View Full Version : [Western] Help me design a Weird Western campaign

07-11-2008, 11:31 AM
Aces & Eights: Showdown and Deadlands: Book of the Dead have reawakened my interest in a Weird West campaign where the PCs are recently risen "Dead Folks" hated by "Live Folks" and mindless undead alike. I'm trying to remedy the problems that plagued a one-shot (http://www.frank-mitchell.com/games/dead-end/) that I ran, and make the game world more interesting.

The Problems

First off, I chose PDQ as a base system, but married to a combat system using hit locations and hit points to simulate walking corpses that didn't bleed but could be shot apart, hacked up, or burned. During the one-shot, I couldn't remember my own rules, and while the basic idea has some merit, calculating damage from the results of a Contest ended up being too complicated. For example, hand-to-hand combat used a Quality vs. Quality roll, while ranged weapons matched the attacker's Quality against a Difficulty for the shot; Quality vs. Quality has a greater variance than Quality vs. Difficulty, yet bullets do greater damage with greater success.

Secondly, I had anticipated that the PCs would want to save the town from the wave of mindless undead, or "ghouls", that would soon descend on them. In fact, a pregenerated character of an old miser killed everyone in his path and absconded with his gold; the other two PCs joined him after nearly "dying" in a burning building.

Another problem is that I had an initial idea that "Dead Folks" would rise in various states of decay, and would only get worse; they could "repair" disabled hit locations (save the head) through mechanical means, and embalm themselves (at a cost to their appearance), but those who could "pass" would eventually look like patched-up wrecks. However, apart from Quality adjustments for certain classes of tests (Strength, Speed, and Social), and the slow loss of hit points, I never developed a mechanism for decay, or for patching themselves up (which would presumably never "heal" them completely).

Finally, I mainly handwaved what would happen to "Live Folks" who got shot. I'd like something approximating "gritty reality" without having to keep track of lots of individuals. As an example, "Ghouls" and other NPC undead had a pool of hit points without hit locations. Groups of undead had collective hit points, and rules on how many could attack at once based on the number and arrangement of their targets ... essentially, arrange their targets on a hex grid and count the hexes around each target, with a simple formula for the assumption that targets stood back-to-back.


The Harrowed of Deadlands have far more interesting abilities than simply absorbing damage, some of which I might lift. However, Deadlands leans more towards supernatural horror, with Reckoners, manitou, shamans, poker magicians, and holy preachers. I'd like my world to have more of a materialistic, Weird Science feel: aliens or pre-human life forms instead of spirits, and steampunk technology not magic. So the idea of Dead Folks wrestling with a literal inner demon every night doesn't work for me ... although perhaps the agent that grants them their pseudo-life has its own agenda. Perhaps it eats fresh raw meat (hence the ghouls), and as it grows stronger it can repair damage and grant uncanny powers. However, feeding it also allows it to take over. Spreading fear wouldn't necessarily benefit an alien organism ... but there are darker agendas it might have ...

Aces & Eights definitely goes for gritty realism in its combat rules ... but it's meant for Live Folks, not Dead Folks. Would Dead Folks have more total hit points? Bleeding wouldn't trouble a corpse, unless it had some sort of fluid to replace blood. Infection wouldn't bother it, although it might bother people around it. Organ damage wouldn't bother it either. Perhaps it would even survive a spinal injury, although it might not be able to walk until someone braces its spine and its pseudo-nerves grow back. So most of the sting would go out of the wound tables. (The not-healing part, though ...)

So A&8 would complicate shooting Live NPCs (unless the full game has "minion" rules) without providing guidance on how Dead PCs or NPCs take damage ... and the dead would be prime targets. (Of course, if wounding Live Folks were so complicated, maybe players would be more hesitant to do it.)

GURPS might be a better system, since it already has templates and rules for the undead. BRP, FATE, D6, and PDQ (again) could also be pressed into service. Primetime Adventures would fit perfectly if I wanted to concentrate on the uneasy relationship between Living and Dead instead of ghoul-slaying.


