Actual Play - [Hell 4 Leather] Django's Fate

Posted by: Joe Prince On: Feb 10th 2010

Last weekend was Conflagration, the local con in Glasgow. Unfortunately I was working most of the weekend which meant I missed the majority of the event. Ah well. Still, on Saturday evening I met up with Malc, Gregor and Jo who were through from Edinburgh, we were joined by Matt and decided to fit in a quick game of Hell 4 Leather.

This was only the second time the game has been played, meaning it was brand new to everyone except Gregor and yours truly. We were using a Mage: The Ascension Tarot deck – the modern/supernatural imagery worked really well.

Malc was dealt The Fool, meaning he would play The Rider on his undead quest for vengeance. Malc set the scene for Django (though he was only named later on), having him released from prison after making countless enemies and cutting them up on the inside (REALLY INSIDE). I'll refrain from going completely into the gory details – suffice to say black comedy and extreme violence set the tone!

Gregor flipped over death and narrated how a drugged and bound Django was lowered back over the prison wall…

Jo had The Devil so it was down to her to describe Django's journey to Hell. She came up with an interesting twist – Satan wanted to retire and was testing Django to see if he would make a suitable replacement.

Play opened up at Django's funeral attended only by his elderly Grandmother in a backwater town of Smile Nevada. I'll resist posting the entire narrative, but here's some highlights.

- Niko cheating death sliding his Japanese superbike under a crashing tanker of nitro-glycerine.

- The revelation that my Elvis styled gang-leader had got Stacy, his girlfriend's daughter pregnant!

- Niko's Grandpappy Ol' Nick McGraw chained to his bike but looking like he was going to escape Django by jumping Devil's canyon for the second time ever – only to be intercepted by a winged angel of death.

- Raven's sudden conversion to Christianity when confronted by an angry Manitou (not manatee as Matt first thought)!

- Stacy's mom going after King's nuts with a sledgehammer. I used the minor conflict resolution mechanics here for the first time. Fortunately for King, Raven saved him from a nasty pelvic fracture.

- Django's final horrific execution of King – drowning him in a barrel of faeces.

Malc was pretty unlucky at picking out the Death card (unlike Gregor who was freakishly accurate during the first game and *always* knew where the Death card was in this game…) Despite this Malc still managed to off half the gang, not quite enough to appease Satan but not a bad result.

Overall I was really pleased with how the game played out, from nothing to all over in about an hour and a half. Everyone seemed to have a blast playing. I'm loving the elegant minimalism – no character sheets, no need to record anything (OK I wrote 5 names on Rich's cheat sheet) simple mechanics, really nice flow. I usually like a good deal of crunch in games but H4L is so freeing, it's fun to run amok with narrative descriptions and pure role-playing.

I'm looking forward to getting this bad boy published – maybe as a full colour pamphlet. I'm keen to keep it under 10 pages.

I've got an updated version up – a few minor things clarified and bullet points with scene examples. Take a look if you'd care, or even better run a game!

Prince of Darkness Games

Posted by: Rich Stokes On: Feb 11th 2010

I've run this game twice now, once at home with my regular group, and once at Conception with 3 dudes from the Portsmouth Massiv.

The second game was excellent, with a great dark tone and some fantastic narration and death scenes. The first game was a bit shit though, to be honest. For the following reasons, I think:

  1. The rules are really, really not clear or easy to understand at all. This is (I think) a problem with the text, not the game. There are lots of things which can be misinterpreted, or interpreted in different ways or are difficult to look up when you need to use them. For example, it's not clear when a scene ends, other than that it ends when someone is killed after being Marked. If they survive, what happens? Does the fool just keep trying to kill them until he either succeeds or gets bored? When does the scene end? This is evern more confusing in the final scene where it says a bunch of stuff is different, none of which really makes sense. Who gets boons at the beginning of the game? Is it everyone, everyone except the Fool? Dop you deal them all out? I guess so, because IIRC there's no way to add more boons into play once you start. If there's an uneven number, who gets shorted? In the nicest possible way, this needs a complete re-write with examples and whatnot. But you probably know that. I haven't seen the new version, so some of this might be fixed.

  2. In the first game, with 4+1 players, we found that all the players wanted to be in on every scene. It wasn't clear if there was something specific for players to do when their character wasn't in a scene. As far as I can see, there isn't, beyond the usual "chip in if you think of something cool" and "resolve conflicts in the most hippy way imaginable". In the second game, it felt less like people had "their character" and more like people were dipping into a pool of characters as-and-when they were needed. Maybe that's something to do with a breakpoint when you have twice the number of characters as players then people don't view characters as "theirs"? Dunno. But it worked badly in the first game, with all the Leathers appearing in every scene, and people just replacing characters when they died.

  3. Tracking which cards were which (as in, which were boons, which were leathers etc) was slightly tricky. Mainly because the boons deck and the Leathers deck look identical then they're face down. Not a big deal, but a play matt with labelled spaces for decks might help.

