Don't Make The Game So Deadly If You Want Big Damn Heroes: A Rant On RPG Design

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

As a GM, I’m cursed to endlessly fall in love with the wrong games.  I always, always want to play the games with the beautiful settings and the most awful mechanics.  And Deadlands was the worst of both worlds.
The wild west setting of Deadlands is, in many ways, the height of what roleplaying settings should be – colorful, vibrant, saturated with a rich alternate history.  In our world, the Civil War’s turning point came at the battle of Gettysburg, proceeding towards victory – but in Deadlands, that’s when the dead rose back to life and began devouring both sides.  Turns out some rogue Native Americans, absolutely sick of the white man’s interference, unleashed some havoc in the Hunting Grounds and created a literal hell on earth.  As such, it’s fifteen years later and the North and South are still at war, while lurking horrors grow in every corner.
Deadlands gets the tone perfect with the right word choices – a critical hit is “to the gizzards,” you have Wind and Vigor and Smarts as stats, and you don’t steal, you “Filch.”  The core of the game involves drawing a poker hand and chips from a pot.  You want to feel like you’re a crazy cowboy?  Everything in the game soaks you in that sensation, makes you talk like an old cowhand just to discuss your character sheet.  It is unabashedly brilliant.
And stupidly fucking deadly.
Just fighting other humans would be deadly enough – you only have about 12-20 Wind points, after which you pass out, and every wound you take not only gives you significant penalties to all actions, but you take 1d6 wind.  In my game, one lucky shot was often enough to knock a physically weak character right the hell out.  You have Fate Chips to help fix that, to some extent, but there’s still the very real possibility of going bust – all you have to do is roll more 1s on a couple of dice, and you’ve just screwed the pooch.
Plus, if you’ve got any kind of magic powers, you’re kind of screwed.  The Huckster (who casts spells by drawing poker hands – the better than hand, the more successful the spell, and how insanely awesome is that?) gets Backlash with every Joker he draws, which is to say often.  Mad Scientists have Reliability Rolls.  Your chances of your elaborate superpowers working without having a roll that does damage to you?  Slim.  (Hell, the Huckster’s powers were so unusable out of the box that they had to make an emergency rules change later just to have them survive.)
So you’d be fragile in a normal world… But then you have to face otherworldly horrors.  They make you make Guts checks, and if you fail those, you get permanent paranoias and significant penalties.  They all have superhuman strength, and their magic powers rarely have backlash.  And they usually have some obscure weakness that you can’t kill them permanently without a lot of research to figure out that this flaming monster killing off drunkards used to be a bum who was killed by being set on fire by gang members, so the only way to kill it is to douse it with liquor.
Don’t get too attached, in other words.  You’re going to run through characters like toilet paper.  Hell, even the opening sample of “How the game works” has the sample character die.  Horribly.  (Don’t worry, he comes back.)
If you’re thinking, “Why, this game is like Call of Cthulhu!  You avoid danger at every turn, using magical rituals only when you have to, creeping from place to place as you stay away from the monsters until you dope out the one way to kill them.”
Nope.  The game actually expects you to be heroic, despite all of these easy ways to die. In fact, it expects the GM will cheat, considerably, to ensure that you live.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with “being heroic against dire odds” in a game.  Sometimes, it’s even more heroic when you and your character do Big Damn Hero things despite the fact that living through three sessions is very unlikely.
But the problem with Deadlands is that the setting wants you to do Big Damn Hero things, but the mechanics treat your PCs like tissue paper.  Botching is easy, two wounds in an ambush is likely to take you out, you’ll shit your pants and run whenever the monster raises its ugly head.  The entire mechanics of the game are devoted to making you, as the PC, an incompetent – particularly at the early levels, which is where you all start. (One of our notable Deadlands adventures involved two gunmen falling off a horse, both dying.)
And yet the later adventures assume that your PCs are experienced!  How the hell are you going to get to be experienced?  You’ve given us a 1st Edition D&D campaign, where PCs are expected to die on a regular basis, and then give us a setting that assumes we’ve surpassed your challenges.  How?
Oh, it’s the old trick: You want the GM to save them.  Just have the GM fudge a few rolls, and keep these guys alive.
So why’d you make all of these elaborate rules for GMs to memorize, then?  Why did you make it so complex, with five kinds of dice and poker chips and decks of cards and different-colored paper clips, if in the end it’s all going to come down to “Just make it up”?
I don’t mind deadly.  If I’m running a WWII campaign on Omaha Beach, one gunshot should have the ability to kill.  But then you’re not expecting me to live through the session, either. You’re not expecting me to get through that fight, then fight through Germany, and eventually battle my way through the hordes of guards at Hitler’s bunk to grapple in hand-to-hand combat with a mecha-tank Goering.
As a GM, occasionally, yes, you’ll have to fudge if you want to keep a band of PCs going through a long-term adventure.  But the game system should not assume that you’ll have to do that, nor should it force the GM to fudge on a regular basis.  The mechanics of the game should jine up with the goals of the game – so if you want to have Big Damn Heroes doing impressive things, then you should have rules that encourage that to happen. You don’t have to make it butt-simple easy on the players, but you should make it so that every failed dice roll doesn’t include the strong possibility of death, dismemberment, or insanity – only some of them.
Sad thing, it wouldn’t have taken that much to fix Deadlands.  Making botches more difficult would have been a start, and making the Guts checks a little less onerous would have probably massaged the rest.  But as it is, Deadlands has a beautiful setting, and a game mechanic that’s designed to get in the way of that.  And the mechanics are so unique that I want to run a Deadlands campaign, but I’m not entirely sure which of the many, many mechanics should be shaved and altered to make it encourage what the setting so strongly wants us to do.
As for the rest of you, learn the lesson: have the mechanics of the game line up with your stated goals.

