Friday, March 24, 2017

The Challenge of an Old West Campaign

It's always been a problem with the western game - what do you do? Kind of like Traveller* it inevitably descends into one of two main types: it seems to be either bank robberies and mayhem or something "weird" like when our old Boot Hill campaigns used that section in the DM's Guide and started going into D&D modules. They may start as a Roy Rogers movie but they end up a Tarantino film.

It's a strange problem considering how much old west media is out there, until you consider a whole bunch of that deals with lawmen vs. criminals and that the criminals are usually having more fun. You'd think that the TV series would provide a decent model for a western campaign but nobody seems to want to play a location based campaign like "Bonanza" or "Gunsmoke" or even "Deadwood"- they want to play Butch and Sundance roaming about the country having adventures.

I had thought Aces and Eights would solve this by putting in actual game systems for things like running a ranch or managing a cattle drive but it has not taken off here. Maybe if I presented it more as a "Cowboy Kingmaker" campaign it would strike more of a chord with players. That's actually an idea worth some additional thought.

For now Deadlands is the best western option for us - fight monsters  and have adventures with magic and steamtech seems to be the ticket. I pondered one type of campaign years ago but never got to run it. I am going to try to keep each session as one episode though, with a clear ending, to avoid player attendance issues. The way the campaign is structured in the book makes this fairly easy to do as most of the individual "plot points" look like a session's worth of action. There are roughly 15 episodes directly related to the big story, add in some interesting side trips in the Maze and the rest of 1880's California and I easily have 20-24 sessions. If we stick to the once-a-month plan I should have 10 sessions the rest of this year so I'm looking at wrapping this up end of next year. I'm kind of hoping though that we find chances here and there to work in an extra session. Not because I want to rush through it but because we're already having a ton of fun and I'd like to get deeper into it quicker.

*in my experience Traveller games almost always go merchants, mercs, or mayhem, and even if they start as something respectable, it almost always goes criminal at some point. The published adventures almost universally promote this so it's not just a reflection on the players. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Building a Deadlands Campaign

I've wanted to run a sustained Deadlands campaign for a long time, but the opportunity never really came about. Now that it has, I had to start figuring out what I wanted it to be. Free-form, open range, sandbox type game? Could be fun, but I'd like a little more structure to the thing. There are a bunch of short adventures out for the game, and at least one town-based long adventure (Coffin Rock), but there are also four full campaign books which are similar to an adventure path for other games. Since I didn't have a specific concept in mind already I decided to go with one of those.

Which one though?

  • The Flood - California after the "big one", San Francisco, lots of steampunk tech, lots of Chinese culture
  • The Last Sons - The Dakotas, Deadwood, lots of Sioux culture and shamanic type magic
  • Stone and a Hard Place - Arizona and New Mexico, Tombstone, and it's the most "classic western" of them all, probably spaghetti western in particular. 
  • Good Intentions - Utah err, "Deseret", Mad Science, and a lot of action around Salt Lake, aka the "City of Gloom"
I have all of these (the last one was Kickstarted last year and is PDF only until the books come later this year) and they all have definite points of attraction. I was initially set on either The Flood or Stone and a Hard Place, so I re-read both of them. 

Stone and a Hard Place is really good, and while reading it I had pretty much decided to run it first. It starts with Tombstone, the Earps, the Cowboys, and yes you do get to be a part of the OK Corral situation. Being a huge fan of the "Tombstone" movie it's definitely a very attractive adventure, and it gets better from there. If you want a very "western" campaign with your party in pursuit of a single major antagonist, one where it gets very personal, this is a great campaign. 

Then I read The Flood and things started to turn. While Stone is awesome, I don't think it is as good as The Flood as an introduction to the Deadlands setting. The Flood makes a great effort, particularly early on, to give players a sense of what's going on and why with the Weird West. It's not something I had really considered before, but I've been reading and occasionally running Deadlands stuff for 20 years and never really had the chance for my players to see the big picture. There is evil in the world, but it's evil you can fight. It's a big part of the setting and there are even mechanics for what your party can do to roll back the damage. Once you understand this as a player, you can make plans for it. it and make a big difference in the world beyond just shooting monsters. It's a cool aspect of the game that I've never been able to use but I think I will get to do it now.

My concerns with the Flood are that it's a little more "out there" than say, Stone. The Maze is a great setting for a game but it means you may be spending a fair amount of time on steam-powered boats in the maze fighting Chinese pirates using martial arts weapons and not riding horses chasing bandits as you might expect in a western type RPG. There's room to add in more of the traditional elements for sure, but the backbone of the campaign involves a fair amount of deck time, martial arts, and magic. I don't want my players asking where the "western" went halfway through the game so it's something I'm going to have to keep an eye on.

The Flood also sets up some things nicely. Early on the PC's meet Dr. Darius Hellstromme, one of the big movers and shakers in the setting. He figures prominently in Good Intentions, so by doing Flood first my players will know who he is if we get the chance to play that one. They also meet some other known setting NPCs who are threatened or play another role in some of those other books.   

So I have settled on The Flood for this campaign and I am very happy with it now. Our first session is complete and went well and I am very optimistic for the future. 

Sorry guys, we're going to California - maybe next time!
Bonus: This is also good refresher training in running an ongoing Savage Worlds game which a) makes me happy anyway as I love the system and b) helps me figure things out that will make the inevitable Savage Rifts game that much better.

Mood-setting media ideas: For this campaign I'd say Tv shows The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Kung Fu, and the classic film Big Trouble in Little China (originally conceived as a western) set the right tone. Heck, just being able to cite those as relevant to a game I am running makes me pretty happy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Weekend Update

We had a pretty good weekend here - got to run another session of the Star Wars campaign Friday, ran session 2 of the Deadlands campaign Saturday, then saw the new Kong movie on Sunday. Also managed to dive back in to Star Trek Online. Time off is good! There's more to come on each of these but it feels good to have the momentum going again with multiple campaigns.