Friday, March 23, 2012

My First "Published" Work

In the past, I've talked about "Sins of the Past," my ICONS adventure from Adamant a few times.  But it wasn't my first work in the gaming industry. Prior to that, I sold a couple of articles to HERO Games for Digital HERO, their PDF house organ.

But before that, there was this little piece, originally composed in 1997 or '98, originally for the Haymaker! APA mailing list, then for the Deadlands mailing list a few years later.  Shane Hensley saw it on the DL list and liked it so much that he asked if he could put it on their website.  Flattered, I immediately agreed, and Pinnacle became my "first publisher."

Deadlands in Cannibal Country With Larry
A True Story, by Theron Bretz

OK, a few people asked me to post this.  If it bores or infuriates you, well, you know where your delete button is.

The following tale is as true as I can tell it. Like any mutually shared, life-changing disaster, some aspects may have taken on mythic qualities. Proceed at your own risk....
 It all began with a call from one of my gaming buddies, Justin D. We'd been talking about Deadlands for a while, as we were both experiencing a bit of gaming down-time. The problem was that the Deadlands system was, to say the least, a bit unorthodox from our perspective (we're long-time Champions/Hero System grunts), and neither one of us wanted to be the guy who had to read all the rules and implement them for a bunch of people who'd never played before.

It looked like we had the perfect solution when Justin found someone looking for a group to GM for. He seemed enthusiastic about the game and the setting, and claimed to be a big Joe R. Lansdale fan (a huge plus as far as I was concerned). We'll call this fellow -- Larry (for that was his name). We made plans to play the following weekend, and Justin's friend Pete V. would join us as well. Pete's a great guy, but I didn't know the depths of his character until we faced the coming tribulations together.

Having been given no guidelines for character creation, I came up with a half-dozen concepts to bounce of the GM. The next day, Justin picked me and Pete up and we headed off to Larry's house.

I should note at this time that Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. It is a huge, sprawling metropolis, with gleaming skyscrapers and comfortable suburbs. At no time did the vehicle we traveled in leave the city limits.

And yet, we turned off a major thoroughfare right into the heart of Arkansas Cannibal Country. Kudzu covered the fences between houses. Dogs lived under porches. Cars on blocks grew rusty in front yards. And there at the end of this displaced street stood a clapboard house. With kudzu all over the fences, and dogs under the porch, and two cars in the yard. And a bearded fellow in a wheelchair waving at us from the porch.

No, this was not Larry, it was his older brother, who apparently had some sort of neuromuscular disorder. I mention him not in any way to disparage the differently-abled, but to emphasize precisely how creepy things were already getting. And, drawn by the barking dogs, out came Larry. 

 In the past few years, Justin, Pete and I have tried to come up with the proper words to describe Larry. Lacking them, we keep coming back to "pasty-faced doughboy". This is, again, not intended to disparage either the pale, or the overweight, but man, he looked just like a twenty year old Pop 'n Fresh. He immediately noticed my SCA t-shirt and made a disparaging comment about it. I shrugged it off saying something about how the SCA isn't for everyone and let it slide. He introduced us to his brother, and asked us in.

At this point, you're either reading this with rapt horror wondering what happened next, or your wondering "why is Theron wasting our time with this non-game stuff". Frankly, because it's all part of the story and I can't tell it any shorter.

We then met Larry's parents. It became immediately apparent that Larry was a "LATE in life project" for these two, who both are past retirement age. While they seemed pleasant enough, I could feel them sizing me up for chops and ribs when my back was turned.

Larry then told us how excited he was to get this "balls to the wall" campaign off the ground. He'd mostly played live-action Vampire lately (there's a picture for your mental scrapbook) and was eager to tear into the Weird West. He led us to his "Inner Sanctum" (his bedroom) so we could talk in private.

Picture a 10' x 10' room (you're a gamer, that should be easy). Put a large Confederate flag on one wall. Put an even larger series of 80s hair metal band posters on the other one. Add lots of comic books, with the recent Jonah Hex mini-series prominently displayed. Add that funky smell of living socks you find in most dorm rooms. You are now in Larry's "Inner Sanctum". Did I mention it was 10' x 10'? Did I mention Larry was a bit heavy? Or that Justin, Pete and I are all over 6' tall and not exactly twig-like in our conformation? Did I mention the door was shut? I forget who it was who suggested we move to the gaming table, but he was a saint.

Meanwhile, Larry was telling us about this "kick ass NPC" he's including in the game. In describing this character, I realize he's basically taken Jonah Hex, filed off the serial numbers, transformed him into a dork, and re-named him "Dusty Blood". Or as we immediately began to refer to him, Jonah Heck.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Something like, "Theron, you guys weren't even giving him a chance. You can't expect everyone to like the same things you do, or play the same style you do." And you're almost right. We really were trying to give him a chance, it's just that all the signals were wrong. Something that will become more apparent when you read Part Two....

[NOTE: This was originally composed in two parts, due to limitations of old-school mail programs]

Still reading? I'm amazed. Usually this story is told out loud, so I can always yell at someone to sit down and shut up if they try and leave...

But I digress. At this point, we unveiled our characters. Justin was playing a fire 'n brimstone preacher who lived on a diet of cheap cigars and cheaper whiskey. Pete was playing a Union deserter who headed west, and I settled on playing an Arizona cowboy who was traveling north to find work. Larry was of course using Dusty Blood as a GM-controlled PC. He set things up so that Pete and I were traveling together through Kansas and came across a campfire set up by Justin and Jonah Heck. Despite the fact that it was just past
sunset and we were approaching a campfire from the east, Dusty picked us out with no trouble whatsoever. He immediately derided Pete for being a "Damned Yankee" (Dusty was Confederate, y'know), despite the fact that no deserter I know of would still be wearing his uniform a year after he went AWOL. We shrugged these things off in order to get things moving (see, we were giving him a chance, just like you asked).

