Arcane Backgrounds are a special kind of Edge featured in Deadlands and later in the Savage Worlds system that developed itself from Deadlands. As their name suggests, having an Arcane Background means your character is imbued with some kind of mystical ability that they can use to their advantage during adventuring. It's sort of the Deadlands equivalent of having a class.
- 1 Deadlands: The Weird West
- 2 Deadlands: Hell on Earth
- 3 Deadlands: Lost Colony
- 4 Deadlands: Noir
- 5 Savage Worlds
Deadlands: The Weird West
There are quite a few different kinds of Arcane Background in Deadlands. Whilst most of them are present in the original Player's Guide (with added rules in the Marshal's Handbook), a handful of extra Backgrounds are found in other sourcebooks.
Each Arcane Background functions somewhat differently. But, as a general rule, you need both the Edge and at least one Aptitude (skill), often times more - many require at least two Aptitudes, generally representing background knowledge and the actual skill at casting magic.
Unlike in the later Savage Worlds system, it's possible for a character to have two Arcane Backgrounds at once. It's just very, very expensive. In fact, there's an actual archetype called the Metal Mage for characters who have both Huckster and Mad Scientist powers - it's literally just someone with both of those Arcane Backgrounds, though, and not mechanically different.
Note that an Arcane Background specifically refers to an Edge that lets you cast spells. Being a "metahuman" of some kind, such as a Harrowed (Player's Guide), Werewolf (Rascals, Varmints & Critters 2), Vampire (Rascals, Varmints & Critters 2) or Steampunk Cyborg (Smith & Robards) are entirely different systems, not Arcane Backgrounds.
One of the two most famous Arcane Backgrounds in Deadlands Classic, the Huckster is the Deadlands Wizard (although flavorwise it's closer to a Warlock). Using magical lore developed by Hoyle - as in, the author of Hoyle's Book of Games, which in this universe contain his coded notes of his studies - the Huckster works wonders by opening their soul to the Hunting Ground and offering a game of chance to the nearest manitou, luring them in and trying to wrangle them into providing the juice to create a magical effect. This isn't without its risk; whilst a manitou with the higher hand (represented by failing to get the hand needed to cast your spell) will just laugh and give you the finger before buggering off, causing your spell to fail, going bust or drawing the Black Joker lets a manitou take a chunk out of your huckster's hide, resulting in the phenomena called Backlash.
To make it easier on themselves, hucksters visualize what they're doing as a poker game - technically, any game of chance will do, but poker is the iconic version, and the game works assuming that's what a huckster does. As such, when a huckster casts a spell, a fan of cards appears in their dominant hand, and they have to look at the draw in order to make the spell go off; this is why most hucksters cultivate an appearance as professional gamblers, as that way they can use their mundane playing cards to try and obfuscate what's happening. People don't like witches and warlocks in the world of Deadlands.
Huckster magic is predominantly utilitarian in nature; there are some offensive spells, such as the beloved Soul Blast, but mostly it adds a lot of versatility to what the huckster can do. They're even capable of magical healing.
Mechanically, a huckster needs both 1 level in Academia: Occult (representing the studying of magic they did in order to figure out the secrets of the huckster) and at least one level in the Aptitude of Hexslingin' before they can take Arcane Background: Huckster. As Hexslingin' is their skill to actually try and cast hexes, they need to get this good and high.
Hucksters have their own sourcebook, "Hucksters and Hexes", which expands drastically upon their lore and their available hexes. It also adds the concept of "Tricks", the huckster equivalent to cantrips; small spells that are easy to pull off. Unless you accidentally grab a bigger manitou than you expected. "Hexarcana" adds even more new spells, especially those favored by the rare Metal Mages - Huckster Mad Scientists.
The other most famous Arcane Background of the Weird West, the Mad Scientist is the Deadlands Artificer. Unlike the other mystics of the setting, mad scientists rarely, if ever, actually know they're working magic. That's because they take the subtle approach to sorcery. A mad scientist has one or or more manitou partners, which whispers mad insight to them in their dreams or as they sit around thinking. This, combined with the superfuel known as Ghost Rock, lets them build devices and machines that shouldn't be possible under the limitations of the background technology - these are the guys who put the steampunk in the setting's cattlepunk.