  4. Our first game floundered somewhat because we decided to "wing it" with game creation. The second one started with a short brainstorming session to decide where the game was set and what the themes were, and that worked much better.

  5. It appears that the onus is on the Fool to frame scenes, but it's up to the other players to decide if their character is in a given scene. That didn't work AT ALL for us during the first game. In the second game, we said that the Fool can force one player to be in a scene when they frame it ("I'm outside the bar, and Kara is drinking inside.") and that worked much, much better.

Overall, the second game worked better because I just made calls about how the rules worked where they were unclear. Whether they were right or not, I don't know, but the game ran much better. Players at the table in both games commented on the unclear nature of the text.

Don't get me wrong, I think this is a great game. The first time wasn't exactly fun, although it wasn't terrible and made me think there was a game here worth exploring. The second time around I had a lot of fun with it, and so did the guys I was playing with.

Other stuff:

Both games lasted about 2 hours.

Both games used Rider/Waite. It's my favourite set of imagery, and it's what the Mage Tarot is based on.

Nerdy fact: AG Muller sell a Rider/Waite deck which fits in Fantasy Flight deck protectors!

Posted by: Rich Stokes On: Feb 11th 2010

More notes:

We found the imagery on the royalty cards to be less inspiring than on the spot cards. In the second game, we took all the royalty cards out of the conflict deck about 40 mins in. We found that that worked better, but ymmv depending on the deck you're using, etc etc.

I've looked at the newer version now, and some of the text is clearer. The rules for using The Devil in play make sense (we were wondering if that card or The Fool did anything). It's still not clear what actually happens in the Judgement scene, or when scenes end (other than after a death).

Posted by: Joe Prince On: Feb 12th 2010

Cheers Rich, thanks so much for playing. Good to know H4L is getting some blind playtesting too. It's pretty hard to see which bits of the text are getting filled in from my brain during play...

How about this for scene ending clarity:
Fade to Black - Ending a Scene
A Scene ends after a Death draw. Either with the demise of one of the gang, or with her lucky escape if The Fool failed to pick out Death.

Also for Judgement:
_Scene 6: Judgement
The Rider has one final chance as the rooster crows.
All surviving Leathers are present in this scene.

As the previous scenes, except-
Death’s final mark.

The Fool adds as many Leathers as he wants to the death stack. This should be accompanied with suitably threatening narration. Each player has the option of adding a single boon card to the stack.

One of the targeted players shuffles the stack and deals it out face down. Again, The Fool tries to receive the image of Death! When satisfied with the image he is receiving, the Fool flips his chosen card over.

• If Death is flipped it lets The Fool kill off one of the Leathers in the stack (in suitably gruesome fashion). This does not end the scene. The deceased's card is removed. Death returns to the stack and The Fool picks again!

• If a Leather’s card was flipped, something changes for him which saves him from death. The Fool may opt to let the Leather's player narrate this turn of events. Note that even though this Leather's card is now revealed he can still be killed if Death appears!

• If a Boon was flipped, the owner decides how that Boon saved the target from Death.

When The Fool can pick no more (either he's out of Boons or everyone in the stack is dead) then the scene is done. And the game is very nearly over._

Deal (anticlockwise) out all the Boon cards to the players (not The Fool). Some players may end up with fewer Boons than others, that's just the way the 'cycle rumbles.


Every player does have a character in every scene (unless there aren't enough left alive) and they must enter at some point. No cowardly hanging back to hide from vengeance! It's also fine to hold onto your character - I played The Emperor for the entire game last time.

I'm keen to hear more about your games Rich - any good biker names? Favourite deaths? Also it seems like you used minor conflcits a lot more than I have - any good examples? Could you expand on some of the rules calls you made in the second game?

Posted by: Rich Stokes On: Feb 17th 2010

The second game was really, really punchy. It hit 100 mph during the prologue and rarely dipped below that again the whole time.

Some scenes were really short: one was over in about 2 minutes. A scene was set (The biker bar of a rival gang, where the Fool had been killed. A celebration is being held, where members of both gangs are drinking together.), a single character introduced (Teresa, the Empress, the bossman's lover stumbles drunkenly towards the stock room to get another case of vodka) and marked for death (a flame still smoulders from earlier in the stock room. The air from the door opening will fan the flame and ignite the vodka from a broken bottle which was smashed during a drunken tryst Teresa had with Marty, another Leather. Will she be blown up for her sins, or get thrown clear by the blast?) and killed (Death is drawn. The vodka goes up like a torch, bottles explode, spilling more vodka. A fireball engulfs Teresa: she's toast!) very, very rapidly.

