Original SA post
Let’s wind the clock back to the year 2008. Savage Worlds is still a relatively new system, and Deadlands got upgraded to it under the new Reloaded line in 2006. Although there were one to two page side encounters and free online content bridging the 2 year gap, Deadlands Reloaded was lacking a proper adventure on its own, much less sourcebooks of any kind. And when it came to published modules, the Weird West had a problematic track record of the worst of 90s metaplot. As has been observed with D&D 4th Edition’s Keep on the Shadowfell, a bad opening adventure can harm an otherwise great system in setting the wrong first impression.
Coffin Rock defied these expectations. It still holds up strong a decade later, and I ran it on three separate occasions in introducing gaming groups to Deadlands. An open-ended mystery in a creepy mining town, it skillfully weaves the setting’s mechanics and tropes that few of its predecessors matched.
I established hooks for my 3 playthroughs for the PCs to stay in town. One group had a traveling lawman sent to town to investigate a mysterious fire at the Mayor’s house along with the Church’s new mining veins. The second group had a Huckster member of the Agency who was tasked with finding a copy of Hoyle’s Book of Games believed to be in town, while the Harrowed and Martial Artist PCs were hunting for a Triad gangster believed hiding out in town. The third group was originally passing on by, but the depressed new Mayor Hambly deputized them once the crooked Marshal was killed for the fact that there was literally nobody else suited to the job.
I’ll refer to said gaming groups as the Lawmen group, the Agency group, and the Deputies group respectively. The Lawmen group did not complete the adventure, only getting in 2 short sessions before real-world priorities disbanded the players.
Coffin Rock is a mining town that fell on hard times. So named for the oddly-shaped rock formation peering over the nearby hills, its rich veins of copper mines were the primary source of income. When the mines dried up, Mayor Daly committed to the Sunk Cost Fallacy and continued buying up failing mines in hopes of literally striking it rich like in the old days. Over time more people left town to the point that so he began paying them just to stay in the town. He was even desperate enough to bring in Marshal Bryce, a crooked lawman on a power trip, who had little desire to improve the community. After Daly’s death his manor burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances, Bryce seemed to be the closest thing to Coffin Rock’s leader.
Things turned around when a new Christian sect known as the Brotherhood of the New Covenant settled in the area. Reverend Cheval’s sermons brought some hope and solace, but the man’s intentions were far from ideal: he is a patsy for an evil spirit known as Ahpuch feeding his delusions of gaining immortality. By binding a mountain spirit known as Tacheene, he began creating clay-like abominations as free labor to dig the mines, many of whom menace the town’s environs. Marshal Bryce, who stole the dearly departed Mayor Daly’s mine claims and was behind the manor burning down, was not too keen on sharing power with some holier-than-thou preacher. But upon hearing about the monstrous labor force made him open to working out a deal.
And this is far from the town’s only troubles. Our adventure begins with the PCs riding into town for any variety of reasons, being open-ended in whatever way the GM believes will encourage them to stay rather than high-tailing it for the hills.
What I Changed:
I made Cheval and his cult Satanists in each playthrough; it wouldn’t immediately tip off the party to the Reckoner metaplot, but was something recognizable to players and fit tone-wise with the setting than an obscure Mayan death god. I also decided to keep Marshal Bryce and Reverend Cheval as enemies, but in a sort of cold war in neither of them antagonizing the other too much on account of their respective positions. I made it so that Reverend Cheval was the one who bought the deeds to the Cooked Earth Mine at a bargain price from Bryce, who naturally felt cheated at the turn of fortune.
A Twisted Town
This is a location-based adventure, meaning that there’s no particular order in which events may be triggered. Some NPCs and locations will point the party in a certain direction, but they’re not necessarily a prerequisite for triggering a scene. The gradual accumulation of clues will hopefully lead PCs to the culprit of Coffin Rock’s wrongness, which is in the Cooked Earth Mine outside of town proper.
