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Saturday, 22 December 2018

1998: Hell on Earth: The Wasted 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—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. 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.


Published in 1998, Hell on Earth: The Wasted West Roleplaying Game is a roleplaying game with an identity crisis. On the one hand it is a standalone roleplaying game. On the other it is a sequel to Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game, which had proved to be a big hit for their publisher, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, two years earlier. It uses the same mechanics and it is set in the same background, only two hundred years later. It uses many of the same character archetypes as well as adding a few new ones and removing others. It is another genre mashup, but where Deadlands does horror and the Wild West to get the Weird West, Hell on Earth adds post-apocalyptic and fantasy to get the Wasted West. Hell on Earth also reveals all of the major secrets to the Deadlands storyline which had been hinted at in supplements released in the two years leading up to the release of Hell on Earth.

All of which raises two fundamental problems with Hell on Earth. The first is background versus mechanics. The rules for Hell on Earth are those for Deadlands, barring the new and changed character types and genre rules, so if Marshals and players already had that roleplaying game—which seems likely given that the audience for Hell on Earth and Deadlands were essentially the same. Arguably this space could have been better devoted to more of the new background of the Wasted West—there is some background in Hell on Earth, but it does not feel enough, especially considering that it took another supplement, Wasted West, to give that background. This compounds the second issue, that of too many genres, which made the roleplaying game difficult to access. The horror-Wild West combination of Deadlands was an easy sell and an easy buy-in, but the horror-Wild West-post-apocalypse, fantasy mashup of Hell on Earth or ‘It’s the sequel to Deadlands’ was not as much. Setting up, running, and playing a scenario  for Deadlands was easy because both Marshals and players knew both genres from years of exposure to both genres in film and television. Again, with Hell on Earth and its extra genres, not so much.

So in explaining the set-up for the 2094 of the Wasted West, Hell on Earth goes both into some details as how this future came about and how the set-up of Deadlands is the foundation of that. It explains how Native American shaman, known as the Last Sons, in 1863 performed a ritual known as the Reckoning which unleashed malicious spirits that increased the fear levels nationwide, let magic into the world, fuelled mad science with a newly discovered glowing mineral known as Ghost Rock, and created monsters, cultists, and madmen. Their influence prolonged the American Civil War and permanently divided 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. The need for Ghost Rock would ultimately send mankind to war on Banshee, another world where more of the weird mineral was discovered—as detailed in Lost Colony, the third roleplaying game in the Deadlands series—whilst at the same time bring about the Last War. This was not just a war fought with nuclear weapons, but nuclear-Ghost Rock weapons, and the contained within Ghost Rock the spirits of the damned. When they burned in the irradiated flash of the nuclear explosion, they raised the levels of fear even further, in the process turning the planet into a series of ‘Deadlands’, areas warped enough to draw out monsters from mankind’s nightmares. This ‘wasted’ land enabled those responsible, known as the Reckoners, to reveal themselves and stalk the land in waves of War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death—literally the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Hell on Earth introduces numerous new character types. Doomsayers are ‘radiation priests’ who believe the irradiated and the changed will inherit the Earth and that ‘norms’ are normal humans are doomed. Most cult members see it as their duty to hurry norms to their deaths, but others have rebelled against this and want to protect both people and their future without the slaughter. Doomsayers can blast their enemies with radiation or technology with EMP, cause mutations, and can tolerate radiation. Junkers are ‘techno-wizards’ of the Wasted West who scavenge for pre-war technology, then use a G-Ray Collector to store the power of Ghost Rock into spirit batteries which power the devices they build. Typical devices include chainswords, motion detectors, junkguns, and so on—all powered by the arcane energy of Ghost Rock. Sykers are powerful psychics who were trained by various governments to fight against the insurgency on the Banshee. They can use powers like Arson, Brain Blast, and Tattletale, but suffer strain in doing so. Templars are holy warriors dedicated to helping those in need, but only if they are deserving of such help. Armed with a sword they forge themselves, they gain minor blessings like Lay on Hands and Armour of the Saints which help them in their mission.

