Designer's Notes: GURPS Deadlands: Varmints
by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson
The GURPS Deadlands line presents interesting challenges. Each book must condense many, many pages of Pinnacle's previous work into a concise, coherent whole, while still accomplishing something original within that framework. The sheer mass of the existing canon can be intimidating, and finding for the tenth time that your nifty idea is inconsistent with some minor piece of precedent is . . . frustrating.
It's no unique dilemma, of course. Every GM who's ever tried to run a game in a setting with strong and ongoing campaign support has faced a similar problem. The strength and vigor of the setting are the reason you would want to play in it in the first place, but there's little point in playing a game with no room for your own group's contributions.
The easiest solution is to throw continuity to the winds and do what seems best, but it's not always the best one. It doesn't help if you want to be able to use future releases for the setting; if your group rotates GMs, messing with the setting willy-nilly may not go over well. Even in a world that's solely your own creation, you may eventually be stymied by what you have yourself established in play. And for those of us writing books, licenses and contracts have something to say on the matter as well.
Over the years, I've developed a bag of tricks that I use to work through these sorts of situations, and GURPS Deadlands: Varmints worked them to the limit. I don't pretend that these methods are exhaustive -- there are countless ways to approach world development -- but they do work. Most of the tricks and techniques that I use fall into four categories: implication, connection, patterning, and intersection.
Implication is a very simple technique; it's really just plain logic. You use it by examining any one element of the setting -- a monster, a character, a piece of history -- and asking what the natural consequences of that element must be. Usually you'll be picking out elements which define the difference between the fictional setting and our own reality, but examining familiar elements of our world can also be useful, sparking possibilities that could have been, but weren't. Many of the best alternate histories begin this way.
It's usually especially productive to focus on how a setting's elements affect people's everyday routines. Given that a certain setting element exists, how does that change the way people live their lives? Do they deal with it directly, or does someone shield them from its implications? If the latter, who takes on that role? In many settings, the answer to that question is "the PCs," but it's still a good question to ask.
This type of implication work was essential to the Templates section. Thinking about how the people of the Weird West would deal with the monsters I was writing about helped generate a slew of ideas for character types. Each major type of varmint spawned at least one template.
I began with weird animals. When a steer-sized wolverine comes to town, something has to be done about it. But who takes on the task? Regular law enforcement would be overwhelmed; they already have their hands full with the mundane lawlessness running amuck in the Weird West. The Union and the Confederacy each maintain agencies to deal with exotic threats, but they can't be everywhere at once. Normal citizens aren't trained or equipped to handle man-eating cattle or intelligent swarms of bees.
So who do you call when a demon-possessed dog holes up in your basement? The town dogcatcher, presumably. It seems likely that when faced with an animal no one else has the time or inclination to wrangle with, citizens would turn to what animal control authority there is. Now, if dogcatchers found themselves faced with magically enhanced critters, how would they deal with that? They'd need enhanced powers, both legally and mechanically; your average Weird West dogcatcher would have to have some level of combat training, and would probably be deputized by the local sheriff and empowered to convene a posse for the purpose of clearing infestations. A template was on the make.
The same process, applied to the undead, was equally fruitful. Who deals with corpse-related problems? Probably the coroner. But the coroner ought to be an experienced doctor, and probably none too interested in patrolling the graveyard in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, a clever coroner hires assistants -- assistants with strong stomachs, a little medical experience, and a good touch with an axe-handle. They can rebury the restless dead, chase off grave robbers and resurrectionists, and investigate weird deaths that the coroner doesn't have time to handle personally. It's an interesting character concept that is implied by the existing canon but not explicitly discussed.
Another excellent way to use implication is to scan the established canon for possibilities that are already explicit, but not developed. For example, original Deadlands states that manitous cannot possess living people unless the manitou is invited in or unless the subject is extremely weak and infirm. The "extremely weak and infirm" hook then gets no further attention. So I ran with that and created the senescent zombie: a monster created when a manitou possesses a senile person, fakes a miraculous recovery, and does its best to sow dissension in its host's family before going on a final killing spree.
