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Saturday 6 August 2016

1996: Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


By 1996, the Roleplaying industry was in the doldrums. Primarily this was due to the effect of the first collectable card game, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering. Its popularity meant that the sales of other games, such as RPGs, suffered, whilst other publishers focused their attention of replicating the success of Magic: the Gathering instead of on either their existing games or on developing new games. Certainly the year 1995 will not be remembered for any RPG of note, but 1996 would be a whole other matter as would the years that followed in the lead up to the end of the millennium. Released at GenCon that year, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game, the first RPG from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, heralded a renaissance in the hobby and the industry that would last until the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and into the d20 System bubble beyond.

Famously inspired by Brom’s cover for the then-unreleased Necropolis: Atlanta, a supplement for White Wolf Publishing’s Wraith: The Oblivion RPG, the setting for Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game combined two genres—horror with the wild west. Specifically it described an America in its centennial year, 1876, with the appearance and then spread of horrors at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863, having served to prolong the Civil War and permanently divide the United States of America into the United States of America and the Confederate States of America with great swathes of disputed territory between them. In the years since, evil has spread across and infected the land, literally altering it be a darker, twisted place; monsters and other things stalk the land, including hostile Indian spirits, undead gunslingers, and strange cults; and magic has returned, practised by the Blessed, Hucksters, and Shamans. The Blessed can call upon Miracles to do the work of the Lord, Shamans bargain with spirits for magical favours, whilst Hucksters have learned the real secrets of Hoyle’s Book of Games to cast ‘Hexes’ that they hide behind hands of playing cards. In the West, earthquakes shattered much of California, throwing much of it into the Pacific and in the process creating the badlands known as the ‘Great Maze’ and exposing rich seams of a mineral known as ‘ghost rock’. Despite the fact that it seems to moan when burnt, ‘ghost rock’ is used as a fuel to power a rash of amazing new gizmos—many of them designed by Mad Scientists, from gatling guns and steam wagons to rocket packs and elixirs of healing. The discovery ‘ghost rock’ also drives a race to connect the East to the West, both in the North and the South, in a series of ‘Great Rail Wars’. Meanwhile, Federally sanctioned Pinkerton agents and Texas Rangers now prowl these territories searching for the horrors that threaten ordinary folk and their respective governments alike.

Deadlands is a game with plenty of secrets, the most well-known being that a player character can return from the dead as one of the Harrowed. Difficult to kill and capable of developing unnatural powers, a Harrowed constantly fights with the evil spirit that reanimated him for possession of his undead body. This though only comes into play should a player character be killed and have the strength of will to return from the dead. More basic character options include Wild West standbys such as Bounty Hunters, Cowpokes, Gunslingers, Indian Braves, Marshals, Muckrakers, Prospectors, and Saloon Girls, whilst the ‘Weird West’ additions include the Huckster, the Blessed (those able to cast Miracles), the Shaman, and the Mad Scientist.

The character creation process in Deadlands is slightly complex. A character has ten Traits or attributes. His Corporeal Traits are Deftness, Nimbleness, Quickness, Strength, and Vigor, whilst his Mental Traits are Cognition, Knowledge, Mien, Smarts, and Spirit. Each Trait has an associated die type—four-sided, six-side, eight-sided, ten-sided, and twelve-sided, and a Co-ordination, an associated number, typically ranging between one and four. Combine the two and the player has a number of dice that he rolls when his character is undertaking an action, for example, three eight-sided dice if the character has a Deftness of 3d8 and wants to shoot at some varmint. In addition, a character has Aptitudes that represent skills, talents, and trades, such as Fannin’, Shootin’, Teamster, Trackin’, and so on. These are rated between one and five and use the same die type as Trait that the Aptitude is associated with. So the character with a Deftness of 3d8 uses eight-sided dice for all associated Aptitudes, for example, Shootin’ and Speed-Load.

