I’ve been very lucky over the course of my GMing career. I’ve been surrounded by like-minded players for much of the time. We’ve enjoyed many of the same games and play styles. They’ve enjoyed my adventures and I’ve loved every moment they threw something new at me and made me re-think my plans for a game. For the most part, I’ve also been friends with my players outside of gaming.
A few months ago, my current group started pestering me to run something new, something they’ve never played before. For three years, this group of players was happy to explore my D&D 4e campaign, thwarting cultists and monsters, traveling to strange lands, and otherwise kicking butt in the medieval fantasy that is Dungeons & Dragons.
Then came the repeated call, “What about Deadlands?” “We know you have all the books for the original game system. Can we play some Deadlands? Pretty please!”
Entering the Saloon
For the first time in nearly seven years I was presented with the challenge of introducing a group of players to a game they had never played before.
Not only is Deadlands a new game to them, the game system itself is unlike anything any of them had played before. The classic Deadlands game utilizes dice, playing cards, and poker chips together in a very unique system. I took introducing my players to this new system as a personal challenge. How would I introduce the system? How would I avoid overwhelming them with the intricacies of the game system, but still get the game up and running quickly? How would I make this new game experience easy for the players while still satisfying my personal urges to immerse them in the world and the story I was developing?
In the end, I decided to use the game system itself as a means to immerse my players in the game, providing them with the rules in bite-sized chunks while developing story elements concurrently.
Sitting Down at the Table
Following is the process I used to introduce my long-time players to an entirely new system. While I will provide specific examples of how I introduced my players to Deadlands classic, you can easily extrapolate my process for your own game when you are challenged with introducing players to an entirely new game system. I hope you find my process useful…or at least entertaining.
I broke my game system introduction down into four distinct encounters where I introduced my players to more and more complex game play rules while also setting the game’s tone, introducing the setting and NPCs, and setting up the stories I would tell. Each encounter built upon the previous one, introducing the players to the game system in a way that allowed them to digest each aspect before we moved on to the next part.
I used the first encounter to define the tone of the game, introduce the characters to each other, and introduce the players to the basics of the Deadlands rule system.
The characters were traveling, each separately, to the town of Redemption, in Colorado territory, in early July of 1876. Some distance from town, they all bedded down for the night. Each in turn was visited by a strange dream of being accosted in their bedrolls and knocked unconscious. They awoke some time later, each of them sitting on a horse with burlap sacks over their heads and their hands bound behind them. The itch of rope scraped at their necks. Then they heard a creaky voice, “Hang ‘em high, boys!” The horses were pulled out from beneath them and they started dangling by their necks.
We started our first combat encounter with everyone rolling Quickness and drawing cards to determine initiative for their actions. This introduced the card-draw system that defines action order in Deadlands.
Each of the players then began finding ways to get their characters out of their bonds and out of the noose about their necks. This introduced the basics of the system: trait rolls versus a target number. Some managed to wriggle free and then helped the others out. In short order, they were on the ground, pulling off the sacks that covered their eyes to reveal several walkin’ dead, that is, old-West zombies.
The first glimpses of these abominations introduced an important aspect of the Deadlands game: making Guts checks to avoid succumbing to fear and horror. One of the characters, the preacher, failed his
check and developed a phobia of the walkin’ dead. This couldn’t have happened more perfectly, since it exemplified the in-game consequences of failing a Guts check.
I chose to stage this encounter in the simplest possible manner on purpose, to give the players a good fight, but just hit on the basics of the system. I’d save more complex combat situations, like cover and in-game maneuvering for later encounters. The fight took place in an open field with just a tree and the horses they were on. The walkin’ dead converged on the characters and the fight began in earnest.
Over the course of several rounds of combat, the players learned the basics of the system, shooting and fighting the walkin’ dead until they slew the last zombie. This combat introduced the target numbers for combat and established the hit location and wound system for the game. One of the characters, an ex-soldier brute, even managed to score a severe head-shot that exemplified the deadly nature of taking a head wound in the Deadlands game. Also, I introduced the game’s use of “fate chips” to allow the characters to avoid serious wounds.
Reading the Tell
For the second encounter, I chose to introduce how the game system deals with non-combat situations.
During a local town celebration, a pair of Arapaho braves wandered into town, bringing with them the beaten and bloodied form of a local, well-loved prospector. The townsfolk immediately flew into a frenzy, threatening the braves for their apparent atrocities. The lack of a shared language excited the situation.
