Holler (SWADE) Post-Mortem


As is my tradition, each time a game ends, I try to learn from it. This time I'm looking at the brief (7 session) plot point campaign into Holler: An Appalachian Apocalypse for Savage Worlds Adventurers Edition (SWADE).

A Brief History of Me and Savage Worlds
When Savage Worlds was released as a $10 digest paperback, I snatched it up. The tagline of "Fast, furious, fun!" caught my attention during the era of 3rd edition's weighty rules. My group at that time was too stuck in the d20 mode, so I never brought it to the table. It wasn't until the release of the SWADE edition that I actually started playing the system, mostly in conventions and one-shots. To date, the Savage Settings I've experienced are vanilla fantasy, Pathfinder, Rippers, and Rifts. I can now add "Holler" to that list.

About the Group and Selection of the Game
The group of players included my wife, our neighbor (who grew up with THAC0-era D&D) and his teenage son, and two teenage sisters also from our neighborhood. Joining us in this campaign was my sister (who was my first player when I was learning how to DM in the 1980s) and her teenage son. We also had the occasional guest - such as our neighbor's older son back from college for a weekend, or a coworker who wanted to try out a game with us. As you can see, we have a large group, usually between 6-8 players.
We started a group of 5E D&D about a year and a half ago. During that time, we played through a combination of Saltmarsh and OAR’s Isle of Dread, and then a following campaign of Curse of Strahd. After Strahd we took a break from 5e with 4e Gamma World for a few sessions and then onward to Holler.
The group was initially very excited about Holler - especially with its anti-corporate theme (the majority of the group is Gen Z, if I didn't mention that already). We're in Kentucky, with our part of the state not far from Appalachia. In fact, the adults would play the game only under the condition that we treat the culture respectfully.

What Is This about a Holler?
In previous post-mortems, I didn't feel it necessary to explain much about the campaigns or systems. However, Holler comes across as a more indie RPG that might not be widely known on these boards. So I'll give you a quick background that might not be 100% accurate. We'll call it spinning a yarn.
So Savage Worlds is a generic RPG system you've probably heard of. Holler is largely the product of Tim Earley who is a native of the Appalachia as well as a poet and scholar of the region. Earley got the support of Pinnacle to create a very unique setting based on the folklore and history of this region. It's very creative, evocative, and I definitely recommend anyone with an interest in this to take a look - regardless of how my own experience went.
The setting is basically a Depression-era dark fantasy take on Appalachia. Greedy shift bosses exploit their workers, snatching resources and polluting the area. The pollution has a real Ravenloft-feeling corrupting fog called The Blight, which traps everyone in the Holler (kind of like Barovia in Ravenloft). Your Strahd equivalent are titans of industry known as The Big Boys, who utilize weird science to keep everyone down.
The Plot Point campaign essentially involves leading a workers' rebellion against the Big Boys. Characters can be miners or loggers, or more unusual characters like old witches, faith healers, bluegrass pickin' bards or even moonshiner-bomb tossing alchemists.

We Never Got the Hang of the System
With 6-8 players new to Savage Worlds, I tried to keep the play moving quick. But even so, we'd have lengthy combats where players would get bored & distracted - which would further slow down the game. I found myself not able to give the setting the pacing and character it deserved. We just had too many people. Couple this with trying to explain raises (divide your die result by 4), how does Soaking work, and many other system differences, and things just kept getting more frustrating. Several times players would ask me why something worked a certain way, I'd explain it, they'd stare blankly and say "I'll just take your word for it."
The group needs to get back to D&D and its familiar mechanics. Trying to introduce another medium-complexity system to 8 players is just too much work. I felt literally beat up after the last session.

What Next?
Do you ever know something is going to fail before trying it? Do you sometimes feel insulted that a group won't listen to your advice, as a seasoned GM?
Because the group is picking 4e D&D - with 8 players. Who already hated Gamma World. This is the kind of mistake that kills a gaming group, but no one will listen to me.
Be ready for that Post-Mortem in approximately 2 weeks.