Beyond the above, Coffin Rock is a Fear Level 3 location, slightly above the setting average of Level 2. There are several events which can raise said Fear Level in town, to a maximum of 5, and just about every location has a short entry on how the environs and the inhabitants’ behaviors change based on said Level. But persistent themes outside of town include seams of blood-red rock which become more visible as said Fear Level rises, ore stones taking on a skeletal look, and the earth itself becomes dry as dust. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces in town have a tendency to reflect people’s worst insecurities which causes many inhabitants to grow depressed. Every time a human soul dies around the area the church bell tolls on its own accord regardless of the Fear Level. Someone on Fantasy Grounds made a handy-dandy list of things which happen and change due to said mechanics:
The adventure is quick to remind the GM of the church bell during likely combat scenes. Overall this is a really cool and innovative means of showcasing one of Deadlands’ core mechanics to the GM, while also being a great mood-setter to the PCs. The changing atmosphere demonstrates how their actions (or lack thereof) in fighting the darkness can make a difference.
A realm’s Fear Level is the accumulated sense of fear, hopelessness, and other negative emotions which the Reckoners (the setting’s cosmic horrors) thrive off of. The higher the Fear Level, the more dangerous a place gets, and it is easier for the Reckoners to manifest supernatural evils within the area. At Fear Level 6, a place becomes a full-on Deadland which is a blasted hellscape.
The town of Coffin Rock itself contains about 20 buildings of note, although around half of them have full-blown scenes and encounters. I’ll cover the most interesting ones here.
Unless they want to camp in the mountains or hope an abandoned house is comfortable enough, Coffin Rock’s only proper inn is the Crystal River Hotel but the peeling paint makes it read “Cry a River Hotel.” The sole proprietor in this expansive, hollow place is Carl Testeverde. He’s been heartbroken ever since his wife died, and at Fear Level 5 her spirit will manifest, causing a ruckus while also verbally abusing Carl to the point that he commits suicide in two days’ time unless the PCs intervene.
A Flawed Jewel:
The Jewel Theater is the town’s only dance hall and brothel of note. But the entertainment here is far from ideal. Lanterns cast a sickly red light on the dust-strewn interior whose own silk drapes hardly do little to provide any illusion of fanciness. The prostitutes are haggard, either lounging near the front for customers to come on by or boringly going through the motions of onstage shows. At Fear Level 4 the soiled doves resort to getting their clients drunk to rob them and dump them in the cemetery (alive) outside, while at Fear Level 5 the evil energy in town turns them into ghoulish cannibals who feed off of their clients.
What I Changed:
I made it so that the Jewel Theater’s staff were cannibals from the get-go. Two of my full playthroughs had Lizzie Pierce, the former dancer at the local saloon, hire the PCs to retrieve her belongings which inevitably put them at odds with the owners. The Agency group heard that Lizzie had a Hoyle’s Book of Games among her belongings, while the Deputies group were in it for cold hard cash. The former group came up with a good distraction to divert attention (drunkenly fall onto the piano in back) while one of them broke into the upstairs room to retrieve said belongings while also finding some meat of dubious origin. This last part in particular prompted them to scope out the place, discovering the cannibalism via a huckster’s Hunch, and thus mount a shoot-out in the Theater. The Deputies group were more improvisational and got caught stealing the belongings, resulting in a fight against the newly-revealed ghouls.
Law and Disorder:
Marshal Thomas Bryce is a sadistic, paranoid man, a poor combination for a lawman but a great excuse for him to hassle newcomer PCs in town. He’s accompanied by six deputies, and a few of the wanted posters in their office have been deliberately defaced. At Fear Level 4 the posters sometimes show the faces of the viewer, with the word “alive” struck out in red ink. A miner sees this and presumes that people in town are out to get him, and takes some hostages in an abandoned building. At Fear Level 5 Bryce and his deputies wholly embrace their darker sides and turn the office’s jail into a medieval torture chamber where they poke out people’s eyes and flense prisoners alive.
Bryce will not get involved in the various bad goings-on in town, letting the chips fall where they may unless it personally affects him or his deputies. In some cases he actively profits off of it, such as the soiled doves at the Jewel Theater who give him a cut of whatever valuables they’ve taken off of their unfortunate clients.