Other archetypes in the Wasted Waste include Gunslingers, guns for hire; Indian Braves, Native Americans who eschew technology and stick to the Old Ways; Law Dogs, who wander the land keeping the peace; Ravenites are Native Americans who embraced technology and wealth rather than the Old Ways and are always well equipped; Road Warriors are nomads, ever travelling in search of parts and fuel for their vehicles; Savages grew up after the Last War and distrust technology, whereas  Scavengers search the ruins of the past for it; Soldiers are survivors of the Last War; Tale-Tellers are storytellers who spread hope and news with their tales; and Traders find and sell goods as they can. It is also possible to play certain other character types from Deadlands in Hell on Earth, primarily those with arcane powers. They include the Blessed, Hucksters, Voodooists, and Martial Artists, though to bring Voodooists and Martial Artists into the Wasted West, the Marshal—as the Game Master in both Deadlands and Hell on Earth is known—will need access to the relevant sourcebooks. Lastly, just as in Deadlands, a character in Hell on Earth can die and come as one the Harrowed, one of the ‘undead’ who constantly fights with the evil spirit that reanimated him for possession of his corpse and who is capable of developing his own unnatural powers.

As in Deadlands, the character creation process in Hell on Earth 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 one of two twists. If Black, then 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. If Red, the character is further affected by the supernatural and radioactive energies left over from the Last War. 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 Walter-5, a Psyker was once Doctor Walter Gallardo, a med student in pre-war Chicago. He was planning to become a surgeon but was discovered to be a Psyker, conscripted by the army, and after his training, was sent to fight the insurgency on Banshee. There he served as the squad medic, but the truth is that he did not want to fight and only did so when he was forced to. Otherwise Walter does not like to talk about what happened off world, although he still suffers nightmares about it. Since returning to Earth, he has walked the land offering to help where he can.


Corporeal Traits
Deftness 4d6
Shootin’ (Pistol) 1, Shootin’ (Rifle) 1, Speedload (Pistol) 1, Speedload (Rifles) 1
Nimbleness 4d6
Climbin’ 1, Fightin’ 1
Quickness 2d10
Strength 2d6
Vigor 4d12

Mental Traits
Cognition 4d8
Scrutinise 2, Search 2, Sneak 2
Knowledge 4d12
Academia (History) 1, Area Knowledge (Home County) 2, Blastin’ 5, Language (English) 2, Language (Spanish) 2, Medicine (General) 3, Medicine (Surgery) 3, Science (Biology) 2
Mien 4d10
Overawe 2, Persuasion 3
Smarts 3d12
Spirit 2d12
Guts 3

Grit 0
Pace 6 Size 6 Strain 12 Wind 24

Intolerance (Military Authority) (2), Self-Righteous (3), Vow (Do no harm to Gamma Squad) (1)

Arcane Background (Syker) (3), Fortitude (1), Gift o’ Gab (1), The Voice (1)

Brain Blast, Fleshknit, Mindrider, Slow Burn, Tattletale

Mysterious Past: Destiny
Mutation: Fused Synapses (Never Surprised)

NA Pistol with nine rounds, thick winter coat, backpack, combat boots, compass, mess kit, mechanical watch, water purification kit

To undertake an action in Hell on Earth, a player rolls the dice for the appropriate skill. For example, if Walter-5 has to shoot a Radrat, his player rolls Walter-5’s Deftness/Shootin’ Aptitude (1d6), whereas if he wants to determine if the weapon that the Radrat has in its nest is the legendary possessed six shooter that he and his posse has been looking for, then the Marshal might have the player roll Walter-5’s Cognition/Shootin’ Aptitude (1d8).  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 Hell on Earth explode and become Aces, enabling rerolls to increase the total.

Combat in Hell on Earth 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, all straight out of the Weird West of Deadlands, but updates the firearms rules to allow for pumping shotguns one-handed, automatic weapons, and so on. The rules introduce more armour, but also add armour-piercing rounds. When a character takes a hit, he loses Wind, but can also suffer Wounds to various parts of his body.

Other new rules in Hell on Earth cover new environmental dangers like Ghost Storms, which caused by the Ghost Rock Bombs, can inflict spiritual damage as well as radiation damage and mutations. Radiation on the Wasted West has a spiritual component to it also. Vehicle rules also allow travel via cars and vans, as well as supporting the Road Warrior archetype and Mad Max-style games. 

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 Hell on Earth as Doomsayers, Junkers, Sykers, and Templars. In each case, the character makes the appropriate Aptitude roll—so Faith for both Doomsayers and Templars, Science (Occult Engineering) for Junkers, and Blastin’ for Sykers, and in general, the mechanics for each Arcane Background are roughly the same, although there are small differences for each. So each Doomsayer also has a mutation and knows the Tolerance Power in order to soak up all of that lovely radiation, but there is a limit to the number of times a Doomsayer can use his Powers, represented by his Strain. Sykers simply suffer Strain when using their Powers. 

