Saturday Seeds – 3 (Aces & Eights)

Aces & Eights ~ The Ecstasy of Gold

The Hook: The characters are travelling along a desolate and unwelcome stretch of trail when they encounter a string of over-loaded pack mules standing aimlessly, braying and generally acting upset. The animals look to have been abandoned, and seem to have been on their own for too long. They need water, rest, and food, and above all else, need to be unloaded. The first animal in the string has a dried blood smear on its neck and its lead is frayed… and shows signs of having been snapped – perhaps they broke their tether due to fear.

Inserting the Hook: This can be set before the players in one of at least two ways, depending on the flavour of your game, but I will mention just two. Either the group is alone, and can deal with the scenario without interference, or the group is travelling with others – perhaps on a stage, or with a wagon train, on a cattle drive with other hands, etc. The way you choose to have them encounter this story seed will set the tone for what sort of story you end up creating.

The Details: The mules are loaded with some common items, of course, but it soon becomes apparent that the bulk of their burden is gold dust and mining equipment. The amount and value of the gold dust should be realistic, but tempting – even for a large group of players. What is of real interest, though, one would hope – even for less savory characters –  is what happened to the owner(s) of these mules?

Following the mules’ trail is easy for anyone with even a little experience, and with a reasonable investment of time (just far enough away to be a problem, but not so far as to discourage) the group will discover the corpse of a beaten and battered man, dressed for rough living in the wilderness with his tin pan over his face. His hands and arms show signs of having been picked at by scavengers, and looking under the pan will reveal that he has been shot through both eyes at close range. Closer inspection of the body will reveal a large and burnt-looking bullet wound that might be the result of the gun having gone off with the prospector’s hand over the barrel. Clearly, someone beat this man near to death, then finished him off with some form of personal or ritualistic touch or flair – from very close range.

To show the extreme motivations involved in this murder, it will be necessary to demonstrate evidence of its brutality in the signs of violence on the body. In my preferred version of this story seed, I think it works best to have these marks come from fist and pistol. Not only are these easy to imagine, they conceal as  much as they reveal. Observers, may assume that as the corpse has not been scalped or slain by knives or bows, the perpetrator(s) will not be ‘Indians.’  The alternate solution, having the violence come from lower-tech weapons, can work against the theme development that will be discussed below.

Signs of the struggle and of an indeterminate number of men, horses, and pack animals can be easily seen by everyone, and less-easily interpreted by trackers. Should they wish, a trail can be discerned leading to where the prospector was first attacked, but results will be inconclusive as to whether he was attacked by (a) member(s) of his own crew, or ambushed by (an) other(s).

If it is possible to plant both of these suggestions in the player group and cause division over which is the most likely case – do so. Use whatever evidence is necessary either in the loads of the pack animals (there might be personal effects for several or just one person for example – your choice) or in the details noted on the trail (signs of ambushers lying in wait, smoking papers or other trash, spent cartridges, scuff marks, or the distinct absence of these things) to cause a rift in the group about what must have happened.

Questions should be brought to the fore and no answers should be forthcoming:

  1. Why was he killed?
  2. Why was he killed this way?
  3. The mules would have been easy to follow… why was the gold left for anyone to find and claim?
  4. If his own companions turned on him, what possible reason could they have for not taking the gold?
  5. Is it really gold?
  6. Was there so much more gold than what we found that they did not care about these few mules and the gold they carry?
  7. Where did the gold come from?
  8. Is there more?

If the player group is alone they will have no external obstacles to overcome in deciding what to do and how to do it. This sets you up to deal with the mystery and adventure of this scenario without interaction with ‘friendly’ NPCs until you choose to introduce some. It also firmly places the focus of the scenario on the characters and how the players choose to deal with the issue of sudden found wealth, the potential for more, and the spectre of greed.

Greed at work

Themes: To make the story memorable and more than just a night of die-rolling, the chance to explore the effect this sort of find might have  on the characters is too good to pass up, don’t you think? For hints on how to subtly and not-so-subtly bring greed into the atmosphere of events as they unfold, watch the film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Think about the naked avarice displayed on Bogart’s face and the slow madness which stems from it as you colour your descriptions of  things over subsequent scenes. Let it build slowly, and let the players run with it.

If the group is with others, particularly strangers, then things will develop very differently, although on a similar theme. Deciding what and how to do whatever it is they do next will not be as easy nor as clear to resolve, and if the others are aware of the contents of the mules’ packs, and/or the dead prospector, then decisions about how to share, how to keep things secret – if desired, and who is in charge will take time, and provide a lot of opportunities for role-playing. The focus will be on the characters’ interactions with the NPCs present at the time of discovery, and how they intend to move on from there.

An example of this might be a stagecoach with a schedule to keep, and everyone a stranger. The driver needs to get the mail and passengers delivered, and will not wait long. A mix of men and women, experienced hands and tenderfeet will properly round things out. Of course, everyone is short on cash and could use the money a “fair share” of the gold dust could bring them.

