I ran Jason Eley’s Copperhead County (CC) at Big Bad Con and it was everything I had hoped! The post’s a long one; I tried to be thorough. Tl;dr: Copperhead is good, Big Bad is good, and games are great.
[cross-posted from the link below, if you’d like an easier reading format]
GM: Me! (Michael Crowley)
Players: James Donovan, John Jones, Simon Ward, Spencer Barcelona
System: Copperhead County (Forged in the Dark)
The session was last Friday morning. Copperhead, if you haven’t heard, is a Forged in the Dark rpg about life and crimes in the modern American South. Think Breaking Bad meets Justified! It was my first (complete) game of the con, and I loved every minute of it! A few things, before I get to the meat of the session:
1) I was extremely fortunate to have talked with Eric (@ericvulgaris) and Kelsa (@kelsa) the night before we played. They both have a ton of experience playing and running one shots and starters for Blades and related games, so their insight was welcome. Their advice boiled down to: start the session off in the middle of a small score (a handful of obstacles); set up the starting position with a fortune roll and exchange consequences for extra dice; do a full downtime, but give the players the option to spend both of their free actions in exchange for an advance (special ability or a new action dot); and finally, roll into the big score, playing out the final ripples of the consequences from before. I took their advice, structured the score after their model, and holy cannolis I will never run a Blades one shot any other way. It’s excellent, especially as a way to showcase a Forged in the Dark game.
2) This was the first time I’d run a convention game, and the first time I’d run a game for total strangers! And it far out exceeded my expectations. My players were great, engaged folks. I’m very happy to have run CC for them and pumped that they enjoyed the experience. It was also the first time I’d run CC! Lot of firsts.
3) Full disclosure, I’m helping Jason write the text of the final version of the game! The design work and setting materials are all him, but you’ll see my writing in the complete product!
The scenario we played revolved around a special election in the titular Copperhead County, TN. The County Trustee, a TN-specific position whose office collects property taxes and oversees the accounting and disbursement of public funds, has just died! Lynn Cupp, chairwoman of the County GOP, has an unexpected challenge to her party’s control of the post: independent candidate and PTA mom Betsy Wood, whose politics fall far somewhere to the right of Jefferson Davis. The players come into the equation as outside actors, lending their criminal expertise to find alternative ways of influencing the election. For Cupp, for Wood,
You can read the full blurb while it’s still up on the Big Bad website, here.
The players made their characters and (retroactively) picked the Blood crew type. For those unfamiliar with CC, the crew types aren’t differentiated by the kind of crimes the crew does. Instead, they’re differentiated by their approach to the society in which they’re a part. An Outfit seeks to infiltrate the established order and exercise their influence to get what they want. Hellraisers want to upend that order and put themselves in charge (whatever that looks like). And Blood are a family, looking to increase their prestige or esteem in the county.
It turned out to be pretty simple to link the characters together as a family group, even though only one character was actually from Copperhead County.
-Austin “Denver” Shaw, the Mover (an uncatchable daredevil): a local boy, whose dreams of playing Division I football were crushed by an injury. Hot shit driver, helping the family.
-Shane Shaw, the Hazard (a volatile artisan): a Shaw family cousin from out of town. College educated. Left med school “of his own free will” and not at all due to his addiction to pills.
-Dustin “Digits,” the Stringer (a shrewd executive): a Minneapolis accountant and rampant embezzler, “asked to leave” his firm. Distantly (and unclearly) related to the Shaw clan.
-Carl (just Carl), the Cleaner (a steady problem solver): a farmer from a family of Midwest farmers, who fell into crime to get by. Married to Austin’s sister, Mary Lou.
The Shaw family business, as it turned out, was small appliance repair. Their business (and clan HQ) was in Adamstown, a mostly poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood of Patterson, Copperhead County’s biggest locale (and only city). Adamstown didn’t play a large part in the session, but it provided good background for why the (white) Shaw family didn’t get along with the Spearpoint League, a “neo-confederate” “militia,” who we’ll see later.
The action started off with the PCs in the process of infiltrating the County Democrats office to plant some bugs. As stated above, I put together a fortune roll to see how this was going, building up from one die by asking the players to take on consequences. The ones they accepted were:
– One of you (Dusty “Digits”) is in debt to a powerful figure in county politics (Lynn Cupp). This was the reason they were doing the score in the first place!
You have a serious feud with a local gang. This turned out to be the aforementioned Spearpoint League. The Shaw clan apparently had a history of stomping racist dirtbags.
– One of you has been in trouble with the law. How? This was Carl, who chose to have an outstanding warrant for his arrest on account of a staggering pile of unpaid parking tickets.
