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Deadlands: Hell on Earth
My first introduction to the classic Deadlands system was, sadly, a bit rough. A friend of mine (who had GM'ed one of our Star Wars WEG campaigns) had gotten in contact with a few players of "Deadlands: Hell on Earth," and wanted to try out the campaign, but she was anxious about going by herself to a new group, so she drafted me to tag along.

"Deadlands: Hell on Earth" is a curious setting. The original "Deadlands" was a sort of alternate-history wild western setting, with supernatural and steampunk elements thrown in. "Deadlands: Hell on Earth" represented a "possible future" extrapolating from that point, where the heroes DO NOT win, somehow history sort-of-kind-of progresses much like it did in our own world (with World Wars I and II and so forth) ... but then we end up with a Mad Max sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but with lots of crazy B-movie post-apocalyptic movie tropes AND supernatural elements.

We basically were part of a mercenary group of wanderers. My character was a "Blessed" -- a wandering preacher with holy healing powers -- a holdover from the classic Deadlands game. (Bad choice. The mechanics were a bit broken.) My friend's character was a junker, I think -- a sort of inventor-type who could do clever things with pieces of scavenged pre-war technology -- and the only female in the group.

Oddly, we had one Witch in the group ... who was a guy. The distinctive thing about Witches in HoE is that they were exclusively female, but the GM made an exception for his buddy.

Anyway, it was a pretty lewd group, and things got awkward. The fact that my friend had the only female PC was made into a bit of an issue. In short order she got separated from the others and captured, with the imminent threat of rape, basically as a setup for the other PCs to do a rescue. The catch was that the other PCs were so mercenary that they weren't particularly concerned about rushing on this point.

The GM ended up making this really lame hand-wavy deus ex machina development where she would just simply ESCAPE, blah blah, don't feel so bad about it ... TOO LATE. That whole scenario pretty much killed the chance we'd be coming back for more.

However, we'd actually invested in some books, spent some time brushing up on the system, and, hey, it seemed like the system did have some promise. What if we gave it a try on our own with some gamers we actually know?

Around this time, I had wasted a whole lot of time playing FPS games such as Half-Life, System Shock 2, and Marathon (1 and 2), and that worked its way into the complex of "Red Mesa" that I made up for the campaign, mashing together elements of Half-Life's "Black Mesa," the psycho AI from System Shock 2, and whatever else I could cram in there. Koogrr introduced his memorable character Yotee, the trickster coyote (who'd go on to have a few "cameos" in many other game campaigns). Prester_Scott introduced the memorable post-apocalyptic redneck hero of Leonard (inspired by "Redneck Rampage"), whose big "gimmick" was his pickup truck loaded with dynamite and moon pies. (On account of that, I made a large portion of the Red Mesa complex vehicle-friendly -- making this the first "dungeon" game I'd run where someone could actually DRIVE through it. :D )

Assorted One-Shots, Ironclaw, and Deadlands Again
At some point (it all kind of blurs together now), I ran some games of Advanced HeroQuest for the local group. Koogrr had a memorable Skaven character. Gwendel actually took a rare turn as a GM, running an Advanced HeroQuest game that was one of the best adventures I've played -- centered around a haunted inn, with a dash of the Portrait of Dorian Grey, and a very Twilight Zone / Call of Cthulhu feel. Somewhere around there, Koogrr ran some actual Call of Cthulhu games.

JZ tried his hand at running a few games. At one point, he ran some 2nd edition D&D, but due to chaotic work schedules, I ended up missing several sessions, even though they were held at my house. It was a "random" dungeon, and the PCs were generated via a "random NPC generator." Koogrr played the memorable "Large Marge," an ogress warrior (I'm not sure how that worked into 2nd edition D&D, but whatever), while I played a rogue who (according to JZ's specs) had to speak in a "Swedish Chef" accent. It was a "Grimtooth's Traps" sort of dungeon, full of situations where no matter what we did, it was the absolute wrong thing to do, finding treasure rooms behind sealed walls where all the loot to be found was some dried cat poo in a pile of sand, and other dreary developments. It just kind of sputtered out without resolution.

