Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Monday, 28 April 2014

Big Easy Noir

Deadlands: The Weird West, the alternate history Wild West/horror RPG published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group is so good that it merited an Origins Award—twice. First for the original RPG in 1997, and then again in 2007 for Deadlands: Reloaded, the latter employing the Savage Worlds RPG rules that were derived from Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars, the skirmish rules that were themselves derived from Deadlands: The Weird West. It has been subjected to a pair of sequel RPGs, both set in the far future. The first was Deadlands: Hell on Earth, published in 1998 and more recently re-released as Hell on Earth: Reloaded; the second was Deadlands: Lost Colony, published in 2002. More recently though, the Deadlands franchise received another entry that explored the future of a North America in which the old United States of America were divided by the Civil War, California was cracked into a maze, the mysterious ‘Ghost Rock’ literally fuelled an explosion of inventions, and magic was known and feared. This future is not one to come, but one that pushes the Deadlands: The Weird West setting forward by fifty-five years into something not a little familiar. That entry is Deadlands Noir.

Published in 2012 via Kickstarter, Deadlands Noir is a Savage Worlds setting that takes the Deadlands setting way down south and along the shadow framed streets of the Big Easy. As a setting, New Orleans is perfectly ripe with gaming possibilities—it has all the exoticism of a European city on American soil, it is the heart of the practice of Voodoo, its politics come as dirty as they can, corruption is a way of life, and it has the gentility of a Southern city.  Which is exactly what the New Orleans of Deadlands Noir is, for it lies south of the Mason-Dixie Line in the Confederate States of America. It is a city in which the dead do walk at night, as well as many nastier things in the shadows. Worse, it is 1935 and like the rest of the world, New Orleans is deep in the Depression. Making a dishonest living, let alone an honest one, is a real struggle. Nevertheless, there are mysteries to be uncovered, truths to be told, people to be conned and robbed, entertaining to be done—now that Prohibition is over (though some states and counties are still dry), and new devices to be patented. That is if you do not fall foul of the law—like the C.S.A.’s Texas Rangers and their campaign against magic or the city’s organised crime—such as the Sicilian Mafia, the Black Hand, or the Voodoo gang known as the Red sect…

Apart from the shift in time and tone—from 1880 to 1935, from Weird West Horror to Pulp Noir Horror, the obvious differences between Deadlands Reloaded and Deadlands Noir are its character options. Bootleggers, members of the clergy, con artists, dilettantes, doctors, entertainers, escorts, lawyers, parapsychologists, private investigators, reporters, vagabonds, and writers all point to a distinctly urban setting. The Arcane Backgrounds available are also different. Grifters are supreme swindlers, capable of conning arcane power from dark spirits, though not without daily indulging in a vice such as alcohol or dice. Houngans and Mambos practise strange rituals that pay tribute to the loa and in return, can create small miracles. Patent Scientists are inventors, constantly striving to create and sell new devices that will make their name and reputation, although they are unknowingly tapping into the otherworld for their inspiration. They are renowned not just for their creations, but for the delusions they typically suffer.

What is not available to play is Deadlands Reloaded’s Huckster, their having been hunted to near extinction by the Agency in the North and the Texas Rangers in the South. Grifters have taken up their legacy. Faith has been driven to an all-time low by the events of the Great War and the Depression, so preachers capable of casting true miracles are all but unknown. Mad Scientists are now Patent Scientists, whilst Indian Shamans are very rarely seen in cities like New Orleans and the practitioners of Eastern martial arts have gone underground. Similarly, two Arcane Backgrounds are rare in New Orleans—the Blessed and the Syker, but both are described in the Deadlands Noir Companion. (It should be noted that the latter volume has a higher page count and is more expensive than Deadlands Noir itself).

Other new Edges that Deadlands Noir adds to fit the setting include Comfortable, Veteran of the Concrete Jungle, Hitman, Sleuth, and Grit. New Hindrances include Corrupt, Grim Servant of Death, Night Terrors, Schmuck, and Smart Mouth. It should be noted that all characters start with the Poverty Hindrance to represent the economic difficulties of the Depression. Plus a character also needs to describe his worst nightmare.

One last option available is the Weird Edge, Harrowed. A member of the Harrowed is all but dead, having refused to give up on this mortal coil. What keeps a Harrowed from finally dying is the pact he enters with a demon from the Hunting Grounds to enable him to keep his body moving. The Harrowed has not only suffered in hell, he must constantly battle with demon for control of his body, is marked by the wound that killed him, must consume meat to heal, and can actually pickle himself with alcohol as a means to preserve his body. A Harrowed can use other Arcane Backgrounds, though not faith-based ones like Voodoo if the demon is in control…

Our sample character is such one Harrowed. Antony Delvecchio never wanted to get involved with the Black Hand, New Orleans’ mafia family, but when your father is a ‘made man’, you have little choice. Antony though, wanted to be something else—to be a writer. This was much against the wishes of his father, and whilst he had the support of his mother, he could not avoid being forced to study law at Tulane. Antony was a good student, but still wanted to party and that took him deep into New Orleans. It was on one of these off-campus jaunts that he came to the attention of the Red Sect, who saw in him an opportunity, one that might see him turned against their criminal rivals. Antony found himself drunkenly inducted into the worship of the loa. It was something that he fought hard to keep from his father, but he could not hide his decision to not practice the law after graduating, despite passing the bar. His father called him a wastrel and resolved to bring back into the family fold, but despite his mother’s attempts, relations with his father and the rest of the family broke down. Antony found himself cut off and penniless, struggling to make ends meet through his writing. Who exactly fired the shot and why, Antony does not know, but it might have been one his father’s button men or someone from the Red Sect because he proved to be not as useful as they had hoped. Right now Antony is looking for his killer while he supports himself from submissions to the Tombstone Epitaph about the outré side of life in the Big Easy.