What I Changed:
Not so much “changed” as how Bryce crossed paths with the PCs. The Agency group’s fight at the Jewel Theater drew Bryce’s attention as well as the Triad goon they were hunting for alongside him. The Marshal was on the take so he sought to get the PCs to disarm. They did not, and after killing him, the Triad guy, and 4 out of 6 deputies they found a note in Cantonese confirming the arrival of a “specialist” from Iron Dragon to deal with some trouble in the mines.
The Deputies group had a PC with the Wanted hindrance among them, so an encounter with Bryce was inevitable when he tracked them down. Said Wanted PC challenged Bryce to a duel and won; the deputies were sore losers, but fled once half their number were killed by the other PCs.
The Lawmen group were poking around in the newspaper archives, the mayor’s office, and the burned-out manor as part of their investigation. The timing of these visits caused Bryce to freak out, and he ambushed the PCs in the graveyard by getting a blackmailed miner to lead them there as detailed in the church entry below.
Ever since the veins dried up the local assayer Ike Turnbull found himself without a job. He turned to drink and hardly spends time at the assay office anymore, hanging out in the Six Feet Under saloon. At Fear Level 4 he starts murdering miners to loot their valuables, hiding their bodies in the office basement. At Fear Level 5 murderous greed afflicts the minds of ten townsfolk who besiege the office. If Ike Turnbull dies, the corpses within his basement will rise as undead!
Reverend Cheval planted an inverted cross brimming with black magic in the town’s general store, causing the place to gather dangerous levels of omnipresent mold everywhere. The owner Ray Wisely has done everything he can to halt the spread, but to no avail. Whether on their own or hired by the man, the PCs can explore the store. There are no monsters here save for insect swarms on Fear Level 5, and the mold can induce fatigue or a horrible wasting disease at Fear Level 4. The inverted cross is hidden under a patch of accumulated mold and can be found out either via Notice or certain magical spells.
What I Changed:
Only the Deputies group investigated the store. I made it so that the mold ate through the floorboards, provoking Agility rolls to avoid falling through and possibly coming into contact. One of the PCs did and had to be pulled out by rope. They managed to find the hidden cross and broke it, presuming quite rightly that black magic was involved.
The Brotherhood of the New Covenant poses as a Protestant Christian denomination, blending in perfectly with the myriad other sects which dot the American frontier. A little over a dozen in number, they are all corrupt and serve the foul spirit inspiring Cheval. They are always smiling, and their Deacon Robert Plume has taken over for the Reverend’s absence. They have a ready excuse for just about every suspicious activity connected to them. For the Reverend’s absence, they claim he’s “scouring the countryside for the source of evil afflicting the town.” For the church bell ringing at odd times, the steeple is said to be drafty and there is no ladder or easy means of climbing up. The copper-clad podium if inspected closely will show that it doesn’t distort reflections which as a result makes them look a bit too perfect.
The podium serves as a portal to the Cooked Earth Mine that only Reverend Cheval or the spirit Tacheene can use.
The nearby graveyard has several open pits, and if the PCs end up on Bryce’s bad side he’ll browbeat a miner into leading the PCs there so that he and his deputies can ambush them. Additionally, at Fear Level 4 Cheval will instruct his cult to dig up the corpse of Mayor Daly and reanimate him as undead. He’ll start to wander near his ruined home and will raise the Fear Level by 1 if the PCs do not intervene once the townsfolk begin to see it.
What I Changed:
I never used the walking corpse hook, on account that overall it is not a difficult monster for a whole group to take on, and I preferred using the other methods of raising Fear in town. Each playthrough group visited the church at some point, but only the Agency group took the time to get a ladder and climb up to the steeple.
What’s Up, Doc?
Dr. William Osgood is a dermatologist and the town’s only doctor. He’s always had an unhealthy obsession with the makeup of the human body, and as the Fear Level rises he’ll act out on these urges more often. At 4 he’ll try to disguise his mutilations as risky surgical operations, and at 5 he’ll barricade his office as he turns the place into a torture chamber to experiment on hapless patients.
