the year that I finally created The Journeyman GM and wrote weekly posts on a variety of topics. According to WordPress’ spiffy year end statistics, I had a total of 2,900 views this past year, which is fantastic for a blog just starting! The most popular post was my Predictions About D&D 5e, thanks largely to a cross-post on Reddit. One of my favorite posts, which seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle, was this one in which I got some really solid RPG advice for climactic battles based on the last Harry Potter movie.

I’m really thankful for all of you who read this blog. The site got several visitors from users searching for “D&D 5e”, “Journeyman GM”, “River Song”, and interestingly, “dynamite explosion.” To my surprise there were a number of international visitors to my site as well. All in all, I just want to thank you for the support you’ve given my blog. You deserve a cookie!

The Industry

This year seemed like a fairly mellow year for the role-playing game industry. Wizards of the Coast had a pretty light release schedule, which some have seen as evidence that they are starting to end-of-life D&D 4e. Pinnacle Entertainment also had a pretty light year with their biggest release being a Deluxe Edition of the core rules (which I reviewed here and here) and a reprint of their 50 Fathoms setting. Cubicle 7 released The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild (reviewed here), but didn’t have any big releases for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. Mongoose Publishing wrote in its year State of the Mongoose that it was tough year for them and, from what they could tell, the rest of the industry. I don’t recall anything ground-shaking being released from any company at Origins and GenCon. All in all, it was a fairly mild year.

The Industry in 2012 and Beyond

The Wasted West, Now Reloaded!

I think that 2012 will be a much better year for at least some companies! Pinnacle Entertainment has already announced that they have about 20 products in the pipeline, much of which is new content and the majority of which is Deadlands-related (a complete fan-compiled list can be found here, which rumor has it was compiled by your’s truly). Of particular note is Deadlands: Hell on Earth Reloaded, which is the Savage Worlds version of the sequel setting to Deadlands in which the year is 2094 and the world got nuked. No matter what you think of it, you have to admit that having a post-apocalyptic Western setting is pretty original. And although Pinnacle has historically been very tight-lipped about release dates, Shane Lacy Hensley has definitively said that after the many delays that have come, it will be released in Spring 2012.

I’m betting that other companies are going to be making big announcements, but they will be for products that will be released in 2013. You can see from this fan-compiled list (not by me) that Wizards of the Coast has announced four books, a few map items, and some miniatures. All but one is going to be released before GenCon. Since this is uncharacteristically quiet for Wizards, my guess is that there will be an announcement for D&D 5e sometime soon. Mongoose Publishing even openly stated that in 2013 “the stars will be right” for D&D 5e, and I suspect that they have some insider info as a company that has published D&D supplements in the past.

And let’s not forget that Fantasy Flight Games now owns the Star Wars license. They have already announced two new games for this coming Spring (Star Wars: X-wing and the creatively titled Star Wars: The Card Game), which I got to demo at GenCon. But ultimately, I bet that there will be an announcement this year of a Star Wars RPG with a 2013 release date. If you’re curious, I already made predictions about it here.

The Blog in 2012

Expect more posts on a roughly weekly basis throughout next year. Like this past year, I’ll largely be switching between reviews, general role-playing game thoughts, gameplay summaries, and whatever else I feel like. If you’d like to see more of a certain type, please leave a comment and I’ll be sure to consider it.

One Final Note

There’s a project that I’ve been working on for some time now that I’m (hopefully) going to be releasing later this year as an officially licensed Savage Worlds product! There should be an official announcement by this summer, but at the end of the day, it’ll be done when it’s done!

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