To create a character, a player draws twelve cards from a standard deck of playing cards, discarding two. Any two cards can be discarded bar draws of two and Jokers. The former grants or penalises the character with the four-sided die type, whilst the Joker grants the character the twelve-sided die type and an obligatory dark backstory devised by the player and the Marshal together, although a Mysterious Past table is included in the book for the Marshal. The suit and number of each card determines the type and number of dice for each Trait. So for example, ‘4 of Diamonds’ gives a Trait of 2d6, whilst the ‘Jack of Spades’ gives a Trait of 4d8.  Once generated, a player assigns them as he likes. In addition, a number of secondary stats are derived from the various Traits, notably the number of points to assign to Aptitudes, from the character’s Knowledge, Smarts, and Cognition die types. A character can also have up ten points’ worth of Hindrances, the amount spent on Hindrances generating a corresponding amount with which to purchase Edges.

Our sample character is Sister Henrietta, an Amish girl whose family was slaughtered by a creature that she cannot recall. The only survivor, she was blamed for what had happened and driven out of her community. Now she travels the disputed territories preaching against and fighting evil when she finds it. She also preaches the word of God and regularly performs at Prayer Meetings all over the West.

Corporeal Traits
Deftness 4d10
Shootin’ 2, Speed-Load 2
Nimbleness 3d8
Climb 1, Dodge 2, Horse Ridin’ 1, Sneak 1
Quickness 4d4
Quick Draw 2
Strength 1d6
Vigor 3d6

Mental Traits
Cognition 4d8
Scrutinise 2, Search 1, 
Knowledge 1d10
Area Knowledge (Home County 2), Language (English 2, German 2), Profession (Theology 2)
Mien 2d8
Persuasion 2, Tale-Tellin’ 2
Smarts 1d6
Spirit 4d12
Faith 3, Guts 2

Wind 18

All Thumbs (2), Loyal (3), Self-Righteous (3)

Arcane Background (Blessed) (3), Brave (2), Light Sleeper (1), Reputation (1), The Voice (Soothing) (1)

Double Action .45 Peacemaker revolver, fast-draw holster, box of ammunition, gun belt, speedloader, horse, saddle, saddlebags, $38

Exorcism, Inspiration, Lay on Hands, Protection

To undertake an action in Deadlands, a player rolls the dice for the appropriate skill. For example, if Sister Henrietta has to shoot one of the Walkin’ Dead, she rolls her Deftness/Shootin’ Aptitude (2d10), whereas if she wants to work out if said Walkin’ Dead is using the possessed six shooter that she and her posse have been tracking, the Marshal—the term for the Game Master in Deadlands—might have her roll her Cognition/Shootin’ Aptitude (2d8). In either case, the player rolls the dice and counts the best result, attempting to beat a Target Number set by the Marshal, ranging from Foolproof (3) and Fair (5) up to Hard (9) and Incredible (11). Beat the target and the character succeeds, but by beating the Target Number by five, he can get a ‘Raise’, and by beating it by ten, he can get two ‘Raises’. Each Raise improves the success of the skill attempt. ‘Raises’ are made possible because dice in Deadlands explode and become Aces, enabling rerolls to increase the total.

Combat in Deadlands builds on these basic rules, but uses the deck of Playing Cards, known as the Action Deck, to determine initiative order and a Quickness roll by each participant to find out how many cards they draw and thus how many actions they have. Cards and thus Actions can be held until a player wants to act in a round, whilst Red Jokers enable a character to interrupt another character or NPC and Black Jokers force a character to discard his highest other card and a reshuffle of the Action Deck. Rules allow for Drawing a Bead, Fannin’, Shootin’ from the Hip, two-gun action, the Rifle-Spin, and so on. When a character takes a hit, he loses Wind, but can also suffer Wounds to various parts of his body.

Every character also starts each session with three Fate Chips. These come in three colours. White chips allow a character to roll an extra die on Trait or Aptitude checks, whilst Red chips let him add an extra die to the highest die rolled on a check at the cost of allowing the Marshal to draw a Fate Chip of his own. Blue Fate Chips act like Red chips, but without the benefit to the Marshal. Both White and Red Fate Chips are earned when a player does anything clever or when his Hindrances make his life difficult, but Red chips can also be handed out when a character finds important clues, defeats a minor opponent, and so on. Blue chips are handed out for exceptional roleplaying, discovering a critical clue, or for defeating a major villain. Fate Chips can also be converted into Bounty Points which can spent to improve a character’s Traits and Aptitudes.