However, systems won't address how to keep Dead Folks in town, helping the Live Folks despite themselves. A crude ploy might be to make Dead Folks weaken the further they get from the Old Mine or the Graveyard; a few miles out of town, they're just strong enough to crawl back. Another, equally crude ploy, would be introducing a patron of the Dead Folks who makes it easier to stay in town. (The Prospector from Deadlands is one model; Dead Folks who woke up first and already forged a sort of truce is another.) Finally, I could insist each PC has ties in the town: family, friends, enemies, or just somebody who owes them money.

Then again, a travelling troupe of revenants wouldn't be a bad campaign either ... especially if I made the threat larger than just one town.

Anyway, I've blathered on long enough ... any ideas or suggestions?

07-12-2008, 11:13 AM
I have a few initial thoughts.
It might help if we try to answer a few questions about your game world:
What motivates the undead?
Why are these corpses animated?
Is there a single source for all undead energies or are there more?
Does undead mean unrest or is it just the next step in the life cycle?
Are there many types of undead, and can PC's be those other types of undead?
Aside from the PC's being corpses, is the focus of the game social or political intrigue or high action adventure?

Loosing their legs doesn't kill the undead, but it limits their movements. Mechanical repair of limbs seems like it would often lead to a comical and gruesome show of hobbling dead folk slopping up the town.

07-12-2008, 01:35 PM
For a few ideas you could take a look at WotC's old Ghostwalk book.

07-12-2008, 05:49 PM
To answer Ron's questions:

The biggest question is whether the Weird West campaign focuses on battling the OTHER undead, or social and psychological consequences of being the walking dead in a world made for the living. I was hoping to strike a balance between "let's kill something" and "let's just get along", but I think that would depend on the players. The one thing I don't want to happen is to make the game an angst-fest. Ideally, PCs would earn the trust and respect of Live Folks by defending them against other threats, natural and uncanny.

There are four basic types of Dead Folks: "ghouls" (Romero-style flesh-eaters), "zombies" (mindless and mostly passive creatures), "revenants" (undead with the personality and memories of their former lives), and a sort of uber-ghoul I'm thinking of calling a "wendigo" or "vardolak": intelligent and resourceful, but wholly dedicated to feeding on the living. These uber-ghouls frequently hate the living, and lead other ghouls (and zombies?) in a campaign of chaos and destruction over and beyond raids for human flesh.

Physically, undead are corpses animated by (CENSORED BY GM). This (CENSORED) preserves and augments their central nervous system, and revitalizes their muscles. They all require X pounds of fresh raw human meat, or X + Y pounds of fresh raw animal meat, on average, per day (where X and Y are TBD). Cooked or preserved meat in sufficient quantities may suffice, but they can't metabolize plant matter at all.

Normally, the undead cannot heal; they have to sew up their flesh and bolt together or replace broken bones, which does mean that over time PCs would become lurching wrecks. However, the only damage that can kill them is a bullet to the head; spinal injuries will incapacitate them, but anything above the break can still move. (Ghouls don't have the wits to repair themselves, so they'll keep crawling until you put a bullet in their skulls.) Consuming more meat per day, combined with exposure to (CENSORED), may move their internal (CENSORED) into overdrive; their flesh will begin to heal, they might regrow bones, and they might develop other abilities like (CENSORED CENSORED CENSORED). Unfortunately, when the (CENSORED) grants them abilities, it can go strong enough to influence or dominate their wills, leading to (CENSORED CENSORED CENSORED). Worst case, the PC would himself become a Wendigo, and become an NPC ... until the others restrained him and subjected him to (CENSORED) to snap him out of it.

BTW, I'll probably assume all revenants are Freshly Dead for simplicity, and mark off decay as flesh that doesn't heal, bones that aren't repaired right, and cosmetic damage caused by time and exposure to the elements.

Psychologically, the PC revenants have their own reasons for continuing on. One may follow the classic pattern of avenging their own murderer; others may be content with gambling and whoring (although unlife severely cuts down on the latter), or conversely may continue to Protect and Serve the living. One of the sample PCs in my demo game was a miser who still wanted to take it with him. Another one that I wrote up was a girl who died before she could marry the love of her life; I imagined a story arc where she discovered how being dead hampers a romantic relationship, reluctantly giving up on her fiancee, and dying for real this time. My working theory, though, is that a revenant needs a strong purpose to keep him or her going; otherwise the difficulties of maintaining a crumbling body and becoming a monster in the eyes of his former friends will cause a revenant to give up and die.

