Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A Bit of Nostalgia #4

This ain't Kansas anymore

My first post today obviously had to be a nostalgia one.  Yes, because I forgot to yesterday.

It's also the first Nostalgia post I'm doing about an RPG rather than a War Game.  Its fair to say I've played a hell of a lot of different roleplay systems, a lot more than war game systems.  So, I'd like to claim I'm in a pretty good place to talk about old roleplay games, I've certainly got a lot of opinions about them anyway.  I'm going to start with the big daddy of dead system (at least in original format).  I'm pretty sure there will be gamers screaming at me that "such and such" a system is better, but I'm sorry.. you're wrong.. in my opinion.  Roleplay systems have a lot to them, so lets break this down into three sections - background, mechanics and general amusement factor.

Before that though, there is something that is immensely important to point out.  Roleplay systems live and die by the person running the game.  A glorious system can be shot dead by the person running them.  Inversely a system that is just poor can be rescued by an amazing GM.  I don't believe dreadful systems can ever be saved, but the point is that even on the highest recommendations, what I put here is based on how I feel about the game and the sessions I've been fortunate enough to play in (or GM).

That said, Deadlands is probably one of the most thematic and well designed games I have ever played.  The background of the game is very detailed.  I know, these days, we all get very impressed by the fluff in war games, but a lot of role play games rely on the depth of the fluff.  Its quite complex, so lets start at the end.  Yup, the end of Deadlands is probably the most pivotal in terms of fluff, because you never get to see this ending, it doesn't actually happen.

The forces of Evil, called the Reckoners (but also known as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) need fear to survive.  Through manipulation of American Indian tribes, and the anger caused by the invasion and decimation of the land by european invaders, the Reckoners manage to get a rift opened up to their dimension/world.  Through this rift the Reckoners send terrors and monsters, in the hope that they can saturate the world with enough fear that they can survive here.  They fail.. humanity bands together, using the new found abilities that opening the portal bought to the world.  The monsters are destroyed and instead of being afraid people become courageous.  It's times like this, when it helps to be a powerful and malevolent being.

The first manipulation they make is to send their most dangerous servant back in time.  Graves, an undead assassin and general bad ass, gets sent back to start killing off humanities heroes.  The sudden loss of all the good guys cuts humanities hopes drastically.  They then lace the world with Ghost Rock.  A rare commodity, Ghost Rock gives off far more energy than Coal, creating a Gold-Rush effect far more malevolent than anything else in the original time line.  Burning it causes great clouds which scream (hence the name).  Thing is, it also releases more and more evil spirits on the world, drastically speeding up the process of generating fear.  Humanity, itself, starts to help bring the Reckoning closer.  This time, the Reckoners will win, unless something can be done about it.

Deadlands was set in the Wild West of this world.  At this point in time Ghost Rock has been found in America, shortly after the coastline of California breaks apart and sinks into the sea (the effect of the Reckoners putting a load of Ghost Rock into the area).  A grand rush of technology occurs because of the new energy source, but it also escalates wars (specifically the American Civil War).  With so much death, the Reckoners have played their first big card.  During the Battle of Gettysburg the dead rise, and fight both sides.  There is no end to the war, and America is still divided at the start of the game.

There is a lot to Deadlands, way more than I have included here, but what I will say is that Pinnacle (who made Deadlands) were very clever, because the original book didn't have the whole story in it.  Deadlands ultimately came out with three games in the setting, each at a different time point in the game.  The background was rich enough that you could play without the whole story, but obviously also allowed games to stretch through the different time zones, bringing more and more information to light.  It certainly gave people a lot of scope though, with some much going on in each game (I'll likely cover one of these another time).

The system is where things got really good.  Now its important to note that I'm only going to touch on some of the key points with Deadlands, because the system was also very very different to anything else I ever played.  I won't cover combat, or dice rolling, because they were actually hidden under a layer of "style" that nothing else really managed in my opinion.

It all start with character creation.  You can get an idea of the style of the game based on how they do character generation.  Mechwarrior was also heavy on the mathematics.  DnD for all its failings told you right away that Dice rolling was going to happen a lot.  World of Darkness was all about the dots.  Deadlands.. was about Poker.  Well more decks of cards, but it immediately got that Wild West thing going even at character creation.  You drew nine card from a Deck, getting rid of two that you didn't want to determine your stats.  You weren't allowed to get rid of twos or jokers.  The suit of the card determined the number of dice for the stat, and the value of the card would determine the type of dice for the stat.  For instance the 10 of Hearts might be 4D10 (if I've got that right I really am sad).  It was there though, right from the beginning, this game was so heavily in theme it was unreal.  Initiative was done with Cards.  Roll initiative, that determines how many actions you got, then from a communal deck of cards draw that many.  The order you go in would be based on the number of the card, using suit for tiebreaking.  Magic (in one of its forms) was card driven, with Hucksters having to try to draw a Poker hand to determine how powerful the spell was.  I mean, you could only get more Wild West if you added in Poker Chip.

Yup, they were there too.  Poker Chips allowed you to do cool things.  Mostly it was ignoring or reducing woulds, but you could also use them to get rerolls (of various levels, add 1 dice, reroll 1 dice, reroll all dice).  The whole game just dripped with style and genre.  Hucksters, cowboys, Texas Rangers, Show Girls, all were valid characters (there weren't any classes, but if you wanted faith magic, or to be a Mad Scientist you had to buy certain abilities at character creation).  There were also really good simplifications in the game to make it run well, including using paperclips to mark up injuries, location based attacks could yield more damage, you only counted the worst wound towards modifiers.  Everything had this little visual aid to just make the game come alive, and yet also make it simple.

You can probably, by now, guess that this is firmly placed at the top of my games list.  Deadlands is, however, something that can suffer from bad GMing.  All the character and style of the game applies a very stark contrast when included in a badly run game.  I've been lucky, I've never encountered it myself in any great severity, but I could see if happening with ease.  I can not, however, ever see Deadlands not being amusing.  There were just little things that always caught the attention, my friends Huckster had a bad habit of pulling Black Jokers when he tried to cast spells and getting his face blown up because of it.  We had a Southern American preacher in one group, who carried a shotgun and used it to keep his flock quite during sermons (the repair bill for the roof was atrocious).  The fact that you could be killed, and then you drew cards for the character to see if you came back to life as a Harrowed (possessed bodies, still with the original character inside, but when you slept the GM could get your character to do "other" things).  A lot of the RPGs I will include in the Nostalgia section will have bags of style (I love games that drag me in to the setting), but Deadlands had that and added in a layer which made sure the Wild West (or Weird West as the setting called it) was definitely full of entertainment as well.

Deadlands initially went dead at around the time of the D20 invasion.  They released everything as pdfs at this time and I managed to get most of them.  They did do a D20 version, but it just didn't work out in my opinion.  Pinnacle then became something new (I have a feeling its Great White Games as part of the Pinnacle Entertainments Group) and released Savage Worlds.  It took a while, but in time they released Deadlands:Reloaded, which has most, but not all of the flavour of Deadlands.  If you can get the Classic game I would do, I still think it is the best version of the game.  I never got the books for Deadlands, just the PDFs... I do, however, have an almost complete set of the Deadlands:Hell on Earth spin off.. and while it had its own interesting feel to it, and wasn't quite the same game, I've got this feeling that one day that complete collection is going to be difficult to get hold of ever again, and quite highly sought after.

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