Hell on Earth: The Wasted West (Deadlands)
Hell on Earth: The Wasted West (Deadlands) Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 06/07/01
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 3 (Average)
It provides a good, solid amount of goofiness, almost all of it inspired from other sources, and it gives plenty of starting material for a GM who's just getting into Deadlands, but more experienced gamers will want to give it a miss. Plus, Pinnacle's teasing for future products within their books drives me into an uncharacteristic berserk fury.
Product: Hell on Earth: The Wasted West (Deadlands)
Author: Shane Lacy Hensley with John Hopler
Company/Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Page count: 160
Year published: 1998
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 06/07/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Horror Comedy Post-apocalyse Old West Superhero
The Wasted West is the companion sourcebook to the Deadlands: Hell on Earth role-playing game, filling in all of the setting details that the original book omitted due to space considerations. This book is essentially the spine of the Wasted West setting, where everything gets enough detail to make adventuring possible. It's also the home of a good number of flaws within the game itself, but I'll get to that in time.
If you're not familiar with the idea behind the Wasted West, it goes something like this: The world has been destroyed by atomic bombs that have been irradiated by ghost rock, which in turn is a superfuel found in the alternate world of Deadlands; what's left is an atomic wasteland populated by various horrors, where the Reckoners - the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - walk with impunity.
However, Deadlands does not take itself seriously in the slightest - or, more specifically, it seems to take itself seriously at the same time that it does its damnedest to undercut any potential hint of fear or horror that you might see. It's a mixture of comedy and horror, and while Deadlands tries hard to play up the horror aspects, it strikes me as an uneasy mixture of both - Evil Dead II done without the directing skill of Sam Raimi.
The first section of the book deals with stuff that got squeezed out of the original book. One of the things that I'm not quite sure about is the way that the Deadlands game has been marketed. Both of them are hardcover, with decent art throughout - but Call of Cthulhu, for example, contains more information than both books together and manages to come in at around $25. This book, plus the rule book, run you about $55, and contain less information and more info-teasing than Call of Cthulhu every will. The only conclusion that I can come to is that they were forced to adhere to a tight word and content limit because of the hardcover. Either way, $55 for what should be contained in a single book is unacceptable, especially with Call of Cthulhu hovering at around $25-30. The special that I got it at costs me $30 for the two books plus a GM screen and a map - but still, it should be within a single book.
There's a few optional rules here for GMs to use, including double-tapping with a handgun, radiation damage, travel times, environmental damage, and radio communication - it's helpful, but I wouldn't say vital unless your characters are regularly travelling into heavily irradiated areas. Following is a new Arcane background for characters, and a bunch of advantages and disadvantages. The S-Mart Overlord gets to quote the Bill Bixby version of the Incredible Hulk, following in the venerable footsteps of Maul of America for lame humor. None of them are vital, but you can play a librarian, super-soldier, or - weirdly enough - a Veteran o' the Weird West, where a character that was hanging around in the 1870s can show up in the Wasted West. More on that later, being as the penalties are potentially lethal.
Following is more weapons, including some neat rules for using a golf club, some extra rules for nunchucks, and a laundry list of new weaponry, including the HI Thunderer, the HI Damnation, the NA M-42, the .357 Magnum Automatic, the IW-91, the Massive Phallic Overcompensator, the Insecurity Blanket and the Goatsucker. There's also a selection of submachineguns - a lot of them have some nice artwork, although I think that they'd look out of place in a post-nuclear environment - they look too sleek and angular to fit well onto a grizzled survivor. Add on a bone necklace, some notches on the handle, maybe some handmade camoflague and they'd fit better - but that's not really a huge problem. There's also some unusual weapons that'll probably only show up in special circumstances; flintlock pistols, ghost-rock powered submachinguns, and blunderbusses. Accompanying this is alternate ammo, laser sights, scopes, radios and the like - all useful stuff for gun goobs or those who are interested in outfitting their primitive scavenger with a headset radio.
The next little bit gets into Twilight 2000 territory, describing the various types of fuel available for vehicles - the old favorite, ethanol, makes another showing. If you've ever seen the original Twilight 2000, you'll remember ethanol was a major fuel source in post-nuclear Europe. I don't know why I mention it; it just brings back old, fond memories. Besides the traditional fuel sources, there's also spook juice, which is made from pulverized ghost rock; except that it's got some rather nasty spiritual side effects that only GMs are supposed to know about.
