The Deadlands Tabletop RPG
While tabletop RPGs are primarily centered around sword and sorcery, occasionally there is a game or setting that breaks from this mold. Whenever I have a group that is clamoring for something different, I reach for my copy of Deadlands first edition. Now, Deadlands holds a special place in my heart as it was my first tabletop RPG, and you never forget your first. I was 12 years old when Pinnacle Entertainment Group released Deadlands in 1996, which was written by Shane Lacy Hensley. This weird amalgam of western, horror, and steampunk grabbed me right away. Deadlands is currently on its third edition, the latest being released in 2005, but it’s the first edition that I wanted to wax poetic about here today. So, put the swords down for a second and pick up a six shooter, because it’s about to get weird in the west.
Taking place in the United States back in 1876, the Deadlands setting ranges from the deep south, and all across the west. The story goes, that when faced with European settlers, the Sioux shaman performed a ritual in an attempt to drive these invaders from Sioux lands. This ritual created a conduit to the spiritual realm filled with evil entities. This event in known as “The Reckoning”. Now having access to our realm, these beings began to feed on negative emotions; with fear being particularly tasty. When these evil spirits descend on a town, the land begins to alter and twist. Some say, when this occurs it’s followed by tales of the dead rising from their graves. With the country faced with literal hell-on-earth, a number of side effects began to manifest. For one, magic is now known to be real, though it comes from these vile spirits, characters can “make a deal with the devil” to obtain a small portion of this power. In addition, the government has begun experimenting with the occult, and, with this investment in research, mad scientists have accelerated the technology of the time. This technological advance has given way to steampunk inventions being more prominent in the Deadlands setting. So, you get to play in a lawless weird west setting filled with zombies, magic, and gunslingers! Making Deadlands a fun change of pace from most fantasy settings.
The setting of Deadlands sucked me in, but the game system kept me hooked. This is due to the games core mechanics enforcing the wild west theme. At its base, the game uses dice found any d20 system, in addition, the game also requires a pack of playing cards and poker chips. As you can imagine, drawing playing-cards and fidgeting with your poker chips gives the table a real gambling/western atmosphere. By setting this mood, and adding a few poorly executed southern draws, even the shyest of role-players will be joining in on the fun. The game rules also keep the lingo thematic in nature. Dice are called “Bones” and the game master is “The Marshal”, but at the games core Deadlands is loosely based on Dungeons and Dragons 2nd edition. You will roll for your core stats such as Strength and Nimbleness (Dexterity), select skills, and equipment. This familiarity makes it so veteran players will have minimal effort jumping in. As for the biggest change, and hands down my favorite mechanic, we should look at rounds in Deadlands. When combat starts, each player makes a “Speed” roll, followed by drawing a number of cards based off that roll. These cards represent the number of actions you can take in a round. The Marshal will then call out card values, starting with the Ace, and counting down. When a card you are holding is called, you may then take one action. So, you may get 3-4 actions in a round, but they will be divided up over the course of that round, also allowing a bit of back-and-forth as your enemies may take an action or two before you do. Just like the poker chips and playing cards, this mechanic enforces the games theme by creating a real gun-fight like feel. There is a back and forth to the round that keeps everyone on their toes. Are you going next? Or will the undead gunslinger fill you with bullet holes first!
If you ever want a change of pace in your tabletop game, and the idea of a weird, horror-filled, western setting peaks your interest; then I highly recommend Deadlands. Though this article covers first edition, I have heard nothing but good things about the latest edition: Deadlands Reloaded. I’m glad that this was my first tabletop RPG, because I believe it’s the easiest to jump into. Deadlands is rather rules light, and the card draw aspect is rather intuitive, but more importantly, it was the easiest game to start role-playing. Speaking in a character voice while adding accents is often intimidating to new players, but we all can do a poor southern accent (I’m from Georgia, and they can’t do it right here either). Throw in some quotes from Toy Story like “Reach for the sky!” or “There’s a snake in my boot!” and you got the hang of it! Westerns are such a cultural touchstone, even more then we realize, that it makes jumping into role-play a bit easier. At least, that was my experience as a shy 12-year-old kid. So, let’s roll some bones and see if we can’t make a name for ourselves in the weird west.