The Ruins of New York: Playtest Notes

“The Ruins of New York” is a 4-hour one-shot adventure written for Ken Hite’s The Day After Ragnarok, a Savage Worlds campaign setting published by Atomic Overmind Press. I’ll be running this event at MEPACon Fall 2009, and since it’s been a while since I ran Savage Worlds, I decided to do a playtest with my regular gaming group.

What follows is a synopsis of the adventure and my playtest notes from running it. I’ll be posting my adventure notes on Friday for those who are interested it running it themselves.

The Nazis awoke the Midgard serpent at the end of World War II. The Americans killed it with an atomic bomb. Now the great wyrm’s rotting corpse stretches across two continents and its radioactive venom poisons the world.In the drowned ruins of the New York City, a crack team of RAAF rocket troopers and scientists have arrived searching for Doctor Xeno, a half-crazed scientist who’s ophi-tech nullifier just might hold the key to negating the Serpent’s toxins. But they’re not alone: The Soviets have their eyes on the tech as well, and their gorilla super-solders aren’t interested in negotiation…

I’ve tweaked the premise a bit in the actual adventure: it now features a joint team of British agents and American heroes working together to recover Doctor Xeno. That change gave me more options to work with when it came to creating the characters, and I think I ended up with a solid mix:

  • Andrea Boundless, Freelance scholar and adventurer
  • Jules Drake, daring British rocketeer
  • Coromir, American barbarian
  • Ollivander Ellis, British occultist
  • Jason Freewalker, Texas Ranger
  • Simon Cartwright, British SAS officer

Heroes of the Apocalypse

My major design goal for these characters was to make sure that each would be able to excel at one or two things. In my group’s previous experiments with Savage Worlds, we all had this tendency to build characters who had a lot of low-rank skills — lots of d4s and d6s, because we wanted to be able to do everything. The problem with this though, is that you end up not being good at anything. You really need characters who have a d8 in their exceptional skills (e.g., if you’re making a gunslinger, he’d better have at least a d8 in Shooting if you want him to consistently hit something).

To that end, I made all of these characters “seasoned”, which gave them six extra advances to play with. I made sure they had d10s in their key skills (and I think there’s one or two with a d12). For the skillful characters, I burned advancement points on buying up skill ranks rather than edges. This design approach worked well, as all of the characters were able to pull off their signature moves with a high degree of success.

Of these characters, Jules Drake, Coromir, Ollivander Ellis and Jason Freewalker were used in the playtest. The character worked out more or less as I expected them to, though I will say that my adventure (and thus my heroes) ends up being less a grim exploration of a world gone mad, and more a 1970s pulp weird smash up.

My inspiration for “The Ruins of New York” was equal parts 007, Road Warrior and Conan, which when mixed together with the Savage Worlds rules created this high octane adventure with lots of over the top moments.

Like when the party’s flying boat was attacked by air pirates en route to New York City. Jules Drake jumped out of the plane without activating his jetpack first, confident (actually, hindrance: overconfident) that the jetpack would ignite properly in freefall. He then flew to a nearby biplane, commandeered it after shooting the pilot (fisticuffs having proven ineffective) and then flew it into the pirate’s armored zepplin airbase, once again diving out of the way just in time. Or when Ollivander Ellis used his arcane powers to summon a wall of birds to destroy another of the planes.

Or when the heroes encountered a giant mutant alligator while slowly making their way by motor boat through the drowned streets of New York, and the barbarian Coromir silently slid into the water. He swam beneath the giant reptile and then drove his bowie knife into the alligator, slicing it from tail to head in one dramatic killing blow.

Or the dramatic final show down, as our heroes were escaping the city and were suddenly confronted Soviet rocketeers dispatched from the near by Red Star helicarrier.

High Octane Adventures

Playing through the scenario, I was reminded about what I love most about Savage Worlds, and that’s its capacity to create these amazing, over-the-top moments. I don’t think it’s as good at those subtle moments, like the slowly-mounting horror of a Call of Cthulhu adventure. This is because dice in Savage Worlds explode: if you’re making a skill check or damage roll, and you get the highest result possible on the die, you re-roll it. If it “aces” again, you roll it again.

This is tremendous engine for generating excitement during the game, because it’s impossible not to start cheering when you’re friend’s d6 has aced three times in a row. But I don’t know that it fits the grim, serious style of play that some might be looking for in The Day After Ragnarok.

On the flip side, some of my players found such spectacular results to be somewhat anti-climatic when they played out. For example, someone might ace an attack roll several times, resulting in 3 or 4 raises (Savage Worlds speak for exceptional results). Yet such attacks can only ever yield a bonus die on your damage roll. As the GM I can certainly play up these exceptional attacks, and I usually find a way to throw in some extra situational bonus. That said, I think there’s some design space in Savage Worlds to provide enhanced results for such spectacular attacks (e.g. an Edge that grants a morale bonus to your party when you get two or more raises on an attack).