The vehicles section is where I start getting a nervous feeling. The economy car is derided as not being able to "survive a collision with your average house cat", and so weak that "a well-thrown rock can knock a hole in it." This ignores the fact that the average economy car has been extensively tested to resist car crashes, while the average muscle car has been tailored to go really fast and look purty. The sports cars have their own drawbacks, but there's a sense that only the coolest ride will be worthwhile to use - it just annoys me that the most solid cars on the market are described as flimsy and damaged.
Powered armor. I don't think that powered armor fits into a post-nuclear environment, Fallout notwithstanding. In Fallout, actually, I believe that there was one place where you could get it, and you had to perform some pretty dangerous actions in order to do it - passing by Deathclaws, which are incredibly hard to kill. Anyways, since Deadlands is not exactly sticking to the traditional tropes of post-nuclear gaming, power armor isn't too far off the mark; but its inclusion means that you may have players - whose characters are supposed to regard a running car as the ultimate form of transportation - clamoring for the latest in laser technology and powered armor.
Actually, technology creep is something that I've noticed in a lot of post-nuclear games, most particularly in Wasteland and Fallout. Beginning players usually have primitive weapons and low-end firearms, if they have them at all; then, as time goes on, they get better weapons and better equipment until they're walking around in Space Marine suits. Both Wasteland and Fallout had this problem, and Hell on Earth does the same thing. The problem is that it's difficult to scale the power level so that it's appropriate to the setting - if Mad Max had power armor, then he could just wander out and turn every raider into a flaming pile of ash. Therefore, in order to present a threat to characters in power armor, you need enemies who have power armor too. And then you're playing Warhammer 40,000 in a desolate environment - the struggle to survive, to find a few more bullets, to find a new source of alcohol before your car finally creaks to a halt, is long since over.
Power armor in this game doesn't entirely have that problem; it generates power drain, which means that you can only use it for brief periods, and it takes time to spin up and spin down - in other words, you can't react quickly to a surprise situation. You also need to pay for it with background points, and it doesn't come cheap, but I still wonder if it's a good idea to include power armor in a post-apocalyptic game.
In the same vein, the game has hoverbikes that are powered by regular fuel, with a hyper-efficient engine that lets you use gasoline or spook juice to run it. Hoverbikes are hardly a staple of a post-nuclear environment. The one time that I saw them used - and to great effect - was in Matt Wagner's Grendel: War Child - but that society was basically stable, having left a nuclear war about eighty years in its past. In the Wasted West...it just doesn't fit with the setting. While I'm sure that science will be glad to prove me wrong, there's no way that a gasoline engine, no matter how efficient it is, can work well enough to power a small hovercraft - even in a fantastic setting such as Deadlands. Again, it just doesn't seem to fit, and it doesn't seem to be well thought-out.
There's a selection of drugs - nothing stunning, and nothing terrifically interesting.
The templates are cute, especially since the first one has a picture of a seven-year old girl with a teddy bear and a .357 Magnum. The character templates are pretty good, ranging from the archetypal -the Sky Pirate, the Robohunter - to the interesting, like the Renegade Black Hat, or the Sawbones. (The illustration for the Sawbones, especially, is some nice art, with lengthy finger-scalpels.) The art that follows the character templates tends towards the generic and the showy, but it's hardly the best art that I've ever seen - every illustration has a couple of archetypal characters fighting some monsters, without much in the way of subtlety. Psychic blasts are unleashed, heads are chopped, a rare huckster chucks some cards, but it doesn't give much insight into Hell on Earth other than "KA-BOOM!"
The central meat of the book is an overview of the Wasted West from the perspective of Jo, an ex-housewife Templar who's one of Deadlands' signature characters - and a somewhat interesting character; she's deeper than your average tough-guy hero like Cole Ballad, for example. She's not a tremendously well-drawn character, but she's hardly the worst I've seen. Anyways, when we first meet her, she'd dying of a hideous wound caused by a mutant creature - later on, she recovers, and goes on to detail the other books within the series.
One of the things that Deadlands tries that a lot of other books don't is a section which players can read for themselves - if you've got a tolerant GM, they'll let you read Jo's Journal, giving you her own particular view of the world of the Wasted West. Whether the information is accurate or not isn't clear until you actually travel there yourself to find out. So that's pretty neat in itself.
