Monday, April 16, 2012

Review - Deadlands Player's Guide

Product: Deadlands Player's Guide - Explorer Edition
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Authors: Shane Lacy Hensley, B.D. Flory, and Matt Cutter
Price: $14.99

Pinnacle Entertainment Group launched another in the line of their flagship setting, Deadlands. This release contains all the information you need to generate a character, from concept to creation.

Deadlands is a genre mashup of the Wild West, Horror, and Steampunk settings called the Weird West. It features card shark spell casters, mad scientist inventing infernal devices, quick draw gun men, fire and brimstone preachers that can call down actual fire and brimstone, and native American shamans on first name basis with their nature spirits. Oh, and lots of Kung-fu action as well.

The eight-time, award-winning setting began as it's own rule set back in 1996. It's been ported to d20 and GURPs, and finally settled into the Savage Worlds system with Deadlands:Reloaded. The most recent rule books, Player's Guide and Marshal's Handbook, come in the oh-so-convenient explorer's edition format.

So what makes the Weird West so weird? Perhaps a little alternate history is in order.

The Civil War ground on and on as brother fought against brother. As in our history, Lee lost at Gettysburg but that's where the world of Deadlands diverges from our own. Lee's men escaped to regroup and continue the fight. Some say dead soldiers rose and fired at the Union troops covering Lee’s retreat. I’m sure that’s just an old wive’s tale though.

From that point forward, despite the Union's greater number of men and guns, no battle on either side was decisive. Eventually the two American Nations formed a wary truce. Sensing Union weakness, the Western territories broke away with the Native Americans forming two nations: the Sioux Nations to the North and the Coyote Confederation to the South. The Mormons turned Utah into the nation of Deseret, and California (at least what’s left of it) became an independent Commonwealth.

The Great Quake of ‘68 sank huge portions of California into the Pacific Ocean leaving a patchwork of mesas standing above the sea. Folks took to calling it 'The Maze'. The shattered land revealed a new mineral that gained the name ‘Ghost Rock’. It looked like coal but, when burned, gave off a ghostly white vapor and howled ‘like the Devil himself.’ Ghost Rock burned five times hotter and 100 times longer than coal.

Inventors soon discovered the Ghost Rock could be used in place of coke to create a steel that was lighter, stronger, and had a higher melting point than traditional steel. This lead to an explosion in engineering advances such as horseless carriages, rocket powered flying machines, and fully automatic weapons all made of Ghost Steel. The rock was also used as a catalyst and reagent to create new chemical concoctions including tonics, salves, and elixirs.

The Confederacy was the first to make use of the new devices in war. The Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, attacked Washington D. C. with steam powered tanks, flamethrowers, and other exotic devices. The attack was so devastating that the Confederates temporarily seized the Union Capitol.

The Confederate devices soon malfunctioned and their supply of Ghost Rock ran out but President Ulysses S. Grant realized that future wars would be fought with the power of the miracle mineral. Although Ghost Rock deposits were numerous, the greatest source was in the California Maze. Grant offered an exclusive transport contract to anyone that could build a transcontinental railroad to California. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the same the following day. While the American Civil War raged on, a new war began between the two nation’s railroad companies using hired armies. The Great Rail Wars had begun.

The year is 1879. Despite the truce, Agents of the Union and Confederacy fight a shadow war while the disputed territories of Kansas, Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma flare into armed conflict from time to time. The Indian nations strive to remain in control of their lands, vowing never to have the white man rule over them again. The Republic of Deseret, under President Brigham Young, holds it's own against the Union thanks to the powerful inventions of Darius Hellstromme. The Commonwealth of California is ruled from the City of Lost Angels under the leadership of the Reverend Ezekiah Grimme to the South and the Chinese Warlord city of Shan Fan to the North.