As such, mad scientists need a lot of time to work, so making shit on the fly is pretty risky business. The precise step-by-step process is "Concoct the Theory - Devise a Blueprint - Gather the Components - Construct the Device".
Mechanically, a mad scientist has one of the biggest lists of requirements of any Arcane Background. You need both the Mad Science Aptitude (to design devices) and the Tinkerin' Aptitude to actually build them. You should also have at least one level in a Science concentration, such as General, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering or Physics; this is both flavorful and useful - your ability to device Blueprints is much easier if you understand the basic science behind the intended device (lowering the TN from 9 to 5), and if you're an expert in that field (Aptitude level 5+), you gain bonus cards when trying to devise the device.
Mad Scientists suffer two major drawbacks; the first is that drawing the Black Joker whilst devising a Blueprint can drive the mad scientist insane, as the manitou's "help" is too awful for their mind to bear. The second is that all devices they build have a mechanic called Reliability, which is how likely they are to actually work instead of shutting down, misfiring, or blowing up.
Introduced in the sourcebook "Smith & Robards", Alchemists are mad scientists who have turned their back on the typical mechanical sciences to instead focus on the chemical. Or alchemical, rather. These Mad Scientists focus on developing potions, ointments and elixirs (the preferred general term) that affect whatever they are poured onto or into in miraculous ways. They still receive inspiration from the manitou, and they still rely on Ghost Rock; the foundation of all alchemical elixirs is "Philosopher's Stone", a carefully heated dose of powdered Ghost Rock mixed with human blood.
Alchemy is more of a subsystem to Mad Science than a unique Arcane Background. Alchemists just take the Science: Alchemy Aptitude and the Mad Scientist Arcane Background, and they're done; no need for the Mad Science Aptitude, because Science: Alchemy is what they roll when devising a formula. This means you can easily branch out from conventional mad science to alchemy by taking the Aptitude at a later date.
Introduced in "Lost Angels", Patchwork Science is the Deadlands version of Fleshcrafting. There's not a lot to say about this, because it's presented as something exclusive to evil NPCs rather than a PC tool - the Mad Science equivalent to Black Magic. Its also rather underwhelming in its presentation, focusing entirely on the construction of Flesh Golems and not on the broader possibilities of applying Mad Science to Biology. After all, Broken Ones exist in the Weird West, with Animal Men - mad science fusions of human and beast - being presented in the first "Rascals, Varmints & Critters", and the mechanical augmentations from "The Collegium" offer perfect inspiration for a bio-tech enhancement focus.
Still, mechanically, a patchwork scientist needs the Medicine: Surgery Aptitude to go with their Mad Scientist Arcane Background; this represents their having the actual skills needed to assemble their unholy patchwork golems. It's also flavorful to have the Medicine: Veterinary and Trade: Animal Husbandry Aptitudes too, as many patchwork scientists start with animals before moving on to people.
The Deadlands equivalent to a Cleric, the Blessed are individuals of such strong spirituality and such dedication to the teachings of their faith that the Man Upstairs actually rewards them with the power to do miracles. Still, even the Blessed don't score a free lunch; they don't risk the soul-damaging attentions of the manitou like hucksters or mad scientists do, but they have to stay true to their faith. Committing sins against their religion weakens their powers, and can even strip them of their right to perform miracles entirely - sort of like the Paladin, really.
A blessed needs the Faith Aptitude for whatever religion they believe in and the Arcane Background: Blessed. That's it, simple as. Invoking Miracles just requires a Faith roll.
As you might expect, Blessed Miracles are focused predominantly on protecting and healing folks, with a smattering of evil-smiting powers like Exorcism.
The sourcebook "Fire & Brimstone" talks heavily about the blessed and the religions of the Weird West, expands the blessed's array of Miracles, and also introduces the concept of Gifts; permanently active minor personal blessings that indicate the blessed's good standing with the Man Upstairs, and Blessings; epic-level miracles only available to blessed with at least 6 levels in Faith who partake in truly heroic actions - namely, the defeat of major abominations and the tale-tellin' needed to cleanse their Fear Levels.
