In 1996 Deadlands took the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules and Best Graphic Presentation for a Roleplaying Game Supplement, which is the sort of thing that perks up one's ears, The product itself is certainly quite impressive, a well-bound hardback featuring a cadaverous character with twin six-shooters, and a logo which indicates the twin genre orientations; horror and western. The game comes with a good table of contents, but no index, some fairly good black and white art with full-colour supplements, average page layout, poor headings (thin black text with grey boxed background) and a somewhat chatty text expressed in a western style and some rather annoying prurient humour.
All told there are twenty chapters which are unsurprisingly individually quite short. The order of things is a brief introduction to the setting followed by character generation, stuff, action, setting and advice on running the game. The book has three parts; “Posse” including character generation and action, “No Man's Land” for restricted characters like priests, shamans, hucksters, and the undead, and "Marshal's Law" which is for the Marshal (GM) only. Deadlands uses the standard set of dice, appropriately entitled 'bones', but it also uses poker cards and poker chips.
The setting is an alternate timeline game where a group of indigenous Americans (“Injuns”) held a ritual for not-unexpected reasons during Gettysburg in 1863. This ritual, The Reckoning, opened a nice conduit to the spirit world some some critters could come back and give some friendly advice on the presence of European folk on the red man's territory. Thirteen years later, the Confederate and the Union are still slugging it out which the addition of "critters" all over the place. In the process a large portion of California had a close encounter with the sea creating a coastline known as “the Maze”. The main action is set not in the far east coastline or anything like that, but in the much more earthy disputed territories of the west; California, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
One of the nice in-game features is how the Reckoners gain additional power when they bring Fear (with a capital F) to the population and if they gain additional power they can cause more FEAR and.. well, you get the picture. Pretty soon people are completely paranoid and terrified. The designers clearly know a thing or two about RPG design and have not just left Fear as an item of colour, but have added it into the game system itself. To counter this, it is also suggested that the mighty PCs do a bit of “tale tellin'” when they defeat the Reckoners and thus reduce the fear level of a community. Not only that, but when the Fear level of a community is reduced, the PCs also gain a “Legend chip”, a legacy, which allows a bit of history to be brought back into the story. Further, as the PCs face and defeat supernatural critters, they also gain Grit, a measure of their resolve and a bonus to tests of fear and terror.
Characters are defined by Traits and Aptitudes; a group of PCs is referred to a “Posse”. The former consist of attributes split into mental traits (Cognition, Knowlegde, Mien, Smarts and Spirit) and corporeal traits (Deftness, Nimbleness, Strength, Quickness, and Vigor). These are rated in die value, for example Strength d6, Vigor d8 etc ranging from d4 to d12. Aptitudes represent skills and knowledges are a rated as a number, starting at 1 to 5, which indicate how many Trait dice to roll. Finally there is Coordination which is used on basic Trait tests, which function like Aptitudes, Die results are based on the highest number rolled from the pool, seeking to achieve a Target Number, however you can also 'Ace' a roll, by rolling the highest possible value and making it open-ended. For every five points rolled above a Target Number a raise is scored, increasing a degree of success. If die rolls all come up 1's, a critical failure is scored, called, “going bust”.
Character generation begins from a variety of suggested backgrounds appropriate to the setting; bounty hunters, greenhorns, gunslingers, preachers, saloon gals, teamsters etc. Trait and Coordination generation is random, based on draws from the poker deck. Unsurprisingly, jokers are “wild cards”. Starting aptitudes are determined from a pool from te character's knowledge, smarts and cognition. In that time-honoured tradition since Champions in 1981, characters also receive Hindrances and Edges. A short chapter on Gear is followed by a range of pre-generated character archetypes to pick from if in a hurry.