Character creation in Deadlands follows the typical Savage Worlds procedure with the following changes:
  1. The Guts skill is back - this was removed as a skill in Savage Worlds Deluxe edition but it is used in Deadlands.
  2. Grit - a new derived skill. You get one point of Grit per rank
  3. All characters in Deadlands are, or were once, human.
  4. All PCs speak English unless you have the Outsider Hindrance.
  5. Worst Nightmare - Each player must write down their character’s worst nightmare. It could be very important later.
Your Deadlands characters usually fall into one of the following archetypes. Though the list is far from complete, new players can use it for ideas.
  • Blessed - Religious Spellcaster
  • Bounty Hunter - Gun for Hire
  • Commoner - tradesman, town folk, farmer, or rancher
  • Deserter - you were branded a coward and traitor by the military you left behind
  • Drifter - you never put down roots and do odd jobs, often involving a gun.
  • Escort - you make a living selling your bodily wares
  • Explorer - there’s always something over the next horizon and you aim to see what it is
  • Grifter - a con man making a living by liberating other’s money into your own pocket.
  • Huckster - card wielding magic user.
  • Immigrant - you are a stranger in a strange land. 
  • Indian Brave - You hail from the Sioux Nations or the Coyote Confederation and are fiercely loyal to your tribe
  • Indian Shaman - Magic-using spiritual leader of an Indian tribe 
  • Law Dog - Marshal, Sheriff, or Texas Ranger
  • Mad Scientist - You know the ways of Ghost Rock and use it to create infernal devices.
  • Muckraker - A reporter determined to share the truth
  • Outlaw - you have a price on your head and the law on your trail
  • Prospector - You seek coal, silver, gold, and ghost rock.
  • Soldier - you serve in the army of either the Confederacy or the Union.
Like all Savage Settings, Deadlands comes complete with additional Hindrances, Edges, Arcane Backgrounds, and Powers. Here’s a partial list of each.

  • Ailin’ - You’re a sickly cuss.
  • Bad Dreams - You're tormented sleep gives you one less bennie (Fate Chip) per session.
  • Grim Servant o’ Death - People die around you a lot. Sometimes it’s your friends.
  • Heavy Sleeper - You can sleep through almost anything, including your own death
  • Lyin’ Eyes - You don’t lie well
  • Old Ways Oath - You forsake modern devices
  • Slowpoke - You don’t move so quick
  • Tenderfoot - You aren’t very Gritty
  • Thin Skinned - You suffer an additional wound penalty
  • Wanted - Everyone wants to be wanted, unless it’s John Q. Law doing with wanting. You’re on the run and likely to wind up in jail.
  • Arcane Backgrounds - covered later in this article
  • Veteran o’ the Weird West - You enter the game as a Seasoned character but pay a price
  • Duelist - Expert gun slinger in a mano a mono setting.
  • Hip-Shooting - You can fan the hammer of a pistol to achieve autofire-like results.
  • Martial Arts - kung fu action grip
  • Rebel Yell - able to intimidate any Yankee in earshot
  • Card Sharp - You have a way with a deck of cards
  • Reputation - no, your not 'that kind of girl'. Folks know of you. You get bonuses to intimidate.
  • True Grit - Additions to your Grit score
  • Agent - Federal agent in charge of making sure the horrors of the Weird West are contained.
  • Scout - Your good at navigating around the Weird West
  • Snakeoil Salesman - You could sell salt to a Mormon and Buffalo hides to Indians. You get bonuses to non-combat Persuasion rolls
  • Soldier - You wear the uniform of either the CSA or USA army. Rank has privileges but also responsibilities
  • Tale Teller - You spin a good yarn and it helps folks get over their fear. This becomes really important the more you know about the Weird West.
  • Texas Ranger - Like a Federal Agent, you slay and contain the horrors the inhabit the Weird West. If you can't shoot then you recruit it.
  • Wilderness Man - You're adept at living on the wilderness and surviving nature's fury
  • Fate’s Favored - You're luckier than the average cow poke.
  • Knack - You were born under a lucky star that gives you a little something special. 
  • Behold A Pale Horse - you have a mount with special abilities. Hi Ho Silver!
  • Damned - Death will not hold you. It'll kiss you, give you an evil hitchhiker, and send you back. You're doomed to become a Harrowed.
  • Fast As Lightning - You're really, really quick on the draw.
  • Right Hand of the Devil - You're weapon is a potent threat. Just don't lose it.

Arcane Backgrounds

The Blessed - The Miracles Arcance Background works differently in this Savage Setting. The Blessed don't use power points and don't receive new powers. They have access to all the Faith-based powers at any time. They simply pray to bring them into effect. The higher rank the power is, the more difficult it is to cast. Also, on a failure, the Blessed gains a Fatique level. On a critical failure they have a 'Crisis of Faith' and lose a die in their spell casting skill.

