Playtest report: The Devil John Moulton
This wound up longer than I meant it to be. Long story short: We playtested another game a few days ago. It went really well. It was horrible and weird and violent and darkly funny and amoral in all the ways the game was supposed to be. (You know, like a Garth Ennis written comic or a Quentin Tarantino film.) The PCs rode into poor, long-suffering Deadwater Gulch and stirred up a heap of trouble.
The basic premise of the game is that there is a mysterious figure named “the Devil John’ travelling the Wild West, making demonic pacts with anyone who will make a deal with him. He gives the buyer all the power that they want, in exchange for their soul. The PCs all made this deal for one reason or another, and now regret it. So they want to see Devil John dead. They joined together and go from town to town seeking out anyone who made a deal with Devil John. When they find the sorcerer in the town’s midst, they force some information out of the amateur occultist to find where to go hunt Devil John next.
So: the PCs are bad, bad people. But they’re trying to stop a person who is worse than them.
Character creation went really well. The basic chargen system works like playing the board/card game 7 Wonders, or drafting decks in a Magic: the Gathering tournament. Everyone gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background for the character, a question to answer and a mechanical effect (usually an increase in the size of a trait’s die, sometimes other effects.) Choose one from your hand and pass the rest of the hand to the left. Then pick a new card from the new cards that you receive, and repeat.
The players all really seemed to like this aspect of the game, and it seemed to make cool, appropriate characters. Everyone mentioned how they liked the cards that I had written, which meant that they had to choose between different interesting aspects of the character as they went. One of the player, Mojo, mentioned that later on he was picking cards in part based on the mental image that was forming in his head concerning
(The game’s core mechanics are drawn from Cthulhu Dark, but expanded upon greatly. Instead of just tracking an escalating d6 for Sanity, you have four traits. Those four traits are the only dice you can ever roll. Each can be rated in a different die size, and each one has a specific unhappy ending for your character waiting in store. So eventually your ratings in the traits will go down and reach one of the four endgames. You want to roll lower than your opponent, which means that any die has a chance of winning a roll. But it also means that your d4 traits are most effective but you can only use it once or twice before reaching the endgame. Your larger die size traits you can use quite often but they will not be as helpful. This also lets you control the length of gameplay somewhat: more cards to start with gives large dice which makes for a longer game. Fewer cards make for a shorter game. With five cards in a starting hand, most people are rolling d4s and d6s and only occasionally d8s.)
Sneaky bit of game design magic I learned from Fiasco: The players read many of the cards that got passed around, even when they didn’t pick the card. So the rejected cards still helped establish tone and style. This is most important for creating the supernatural elements in the game. If you simply told the players to invent evil demonic miracles, they wouldn’t know what to write and might create genre-inappropriate abilities. But a few of the cards had demonic miracles a player could choose, which helped get all the players understand the sorts of powers they were supposed to create. And sure enough, the supernatural elements the players invented all fit the fairly specific supernatural theme and aesthetics that I hoped for in the game.
Bit that I didn’t predict: three of the four players wanted to play outright bastards, so the ‘Scruples’ cards containing moral obligations wound up being passed on. The fourth player then wound up with two Scruples, and was a relatively decent person who had committed one really bad mistake and then fell in with some really horrible people. This dynamic was very interesting, both the mechanic of card passing (which I should have expected from 7 Wonders) and then the social dynamic of the characters in actual play. I’m interested in playtesting more to see if this is a standard pattern or a weird one-time thing.
After passing the cards a few times, we wound up with four great characters:
Allen the Red-Handed
Probably the most unabashedly evil of the four, Allen is a notorious bank robber who has a trademark of dipping his hand in the blood of his murder victims. He’s done this so many times that his soul is permanently stained red. Allen sold his soul to a demon called “The Laughing Man” who had silver hair and eyes and would appear whenever you were suffering to silently laugh at your misfortune. In exchange, Allen could only be killed by the hand of an individual acting alone, never a group or a natural disaster. He also could carve your name on a bullet and have it strike unerringly. The Laughing Man demand that Allen desecrate corpses to pay back it back for the demonic miracles.
Andre the Bastard
A former robber baron, who lost his fortune on fast women, crooked gambling tables and the unfortunately timed sale of a mine. Andre has sold his soul for the ability to sway the opinions of crowds. (Never individual people, but only large groups.) He sold his soul to a creature called “The Whisperin’ Stranger” whose face was always hidden by the shadow of his wide brimmed hat, and who never spoke above a whisper. When Andre would try to sway the crowds, the Whisperin’ Stranger would walk unseen among the crowd, planting ideas in the heads of people here and there until the crowd became convinced.
