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Valkyrie Magazine and RPGnet are happy to provide this review.


Deadlands

RPG

224 pgs [sterling]??

Deadlands' Dime Novel #1 - Perdition's Daughter

78 pgs, [sterling]3.95

Pinnacle Entertainment Group Inc.

For a genre so replete with source material and character archetypes, the wild west has always been somewhat overlooked by the RPG industry. Deadlands marks the return of wild west RPGs last seen in the days of Boot Hill, albeit with a twist. You see, Deadlands is set in the Weird West, an alternate history where evil spirits called Manitous have begun to plague the U.S. The end result is a game with all the aspects one wants from a wild west RPG, with extra horror and Cthulhu-esque elements thrown in.

Written clearly - with only occasional lapses into an ersatz "dance, southpaw, `fore ah shoots y'all in th'gizzards" prose style - Deadlands is superbly laid out, and is an almost textbook example of how to structure a RPG. The rules are presented in a logical order, there is extensive (and correct, lest we forget "page XX") cross-referencing and numerous useful examples. The artwork, which includes 17 colour plates, is excellent and maintains a consistent style throughout.

The gamebook is divided up into "Posse Territory" (the players section, detailing character creation and the basic rules); "No Man's Land" (covering the supernatural aspects of the game) and the "Marshall's Handbook" (the referee's section, including game background, tips of refereeing and specialist rules). One neat device is the use of totem pole and sheriff's badge icons throughout the rulebook as cross-reference markers to the two latter sections.

The core system is unusual but basically pretty good. Characters have a set of Traits (Strength, Quickness etc.) which are rated by die type (d4, d6, d10, d12). Aptitudes (skills) devolve from Traits and are rated by a Co-ordination which determines how many dice of the appropriate type are rolled. Success and failure are determined by the highest single number rolled being compared to a Target Number. Combat is unnecessarily complicated with far to much bookkeeping for my liking, although most cool things you see in westerns are covered by the rules (with the inexplicable exception of the showdown).

Unfortunately, Deadland's full set of rules is overburdened with pointless gimmickry which detracts from a good basic system. Character creation, spell-casting, gizmo invention and initiative are all covered by poker-based rules involving standard playing cards. Luck (in the form of Fate Chips) is represented with a poker-chip based system. I don't mind the use of standard or non-standard cards in RPGs (both Castle Falkenstein and Torg use cards in innovative ways, without over-complication) but Deadland's use of both cards and poker chips does not improve play and is annoying and unnecessary. For example, to begin play you'll need multiple dice, between one and three packs of playing cards and 10 blue, 25 red and 50 white poker chips. Whatever happened to "all you'll need are a few dice and some pencils and paper" ?

Deadlands does offer good scope for characters; in addition to all the standard wild west types (gunslingers, U.S. Marshals, Indian braves, saloon girls etc.), Deadlands adds in frameworks for playing shamans, mad scientists, undead characters, preachers (who can cast miracles) and hucksters - sorcerers who use the occult rituals covertly described in Hoyle's Book of Games. These extra character types all add to the occult feel of Deadlands, with the exception of the steam-punk scientists who are completely superfluous and detract from the strengths of the background. There is an excellent advantages and disadvantages section ("Mean as a Rattler" has to be my favourite) which captures the feel of the wild west, and rounds characters out nicely. There are also 12 good pre-generated characters, with full-colour illustrations, allowing for a fast start-up if you want to get playing ASAP.

Deadlands does suffer from a lack of detailed background, with only 12 pages devoted purely to the game world, everything else is given over to rules or statistics. This is a major failing in my view, particularly given the recent improvement made in RPGs generally, with the emphasis on background over rules. This is not to say that the Deadlands background is bad. What there is of it is quite good, presenting a world slowly succumbing to the fear induced by malevolent supernatural entities. There are hints of interesting locations: a huge earthquake has turned the Californian coastline into a waterlogged maze of canyons and crevices; there's the Sioux Nation and the Confederate and Union states left over from a Civil War that ended inconclusively upon the return of the Manitous. Unfortunately, none of the background is detailed enough, and it looks like referees will have to wait for future supplements or write it themselves.

One of the better ideas to come out from Deadland's publishers, is its' first "Dime Novel", Perdition's Daughter. At [sterling]3.95 this A5-size novel/adventure is great value for money. The adventure (concerning the machinations of an evil cult) is well-constructed with excellent maps and could quite easily be adapted to form a beginning scenario. The novel side of it is merely passable, but at just under [sterling]4, who's complaining?

Overall: Deadlands' excellent presentation and high production values doesn't really offset its' gimmickry or its' lack of depth. However, it does capture the feel of the wild west, and its' initial presentation of the world of the Weird West is promising, if a little scanty. If you want to play in this genre then Deadlands is exceptional value for money (this goes double for Perdition's Daughter), but be prepared to simplify or work around a clunky (and irritating) game system that puts showiness over simplicity.

Review by Simon English

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