It's hard to go astray with implication; if your logic is sound, its produce is usually uncontroversial. The only real way for implication to go awry is if you arrive at a conclusion that makes sense, but contradicts some other portion of the canon -- in which case you simply have to cast about for a line of reasoning which leads to an unoccupied niche.
Connection is a slightly more complicated technique than implication; where implication uses a single element of the setting, connection requires at least two. Connection entails picking out elements of a setting that ought to have a relationship but do not, and then creating that relationship. If you have two major NPCs who logically must have met at some point, figure out how they feel about each other. If the discovery of a new super-steel occurs the year before its inventor's nation wins a smashing military victory, figure out how the super-steel contributed (or, if there's a crushing defeat to explain, how the government put all its eggs in a super- steel basket).
Varmints had more than its share of relationships waiting to be discovered. Material from several different books, developed independently, went into Varmints; in a number of cases, issues appeared when different monsters were placed side by side for the first time. For example, the Deadlands canon mentions three different intelligent amphibious races, all of which live off the coast of California. No interactions between any of them are mentioned. When they appear in different books, it's not a problem, but presenting them all at once with no context seemed like a bad idea.
Fortunately, I was also working on a section called Antagonistic Peoples, dedicated to monsters that were both intelligent and civilized (well, organized, anyway). Individually, all the aquatic races were questionable to include under that standard . . . but what if they were allied against humanity? The Law of the Ocean -- a loose alliance of undersea peoples dedicated to exploiting the bounty of the land -- was born.
The great advantage to using connection is that it patches holes in existing material while it creates new material. It requires you to ferret out the bits of a setting which are underdeveloped or even contradictory. As a result, it produces a setting that feels more seamless and organic; its component parts have strong relations to each other, and you can avoid the odd element which feels tacked on.
This can be difficult. When working so closely with preexisting material, it's a challenge to walk the line between supplementing precedent and changing it. The goal should be not merely to avoid contradicting canon, but to create material that flows naturally from what came before.
To use patterning, you find patterns within the canon, and then complete them. Patterns can appear anywhere a setting has a set of linked elements. So if, for example, your secret-magic campaign includes super-powerful geomantic dragon spirits, and you've already introduced the Dragon of North America and the Dragon of Asia, it seems likely that there are also Dragons of Africa, Antarctica, and so on. You'll have to answer some questions such as whether Australia gets a dragon all to itself or if it has to share with Oceania, and whether subcontinents like India and Greenland get some sort of minor spirits. However, those sorts of questions are precisely what gives patterning its value, and are usually well worth answering. Just in writing this, I find myself wondering whether there was once a Dragon of Atlantis, and what happened to it if there was.
Ironically, I didn't initially think to use patterning while working on Varmints; I usually find it more useful when I have more latitude for development. However, one of my proofreaders commented that since Deadlands has ice zombies, fire zombies, and water zombies, the logic of computer RPGs would seem to demand a poison zombie. I thought it was a pretty clever idea, and the Noxious Dead -- a toxic, oozing zombie created by industrial accidents -- came out of it. Thinking about it now, I realize that I missed the opportunity for a lightning zombie, which would have tied in well with mad science. Fortunately, it's not too late.
Most mad science devices rely on steam and hydraulics to give them life, but mad science has also harnessed the power of the thunderstorm -- electricity. And wherever there is new technology, there are new industrial accidents. Many a hapless worker has placed a hand wrong and died instantly, titanic forces surging through his flesh.
After such an accident, a manitou may seize the opportunity to reanimate the electrified corpse. The manitou's magic preserves the lethal charge within the dead flesh, creating a galvanic dead.
Galvanic dead are clearly identifiable by their rictus grins and jerky, spasmodic movements. These unpredictable convulsions, so unlike the usual sluggish undead, make it difficult to draw a bead on a galvanic dead.
Salt Lake City is plagued with galvanic dead; the city's plethora of industrial works are matched by an equal number of industrial accidents, and the galvanic dead's ability to damage intricate machinery with a mere touch is particularly troublesome in the highly technological City of Gloom.
GURPS Galvanic Dead
Weight: 150 lbs.
Damage: 1d cut
Skills: Brawling-15; Climbing-13.