Fade to Black:
Jonah Thurgood is perhaps the town’s most normal inhabitant. He is more aware of the strange manifestations in town and smeared his windows with soot to avoid giving off reflections. Beyond giving the PCs information about the outlaws in the hills, he will begin building weapons at Fear Level 4. At 5 he’ll barricade the smithy and shoot anyone who tries to break in as the surrounding town goes to Hell.
Six Feet Under:
The chandelier may be dirty, the stairs rickety, and the seating arrangement haphazard, but this is the only place in Coffin Rock with steady business. It’s populated by a variety of NPCs, and just like in D&D it’s a good place to visit to pick up adventuring hooks: the absinthe-addicted new Mayor Hambly has seen the spirit Tacheene in his dreams, the piano player’s bandaged-up arm is the result of Dr. Osgood’s “operation,” and the former dancer Lizzie Pierce wants someone to retrieve her belongings from the Jewel Theater after noticing her peers’...stranger behavior.
Furthermore, an Indian shaman by the name Laughs at Darkness has been leaving subtle markings around town. He hopes of attracting perceptive-enough eyes to seek him out by the large rock formation outside of town, and hopefully put an end to the region’s troubles. Via a Notice roll a PC will start seeing water stains, patterns of cracks, and other phenomena which looks like the “coffin rock” formation overshadowing town. Soon he’ll begin seeing it everywhere.
What I Changed:
I had it so that PCs who sat down for a friendly game of cards with the miners could get bonuses on future social skill rolls in town and earn some money via the Gamble skill. I began the session proper in the saloon for the Agency group.
All of the families with children left Coffin Rock for their sake, leaving an abandoned school house to show for it. However, there is one little girl still within town, as a spiteful wraith who feels hurt by her living peers’ abandonment and begins killing people walking the streets near the school. Once she kills three people the Fear level increases by 1, and those investigating the area will be hit by poltergeist objects and hear a little girl’s echoing laughter. Her remains are a skeleton in a cupboard, and only by giving the body a burial may the wraith be permanently dispelled.
What I Changed:
Only the Deputies undertook this endeavor. I peppered the school house with some popular novels of the period, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This was a way of showing the party what made for good readin’ out on the frontier besides the Bible. For those who could read, at least.
This abandoned building’s archives can showcase the history of Coffin Rock if investigated. However, falling through the rotten floorboards will awaken several swarms of mice who dart out into town and get everywhere. The hordes of these annoying, diseased varmints put many townsfolk at their wit’s end, raising the Fear Level by 1. The town can be rid of said mice if 5 swarms are found and destroyed.
Run to the Hills
Whether following up on clues about the Cooked Earth Mine or other areas in the hills, the PCs will eventually venture around outside Coffin Rock proper. There are three potential encounters for them to find here.
The first is Shelly Pearl Daly, who came to Coffin Rock too late to find it under the thumb of Marshal Bryce. Knowing that her father would never voluntarily give any deeds to such a man, she had to retreat after a violent confrontation. She’s assembled an impromptu gang of sorts of Coffin Rock’s women who suffered the depredations of the Marshal and his deputies. The PCs will first encounter her in a fight with a blood man, a monster created by Reverend Cheval baptizing victims in boiling mud. If they help her, they can learn her side of the story and possibly recruit her gang to retaliate against Bryce and any other bad guys.
What I Changed:
Two out of three groups came into contact with Shelly Pearl at some point. The Lawmen while planning to go up to the mine, and the Deputies while on patrol outside the town. For the Agency group I ran the other 2 encounters for them instead.
The second encounter is with a group of outlaws from Kansas lead by Hank “Mayhem” Archer. They’re laying low in a hidden cave, but will eventually make a raid on Coffin Rock when the Fear Level hits 4. If Bryce is alive the outlaws and outlaws-in-lawmens-clothing will exchange fire before Hank’s men retreat. If Bryce is at any point killed then the outlaws will ride into town and raise a ruckus, raising the Fear Level by 1 if the PCs don’t take care of matters. They’re all wanted men with a total combined bounty of $2,900! Not too shabby!
