RPG Review: Deadlands Noir


The year is 1935, 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.

noircoverBack in May 2012, there was a Kickstarter project for an unusual off-shoot of the Deadlands meta-setting.  Instead of the typical western feel of the prior Deadlands games, this outing would draw upon the themes and settings of the 1930’s pulp detective stories and noir genre, being appropriately titled Deadlands: Noir, which was to be penned by John “PC Death Train” Goff, a long-standing favorite of the Deadlands community, author of the near-infamous Dime Novel Adventure “Night Train,” which has a long and storied history of chewing up player characters and spitting them out in little bloody chunks.  Well, to say the Kickstarter drive was a roaring success would be like saying that a femme fatale has a pretty face; there was enough funding to not only cover the costs of creating a PDF, but also a hardcover and bevy of supplemental material as well.  Being a long-standing Deadlands fan, I jumped on this particular bandwagon as quick as I could, with my only regret being that I wasn’t able to kick up enough scratch in time to get the hardcover version.

Well, back on the 30th of November, I got an e-mail from one Mister Shane Hensley informing us Kickstarter backers that there was a special pre-release edition of Deadlands: Noir with my name on it, waiting for me to make the rounds and pick it up.  Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate and snagged my e-copy quicker than a tommy gun goes through bullets.  While it wasn’t quite the “finished” version, what there was to see was still very impressive.

Now before we start delving into the meat of Deadlands: Noir, I’d like to take a moment to briefly discuss the presentation.  Generally speaking, Pinnacle is typically pretty darn good when it comes to the presentation of their books, and starting off with ol’ Stone on the cover, looking very much like a private eye instead of a ragged gunfighter, Pinnacle does not disappoint.  The pages and artwork are predominately in black and white, with major title headers and page numbers standing out thanks to spatters or smears of red blood, and quite a few of the sidebars are done up to look like old-school movie reels.

The book proper starts off with a very brief setting synopsis, setting the stage for the “current day” of 1930’s, with the Great War and Roaring 20’s behind us and an uncertain future lying ahead.  The next few pages are for making characters, giving a list of sample concepts, each with a one-paragraph synopsis with a basic breakdown of Savage Worlds character creation following on its heels.  One element to note that sets Deadlands: Noir apart from other Savage Worlds games is that since this game takes place in the midst of the Great Depression, characters are by default considered to be poor, starting out with very little money and what little they do have quickly slipping through their fingers like the blood of a gunsel that’s just taken a bullet to the guts.  Mechanically, there’s a new skill, simply labeled Perform, and it works much like the Knowledge skill in that it’s a “catch-all” skill to cover various styles of performing.  There are also a number of new and modified Edges and Hindrances for the setting, including some classic Deadlands entries such as Grim Servant o’ Death as well as a noir-based variant of the Veteran of the Weird/Wasted West, this time labeled Veteran of the Concrete Jungle.  A sidebar is included to briefly discuss the Arcane Backgrounds from Deadlands: Reloaded, such as the Blessed and Hucksters, before moving onto equipment, covering the sorts of things you’d expect in the real 1930’s as well as a selection of “patent science” gizmos.  For those that have already checked out Deadlands: Classic, some of the stylistic elements of that game, namely the Guts skill and using multi-colored Fate Chips rather than Savage Worlds’ more generic bennies, have not been carried over, and in this respect Deadlands: Noir is very much like Hell on Earth: Reloaded in that it hews much closer to the default rules found in Savage Worlds Deluxe in those respects.

Noir_StreetThe next portion of the book gives a player-based overview of the principle setting for Deadlands: Noir, the Big Easy itself, New Orleans, discussing the state of affairs regarding John Q. Law and the various criminal elements, as well as hitting on the major districts.  After that, it’s on to setting rules, covering quite a few new rule systems to reflect the game’s roots in tales of hardboiled detectives, covering combat effects such as knockout blows, expanded social conflicts, and the stock-and-trade of any gumshoe, actual detective work.

One of the major changes between the Weird West and Deadland: Noir is the evolution of two of the Arcane Backgrounds, with the hucksters and mad scientists evolving into “grifters” and “patent scientists” respectively.  While it used to be known as “mad science” due to the alarming tendency of its practitioners to wind up a few dozen cards short of a full deck, these days it goes by the name of “patent science,” and while the gizmos are still a bit out there, at least the guys and gals making them aren’t quite as prone to going around-the-bend loopy as their predecessors were.

And instead of gamblers casting spells by engaging otherworldly demons in a Poker-based battle of wits, Deadlands: Noir instead has the “grifters,” folks who have learned how to cajol a manitou into providing a bit of arcane power in exchange for heavily indulging in their chosen vice, such as heavy drinking, smoking, or excessive gambling.  Fittingly enough, the portion detailing the grifters also has a side bar regarding rules for getting plastered, something that more than a few grifters and gumshoes are going to need to concerned about, particularly the recovery part.

