Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saddle Up!

These past few weeks, I've been rereading some of my sourcebooks for the Deadlands RPG. It started with Deadlands: The Weird West, and branched out into miniature games, collectible card games, disk-type games (not quite pogs, but you get the idea) and two spin-off settings- Deadlands: Hell on Earth (a post-apocalyptic setting) and Deadlands: Lost Colony (a space opera/ western mix). In the past few years, Peginc has rebranded Deadlands to fit into their Savage Worlds game rules. I haven't read much of those yet, as the Classic rules still hold a special place in my heart. I'd like to use this blog entry to talk a little about this fun, clever game.

Now, I can hear some of you already. "Matt," you say, "this is a comics blog! We've tolerated posts about rpgs before, but that's only because the rpg in question was ABOUT comics. We're drawing the line here and putting our foot down! How can you justify a post about this Western rpg when there's no link to comics?" I'm very glad that I imagined you asking that.

That's right! Peginc, in conjunction with Image comics, put out a comic one time! Ha-ha! (Curiously enough, though it is a comic, and was published by Image comics, it's not on the Grand Comic Database.) Anyway, Deadlands meets this blog's comics requirements. They're requirements that I established anyway, and I suppose seeing as how this is my blog I can do whatever the hell I want regardless, it's a moot point in the long run.

I bought the Deadlands Players' Guide and Marhsal's Handbook way back in the fall of 2000. As I opened the Players' Guide, I saw that the book had a promising start; the foreward was written by Bruce Campbell. Yes, THAT Bruce Campbell.


First, let me talk about the system the game uses. I'll limit myself to the Deadlands Classic system. I mention this caveat because there a quite a few rules variations. In addition to being able to play it with the Savage Worlds system, as noted above, Peginc also put out a D20 version that's roughly compatible with D&D 3rd Edition. There was also a GURPS Deadlands published by Steve Jackson Games, and there were also rules conversions for World of Darkness, Call of Cthulu, and Unisystem's All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Phew! That's a lot!

Anyway, Deadlands Classic can seem daunting at first glance. Instead of the standard 6 or so abilities that most games has, like Strength and Wisdom and Charisma, Deadlands has TEN. Character creation involves drawing cards to determine what these abilities are. That's right, cards.

In addition to needing quite a few dice, you'll need at least two decks of playing cards and some poker chips or something that you can pretend are poker chips. While this does hlep to maintain the western flavor, it's also a lot more stuff than your average rpg requires.

Checks are made by rolling however many die of a certain type determined by your abilities and taking the highest roll among the dice. The poker chips in this game serve much the same way as Hero Points or Drama Points do in other systems- they can be used to improve rolls, eliminate damage, or activate special abilities if your character has one. They can also be traded in for XP. You just have to survive long enough to spend 'em.

Deadlands might possibly have the most involved damage system of any game EVER. In addition to the standard ways of dying (being shot, stabbed, mauled by a monster, etc.), you can bleed to death, drown, get blowed up; there are even rules for dying of a heart attack. Deadlands has a much higher mortality rate for characters than your average game.

All in all, it's pretty involved. The good news is that you can start out with the very basics and slowly add in the more complicated stuff as you and the players get more comfortable with it.
Now, to talk about the good stuff- the setting. Deadlands has a pretty cool one with lots of options for characters. Before I get specific, allow me to describe the game's general influences.

Historical Fiction- Deadlands takes much of its cues from history. While they fudge things a bit here and there (as there weren't zombies in the Old West, for starters), they do a lot of research. Many historical figures makes appearances as NPCs to either aid or oppose the PCs (or "posse" as the game calls them); included in the game are guys like Santa Anna, Allan Pinkerton, Doc Holliday, and Brigham Young, for starters.

Spaghetti Western- While influenced by Westerns in all pop culture to a degree, the creators even acknowledge in the books that their primary inspiration are the films of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

Horror- Another part of this game is to try and unnerve the players. Not an easy task, as when you get a bunch of people doing their worst western accents, things get a little silly. Still, if you can work it, it's a wonderful thing. One time, after a particularly vivid description of a zombie, I ask a player what his characters does. His response was to make a look of genuine disgust and say "Ugh. I throw up." Awesome! Not scared, per se, but I'll take it.

And now, for the nuts and bolts of the setting. Some highlights....

  1. The year is sometime in the late 1870's. The first books started at 1876, Reloaded is up to 1879.

  2. Something changed in the world on July 3, 1863. There are folks who say the dead rose up at Gettysburg.

  3. The Civil War has been going on for over 17 years. (Later books have established a cease-fire being established in '78 or '79). As a result, there are 6 sovereign powers within the continental (former) U.S., including the Union, the Confederacy and the independent State of Deseret (Utah). Also of note, slavery was abolished in both the Union and Confederacy.

  4. An earthquake rocked California in '68, causing the westernmost part to drop into the sea. The former west coast ends at little past Sacramento. Beyond that, the former coastline is made up of islands and mesas referred to as the Great Maze. The quake was devastating, but revealed a new superfuel called ghost rock, which burns 10 times hotter and longer than coal. Ghost rock has allowed for numerous innovations in technology, included steam-powered wagons and autogyros.

  5. While some folks claim that supernatural events occur with startling regularity, both the Union and the Confederacy deny this. Both countries maintain organizations that allegedy investigate then cover-up brushes with the paranormal- the Agency in the North, and the Texas Rangers in the South.

  6. As yet, there is no continental railroad linking the east coast to the west. Six railroads in both countries are duking it out to see who reaches the ghost rock-rich Great Maze first, thereby winning an exclusive ten-year contract with their respective government. The fighting between rail barons and their enforcers has become known as the Great Rail Wars.

There's a bit more, but those are the high points. Aside from the typical Western archetypes your character can play as (gunslinger, cowboy, soiled dove, prospector, etc.), there are a number of arcane backgrounds available to players. Here's what's available.

Hucksters- These folks are Weird Western wizards, casting spells by beating demons in a battle of wits that takes the form of a card game. The effectiveness of the spell is determined by drawing a poker hand. Similarly, there's an offshoot called shootists, who's magic affects their gunslinging ability.
Mad Scientists- As mentioned before, science and technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. At the forefront of this advancement are mad scientists, so named because some of their inventions defy logic and because some develop eccentricities.
Blessed- Those with faith in the Lord (however you define it) are able to produce miracles! While many of these are subtle abilities for healing or defense, a Blessed is a powerful foe against the Weirdness that pervades the West.
Shamans- The Indians have always claimed to be able to talk to spirits; following 1863, the spirits have been talking back! Shamans can work powerful medicine, so much so that Indians have been able to retake tribal lands. They've established the Sioux Nations in the North, and the Coyote Confederation in the South.
Enlightened- With the influx of Chinese immigrants in the west, martial artists have been seen around the Great Maze and points beyond. Some of these martial artists are capable of superhuman feats of physical ability!
Voodooists- While dime novels are rife with stories of black magic-using Voodoo priests, there are many "conjure doctors" who call on benevolent loa to work good mojo.

As I said, there's a lot more, as Peginc published a LOT of books; at one point Deadlands was the fourth best-selling rpg. It's a fun, wild ride with a style all its own.


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