There's an overview of how the Last War started, a description of the Reckoners as they've come to Earth, a quick description of the complex war that led up to the final nuclear exchange, the discovery of the portal to Banshee - which will be follwed up on in Lost Colony, whenever that comes out - the Presidential assassinations that take place, and so on. By the time that the book's established one person as being the President, he or she has already launched a war or tried to stop one. With a President on either side, it quickly gets confusing, and the global nature of the fight between the Union and the Confederacy seems forced.
For that matter, I have a hard time believing that the Union and the Confederacy would still be fighting two hundred years after the beginning of the Civil War. It's an example of the book carrying tropes from the Weird West and bringing it forward into a period where it's no longer relevant. In Deadlands, it was a way to keep the fight going; in Wasted West, it's a way to break suspension of disbelief.
Deadlands can't be accused of ever playing it subtle - for example, the generic villains are literally called Black Hats, working for an organization called the Combine. They're sort of a chump villain for the PCs to fight, like orcs are in Dungeons and Dragons - they're good for a quick fight, but they won't present any major challenge unless there's a special situation. Of course, they're also characterized about as well as orcs in a munchkin D&D game; they're evil, they like to ride around killing things and intimidating communities, and their loyalty is assured by the installation of a headbanger chip - if they're disloyal, or if they move too far away from their comrades, their heads explode. There's a neat touch in that their weapons and ammunition blow up after their owners die - but then I think that there shouldn't be that much weapons and ammunition banging around in a post-nuclear environment in the first place.
There's a lot of stuff in here, too much for me to comfortably summarize. Most of it is various shades of dangerous areas - Fort 51, the Devil's Playground, Denver and so on. Much like the Wild West, most of the population is concentrated in small villages, which are desperately trying to survive. There's an overview of the various villain groups as well, ranging from the S-Mart Overlord - imagine if Humungus, from The Road Warrior, took over a K-Mart - to sky pirates to automatons to killer plants.
So what it's like?
It's kind of like the people who wrote the book were unable to think of their own cool ideas, so they took every fanboy movie made in the last twenty years or so and threw those elements into the book, without adding too much that was new and/or challenging. Remember the Gyrocaptain from Road Warrior? There's an entire fleet of them here, although they're gliders and not gyrocopters. Like hideous deathsports with more blood than common sense? There's skullball - and it seems pretty ridiculous to have a death sport in any post-apocalyptic setting, since the last thing that survivors of a nuclear war will want to see is more death. If you liked the Terminator films, then there's Denver and its robot-heavy environment. Like vaguely Japanese gys running around in a post-nuclear environment? The Daimyo of Portland will be happy to help you out.
It's very frustrating to criticize this stuff, because I know that a lot of people are going to like it; and these people are people who have never heard of Tribe 8.
Well, okay, that's not entirely true; Tribe 8 is brilliant but heady stuff, and it's easy to be thrown by just how truly different it is. If you're thirteen years old, having all of your favorite movie characters show up in your game is something that you're going to welcome with great enthusiasm. And I get the distinct feeling that I'm beating up on a game that's meant to be goofy for being goofy; it's like criticizing TOON for being too unrealistic.
To some degree, this is true. But there just doesn't seem to be a whole lot of invention here - nothing that I can hold up and say "This, this here is truly innovative and cool." At best, it's solid work with some interesting bits; at worst, it's just uninspired, and not really worth your money. Some of villains are interesting, and it's nice to see one of the original villains of the Weird West - get his just desserts through a hundred years worth of Sioux torture. But it's - well, it's Deadlands. You'll know if you'll like it if you liked the original book.
There's a new character class - the Witch - but I have no idea whatsoever as to why this particular character class is in here; most of it focuses around using various ingredients to create spells. However, the authors apparently didn't think to take into account that a nuclear war had taken place, so ingredients that would be common in a present-day setting - a green M&M, the eye of an amphibian, an oyster, a green leaf - are going to be impossible to find in a place that's been nuked. You try finding me a green M&M in a blasted city that hasn't been gobbled up by starving survivors and I'll put you to work finding my lost copy of Cthulhu Now. Palladium, with its usual cut-and-paste bungling, did the same thing with Crazies. There's nothing apocalypse-specific to witches, so why stick them in? Even their central hook, a cookbook entitled How to Serve your Man, - and yeah, they mention that Twilight Zone episode in it - isn't that clever. And there's only six different spells listed; I suspect that there may be more coming, but I'm not feeling optimistic. It seems like the appendix of something that was meant for the Weird West game and got lost en route.
