Welcome to a Spaghetti Western... With meat!
Who doesn't love a good Western? Okay, a lot of people. The genre is something of an acquired taste. I understand that. I've never been a huge fan of the Western. The older ones, the really old ones with singing cowboys and heroes in White Hats (that, by the way, is the origin of the phrase), are terrible to my modern sensibilities. The genre is hard to get into, but has a strange romance to it. There's something about that lone man with a gun and a mission that appeals to Americans. The times when things made a bit more sense. Or were more simple. It was a time of exploration and desperation. Of all the genres in media, the Western is the quintessential American genre. Except when they're mimicking Japanese Samurai epics. Seriously. Look that up.
|Sister Mary doesn't mess around|
But, many years ago, I stumble upon the Deadlands card game, Doomtown. My dad found a large box of the cards at a garage sale and thought I might like it. And, oh, did I. Eventually, I found out the card game (which will be reviewed in a Gone But Not Forgotten article before too long) was based on a RPG. After picking it up, I loved it. An original and interesting system, a new look at an Alternative History of the Civil War and the following Wild West era, and gave it a unique twist.
Since I love this game so much, you better hold on to your hats, cowpokes; this is going to be a long one. I couldn't hold myself back...
The system in the original books is a prototype of the current Savage Worlds system. If you're familiar with that, you're ahead of the class.
The basic mechanics of the system use a unique mix of playing cards and dice. Even to create your characters. You draw cards to get your stats, which generate points to buy Aptitudes, Edges, and get more from Hindrances. Instead of character classes, you buy the skills and advantages to make the kind of character you want. You can mix and match a bit. You could make a scientist that's also a bare-knuckle brawler. Or a gun fighter with mastery of historical poetry. It's really up to you.
As I mentioned, the system uses a mix of playing cards and dice and it starts with character creation. To build your character, you draw a dozen cards from a regular deck of cards (jokers in and Hoyle's strongly recommended). From those twelve, you select ten to keep. You convert the cards into a series of stats, with the cards' number telling you what type of die (d4, d6, d8, etc), while the suit of the card determines how many dice (2d6, 3d4, etc). Once you figure out what you have to work with, you have to assign them to your stats. As I'm sure you've figured out, there's ten stats, which are divided into “Corporeal” meaning the physical (Deftness, Nimbleness, Quickness, Strength, Vigor) and Mental (Cognition, Knowledge, Mien, Smarts, Spirit). When you're assigning those stats, you'll want to know what you want your character to do in the game. If you're looking to play a rough and tumble gunslinger, you'll be upping those Corporeal traits. If you want to play someone who can think his way around corners, you'll be upping the Mental stuff. One thing to know is that your points for skills are going to based on the die type of some of your Mental traits. Oh, and Spirit isn't a dump stat. Keep it at d6. At the very least.
Once you get done with your Traits, it's time to start working on your Edges and Hindrances. You can use the points you have for your skills to buy Edges, but I strongly suggest you just take some Hindrances to get some points. Edges are another way to focus your character, making him or him faster, more charismatic, Brawny, or you can select an Arcane Background (more on those later). Hindrances help you flesh out your character, is he Randy? Is he Wanted somewhere? Maybe he's Mean As A Rattler? Or could he be Loyal? Any points you don't use on Edges can be used on your skills, too. Nifty, huh?
Once you've got all this figured out, it's time to work on skills, or Aptitudes. While your Aptitudes are based on your Traits, you might be required to switch them around. Let me explain a bit. Let's say you want to do some “Shootin'” with a rifle. You put points into the Aptitude Shootin': Rifle, to a maximum of 5. Now, normally Shootin' is a Deftness Aptitude. If you have a Deftness of 2d6 (that's roughly human average by the way) and a Shootin' of 5, you'd roll 5d6. Your Trait determines the die type and the Aptitude rating determines how many dice you roll. Now, let's say you want to make a trick shot or something, so you'd have to use Cognition for it. If your Cognition is 1d8, you'd use 5d8 for the roll to see if you can figure out how to make the shot, then 5d6 to take the shot. Does that make sense?
If you're looking for more points, there's a great little Edge you can take. It's called Veteran of the Weird West. It costs you zero points and gives you 15 points to spend on your character. How cool is that? But, it comes at a cost. After you pick this Edge, your Marshal (the GM of the game) draws a card from a deck and compares it to a chart in the Marshal's Handbook and gets to mess up your character just a little bit. Isn't this fun?
Now, a little while ago, I mentioned “Arcane Backgrounds.” They're an edge you can take and there's a few of them. The folks who deal with devils are called Hucksters. Those “Practitioners of the New Science” (AKA mad scientists) have an Arcane Background. Native Shamans have their own. As do the servants of God, the Blessed. In addition to their Arcane Background, they also need to take a skill for their power. Each level in this skill lets them take a “spell” (except mad scientists). There's also source books for each one of these groups which give them new Edges to help focus their powers as well as give them a ton of new spells. If you want to play one of these, you really need to get these books, too.