Thin Jim was probably the most decent and sympathetic of the PCs. Thin Jim was also a cannibal, so that says something about the game. Thin Jim had once been riding in the desert when his horse died from a rattlesnake bite. Jim then had to walk out of the desert, starving and dehydrated. Along the way, he encountered another wanderer and Thin Jim decided one man living as a cannibal was better than two dying of hunger. Thin Jim still carried a locket from the slain man, which had a picture of a young woman and a baby. The dead man’s ghost would sometimes whisper to Thin Jim in the night, saying that he was just trying to get home. Thin Jim had bargained with a demon named Hickory, that looked like a solid black clockwork squirrel and had some ability to control time. Thin Jim was given a pocket watch that could turn time back thirty seconds, and the touch of a finger would cause an item to wither and decay as if left in the desert for decades. Thin Jim also had sworn an oath to never tell a lie, which was a problem when the other PCs kept bringing up that cannibalism incident.
Mean Little Anne
Anne had been a low-life criminal, but had been abandoned by her criminal fellows because they decided a tiny little woman wouldn’t be of use to them. So she sold her soul to gain occult power that would help her be a better criminal. Anne could buy and sell intangible goods, as long as both parties agreed. She had already sold off all of her niceness to make her a better shot, which is why she was so terribly mean. Anne could also pass through any opening, no matter how small. she got her magic powers from a demon called Shade, which took the form of a different animal each time but was always in shadows, and always had eyes glowing like the coals of a fire.
So as you can see, the PCs were a gang of terrible, terrible people. Colorful and interesting, but not nice at all.
Town creation was a piece of the game that I was uncertain about, but it seemed to work out just fine. The rules I went with went like this: Starting with the GM, each player picks a question off a list of leading questions and answers it. The GM makes notes and NPCs as you go, and secretly chooses one NPC to have made a deal with Devil John. The questions were designed to make the situation filled with potential conflict and NPCs wanting things from the PCs and stuff for the PCs to mess with. It seems to have worked well enough. The town we created, Deadwater Gulch, had enough problems and NPCs and such to keep the players occupied for the two hours or so we had left.
Deadwater Gulch’s water supply had recently fouled up. Now there was very little drinkable water to be found anywhere in the area. Sheriff Halstead had started rationing the water, and made a rule where everyone coming into town had to pay a gallon of water to enter. The town shopkeeper, “Perfectly” Frank had a secret water source and was selling the water at grossly inflated prices. Everywhere he went, a gang of kids followed, begging for a sip of water.
Perfectly Frank also owned the local mines, renowned for its strange opalescent stones that were sold as a snake-oil cure-all. They were said to cure baldness, sleepiness, wheezing, coughing, typhoid, scurvy, consumption and the gout. Anything except dehydration, really. Andre the Bastard had once owned the mines in this town, but had sold them to Perfectly Frank… ten minutes before the mysterious, magical stones had been found.
(Sidenote: I need to make up a good list of town names and NPC names to use, as coming up with those in the middle of play is difficult.)
So the PCs rode into Deadwater Gulch and started stirring up trouble right away. The sheriff comes out to meet them and demands some water. Almost immediately, the PCs are threatening the sheriff and disrespecting his authority. I momentarily forget that Perfectly Frank’s water selling is supposed to be illegal and under the table, and instead have the Sheriff direct the PCs off to see Frank to buy water and donate it to the town. (In retrospect, this doesn’t get any new water into the town, but it does reinforce the basically corrupt nature of the town’s system.)
The PCs enter the tiny town shop and Perfectly Frank and Andre the Bastard immediately recognize and hate one another. Frank refuses to sell to Andre, though he suggests to Mean Little Anne that he’d sell them the water in exchange for Andre’s magical ability to sway crowds. In the end, Allen Red-Handed provokes the sheriff enough that he goes to get a posse in case this gang of armed thugs starts any trouble. When the posse gets to the corner store, Andre the Bastard gives a speech about how the real injustice in this town is Perfectly Frank hoarding the water. The sheriff feebly protests that the posse was gathered to watch over these murderous outsiders, not to lynch the local shopkeeper. The posse drags Perfectly Frank away by his feet. The sheriff pauses a moment to threaten the PCs and demand they get out of town, then he rides after the lynch mob to try to stop the murder before it happens.
Thin Jim and Mean Little Anne find a few children still hanging around the area, and offer them some of Perfectly Frank’s water. This conversation doesn’t go quite as well as one would hope. Mean Little Anne just wants to kick a kid in the head, and Thin Jim cannot tell a lie once the cannibalism thing was mentioned.But after some child wrangling and the promise of cool, drinkable water, they determine that two of the three kids are useless and send them away. The third kid, Little Timmy, seems to know something about this Devil John fellow the PCs are asking about.
The PCs spend a long time trying to interrogate this eight year old kid. Mostly, the PCs try to scare the kid into cooperating, but they overshoot and the child is simply too terrified to answer the questions. Eventually, some dice are rolled and the PCs increment slightly more toward death but the kid spills some of the beans. About a month ago, he took ill with a fever. And he doesn’t recall clearly, but he saw a strange thin man come to the house and speak to his mother. The next day, his fever cleared up but the town’s water supply fouled up at the same time. The PCs determine that the kid’s mother probably made a deal with Devil John.