I should point out that we were playing at Larry's kitchen table. Approximately eight feet away, his parents and brother sat in the "TV room", watching religious broadcasting on UHF, sort of like Otto's parents in "Repo Man," only about a hundred years older. Now, I have nothing against organized religion, but it just added to the whole sensation of being a lamb led to the slaughter. I swear they had a sausage grinder out the shed with my name on it.

After trading pleasantries (which amounted to Larry telling us Dusty's life story), we bedded down for the night. For no apparent reason, my character was visited with a strange dream. In the dream, I saw a "crystal staff with feathers at one end" (sort of like what you see in every frickin' Larry Elmore painting), and heard an eerie voice saying, "Return the staff...Return the staff". Clearly, this adventure had something to do with
retrieving and returning a magic staff, possibly to the Forgotten Realms.

Needless to say, I was now entirely pumped up for the coming adventure <*sigh*>.

The next day, we rode into the nearest town, which was apparently abandoned. After looking around a bit, we found out why. The place was crawling with the animated corpses of Sioux warriors. Thinking that Sioux zombies are, at the least, a step in the right direction, we set about combating them. At which point, Larry told us all to roll 1d20 for initiative.

Those of you who've actually played Deadlands may be curious about this particular interpretation of the initiative system. Frankly, given that d20 Deadlands hadn't been so much as considered at this point, I must admit, so was I. So curious, in fact, that I asked Larry about it. To which he replied, "Well, I read over that part last night ,but I really didn't understand it. I was hoping you guys knew the rules." 

Well, there you have it. The only reason we took this mission, all shot to hell. Larry continued, "I guess I'm a good enough GM to just wing it and run things free-style today. Roll 1d20 for initiative."

So roll I did, and got a one. Larry rolled in the high teens for his undead Sioux. Looking down at my feeble digit, I uttered the words that still remain the epitaph of that wasted afternoon, "Oh, great. I'm slower than a dead Indian."

At this point, things became a bit of a blur. I remember that the three of us (Jonah Heck having slipped off somewhere in the fray) were having the devil's own time putting down one of these walking dead Lakota. I remember going through a plate glass window and getting all cut up. I remember Pete's character getting struck by a tomahawk. And I remember FINALLY putting down this one undead warrior. But, for the life of me, I don't remember how.

Subsequently, we found ourselves out on the street in front of the saloon. An undead warrior on a skeletal horse came galloping by, almost riding down our preacher. Of course good ole' Dusty Blood put him down in the nick of time, saying something like "and that makes an even dozen." Meanwhile, Larry ruled that Justin's, how to put it...soiled himself when confronted by the charging Indian, this in spite of all we'd already been through.

This was pretty much the final straw for me. Reaching down to my waist, I surreptitiously reset my pager so it would go off on a test beep. I looked down and said, "Oh, damn, that's Jane. She told me she might be leaving work early. Guys, I hate to do this, but we've got to go get her." Justin and Pete, their eyes alight with the sudden prospect of freedom from this little slice of Hell quickly agreed. We'd been at Larry's house for less than two hours.

[Whenever I tell this story, Jane makes me point out that she did not, in fact, need a ride home from work, like some minimum wage burger-jockey. She worked in a 46 story office tower at the time, did not work weekends, and certainly didn't need a ride anywhere. I love you, Honey.]

Of course, there was more. Larry just had to tell us how the adventure was supposed to turn out.  Apparently a Ghost Rock miner had uncovered a magic crystal staff that was sacred to the Sioux and taken it. After that, the uneasy dead warriors arose from their burial ground under the lake just outside town (yes, you read that right, they were buried under the lake). We were supposed to recover the staff, put it back wherever it actually belonged (possibly the Forgotten Realms), and make things right. Of course, what a miner was doing in Kansas when Ghost Rock was found in the Black Hills and on the west coast escaped Larry. Along with the fact that the Sioux didn't traditionally go for aquatic funerals or crystal staves, but
never mind those little details. Freedom beckoned and we ran for it.

We drove away there in silence, as if each of us was trying to come to terms with what we'd been through. Finally, Pete said, "Man, that was f***** up. Anybody want to get some wings?" In the face of such wisdom, the only possible answer was, "Yes." And so we went, to eat wings, heal our wounds, and lick our fingers.

I've since tried to find the street on which this happened.  All I find are quiet suburban streets, elementary schools, and strip malls.  No kudzu, no clapboard houses, no cars in yards.  It's as if the universe itself healed the rift that allowed Larry and his ilk into our reality.

I just realized that was fifteen years ago and I've STILL never actually gotten to play Deadlands.  There ain't no justice.

Some years later, I was at Origins and bought something from Shane at the Pinnacle booth.  He looked at my name tag and said, "Theron...your name is familiar."

"Yeah, I wrote 'Deadlands In Cannibal Country With Larry.'"

He immediately grabbed his wife and introduced me as the guy who wrote the Larry story.  Apparently it was a favorite of theirs.

And that's why I will buy every edition of Savage Worlds Shane produces.


  1. Magic was made that day. Terrifying, inbred, hillbilly magic.

    Say, did I ever tell you that I saw Larry a while back at the Washington Bedrock? He didn't recognize me, but boy, howdy...his Larry-ness has only increased over the years.

  2. As I recall, you more or less tweeted me about it immediately. Poor kid, he never really had a chance.

    I still want to run a 6-8 session DL mini-campaign someday. Maybe it'll be my retirement game.

  3. I'm going to put this one right up there with "Stick of Pain, Lamont!" for gamer horror stories. Yeesh.

    I'm in an occasional Savage Deadlands game right now and having an absolute blast with it.