Roll vs Boredom: Slapjack Pistols

Recently, I was browsing Reddit.com/r/rpg, when I stumbled upon a post by user 1point618, who has been kind enough to comment on several of my Reddit posts in the past.  He was positing an rpg system mechanic he came up with that was something new and out there, something I’ve never seen before.  At about this time, I was considering how game masters can suffer writer’s block or get bored over long periods of time, and fellow Troll ITC Editor Tracy wrote a great article on GM Burnout.  I also had just caught notice of the Dread horror story game, which brilliantly uses a Jenga tower for conflict resolution.  All of this was fantastically timed, since I was working on a new campaign, struggling to dig out of the muck of old ideas, and really searching for inspiration.

So I came up with a new idea:  each adventure in the campaign, whether it be one that lasts a single night of gameplay or three months, will feature either a new or otherwise non-conventional game mechanic, to really draw out the thematic feel of the adventure.  What I’m hoping to do is challenge myself to not only bend creatively in regard to the system, but also to come up with stories that go outside my normal game concepts.  This whole thing is an experiment that may fail miserably, but I’ve decided to chronicle the journey I’m taking here on Troll ITC.  If I fail, hopefully I’ll at least fail masterfully and have a good time trying.

The First Adventure

Before I dive right into the new mechanic and how it came up, I think it’s important to give a baseline of what I’m working with.  I originally intended to homebrew a campaign setting, one I’ve been working on for some time now, but when I decided on the “new mechanics” idea, I elected to go with something more familiar to me, and that the players could make use of settings books to gain a familiarity with the world.  I’ve run Eberron countless times in D&D 3.5, it is by far one of my favorite settings, but my new favorite system is Savage Worlds.  I decided to make the jump, using posts I found all over the web to convert the game world, particularly rules found on the rpg blog The Immaterial Plane.  Once my setting and system were chosen, I simply had to modify my loosely outlined campaign to fit, and I was ready to go.

Keith Baker’s Eberron setting mixes machines and magic in his highly popular, “magic punk” world.  I decided to kick up the magic tech a little bit by adding firearms to his world.  This is by no means a new idea.  I’ve heard of many Eberron campaigns with firearms and it seems to fit, even if the original books don’t include them.  It was with that implementation that I decided the first adventure could show off the magic guns in a Western style pistol duel.

I planted the party in a small town, a few horses hitched to a post, including a mechanized clockwork steed, tumbleweed blowing by, and some gritty looking locals chewin’ and spittin’.   With a bang, the sabotage of a lightning rail train released a powerful storm elemental.  The voltaic creature rampaged in front of the local saloon, forcing the unformed party of adventures to take up arms and stop the thing.  They could not defeat the monster, and in the end a non-player character artificer assisted.  He was able to channel the elemental into the nearby robot-like horse, on suggestion from one of the players.  My metagame trap was set.  The steed, overcharged with energy, exploded.  The elemental was destroyed, but a rather angry Half-Orc that owned the machine became a new threat.  Marching over to the beleaguered group, he demanded a duel to compensate his honor, for his lost property.  He was also a little drunk.  Not one to ever railroad my players, sadly the first night of gameplay never reached a point where I could make use of the dueling mechanic I planned.  The party’s barbaric warrior decided to use intimidation and role play to put an end to the call for a duel.

Two weeks later, on the second night of gameplay, I decided to try again.  The players went on a short mission to clear some goblins out of a little nearby construction site, a side mission with little importance on the greater plot.  However, on their return to town, the local corrupt Sherrif decided to see to it that the Half-Orc’s honor was upheld.  A posse rode out to meet the oncoming group and demanded that if they want to be let into town, a duel would have to be held.  Well, the same barbaric warrior refused to go for it, but instead decided to start a battle with the Sherrif.  He lunged for the Sherrif and struck him dead in a single blow.  Pistols at highnoon became a showdown in the open with no chance for cover.  I brought the initiative deck out, threw it on the table, and then asked the group if they knew the rules for Slapjack.