The Indian equivalent to the Blessed, Shamans use various forms of Rituals (which are treated as different Concentrations for the Ritual Aptitude) to invoke the Favors of the nature spirits. This means that, unlike the Blessed, they can sometimes accidentally call up manitou, who will tear a metaphysical chunk out of them if the shaman fails an opposed Spirit check.
It goes without saying, but this Arcane Background is pretty much exclusive to American Indian characters. If you really want to play a non-Indian shaman, your Marshal has every right to expect both a good backstory for how you came to learn shamanism and mechanical reinforcement of this bond to a foreign culture, such as the 3 point Gone Native Edge introduced in Ghost Dancers, the Kemosabe Edge (maybe even at a higher point value than the normal 2 point version), the Paleskin Edge, or the Injun Half-Breed Hindrance.
A shaman performs Rituals like Dancing, Fasting, Maiming, Scarring, Tattoing, etc, to generate Appeasement Points. These serve as a kind of mana, and are spent to invoke the Favors (powers) of the spirits. Favors themselves are, as of
The Shaman is covered in more detail in the Indian sourcebook "Ghost Dancers", which heavily reworks the Shaman. Firstly, it introduces a new Edge called Guardian Spirit, which it mandates Shamans to have. Secondly, it divides Favors into different styles of "Medicine" - think of these as the Deadlands equivalent to the Magic Schools or Cleric Domains of Dungeons & Dragons. Every Guardian Spirit has one or more styles of Medicine associated with it; Shamans can readily learn their Guardian Spirit's Medicine (or "Favored Medicine"), but they can't learn other forms of Medicine anywhere near so easily.
The "Hexarcana" sourcebook adds 3 new Guardian Spirits, Butterfly, Dog and Thunderbird, and assorted new Favors.
The Blessing Medicine Way is focused on property, luck and chance.
The Earth Medicine Way is focused on the spirits of nature as a whole.
The Ghost Medicine Way is the dominion of sorcerers and warlocks; it is what the Indians consider "evil magic" - though some are willing to use it under the principle of fighting fire with fire. This means that Shamans count each Ghost Medicine Favor as a bonus point of Grit when determining if they come back as Harrowed. The downside? If they come back, then their manitou has automatic Dominion, and they need to win an opposed Spirit role or their soul is cast out of their own body, leaving their corpse permanently under the manitou's control!
The Trickster Medicine Way seeks to use trickery and deception to expand consciousness and bring understanding.
The Visionseeking Medicine Way focuses on more directly interacting with spirits as a whole, and is perhaps closest to the kind of magic wielded by the Blessed.
The War Medicine Way focuses on enhancing the abilities of warriors and combatants, granting them victory in battle.
The Guardian Spirits of the Shamans consist of:
- Bear (Earth)
- Buffalo (Visionseeking & Blessing)
- Coyote (Trickster)
- Crow (Trickster)
- Eagle (Visionseeking)
- Elk (Blessing)
- Owl (Ghost)
- Raven (War & Ghost)
- Snake (Visionseeking)
- Spider (Ghost)
- Turtle (Blessing)
- Wolf (War)
- Butterfly (Trickster)
- Dog (Earth)
- Thunderbird (Visionseeking & War)
One of the many ways in which the West is Weird is that the Aztecs have survived in hidden valleys in South America. And whilst most of them want a murderous revenge on the White Man, not all of them think the paleskins need to be obliterated. As such, "South o' the Border" includes rules for playing Aztec Indians, including their own take on Shamans.
Insted of having animal totems or guardian spirits, Aztec priests worship a specific god. PC Aztec priests should come from the faiths that don't practice human sacrifice; Quetzalcoatl (the god of learning, culture, wisdom and wind), Tlazolteotl (the goddess of earth, sin and cleansing), Heuheucoyotl (a trickster god), Ometecuhtli (a creator god), Patecatl (the god of medicine and healing), Xoxchipilli (the god of pleasure, games and frivolity) and Xochiquetal (the goddess of flowers & craftsmen).