Believe it or not, you can bring a character from the Weird West into the Wasted West; he'll have survived the two hundred years in time to fight the Reckoners on their home territory. The good news is that you get a huge handful of extra character points and a hell of a lot of grit. The bad news is that the drawbacks that you get for taking this option will make you wish that you hadn't made him a veteran of the Weird West in the first place - vampirism, missing limbs, curses, insanity, eternal enemies, even blindness are all possible drawbacks. No matter how many character points you have, a blind hero - without special senses or supernatural invention - isn't going to be of much use in a combat environment. Ditto somebody who's a vampire - with the black and white morality of Deadlands, a vampiric hero isn't going to last long. (In an unfortunate oversight, the rules for nosferatu heroes were left out, but they appear in a later sourcebook, as well as - probably - on Pinnacle's website.)
One of the things that drives me absolutely berserk about this book, however, is how much stuff is just a lengthy tease - I want to use a stronger term, but I fear for the gentle ears of rpg.net's readers. For example, there's mention made of Air Force One crashed somewhere in the Rockies, and there's something cool in the ruins - but you'll have to buy a new book to find out! There's a horror haunting Boise - but you'll have to buy a new book to find out! There's a really cool thing here - but you'll have to buy a new book to find out!
In my last review, somebody mentioned that RPGs had become a serial medium, but to be honest, this is fucking ridiculous. These are nothing but space-wasting advertisements disguised as information, and they've single-handedly turned me off to the Deadlands line. I could buy a new product to find this out, but there should be enough information in the book for me to wing it if I need to. If you're going to bring it up, then put it down. But the Wasted West ignores this rule, and so loses a point just for the sleazy marketing.
Know what would work? Publishing the adventure with no preamble. Just say "Air Force One has been found!" and my curiousity is piqued without leaving me feeling cheated. It has the advantage of not telegraphing itself well in advance and adds something interesting when it's out - I seriously doubt that Pinnacle is ever going to get around to publishing the details of what happened to Air Force One, or whatever.
One thing that I like is that it's now possible for your characters to literally mutate into servants of the Reckoners without really knowing it - especially if you took particular disadvantages at character creation. Being a Grim Servant o' Death may look really cool, but it puts your character one step closer to being a servant of War or Death; being scrawny has its own disadvantages, but it puts you one step closer to being a minion of Famine. It's nothing that's going to hit characters who are walking the straight and moral path, but it can mess up a character who hoards food, or who's intent on killing every last one of his enemies.
And here's one of the more obnoxious things about this book - Stone. He's a metaplot character who runs around the Wasted West killing every major hero he runs across, and his stats are literally as high as they can get - 4-7d12, with 18-19 in every Aptitude and 20 in Shooting. He's unkillable. He's a metaplot character who can't be killed because he'll play an important role later on, removing ultimate control from the GM.
In the original Deadlands game, there were red bulls - Los Bulls Diablos, or something like that - who showed up and tried to kill the PCs when they hit a particular level, but they were managable. Stone, on the other hand, is a munchkin's ejaculatory wet dream; if the PCs hit a certain level of fame - oops! Stone shows up and kills every last one of them, then rides off. He's already done it for one hero in the metaplot, so it stands to reason that he'll be showing up for the PCs as well. Except that he's unkillable - except that the book gives ways for the GM to not kill him off permanently, so it seems as if he is killable after all. Except that he's got enormous stats.
The whole thing gives me a headache. It wouldn't bother me too much if he were just this shadowy presence across the Mississippi, like Raven is - and the description of the East as a gigantic necropolis of undead strikes me as really cool, by the way - but it seems as if he's a very clumsy tool for the GM, and I don't think that I'd want beginning GMs to get him as an example of how to play the game. Maybe I'm just misinterpreting this whole thing, I don't know. It's late, and there are wolves after me.
Anyways: is it worth it? To some degree. If you're a new GM, this is chock full of goofy stuff to throw at your new players, and they'll have a wild time chopping away at Black Hats and wormlings and so forth, but more experienced GMs are going to want to move elsewhere. It's okay for being goofy, but it just doesn't come across as being enough.