One Hit Wonders: Deadlands Reloaded

This last weekend, I had the first installment of what I’m call “One Hit Wonders.” It’s something I’ve tried once in the past and it died pretty quickly. The idea is just having a chance to try out games that you’ve always been curious about but have never been able to play. When I’ve tried it in the past it’s invariably been a little work intensive and hence contributed to it either failing or (when I’ve tried to get it going again) never starting in the first place.

This time around, I thought I’d try it with less work. No pre-gens. No rules summaries. Not necessarily even a lot of game prep outside of maybe reading through a sample adventure. There’d be some reading of the rules in advance to prepare, but otherwise we show up, make characters with whatever copies of the rules we have, and have a simple one-shot. Add beer and pretzels, and you’re good.

For this first run, the group chose Deadlands: Reloaded using the Savage Worlds system. Details behind the cut.


Pre-Game

The lead-up to picking the game and playing was filled with difficulties. You can’t get a half dozen people to agree on what to put on a pizza, so getting people to agree on a game was a challenge. This is especially a problem over email, where it’s harder to really discuss what you are interested in.

There were two systems we used to decide. The first was a scale that one player cooked up to help people rate the various options on the table:

1 I’d play sober
2 I’ll bring the beer
3 Can we incorporate a drinking game?
4 I’m only playing if someone else brings the beer
5 There simply is not enough beer

From there I made the final call by discovering instant-runnoff voting.

I was pretty excited to try out Savage Worlds. It’s been high on my list, especially when I was considering an alternative to D&D 3.X. The weird west might not have been the best setting to get a feel for it in that regard, but I had fun nonetheless.

We had something like nine people that had voiced an interest in playing in the beginning. Five (including myself) that actively said they’d be there, two of which were a half hour late, one thought the game was at five hours later than it actually was, and one who sent me an email that I never got letting me know he was going camping. Gonk.

So, something like two hours late, we started play.

Character Creation

Overall, it was awesome. Two of us had characters done in something like 20 minutes. The third player showed up so late that we just printed out pre-gens off the Pinnacle Web site and he picked one. Character creation was simple enough that you weren’t overwhelmed with choices and it was easy to assign numbers quickly, and yet you weren’t constrained by options either.

I did, however, have a few frustrations with character creation.

First, it seemed like not all Edges and Hindrances seemed to be created equal. For those unfamiliar with the system, there is a simple advantage/disadvantage system where they were called (you guessed it) Edges and Hindrances. Edges were of broadly equal value and were perhaps most comparable to Feats in d20 3.X. Hindrances, on the other hand, came in “Minor” and “Major” versions. Minor versions could give you a skill point or extra money. A Major Hindrance was worth two Minor ones and could buy you an extra attribute point or another Edge.

In creating my Doc Holliday knock-off (Dr. Jebediah Huckleberry), I took the Hindrance “Ailin'” to represent his tuberculosis. Specifically, I took the Major version of it so I could get a second Edge out of the deal. “Ailin'” gave me a penalty to tests to resist fatigue, which seemed fine. Were this an on-going game, I would have had to roll at the end of each session to see if my condition deteriorates. With the Major version of it, “deteriorate” means “die.”

For contrast, some other Major Hindrances include “One Arm” or “Small.”

Missing an arm… Could die at any time… Missing an arm… Could die at any time…

I don’t see those being in the same league. But you also don’t have any other way to represent bigger Hindrances. There’s nothing really bigger than a Major Hindrance. It sort of constrains the options for drawbacks.

Another challenge I foresee, mostly in terms of ongoing play, is that it seems like you could easily bulletshape your character from the get-go and not have room to grow outside of picking up Edges to give you some extra flair.

They limit some of the Edges to characters of a certain advancement level, but from a cursory glance it feels like you just won’t have much basic skill to distinguish a novice from a legendary character. Further play may prove me wrong on that point.

Along similar lines, you have a set limit of how many Hindrances you can take. Which is fine when you’re starting out at low level. On the other hand, I didn’t see rules in their guidelines for higher powered characters for taking on additional Hindrances. On the one hand I could see it being valuable to reflect the experiences your character has had. On the other hand, it could make it challenging to balance out ongoing characters with characters added in later. Hrm.

In Play

The game calls itself “fast, furious and fun,” and it was certainly that. I was particularly astounded by how well the mechanic of dealing out playing cards for initiative worked. It was an easy and obvious way to keep track of the order that people went. It had its limits, in that you had little way to sway your number in that regard, but in terms of just ease of use it was beautiful.

The main character vs. mook rules also worked out pretty well. It bogged down a little bit with larger encounters, but was still much faster than D&D 3.X. I think I bulletshaped my character a little too much towards gambling and shooting. When the big finale required me to be able to throw a kerosene lamp at some wintery monster to set him on fire, I was a little hosed trying to hit rolling unskilled. It didn’t matter that I had a monster Dexterity. I was unskilled, so I only had a d4-2 to roll, hoping to get a 4. D’oh.

The one very confusing part of the rules that I think we stumbled over a lot was figuring out how to read the dice for damage. The basic roll for stuff involved rolling the die type associated with your attribute or skill. If you had a d10 in Shooting, you rolled that d10. If you were a “Wild Card” (i.e. a main character) then you also got to roll a d6. Rolling the top number on a die allowed you to re-roll and add to the previous amount. But you only got to keep the highest of the two dice. Other game systems have called these open-ended dice “exploding” or some other cute term. Savage Worlds, sticking to their poker metaphors, calls it an “Ace.”