The Rules

I only wish I could take  all the credit for using Slapjack as the core of my dueling/showdown rules, but kudos go to Ben, the owner of Troll in the Corner.  He and I discussed some ideas, and because he knows that Savage Worlds uses a playing card based initiative, he enthusiastically suggested that I work the finger mashing game into my rules set. For those who don’t know, players take turns pulling cards until a Jack is drawn, at which point all players must try to be the first to slap the Jack.  The tension of looking for the next Jack and not wanting to be last on the pile is perfect for describing those hair raising moments when the two combatants size each other up, cutting their eyes and wiggling their fingers over the hilt of their guns.

What I decided was this:  at the distance the combatants stood apart, combined with the lack of cover, accuracy was not in question.  Damage, however, needed to be lethal.  In a good Western, bodies fly off of rooftops and into watering troughs, or slump off horses as the animal rides away with the bobbing body, if I wanted to recreate that I need to make sure one hit could really drop someone.  I granted a slapping player +4 damage and an auto-hit, to really make sure that one
blast could rip through an opponents Toughness score.  I was also faced with the challenge that no matter how many opponents I have, I’ve only got one slap to the group’s 4 or 5 chances.  I counterbalanced this with a penalty rule, a false slap awarded me an attack against the slapper, without the +4 damage bonus.  The slowest combatant, the character who slaps the Jack last and is an opponent of the first slapper, is the one that ends up bleeding.

For group battles these rules stood for any player in ranged combat, while melee combatants were handled traditionally.  In retrospect, I think I could just as easily have had melee combatants ignore Fighting rolls for the time and continue the game of Slapjack with everyone.

The Good, the Bad, and the Orcly

For the battle, the Showdown rules worked perfectly.  However, while fun, under heavy scrutiny it sort of breaks apart.  The Savage Worlds pistols I used are all single shot weapons, faster weapons gained no advantage against such players, nor did characters with better Shooting skill than others.  Because the goal was to simulate a chaotic battle, such details didn’t matter.  For my group, this was fine.  However, I’ve played with other groups that might have felt cheated if I pulled this on them.

This is a good time to note that these rules are minimally play tested, this is the only battle I’ve run with them so far.  The point isn’t to have a releasable game mechanic, but simply to propose an idea to you, the readers.  I hope you’ll take it and consider it, dissect it, elaborate, modify, and report back.  The 9 combatant battle was one of the fastest I’ve ever run, and when a player slap hit cheers filled the room, as much as groans when they got a penalty slap hit.  They loved it.

1point618’s Reddit game mechanic post can be found HERE, it’s a wild idea and when it comes up in my campaign, I plan to write on it more.  Tracy’s GM Burnout article is HERE, and also comes highly recommended. More info on the horror game Dread can be found HERE, including some demo rules.  Be on the lookout for more Roll vs Boredom articles to follow, and a review of Dread itself.

Special thanks to Beth, Jeff, Laura, and Rachael for being my playtest/crashtest dummies.

[tags]GMing, RPG, role playing, games, game mechanics[/tags]

9 thoughts on “Roll vs Boredom: Slapjack Pistols

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  1. I like the idea of using a different game mechanic each night. I plan on doing something like this myself when my Freeport game starts in about three weeks. I usually plan a Halloween adventure, but since the campaign is starting two days before said holiday, I’m going to help them build the characters, set the scene and then begin the campaign by using Dread rules to get them together. From then on, the sessions will continue normally.

    I like Dread for tension-building, and it should work out perfectly for them to roleplay their characters with no thought to mechanics, all while ratcheting up the tension via the Dread tower.

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  2. I thought the idea of the slap jack duel was brilliant. Though I have not been playing for as long as some of my group members I can see the need to shake things up. I would highly recommend throwing this in to a group that has gotten stale or in a late night campaign to wake everyone up. Very imaginative and extremely fun!

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  3. It won’t be “every night” that I use a new mechanic, much of the pace is set by the players, so however long it takes them to get through “an adventure” is how often I’ll be bringing in new mechanics.

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