What I Changed:
For the Agency group, I made it so that the outlaws were Iron Dragon muscle. Kang made a deal with Marshal Bryce to lay down track near Coffin Rock, something the original mayor would not have agreed to do. Due to Bryce’s hostility with Cheval’s church, he wanted to use Kang’s Triad to help him drive the cult out of town. Their initial assault failed, so they’re now waiting on a “specialist” skilled in dealing with supernatural evils.
The Martial Artist PC disguised himself as said “specialist” and visited the gangsters alone, successfully tricking them into revealing their employer’s plans for the region. The party killed them off later.
Finally, there are groups of undead miners roaming about the hills, having risen from manitous (evil spirit servants of the Reckoners) possessing their corpses. At some point a zombie horde will rush to Coffin Rock due to the concentration of fresh brains there, raising the Fear Level by 1.
PCs poking around the giant coffin-shaped outcropping requires a Vigor roll to avoid gaining a level of Fatigue, but it houses an entrance to a kiva. Waiting outside is the Indian shaman Laughs at Darkness, who offers the hospitality of smoking with him in his home. He explains how there’s an unseen spiritual battle being waged, and the PCs are designated champions to fight the great evil plaguing the land. Those who accept his offer of a test will cause the shaman to throw hallucinogenic herbs into the fire. They will see the spirit Tacheene who will explain his plight, along with visions of people being tossed into pots of boiling mud only to arise as abominations. Laughs at Darkness will be gone by the time the PCs come to, never to be seen again.
If they refuse the test, he’ll give them fetishes which will teleport them into Coffin Rock’s church, in the middle of a group of shocked and angry cultists.
What I Changed:
I had it so that Laughs at Darkness was being menaced by a group of zombies when the PCs stumbled upon him. I also timed the undead horde to sweep into town after teleporting out of the Cooked Earth Mine, having been drawn to town by the rituals conducted by Cheval’s cult as a means of raising the stakes.
Although a different ethnicity than the standard trope, Laughs at Darkness felt way too much like a certain stereotypical mystical minority stock character,
so I gave him more personality. First, I noticed that a kiva was Hopi in origin, and the man was far from home up in Colorado. I gave him a real Hopi name, Alo, and made it so that he was en route to the Ghost Dance gathering in Sioux territory as an emissary for his tribe. I researched that the Hopi do not have shamans or priests in the technical sense as every member of the tribe is trained in spiritual matters, so I reflavored his Arcane Background as him having a preternatural “knack” for sensing the unseen. Along with his gallows humor laughter, made him a bit of an odd bird among his home village. Originally Laughs at Darkness would creepily cackle constantly, so I made his sense of humor more like Joker’s from Mass Effect, cracking wise even as the PCs are gunning down zombies.
Alo and an entourage of fellow Hopi travelers spotted Cheval conducting his hellish baptisms, causing the cultists to attack, with him the only survivor. Sensing that something was greatly amiss, Alo began creating the various signs around town in hopes of recruiting more people to stop Cheval’s cult. In both the Agency and Deputies group he accompanied the party as an Allied character under the players’ control. His original stat block (which would never see the light of day otherwise) was a super-powerful shaman with a host of powers, but I toned him down to a level in line with the PCs specializing in defensive and buffing magic.
Dust to Dust
This section covers the Cooked Earth Mine itself. The place is a ways out of town, and its entrance is a huge open rift in the earth with a creepy red glow and indecipherable whispers (heard on a Notice roll) emanating out of it. A raise on the roll (4 or more above the Target Number) makes it sound like the voices are coming from the mine, begging for help. A makeshift elevator has been rigged with a trap by the cultists to drop rocks from above on whoever tries to use the device.
Further on down, the source of the glow reveals itself as crimson veins criss-crossing the tunnels. The souls of miners whose bodies were turned into blood men will manifest as ghostly apparitions, telling the PCs their tales of woe. They are unable to get close to the spawning pit, but if the PCs choose to act as vessels for the ghosts they may be able to get close and get their original bodies back.
What I Changed:
There’s no way in hell my gaming groups would let ghosts possess them, especially not in a horror game; they’d think it was a trap. Instead I had it so that said ghosts were in the bodies of the blood men within the mine, and when slain the souls of the miners materialize, thanking the PCs for freeing them from their earthly torment before going on to the afterlife proper.