Voodoo - A Blessed can choose to be a Voodoo priest/priestess. They prepare their powers in advance casting them into charms and fetishes. This is a limitation when compared to the Blessed but Voodooist have access to more abilities and aren't bound by the Sin table they way the Blessed are. Voodoo priests gain their powers from powerful spirits called Ioa and must spend hours in rituals in order for thier charms to work.

Hucksters - Magic was still alive and well in the Dark Ages. For some reason it began to fade around the Age of Reason but all was not forgotten. In 1740 a fellow by the name of Edmund Hoyle traveled Europe collecting tidbits here and there. Some of it still worked. Rather than be burned at the stake for witchcraft, he buried the details in a book called Hoyle’s Book of Games. You can still buy it today but it's secrets have long been lost to an editor's pen.

In the world of Deadlands, all the little bits of knowledge Hoyle learned on his journey began working again. The key to power was dealing with creatures Hoyle called Jokers. These mischievous spirits could be bound to do the magician’s will if bested in a game of wits. The Indians called the Jokers 'Manitous' and warn against the games the Huckster's play to control the creatures.

Still, folks in the Weird West are a little touchy about witches and warlocks so  Hucksters must keep their spell casting a secret. He or she usually hides the spell in the form of a card trick or some other slight of hand.

Hucksters work just like characters with the Magic Arcane Background in the rule book. However, if the character is out of power points he can deal with the devil, so to speak, to cast a spell anyway. Like most things in Deadlands, this is done with a card deck where you actually deal a hand with the Marshal to determine whether the spell works or not.

Shamans - Indian spiritualist who practice magic through nature spirits and avoid Manitous whenever they can. Mad Scientist deal directly with Manitous, though most deny it. Hucksters play games of wit with them to gain power. Voodooist deal with both Manitous and other spirits calling them Ioa. Shamans however only ever deal with the nature spirit who are pretty ambivalent concerning the fate of man. In order to get anything out of them, the Shaman must make a sacrifice of some sort of a promise to follow the nature spirit's way. In any event all of these spirits dwell in a place the Indians call the Hunting Ground.

Shamans must perform regular sacrifices to gain assistance from the nature spirits. This can be something simple like a period of fasting or a ritualistic dance or something more permanent like ritualistic scarring. The greatest of these sacrifices is the Old Ways Oath in which the Shaman forsakes any modern devices in favor of items used in the tribes past.

Mad Scientist - Or New Scientist as they preferred to be called, provide the world with incredible new devices. Unfortunately, in the hands of a novice, they often explode in dramatic effect. Mad Scientist use the Weird Science rules from Savage Worlds with a few changes: They start with more power points and every new power gives them a new psychiatric challenge, i.e. they eventually go mad.

Some say this is due to their intimate dealings with Ghost Rock, a mineral from Hell itself and that the sound of tortured souls being released during combustion drives them mad. Other’s state that some sort of fumes or chemical reaction must be the cause. In either case, if your mad scientist lives long enough, they eventually go mad.

Chi Mastery - Chinese immigrants to California brought with them stories of the Kung-fu masters who were capable of superhuman feats. As with most legends in the Weird West, this one is true. Chi Mastery works like Super Powers from the Savage Worlds rules except the Kung-fu master must also be a martial artist. Remember, my Kung-fu is superior!

New Powers
  • Exorcism - remove those pesky demonic hitchhikers
  • Gambler - gives you an additional fate chip
  • Hunch - get a glimpse into the past
  • Inspiration - remove a level of fear from an area
  • Mind Rider - see and hear what the spell’s target experiences
  • Sanctify - keeps supernatural creatures out.
  • Succor - removes fatigue 
  • Trinkets - create temporary, small objects
  • Wilderness Walk - move stealthily with no trace through the outdoors.
  • Windstorm - create tornadoes

Setting Rules

Grit - used to modify Guts trait tests. Remember, just because you don't lose you head and run doesn't mean you shouldn't run anyway.

