|RPG published by
Pinnacle Entertainment Group
|Rule System||"Deadlands System" (original edition), D20 System (D20 edition), GURPS (of course there's a GURPS edition), Savage Worlds (modern edition)|
|Authors||Shane Lacy Hensley|
Gun toting Injuns? In my /tg/?
Deadlands describes both a game system and a campaign setting. The game system is waaaay out of print, whereas the campaign setting has won a shitload of awards and ported to many other generic RPG systems, so that's what people usually mean.
The Deadlands setting is a "Weird West" genre game, set in 1876 USA in that lost generation after the American Civil War. History is the same up until an event during the war called "the Reckoning". This occurred in July of 1863 when a bunch of durty Injuns, lead by a Sioux medicine man calling himself Raven, started up some mumbo-jumbo rain-dance to get rid of all the palefaces from Europe. They appealed to otherworldly spirits that called themselves "Reckoners," who thought it was a real nice 'n purty little land you got there, y'all don't mind iffen we move in? Y'all won't mind what we make this place nicer for us and ours, 'cause we like our home a little more haunted and hellish? Shure yew won't, mighty nice of y'all to invite us.
The Reckoners are fueled by darker emotions such as hate, dread, grief, frustration and especially fear. They can use this to make the local area more like their home, twisting trees into claws, altering mesas to look like towering ogres, and even making the sunshine dimmer. This makes the people who live there creeped out, which gives them more fuel to make the area more hellish to their tastes. With enough fear/hate/dread they can animate the dead or drive madmen into violent rampages, escalating the spiral of fear. Their ultimate goal is to raise the levels of unrest and fear worldwide to allow them to bodily step over into our world and take over.
The Civil War did not end in 1865, due to the influences of the Reckoners -- most notably when the dead at the Battle of Gettysburg rose and attacked the living of both armies -- so the nation is divided into the Republic and Confederate states, with disputed territories between. Federal Marshals from the North and Texas Rangers from the South try to deal with the eldritch horrors while hoping to keep them a secret from the general public, lest widespread panic give the Reckoners an opportunity to make things even worse. The Confederacy abolished slavery in 1865 in order to relieve its manpower shortage by getting the freed slaves to fight (this is based on actual proposals made by Confederate generals).
The otherworldly influences have made it easier for other spirits, called Manitou, to be dominated or negotiated with by shamans or magicians for power. These spirits may also possess the recently dead to either resurrect them into the Harrowed, walking dead under either the dead man's will or that of the Manitou. The Reckoners have also taught some men new sciences that can work in places made more like their home, sometimes fueled by an enigmatic ore known as ghost rock that burns hotter and longer than coal, giving some mad science flavour to your wild west so you can play an Artemus Gordon character if you want.
The setting is very well known for being unique and fleshed out, but it's also infamous for the setting's metaplot and, particularly, the obnoxious Official DMPC characters who drive that metaplot, like Stone, the unbeatable uber-evil Harrowed whose job is literally "wiping out all heroes so the Reckoners ultimately succeed".
Magic an' Monsters
As the cattlepunk/screampunk game of its time, Deadlands exploited its nature to provide distinctly fantastical archetypes alongside the expected cowboys, banditos, soiled doves, and so forth. Most of these were different flavors of souls blessed with magical abilities, others, were heroes of a more monstrous nature.
In the corebook, players are presented with:
- Huckster: A ramblin', gamblin' man with more than an ace up his sleeve. Illuminated into the arts of dealing with devils via the magical codes hidden in Hoyle's Book of Games, Hucksters are essentially the wizards of Deadlands, focused on magical offense and utility.
- Blessed: A Christian holy man (or woman) whose sheer faith is strong enough that some divine power has answered, giving them miraculous abilities. These guys are essentially the cleric of Deadlands, but they're not alone in that title.
- Mad Scientist: With demons secretly whispering advanced scientific formula to them as they sleep, these artificers may be somewhat lacking in the sanity department, and their gadgetry may not always work in a pinch, but their gizmos are a lot more acceptable and accessible than most forms of magic.
- Shaman: The Injun equivalent to the Blessed, albeit perhaps with a more druidic flavor to its spells.
- Harrowed: Dead hombres who find that death just didn't stick, these walking dead folks are essentially the Deadlands equivalent to Revenants, always struggling with a literal demon inside.
Other sourcebooks added their own additions to the list...
- Voodooist: The Voodoun equivalent of a Blessed or a Shaman, gaining magic through offering prayers to the benevolent loa.
- Anahuac: A mestizo religion mostly seen in California, this strange ritualistic magic is basically Aztec shamanism under an all-too-thin veneer of Catholic Christianity.
- Hexslinger: What do you get when a huckster decides he wants to use magic to bump up his shootin' skills? You get these guys, the warlock to the Huckster's wizard.
- Blood Mage: A member of a family with decidedly less than wholesome ancestry - the canon example is being a distant relation of the notorious Whateleys - who has the power to tap into arcane magic inherent in her own blood, for decidedly unsettling "dark gray" magic.
- Metal Mage: This one's a bit of a cheat; it's just a guy who took both the Huckster and the Mad Scientist arcane backgrounds, striving to combine magic and technology for greater efficiency in both.
- Enlightened: Any jerk can learn a bit of kung fu. These are the guys who take it up to levels you normally see in a wuxia movie, because hey, what's not to love about martial artists vs. cowboys?
- Scrapper: Mostly coming from Salt Lake City, these are bruisers so determined to take it up a notch that they actually went and got crude cybernetic implants and replacement limbs.
- Vampire: Well, what's a horror western game without the possibility of a repentant bloodsucking bandito?