Oh, and since I'm leaning toward a materialistic, weird science sort of world, there probably won't be ghosts, certainly not as PCs. However, there are (CENSORED), (CENSORED) from the stars, giant (CENSORED), and, worst of all, (CENSORED).

P.S. I forgot to clarify: undead can only move using muscles, so completely blowing apart or burning a limb destroys it beyond repair. (If it's cleanly severed, though, and the undead can heal itself, the limb could be sewn back on and eventually work again. Or perhaps a replacement limb from another undead would work ...) Some sort of weird science prosthesis may be possible, if a living amputee could use it, or if some mad scientist discovered how to get a machine to respond to a Dead Folk's (CENSORED).

07-12-2008, 06:55 PM
I have a concern about immobilized undead characters (without limbs or a working spine) without healing; They are essentially dead to the player. Is your intent to have adventures as one-shots, short adventures, episodic, campaigns, or mixed?

The healing by (CENSORED) idea works well, and it might even be used as a driving goal for undead to fix themselves as they rot (like rushing to find a healing potion) in desperate attempts to keep on going. An outside force or material, such as green meteoric ooze, that allows a corpse to animate might not repair. It's the red stuff that rebuilds tissue.

Something to consider from the movie "Death Becomes Her": the undead go to a hardware store for paint and epoxy to patch themselves up. Much of the patch job materials they used essentially became part of the character's body. The old west didn't have that kind of convenience of spray paint at every corner. Given the nature of the animated dead and the source of power used to animate them, would patch jobs allow for similar incorporation of foreign materials to become part of the animated character or are patches prone to falling off?

07-13-2008, 01:31 AM
Something to consider from the movie "Death Becomes Her": the undead go to a hardware store for paint and epoxy to patch themselves up. Much of the patch job materials they used essentially became part of the character's body. The old west didn't have that kind of convenience of spray paint at every corner. Given the nature of the animated dead and the source of power used to animate them, would patch jobs allow for similar incorporation of foreign materials to become part of the animated character or are patches prone to falling off?

That movie was one of my inspirations for self-patching. However, it only works for skeletal structure and cosmetic touch-ups only. (If enough PCs are vain, the mortician may become the richest man in town.) Losing muscle tissue, though, will reduce the strength and coordination of the affected part, eventually rendering it useless without finding the regrowth factor ... no matter how skillfully someone sews the flesh back together.

Also, I like the Deadlands notion that the undead also have to drink alcohol in order to cut down the smell of decay. (Which, unfortunately, increases the smell of booze.) Embalming is more expensive, and gives the undead an almost lifelike complexion, but it, too, isn't permanent; from further reading, even the formaldehyde/ethanol/methanol mix in modern embalming will eventually break down.

Now mummification might work, if someone wants to soak in nitre for days, have his organs (minus brain!) pulled out, soak in nitre for a few more days, and then get buried in the desert sands for fifty years. But he'd likely go insane, and believe a woman who looks like Zita Johann/Yvonne Furneaux/Rachel Weisz is the reincarnation of his lost love.

07-14-2008, 11:52 AM
For me, the real problem is how to keep Dead Folks engaged in Live Folks' affairs. A paraphysical "leash" seems too crude, and almost by definition the dead are somewhat removed from their former lives. Should I even try?

I wonder if I just shouldn't do straight Deadlands. (I'd probably use the Savage Worlds version since I hate d20, the original book is hella expensive, and if I do GURPS I'd prefer 4th Edition.) I don't have to cobble systems together ... but, on the other hand, the Harrowed are rare and practically monsters themselves, yet my motivation for the campaign was for players to be Dead People. (Shamans may be all right, but hucksters seemed a little too "out there" for me, and too much Mad Science can mitigate the horror aspect.)

P.S.: Upon thinking about it, even if I chose GURPS I'd probably implement my original concept using the Basic Set and GURPS Steampunk (among other books I already own) rather than try to port the whole Deadlands setting.