They coerce the kid into taking them to meet his mother, but with a cost, complication or consequence. In this case, it turns out that the local lynching tree is right outside the kid’s house. So the sheriff and the lynch mob are all there arguing over what to do with Perfectly Frank. The magic has started to wear off, but not entirely. And people really did resent the rich guy with all the water in town. But the sheriff is arguing they should let him go.
So the gang of outlaws rides up, and Allen decides to just walk up behind the sheriff and murder him. A successful die roll leads to murdering the sheriff in front of a crowd of armed witnesses. Allen tells Andre the Bastard to use devil magic to convince the NPC mob to leave. Andre’s player starts to pontificate, but it is pointed out that he hasn’t paid the Whisperin’ Stranger’s price yet (to cut out the tongue of somebody). Until Andre does so, he can’t use his infernal power. So the mob turns on Allen and opens fire. Allen falls down apparently dead, but the Laughing Man’s sorcery protects him and he leaps back up. Allen rolls again to scare off the entire crowd who were certain he was dead. He succeeds, but I think a couple of his traits are getting close to their endgame. Allen sets about desecrating the sheriff’s corpse to appease the Laughing Man.
Meanwhile, Thin Jim ushered the kid inside so he wouldn’t see the violence going on outside. Inside, Thin Jim finds the kid’s mother and recognizes her as the woman in the locket. He starts interrogating her about Devil John, but she denies involvement. According to her, she sent that evil sorcerer packing rather than endanger her soul. The other PCs filter in and argue with her some. As they are doing so, the window shutters slam shut (despite there being no wind) and weird poltergeist activity starts up around the house. Little Timmy becomes real excited, saying that his dad had finally returned! Just like the shadowy man had promised! It turned out that Timmy had made the deal with Devil John in his fever, to be cured of the sickness and reunited with his father again. (I didn’t decide that Timmy was the warlock in town until halfway through the session. I may make that the actual rule: you decide only partway through the game which NPC made the deal and why. Timmy was chosen because he had a decent enough reason but still was unexpected. The PCs initially thought that Perfectly Frank and later the mother had made the deal with Devil John.)
Now the ghost of Timmy’s dad decides that these intruders were dangerous (after all, one of them had eaten him and the rest spent a good long time threatening his kid.) Because of Timmy’s demonic wish, the dead dad grows in ghost strength from a quiet whisper to a storm of poltergeist activity.
Nobody knows how to fight a ghost, though. Guns won’t work on it, and reasoning certainly gets them nowhere. Andre the Bastard decides that Timmy is the key to this, and that his presence allows the ghost to manifest. So eliminating Timmy will get rid of the ghost.
There’s a moment where everyone stops and looks at each other and thinks “Is he really going to murder a small child, right in front of his widowed mother and the ghost of his cannibalized father?” Andre’s player shrugs and says “well, they don’t call him the Bastard for nothing” and fires.
This does not have the desired effect. I as GM had to decide whether this plan could work or not. I came down on the side of ‘I’m not going to reward the murder of a little kid, even if he *has* sold his soul to Satan.” So instead of dismissing the ghost of the father, it made him much angrier, and he began murdering every PC in the house.
PCs started to run, when Thin Jim looked at his sheet and said “Wait, I can turn back time! I totally forgot I could do that.” Thin Jim then rewinded the previous thirty seconds and tackled Andre to stop him from killing the kid.
The other PCs still decide to split, though, as they still don’t know what to do about the ghost. Thin Jim decides that he has to appease the ghost by repaying what he took from the ghost, and by leaving the father with his family. Jim decides that this means to leave a piece of himself behind, as the father’s flesh has been incorporated into Jim’s body. Jim slices his own ear off and sets it on the table. The ghost seems to be calmed by this and fades away. Timmy and his mother sits, huddled in a corner crying.
As the PCs exit the building, Timmy begins yelling curses and says that Devil John rode off towards a town south of Deadwater Gulch. (The PCs succeeded in a final roll against the ghost that I didn’t feel was necessary, what with the Vincent Van Gogh impression and all. So I let them have the piece of information they had come looking for as a reward for incrementally inching closer to death.)
Mechanically, 5 character creation cards meant that one PC was teetering on the edge of death after only a few rolls. Most were down a point or two in most traits. 5 might be the right number for a full length single session game. For character creation, rules explanation and a short session, maybe 3-4 cards? 9 or so for a more campaign length story, I think.
Most traits got rolled by themselves or in pairs. Never were three or more dice rolled together that I recall.
I totally forgot about a few bits that I intended to do, like having the PCs define rumors and facts about Devil John. Or having scars force rerolls (which I will likely abandon).
PCs were more explicitly evil than I predicted or hoped. That may be the issue that most requires attention and reworking. Or maybe I should accept that as an aspect of the game and design to facilitate that gameplay, which is slightly different than the gameplay I had imagined to begin with.
Overall, the game was really fun and interesting and cool in a way that doesn’t exactly match up with any other game I can think of. The players all seemed enthusiastic about the game.