Action (typically combat, naturally) occurs in five second rounds with actions determined from a Quickness test and Action Cards. The base target number for shootin' things is 5, but with quite a collection of appropriate modifiers. There is also options for a variety of special maneuvers such as called shots, fanning, dual pistols and the like. Stray bullets mean something as well with specific rules for bystanders (with the caveat that nobody is innocent). A section on fightin' (as opposed to shootin') covers fists, knives, whips and lariats. Assuming a hit occurs in either situation the next rolls determine location, again with delightful names such as guts, gizzards and noggin. This may cause variation in damage; for example as the “Bleedin' & Squealin'” section explains, a hit to the noggin causes two extra dice of damage, all relative to size. Each location can take five wound levels, from light to maimed. You don't want a maimed noggin. There is also a range of rules for “more pain and sufferin'”, including the essential drowning and falling. After all this you're probably well prepared for the section of healing, with the degree of damage referrin to a difficulty.
The game also includes a little item called Fate Chips, with each PC drawing three randomly from the pot at the beginning of each session, with the Marshall drawing three for all other NPCs. Depending on the value of the chip, these can be cashed in to negate wounds, regain wind, add bonus dies to Trait tests for example. They can even be traded with other PCs, albeit at a cost. Bonus chips can be acquired instantly through roleplaying Hindrances. Also included in this chapter is Bounty Points, which establishes the rate of improvement in Traits, Coordination and Aptitude based on successful story development and varmint bustin'.
There are four chapters for special characters including Hucksters (card-based magicians who cast hexes), Mad Scientists (with steampunk style gizmos powered by possessed earth), The Blessed (who can invoke miracles, depending on their Faith), and Shaman (who can call upon spirits, appease them and ask favours). These particular characters are so much more interesting that the standard PCs is not unlikely that players will be grasping for the opportunity to play these characters, leading to some very interesting intra-party conflicts. Many of these abilities are derived from a combination of die-rolls for target numbers and card hands, poker style, for effect.
Another character possibility that would make some skin crawl is the opportunity to play an undead zombie-like being, the harrowed. Apart from not smelling too good, not looking too good, and scaring the horses, the harrowed do have some advantages, such as the ability to resist quite a fair whack of pain and the ability to slowly regenerate from serious wounds. One becomes one of the harrowed when a Reckoning spirit decides to move into a recently deceased body, so that is a possible character quirk as well. "I'm in two minds about this" takes a literal meaning. True to popular legend, the best way to kill a zombie is with a head-shot.
The chapter on running the game provides a couple of useful hints. For starters there's a quick notation scheme for NPCs, because PCs are quite well detailed. A coloured chip system is suggested for general wounds on NPCs as well. However there is precious little on running the game especially in terms of the particular style, although a little of this can be gleaned from simply the style of the text itself. There is a rather good collection of “Abominations”, which serve as a sort of Monster Manual for Deadlands, with about as much descriptive text which, in this case, is actually appropriate (I mean what are you going to do, talk to one of those things?). There is also little in terms of the alternate history except for that which is directly related to the “weird west” aspect. The Civil War apparently continues, but there isn't that much discussion about how it's developing or the status of slaves etc. Unfortunately, the game lacks even an adventure seed or two to get one started as well.
Despite these remarks, Deadlands has been a very successful game, and for good reason. In addition to winning the aforementioned Origins awards, it has also won several others from quality supplements, including a wargame and a card game. The variety and style of the game system is particularly admirable, paying attention to just enough randomness, providing a good dose of system options for a player to attempt multiple ways to achieve their ends, and there's even just enough storytelling components for the narrative-minded crew. Whilst these core, original edition, rules are certainly satisfactory and playable, they have undergone further editions, including a revision in 1999, the release of a d20 Deadlands system in 2001, a GURPS Deadlands also in that year, and a Savage Worlds Deadlands: Reloaded in 2006. In roleplaying, it would seem that this sort of imitation is the most sincerely form of flattery.
Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .6 (art) + 1.0 (coolness) + .7 (readability) + .7 (product) = 4.5
Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + .5 (text) + .8 (fun) + .7 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.3
Review published simultaneously at RPG Review.