More Thoughts on Hell on Wheels

Happy (on time!) GURPSDay, folks. I hope you’re out there readin’ your little tails off.

Though I haven’t actually put pen to paper yet, I spent this week bandying about ideas for my next convention game, “Hell on Wheels” (mentioned here), and it’s slowly beginning to take shape.

NOTE: If you plan to play in this game at Gateway 2016, be aware that this post contains spoiler information!

Seriously, I wouldn’t read any further until after the con if you’re looking to play in this game.



The best piece of advice I took from the incredibly awesome “Never Unprepared” is to purposely leave plenty of “down time” while prepping to give my subconscious a chance to really churn things over while I’m, I don’t know, setting up an IRA or having a vitamin cleanse or whatever it is adults do. I’ve tried to do that for quite a few years now, but I was never self-aware enough to notice the correlation between “allow yourself time to muse things over” and “that prep went really smoothly” until that book pointed it out. Now that I actually do it on purpose, prep has become much, much easier.

I think my thought processes illustrate some good points about how making a choice during game prep leads to the next choice, then the next, and the next, until before you know it the preparation is done and the game is good to go.

Last week, I had put together at least enough in my brain to submit the game blurb for the convention registration:

“The Hellhounds outlaw motorcycle club has been in decline for years, but this big score could really turn things around. Just watch your back as you make the drop – – things in this world aren’t always what they seem, and no matter how tough you are there’s always a bigger fish. NOTE: Characters are outlaw bikers and not Nice People at all. NO GURPS experience needed.”

Note that line about the PCs not being Nice People, by the way. I included that so players are aware that, while the pre-gen characters are technically the “heroes” of the adventure, by any objective standard they are actually villains… drug dealing, gun running, face smashing villains. That’s not the kind of thing I want players to find out when they get to the table, since many people don’t have fun playing “evil” characters.

Another thing I realized about the pre-gens is that, just by virtue of who they are, they’re all… well, white dudes. Naturally, I strive to be inclusive with my characters and make sure their gender/ethnicity/etc. can be easily changed by the player. But the group has to start somewhere, and outlaw bikers in the real world are A) 100% male and B) almost always racially homogenous, so there you go… white dudes.

Having said that, I will make it absolutely clear when I pass them out at the table that the players know they can absolutely, positively change them up if they prefer. It’s a game! We’re there to have a good time, not slavishly recreate the realities of the outlaw world. If they want a co-ed, racially mixed biker crew, who cares?

So anyway — the characters. I submitted the game for four players, but I’d like to make six characters if I have time so they have a little variety in choosing. I’m thinking something like: Road Captain, Bully Bruiser, Gun Nut, Knife Nut, Unstable Psycho, and Prospect? Nothing set in stone on that yet, of course. (Spoiler Reminder! I’ve also flirted with the idea of having one of the PCs actually be an undercover fed who has infiltrated the group, but I need to think more on the pros and cons of that one. Could be awesome, could be a train wreck).

I also had a couple of ideas for the character sheets. In addition to the usual stuff, I’ll provide a list of each PC’s prior arrests as a kind of summary of their illegal “specialties.” And besides the characters themselves, they’ll get to pick their bikes. All Harleys, duh, but different kinds. I love this idea. 🙂

At this point I still know next to nothing about the adventure itself. In my mind, it’s kind of: “PC bikers arrive at an isolated desert rendezvous for an illegal exchange only to find that the crew they were supposed to meet has been torn to pieces. They set out to find the killers and discover a supernatural threat.”

Yup. That’s the whole game. Only a couple of lines, but it already suggests some questions that need to be answered.

First, why would the PCs even consider going after the killers instead of just returning home? Either the other crew they were supposed to meet were brother Hellhounds from an out-of-state chapter, and they deserve vengeance; or the PCs desperately need whatever they came for, and it’s missing (or both).

Second, what is the supernatural threat? I’m leaning heavily towards a nomadic werewolf family, where the PCs encounter the teen daughter by herself and manage to kill her. Instead of resulting in game victory, though, it only enrages the other members who will now track the PCs to the ends of the earth to make them pay. This has the added benefit that I don’t need to rely on the PCs tracking down the killers… the killers can track them down. The threat could also be a group of cultists, or maybe a lone monster powerful enough to be a threat to four PCs.

