RPG Review: Hell on Earth Reloaded

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The year is 2097, but the future is not our own.

When Deadlands Classic initially hit the scene in the 90’s, nobody had any inkling as to what Shane Hensley had in store for the wonderfully odd setting that mixed cowboys, magic, wild frontiers, and zombies.  As it so happens, the initial Deadlands setting was there to set the stage for what was to come.  In all but a few RPGs, it’s generally assumed that the good guys (namely the player-characters) will find a way to save the day or at least indefinitely stave off the ultimate victory of the bad guys.  Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG is one of those rare exceptions, and as fans learned in August 1998, the Reckoners (aka the Big Bads of the Deadlands setting) would not be denied.

mushskullIn a vein similar to such post-apocalyptic settings as Mad Max and Gamma World, Deadlands: Hell on Earth was set in a world after civilization as humanity knew had come to an end.  It was probably some small consolation to fans that the only reason the Reckoners won was by pulling one doozy of a cosmic cheat, but the fact remained that ultimately the good guys lost.  And lost big.  Thanks to resident mad scientist Doctor Darius Hellstrome, instead of just being vaporized in an atomic mushroom cloud, the world got vaporized by an atomic skull-shaped mushroom cloud, as the irradiated demonic spirits decimated humanity, which paved the way for the Reckoners to manifest in our world and truly bring about Hell on Earth.

Much like Deadlands Reloaded and Deadlands Noir, Hell on Earth Reloaded uses the Savage World system, and advances the timeline from the classic version, which ended with the major battle between the major factions of the Wasted West, as was detailed in the adventure “The Unity.”  It’s been several months since the Battle of Junkyard, and things are still tough for your posse of survivors.

As for the layout of the book* itself, it’s up to the usual high standards of Pinnacle’s products.  The pages have a suitable post-apoc look to them while not being difficult to read, and while the cover might be a tad blatant on the cheesecake factor, the majority of the artwork is of a more sensible nature.  Being the long-time fan of Hell on Earth that I am, I was able to recognize quite a bit of the book’s artwork as being from prior Hell on Earth products, but there’s plenty of new art as well.  Being a Savage Worlds supplement, you will need a Savage Worlds rulebook to play this game.  The book is written with the Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition in mind, though you could make do with a prior version in a pinch.

The book opens with a foreword from Mr. Hensley, which not only explains the above tidbit about why the Weird West came about, but also some thoughts on the “official” timeline of Hell on Earth and what it might mean for your posse.  For those of you familiar with the pre-Savage Worlds version of Hell on Earth, you might recall that things occasionally veered into the realm of the silly.  Not so much this time around, as Hell on Earth Reloaded has been tweaked to be a little less tongue-in-cheek than its predecessor.  From there it moves into introducing players and GMs to the world of Hell on Earth, starting with a bit of a history lesson before delving into how the world ended.  It references some recent elements of Deadlands Reloaded, such as the events detailed in the plot point campaign The Flood, and makes note of how the divergent history of the Weird West impacted the history of the Wasted West, including how close the world came to ending well before Judgment Day.  After the history lesson, it’s on to the current state of the Wasted West, covering survival and what the major factions, good and bad, are up to in addition to a summary of different blasted regions of the American West.  Handy Tip: If some brainer suggests crossing the Mississippi to head Back East, do them a favor and whack them upside the head, since that part of the world is pretty much overrun with zombies of all stripes.

hoeheroThe next chapter is all about making heroes, and after listing out a number of archetype ideas, from the post-apoc wandering adventurer to postman to road warrior and plenty in between, the book lays out the basics of character creation, and it pretty much sticks to the rules found in the Savage Worlds Deluxe Edition.  Those players and GMs coming over from Deadlands Reloaded might notice that the Guts skill is missing from the master skill list; this is a deliberate change on Pinnacle’s part, as humanity in Hell on Earth Reloaded are a little more used to supernatural monsters, but aren’t necessarily any better at not getting the heebie-jeebies when a pack of wormlings or a ravening bloodwolf rears its ugly head.  As with Deadlands Reloaded and Deadlands Noir, there are a collection of new Arcane Backgrounds to be had in this game, which I’ll get into a bit later.  There are also some new Hindrances and Edges, including a few that first appeared in Deadlands Reloaded but have gotten their mechanics tweaked a bit.  And like the other Deadlands games, there is the Veteran edge, dubbed “Veteran o’ the Wasted West” which can give your melon-farmer a leg-up against the various threats they’ll encounter on their adventures, but also carries a pretty nasty drawback, so would-be power-gamers, you’ve been warned.

It’s then onto equipment, which starts with a brief discussion of “currency” in Hell on Earth, which is fairly abstract in terms of game mechanics, with ‘dollars’ being an assortment of minor trinkets, small food items, and the like; there’s a chance you might have something really useful, but don’t count on it.  After that, it’s onto the goods, which consists of a lot of different ways to bring the hurt, from military-grade sidearms to grenades to good old fashioned clubs and knives.   For most starting characters, it’s not going to be worth buying any armor with your limited starting funds, as most weapons have a built-in level of armor piercing that’s enough to blow right through whatever armor you might be able to start off with.  But, lest you think the equipment list is nothing but guns, guns, ammo, and more guns, there’s a lengthy list of non-weapon stuff, such as types of clothing and general equipment that might be the difference between life and becoming just another victim of an unforgiving environment.  Once it’s done reviewing the stuff you can carry on your person, the book moves into vehicles, giving a nice selection of what’s available these days, ranging the gamut from motorcycles and four-wheel ATVs to sports cars and big rigs.  Mention is also made of the main type of fuel used in Hell on Earth Reloaded, a concoction of distilled ghost rock that’s called “spook juice,” and has the dubious perk of doubling as something you can drink if your brainer is crazy or desperate enough.  Of particular interest to would be road warriors is the list of options you can choose from to trick out your ride, giving you the tools you need to turn an ordinary car into a rolling death machine… provided you can afford the costs involved.  One notable change from classic Hell on Earth and the Reloaded version is that it’s a lot harder to start the game with a tricked-out super-car due to how wealth is handled.