Variant Magic

One of the things I wanted to do with this adventure was play up the danger of magic in the game. Arcane power in Ragnarok will cost your player dearly, requiring two Edges instead of one to get an arcane, psionic or ophi-tech background. But that’s a front-loaded cost; I wanted something that would haunt the player throughout the game. To that end, I added a rule for Ollivander Ellis that required him to make a Vigor check whenever he successfully cast a spell, as well as for any raises he got on that casting. Failure would result in becoming Shaken (two failures would thus result in a wound).

Harsh? Yes, but I wanted the occultist to have to pause and think … is the situation dire enough to call upon the Dark Arts? Unfortunately, it never quite came into play — the player controlling Ollivander made every Vigor check — but I do think it added a nice bit of tension to the casting of spells, and reinforced the idea that Magic Is Different.

Encounters of the Monstrous Kind

Encounter-wise, I discovered that I need to make some adjustments. My giant mutant alligator was suitably menacing, and with a Toughness of 13 I figured he’d be enough of a challenge without making him a Wild Card (which makes him tougher by allowing him to take more hits).

Of course, that was before the barbarian and his bowie knife got a hold of the reptile. Now the alligator is definitely going to be a wild card, and perhaps gain some monstrous mutation as well.

Speaking of the barbarian, he needs more mooks to fight with. I’d designed him with big fights against the Soviet assault squads in mind, in which he’d be able to use his Improved Sweep edge to great effect by mowing down anyone who got close to him. Similarly, the Soviet’s ape-men super soldiers had his name all over them.

But I also built in opportunities for the heroes to avoid fighting the Soviets directly until the very end by being quick and smart … which left Coromir with less to do. This was particularly true in the opening sky pirate ambush, in which none of his enemies closed to knife range. After brainstorming this with the guys, we came up with a natural solution: wing walking pirates on the biplanes. After all, these are pirates; they will have come up with strategies for airborne hijackings and having them board the plane gives Coromir a chance to do what he does best.

Dogfighting … without the dogfighting

I should note that I ignored the standard Savage Worlds vehicle combat rules for this scenario. We tried using them in the past, and even the abstracted chase rules ended up being too clunky for our games. Instead, I took a Star Wars: Saga Edition approach and basically ran the fight at character scale. I know some folks revel in the math associated with accelerating planes, top speeds, vectors and maneuvering, but I figured that a) all the planes were moving at about the same speed and b) dogfighting wasn’t the point of the scenario. The planes in this fight were essentially mobile terrain, and that’s the way we treated them. It worked well.

I didn’t have a definitive end game in mind for the scenario, because their were so many options — the PCs being captured early on and having to fight their way off the Red Star, the PCs getting into a pitched firefight with the Soviets at the Museum or later at the Central Park Zoo, or something else entirely.

Naturally, the group ended up doing something else entirely. My half-baked contingency plan was to cut off their escape using the Soviet rocketeers, which were basically just airborne soldiers led by an officer Wild Card. That particular fight went badly for the Russians — Jules (in yet another amazing move) killed the officer on the first round of combat with a spectacular shot that utterly obliterated his enemy. I need to go back and tweak the encounter to add a second Wild Card, and modify the soldiers to better fit their new airborne assault role.

Minis on the Brain

I like using miniatures with my game, but I had trouble coming up with good ones for this game. Unfortunately, I just don’t have a lot of modern soldier or ape-men miniatures lying around. I also don’t have any biplane or zeppelin minis, so I ended up using Star Wars stand-ins instead. It worked (as folks really just wanted to have an idea where their characters were in the fight) but it’s got me surfing miniatures web sites and toy stores looking for possible props for the game. I know some hate using minis in their games, but I found that the most memorable Savage Worlds games I played in at GenCon made good use of props and miniature.

I doubt I’ll have the props I need for this year’s MEPACon, but I plan on running this event again at other conventions. I figure over the course of the next year I’ll be able to find exactly what I’m looking for.

Final Analysis

My gaming group returned from GenCon 2007 with a stack of Savage Worlds Explorers Guides and every intention of finding a way to run a regular pulp weird campaign. We ran an initial adventure, and had plans for more, but never got around to it.

Two years later, we’ve got The Day After Ragnarok, and we’re loving it. The setting isn’t exactly what we had in mind, but it’s close enough. Hell, it’s better — the Robert E. Howard elements combine with the Hellboy visions we already head to create a setting that I think everyone would be happy to return to.

The scenario executed well, and while I think I’ll need to build in about 10 minutes to go over the rules, the Savage Worlds itself lived up to its fast, fun, furious” motto.

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