Now, those are the Arcane Backgrounds in the core book, but there's a few more. In The Great Maze, they give you rules for the Chinese Fightin' Arts (Martial Arts to modern folks). In Bloody Ol' Muddy, there's rules for Voodooists. In Law Dogs, they introduced Shootists, which are a lot like Hucksters, but focus only on their guns. There's even rules for Anahuac Priests, and Aztec Priests. While powerful, these things are a point sink. Three points for the Arcane Background, up to five for the skill you need (Faith, Hexslinging, Ritual, etc), and more if you want to get Edges to make your magic user better. If you want to play one of these, you need to be really smart with those character points.
|One of Hoyle's Hucksters. Pick a card... Any card.|
Before I go on further, let's talk more about how the game works. First off all, you need at least two decks of cards to play: one for the posse (a “party” in other games) and one for the Marshal. When it comes to initiative, each member of the posse makes a roll. Then, you get cards based on your roll. The Marshal draws a few for the bad guys and then starts counting down from Ace and on down to Deuces, with the suit of the card figuring out who goes first if more that one person has a ten for example. If you draw a red joker, you get to go whenever you want. If the same card, the exact same card, is shown (as the Marshal is using his own deck) there's a roll off to see who goes first. If the posse draws the black joker, things suck for the player who drew it. In general, black jokers are bad news no matter what you're doing.
|Another Huckster. Looks like he didn't draw a joker...|
Now, let's talk about how you roll those dice. As you've seen, you get to roll multiple dice for any kind of roll. But, there's one big difference in how it works. When you're rolling for a stat, you roll all your dice and then take the HIGHEST of the dice. Let's say you've got 3d10 in Smarts and you're making a roll. You get a 5, a 2, and a 6, then your roll is 6. Got it? Good. When it comes to trying to figure out if you succeed or not, you're looking for a Target Number (or TN). Usually, the TN is 5, but it can go as low as 3 and as high as 13, odd numbers only. I hear you asking “How can you make a 5 if you're only rolling d4s?” Good question. The answer is “Exploding Dice.” Let's go back to our example. You roll your 3d10 and this time you get a 2, a 5, and a 10. Since you rolled the top number on the die, called an Ace, you get to roll another d10 and ADD it to the last one. So, let's say the second one is a 7. Now, your top die is a 17. Cool, right? It's important because you can also get a “Raise” on your roll. A raise is when you get 5 above the TN. If the TN is 9 and you get 14, you got a success and a raise. But, there is something that might confuse you. When it comes to damage, you add dice together, like you do in most other games (except if it's a stat check). So, if you pop off your Peacemaker, you roll 3d6 and add those three together. You know what's cool? Damage dice can explode, too. I've seen a Peacemaker do 30 damage thanks to that.
So, I'm sure you're wondering what happens when you do that damage, what it really does to folks. Unlike most games, like D&D for example, you don't have hit points. Instead, you have wounds and locations. And Wind for non-lethal and bleeding damage. The locations are your limbs (right and left arms and legs), your guts and you head. You can take up to five or six wounds in each location before it gets maimed. Of course, you can's exactly take a maiming wound to the head and keep breathing. Each level of wounds applies a negative modifier to your rolls and you have to see if you stop bleeding. Also, since this the 19th century, if wounds to your limbs can mean you can lose them, even if you're able to get medical attention. Isn't this fun?
But, there's a way to not take damage at all, as well as boost your rolls. And get experience. Fate chips. That means poker chips. Because poker is big in this game. You can spend the fate chips the Marshal hands out to negate wounds, heal Wind damage, boost rolls in different ways, and use them for some spells. If you end the session without spending all of your chips, you can convert them into Bounty Points, which are the experience points in this game.
If you don't know how to play poker, you might just want to brush up before you play. Maybe you should buy yourself a copy of Hoyle's Book of Games...
|I don't think she's interested, muchacho|
When it comes to the setting, the game starts out in 1876 (by the time the “classic” system was shut down, it was 1879) and the Civil War is still going on. Before you ask how that could happen, there's a bit of back story you should know. On July 3rd 1863, an event known as The Reckoning began. If you don't know your history, the Battle of Gettysburg was going on. One of the bloodiest battles in the war in a battle that would later prompt the famous Gettysburg Address. This is when the West got Weird. There were reports of the dead rising and eating the brains of their former comrades. There were other things that happened that day. The entire Union garrison in New Orleans was wiped out in a single night. Union ships on the Confederate blockade were attacked by mysterious monsters. People who had read Hoyle's Book of Games suddenly discovered a code that allowed them to tap into the Hunting Grounds and trick demons into giving them little boons of power. Indian (Native American) shamans were suddenly granted much more power from their nature spirits. This is why the war dragged on. Whenever there were large battles, things would get... Weird. This allowed the Confederacy to survive just long enough to free their slaves and get France and the United Kingdom to break the Union blockade. With the blockade over, the Confederacy has survived. Out west, things are much more complicated than they were in our time, not the least of which is what happened to California. In 1869, the western half of California fell into the Pacific ocean. As a native Oregonian, I laughed with wicked glee when I read this. Anyway... So, when the Great Quake happened, as the survivors found a mysterious mineral called Ghost Rock was found. It's a lot like coal, but better. It was also a key ingredient in gadgets that were being made by the purveyors of the New Science. Better known as “Mad Scientists.” With the magical boost given to them, the Native Americans used the distraction of the never-ending Civil War to take back some of their lands. The Sioux were able to reclaim most of Dakota territory and hold it. The Mormons also used the distraction of the conflict to declare neutrality and wait to see who was going to come out on top. To make matters even more “fun,” both the North and the South declared a race to what was left of California (now known as the Great Maze due to the pillars of land left behind by the Quake). Several folks jumped at the chance to win the prize. This being Deadlands, it quickly devolved into what's called the Great Rail Wars.