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Difficulties aside, did you and your players enjoy the setting? It was a niche that didn’t speak to me personally so it is one of the few first-party Kickstarters for Savage Worlds that I didn’t back.


Difficulties aside, did you and your players enjoy the setting? It was a niche that didn’t speak to me personally so it is one of the few first-party Kickstarters for Savage Worlds that I didn’t back.
We enjoyed the setting. I wished we had a smaller group to really explore it. They had an unexpected run-in with Mothman near a mine disaster so I was able to build on my knowledge about cryptids, for example. And there were moments I felt like the teenagers were learning some empathy about a culture that is often shown through stereotype.
The feel of Holler though is something I don't believe translates into a long campaign.


Interesting observation. I also find that bigger groups lend themselves to broader strokes while smaller groups can get into detail more. I suspect it’s a combination of keeping group focus and having enough focus time for each player to get into the finer points of a campaign.

Shame they didn't take to SWADE. I really feel like it addresses most of the common issues you have. With that many new player did you use the raise calculator sheet or the combat handouts? I find with new players they help.

I'm surprised you had that many lengthy combats honestly. I typically find most combats are over, or effectively over by no later than turn five, and most of the time turn three. Eight players is a long time to wait between turns though, especially if you are new to a game. Everything just takes longer.

D&D 4e for 8 people should be is gonna be an event.

@dbm same. It's one of the few Pinnacle crowdfunding events I didn't buy into. One of my players is the owner/maintainer of Savaged.us, he backed it and I took a look but it just didn't do it for me.


Shame they didn't take to SWADE. I really feel like it addresses most of the common issues you have. With that many new player did you use the raise calculator sheet or the combat handouts? I find with new players they help.
The combat handouts were "too confusing" and the players refused them. I did the raise calculations on the whiteboard behind me like a darned math professor, breaking down most important rolls. And it was exhausting. Deducting their Toughness from my AP, having to show my work to explain how wounds are calculated.
Another part of the exhaustion was the organization of the SWADE book, which for some reason didn't feel intuitive at all - I couldn't find what I needed even in the index. And then I was also flipping through Holler and needed to have 3-4 different pages marked (3 NPC stat blocks, 1 adventure text) and then looking at powers in another area - in another book. Tracking initiative for 3 wildcards and 1 group of extras, having four different cards laying against my GM screen while trying to keep up with the cards of 8 players (who would sometime put them under their character sheets) - passing out all those cards every round.
Then tracking wounds and the death spiral, remembering to give out Bennies for hindrances, needing a near encyclopedic knowledge of combat edges for enemy wildcards (which honestly, I just started ignoring, because that's like 9 edges you have to remember in a given combat).
Fast? Furious? Fun? Hardly!
In what world do these describe SWADE? Yes, I understand I averaged 5-6 players, but that's not a ridiculous number of players. The core problem of book flipping (throughout multiple books, multiple chapters in each book), keeping up with 3 wildcards that are just as complex as full characters, and that dividing by 4 (really, how many of us work in units of 4 on a daily basis?)


Sounds like you were on a loosing proposition - you seem to be running all the mechanics for every PC in addition to the NPCs.
Well, I did have to remind them of a lot of things. But honestly, I've run Savage now for 5 different groups, and it's usually a similarly frustrating experience.
I think the simplicity and "fastness, furiousness, and fun-ness" of the system is overstated.


Dang, that's really sad to hear. SWADE is probably my favorite system (though I'll be the first to admit that its combat engine isn't necessarily "fast" - but I do think it's furious and fun).

The game really hinges on the Raise system and the Bennies. It sounds like though, you just didn't have player buy-in. If they aren't bought-in, you won't get anywhere.

If you were to try it again, I would recommend you advertise the subsystems - my absolute favorite part of the system (the Dramatic Task system in particular).

In every system we play (including 5E), there's basically a comment something along the lines of, "I wish we could've done that as a Dramatic Task'.

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