Deadlands first debuted back in 1996 as a Western-Horror-Steampunk mash-up (before the term was as ubiquitous as it is today), a setting billed as the Weird West. The rules would eventually evolve into the current Savage Worlds roleplaying game (along with the Deadlands miniature battle spin-off rules, The Great Rail Wars). Deadlands is why Savage Worlds uses poker chips, playing cards, and exploding dice mechanics (referred to as “Aces” and “Raises”) as those items helped give DL its Western flavor.
The setting for Deadlands is an alt-history North America that begins in 1879. As with the Shattered Frontier setting of Aces & Eights, you will find a country divided where the Confederacy retained their independence after the Civil War. Also like A&8, the Mormons actually founded their nation of Deseret and the native population have not one, but two territories they control. Unlike A&8, the Republic of Texas is not a separate entity, though their famed Texas Rangers have become a federal level secret service for the Confederate States of America.
A lack of coal and iron led to the stalemate in the War Between States, which allowed the Mormons, the native Sioux Nations in the Dakotas, and the Coyote Confederation in the Southwest to found their own independent states. Though the Union and the Confederates still consider much of the west theirs, the current halt of the warmachine keeps them from doing anything about it.
But what puts the Weird into Deadlands’ West is the Reckoning. See, a long time ago a cadre of Native American shamans, called the Old Ones, fought the evil spirits, known as manitous, in the spirit lands, named the Hunting Grounds, in order to protect our reality from their influence. A deal was brokered, and as long as the Old Ones remained in the Hunting Grounds the manitous could not gain a foothold in our world.
Well, that is, until the Reckoning, when a rebel Sioux shaman committed some atrocities in order to drive the white man out of America. See, he completes a nasty ritual that culminated in the murders of the Old Ones, thus releasing the bindings keeping the manitous in the Hunting Grounds. With the deal broken, the most powerful of the manitous, the Reckoners were able to directly influence the world.
And so all the monsters, magic, and generally Weird stuff is usually created by the manitous in order to spread fear throughout the land. The Reckoners, who have assumed the mantles of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, feed off of fear and once terror reaches a certain limit, the Reckoners can enter the world, making it their own. By the way, their domain in the Hunting Grounds is called the Deadlands, now you know how the setting gets its name.
Make Yer Dudes
So, in a roundabout way, heroes of Deadlands are trying to save the world by reducing the level of fear via daring do and recounting their legendary tales. The type of characters you can play in Deadlands is pretty open, since Savage Worlds doesn’t have classes, per se. However, depending on your Edges and Skills, various themes rise to the top.
DL characters are only allowed to take a single Arcane Background, which defines whether or not you’re a Blessed/Voodooist, a Huckster, a Shaman, a Chi-channeling Martial Artist, or Mad Scientist. Everything is pretty self-explanatory except for the Huckster. Hucksters enter a test of wills with the manitous to channel magic from the Hunting Grounds. Since the progenitor of Hucksters is Hoyle (like the cards), this battle of will takes on the form of a poker game, and when Huckster cast their spells, spiritual cards appear in their hand.
Of course, this review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Harrowed. These bad hombres are sentient walking dead. Harrowed are reborn, or at least reanimated, when one of the manitous takes up residence in a corpse. The Harrowed retain their personalities and memories, to begin with at least. The dark spirit within will try to take over the host at the worst times, to wreak havoc all while wearing your face. Players can have Harrowed characters, but it’s rare to begin play as one.
Deadlands Reloaded uses the Savage Worlds core rules which are spawned. The basics of Savage Worlds is a character has five Attributes (Agility, Smarts, Spirit, Strength, & Vigor) and a range of Skills, all of which have a die rating ranging from d4 to d12 (well, actually d12+2, but that’s with Edges). Skills have linked Attributes, and it’s more costly to purchase a Skill with a greater rating than it’s linked Attribute.
There are several derived stats (Pace, Parry, Charisma, & Toughness), which are calculated from Attributes or Skills and modified by Race and Edges. Edges are similar to Feats or Merits from the d20 and Storytelling Systems, respectively. The opposite of Edges are Hindrances, which are similar to Flaws or Drawbacks.
For resolution, a player rolls either the Attribute or Skill that’s related to the action along with their Wild Die (a d6 by default, but can be modified by Edges or Hindrances) against the Target Number of 4. Then take the better result between the Trait and Wild dice and add any circumstance modifiers. If it beats the TN, it’s a success.
What more, Savage Worlds incorporate exploding dice, called Aces, which are open-ended rolls. So, every time the maximum value of the die is rolled, you roll it again and add the result. This continues until a result lower than the maximum value is rolled. Both Trait and Wild dice are subject to Aces.
For every 4 points you exceed the Target Number, you get a Raise. Raises are critical successes and can influence the final result of an action. However, on the flip side, if both the Trait and Wild dice roll ones, that’s Snake Eyes and is considered a critical failure.
Savage Worlds also have Bennies, which are similar to Fate or Action Points. Bennies can be spent to re-roll any Trait Test and you can spend as many as you wish and take the best result. They may also be used to keep your character from dying. Settings usually modify these rules, and Deadlands is a prime example. In Deadlands, there are three types, and when some of them are spent, it actually puts a Bennie in the hands of the Marshal (the Deadland’s name for GameMaster), to be spent against the players.
Initiative is handled with playing cards. At the beginning of an encounter, the deck is shuffled and each round the player draws a card. Then a countdown from Ace to Deuce is made with ties resolved in reverse alphabetical suit order (Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs). So an Ace of Spades trumps an Ace of Diamonds. Jokers are wild and mean that character can choose whenever they want to act, even interrupting another character’s action. Oh, and they get a +2 bonus to damage rolls too! Whenever a Joker is dealt, the deck is shuffled.
Wounds are handled by comparing the damage rolled versus the target’s Toughness. If the damage is less than his Toughness, there is no game affect (read: glancing blow). If it meets or exceeds Toughness, the target is Shaken (can move half speed, but do no other actions). Each Raise above Toughness on the damage roll causes a wound. Each character has three wound levels and for each wound the character takes a cumulative -1 to Pace and Trait Tests.
If a character receives another Shaken result while still Shaken, it is instead a wound (and a wounded character becomes Shaken if not already). A character can recover from being Shaken on his turn with a Spirit Test.
If a character with three wounds is wounded again, or if the wounds received exceed three, then a Knockout Blow has been received and the players must consult a table to see what happens. A Bennie may be spent to take a Soak Roll and for a success and every raise, the character reduces the damage dealt by one.
Deadlands is the flagship setting for a solid rules system, so if you like the fast, furious, fun style of Savage Worlds and want to stake a claim in the Weird West, I highly suggest you give Deadlands a spin. You’ll need the Savage Worlds Core Rulebook, which was just revised, as well as the Marshal’s Handbook and the Player’s Guide. Well, you might even be able to get by with just the Test Drive rules for Savage Worlds instead of the core book, but you’re on own then, pardner.
Wild West Weeks
- Welcome to Wild West Weeks
- Wild West RPG Database
- Into the Far West
- Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier
- Deadlands Reloaded
- Red Dead Redemption
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Part 1
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Core Mechanics
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits I
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits II
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits III
- Wild West Minis Database