3 Comments

  1. Lyn Belzer-Tonnessen
    Sep 24, 2012

    Love, love, love playing Deadlands. And you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to run it. I’m currently experiencing the same problems with the Harry Dresden RPG, though.

  2. NC Narrator
    Sep 25, 2012

    My very first at-bat as a GM was for a Cyberpunk campaign…which I picked because it had a nice basic d10 system that I could understand without a higher math degree. (Which my husband basically has, thanks to his physics degree, which is why he ran games in the Rolemaster universe with admirable aplomb.)
    In the very first adventure I completely misjudged the damage a frag grenade could do and inadvertently blew the leg off of one player’s character. And I fudged that, since the player took “cover” behind a dead body and probably should have actually been a chunky salsa on the opposing wall.
    The unexpected side benefit of that was a written-on-the-fly adventure that effectively indentured the characters to Arasaka (evil mega-corp…for the uninitiated), until they could figure a way out. The players came up with a saying during that campaign: What’s worse than finding out Arasaka wants you dead? Finding out Arasaka wants you ALIVE.
    Deadlands sounds seriously awesome–but the comparison that came to mind was not Call of Cthulu, but rather Paranoia. Great game for fast, dirty play with no regard for character development AT ALL…in fact my favorite adventure in that game was “Send In The Clones.”

  3. Michael Powell
    Sep 26, 2012

    I was getting kind of confused reading through this, as it’s so totally different from my own experience with Deadlands… Until you got to the point where you were describing the expectations of the scenarios. I absolutely love Deadlands (particularly the original rules), but I’ve never played any of the canned scenarios. I found it to be dangerous, but never half so deadly as you seemed to experience, and since the GMs (me in one of the campaigns) were rolling their own scenarios as we went, we could modify the difficulty based on the capabilities of the party at every step.
    In the first campaign I GMed, we didn’t have a single player death. I don’t believe I was fudging any rules to keep them alive (though it was a long time ago, so I’m not certain). In the Hell on Earth campaign, we had a particularly brutal GM, and we ended up with a single PC death, after something like 10 sessions, of a particularly frail character (mine, actually), following a fairly ludicrous series of bad roles, having been attacked while he was asleep.
    You brush off the mitigating effect on fate chips fairly quickly, but in my experience that is a MAJOR mitigating effect. Admittedly, you’re giving up your experience every time you use them, but they work wonders to keep you alive and kicking in tough situations. That really is the advantage the PCs have, the thing that makes them more awesome than everybody else in the world around them, that makes it possible for them to be the Big Damn Hero. And if your PCs don’t have enough fate chips to keep themselves alive and advancing, maybe that’s the problem right there.
    The rules for when to hand out fate chips aren’t rigid and well defined. The GM is supposed to do it whenever a player does something particularly cool, or interesting, or memorable, any time there’s a spot of good role-playing. Standing up and being the Big Damn Hero is not only when you’re most likely to need fate chips, it’s also a damned good opportunity to earn some.
    So, it might be that the canned scenarios are poorly designed. I don’t know, as I haven’t used them. But I think the core rule set is a lot stronger than you give it credit for.

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