Posts tagged Devil's Tower Trilogy

Los Diablos

Facing the Impossible

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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!

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.

Wendigo

A Wendigo, like Ruby transformed into when she died. They don’t call it the “Weird West” for nothing!

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!

Dealing with Player Absences

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One common problem GMs face is what to do when players are absent in an ongoing campaign. What happens to the character? Do you create some excuse as to why they’re not there? Do they fade into the background with everybody pretending that they aren’t really there (like Mark from The Gamers)? Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s not all that satisfactory.

Yesterday’s session in my Deadlands mini-campaign was an interesting one. Two players were absent because they were on vacation to Pittsburgh. At first, I figured I’d just have the characters fade into the background or were off on their own.But for the epic conclusion of The Road to Hell, part one of the Devil’s Tower Trilogy, I decided to try something new.

Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer, mad scientist with a steam-augmented arm, simply faded into the background for most of the session. Following a lead that the Tremendae Gang was responsible for stealing the Heart o’ Darkness, they were able to find their base of operations. They arrived at the base and in the middle of the battle, Ruby attacked one of the heroes!

Confusion erupted for the next few rounds. Why was Ruby attacking? Was she being mind controlled? Was this some sort of illusion? Was I just being an evil GM? Ruby took a few good stabs at the Huckster before running off and getting gunned down (with a critical failure on the Incapacitation Table). After the battle, the group started poking around in the offices upstairs. Tied up and gagged in a storage room was Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer. But…didn’t they just shoot her?

I mentioned last week that four out of five players chose the Veteran o’ the Weird West edge, which resulted in the character receiving more experience points in exchange for some mysterious, unforeseen consequence. I created my own version of the table where there were two consequences: a major one like the ones on the table in the official rulebook, and a minor one that was more of a storytelling device and small inconvenience to the player.

Turns out that for Ruby’s minor consequence I drew “Doppelganger,” meaning that there was someone in the Weird West with her face. At first, I wasn’t sure how to incorporate that. I started dropping a few hints, like the local bartender thinking that they’d met even though she never had. I guess I imagined that maybe her doppelganger would turn up at one point.

The idea that eventually became the end result formed during the first session. While investigating Hellstrome Industries’ Plant 13 where the Heart o’ Darkness was stolen, they discovered a scientist whose head had been gruesomely smashed into a table with enough force to instantly kill him and sunder the table in the process. As the characters were speculating what could have caused that, one of them suggested that maybe the aggressor had a steam-augmented arm like Ruby’s.

It actually wasn’t that far from the truth. They were witnessing the handiwork of “Zik”, a former pit fighter who became a member of the Tremendae Gang. He was decked out in a number of augmentations, including a giant arm claw. After the first session, they hadn’t met Zik yet, but they did meet (i.e. were attacked by) some of the other members of the Tremendae Gang, who no doubt saw Ruby with them. They knew Ruby was a member of their gang, so why was she with this group?

The Tremendae Gang

The main villains of The Road to Hell: the Tremendae Gang. The gang consists of an Indian who had a huge arsenal of guns, a New Orleans Huckster with an unhealthy interest in the dead, the Harrowed gunslinger and leader, Marshal Rex Temendae, with badges of the lawmen he’s killed on his jacket, a Martial Artist with a knack for knives and exotic weaponry, and a steam-augmented pit fighter. All made their appearance except the last, who was replaced in this story by Ruby’s doppelganger.

In planning for this session with Ruby’s player absent, I decided that the Tremendae Gang came up with a pretty bold plan. During the night, they managed to capture the real Ruby and switch her with their own. After all, impersonating someone who is identical to you would be the perfect disguise. When the group got too close to the Tremendae Gang hideout, she made sure that she did her part to help take them down.

Unfortunately, the Tremendae gang did pretty poorly in their fight. The martial artist got hammered with 8 wounds (it takes 4 to incapacitate someone) from a hellfire carbine during the first round. Marshal Rex Tremendae started off the battle with a high noon duel with one of the PCs on the office level, but in the end he failed to escape and was knocked unconscious. Only Casper Zed, a Huckster from (surprise!) New Orleans managed to get away after activating an Invisibility hex on himself.