Now, let's take a minute to talk about the “Weird” in the Weird West. When the Reckoning started, a few odd things happened. In the deserts of the American West, critters known as “Rattlers” appeared. They're not called that because they're like rattle snakes. No, the “rattle” is from your teeth. They're gigantic worms that burrow under the ground and then pop up for a tasty snack (if you've seen Tremors, you have a rough idea how this works). Usually a cowpoke and his horse. While the most wildly known ones are the ones from the Mojave, there's some others lurking about, too. In the Great Maze, after the Great Quake, actual sea serpents turned up. The Chinese immigrants took to calling them Maze Dragons and the name stuck. There's also other weird things running around, rumors of werewolves, vampires, and other nasty things. I could go on, but I'd rather not spoil any surprises for anyone who might play the game... But, most people dismiss them as rumors. That's in part to the work of groups in the USA and the CSA. In the USA, the Pinkerton Detective Agency were hired by the Union government to keep things quiet. But, in 1877 or so, the government ended the contract and created the Special Services Agency. This new Agency hired some of the best and brightest from the Pinkertons, including the elusive head of the Western Bureau, a man known only as The Ghost. South of the Mason/Dixon line, the weirdness (and country wide law enforcement) is handed by the notorious Texas Rangers. The Rangers also act like the US Marshals for the CSA, which divides their attention. The Rangers and the Agency differ in methods, but have one common goal: Keep the weirdness out of the papers. Of course, there's one major newspaper that's working towards revealing the truth to the world, but most people think it's bunk. That would be the Tombstone Epitaph. To most folks, the Epitaph is entertaining to read but not to be believed. There's a lot of folks out there trying to report the truth, but they tend to vanish if they make too much of a ruckus about what they've seen. When you read the source books, the player's section is usually written in the form of one of those three groups (the Rangers, the Agency, or the Epitaph), so you want to remember them.
|This is a cover for a Vampire: the Masquerade source book, it helped inspire Deadlands|
Speaking of source books, there's some you really want to pick up. There's some for locations, such as City O' Gloom (Salt Lake City as we would know it), The Great Maze, and South O' The Border (Mexico of course). There's also books for Back East in the USA and the CSA. If you're thinking about running a game in or near a location, you should pick these up. If you're thinking about playing a Texas Ranger or a member of the Agency, there's books on those. The same goes for Hucksters, Shamans, and the Blessed. There's also a book called Hexarcana, which is a must-have for any Arcane Background. Why? Because they update all of the Arcane Backgrounds and give you a few more spells. One book everyone should get is Smith & Robards. The book is full of weird gadgets and alchemical creations, which anyone can use. These inventions vary from useful (things like Gattling rifles) to humorous (automatic flapjack maker anyone?) but it also gives your resident Mad Scientist an idea of what's already been done. Another one you need is The Quick & The Dead, which aren't always mutually exclusive in Deadlands, because it has all of the information on the setting. There's also helpful charts in the back for Marshals for random encounters for the road. There's also Tales O' Terror 1877, which updates the setting and some rules (which you don't need if you've bought the Player's Guide and the Marshal's Handbook). For Marshals, there's Rascals, Varmints and Critters one and two.
One cool thing is that the older source books have adventures in them, some focused on the Arcane Background for those books, but they're good for any posse you have.
There's so many source books, I honestly list them all, but you should take a look at them just in case.
Even after all of this, if you can't come up with what kind of character you want to play, there's Archetypes in the Player's Guide, as well as many others in each source book. You can also use them for inspiration for characters, too. The only problem with the Archetypes is that you don't get the ability to make awesome draws for your character and you might have to shift things around to make the character fit exactly what you want to play.
Whew... That was a long one. And I barely scratched the surface of this game. If you want more, such as details on the Arcane Backgrounds or locations in the Weird West, let me know. I wouldn't mind doing a whole series on this game. It's one of my favorites. Plus, the information is still mostly valid and relevant because there's Deadlands: Reloaded which continues the world but in the Savage Worlds system.