RPG Review: Deadlands Reloaded

Deadlands_logoThe year is 1879, but the history is not our own.

Ah, Deadlands, a wonderfully odd and strangely persistent setting, blending tales of the Old West with Mythos-level horror and a liberal application of magic and zombies.  Kind of hard to believe that it’s been more than a decade and a half since gamers got their first taste of the Weird West, assembling a varied posse of heroes looking to tame some of the wilderness.   As the years have passed, the setting of Deadlands has expanded to include Hell on Earth, a post-apocalyptic setting where the main villains won (thanks to a cosmic cheat) and Lost Colony, a blending of the space opera and western genres, and even making the transition over to the Savage Worlds system in the form of Deadlands: Reloaded and Hell on Earth: Reloaded, with Deadlands: Noir being the most recent addition to the line-up.

It seems fitting to start at the beginning, and take a look at Pinnacle’s flagship setting, the much beloved Deadlands: Reloaded, an updating of the original Deadlands setting and system to their in-house rule set, Savage Worlds.  While the Savage Worlds rules were pretty solid on their own, it was only natural that Pinnacle would revisit and re-release the setting that earned them several awards over the years, such as the 1996 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Rules.  In 2005, Deadlands: Reloaded was released, making it the first new Deadlands product since Deadlands: Lost Colony, and updating the setting material to account for several major events that took place back when Deadlands Classic was still being published, such as the throw-down in Gomorrah as covered in the Doomtown CCG and a major shake-up in the leadership of the Confederacy.

For those not in the know, Deadlands is world similar to our own circa the latter half of the 19th century, but with some rather drastic changes due to the introduction of occult elements such as walking dead and demonic spirits.  Players take up the roles of free-ranging cowboys, deadly gunslingers, hex-slinging hucksters, loopy mad scientists, Indian braves, wilderness scouts, wise shamans, and sermon-slinging preachers.  While many adventures may start with a normal enough basis, the strange and mysterious often plays a role, as the posse of heroes invariably cross paths with the vengeful spirits, bloodthirsty monsters, and power-mad sorcerers, just to name a few.

HellfiresDeadlands is also notable for how it plays out the alternate history, starting with the Battle of Gettysburg in July 3rd, 1863 (typically accepted by those in the know as when the West got Weird) and how the lack of a decisive victory thanks to the meddling of the setting’s major villains caused the Civil War to drag on for more than a decade, eventually ending with a “cease fire” and uneasy truce between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.  Other big changes include the Great Quake that turned California into a region known as the Great Maze and introduced the diabolical fundament called ghost rock into the world, which itself kicked off a spur of scientific research that was leaps and bounds ahead of conventional technology, as well as the Great Rail Wars, a bloody conflict between several major rail barons to be the first to lay track from Back East to the Great Maze.

The Savage Worlds system owes a lot to the classic version of Deadlands, being at its heart a revision and streamlining of the original Deadlands mechanics, that, while still making use of Poker cards and a variety of dice types, has its own flavor and isn’t nearly as cumbersome as its parent system could be in some aspects.  I’ve gotten the chance to play a few games of Savage Worlds, and I must say that I’m a gleefully converted fan as Savage Worlds lives up to its motto of “fast, furious, and fun” while at the same time not being quite as inherently lethal to the posse as the original Deadlands could be.  Since the initial release of Deadlands: Reloaded, Pinnacle has since revised and updated the material to account for changes made in Savage Worlds: Explorer’s Edition and Savage Worlds Deluxe, splitting the initial book into the Player’s Guide and the Marshall’s Handbook.  Deadlands: Reloaded was a bit unusual in terms of Savage Worlds setting books as it was the first to not include a Plot Point Campaign, something that Pinnacle had used to great effect in some of their other books such as 50 Fathoms, Necessary Evil and Rippers.

So pardner, now that I’ve jawed on at length about the history of Deadlands: Reloaded, maybe it’s high time I start talking about the product itself.  For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referring to the more recent Player’s Guide and Marshall’s Handbook, both of which are available in the typical RPG book size (hardcover) or the handy “Explorer’s Edition” pocket size (softcover).

Now be it the initial core book or the updated players’ and GM’s books, the production values are very high.  A significant chunk of the artwork is recycled from the old Doomtown card game, but that’s not a bad thing as the artwork used is of good quality and really helps convey the feel of the setting.  The Player’s Guide opens with a synopsis of the setting that brings new and old players alike up-to-speed on the history, major events, way of life, and significant people that form the framework of the setting, and covers a significant chunk of material in less than two dozen pages.  Even if you’ve never played a Western setting or have only seen a couple of cowboy movies, Pinnacle does a good job of getting you up to speed so you can dive in and not act or sound like too much of a tinhorn from Back East that’s fresh off the train.