All in all, I was pleased with how it went, despite the fact that the battle wasn’t quite as much of a challenge as I’d hoped. Guess that’s the way the dice roll sometimes. Still, they’re going to need that luck in the next session because they’ll be heading to Lost Angels, one of the most dangerous places in the Weird West. And is that the sound of a stampede off in the distance?

Faust, etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

The Price of Power

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Faust, etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

Faust, etching by Rembrandt (c. 1650)

One common theme in literature is “What is the price of power and is it worth paying?” The classic example of this is the Faustian bargain, named after the character Faust who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic power and forbidden knowledge. The story (usually) ends tragically, with him going to Hell as he realizes that the price of his power was far too much to pay.

Of course, the definitions of “price” and “power” provide endless variations to explore. For instance, it could turn into “How much are you willing to sacrifice to save the world?” where sacrifice is the price and having the ability to save the world is the power.

This is a fantastic theme to explore for role-playing games: just like how we can explore the consequences in literature, we can explore the consequences through the fictional characters we are playing out. I suppose at a very basic level, nearly all role-playing games revolve around this theme. Each character must decide if the risk of dying (or facing some other terrible consequence) is a price they are willing to pay in order to have the power to get what they want (whether it is gold, glory, experience, safety, etc.).

Granted, some role-playing games push this much harder than others. In Dungeons & Dragons 4e, character death is rather rare and thus the price of the power to successfully loot the dungeon or save the world is relatively low. Instead, this theme usually plays out where characters are trying to stop evildoers who are willing to pay too big of a price (not always at their own expense) in order to have the power they desire. Thus it’s not about personal choice but about stopping those who have gone too far.

Call of Cthulhu does the reverse. Characters typically enter into situations for personal reasons and it’s usually expected that they will eventually go insane as a consequence of learning “things that man was not meant to know.” Thus the price of power is almost always too much. Fortunately, this usually isn’t the main theme in Call of Cthulhu and games are often quite enjoyable if players expect that they aren’t going to win in the end and enjoy the tragic story.

One of the many things that I like about Deadlands is that it provides ample opportunities to explore this theme without necessarily forcing it upon the player. A character can play it safe the whole time, being a gunslinger who just likes to shoot up the baddies to save the people. Alternatively, the character can have an Arcane Background, which usually involves some sort of tradeoff. “Hucksters” for instance, gamble bits of their soul with manitou (lesser demons) in order to pull off magical powers. Perhaps they are doing it as a Faustian bargain, hoping that the really big consequences won’t come to pass. Or perhaps they feel that the most effective way to save the world from the manitou and the abominations they create is to use their own power against them. Thus the question becomes an interesting twist: “Is the risk that comes with using the power of the manitou worth the possibility of ultimately defeating the manitou?”

Deadlands supports this exploration mechanically as well. One of the new edges for the setting is called “Veteran o’ the Weird West.” Characters who take it gain 20 XP (which is huge; enough for four Advances!) but in exchange, you have to draw on a table of consequences you’ll be stuck with. The edge description says “the results can be quite extreme, from maiming to insanity.” Thus the question is: “Is having a more powerful character worth the consequences that come with it?”

The Road to Hell Cover

“…is paved with good intentions.”

For the last bit of the summer, I decided to start up a Deadlands mini-campaign using the pre-published “Devil’s Tower” trilogy (originally written for Deadlands Classic, converted for Deadlands Reloaded). As it turns out, four out of five players decided to take a risk with Veteran o’ the Weird West. I told them ahead of time that I’d modified the table a little bit for my own purposes to make it slightly more ugly. They’ve already discovered some of the consequences: one character walked into a saloon and while describing him, I mentioned that he only had one arm! Most of the other characters have yet to discover their consequences, but they are coming. I’m sure we’ll find out later if they decide that the price of power was too high.

We’ve just started the first of the trilogy, “The Road to Hell.” The story is just unfolding and they’re primarily okay with the price they are paying now: track down a stolen gem in exchange for a hefty sum of money. Eventually that price will steadily increase but so will the power (eventually, the stakes won’t be money, but the salvation of the world!). How much are the players willing to pay for that power? We’ll find out!

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