The main fight of the mine takes place in a hot chamber with a pit full of boiling mud. The spirit Tacheene is paralyzed in a transparent sphere of magical energy, his open wounds pouring magma-like mud into the pit below. Reverend Cheval will be ordering two blood men to push a hostage into the pit by the time the PCs reach the chamber, and he’ll angrily order the monsters to attack while he jumps into the pit itself and teleports back to the church. Statwise the blood men are slow and dumb yet strong creatures which can set a target on fire with a melee attack, and can do the same but at short range by blasting mud from their bodies.
Once the blood men are dealt with, Tacheene will be freed and thank the PCs for rescuing him. Weakened, he can only use his powers to stabilize the portal in the pit enough for the party to safely pass through. It reveals a dizzying array of images of the various buildings around town, including the local church where Cheval and the cultists are now conducting a ritual to summon a demon. Alas the portal is not stable enough to send the PCs all to one place, so it randomly sends them individually to various locations within town one hour later.
What I Changed:
The whole “cutscene time” of the villain performing an action and then escaping without the party able to do anything felt a bit cheesy. In the Agency and Deputies playthroughs I had the PCs fight Reverend Cheval in addition to the blood men in the mines. In this case his second-in-command, Deacon Plume, is the one conducting the ritual back at the church. I also incorporated the zombie horde encounter as a climactic moment, as the ambient evil magic of the ritual drew them to Coffin Rock. Instead of splitting the party I had them materialize in a random area in town, rolling 1d20 and comparing the number to the listed locations on the map. The Deputies group encountered a crazed Dr. Osgood, while the Agency group ended up in the burned mayor’s manor and had to deal with unstable foundations when fighting the zombies.
The final battle of this adventure takes place in a church, with Reverend Cheval chanting in a blasphemous, inhuman tongue while reading from a cursed tome. Cheval, who has the stats of an offensive Black Magician and some leadership edges, is accompanied by 3 mook Cultists per PC armed only with daggers. Cheval will summon a demon in 5 rounds unless the PCs wound him or disarm him of the book. If summoned, the party will have a very tough fight against a strong demon immune to non-holy weapons, but if Cheval is killed said demon will vanish back to Hell along with the stained glass windows dramatically exploding for AoE damage.
What I Changed:
Both groups began at Seasoned rank and had multiple spellcasters with offensive powers, so I had the demon materialize automatically.
Freeing Tacheene and killing the cultists will cause things to change for the better in Coffin Rock. For one, Tacheene’s freedom will put an end to the blood men along with the creepy blood-red veins on the land. Mirrors no longer give distorted imagery, and if Bryce is still alive he and his gang will flee town. The true land deeds in the Mayor’s office which went unnoticed by Bryce will be found, and Shelly Pearl will inherit her father’s legacy. She proves a competent new mayor, and PCs will be treated well by the town for as long as they stay. Finally, new copper veins start popping up in the Cooked Earth Mine. And to top it all off, PCs can lower the Fear Level by using the Tale-Telling mechanic, a means of spreading hope by newspaper, oral folklore, or other means of getting the word out.
*but could be uncovered by the PCs during play and possibly used against him
Coffin Rock does a lot of things right, even more so than the four major Reckoner Series of Deadlands’ major antagonists. It’s open-ended, has multiple means of resolution and gathering clues, and makes heavy use of setting tropes and mechanics. Most residents have either a minor task or information for characters to follow up on, and there’s a good mixture of mundane and supernatural dangers that the latter doesn’t feel too in your face save at higher Fear Levels.
The only major weaknesses are that the adventure may be “sped up” if the PCs go the Cooked Earth Mine too early, and that an encounter with Laughs at Darkness infodumps a fair bit of the mystery. Given that the writers expect the PCs to stay in town for about a month, this seems a rather slow rate for the adventure; my playthroughs took place over several in-game days.
Join us next time as we cover Back East: the South, where we cross the Mississippi to set foot in the Land of Dixie!