Next up on the list of spooky types are the Voodoo practitioners; c’mon, did anyone honestly expect a horror-based game set in New Orleans to not include rules for playing a voodooist?  Where voodooists were an off-shoot of the Blessed in Deadlands: Reloaded, here they have their own entry and rules, which are quite different than the days of the Weird West, being a bit more in line with most Arcane Backgrounds to be found in the base Savage Worlds rules.  Voodoo practitioners only get a set number of powers and now have to track Power Points, a marked change from how they worked in the Weird West.

And rounding out the quartet of the strange are one of the more iconic character types to the Deadlands setting, the Harrowed.  Stubborn-willed palookas with the rotten luck to wind up with a nasty case of the deads, the Harrowed have been brought back to unlife courtesy of a manitou that’s now a permanent passenger in the dead man’s brain, with which most souls have to engage in a near-constant battle of wills to see who gets to sit in the driver’s seat.  In a rather marked change from Deadlands Classic and Deadlands: Reloaded, a character can actually choose to start play as a Harrowed, simply by taking the appropriately named Edge.  The basic run-down on the ins and outs of being a Harrowed as well as their powers from Deadlands: Reloaded are listed here, although the powers all got a bump in effectiveness.

After that we move onto the GM’s section, containing all the dirty little secrets of the Deadlands: Noir setting.  It gives the fairly standard “how this mess got started” for Deadlands, beginning with Raven, the Reckonings, and how the Civil War was never actually won, leading to the United States of America on the north side of the Mason-Dixon line and the Confederate States of America on the southern side.  The important stuff kicks off with the header of “The Twentieth Century,” moving the Deadlands timeline up from the 1880’s to the 1930’s and what angle the major villains of the setting are playing.  There’s also the dirty stuff about grifters and harrowed, as well as discussing just why patent scientists aren’t as prone to madness.

Arch_HarvThe next chapter for the GM is a guide to New Orleans, providing a list of what’s where and who’s who.  One of the bigger rewards for the Kickstarter project was to have a character named after you, and a good number of these folks make their appearances here.  And like many other Savage Worlds books, there’s page notations associating a particular area with a Savage Tale that can serve as the core nugget of the night’s session.  Once the review of the Big Easy wraps up, there’s several pages devoted to coming up with mysteries for your hardboiled heroes to get roped into, consisting of a series of charts for those instances when inspiration is taking a holiday or the GM is simply rushed for time; either way, it’s a handy thing to have.  While not a full Plot Point campaign, Deadlands: Noir does include a fairly meaty adventure dubbed “Red Harvest” that’s intended to introduce the players to both the setting and the general mood.  There’s also an expansion on the afore-mentioned Savage Tales, of which there’s more than a dozen, giving GM’s plenty of material to work with.  The last chunk of the book is appropriately titled the “Rogue’s Gallery,” covering the men, the monsters, and the men who act like monsters that populate the setting of Deadlands: Noir, with the chapter finally ending on a selection of generally useful maps.

So that’s an overview of what’s in the PDF, and all in all, it’s a solid book, and there’s no doubt that I’ll scoop up a hardcover version when it hits shelves, which is currently slated for sometime in March.  For those gamers who are familiar with previous Deadlands settings in any of their forms, Deadlands: Noir is a bit different, as the setting is a good deal more civilized than the untamed West of classic Deadlands or the shattered landscape of Hell on Earth, so people expecting the typical feel of a Deadlands game are in for a bit of a shock, but it could also be a breath of fresh air, a brief change of pace for a posse of Deadlands veterans before they plunge back into their preferred milieu.  If you’re a fan of Savage Worlds, Deadlands: Noir is a great basis for a grim’n’gritty campaign that draws parallels to such classics as the Maltese Falcon as well as contemporary fare such as Sin City (though maybe not quite as heavy on the sex and violence), as the many supernatural elements are quite easy to scale back or simply remove entirely.

The PDF version of Deadlands: Noir is now available for sale at a price point of $19.99, with the hardcover slated for a March 2013 release date (which I’ll most certainly be getting).  They’ve also got a PDF adventure titled “Old Absinthe House Blues” available as well, providing a ready-made one-shot adventure that can be run independently or woven in between the plot points of the “Red Harvest” adventure from the DL:Noir main book.   And should you need a passel of hard-boiled heroes in a hurry, Pinnacle has put a collection of pre-made characters up on their website as a free download, and they cover a broad assortment of noir-based archetypes, from the classy dame to the private eye as well as Deadlands-themed entries such as a patent scientist and a Harrowed prize fighter.

Another excellent item that I hope will one day see release to the general public is the Deadlands: Noir soundtrack, done by Harry Mack.  I’ve got this on my iPhone, and it’s a really great set of music that captures the feel of a 1930’s pulp era detective tale.

So that’s my review of Deadlands: Noir, a midway point in the ongoing story of Deadlands, in a setting that’s a bit closer to what you and I might recognize.  Given the very positive response this got via Kickstarter (this overfunded by 1400%), I’m sure we’ll see more material for this product line as time goes on, with a Deadlands: Noir Companion already in the works, detailing several additional cities in the American West of this alternate 1930’s , such as Chicago and the City of Lost Angels as well as providing an adventure generator as well as a mini-Plot Point Campaign.  Personally, I’m looking forward to more support, and hope I get a chance to get this game on the table at some point down the road.

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