Now that character creation and gear are out of the way, the book delves into what sets Hell on Earth Reloaded apart from Savage Worlds and from Deadlands Reloaded.  Interestingly, some of the changes that showed up in Deadlands Noir had their origins in Hell on Earth Reloaded, such as dispensing with the concept of Fate Chips in favor of Savage Worlds’ default “bennies,” as well as rules for scavenging.  This is by far the smallest chapter in the book, as there are fewer changes to the general rules of Savage Worlds than there were in Deadlands Reloaded.

HerbadAnd with that, we finally move over to the spooky side of things, and start delving into the new arcane backgrounds.  Of the new options, we have the Doomsayers (radiation-slinging mutated priests), Junkers (scrap-based technomancers), Sykers (bald-headed psychics), Templars (hard-ass champions of good and proof that good is not always nice), and Toxic Shamans (shamans that treat with the corrupted nature spirits created by excessive toxins and pollution).  Now where Deadlands Reloaded tweaked the spell-casting rules for each of its Arcane Backgrounds, Hell on Earth Reloaded plays things a little straighter, requiring each of these new arcane types to stick to the rules on Power Points, although each arcane type has their own sub-rules, such as Templar powers generally only working on that particular Templar or how Doomsayers are all mutants.  Now these sub-rules aren’t all bad, such as Junkers getting a modified version of the Gadgeteer Edge for free or Templars starting out with a really nifty magic sword that will give some of the nastier denizens of the Wasted West reason to pause.  Most of them also get a few new Edges and powers that are unique to that arcane background, such as Sykers having psionic-themed powers.  This chapter also gives the players a run-down on their particularly arcane background, explaining the history and general modus operandi of that type.  One thing of note for players coming from Deadlands Reloaded is that Harrowed are starting character option, much as it was in Deadlands Noir, and the Harrowed are discussed in detail here.  If you’ve played Deadlands Noir, then a lot of this material will look familiar, particularly the Harrowed powers; not surprising since Noir drew a lot of its crunch regarding deaders from this book.

We then move onto the Marshall’s Handbook, which goes into more detail about various setting rules, such as why radios aren’t as reliable as one might initially think (aside from the setting convention of reliable communication cutting down on the horror factor) and how the ghost rock bombs that dropped on Judgment Day are still having a nasty effect on weather.  It also lists out the possible results of what happens when your survivor develops a mutation, and for the most part, it’s not a good thing.  There’s the chart for those greedy sods that snatched up the Veteran o’ the Wasted West edge, as well as the downsides of being a Harrowed that those player-types really don’t need to know about… at least not right away.  Scrounging got a brief mention earlier on, and it’s in the Marshall’s section that the book goes into more detail about what sorts of goodies your scavvie might find.

From there, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the Wasted West, giving the Marshall the full story on the places mentioned way back in the introduction portion of the book.  Well, maybe not quite the full story, as Pinnacle openly admits that what’s in this book is the abbreviated version, and that those hankering for more info on a lot of these places can find that in their Hell on Earth Classic line of books.  But unless you really need to know, the Hell on Earth Reloaded book gives would-be Marshalls plenty to run with, particularly for big places like Junkyard, the Independent City of Los Vegas, Denver, the Sioux Nations (or what’s left of them) and Boise.  Yes, I said Boise, which is pretty important for a couple of reasons.  After that, it’s on to detailing the various monsters and important folks of the setting,

HOEdoomsayerSo that’s the skinny on Hell on Earth Reloaded.  It takes a lot of work from regular Deadlands and drops it into the still popular post-apocalyptic genre, with Pinnacle putting their own spin on things as they so often do and frequently do so well.  But as befits a serious-toned game in this kind of setting, things can come across as very bleak, and some players, who are used to the “good guys always save the day” mindset that the more popular RPGs engender, might not find Hell on Earth Reloaded to be to their liking.  Of course, how bleak and serious things are in a Hell on Earth Reloaded game is dependent upon the person running it, so the Marshall could very well let up a little and allow their posse of heroes to actually make a lasting difference in the Wasted West, be it something as simple as helping a small survivor commune prosper and endure to even taking down some of the major bads that are still lurking about.

Personally, Hell on Earth has always been my favorite of the various Deadlands settings, perhaps due in no small part to my being one of those players that sees a bleak setting where the deck is heavily stacked against the good guys as being a challenge.  I’ll also admit to having a very heavy bias in favor of HoE’s Templars, something I’ve tried my best to keep out of this article, and I’m not disappointed in the least at how these last crusaders made the transition from the classic rules over to the Savage Worlds ruleset.

So if you’re a fan of Deadlands, a fan of Savage Worlds, or just a fan of post-apocalyptic settings, then give Hell on Earth a try.  There’s a lot of nasty things out that have a hankering for human flesh (really, what Deadlands nasty doesn’t these days?), but there’s also a world in need of a few good heroes, and if you’re smart enough and tough enough, you might just be the sort of hero needed in a Hell on Earth.

*As of this writing, the print version is still pending release, with the last word being a hopeful street date of late March 2013, though the PDF has been available for a while now, since at least Summer 2012.
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