Of course they chose the house first, because it was the exact opposite of what I wanted—expected—them to do. They were supposed to go to the train first, and then the house. Was that so hard? But no, they head to the house first.
And then, and then they don’t even go for the back door, they go right for the storm cellar. I left them a literal beaten path to the back door, but they insisted on the storm cellar!
Let me explain.
My group had wrung every last drop of fun we could from HeroQuest. The players wanted to add special abilities, or at the least more actions than “move, search for traps, hit things.” I, as Zargon, wanted to actually challenge them in a way that didn’t require simply plopping down more monsters or traps in their path. We thought about Descent: Journeys in the Dark, but that still wasn’t much more than HeroQuest with more bits.
The consensus was we all wanted the depth an RPG offered, but we knew we didn’t want to play D&D. I suggested Deadlands. I had picked up the core book years ago because I liked the setting but had never played (this was also around the time I picked up all three main books for the Munchkin RPG even though I didn’t have a group to play and would most likely never had one, so I don’t know what was wrong with me). It seemed unique enough for everyone so I whipped up an adventure I thought we could do in two or three parts, and it all began with an image I had in my head of a train’s caboose sticking out of a collapsed tunnel.
Characters Ken, playing Hooker, a brawlin’ ex-riverboat mate with a weakness for women. Jesse, playing Red, an Indian Huckster. J.P., playing Benny, a gunslingin’ preacher. Joe, playing Doc Puddlefeather, an ex-Union doc turned Mad Scientist.
The Setup Benny, adrift after leaving Reverand Grimm’s congregation in the City of Lost Angels, has found himself in Lincoln, Nebraska, entertaining some folks at his hotel bar. Among the crowd is a young man from Mississippi that goes by the name Hooker who’s taken an instant liking to the smooth-talking preacher. In the midst of a particularly juicy yarn, Benny is interrupted by the maitre d’ hotel, bearing a telegram on a silver tray. Benny continues with his story while opening the telegram but stops once he has seen the words.
“Phil?” he says, barely audible. Without another word he exits the bar, gathers his belongings, and leaves the hotel, Hooker close on his heels.
“Where’re you goin’, rev?”
“Denver. To find my brother.”
Unfortunately for Benny, the train is stopped in some backwater village, and word is the train ain’t movin’. A mechanical failure or something blocking the tracks ahead. Benny decides to get to Denver any way he can, even if he has to walk. Another passenger over hear Benny telling Hooker this and asks if they wouldn’t mind another companion on the trail. Hooker agrees for the both of them and runs off to “rustle up some horses.”
He does more than that, he comes back with 4 horses, sweet-talked off some widow on the edge of town, and an Indian. “A real-life Indian guide. He knows these parts and says he can take us through.”
“What’s the fee?” Benny asks.
The Indian fiddles with the cuff of his coat. “That we leave as soon as possible.”
Patience, Nebraska (Here is where the players take over and the game begins in earnest.) A town on the horizon, and a long stream of covered wagons heading in every direction that ain’t the town. The posse rides up next to one of the wagons to see if they can’t find out what’s going on. The last train outta Patience got stuck in the tunnel a few days back, a train containing quite a bit. Market season’s come and gone, and a lot of these folks depended on the harvest for cash. The smart money says it was a cave-in caused by an earthquake—ol’ Ron been up to the tunnel, and he said it’s collapsed all t’hell, with nothin’ but the caboose stuck out—but no one can quite recollect a ‘quake.
In town, all roads (and Ol’ Ron, the town drunk) point to one man: Dirk Struan. They learn that they could still ride on to Denver, although that would take them at least 10 days. Probably more to get over the mountains. If the trains were moving, they could be there in a day and a half.
They found Mr. Struan in the local Western Union, screaming at the poor clerk behind the counter who’s trying to explain, again, that he doesn’t know why the lines are down or when they’ll be back up. The Posse’s able to distract Struan long enough to find out they’re exactly what he’s looking for. A man called Pig Iron was on the last train out of town, the train now caught in the cave in, stole some blueprints out of Struan’s office. Law enforcement’s too busy to deal with it, and his own men are off carrying messages to the telegraph office in Lincoln. Could they see their way to retrieving the blueprints? The preacher squeezes Struan for all he thinks he can get, raising their pay from $10 a day to $25—each. Clearly they’ve found a man with deep pockets.
Naturally, now, the thing they should do is hop on their little ponies and ride to the train. So what do they do? “We’re going to search Pig Iron’s house.” This is exactly what I want them not to do. Clues are laid down in the train tunnel that will pay off here, but what can I do? They go to the house.
Pig Iron’s white clapboard house sits on the bend of a river to the south of town. Snooping around the yard they find a well-beaten path that leads from the storm cellar on the right side of the house to the back door, and a clothesline in the backyard, laden with a large white, bloodstained sheet flapping in the breeze. Almost immediately Red tests the storm cellar door and, finding it unlocked, plunges down its too steep and too long staircase, finding himself in an ordinary root cellar. An ordinary root cellar with a large steel door in one wall, and it’s locked.
Back up they go. Through the windows at the back of the house they can see a woman who stands with her back to them. Nothing they do—knocking on the window, yelling—rouses her attention, so Hooker kicks the door down. Still nothing. He taps the woman on the shoulder. When she turns around they see the woman is missing a face. Where it should be is a mass of ticking brass gears. She holds a tray of food up to them, and from somewhere behind the gears comes a tinny, “Dinner?”
And that’s where our truncated first session ended, and so too must this first session report.
Things I Learned 1. Preparation is key. I prepared for as much as I could never having played an RPG before, but without an idea of how my players would react, I was left flat-footed several times as they moved to explore something or question someone I had intended to be purely background. In the future I was (and will be) better prepared for the endless “what ifs” that occur.
2. Players will constantly surprise you. At nearly every turn the players did the thing I least expected they would do. Not just going to the house first, but strong-arming people, bartering, weasling.
3. Players like role-playing. One of the ways I’d gotten everyone on board with playing was to say that no stereotypical role-playing would be required of them. No one ever has to speak in character, they don’t have to dress up, none of that. But man, they love it when I do. They insist I wear the Marshall’s badge Jesse brought for me, and they said my heavy role-playing of Struan really helped them get a feel for the character and the setting.
Did you know…? Dirk Struan is the main character in James Clavell’s novel Tai-Pan. He’s a strong-willed merchant who’s known as the “Green-Eyed Devil,” and he seemed just the sort of strong character that would be fun for the Posse to play of off.