Damage: A galvanic dead may bite for 1d-1 cutting damage, or claw for 1d cutting damage. The coruscating electricity around the galvanic dead makes its blows more painful than ordinary; its victims suffer shock penalties from its wounds as if it had done one more point of damage than it actually did.
Discharge: When a galvanic dead is struck with a conductive object, such as a metal weapon, some of the electricity in its body will discharge up the weapon, doing 1d-1 electrical damage to the wielder. Insulating gloves will protect against this discharge.
Horrific Appearance: See p. 7. Victims are at a -4 penalty to Fright Checks.
Imperturbable: See p. CI26.
Recharge: A galvanic dead, given access to an adequate source of electrical current, may tap that flow to restore its own charge, which the manitou can then use to restore its body. A galvanic dead may heal 1 hit point every other second as long as it remains connected to the current source. The zombie may do nothing else while recharging. A current source must be industrial-scale to be usable; batteries and electric fences won't do the job.
Sabotage: Galvanic dead may derange the delicate works of mad science simply by touching them. Any mad science contraption touched by a galvanic dead must immediately roll for a malfunction; the device will malfunction on a 15-18 (see p. DL59 for more details).
Undead: A galvanic dead has the Independent Body Parts (Detachable Head), Injury Tolerance (No Blood, No Neck, No Vitals), Vampiric Immortality, and Undead Invulnerability advantages. It cannot be stunned or fatigued, and it suffers no debilitating effects from damage. Its focus is its head.
Deadlands Galvanic Dead
Corporeal: D: 3d6, N: 2d8, S: 2d8, Q: 3d6, V: 3d6
Fightin': brawlin' 5d8, climbin' 3d8, dodge 4d8
Mental: C: 2d8, K: 1d4, M: 1d6, Sm: 2d8, Sp: 1d4
Claw: STR. Hand-to-hand attacks from a galvanic dead also do one more point of Wind than normal.
Discharge: When a galvanic dead is struck with a conductive object, such as a metal weapon, some of the electricity in its body will discharge up the weapon, doing 1d10 damage to the wielder. Insulating gloves will protect against this discharge.
Recharge: A galvanic dead, given access to an adequate source of electrical current, may tap that flow to restore its own charge, which the manitou can then use to restore its body. A galvanic dead may heal 1 wound every other round as long as it remains connected to the current source. The zombie may do nothing else while recharging. A current must be industrial-scale to be usable.
Sabotage: Galvanic dead may derange the delicate works of mad science simply by touching them. Any mad science contraption touched by a galvanic dead must immediately make a Reliability check at -3.
Patterning becomes even more useful, however, when you realize that it's a commutative process. You can link two sets of concepts to each other through a third set. To return to our secret-magic setting, if you described the Dragon of North America as red and the Dragon of Asia as green, you could opt to link the set of continents, through the set of dragons, to the set of the colors of the spectrum. At that point, you have access to all the concepts that colors are linked to. What does it mean that Communism, which controlled much of Asia for most of the twentieth century, took red as its color? Coincidence, or hidden magical offensive from North America? Now you can bring in the Hermetic system of correspondences to find out which astrological signs and planets correspond to which colors, and then it gets too complicated for me to get into right now.
When patterning works right, it can be extremely powerful -- so much so that it can be worth it to introduce patterns into a setting just to facilitate it. Continents, planets, classical elements, Knights of the Round Table, popes, World's Fairs . . . any set of related elements can be linked up to another set, suggesting new ideas and suggesting new connections between previously unrelated elements. It's an incredibly fertile process.
Its power, however, is also its weakness. As I said before, I usually prefer to use patterning when I have a lot of elbow room -- most often in the early stages of developing a setting. Patterning wreaks a lot more havoc on a setting than implication and connection do; it's more useful for generating new material than filling in gaps.
Sometimes, you just come up blank, and you don't even know where to begin. In these moments, intersection is useful. It's time-consuming, but systematic and very productive.
Intersection requires you to first compile a list of the setting's most important elements. How many elements make up that list is up to you. Next, construct a table with that list on each axis. Finally, consider the possible interactions at each field of that table. Each intersection may have several potential interactions; mull over the ideas for a while.