Hand-to-hand damage seemed to work the same as other dicerolls with this system, but damage for something like a pistol was “2d6.” In other places, you rolled 2d6 and added them together to consult charts. But damage rolls “Ace like normal.” Does that then mean that you take the highest of the d6s that you rolled? Do you add them together and explode them, since you also get to sometimes add a explodable d6 to your highest die? The person GMing went with the latter option (which is, obviously, more deadly), but digging through the rules I cannot find where it clarifies one way or the other. I’m not sure if the problem is that the answer is obvious and I’m just too much of a gamer to let the question slide, or if it’s just poorly explained.

I’m sad to say that we didn’t get to try out the showdown rules from the Deadlands rules. I had my character geared towards shootouts, had a chance for a showdown, but then chickened out. Epic phail on my part.

One last bit that I’ll mention here is that, in addition to the rules in the main rule book, Deadlands had a good chunk of alternate rules for use in just that setting. The biggest changes were regarding damage values for weapons and how bennies worked. We didn’t really trip over it in play, but it seemed a little annoying overall.

Compared to the Leading Brand

Savage Worlds, separated from the Deadlands setting, seems like it’s really geared towards pulp adventure. Which of course brings it against the other big dog in pulp adventure roleplay: Spirit of the Century. And I think they both have game design aesthetics that appeal to me, each being a tempting option for any situation where I would want a generic system to run whatever. How did I think the two compared? It’s hard to make a strong comparison, since I ran one and played in the other, which lends a very different experience. (As I’ve learned trying to GM Exalted. Oy vey.) It was also very different groups playing in each iteration. But here’s my initial reaction.

For a pickup game, Savage Worlds seemed much better. Because of the simplified options, we were ready to start busting jaws fast. SotC‘s method of using phases of a character’s life and interactions with other characters in the past to choose Aspects seems like an awesome way to build deep characters with strong relations with one another. Which I think is awesome as all hell for a campaign, but SotC is not primarily geared towards campaign-style play. Some of this could have been a matter of having players more clear with what they wanted, but from just the experience of playing one shot of each of them, Savage Worlds won my vote in this regard.

Aspects from SotC are a far more elegant solution to character traits than Edges/Hindrances. Aspects really seem to do well to work around the whole problem of making advantages/disadvantages worth their cost.

Savage Worlds is more of a conventional roleplaying system, which lends a certain approachability to it. The system is relatively light, the rules a quick and easy read. The cascading layers of Aspects used in SotC seem a bit harder to penetrate for someone not used to them, and the raw size of the book only makes it more overwhelming.

There were also a lot of rules in each system that I really didn’t use to any great extent that I could see as being turn-offs. Savage Worlds has more of an angle towards miniature-based combat and also looks a lot more lethal. It seems much closer in spirit to d20 3.X, whereas SotC definitely retains more of a cinematic approach where death is not necessarily what happens when you get utterly beat down. Spirit of the Century appears to have a lot more of a story game vibe at times, turning things I would view as a product of social contract, session structuring and opportunities for roleplay into dice mechanics.

Overall, I’d probably have to play the crap out of both of them to get a better feel for which I like better. But the initial round for me is going to Savage Worlds. The system feels much more approachable, with the more offensive parts easily ignored. SotC, in addition to some of the challenges I’ve had with Aspects, commits one of the biggest sins a roleplaying game can do for me: It uses the FUDGE system. I can find no love in my heart for such a game mechanic. I’d say more, but my secret shame of game writing may actually see the light of day in PDF and POD format. Since I’ll be paid in royalties, I don’t want to trash-talk it too much.

Final Verdict

Savage Worlds is a keeper. I’d like to try and run something in it sometime to see how it works from the other side of the GM screen, though I have no idea what or for who. But it’s a strong candidate for being a generic system I’d want to use for sitations where the new World of Darkness wouldn’t work.

For our next run we’re looking to do Fading Suns. I’m a little nervous about this, in part because andrewgreenberg has this LJ on his flist. I don’t know how much he actually reads here, but it makes me nervous about any negative comments about his game. But then, drivingblind poked his head into the comments of my post about Spirit of the Century, and I somehow didn’t die of embaressment. =)

2 thoughts on “One Hit Wonders: Deadlands Reloaded

  1. jdurall

    I’ve played Savage Worlds with a veteran player, and run it a few times myself, and all damage dice are both rolled and counted together. A raise on damage adds another +1d6 to the total, regardless of the number of raises or the type of dice being rolled for damage.

    If any damage dice “Ace” (explode), they are re-rolled and added to the total (until they stop exploding).

    It can get out of hand quickly. I once rolled a 43 damage against a guy in combat in Solomon Kane (using a greatsword – damage began as 1d10 for Strength + 1d10 for the weapon, +1d6 for a raise – the d6 exploded once and one of the d10s exploded three times).

  2. andrewgreenberg

    ROFL Be as honest as you can – you don’t know criticism until you’ve run a playtest of an early stage game development for a bunch of grizzled old grognards

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