Aztec priests can't use the Animal Spirit, Sacrifice, Spirit Song, Sweat Lodge or Tattoo Rituals to gain Appeasement Points - these aren't part of the Aztec faith, so they mean nothing to the gods they worship.
Fasting Aztec priests also forego bathing whilst they undertake this Ritual; the stink gives them a -2 penalty to Persusasion rolls against non-Aztecs.
Aztec priests regularly offer blood to the deities - it's the cornerstone of their faith, after all. But this doesn't work the same as the normal Maiming ritual. Instead, this is replaced with Ritual: Bloodletting. Bloodletting functions like Maiming, but inflicts a Light Wond, Heavy Wound or Serious Wound instead of causing permanent damage. The greater the wound, the easier it is to earn their god's attention and the more Appeasement points they earn. That said, they must forgo magical healing of their wound for Bloodletting to actually count.
Aztec priests can also only use the Painting Ritual to create permanent paintings (murals or codices) rather than temporary ones; sand painting is a tradition of the North American Indian tribes.
These mechanical traits add up to sufficient differences that, whilst gaining Appeasement and invoking Favors functions the same for Aztec Priests as it does for Indian Shamans, "Aztec Priest/Aztec Shaman" is treated as a unique Arcane Background.
It should go without saying, but trying to play a non-ethnic Aztec Priest should be even more firmly discouraged than doing it for a non-ethnic Shaman. It's not technically impossible, but many Marshals may have issues believing the background of such characters.
Originating from the "Lost Angels" sourcebook, Anahuac is the bastard child of the original Aztec religion and the Catholic religion forced upon the South American Indian tribes by their Spanish conquerors. Spiritually, it's closest to Voodoo (see below), in that whilst it has some Christian trappings, it's still fundamentally invoking the powers of the Aztec gods. Unlike Voodoo, Anahuac hasn't pushed away its Christian cloak yet, and only someone who is both proficient in Nahuatl (the ancient Aztec language, which replaces Latin in Anahuac rites) and theology has a chance of recognizing what is going on.
What this means is that, whilst Anahuac uses the basic mechanics for shamans to gain Appeasement and perform favors, with the unique Group Ritual and Ceremony mechanics, they also have to worry about Sinnin' and the resultant Loss of Faith issues that plague the blessed!
Anahuac priests use their own unique set of Rituals and Favors, rather than using the Medicine mechanics. They also have Patron Saints, which function almost exactly like Guardian Spirits, apart from restricting access to Favors.
Anahuac is pretty much exclusive to mestizos; you could justify a non-mestizo practitioner, but as with a non-Indian shaman, your Marshal has every right to expect a good backstory and the Kemosabe Edge to represent you making enough of a bond with the mestizo to be inducted into their faith.
What else can we say? What Deadlands calls the Enlightened, Dungeons & Dragons calls the Monk. This is a kung-fu master right out of a Wuxia film; you might not get the flashy ki attacks of certain high fantasy games, but you still get lots of badass martial arts trick, up to and including being able to grab bullets out of the air. This is one of the most overtly offensive Arcane Backgrounds in the Weird West, but fortunately it's also one of the subtlest. No real need to worry about being mistaken for a witch here!
Unlike the shaman and its variants, the Enlightened isn't overtly racially restricted. Still, Marshals will probably expect a good background and probably also the 2-point Kemosabe Edge if you want to be a non-Chinese martial artist; you gotta have some reason why your white man was allowed to learn the secret martial arts of the Orient!
To make an Enlightened, start with Martial Arts Training Edge, and then Fightin': (Martial Arts Style) Aptitude, to represent the basic knowledge of unarmed ass-kickery. Then, you take the Arcane Background: Enlightened and the Aptitude Ch'i to represent your aptitude to channel mystical energy through your body and your limbs.
Being Enlightened first appeared in "The Great Maze", and was then touched up for "Hexarcana".