After making sure your cowpoke has at least a basic grasp on recent events, the book moves into character creation, giving players a list of possible character types that are to be found out west before delving into the standard Savage Worlds rules for making a character.  There are plethora of new and revised Edges and Hindrances that are suited to Deadlands, such as the mystic secrets of kung-fu and how to be a real killer when it comes time to skin your hogleg.  Deadlands: Reloaded also introduces the concept of a “Veteran” Edge to Savage Worlds, promoting a cowpoke to the next character tier, effectively giving the PC a handful of advances, but there’s a hefty price to pay for such power, as you’ve earned said experience and will have the scars (sometimes literally) to prove it.

DLMadScienceNext up the Player’s Guide moves into Gear and Gadgets, giving a sample listing of the sorts of goods and services one might find in the late 1800’s, as well as how much dinero such goods will set your hombre back.  Given this is a Western, there’s a plethora of firearms available, from the trusty Colt Peacemaker to the double-barreled shotguns to the venerable Winchester rifles.  There’s even a selection of steam punk gadgets, fruits of the New Science, or more aptly called Mad Science given how most inventors have a whole host of bats loose in their belfry.

The next section is the various Setting Rules that set Deadlands apart from your average Savage Worlds game, carrying over such concepts as Grit and Fate Chips from the classic version of the setting.  Naturally, being a game that draws quite a bit on Western movies, there are a number of new rules pertaining to gunfights such as fanning the hammer and most importantly the fine art of the duel.  Trust me, getting into a showdown at High Noon can be the last thing your gunfighter does if they aren’t up to snuff, which makes these rules a pretty solid reflection of how such fast-draw duels play out in the movies.  Said rules are a bit complicated, as part of how well you do depends on how good a poker hand you can put together, so some folks may find these a bit problematic in regards to the “fast, furious, fun” mantra that Savage Worlds swears by.  There’s also rules for gambling in those instances where the Marshall wants to make things a bit more interesting than just a single skill check, and naturally rules to cover what happens to the poor sod that gets nominated to be the guest of honor at a hemp necktie party.

After that, we move into the No Man’s Land, the section of the book that goes into greater detail about the spooky side of the world.  Not only does it shed more light on the supernatural aspects of the setting, it also gives the rundown on the various arcane types that haunt the streets, saloons, and badlands of the Weird West, as well as the secretive Agents of the United States and the hard-ass Texas Rangers of the Confederacy, both groups tasked by their respective governments to keep a lid on the things man weren’t meant to know while protecting the populace as best they can.

For those familiar with classic Deadlands, the usual suspects are all to be found, starting off with the Hucksters, spell-slinging card-sharps that barter a piece of their soul with the demonic manitous through a mental game of cards, with the secrets to this not-so-noble art being tucked away in Hoyle’s Book of Games, with only the most discerning being able to piece together such arcane secrets.  A brief nod is given to the Whateley family from the Doomtown CCG by way of a custom edge that can give you a bit more arcane power in a pinch.  The rules for Hucksters follow the typical rules for casting spells in Savage Worlds, particularly if you want to play it safe, but the option is there for your hexslinger to play for higher stakes, allowing him to cast spells for free if he wins but has the chance of them getting smacked hard by the demon they gambled against if they lose.

The first of the holy types are the Shamans, who deal exclusively with the nature spirits that dwell within the spiritual realm of the Hunting Grounds, mostly by asking “favors” of these spirits in return for daily rituals and offerings that tend to take quite a few hours out of the medicine man’s day, though things are a bit easier if they adhere to the Old Ways, forsaking the use of modern weapons and conveniences to prove their dedication to the spirits.

nunThe other category of holy folks are the Blessed, who have the backing of the divine that enables them to enact modern-day miracles.  Of the occult types, Blessed can potentially be the most problematic in a Deadlands: Reloaded game.  Unlike other arcane backgrounds, which only provide a smattering of powers, Blessed get immediate access to all their powers right from the word go, and in exchange suffer a penalty to their Faith roll to activate those powers based upon the character tier the power is normally reserved for, but there’s also an Edge to make invoking miracles easier.  It’s strongly suggested that Marshalls ensure that anyone playing a Blessed toes the line when it comes to sinning.  While it’s not strongly identified with most Western settings, Voodoo is also included, mostly in the form of an Edge that lets a Blessed have access to a few extra spells they normally wouldn’t get.