Another JZ game was a superheroic game based on "Mystery Men," using Hero System. Koogrr played "Mr. Coffee," a gizmo-based character whose "powers" were all caffeine-based, while Prester_Scott played a specialist in the martial-arts school of "Tae Kwan Leap" (AKA "Boot to the Head"), and I played "The King," an Elvis impersonator with maxed out "Presence"-based abilities/powers who was certain that he was, indeed, Elvis (returned from Mars, restored to youth, and granted super powers). Everyone at the table could do better Elvis impersonations than I could, and about all we accomplished was to get totally creamed in our first encounter with bad guys, then basically mocked by NPCs for being a bunch of goofballs (which, well, we WERE, because that was sort of the theme). I think it lasted all of just one session, but the characters created ended up making background "cameos" of sorts in future games (especially Superior City).

Around this time, Tuftears got me on board with Ironclaw, an RPG featuring anthropomorphic animals. That was when Garfield first joined our group, playing a necromancer who seemed bound and determined to pit himself as the heroic defender of undead beings against the horrible things adventurers do to zombies and such. Gwendel had some trouble with her first character, who seemed to suffer from immediate intense dislike from the "Garfield crowd" (players who'd come along with Garfield), but then she came up with a backup character, the unflappable ferret Flynn -- accidental troublemaker -- probably one of the few cases of a rogue/trickster/troublemaker PC who actually still managed to be adorable. (I think it's a matter of keeping the "trouble" part very superficial.)

We had a brief period with Deadlands classic rules used for a pulp campaign set in the 1930s, where the group grew large enough that I had to split into two groups. Goober_Chris joined our group for a while during this time, playing a stalwart paladin in Ironclaw, and then a "doubting Thomas" British intelligence agent (who somehow managed to get through the entire campaign without witnessing anything supernatural that might seriously challenge his beliefs, despite the preponderance of supernatural craziness going on through the campaign as a whole). SS had a memorable character as an archaeologist who became a sometimes "Avatar of Anubis," while Koogrr came up with a Dhampir occultist who followed the "Huckster" archetype, but using an Egyptian-themed tarot deck instead of the standard poker deck (with a few tweaks). Garfield was in the group at this point, and there was a lot of PC-vs.-PC rivalry (which Garfield ALWAYS got into) -- in this case between Garfield's Priest of Bast character, who had an innate (and very meta-gaming) suspicion of Koogrr's character, forever trying to "discover" his secrets, and turning it into almost a Wile-E-Coyote-vs.-Roadrunner exchange at times. This also featured one of the most climactic final encounters/battles I've ever managed to pull off in a campaign, tying up a cable's worth of loose ends all at once.

On the flip side, the OTHER pulp campaign featured JZ as an ace pilot, Prester_Scott as a square-jawed action hero, with an over-the-top adventure that involved a secret island, a shades-of-Atlantis sunken civilization, evil Nazis galore, what SEEMED to be a "journey to the center of the Hollow Earth" expedition (this part got kind of needlessly complicated), and an odd artifact of "gamer lore" -- the "Amazing Couch": a fluke whereby a mere COUCH managed to survive several grenades (providing much-needed cover in a battle against pseudo-undead Nazi super-troopers), and floated when the Nazi craft sank (providing much-needed flotation for surviving PCs), and eventually ended up being bolted in place in the PCs' cargo plane in a place of honor. Occasionally, I'll hear someone bring up the "Legend of the Couch."

And then we got back into Ironclaw again, to try out a pseudo-African setting in "Akoma" -- where Moonwolf first joined our group, along with Mach and Digital_Rampage. Moonwolf's hyena character was a classic, Koogrr's okapi spellcaster got into some pretty deep moral dilemmas, JZ's "pacifist" elephant easily had the highest body-count of the group, Mach's poor cheetah twins seemed to be danger magnets, and Digital_Rampage's black leopard got involved in all sorts of intrigue on the sidelines. I had hoped to write up "Akoma" as a setting expansion for Ironclaw, and did a bunch of artwork and research for it, but I did a hideous job of editing my first draft ... and I never heard a peep back after I submitted it. (Not a "cut it to half the size," or "fix this" or "scrap that," but just ... NADA.) Sadly, that marked the abrupt end of my involvement in contributing material to the Ironclaw universe.