So, as an example, let's make a partial list of the elements of Deadlands. For the purposes of this argument, let's use the following elements: undead, weird animals, the frontier, and mad science. One could easily add dozens more to the list, but space (and my list of convenient examples) is limited. Our table, therefore, looks like this:
Three monsters from Varmints fit into this table. Intersecting undead with the frontier generated the railrunner, a spike-fisted undead who haunts the railroads which opened up the West. Combining the undead with mad science created the smoke, a cloud of industrial outgassings controlled by an errant soul. This intersection could also have generated the galvanic dead (above). The intersection of weird critters and mad science produced the vitriolecat, a skunk-like beast that sprays a potent industrial solvent from its glands.
The empty fields in the table represent combinations I wasn't able to use during development. This is one of the beauties of intersection; it produces so much material you don't have to use it all. Frontier plus weird critters seemed adequately explored in the setting, and undead weird critters seemed like overkill. Though, as I think about it, a weird critter that feeds on the undead would be pretty cool. Another day, perhaps.
Intersection is also a powerful tool for creating crossovers. Rather than intersecting a list of setting elements with itself, make a list for each setting to be crossed, and intersect the two lists. Even a short pair of lists will generate dozens of ideas for your crossover.
Worked Example: The Chinese Underworld
Now let's put this all together and see what happens when we apply these techniques to an ill-defined portion of the Deadlands universe -- the Chinese Underworld.
According to Deadlands canon, many of the monsters that stalk California's Great Maze (and, presumably, China) hail from a different plane of existence called the Chinese Underworld. This Underworld seems not to be the same place as the Hunting Grounds, the origin of Native American and European legendary beasties. The details, however, are left vague -- vaguer, even, than the descriptions we get of the Hunting Grounds.
On one level, this is all well and good; it leaves the field open for future development. At the same time, however, it gives you very little guidance as to how to proceed. The temptation is strong to ignore the question and simply use Chinese monsters as superficial mooks. While I'm all for superficial mooks in RPG, I think it's better to make that choice deliberately than to be driven into it by a vague background. There are also a few elements of Chinese-inspired monsters that seem inconsistent with the rest of canon; reconciling those elements is another goal to aim for.
I'll mostly be using implication and connection here. Patterning and intersection are really at their best when you work with a world in its entirety. We're also trying mainly to flesh out background, which is where implication and connection really shine.
To begin with, it seems likely that the Chinese Underworld ought to be at least linked to the Hunting Grounds. There's precedent that may suggest multiple spiritual planes, but keeping things simple is usually wise. Besides, the supernatural critters of the Far East seem to have been affected by the Great Spirit War and the Reckoning as much as their Western brethren, which wouldn't make sense if they drew power from a different source.
So we have two setting elements that require a relationship. The simplest relationship in situations like this is to decide that the two elements are actually one and the same. However, some distinction seems valuable. The true identity of the Reckoners who rule the Hunting Grounds (which I'll refrain from mentioning, though at this late date it feels somewhat like concealing the fact that Rosebud was a sled) is strongly tied to Western occultism. Having them govern the Chinese supernatural seems odd (and Eurocentric, for that matter).
Instead, let's posit that there is a single spiritual plane, but different regions of that plane are controlled by different groups of beings. There are published precedents for areas that are physically contiguous with the Hunting Grounds but outside the domain of the Reckoners and manitous. Settling upon a divided spiritual plane provides a foundation for future work, explains the current canon, and leaves room for expansion if necessary (into, say, the African Underworld or Aborigine Dreamtime).
In the Flesh
This compromise allows us to wrangle with one of the difficulties that the Chinese Underworld presents: the problem of ogres.
Among the creatures controlled by the Reckoners, there is a clear line between the corporeal and spiritual. Manitous and intangible undead are spirit beings that come from the Hunting Grounds, and cannot manifest physically in the mortal world without possessing a mortal body. Abominations are solid, physical monsters that are created, live, and die in the physical world. Only very rarely does a physical being enter or leave the Hunting Grounds.
The Chinese Underworld, however, features creatures such as the Chinese ogre, a physical being that serves in the lower echelons of the Underworld hierarchy unless they are sent or escape to the mortal world. Both physical and spiritual beings move back and forth to the Underworld with some frequency; apparently even some human groups in the employ of Underworld beings pass through gateways to the Underworld when they must move around quickly.
