Facing the Impossible
The trend in role-playing games tends to be going towards playing it safe. Dungeons & Dragons 4e, for instance, encourages “balanced encounters” where characters always face enemies that they have at least a 50/50 chance of defeating, with the more dangerous encounters being used sparingly. This can be a good thing in that it helps prevent players from getting too frustrated over meaningless character deaths. However, this does tend to have the side effect of making victory seem hollow. If the characters were almost guaranteed to win, were they really risking anything in the first place? And does that mean that they will never face an impossible task?
I decided to buck the trend. In my summer Deadlands mini-campaign, we took an interlude between two modules in the Devil’s Tower trilogy. As they were traveling from the City o’ Gloom (Salt Lake City) to Lost Angels in search of the Heart o’ Darkness, they started hearing the sounds of a stampede in the night. Each night it got louder with those on watch wondering if they would charge right through their camp! As the sun was setting on the fifth night, the heroes with tired horses were traveling on the trail when five black silhouettes were seen on the horizon. When they got closer, they saw what they were: Los Diablos!
Five of these hellish creatures were hunting the posse and behind them was “The Devil’s Own Herd,” a ghostly stampede of trapped souls they had killed. It was clear to the posse: they were going to die. Ramon the saber-wielding huckster knew a bit about these creatures having talked to a gunfighter who was the sole survivor in a fight with them. Their thick skin was tough enough to deflect nearly every attack that was dealt against them. Rumor had it that they were sent by the malevolent powers that be to kill heroes who had become too much of a thorn in their side. And with the stakes being so high, they sure weren’t interested in giving the heroes a “balanced encounter.”
Zed the card-slingin’ huckster desperately tried to cast a Fear hex to scare the bejeebus out of them, or at least get them to realize that they weren’t going to be easy pickings. Unfortunately, these creatures thrive on fear and were only encouraged by his hex! Outrunning them with tired horses was all but impossible and Los Diablos began their attack by catching up to them and goring their horses to death out from underneath them!
The posse themselves initially got some lucky rolls avoiding Los Diablos’ horns and hooves, but had no such luck piercing their thick skin. Snowbird, the Indian companion of Tully the mystery man, initially tried to charge one, but her spear went straight through Los Diablos as if they were an illusion. It turns out that Fate decrees that Los Diablos can only harm their chosen targets…and can only be harmed by them. The ghostly Devil’s Own Herd behind them were however permitted to attack anyone who got in the way (except Los Diablos’ targets). Two lone figures watched the battle from atop a cliff above, well aware that they could do nothing to help.
The heroes were truly facing the impossible and they were entirely on their own.
Now let me back up for a second. I told my players at the start of the session that I was expecting that the majority of their characters would die. Doesn’t that seem a bit harsh? Maybe, but my point wasn’t to outright massacre them for my own amusement. Role-playing games need to be fun for everyone at the table, not just the GM. I suppose that I was aiming for long term fun here. The players would feel an incredible sense of accomplishment if they actually managed to do the impossible. And ultimately, I hoped that would be fun for everybody, even those who didn’t make it.
The posse started trying some unorthodox tactics, including throwing a canister of Smith & Robbards’ patented “Greek Fire” at two Diablos, which was surprisingly effective, but meant that there were now several flaming Los Diablos attacking the posse. Most everyone got injured by these beasts at one point or another, with the exception of Ramon who, casting a Deflection hex, was able to do his best matador impression and avoid each of their attacks.
Jack “The Courier” was not so lucky. He was very handy in a gunfight, but not in a melee fight and was the first to get trampled to death by Los Diablos. I have a rule that all characters who die are allowed either a Shakespearean death speech or “to go out with a bang.” Jack’s player decided to take that literally: as a Diablo trampled him, he stomped on several rounds of explosive bullets, which also lit off six sticks of dynamite in his duster. The resulting explosion badly injured two of the Diablos, but still didn’t outright kill them.
Finally, Tully the mystery man fired a shot off with his special carbine, a weird contraption that spit out green hellfire. The flames engulfed the Diablo chasing after him and miraculously managed to do enough damage to roast it alive! The entire table cheered and applauded when it died. One down, four to go. Next Ramon lunged at one with his relic saber, finally managing to pierce its thick hide and reach its heart inside and put it down for good. Two down, three to go.
It was around this point that we had our second death. Tully went up and down like a yo-yo for much of the battle, getting knocked out, then healed by Snowbird, then knocked out again. Finally his wounds were too much and he was trampled to death. Snowbird too soon was overcome by the ghostly Devil’s Own Herd and died.
With a great deal of luck, Ramon managed to take out a second Diablo, gutting it from underneath. Zed too, was miraculously able to sling a card that cut through the thick hide and slay one of the Diablos. One remained which trampled over Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer. And then a curious thing happened. She started transforming, growing fur, claws, and large, sharp teeth. You see the player had let me know that, because of her character’s background in the Weird West, if she were ever to die she would transform into a Wendigo. So now another enemy entered the battlefield! Talk about bad timing.
Zed narrowly escaped her teeth and was able to put her out of her misery. Ramon took a final lunge at the remaining Diablo, aiming specifically for its eyes, the one area where its thick hide did not cover. As the final Diablo fell, they all disappeared into a black smoke. Three of the group had died in the battle, but their sacrifice was not in vain. Together the group had killed the deadliest beasts in the Weird West. They had done the impossible.
The remainder of the session was denouement. The two men watching the battle from the cliffside came down to help the survivors in any way they could. One, who called himself Ol’ Coot Jenkins, offered to help bury the dead. Jack’s dynamite had already cremated him and destroyed most of his possessions beyond use. The group decided to burn Ruby’s Wendigo-transformed body and most of her possessions, including her steam claw arm, were destroyed. Tully however seemed to have a number of interesting possessions on his person, including a journal from someone named “Jackie Wells” with printing and binding unlike anything they had ever seen. They did bury him alongside Snowbird, together forever as husband and wife. The survivors said some final thoughts about their fallen commrades and said the 23rd Psalm.
And then a thumping sound came from under the grave. Ol’ Coot Jenkins started digging much to the survivors’ confusion. Finally he reached the body of Tully… and his eyes opened!
Ol’ Coot Jenkins broke the stunned silence. “We’ve got a whole lot to talk about, amigo.”
The posse had just faced the impossible. In a very different way, they were doing it again. Such often happens in the Weird West of Deadlands and that’s why I love it! So far, there have been a lot more questions than answers, but some will be revealed in the next session. I’m excited and my players are too!
And for those readers who are thoroughly confused by my story, at least take out the big message: facing the impossible is not always a bad thing and it is incredibly rewarding when they do it and, against all odds, they win!