Yet another religion-based Arcane Background, the Voodooist (conjure doctor, mambo, houngan, whichever you prefer) is a full-on spellcasting Voodoo Priest. Endemic to New Orleans, Voodooists are an odd mixture of Wizard and Cleric in nature. Whilst their spells are mostly clerical in nature, they take a long time to cast and require planning, thought, and preparation to use properly. Especially because Voodooists have a much easier time performing their magic in specially prepared ritual shrines or on the sacred ground of humfors (Voodoo polytheistic temples, basically).
Becoming a Voodooist requires levels in Faith: Voodoo, the Arcane Background: Voodoo, and the Aptitude of Conjurin' to actually cast spells.
Needless to say, if you're not Afro-American, you need a good background to explain how you learned to talk to the Loa. Kemosabe isn't required, but definitely is flavorful.
Voodoo is covered in the sourcebook "Hexarcana".
First appearing in the "Law Dogs" sourcebook, where they were called Hexslingers, Shootists were updated in "Lone Stars: The Texas Rangers". These are the gish of the Weird West; huckster-gunslingers who use huckster methodology to force manitou into powering up their guns. Whilst they have their own array of unique hexes, shootists can still learn huckster hexes - and vice versa.
Becoming a shootist requires the Arcane Background: Shootist, and the Aptitudes of Academia: Occult and Shootist - this latter aptitude is just another name for the Hexslingin' Aptitude, and a "dual-schooled" shootist can use it for both. Mechanically, they function identically to hucksters, save for a few minor tweaks - most prominently, shootist hexes manifest themselves as weird energy crackling over the shootist's gun, which is easy enough to play off as the gun itself being some fancy newfangled shootin' iron cooked up by a mad scientist. Shootists who learn huckster hexes do have the cards appear when casting those hexes.
It probably goes without saying, but shootist hexes tend to focus on amping up the shootist's gunplay skills or enchanting their bullets, such as making flying led function like silver shot or blasting multiple targets with one bullet. As such, they tend to be much easier to pull off than regular huckster hexes, if less spectacular in their effect.
The darkest grey hat you can play in the Weird West, a Blood Mage is the Deadlands equivalent of a warlock. These hombres hail from families that have dabbled in dark magic for generations, steeping their lineage in sin through obscene rituals, incest, demonic interbreeding and worse until black magic wove itself into their very blood. A blood mage can draw magical power from their very essence, using it in very different ways to the more common hucksters running around the Weird West.
By default, the blood mages of the Weird West are tied to the Whateleys, one of the nastiest and most twisted families in the Deadlands world. But your Marshal can surely make-up their own corrupt and twisted families for more unique blood mage backgrounds. Just rename Whateley Blood to Unholy Lineage or some such, change the Language: Welsh requirement to whatever's appropriate, and you're good to go.
Becoming a Blood Mage requires the Whateley Blood Edge and the Aptitudes Academia: Occult, Blood Magic, and Language: Welsh. Of these, Blood Magic is the Aptitude you use to cast your spells.
Blood mages fuel their spells through Strain, much like the Enlightened. This represents the sapping of vitality sacrificed in exchange for raw magical power. In fact, they don't need to directly cut themselves to cast spells, although the Faustian Deal spell lets them bleed themselves to replenish their Strain by sacrificing Wind. Also, they have to utter a few words of power in their ancestral tongue (Welsh, for Whateleys) - this may not be as obvious as the huckster's cards, but is a pretty obvious tell for paranoid folk.
Like hucksters or black mages, however, blood mages aren't risk-free when they cast their spells; sometimes, they let loose more power than they intended, leading to a nasty little surge of juice called Reflux. This happens when they go Bust on a blood mage spell, and can result in everything from the luckless sod instantly melting into a puddle of green goo to them instead managing to snatch success from the jaws of failure and cast the spell successfully. Eve if they survive, they pick up a point of Corruption, which is hard to shake off and will slowly convert them into a servant of the Reckoners - just like the vampire & werewolf PC options.
Blood mages show up in the sourcebook "The Black Circle: Unholy Alliance".
A Harrowed blood mage uses Wind to cast instead of Strain; successfully cast spells draw off +1 Wind, and failed spells cost 1 Wind anyway, representing how much they struggle to pull energy from their dead blood.