Further complications arise when and if the group decides to cash in on the gold dust. They will have to deal with gossip, perhaps answer questions about where it came from, and from what claim it was pulled, etc. People will want to know a lot of details, and will be hungry to get in on the action.

The Plot: There are many ways that you can go with this story. If the group goes with the lure of wealth implied in this find, and choose not to play selfless and just men who are above reproach, then in order to bring the lust for gold theme to completion, the group will need to defend the gold from an outside force seeking to take it from them. It will be advantageous to the story to have them work to uncover the source of the gold, deal with determining if more can be pulled from the source, and work to squeeze out more profits from it. Then, when the time comes to transport and sell the gold – someone tries to take it from them. It does not need to be the killer… it could be anyone: people from the stagecoach, people from town, other prospectors… the options are broad. If you are playing from an established town, and operate consistently from that area, then things could get very interesting indeed as the lure of gold twists and distorts the characters of individuals the PCs have come to know and trust.

What should go without saying is that the avenue of having the party focus its greed-based fear on itself, needs to be handled with extreme care and with the goal of such an exercise in drama firmly in mind. Is this the dramatic end of a group, or is this one more challenge which when overcome will unite them further? If the group cannot handle such internal fireworks, help steer things away from it, and toward an external agent or agents.

If the group does opt to be true white hats, then the source of conflict/dramatic resolution in this tale will come from uncovering who killed the prospector and how to get the profits from the gold to his family/next of kin/beloved/what-have-you.

The Gold and the Mine: To keep the scenario short, the mine can either prove too hard to locate, or be obviously played out. The gold on the pack mules is enough to keep the action moving. If you prefer to spend some quality time with this scenario and its theme of greed, then it works best to have the characters find the mine, and recognize that gold remains for them to obtain.

A dried piece of wood in the tidied remains of the prospector’s campsite has the following description carved into it: L’Estasi dell’Oro. No other traces of human presence remain other than scattered ashes. Every effort was taken to clean up after themselves, and to remove any traces of their operation.

The resolution:

Who was the prospector?

The folk in the nearest town can fill the PCs in on the identity of the prospector (Ennio Mancini), and the local hotel is hanging on to some personal mail which arrived  for him (from Italy) while he was in the hills. There will be enough information that the characters can contact his relatives if they choose.

Who shot the prospector? (options)

1) An easy solution is that he was killed and the gold was abandoned because he was found on sacred land and executed for his crime. This lets you reinforce the theme of greed by placing it against issues of clashing cultures, and man’s inhumanity to man. This solution can also give you a Cowboys vs Indians battle if you like, and possibly provide a recurring problem/antagonist if the band of indigenous people in question determine that the characters took from the land. At the very least, the perceived nobility of the characters will be called into question among the tribe members by the characters’  own actions.

2) Another path to take is that he was killed by his partner, and during the struggle, dealt a wound which ultimately killed his killer. On a subsequent pass through that region – say when finally taking the gold to town, they will have another chance to look at the scene and may uncover something you have intentionally held back from them: a second corpse, with a bag of gold in one hand, and the frayed end of the mules’ lead in the other. A deep knife wound low in his belly is the cause of death, a death which took long hours in the cruel heat. The knife may or may not turn up during this second search.

Some players may not react well to this piece of evidence being withheld from them, despite the many valid reasons which could prevent their having discovered it. You will have to be prepared for that if that is the sort of crew you play with. Personally, I think it reasonable to imagine the following scenario:

The two men fight, and the mules panic, disrupting the tracks and details of the battle at the scene of the murder. The mules do not, however, flee the scene at that time despite what most of the players will assume.  The killer departs the scene on one of the mules, leading the others. As he grows weaker, he loses control of the mules, and is tossed off. The string of mules continues on their way, and he – bit of rope and bag of precious gold in hand, expires not too far from the trail, somewhere near the middle of the route between where the PCs find the mules, and where the murder took place. His corpse is very easy to miss, and it is in a place where the characters are least likely to be looking for such things as they are following a clear trail left by the mules from someplace else.

Your mileage may vary.

If your group has cohesion issues, or if there are conflicting character traits/motivations,  then this sort of conclusion may aid character development toward closing that rift. Most sane cowpokes have no wish to end up dead by each other’s hands in the desert. If it is more beneficial to avoid such extrapolations on the theme, then leaving the killer an unsolved mystery may work more to your advantage.

Alternately, he is still out there somewhere hiding miserably in the hills, frustrated at the loss of so much of the gold, and terrified of losing the rest of it – afraid even to go to town to try to sell it. I am quite partial to this version~

3) The final option is that the prospector was killed by evil men and they are out there somewhere, pissed off and looking for the mules. You can have them interact with the players as the main set-piece of the story, or save them for later… suddenly showing up in the characters’ lives after following the trail of gold dust and money the characters have left either by keeping the gold, or sending it to the prospector’s next of kin.

This very small bit of material can take you in many different and compelling directions. It can be played out as a straight good vs bad, or bad vs worse action scenario, or it has the opportunity to provide hours of solid role-play and characterization which can significantly alter the course of your game.

Have fun~

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