- Werewolf: Or a savage man-beast to master the wilderness for you?
Mechanics in the Original System
Challenges were resolved using dice pools with exploding dice.
Playing cards were used often in the original game.
- Playing cards were drawn for character generation.
- Some spellcasters, called "hucksters", would make a skill roll to see how many playing cards they would draw, and the best poker hand they could make with these cards would be the power of the "hex" they were trying to cast; a metaphor for gambling with fate or spirits for the effect they want.
- Rolling for initiative determined how many cards everyone at the table would draw, which is also how many actions they can take during the exchange. The GM calls the ranks of cards from Ace of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, king... down to deuces to determine what order actions are taken.
Players were also given poker chips as Fate Chips. You could spend them during a session to get a bonus to a roll or to prevent injury, and any left over at the end were used the same as experience points in other systems. GMs were encouraged to award Fate Chips during a session for achieving quest goals and good role-playing... and to give the players plenty of reason to spend them before they could be used as experience points.
What became of Deadlands
After winning the Origin Award for Best Role-playing Rules of 1996, there was a tabletop minis game called "The Great Rails Wars", then AEG's collectable card game called "Doomtown", a Disk Wars spin-off called "Range Wars", a Mad-Max post-apocalypse sequel called "Hell On Earth", a sci-fi sequel called "Lost Colony", and then a genre-less generic set of rules called Savage Worlds. Yes, THAT Savage Worlds. The Savage Worlds ruleset eventually gave us "Deadlands Noir", an interquel that takes place after the taming of the Weird West in Deadlands but before everything was blown up into the Wasted Waste of Hell on Earth.
Deadlands currently spans a number of different game-lines, each of which represent different aspects of the same setting cosmology - kind of similar to how the Forgotten Realms got the Al-Qadim, The Horde, Maztica and Arcane Age spin-off settings. So, here's 1d4chan trying to straighten them all out for you.
Weird West: This unofficial title refers to the original Deadlands setting, taking place in the late 1800s during the height of the Wild West. What more needs to be said? This gets more confusing post-2021 due to the release of The Weird West, the new timeline that has displaced it - see below.
Hell on Earth: The first of the spin-off games, this is the Deadlands world in the post-apocalyptic reality of 2097, some 16 years after World War 3 led to the planet being blanketed with Ghost Rock-laced nuclear warheads, allowing the Reckoners to crawl out of the spirit world and start running rampant.
Lost Colony: Set in the same time-zone as Hell on Earth, this moves the action to the alien planet of Banshee, which humanity had been trying to colonize, Space Western style, before WW3 killed off everybody back home and left the survivors stranded.
Noir: The first setting to be launched completely under the Savage Worlds system, Noir is an interquel to Weird West and Hell on Earth/Lost Colony, taking place in the time period from the 1920s to the 1950s and showing how things led up to R-day in 2081. Interestingly, one fan of Deadlands Classic put out his own take on the interquel in the form of "Deadlands: Weird Wars", which is set in the late 1930s between the first and second world wars, years before Noir was a thing; his website with all his stuff is still up today, and you can find it [right over here].
Dark Ages: Announced in 2021, this setting covers games set in Europe during the Dark Ages of the Medieval period. Important because it sets up the retcon from Weird West to The Weird West.
The 2021 Revamp
In 2021, Pinnacle announced (published?) a brand new iteration of the classic Deadlands setting, still running under the Savage Worlds system, to replace the original classic Deadlands setting. Whilst there are some rules overhauls - for example, a return of the Metal Mage (multiclassed Huckster/Mad Scientist) and a new ability to play a Grey Hat in the form of an actual black magic-using Witch or Warlock - the big difference between this new iteration of Deadlands and the original is an assortment of retconned lore.
This new version is formally titled "Deadlands: The Weird West" - contrasting Deadlands Classic, where "The Weird West" was only printed on the spines of the books and not as a subheading like Hell on Earth or Lost Colony. The big difference between this and Classic in terms of lore is that the Reckoners plans have gone tits up in a fair few ways, diminishing their grip on the world and giving humanity more of a fighting chance. These changes are considerable, and include Lost Angels getting hit by a tidal wave that annihilated the abomination known as Reverend Grimmes and the worst of his cannibal cult, one of the two Stones being killed for real, and both Hellstromm and Raven deciding to go underground... oh, and the tiny little fact that the Confederated States of America are no longer a thing, as the Union managed to win a decisive victory at the Battle of Washington and use the momentum from that to break the Confederacy's back rather than stalemating, causing America to still be divided between two rival powers twenty years later.
All of these changes are actually worked into the setting's lore. This "Nu-Deadlands" and Deadlands Classic are linked by one of Deadlands' more infamous metaplot elements: time travel. The full details have yet to be revealed and are promised as being covered as part of the Dark Ages setting, but this is the gist of it: the infamous villain known as the Cackler, whom Pinnacle has been teasing about being important for years, is actually the first Harrowed - more than that, he's Arthur's archenemy Mordred from the Arthurian Mythos. For centuries, he's been trying to track down living descendants of his to reincarnate the spirit of his mother Morgana, and in this timeline, he succeeds in doing so. However, this ritual causes something called "The Morgana Effect", which causes ripples to flow backwards through time, which basically allowed a secret benevolent conspiracy called the Twilight Legion to actually interfere and foil some of the Reckoners' bigger, bolder plots, most notably causing the fall of the Confederacy, the death of Stone the Elder, and the flooding of Lost Angels.
Deadlands: The Weird West has been received about as well as Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition or Pathfinder Second Edition. The game's creator openly saying that the Confederacy was retconned due to real world politics just guaranteed controversy.