But around this time, I ran into some "Real Life" trouble: at my workplace, there was considerable turnover, and eventually I was out of a job. Continuing to host games was rather low on the priority list, so I ended up dropping out of gaming for a while.

Everything is Swallowed Up by d20:
Mach started up a D&D campaign, using the d20 (3rd edition) rules. This was the era when it seemed like half of the game store was taken up by d20 books -- at first, the official books, and sourcebook after sourcebook -- but then thanks to the "Open Gaming License," tons of third-party books "compatible" with d20 were released. Play balance was bad enough even within the official books, but it got crazy with third-party contributions.

For Mach's campaign (late 2003 to mid-2004), I ended up playing Reynard the Bard (yet another anthropomorphic character -- I was in a bit of a rut), while Koogrr came up with Paenitia the Tiefling, Moonwolf joined our group with Maori the Pyromaniac Goblin Fire Mage, Gwendel played Sir Ent the Paladin, and Digital_Rampage as Mule the Minotaur. It was a remarkable campaign, in that it almost seemed to be a sort of parody of itself. We started off dirt-poor, scraping for everything. Mach had a knack for making his own "encounter tables" by going into a section of the DMG, finding a list of sample monsters that might appear in a given region (I mean, say, going from gnolls to forest dragons), writing some numbers down the list to the left, and rolling on that resulting "table." We ended up spending a lot of time basically running screaming from monsters way, WAY above our power level that would pop up as random encounters, and then taking environmental damage from bitter cold at night despite us all crowding into a single palanquin tent and huddling desperately for warmth. Reynard's big goal was to get to high enough level to get a spell that would allow him to summon a cottage -- a nice, warm, walled cottage -- as a respite for these hazardous overland trips. Never got there, though. About as far as we managed to get was to reach the big city, which was populated by ... DEMIGODS. I mean, there'd be level 20+ half-dragon, half-demon, half-godling, half-elf multi-classed superheroes, you'd have magic item stores on the corner, selling basically EVERYTHING in the DMG (but we were dirt poor and couldn't afford anything), and when we'd check for, say, some meager dungeon, or perhaps a sewer-rat-hunting quest to scrape up a few coins to buy bread, we'd find out that -- nope, nope, sorry, all the dungeons are cleared out, all the dragons are driven off (or tamed), etc., etc.

It would have been fascinating to find out just where in the world he planned on taking it, but Mach was occasionally unavailable without warning, so sometimes I would jump in as a "guest GM" to run side-quest games, using the premise of "dream sequences" -- For some inexplicable reason, all the PCs in the regular group would find themselves in a shared dream, first in a game that was a revamp of the old D&D "Dungeonland" adventure (ripping off Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), and then later on a much more involved adventure series based on Dante's Inferno. The idea was that this side-quest thing was "just a dream," so whatever experience I awarded, whatever treasure I dished out, it only existed in the "dream world," and hence wouldn't infringe upon Mach's GM-ship ... but in a WAY it was still part of the same continuity, with the same characters.

When Mach started showing up again, and he just wanted to PLAY in my Inferno campaign rather than picking up with GMing again ... well, whatever. It was a crazy campaign, marked by huge gobs of loot to be found in any given encounter -- but no ECONOMY in Hell (at least, it was pretty darned rare that you'd have a chance to sell things or spend coin, and even if you could, the prices were ridiculous), to the point where due to encumbrance limitations, the PCs would end up dumping useless gold and silver and other "mere" treasure items, and carefully choosing which magical-but-cursed items were worth taking along (if the magical benefits were reasonably worth the trouble caused by the accompanying curse/penalty effects).

Somewhere along this time, I got a new job at ITG, and I was heavily inspired by the computer game, Neverwinter Nights. I rather went overboard with "treasure cards" and custom "treasure clip art" illustrations, but at least I was inspired.