Another oddity to most Western settings is that of the martial artists, transplants from China that brought the secrets of kung-fu with them.  While the hand-to-hand fighting abilities are nice, there’s a potential drawback in that kung-fu mystics need to purchase each power as though it were a separate skill; the book outright says this can be pricey, and they ain’t kidding.  Still, given there’s no real threat of backlash if you fail to activate a particular power, it can be deemed a fair exchange since your fu-fighter’s mojo is probably the safest means of using arcane powers in the game.

Last of the arcane backgrounds are the very steampunk-flavored Mad Scientists, who gain the ability to create some pretty astonishing gizmos (which are really just trappings for their various powers) at the low cost of their sanity.  Simply put, every time you want your Mad Scientist to learn a new power, they automatically gain a new dementia, which can run the gamut from amusing yet harmless to worrisome and potentially crippling to the character.  It’s intended more as a limit to prevent Mad Science types from having all sorts of gizmos at their disposal, but it can also come across as excessively punitive in comparison to other arcane types, especially as their “powers” can be taken away due to being reliant on a device, a stark contrast to the other arcane types, all of whom can work their mojo with nothing more than their wills.  From my own experiences with classic Deadlands, a Mad Scientist type of character can be tough to play, particularly if the posse isn’t the type to set down roots, so that aspect may have also informed the writers’ decisions on setting up Mad Scientists the way they did.

Next up is a listing of the various arcane powers, many of which can also be found in the Savage Worlds rulebook, with the only added bit of information being a list of suggesting trappings for each of the Deadlands arcane backgrounds, which also notes which powers are forbidden to particular characters.  This was one change that some Deadlands die-hards had an issue with; rather than each arcane type having their own list of powers, everyone used the same basic set of powers.  From a rules standpoint, a consolidated list of powers makes things a lot simpler to track for the Marshall in terms of what each of the arcane backgrounds are capable of doing.

And finally the Player’s Guide wraps up the No Man’s Land section with an overview on the Harrowed, a fairly iconic player type for the Deadlands setting.  As people that had the bad luck to get themselves killed and the worse luck to come back from the grave with a demon riding shotgun in their noggins, the Harrowed are a potent character type, getting their own unique set of spooky powers that play things fairly straight in terms of the undead theme.  But while a Harrowed is one tough customer in a fight, their existence is a constant battle with the demonic entity that brought them back for control over their undead body, so like many things in Deadlands, its power with a price.

hucksterThe second book, the Marshal’s Handbook, provides the skinny on the Deadlands setting, so would-be players had best steer clear unless they want a lot of the secrets spoiled, particularly as the book starts off with the backgrounds story about how the West got Weird, before moving onto details about the special rules used in Deadlands: Reloaded regarding Fear Level, which measures the creepy factor of a place, from the very uncommon “sunshine and puppies” that a cowpoke will be incredibly lucky to run across all the way up to places of utter horror and darkness that will be the last place those poor sodbusters who enter will likely ever see.  It also provides the skinny on the darker sides of mad scientists and hucksters, and the nasty price that comes from playing one of the Harrowed.

After that, the Marshal’s Handbook goes into the sordid details of the Weird West, including encounter tables for each of the major areas of America, starting with Back East and ending with the major players of the Great Rail Wars.  Next up is the rundown on the creepy critters that inhabit the world of Deadlands, followed by human adversaries and some of the more famous and infamous residents, such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the deadly killer Stone.

With these two books, you’ve got all the tools you need to run a Savage Worlds campaign in the world of Deadlands.  But Pinnacle hasn’t been content to settle on just those.  For those would-be Marshals that are running short on time to make their own campaigns, Pinnacle has kindly provided two separate Plot Point campaigns, The Flood and Last Sons, each of which gets the players deeply involved in major plotline events of the setting.  For those not familiar with such things, Pinnacle’s Plot Point campaigns are less a pre-set module and more a series of individual adventures, with dozens of smaller adventure nuggets, enough to keep a posse of heroes busy for quite some time, bringing them up from green rookies to seasoned veterans capable of staring in the eye of Death itself and not flinching.

So pardner, I guess the question now is… do you reckon you’ve got sand enough to saddle up and take the fight to the forces of darkness?  There’s plenty out there that goes bump in the night, so maybe it’s time to round up a posse of stout-hearted heroes and be among the ones that bump back.

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