Beyond these basic rules are the rules for the ‘Weird’ things that the characters can do in Deadlands as Hucksters, Blessed, Shaman, and Weird Scientists. In each case, the character makes the appropriate Aptitude roll—for each Hex for the Huckster, Faith for the Blessed, Tinkerin’ for Mad Scientists, and Ritual for Shaman, but after that, the mechanics work differently for each Arcane Background. Hucksters need to draw from the deck of Playing Cards and assemble Poker hands to improve spells—better Aptitude rolls provide more cards. For example, with a single Pair, the Huckster can use the Corporeal Tweak Hex improve a target’s physical Traits by a single step, that is from one die type to the next. Two Pairs grants two steps, a straight three steps, a Flush four steps, and so on. Similarly, once a Mad Scientist has concocted a theory and devised a blueprint, he draws cards and attempts to create Poker hands, with better hands not only indicating that he has successfully built it, but improved its reliability and build time. In comparison, the Blessed simply has to have his Faith roll beat the Target Number for each Miracle and a Shaman needs to perform Rituals that will generate sufficient Appeasement Points that will allow one of the spirits to grant the Shaman a favour.

Each of the different Arcane Backgrounds gets its own chapter in the rulebook and what is interesting about this is the placement of these chapters, along with one devoted to the Harrowed and another to Fear in Deadlands. They are in the middle section of the book labeled ‘No Man’s Land’, between ‘Posse Territory’ and ‘Marshal’s Territory’, for the players and the Marshal respectively. These two sections are specifically written for the players and the Marshal, and whilst the Marshal has to read all of the book, the players only need to read ‘Posse Territory’. It is only if he wants to play a character with an Arcane Background that a player needs to read the appropriate chapter in the ‘No Man’s Land’ section.

As well as learning how a Arcane Background works, a player will also discover the dangers inherent to casting Hexes and building weird devices. Whereas the Blessed are in danger of losing their faith and the Shaman can anger the spirits, the Huckster and the Mad Scientist are dealing with ‘dark’ powers and when such dealings go wrong, madness and insanity can ensue… Each chapter also explains the life of the Huckster, the Blessed, and so on, giving some nice cues as to how each fits into the divided America of 1876 and thus be roleplayed.

Further secrets are explored in the ‘Marshal’s Territory’ section. Primarily this concerns the background to the events leading up to 1863 and the forces behind it, the Reckoners, but it also details various Abominations that the Posse might encounter, such as Dust Devils, Gremlins, Hangin’ Judges, Night Haunts, Tumbleeds, and more. Beyond the secrets,  the ‘Marshal’s Territory’ includes tips and advice on running the game and structuring adventures; on the role of fear in the game—important because essentially, the Reckoners are trying to increase the levels of fear whilst the player characters or Posse are working to reduce it by defeating horrors; and on beyond fear, on handling dementia in the game.

Physically, it is surprising just how light Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game feels in the hand. In comparison with contemporary RPGs and their density in terms of content and page count, Deadlands is lighter in terms of background and content. This does not mean that the book omits anything needed to play the game, but rather that the book is economical with its content. It is also well written and the editing is good, but the artwork does leave something to be desired. The black and white illustrations are fine, even excellent in capturing the pulp horror of Deadlands, but the full colour artwork, though suitably lurid, is somewhat murky.

There is a great deal to like about Deadlands. It is an enticing setting with a combination of genres that made it a commercial and critical success. In particular, in 1997 it received the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game and for Best Graphic Presentation of a Role-playing Game, Adventure, or Supplement of 1996. A second edition would follow in 1999 with adaptations written for Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS and Wizards of the Coast’s d20 System both being released in 2001. Two spinoff RPGs, Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony were released in 1998 and 2002 respectively, but neither were as successful. Several other games, such as the miniatures wargame, Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars and the Collectible Card Game, Doomtown would also be released, all based on the Deadlands setting.

