Monday, October 14, 2013

[Campaign Analysis] Deadlands Reloaded: Lost in the Maze

My Deadlands campaign wrapped up yesterday. As is my wont, with the closure of another campaign it's now time to take a look at "[w]hat worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign."

This has been a year for laying old ghosts to rest, it seems. Things kicked off with me finally getting a crack at running Cthulhu by Gaslight by way of The Golden Dawn, a campaign framework I'd been wanting to sink my teeth into since sometime in the mid- to late-Nineties. Around the same time as I was first ogling The Golden Dawn, I would've picked up the core rulebook for Deadlands. We're talking first edition, first print run, here. As soon as I heard about the concept behind the game, saw someone on a newsgroup (remember those?) sum it up as "a Spaghetti Western directed by Sam Raimi and scripted by H. P. Lovecraft" could I resist?

The only problem was that one of the people in my group at the time adamantly refused to play the game. I have no idea why; he was a big fan of Western movies, after all. Something about the game just rubbed him the wrong way, I suppose. I tried to get a game going anyway, sans the recalcitrant player, and bought the boxed set describing the shattered West Coast (referred to as "the Maze") with an eye towards locating the campaign in the vicinity of the theocracy of Lost Angels. But things stalled after one session and both the rulebook and the boxed set went into limbo on my gaming shelf and were eventually sold off during one of my periodic purges.

Flash forward circa 15 years.

Last year I resolved to give Savage Worlds a serious try as one of my go-to systems. My first two attempts fell flat, largely due to the fact that I was being too ambitious with an untested system, starting off with major setting conversions that I had no business attempting. I developed serious doubts about the system, but resolved to give it one more try. I figured that if I used a setting and adventures designed specifically for SW, I'd get an honest idea of the system in action.

For those of you who don't know, SW had its genesis in the system originally presented in Deadlands. The "classic" version of Deadlands still has its adherents, but nowadays Pinnacle Entertainment Group is focused exclusively on its flagship system and has put out a "Reloaded" version of Deadlands that brings the setting in line with Savage Worlds. I picked up the two core books for DL:R and also a PDF of one of those Plot Point Campaigns I'd heard so much about. In honor of my abortive campaign of yesteryear, I chose "The Flood".

So with that lengthy pre-amble out of the way, here's the meat of the analysis: we had an awesome campaign. Not only am I personally sold on Savage Worlds, but every player in my group has endorsed it to some degree or another - my wife going so far as to say it may well be her favorite system right now. We all particularly enjoyed the Adventure Deck, and the play of those cards often took the campaign in interesting directions, forcing me to think on my feet, which I absolutely love doing. This is a campaign that ultimately produced music mixes, commissioned artwork, extensive fictive interludes, and a 24-episode actual play recording.

And yet...

The system passed with flying colors, yes. I'm not so sure about the Plot Point Campaign format. My difficulties with "The Flood" could have arisen from the fact that I've never run a PPC before, but I've certainly tackled large campaigns for other systems, so I'm hardly a newb in that regard. Part of the problem, I think, is that the campaign lasted about twice as long as I'd initially anticipated. We blitzed through the first three Plot Points in the first two sessions and I thought we were looking at maybe 15 sessions max, but then things started getting really slowed down and drawn out by activities undertaken in between the plot points - activities that are necessary to allow the PCs to get powerful enough for the final act. And this was even with clever play allowing the party to skip over big chunks of this extracurricular activity!

The extended play isn't such a bad thing in the end, of course - it made for some wonderfully epic character arcs, with the PCs going from Novice to Heroic level - but about half the group (myself included) were definitely feeling like we were ready to move on even as far back as session 12 or so. We hadn't gone into the campaign with the mindset that this would be THE big campaign of the year and that different mindset took its toll over time.

From the GM's perspective, I also found "The Flood" to be woefully sketchy in places I really could've used more details, and then bizarrely railroady at other points, oftentimes basing an entire scenario off of one assumed course of PC action. At other times, adventures bottlenecked into a single roll, and not even one that any given group could be assured of being able to do. Here's the most egregious example:
Asking around about what happened nets nothing—in fact, the locals shy away from the subject very quickly. 
If someone asks in Chinese (any dialect) and makes a Streetwise roll at –4, they run into Willy Long Tam, who quietly whispers that the Society ran afoul of the real law in Shan Fan...
Okay. So what if no one in the group speaks Chinese? (That was certainly the case with my group.) What if they fail that steeply-penalized Streetwise roll? That's an important lead, one that the rest of the adventure evolves from. That's just sloppy adventure writing.