Fate Chips - Deadlands uses poker parts as props. Rather than Bennies, the setting uses Fate Chips which are, in fact, poker chips. At the beginning of the game, the Marshal (Deadlands GM) places a bunch of White, Red, and Blue poker chips into the 'Fate Pot'. Each character draws out a number of chips equal to his starting Bennies. The Marshal draws out one per PC. During the game these chips are used like Bennies with a few twists. Red Fate Chips can be used to roll and additional d6 and add to any trait roll but the Marshal gets to draw another chip out of the pot for the bad guys. Blue chips are like Red chips but the Marshal doesn't get an extra draw from the Fate Pot for the bad guys. White chips work just like standard Bennies. There's one other type of chip called a legend chip. They're very special and come when you defeat great evil.

Gunfights - There are over five pages with new gun fight setting rules which simulates the action in your favorite wild west shootout movies. Once again, this is very poker based with cards used to determine the fate of the duelists.

No Man's Land

The information below is meant for those with Arcane Backgrounds, possess the Edge 'Veteran of the Weird West', or serve in either the Texas Rangers or The Agency of the United States.

What makes the West Weird? Shamans tell of a time when malevolent and mischievous spirits called Manitous roamed a spiritual realm called the Hunting Ground. These spirits threatened to cast the world into darkness and fear.

The American Indian tribes took action. They gathered together their most powerful medicine men to beseeched other spirits, called nature spirits, to bind the Manitous. The nature spirits agreed but the bargain came at a great price. The medicine men had to sacrifice themselves to seal the bargain.

The shamans willingly left this realm and the Manitous were locked away deep in the Hunting Grounds but the price was greater than the Indian tribes imagined. The nature spirits used themselves to lock the Manitous away. All magic, including Shamanistic magic, faded leaving the tribes defenceless against the arrival of the white man.

At least that’s the way the Indians tell it.

Regardless of whether you believe them or not, on July 4th, 1863 the world changed. The dark gods returned after a long absence bringing magic and monsters back to the world.

These malevolent beings kept the Civil War going of hate's sake alone. Fear permeated the Weird West and the fear seemed to feed on itself. The more people lived in terror the greater the terrors became.

The Reckoning, as arcane folks called it, changed the world forever. The nature spirits returned with the release of the Manitous. The nature spirits said the deal was broken and all bets were off. The dead walked the Earth again, dragons appeared in the great California Maze, and monsters roamed the Great Plains. The new fundament, Ghost Rock, slowly drove people insane and the new infernal devices brought death and destruction on a grand scale. Evil is afoot and it seeks nothing less than to turn the Earth into a living hell.

Most people don't believe any of that nonsense. The infernal devices created with Ghost Rock are just a new form of science. The monsters that terrorize the West are just new species that no one had ever seen before. The dead that walk the Earth are, well, somethings are harder to explain than others. Still, most people turn a blind eye to the things they can't explain.

Both the Union Agency and the Confederate Texas Rangers know things, dark things, are on the fringes of society and pose a great threat to man kind. Both groups believe keeping the darkness a secret is best for everyone while they go around wiping out evil where ever they find it. They also try to remove all traces of any evil force or creature to keep rumors down. Fear feeds the darkness so it's better to keep everyone in the dark about things that go bump in the night. You would think this would breed a cooperative relationship between the two but twenty years of war tends to breed a wee bit of contempt and hatred for the other side.

The Harrowed

Some heroes don't know when to stay dead. The Harrowed rise from the grave and live a life of psychic battle with an evil hitchhiker who wants nothing more than to take over the hero's body for good.

Manitous need to bond to a mortal soul in order to wreak havoc in the mortal world. Their favorite hosts are those people of notoriety who die in their prime. They love turning a beloved town marshal into an unholy terror. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, the Harrowed awake in control of their body. Over time, the Manitou attempts to psychically dominate the Harrowed until it can take over the body for good.

Harrowed have their own set of Edges to pick from including things like Claws, Soul Eater, and Whither. They also can't be killed in the normal way. Like many undead, they can only be killed by destroying their brain.

One of the more interesting aspects of a Harrowed is the ability to Count Coup. Basically if a powerful supernatural creature dies nearby, the Harrowed can steal some of its life force to gain new powers and abilities. Some of these come with a curse so be careful what you're near when it dies.


Pinnacle's flagship product is back and in the affordable/convenient Explorer's Edition format. This setting is rich in detail and supplements. With the release of the The Player's Guide, you can get a taste of the setting to see if you like. If so, the Marshal's Handbook is only a small additional investment.

The Troll says 'check it out.'

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