Name: Antony Delvecchio Nationality: American 
Rank: Novice Occupation: Revenant Writer
Attributes: Agility d4, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6 
Skills: Driving d4, Fighting d4, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Law) d6, Knowledge (Occult) d4, Notice d4, Perform (Writing) d6, Persuasion d6, Shooting d4, Voodoo d6 
Charisma: 0
Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5
Power Points: 10 Dominion: 0
Hindrances:  Night Terrors (Major), Obligation (Minor), Short Temper (Minor)
Edges: Arcane Background – Harrowed, Arcane Background – Harrowed, Talented
Harrowed Edge: Spook
Spells: healing, warrior’s gift

Mechanically, it no surprise that Deadlands Noir uses Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s latest edition of Savage Worlds. What this means is that Deadlands Noir is a Pulp action game as well as a Pulp Noir one, and to support the latter, rules are provided to handle detective work—both hitting the books and legwork, knockout blows, gaining a second wind in a fight, tailing a suspect, and social conflict and interaction. In particular, interrogations and using patter; the latter nicely underlining the genre convention that any good shamus should be able to talk his way out of trouble—at least sometimes.

Beyond character creation and the new genre mechanics, Deadlands Noir supports its setting with an extensive description of the city and its neighbourhoods, from Tremé and the Lower Ninth to the French Quarter and the Garden District. Each of the descriptions of the city’s neighbourhoods is expanded upon in the GM’s section, itself some two thirds of the book. These descriptions include numerous individual locations and persons of note—many of the latter illustrated with images of those who pledged towards the Kickstarter for Deadlands Noir. (This does result in a lot of NPCs having beards which feels slightly out of keeping with the 1930s). What is mechanically interesting about descriptions of these neighbourhoods is that each is assigned a Fear Level, from normal and ordinary (Fear Level 0) to Deadlands (Fear Level 6). This is a measure of how weird each district is and how scared the inhabitants are of where they live. It also affects any Fear check that a character has to make whilst in the neighbour. One of the player characters’ aims in Deadlands Noir is to lower these Fear Levels, though this should not be obvious to the characters or their players, but rather should come about by their doing good—solving mysteries, rescuing dames, and so on.

The GM’s section also includes an explanation of the setting’s secrets, an array of its monsters and NPCs—major and minor; advice on running the game and handling mysteries. The latter is accompanied by a set of lists with which a GM can create a case with the roll of a few dice and some thought as to what clues might be found. These consist of five rolls to generate the Hook, the Event, the Perpetrator, the Motive, and the Evidence, with optional rolls for the Location and the Twist. Our sample Mystery begins with this set of rolls:

  1. The Hook—Stranger
  2. The Event—Kidnapping
  3. The Perpetrator—Friend
  4. The Motive—Political Gain
  5. The Evidence—Testimonial
  6. The Location—Riverside
  7. The Twist—Dark Secret (Silent Patron)

    A woman comes to the player characters. She wants help that she cannot gain from the police. Her husband, the project commissioner for the James McKendrew Memorial Bridge, has been kidnapped and she has been given the characters’ names as being of those who might be able to help. The kidnappers want a package which they claim her husband has, but she knows nothing about it or where it is. (The truth of the matter is that her husband has been kidnapped by her boyfriend, who is also his business partner. What they are after is a recording of Mayor McKendrew accepting bribes in return for the position of project commissioner, but in reality, the kidnapper is in league with the Mayor in return for something else).
Deadlands Noir includes not only fourteen individual Savage Tales, each tied to one of the locations described earlier in the book. These follow a full campaign adventure—‘Red Harvest’. It begins with a missing woman, a large debt, and a big score, before going onto reveal at one of Deadlands Noir's big secrets. It is a solid affair, with room aplenty for the GM to insert individual Savage Tales of his own, or the ones included in the book.

Physically, Deadlands Noir is by contemporary standards, a slim hardback. It is done in full colour and illustrated throughout. The artwork is decent, though occasionally it slips into a cartoon-like style. The map of the city is slightly difficult to read in places, but the other maps in the book are clear and easy to read. One nice touch is how the sidebars are each framed against a strip of film that with their black-silver wash emphasises the book’s noir theme.

One obvious use for Deadlands Noir would be to unplug the ‘Deadlands’ element and in its place put the Cthulhu Mythos of Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu. The result would be a Pulpy mish-mash of genres, but it could certainly handle something akin to HBO’s Cast a Deadly Spell. That is one option of course, but with the ‘Deadlands’ element kept in, Deadlands Noir feels complete in and of itself, presenting a well-written continuation of Deadlands Reloaded without repeating itself—a problem that Deadlands has not always avoided in the past. Above all, Deadlands Noir is as enjoyable a genre mix of pulp horror with Film Noir as the original Deadlands was of Wild West and horror.