Yet despite its popular and critical acclaim, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game is not a perfect game. The problem lies with the mechanics, because as thematically appropriate as they feel, they are nevertheless often cumbersome and clunky, with dice and Playing Cards and three—sometimes four—different coloured Fate Chips. Indeed, having three types of Fate Chips just complicates the game, as does having a different ruleset for each of the four Arcane Backgrounds. Fundamentally though, there is a disconnect in the mechanics between a character’s Traits and Aptitudes since the two are never rolled together and Aptitudes have a more direct application in the game than Traits do. In fact beyond providing the die type for its associated Aptitudes, each Trait has relatively little effect on a character and thus even lesser effect on his Aptitudes. Instead Traits only really come into play when a character lacks an Aptitude, in which case the associated Trait is rolled and the result halved. At the same time, a character has too many Traits all doing variations upon the same thing. Thus Deftness, Nimbleness, and Quickness are all variations upon a character’s dexterity, whilst Cognition, Knowledge, and Mien are variations upon his intelligence.

Given these issues it is no wonder that Deadlands Reloaded, essentially the third edition of the game which would itself win the 2006 Origins Award for Roleplaying Game Supplement of the Year, would use the Savage Worlds system. This would be appropriate given that the Savage Worlds rules are actually derived from the mechanics used for Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars, the miniatures wargame about the construction of the transcontinental railways that also won the Origins Award for the Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures Rules of 1997. The result, was a slicker, faster, and slightly cinematic version of Deadlands with more options within its pages and more background and in the decade since its publication, various supplements including three campaigns—The Flood, The Last Sons, and Stone and a Hard Place.

Another issue with Deadlands is that it was never a living roleplaying game in that its background and timeline never really advanced. The second edition of Deadlands reset the game’s starting date to 1877, whilst Deadlands Reloaded reset it to 1879. The sequel RPGs, Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony, advanced the timeline into the near future and far future respectively. Deadlands: Noir, set in New Orleans in 1935 is a a more recent sequel. Nevertheless, between 1879 of Deadlands: Reloaded and the 1935 of Deadlands: Noir, the Marshal is on his own as what happens in North America. As to what happens in the rest of the world in the setting of Deadlands, the Marshal is given even less information. This leads to a more parochial issue—that Deadlands is a very American-set RPG which does not concern itself with the rest of the world. Now this is not really a design issue, but rather a desire to learn more about the setting in general and desire is actually given a nudge in the background given in the original rulebook, which mentions that as of 1871, Great Britain had it issues of its own in both Africa and India that prevented it becoming too involved in the ongoing American Civil War. Which begs the question, what were those issues?

Ultimately, there is the controversial question of how Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game deals with the issue of slavery, especially given that its Civil War is ongoing in 1876. It deals with it in a simple fashion, by having Confederate South abolish it as an institution in 1864, essentially to provide more manpower for the ongoing war with the northern states, to gain support from Great Britain, and negate the moral high ground held by the North over the issue. Further, the focus of the game is upon the ‘Weird West’ rather than the South and only in a later supplement, Back East: The South, do the game’s designers explore the issue, or rather the reasons for its abolition, in further detail. Essentially, the authors avoid the issue in Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and that is understandable both because of the potential controversy in addressing the issue and because it is not what the RPG is about. This does not mean that the Marshal and his Posse cannot address the issue themselves, but in hindsight, perhaps Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game could have included a disclaimer about the subject of slavery as well as racism in the core rules, especially that it is possible to have both Black characters and White characters from the South in the game.

At the heart of the success of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game is its superb melding of the horror and Wild West genres that make the game extremely easy to buy into, pick up, and play. This is despite the cumbersome nature of its rules—as thematically appropriate as they are. It is a formula that Pinnacle Entertainment Group would try and repeat with Deadlands: Hell on Earth and Deadlands: Lost Colony, but not with the same success, at least not critically. As the original of this trilogy, Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game remains the most powerful and most accessible of the three.

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