The Arcane Background that is different is that of the Junker, who collects or scavenges parts, and then builds and modifies devices which are then powered by Spirit Batteries. Like the Mad Scientist of Deadlands, the Junker also gets to concoct theories, determine and buy powers to work the device, and assemble the components, all before building it. For players, this perhaps the most complex of the Arcane Backgrounds in Hell on Earth, involving a lot more than just selecting a power and then getting to roll it in play. There is though, the possibility of Backlash from the Spirit World when attempting to build a Power into a new device. One problem with the Junker rules is the lack of Powers to choose from. The three given—Damage, Sensor, and Trait (as in to assign a Trait like Deftness or Cognition, which then allows Aptitudes to be purchased for it)—provide a limited range of devices which a Junker can build. 

Each of the different Arcane Backgrounds gets its own chapter in the rulebook, each explaining how they work and how playing a character of that type works as well as one devoted to the Harrowed and another to Fear in Hell on Earth. 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, just as in the Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game. 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.

In ‘The Marshal’s Handbook’, the lid is lifted on the secrets of Hell on Earth—what caused the American Civil War to last longer than 1865, the true nature of Ghost Rock, who the Reckoners are, and so on. This though, as the book suggests, is a future, a possible future awaiting the nineteenth century of Deadlands. It is possible for the posse of player characters in a Deadlands campaign to prevent the events that lead to the Wasted West, which means that Hell on Earth can be played as an alternate timeline rather than as a sequel. The bulk of ‘The Marshal’s Handbook’ is dedicated to discussing various aspects of the roleplaying game’s rules as well as providing rules for both fear and terror—the former the environmental factor which can be escalated into creating Deadlands, the latter the rules for handling characters getting scared; what to do when a player character dies—the answer being to let them come back as undead or ‘Harrowed’ and have them fight their inner demons; possibilities for character mysterious pasts and mutations; and a short bestiary. In fact, at just thirteen entries, the bestiary is very short.

Physically, Hell on Earth: The Wasted West Roleplaying Game is as light as Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game felt in the hand. The book is decently written the editing is good, but the artwork does vary in quality. The black and white artwork often tends to be grey and murky, but unlike Deadlands, the colour illustrations in Hell on Earth are much, much better, not being as muddy.

Of course, being based on Deadlands, the mechanics in Hell on Earth not only suffer from exactly the same issues, but they are exacerbated by the switch to a new genre, from the Wild West to the Post Apocalypse. Now the mechanics were and are appropriate for Deadlands, but 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 a heavy penalty levied. 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.

What is not really present in Hell on Earth though, is any real advice on scenarios or campaigns. There is a page on adventure set-up, but nothing on the types of games that can be played or the types of adventures or how to get a posse of disparate player characters together. In Deadlands this was not an issue because its combination of genres was simple and familiar, so it was easy for the Marshal to write for, but with its disparate array of genres and character types, this is definitely not the case for Hell on Earth. The consequences are that it feels underwhelming and that is a problem with Hell on Earth from start to finish. Certainly, the rules are all there and will cover most situations and there are plenty of interesting character options and there are roleplaying hooks for them in their particular sections. Yet the lack of overall background, the lack of adventure hooks, and the lack of monsters in combination with the underwritten background, combine to give the feeling that there is not enough to support a campaign and not enough to support the array of character options included. The fact that Hell on Earth reprints much of the content from Deadlands and that another book—the supplement, Wasted West—is needed if the Marshal and her posse want more background to the setting, not only compounds that feeling, but drives it home. Despite the fact that Hell on Earth makes a big thing of its secrets being revealed in this core book, the authors are at best economical with its contents, at worst, stingy. 

Where Deadlands proved popular, winning awards, and being supported by multiple supplements, Hell on Earth was less so. Like Deadlands, there was a d20 System adaptation published in 2002 and a version for use with Savage Worlds called Hell on Earth Reloaded, published 2012. Notably, this moved the timeline on to 2097.

Hell on Earth is proof that lightning does not strike twice, for Deadlands was a success, both critically and commercially, whereas Hell on Earth not as much. Deadlands is revered and remembered today, whereas Hell on Earth not as much. The problem was twofold. In Deadlands, the setting and its genres were familiar and easily accessible and gameable, and the mechanics were appropriate. In Hell on Earth, the setting and its genres were not as familiar, not as easily accessible and gameable, all because there were too many genres and not enough support in terms of the background and advice for the Marshal.

There are some great character options and a potentially interesting setting presented in Hell on Earth: The Wasted West Roleplaying Game. It is just a pity that not enough of that potential is realised in the core book and that it would take other supplements to properly realise it.

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