This worked fine, because I'd had to make a ruling on when scenes ended. Because it wasn't explicit, I'd assumed that a scene could continue if nobody actually died (ie, that a scene only HAD to end when the Death card was revealed, but could be allowed to end after a conflict if everyone agreed that it was time for the next scene.). Because of this, the Fool was freely able to mark people early in the scene, knowing that the chances were that they'd survive and the scene would continue.

These shorter scenes made for a very fun game and a dynamic story. People didn't feel the need to be in every scene, because they knew there'd be another scene along in a moment if they missed this one.

Conversely, we found that the first game became very formulaic:

  1. Scenes were set, their location guided by the text
  2. The Fool struggled to narrate something interesting until at least one Leather was introduced
  3. Everyone else jumped in, putting their character into the scene.
  4. The Fool marked someone for death and usually then failed to kill them.

Repeat x 6.

While this formula a basically fine in general, it felt really forced. Like going through the motions of play, rather than actually playing the game. I'm a massive fan of guided play, with "painting-by-numbers" style story generation systems often providing exactly what I want, but that first session fell really flat.

I maintain that having all the characters need to be in every scene didn't work for us at all. We ended up doing it in that first game because we all felt we had to in order to do something, rather than because the rules said so. So yeah, with Fool + 4 we had this huge gang of characters running around together and getting picked off occasionally (but mostly just getting targeted and surviving). It was a bit Benny Hill.

Another scene from the second game:

The Fool goes to his girlfriends house (The Hight Priestess - using my ruling that The Fool could force one Leather to be in a scene). Her flat is on the first floor, so he stands in the street and calls to her. She opens the window and leans out, talking to him about old times. Since the High Priestess is described as "innocent?", The Fool decides that her death or not depends on whether she's innocent or not. He draws a gun and points it at her: she's sold drugs to kids, the one thing The Fool drew the line at. She's Marked for Death, and the result is whether The Fool decides she deserves to die for what she did.

(He drew Death and shot her in the eye).

Posted by: Joe Prince On: Feb 18th 2010

Cool some nice examples there Rich!

Hmm I quite like having the Fool able to draw a Leather into the scene. Then everyone else gets the option of joining in to y'know do some role-playing or stay out and observe the entertainment. I'd like to play it this way and see how I feel about it.

Short punchy scenes are definately the order of the day, go hell for leather!

Posted by: Gregor Hutton On: Feb 19th 2010

Ah ha. Thinking in a Cluedo way... the start of the scene The Fool would look at the Leathers left on the table face down (i.e. not grabbed by players) to know who he can't invite in, right?

So, he sees the Emperor and Empress are not in play, so he calls in the Magician, and that player has to reveal themselves and they are framed in the scene by The Fool.

Or do you see everyone revealing who they have in their hand at the start of the scene?

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Feb 19th 2010

I'm late chiming in, as I had to think quite a bit about H4L.

Anyway, I had great fun playing the game, let's say that to start with. The fast -paced, adversarial nature of the game really made it move along with great verve. One thing I did notice was that picking the death card as a form of resolution made for some interesting social consequences. I was very aware of being quite unlucky with my picking, something that did faintly demoralise me for my first few picks, but once I hit lucky and actually managed to off one of the gangers, I felt much happier.

I agree with the changes regarding scenes. At times it felt like a free for all in some ways, and a vindictive fool could just keep picking on the same person until they finally copped it (unless there is a mechanism in the text which prevents this?). I understand this could be a very legitimate tactic, but which might be a little frustrating for others round the table.

It's also interesting that the game we played was very gonzo and out there (flaming angels, manitous, etc), but I could see it being far more ambiguous, in the style of 'High Plains Drifter'. I'd find a more ambiguous game very interesting to play next time I have a go at it.

Anyway, H4L is working out to be a great little high-octane pickup game. It fits so well into that 1 - 2 hour timeslot and delivers a really enjoyable play experience.

Full throttle to the finish line!


Posted by: Joe Prince On: Feb 20th 2010

Thanks for the input guys.

Gregor Hutton: the start of the scene The Fool would look at the Leathers left on the table face down (i.e. not grabbed by players) to know who he can't invite in, right?

So, he sees the Emperor and Empress are not in play, so he calls in the Magician, and that player has to reveal themselves and they are framed in the scene by The Fool.

Yeah I think this would be the best way to do it and of course if a player is sticking with a particular character then the Fool knows that Leather is in play.

Malcolm Craig:
... a vindictive fool could just keep picking on the same person until they finally copped it (unless there is a mechanism in the text which prevents this?). I understand this could be a very legitimate tactic, but which might be a little frustrating for others round the table.

1. Disposed to seek revenge; revengeful.
2. Marked by or resulting from a desire to hurt; spiteful.
1. vindictiveness - a malevolent desire for revenge

Yeah that's going to come up in the game a lot! I don't really think it's a problem - I certainly didn't have an issue with you persecuting Gregor's character! ;)

I'm keen to try for a more ambigous tone next time we play - really need to check out High Plains Drifter - been meaning to for years...


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