Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: Deadlands

Despite only recently playing this one, I grabbed a bunch of books and read them years ago.  For a long time, this was my favorite system and setting, having only been recently supplanted by Unknown Armies.

Deadlands is an alternate history Wild West game typically taking place from 1876-1879 (various editions advance the year).  Something happened in 1863 to change history; the Battle of Gettysburg went weird, as did many Civil War battles thereafter, causing them to end inconclusively.  The Civil War basically ground to a slow crawl as fighting became more difficult.

In 1868, the Great Quake shattered the California coast, creating a series of waterways known as the Great Maze.  This also revealed a new superfuel known as ghost rock; much more powerful than coal, ghost rock has since enabled super-science.  Unfortunately, this has further slowed the progress of the Civil War, as America is now fighting using Victorian tactics but World War I technology.

In the 1876-1878 period (according to Deadlands: Reloaded, the Civil War ends in 1879), the Civil War is almost in a state of cold war between the North and the South, with the West trying to plod along despite the setbacks.  Thanks to Doctor Hellstromme, the Mormons are now the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth, and have formed their own nation of Deseret.  The American Indians have also found new strength, forming the Sioux Nations in the north (who adhere to the Old Ways), and the Coyote Confederation in the south (who gladly use the white man's rifles).

It's the Wild West.  It's steampunk.  It's horror.  It's Deadlands.

In addition to the weird setting (think spaghetti Westerns meet Call of Cthulhu), the rules have a D&D level of detail without being too overwhelming.  You will, however, need every common die type imaginable: d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20.  Basically, your stats tell you what type of die to roll and how many.  You try to beat a target number (3 is the lowest, 5 is average, 13 is well-nigh impossible), but you only count the highest die.  However, if a single die rolls the highest number (4 on a d4, 6 on a d6, etc.), you get to re-roll and add it.  So, if you have a trait at 3d8 and need to beat a 13 (good luck!), you might roll a 3, 5, and 8.  Re-roll that 8, and say you get a 6.  8 + 6 = 14, so you beat the target.  Damage does the same thing, but dice are added together; so, the previous roll would be 3 + 5 + 8 + 6, or 22 if it were a damage roll.

Like D&D, the basic rules are fairly simple, but there is a lot of complexity atop those rules.  For instance, playing cards are used during initiative (as well as some of the magic-users), and poker chips are used to modify rolls (you get poker chips at random intervals, and can spend them to improve rolls).  The game also uses a hit location system, and the non-combat parts of the game have enough detail that you could use the Deadlands engine to run an Oregon Trail game (prices, disease, starvation — it's all in the rules).

Having actually played it, I can say that it actually runs pretty quickly, and combat is delightfully deadly.  However, there can be a lot of stuff to remember, and you will use every die in your arsenal.  Despite the crunchiness of the rules, though, it retains its place as one of my favorite game systems.

1 comment:

  1. Delightfully deadly indeed. As someone who wants combat to be dangerous, I highly enjoy this about Deadlands. At first I was pretty meh about the system, but it quickly turned into one of my favourites as well.


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