Eventually, it wrapped up, largely because we had players who were going to be moving away, and we were at the 9th circle of Hell, and I just sort of RUSHED to a resolution. Sadly, the "climactic battle" was largely hand-waved, narrated with lots of references to various allies the PCs had made along the way, enemies they'd humiliated, and basically one big recap of their travails, with the zinger that back in the Overworld, actually a rather long period of time had passed (after all, there was no chance of rejoining Mach's campaign), and prophets around the world had seen visions of snippets of the heroes' exploits. We had a bit of PC turnover (with people joining in who'd never even been at the table when Mach was still GMing), and so some of our PCs were indeed spirits in the Inferno (and hence dead back in the Overworld) -- but nonetheless they achieved a sort of epic, legendary, pseudo-demigod-like status in the minds of various people.

I left open the possibility of running a "sequel" campaign at some point in which the PCs of the previous campaign would be legendary heroes for a new generation, based upon their various exploits. So, while I mushed up the "climactic final battle," at least we managed to tie up quite a few loose threads more-or-less to the satisfaction of the players.

Since d20 was THE THING, we tried bouts of d20 Star Wars (once again, "New Republic" era), and Gwendel wanted to try out d20 World of Warcraft -- but once again, the GM lost interest, and somehow I ended up stepping in as the fill-in GM. (More memorable PCs: Moonwolf's Tauren Huntress, K's overpowered Orc Druid who'd summon rhinoceroses out of thin air to drop on the heads of enemies and other such travesties, Koogrr's four-armed Naga warrior, Digital_Rampage's duplicitous troll tinker, Gwendel's Tauren not-quite-paladin. I had several PC concepts that got vetoed by Gwendel when she was GM, but I had a brief stint as Mon Signor Simony (a goblin Priest of Mammon/Accountant -- who spread the gospel of good financial practices) -- until it was pretty clear I was going to be GMing full-time again, and I couldn't justify keeping a "pet GM's PC" around.

The WoW RPG era lasted around 2005-2007 or so; I played the online game to excess during this time (even setting up a treadmill so I could "walk across Azeroth" with the keyboard resting on the dashboard in a brief attempt at turning it into some sort of exercise), but I ended up giving up because I just couldn't keep up with everyone's level-grinding craziness. Gwendel stayed involved in the MMO for far longer, however. Around this time, I started to finally get acclimated to the idea of using a Wacom tablet, and doing artwork directly on a computer, with more "painterly" color effects. My art from this time still looks pretty amateurish, but I put a lot of detail into some of those scenes. At present, as hard as it is for me to motivate myself to merely DOODLE, I really envy how energized it seemed I was back then. It helped that around that time, Koogrr, Moonwolf, Gwendel and I (and others) would occasionally get together for "art jams" at Border Books or Panera Bread.

Superior City
Probably one of my best and weirdest RPG campaigns had to be my experiment with the "Superior City" campaign. This was around the time that Rowyn had come up with the concept of "Just Trust Me" games, where the premise of the game (will there be ghosts? superheroes? the return of magic to a mundane world?) is a secret to be revealed in the course of the game.

I started off with HeroClix as my "system" -- basically, all the combat was using custom HeroClix figures and dials, and for non-combat skills, we'd rely on a handful of "noncombat skills" with a 2d6 resolution system -- but a lot of the time, I'd just try to avoid the die rolls. You're a mechanic? You can fix things. You're a doctor? You can patch people up. And for a lot of the combat, the worst that could happen to you was that you could get KO'ed (knocked out), and after a few minutes of recovering, you'd be back to normal.

Moonwolf came up with "Voltage," the crazed inventor with electrical powers and a fascination with the "mad scientist" schtick. Digital_Rampage came up with "Fireman" -- just a fireman, but somehow he always had a fire hose with him. SS played Leonardo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, because, after all, I said people could pretty much play what they wanted, and I'd make it work. Gwendel played Rose, the Little Goth Girl. We also had a bunch of memorable "special guest star" characters who'd drop in.

I don't think I could really manage a campaign quite like that again. The "Oh, surprise, you're in VR!" thing has gotten to be rather cliche in anime and fan-story circles. (Yeah, there was "Avatars," but that was a special online thing, and it was pretty much "price for admission" with the premise -- not some SURPRISE to spring on the players partway through the campaign.)

Anyway, after this, there were a few one-shots and such I tried, but I was pestered by some of my players to look into a system called "Savage Worlds."

(... to be continued ...)
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