The preacher intervened in the ruckus and attempted to discern what exactly had happened with the Arapaho braves and the prospector. A series
of social skill checks allowed the preacher’s player to defuse the volatile crowd and insure them that the braves had brought the prospector back to town as a gesture of good will. While the local Arapaho were responsible for the prospector’s injuries (the prospector had wandered onto sacred ground), they had avoided killing him in order to quell possible further hostilities.
While the preacher dealt with the braves and the crowd, I introduced one local who was particularly intent upon lynching the Arapaho braves. The other two characters, the ex-soldier and a mad scientist, dealt with the hothead. They managed to disarm the local of the noose he had brought to the fray, and the soldier engaged the hothead face-to-face. A few intimidation checks (and some traded blows) sent the angry local on his way.
Raising the Pot
In the third encounter, I introduced more complexity to combat.
The characters attended a demonstration of a pair of mechanical mining automations hosted by an agent of Smith & Robards, Deadlands’ version of a company specializing in high technology. The demonstration went awry when one of the automatons suddenly laid its drilling appendage into one of the agents’ assistants.
The players quickly discerned that a gremlin was controlling the rogue automaton and set about stopping robot. This fight introduced several of the complexities of combat, including cover and armor (the automaton was metal and took reduced damage from physical attacks).
As they plinked away damage on the automaton, I introduced the mechanic of “sleeving initiative cards”, a Deadlands game mechanic that allows characters to interrupt (or quickly follow up on) the actions of their foes. The players sleeved cards in anticipation of the gremlin attempting to jump from the damaged automaton into the second, untouched, automaton, allowing the characters to kill the small creature quickly when it exited its metal home.
The gremlin dead, the damaged automaton began ticking and smoking. The characters attempted to flee, but the mad scientist was too slow. I then introduced the massive damage mechanic as the automaton exploded, injuring the mad scientist.
For the fourth, and final, encounter, I pulled out all the stops, generating a combat scenario that encompassed everything the players had thus far learned and introducing a few additional nuances to complicate matters.
In the waning hours of the day, the town was besieged by several man-sized monsters who shared attributes with spiders. They had multiple eyes, spindly hair, and clawed hands. Most of the townsfolk were enraptured by a (as it turns out, magical) fireworks display far overhead as the PCs dealt with the spider-monster threat.
I used this encounter to introduce the idea of an innocent bystander who was being threatened. In actuality, this character was the fourth party member, but the players didn’t know this right away. (This fourth player had been unable to join the game before this point.) One of the spider-monsters had this fellow on the ground and was, seemingly, sucking his soul out through his mouth. The players quickly rescued the fourth player’s character and set about dealing with the spider-monsters.
I then introduced the third dimension to the players, with several spider-monsters coming up over the roofs of nearby buildings to attack them from afar. This gave the players the opportunity to maneuver on the ground and climb up onto the buildings to engage the monsters.
The players adjusted to this new complication quickly, but not before the soldier character was webbed and drawn across the ground and up onto a building, dealing significant damage to him in the process. The new character, a huckster (think old-West wizard), began experimenting with his hexes. It was chaos. For several combat rounds, the players moved their characters, attacked, made physical skill rolls, and re-thought their actions to take advantage of everything they had learned in the previous encounters. I also introduced the use of fate chips as a way for players to enhance dice rolls.
The players latched onto the full complexity of the Deadlands game system to overcome the spider-monsters. The huckster freed some of the townsfolk from their trances with the judicious use of one of his hexes. The other characters laid waste to the spider-monsters, utilizing cover, called shots, and the expenditure of fate chips to enhance their attack rolls.
As the combat wound down, the PCs sought to assure the townsfolk that they were safe, despite what some of them had just witnessed. This allowed me to incorporate another important mechanic of the Deadlands system, using the tale-telling skill to assuage the fears of the local populace.
Ultimately, the immediate threat was averted and the players had been drawn fully into the story I had set up over the course of four encounters.
The Next Hand
Following the series of encounters that introduced the game system and my story to the players, they were left with important questions.
Why did the walkin’ dead target them for lynching? Why are the Arapaho so protective of their sacred ground and what, exactly, did that old prospector see? Who is the Smith & Robards agent and why were his automatons infected with gremlins? And, finally, what are these spider-monsters and why did they attack the town?
And the campaign has developed from there.