I was able to re-write around stuff like that, but the other thing I found vexing was the lack of maps. The campaign centers around Lost Angels, but we're given no map of the greater L.A. area, showing where important suburbs are located in relation to the city. The map we are given doesn't really match up with portions of the text. Some location maps are provided for select other sites, but they're of dubious utility, or else overdetailed where they needn't be. (And for a game that assumes the use of miniatures as the default mode of play, I found it especially strange that we weren't provided with any tactical maps for some of the set-piece encounters.)

So much for the structural issues of the book. How did it all play out? Some mild spoilers will no doubt follow, but I'll try and keep them as light as possible.

As I mentioned, this was my first PPC, so it took me a little while to cotton on to the layout - it's very much a toolkit design (as opposed to, say, a Pathfinder Adventure Path) that requires a thorough read-through and careful note taking, much like The Great Pendragon Campaign. There are a lot of NPCs to keep track of and a ton of locations. ("The Flood" would actually function better, I think, as a framework for a sandbox campaign, ditching the actual PPC entirely. ) Even after 23 sessions of play, there's still plenty of material that went completely untouched. There's enough material in "The Flood" to fuel tons of sandboxy explorations.

I certainly could've integrated some of the key NPCs a little better, but then again, the PCs had a real knack for not going anywhere near where those key NPCs were located, or, when they did, unintentionally avoiding them. On the other hand, the group was quite good about taking the main hook of going after Reverend Grimme even without having any personal run-ins with him. What I find most amusing, in retrospect, is that the meat of the PPC basically guarantees a classic D&D-style framework: the last half of the campaign was almost entirely made up of the adventurers, er, posse going from one dungeon, er, underground complex (mine, sea cave, etc.) to the next in the course of pursuing their quest, er, mission to take down Grimme. I think that, if and when I run Deadlands again, I'll definitely want to either design my own material or pick adventures that have a distinctly less D&D-ish feel.

I say "if and when" because I feel like this campaign pretty much really did put that old Deadlands ghost to rest. We had mad science, steam tech, huckster magic, a PC that became Harrowed during the course of the game, gyrocopter dogfights versus angel-demons, Native gunslingers facing off against Shaolin monks, Lovecraftian overtones in spades, climactic gun duels - in short, everything one could ask of a Deadlands campaign. Maybe I'll come back to it, but if I never do, I can still die happy knowing we played the hell out of one of the most gamable settings ever published.

One final note on Savage Worlds as a system: the climactic battle featured no fewer than 25 combatants on each side. Since I wasn't using miniatures, I hand-waved a lot of the background, extra-versus-extra action, but I was definitely thankful for the system's built-in method of foisting Allies off onto players to control, and especially grateful for the time I'd taken to transcribe stats onto easy-to-reference cards. The fact that I was even able to run such a huge dust-up and not have it take 8 hours is testament to SW's excellent design.

Nonetheless, running Reverend Grimme reminded me of how much I loathe higher level play in "advantage-based" systems. Be it SW, GURPS, or Pathfinder, if the rules have any sort of system that uses things like Edges, Advantages, or Feats, you inevitably end up with powerful NPCs boasting a raft of them, and all the concomitant bonuses and special moves that come along. That sort of thing is terrific fun when you're a player, but as a GM it absolutely does my head in. I did my best running Grimme, but I know I forgot to add a bonus here and a bonus there at certain times, busy as I was juggling all the other antagonists' abilities. With any sort of "advantage-based" system, you just have to figure that those sorts of piledrivers are just naturally going to occur and be okay with it. Still, at the end of the day I find I actually prefer games that stat NPCs and monsters with different, simpler mechanics - but that's a topic for another day.

For now, I can say with total confidence that Savage Worlds has won its place as one of my tabletop group's go-to systems.
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