Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tommy's Take on Stone & A Hard Place

This one is kind of a special treat: A plot point campaign focusing on Stone, major antagonist of the Deadlands setting (he was the guy on the original Deadlands book), reintroducing elements that were streamlined elements out of Reloaded...and my group and I actually playtested some of the mechanics in this book!
Plot Armor: Off...take your shot!


ETHICS IN GAME JOURNALISM DISCLAIMER: I was comped a review PDF by Pinnacle for this. I also playtested some of the game mechanics (not the adventure) for this. I am also working under an unrelated freelance contract for Pinnacle. Also, I AM both a Deadlands and Savage Worlds fanboy. I will NOT apologize for that, but I will warn you of that.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Kickstarter for Stone & A Hard Place should have went live about one minute before I scheduled this review to publish. You can get the PDF for $20, the print book for $35 or this, The Last Sons and The Flood for a cool $100. This book is one part rules supplement and one part Plot Point Campaign. If I had to guess, the  Player's Guide (and thus the rules stuff) will eventually make it to Pinnacle's site as a free download. This was true of the Martial Arts and Shaman rules from The Flood and The Last Sons, respectively.

So what's in the Player's Section? First up are Harrowed as starting PC option. We've seen this in Hell on Earth and Deadlands Noir, and it is now an official beginning PC choice in The Weird West (there was always a possibility of it if you took Veteran o' the Weird West). This includes Harrowed Hindrances and Edges (most of those Edges being converted powers from Deadlands Classic), as well as expanded Dominion rules (which I further tweaked to more closely fit the Classic rules...I like the idea of the Manitou's Spirit not lining up closely with the PC's...and I ran the Worst Nightmare scenario and adjusted starting Dominion based off of decision points in those scenarios). But Ghost, Burrow, Fast as Death, Spider, Trackin' Teeth and a LOT more options are now officially available to Harrowed in your Weird West game. A huge upgrade over Harrowed as originally presented in Reloaded.

The other big Player thing? Hexslingers. Originally an offshoot of Hucksters, focusing on channeling magic for combat in Classic, they got folded back into the Hucksters in Reloaded, with a "and some guys call themselves Hexslingers"...now, they are their own Arcane Background again, with some neat tricks liking being able to use the powers Aim, Smite and Boost Shooting as a free action, or reducing the cost to activate powers if they roll a raise. We converted one character in our game into a Hexslinger but I wasn't real thrilled with that version of the rules. They changed sometime between then and now and I like these a lot better (my variation improved reliability but was a lot more complicated, perhaps too complicated for Savage Worlds). A couple of new powers are included here as well (Numb and Shootist), with Shootist having a bunch of different effects you can take, allowing you to craft new bullets with different effects (like hitting ethereal creatures, for instance).

Now, WARNING...THERE ARE SPOILERS!


SERIOUSLY! PLAYERS, GO AWAY!


SPOILING STUFF FOR YOURSELF IS LAME AND NO FUN!

The Marshal's section takes up the bulk of the book. First and foremost, everything you ever wanted to know about Stone is laid bare right here. His full history, including events through the Deadlands Classic metaplot, such as the Heart of Darkness adventures that introduced Hell on Earth. A list of the most dangerous outlaws in the Weird West and their rewards are also included, as they are - knowingly or not - serving Death by their deeds. Death's other servants are detailed here, like the Rail Barons (Bayou Vermilion - creators of The Night Train - are furthering Death's Agenda?! Nooo!)

As with the last two Plot Point books, Setting Rules specific to the Reckoner (in this case, Death) are presented, such as battlefields being one Fear Level higher than the surrounding area.  There's another great rule for notoriety of a gunman getting ahead of him, prompting challenges from young hot shots when they ride into town...as well as the brutal effects Death has on the area weather. You can even "dial up" some Hindrances, making Death Wish and Grim Servant of Death even more harrowing (no pun intended).