This dilemma requires us to use implication in reverse. Rather than asking what the consequences of a setting element are, we have to ask what condition this setting element is a consequence of. What situation led to the Chinese Underworld having both physical and spiritual denizens?
Those gateways to the Underworld are the key. Let's imagine that Chinese ogres and their ilk, like their Western counterparts, are abominations. However, when the Great Spirit War came and the spiritual world was sealed away, they, unlike the Reckoners' abomination, were not abandoned to their fate. Instead, they were summoned through the Underworld's portals before those gates were sealed, to serve their masters in the spiritual world. Thus, since that time, the Chinese Underworld has contained physical and spiritual contingents.
This hypothesis demands the question of why the Underworld's rulers would choose to do such a thing. Recall that the Underworld is described as a rigid hierarchical society. This means that the Underworld's minions are under tighter control, but like feudal systems everywhere, it also means the masters have certain obligations to their thralls. The Reckoners' minions don't have to follow orders, but they get no help when they get into trouble; the Chinese Underworld might well work differently. The top levels might even need their underlings. Without lackeys, they'd have no one to boss around but each other, and that can't possibly end well.
Up to this point, we've been closing gaps -- exploring the cosmological issues raised by the Underworld, and dealing with the inconsistency created by the Chinese ogres and other tangible demons. However, we can go even further, and use our tools to go beyond the canon.
For example, the work we've done so far suggests that the masters of the Chinese Underworld have a different agenda than the Reckoners do. The Underworld seems more interested in its own internal politics -- even though it is clearly more organized than the Reckoners' organization, its minions do no more, and often less, than the manitous and their creations do. Why? Presumably the Underworld's masters also feed on fear.
There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps they are content feeding on the fear of their subordinates. Or perhaps they just don't want to rock the boat. If the Underworld was content with the status quo, the Reckoning would be a real wrench in the works. Maybe they're just mobilizing slowly; after centuries of the same old thing, 15 years goes by pretty fast.
None of this, however, explains why there is a disorganized Underworld presence in the mortal world. The different demons identified in the Maze don't cooperate; Chinese ogres seem to be all but escapees from the Underworld. It's inexplicable behavior for members of a strict hierarchy.
Well, maybe they aren't members any more. Maybe the Chinese monsters seen on the mortal plane are all renegades and exiles. More interestingly, perhaps there's a schism in the Underworld hierarchy, split between trying to uphold the status quo and trying to get some of the mortal pie while the getting is good. Or, to raise the stakes even higher, maybe the Underworld is split between trying to get some of the mortal-plane booty and trying to fend off the newly powered-up Reckoners from throwing their weight around on the spiritual plane.
The end result is the possibility that there may be factions among the forces of darkness which a savvy party of PCs might be able to use to good effect. It certainly adds a complexity of supernatural politics to match the temporal politics in the Maze.
I wouldn't pursue this line of thought in published material -- even if it doesn't explicitly break with canon, I think that the spirit of the setting as published demands a united front among the bad guys at the highest level. Indeed, fiddling with the Underworld at all flirts with getting into what In Nomine calls "canon areas of doubt and uncertainty". However, I'd certainly do something along these lines if I were starting a new campaign. I like politically complex environments, and because I've tried to work within the constraints of canon, future publications shouldn't invalidate my work unless Pinnacle starts getting very detailed about Chinese mysticism.
- Six Degrees of Sir Kevin Bacon -- Most Suppressed Transmissions are excellent examples of fill-in setting design at its finest, but Six Degrees of Sir Kevin Bacon is, I think, the clearest example of connection I know.
- GURPS Traveller Alien Races 2 Designer's Notes -- Unsurprisingly, GURPS Traveller is a good example of the kind of work I'm talking about; writers in that line also face the challenge of balancing innovation and canon. As a result, most of the line's Designer's Notes are good stuff, but I particularly like the Alien Races 2 Notes; it wrestles most explicitly with the difficulties of that balance.
- RTT: Considering the Ick in Dynamic
- RTT: The Charge of A Static World -- These linked episodes of Random Thought Table are not directly relevant, but I think they're good examinations of the nature of canon, and the challenges of wrangling with it.
Article publication date: March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.