The score went quickly. They filled a clock to place the required bugs, quiet-like, and avoided waking Brenda Garrett, the Democrats’ chairwoman, asleep on a couch in her office. Along the way they dropped a bug down the drain, got caught on camera, took and replaced the security tape (an actual VHS tape) to cover their tracks, and woke up Brenda as they booked it from the building.
Score complete, they were paid a pittance for the easy work. During downtime, a couple characters took the deal to gain an extra special ability. Carl proceeded to piss three of their four cash down the drain (can’t remember how, but everyone was good with it). An examination of the VHS tape revealed its unexpected value: proof that the county democrats were going to run a popular local chef for County Trustee. And, of course, the PCs dealt with trouble (CC’s replacement for entanglements) from another faction: Lynn Cupp “inviting” them to a meeting to call in the last of Digits’ debt.
|The Worst Fucking Barbecue|
Trouble lead to their score. The PCs relinquished the tape and Cupp gave them a job: infiltrate a “supporter’s only barbecue” for Betsy Woods’ campaign and try to dig up some dirt. She provided more listening devices and some information: the BBQ would be held on the lawn outside Betsy’s sisters’s ranch house, out in the county, and the Spearpoint League would be providing security.
To avoid getting spotted and stomped, themselves, the PCs opted to get into the party by getting employed as extra help for the catering company. Their aim was to plant the bugs all around the festivities (on Woods’ podium, at the tables, by the kegs, etc.) in the hopes of any one of them catching a damning conversation. For the most part, it went smoothly. Engagement roll started them off at a risky position, and they wavered between there and controlled for a lot of the score – though Carl was identified by a cop and accosted for his unpaid parking tickets, a desperate situation that Digits deftly defused with smooth talk. The four of them creeped and fixed their way around the party until the 8-segment bug clock was near completion.
And, predictably, Shane and Austin decided to place a few more recording devices inside the farmhouse, or at least pop in for a quick peek. Y’know. In case there was something inside that might net them a bonus. They pop through a basement door to discover Howard Hutton’s (Besty Wood’s sister’s husband’s) man cave: confederate flags, beer cans, flat screen playing football, and a quietly humming computer over in the corner, just begging to be hacked. Which Shane does, ripping the computer’s contents onto a hard drive.
A series of partial successes and failures, inside, leads to several Spearpoint thugs chasing Austin across the grounds, while Shane hides, causes a power outage, and raids the Spearpoints’ oxy-filled bathroom cabinet (not in that order). Eventually the four crew members, directed by Digits and his impromptu planning, pile (more like clown-car) into Austin’s stingray and burn rubber, leaving the Spearpoints in the dust and the score successfully completed.
We went over the ramifications, rapid fire: they got paid (handsomely – the hard drive had some compromising material), the county GOP had the leg up on the Democrats, Digits’ debt was square, and the Woods campaign was dead in the water. Lastly, we went around the table for a brief XP session (just to show how it worked) and wrapped.
If I ran the scenario again, I’d ask a couple more opening questions: Whose office are you infiltrating, the County Democrats or the County Republicans? Who for? And use the answers to drop them into the first score. I felt that I walled the characters in by stating to the players, simply, “you are breaking into the Democrats’ office.”
I would also interrogate the PC’s choices a bit more. The Dems’ office seems like a pretty shabby outfit. How does it feel, kicking the underdog? Why work for Lynn Cupp? You know she’s a treacherous snake. How can you stand to be around the Spearpoint thugs? How do you keep it together? Stuff like that.
Copperhead County. I was finally able to run this game I love so much. Jason’s done many great things with it. It feels like a sleek, snappy Blades, keeping all the parts that make Blades so good, but fine tuning the other parts so the actions, special abilities, trouble, game structure, every little bit fits perfectly into its realist, contemporary vision of the south.
I appreciate, as well, that CC gives an honest depiction of the politics of the South. If you wanted a primer on what local Tennessee politics look like, you could do a lot worse than the early access setting description. While our game didn’t delve too much into the depth of county corruption, or the PCs’ place in it (we went for a comedic tone), you can run a game of CC which takes as its central subject and themes the ways in which democracy in southern states is deeply and deliberately broken. And it gives the PCs the tools to, if they so wish, try taking on the structures of power that have made it that way. (My PCs didn’t, as it happens. They kept their heads down. But your mileage may vary!)
I also learned the difference between shocked and electrocuted (one of the players is an electrician)! When you’re shocked, you’ve been injured by an electrical discharge: cramps, burns, etc. When you’re electrocuted, on the other hand, you die!
Final good thing, of course: The players! Each of them was interested in the fiction, engaged with the setting and the mechanics, asked good questions, and kept me on my toes. I’m grateful they took the time on Friday morning to play games with me.
If you’re interested, you can find Copperhead County, here: https://zzzwizard.itch.io/copperhead