As each of the other two Plot Points zoomed in on areas of the Weird West, this one tackles the American Southwest, with Tombstone and Death Valley being the major highlights, but smaller towns such as Despair, Phoenix and Potential. There's even a reference to Thomas Edison hard at work for the Union.

A short and sweet random encounter generator is provided, using a quick combination of card draw and dice roll. (Players want Diamonds, promise).

Stone and a Hard Place takes up a chunk of the book, and the only assumptions are that they will be Veterans by Plot Point 5, and Legendary (or leading a large posse) by the end. The thing I have discovered is that the sliding scale for Savage Worlds isn't as steep as in a lot of games, which is a good thing in my eyes, so I don't sweat that stuff a ton. The campaign itself starts off in Tombstone and does a nice job of making history fans feel at home as they are swept up in the war with the Earps and The Cowboys...but then history takes another MASSIVE step into left field by the end of the second episode. What follows is a race to find the method of ending a Servitor for good, which means a trek all the way from Arizona to Back East (with plenty of room to fill in your own adventures) and a throwdown with an undead alligator! From there, it seems to be set up for the final showdown...or the second act plot twist (which is what actually happens). From there, the posse is left dealing with a rampaging madman who has given up any sense of subtlety, moving across the west and wiping out some of the greatest heroes of the Weird West (real and fictional). This is all in an effort to turn Death Valley into a Deadland, and with most major heroes gone, it is absolutely up to the posse to stop him.

My biggest complaint here is that the end of the campaign can sure feel anticlimactic to some folks, given that there is the very real possibility of one of the biggest villains in Deadlands taking a long-coming dirt nap...but probably not at the hands of the posse, not directly, anyway. I definitely recommend examining that ending closely. If it's something that's going to make your players feel cheated (assuming they succeed in their task), make some adjustments to it. For long time Deadlands geeks, though, the Plot Point Campaign is great, and transforms the setting quite a bit, arguably as much as The Flood and more than The Last Sons, as the world will be noticeably different, win or lose.

The Savage Tales aren't as engrossing this go around, though I do like Aces Low. If I run this campaign (and I dearly hope to), I figure on using a lot of my own adventures, most likely, to feel in the Plot Point gaps.

Some Deadlands Classic monsters and baddies get updated here, including El Diablo Rojo and El Diablo Negro, as well as NPCs who appeared in the Marshal's Handbook, the most notable (IMO) being Doc Holliday, who is updated to be a Hexslinger (as he should be).

SIX POINT SUMMARY

- The Hellstromme campaign will have a high bar to jump after this. Dealing with Death's Servitor an the most iconic Deadlands villain SHOULD be a big deal...and it definitely is.

- Hexslingers are a great alternative to Hucksters, and I'm glad to see them separated. The "re-Savaging" of old Classic bits continues and it is fantastic. (This goes for you as well, Harrowed Edges).

- The climax of the Plot Point Campaign may be tough to swallow. I see at least one viable workaround, without altering it too much, but it's definitely a "know your group" thing.

- I always give point for random tables, and this is another good one, capturing the feel of the area.

- The Setting Rules in general are some of the best, like the advice for beefing up some of the Hindrances, the rules for battlefields and the random card draws for hotshot gunslingers calling you out when you enter town.

- Old school Deadlands players and GMs get soooo many easter eggs thrown their way in this one that it's crazy, Ernst Biren, Ronan Lynch, Hank Ketchum, Andrew Lane, The Prospector...heck, Wyatt Earp even famously appeared in a Deadlands Dime Novel.

Most people I know hate Stone, either because he's an evil bastard or because he epitomized the worst of 90s game design, being a metaplot driving, unkillable NPC powerhouse. Heck, my original Deadlands Marshal laughed him off as a joke based on his original Marshal's Handbook write-up, so a lot of Deadlands players have good reason to want to see this campaign carried out. The book is some excellent work, no less than I've come to expect from Deadlands, especially in the last few years.

I'm definitely in.