Deadlands: Hell on Earth
These heretical radiation priests have rebelled against the murderous Cult of Doom, they wield their radiation magic to protect the Wastes from their terrible brethren; all the while searching for a mutant messiah called the “Harbinger”.
Relevant Books - Hell on Earth, Children of the Atom, City o' Sin.
The inheritors of the Weird West’s Mad Scientists, the Junkers have set out to wrestle techno-arcane power from the spirits who abandoned their predecessors.
Relevant Books - Hell on Earth, Junkman Cometh.
Trained in secretive academies by the military, and sent to fight in a terrible war on Faraway, they returned to Earth to find it ruined by the Horsemen. Those that remained on Earth were used as spies and assassins in the Last War.
Relevant Books - Hell on Earth, Brainburners.
Styling themselves after the knights of old, the Templars roam the Wastes brining salvation to those that they deem worthy of their blade and their faith given powers.
Relevant Books - Hell on Earth, The Last Crusade.
Through spiritual discipline the Enlightened focus Chi though their martial arts.
Relevant Books - Waste Warriors.
In the wake of Judgement Day new and twisted spirits of the land rose to prominence, and new Shamans stepped forward to deal with them.
Relevant Books - Spirit Warriors.
A practitioner of the subtle alchemical arts contained within How To Serve Your Man.
Relevant Books - The Wasted West.
Deadlands: Lost Colony
The Grifter is the spiritual and literal heir to the Huckster. See, during that nebulous period of time between the Weird West and the Noir era, both the Union and the Confederacy governments decided that Hucksters were too dangerous to allow to run free and too unreliable to be used themselves - the former mostly because of the latter. As such, they executed every Huckster they could find and rounded up every copy they could get their hands on of Hoyle's Book of Games.
Fastforward to Jack Emmert, a drifting hustler who managed to score a beat-up copy of Hoyle's Book of Games from one of his marks. Being a clever man, he puzzled out that the book was basically a wizard's instruction manual. He then found out first-hand that the Texas Rangers didn't like people using that book when he had to escape them, narrowly evading them by fleeing into the sovereign territory of the Coyote Confederation.
Here, he studied the methods of the shamans, and puzzled out that what both manitou and spirits wanted was personal sacrifice. Long story short, he invented a whole new style of magic; embracing one's personal vice and using indulgence to fuel magic. Thus was born the art of grifting.
These guys are basically Warlocks sworn to Famine. They choose a single defining "bad habit" that is addictive (physically or psychologically) and somehow self-destructive; most grifters use habits like gambling & lying, or substance abuse (drugs, smokes, liquor, etc), but theoretically you could have a pornomantic grifter who charges up by casual sex. Regular indulgence in this vice is needed to fuel their mojo; a a grifter who doesn't indulge at least once daily finds their recovery of magical energy slows to an absolute crawl.
Of course, using magic like this isn't without its risks. If a grifter gets a 1 on both their Spellcasting and Wild Die, then they suffer Overdose, a surge of built-up bad mojo that sweeps through their body and ravages them. If they're unlucky, they pick up either a psychological craving for their vice, a supernatural ravaging of the body in some way related to that vice, or both. Inevitably, when their body can't take it anymore, this backlash will kill 'em.
Yeah, you can be a Harrowed Grifter. In this case, you're not off the hook; the potent Overdoses will erode your maximum Dominion, meaning that whilst it can't kill you, it can give the manitou in your head permanent control.
As the Weird West was won, and the world settled down, the manitou responsible for whispering to scientists changed up their game plan. As governments strengthened their positions, big business became more lucrative - and strengthened their position by snapping up as many mad scientists as they could to gain exclusive possession of their gizmos.
With science now controlled by corporations, most of the manitou gave up haunting individual inventors. Instead, they swarmed think-tanks and focused their attention there. But, not all of them moved with the times.
The Patent Scientist is the Noir-age descendant of the Mad Scientists of the Weird West. With only one or two muses to whisper in their dreams, their powers of invention are far weaker - on the other hand, their minds are far more stable, and though all are quirky, they don't have to worry about going as bat-shit bonkers as their predecessors did.