The Devil’s Own Self: Devil John Retrospective
Well, for those of you who listened to our Devil John Sessions, you’ll recognise that we all had a pretty good time.
Some of that was the rum. Some, but not all of it. It was very nice rum though.
In the interest of seeing this cool little game get a bit more polish as it develops further, we at Liberation Industries figured we’d jot down a few of our thoughts regarding how it played.
As possible points of interest, we didn’t have the official character sheets, and had to jerry rig some which in retrospect made the game very slightly more lethal. Which in a one shot session was ok, but it did skew the game slightly.
The other thing was that I had played copious amounts of Hard West before GMing this session, and it was a pretty serious influence. In case it wasn’t absolutely clear, by knowledge of Catholicism, indigenous myth, demonology, and ritual magic radically outstrips my knowledge of United States history, which probably coloured this session and later ones a bit.
Anyway, I’ll break this down into rough pros and cons.
Stuff We Liked
Character Creation Cards
These were a real winner. I loved that in a western themed game your character creation is a card based mini-game, which felt very evocative. The passing of cards between the players also made a nice prelude to the themes of guilt and devil’s bargains that the game features so heavily, with each player trying to second guess what shade of poison their compatriots would send them. The last card was almost inevitably terrifying.
It is a quick way to create characters with interesting and very troubled pasts, and means that both players and GM are given an avenue to create anti-heroes without chickening out with their prior acts of evil. You can take this to redemption or damnation with equal ease in play, which I think is great.
In future, I think it would be great if the deck could be expanded with more options; like a lot of what we found, it was a good number for a one off session, but trying to add new characters in later sessions led to a lot of repetition.
Its simple, its elegant, and it works perfectly. The fact that your pact will always work gets people thinking more creatively, trying to bring their horrifying powers to bear in a manner that actually helps makes for interesting situations.
Then there’s the repayment. As a GM I love any element that incentivises the players acting to promote chaos and something other than their own best interests, and really keeps the game full of surprises.
Of anything, I hope this element is the one that doesn’t change.
Stuff We’re Not So Sure On
In honesty, I don’t think we minded the combination of dice as a combination of your skills and a death-clock. It did feel a little clumsy at times, but on a later playthrough we found that the system became much easier to follow once we had the official character sheets.
The roll low element was a bit strange, with the pasts that cemented a characters competence making the rolls higher on average. This was sort of played off by the fact that a higher dice allowed more use of the “re-roll until you make it” system, but it still felt a little counter-intuitive at times.
In contrast to the very collaborative, rules light “indie” elements of town creation, character creation and demonic pacts, the dice system feels almost out of place, though I struggle to think of an alternative that would be appropriate. Perhaps a bidding system like Insylum or Undying, with characters receiving different coloured poker chips based on the four stats, which would be in line with the games other tactile elements.
As I said, not a bad element for a game by any means, but it may be worth shaking things up a little.
The extended hunt for the Immortal Bastard is a handy framing construct, with the collaborative element once again allowing players to shape their story as well as the identity and motives of the main villain.
The problem we noted is the level of lethality, and even with the short-chase option there is a very strong chance of an old style Call of Cthulhu-esque ending where none of the characters at the finale were there at the start. Not saying this is bad; the system works beautifully for a poignant, Seven Samurai style showdown, but feels a little harsh if you want to actually reach the end of your search.
Whether this is handled by more opportunities for healing between towns, or perhaps a more cinematic approach to each session, or even just more options to choose when you all meet your destiny – say, “It was in the fourth town that we found him, but this is the story of the first.” – might give more options for campaign play.
I weigh whether the final showdown with the Immortal Bastard should be a question of dice at all, whether we couldn’t use a newer-fangled collaborative thing to decide how it ends. But perhaps that’s just my rules aversion talking.
What I will say is that it is gritty as all hell, which I suspect was the intention.
I would thoroughly recommend you check out the Devil John Moulton, available through Drivethrurpg, and add your voices to this infernal choir we’ve now joined. Nick Wedig has produced a very promising alpha that we would like to see developed further.
Its a very timely addition to the Western genre, and with a recent revival of interest in revisionist works, it means you as players can play out the stories that you want to see.
So jump on and show it some love.
Keep on Rockin’.