Third, what chance do the bikers have against a pack of ravenous werewolves? It isn’t like they could get to the desert on the highway with much more than handguns, so either the dead crew was packing serious firepower they can appropriate, or the merchandise they were after in the first place was crates of guns (conveniently left at the scene of the slaughter, since werewolves don’t need guns).

Another thing I like about this premise is that it immediately suggests a number of encounters. For a four-hour game I usually shoot for about six scenes. I’m already thinking:

  • Intro. Set up the game, introduce the setting, give the PCs some time to find their feet.
  • Rival Gang. Of course they’re going to encounter a rival gang on the highway! It’d be just plain crazy not to.
  • Law Enforcement. After the (presumed) bloodbath of the previous scene, further along the highway they can enjoy getting hassled by some Sheriffs/Highway Patrol. Possible combat, but they’d be better off finding a non-violent way to continue their trip.
  • Scene of the Slaughter. They reach the rendezvous in a remote desert location and discover the remains of those they were supposed to meet. There are spent shells, huge animals tracks, blood everywhere, etc. Possibly a lot of SMGs, maybe AR-15s.
  • Werewolf Attack. After investigating for a bit (and hopefully arming themselves), they are ambushed by a lone werewolf which they (again, hopefully) manage to take out.
  • Arooo! Revenge! The slain werewolf was not alone, but rather a member of a pack… who now want nothing more than to rip the PCs into tiny little pieces and turn them into poo.

That’s already six! Thanks, subconscious. Now, get back to that whole pesky “cold fusion” thing, will you?

This game is forming up nicely. Should be able to get everything ready in time (two weeks from tomorrow).


Building Characters to Concept

One of the perks of being such a slacker that I can’t write my posts until Thursday morning is, I get to see some of the other GURPSDay posts before I start on mine.

Ghostdancer posted suggestions this week for not worrying about Character Points (CP) so much when creating PCs and focusing instead on just making the character you envision, and I couldn’t agree more.

It took me a long time, I’m talking more than a decade, to finally realize that CP are not the end-all, be-all of GURPS. You simply don’t need them as much as you might think. Outside of con games, I don’t really bother balancing PC point totals. The important thing to balance is “spotlight time,” and that comes during the game, not at creation.

TV shows are excellent examples of this, especially my favorite show ever, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (yes, even more than Firefly – sue me). When the show starts out, Buffy is the Chosen One, vampire ass-kicker supreme, the once-in-a-generation champion against the forces of Evil. Willow is a perky little computer geek and Xander is a jokester slacker.

Buffy is easily hundreds of points, while her friends (who end up in most of her adventures) are probably 50 points apiece if they’re lucky. But it doesn’t matter because they all have (mostly) equal “screen time.” The fact that Buffy could kill either one of them in the blink of an eye without breaking a nail doesn’t matter when the whole scene is based on, say, Willow hacking the school computer or Xander distracting the Principal so Buffy can reach the macguffin.

This is how you can run games with teams like the Justice League, whose members include both Superman, god-like last son of Krypton, and Batman, un-powered psychotic billionaire. The disparate point totals on those characters matter a whole lot less when the GM makes sure they both have cool and fun things to do during the game.

The big caveat to doing things this way is, you have to be even more vigilant than usual about each PC having their own unique role in the party. A group with a 700-point Barbarian, 400-point Archer, and 300-point Thief is easy enough to run since the Thief can do things the Archer and Barbarian can’t, and vice-versa (and versa-vicey). A group with a 700-point Archer, a 400-point Archer, and a 300-point Archer is going to be a nightmare, though, since the most powerful Archer can easily do anything the other two can better than they can do it. While his player will have a blast, the other two will be bored.

Okay, it’s well past noon and I should be in bed. Until next time!



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Also in Adventure Creation

A behind-the-scenes look at putting together "one-shots," from idea and first notes to the finished adventure. Here are the five most recent posts, or select "View the entire series."

  1. GM Convention Tips, The Sequel
  2. Hell on Wheels (for Gateway 2016)
  3. More Thoughts on Hell on Wheels
  4. “Hell on Wheels,” Post-Con Wrap Up
  5. Requiem, The Cartoon Finale

View the entire series

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