A Momentary Glance at Deadlands
I had intended to cover the ‘chip’ system from Deadlands in my post on Character Points, but lingering cold that I’ve been annoyed by over the past week fogged up my connections enough that I was lucky to be able to get through the basics of Torg and Star Wars without lapsing into word salad. So rather than try to stretch a quick discussion of one aspect of one game into 1,000 words, I might as well talk about the entire game of Deadlands for bit.
Deadlands was first published in 1996 by Pinnacle Entertainment, the brainchild of Shane Hensley – a former West End Games and TSR writer. According to the lore surrounding the game, the cover art by Brom of the undead cowboy managed to both precede the game line and serve as the inspiration for the game itself.
And I’ll be honest, based on the industry at the time, it was a really weird decision to publish this game in the first place. Westerns have never been popular as role-playing games, and steampunk horror western seemed even less likely to succeed. For my own experience, it’s always been a hard sell initially, since there isn’t much in the way of movie or book source material to compare the game to. (And the movies that do exist are universally considered to be awful. No one outside of a dedicated Deadlands fanbase went to see Wild Wild West or Gallowwalkers.) But for whatever reason, it caught on. It didn’t hurt that the game had an extremely solid internet presence at the time, which had a stock of one-night adventures easily available on the web. For my own part, that was enough to keep me playing and running the game as I learned the rules.
The dice system is extremely solid, using mechanics that recognizably derive from other dice pool-based games with exploding dice. Attributes are rated from D4 to D12, with skills that note how many of the dice you throw. (There is a weird, counter-intuitive bit where the attribute has its own rating of number of dice thrown, which has no bearing on the skills it governs.) Any dice that roll their maximum ‘ace’ or explode, allowing that die to be rolled again and added to the previous. The highest result of the given dice is then compared to the total.
Being a western game, Deadlands hews close to its genre, putting as many of the mechanics that it can into poker themes. Character generation is handled by drawing twelve cards from a deck. Initiative is rolled, but the player draws a number of cards from a deck based on the roll, with actions passing in order of card value and suit. Magic is handled with dice to determine how many cards are drawn, and the player has to assemble as high a hand as they can from the cards they are dealt. And finally, experience points and luck are handled using poker chips.
Whatever faults you can find with Deadlands or Pinnacle, you can’t say they didn’t stick to their themes.
Characters started each session with a draw from the pot, randomly selecting which chips they’d have to influence their rolls. They could also carry over any unspent chips they had from the previous session and any amount of experience they had earned, as well, up to a maximum of ten chips. Anything above that was automatically turned into ‘bounty,’ which was the untouchable well of experience points. If a player chose, they could convert all of their extra chips into bounty, but it tended to be a poor idea.
Naturally, chips came in three essential colors – white, red, and blue. They all did similar things, but white chips were mostly worthless. Red chips were a lot better, but they allowed the Marshal to draw chips of his own to help the adversaries of the scenario. Blue chips were the best, functioning like red chips, but without the drawback of letting the Marshal make things worse.
Chips could be used to boost rolls, avoid wounds, and activate powers. Depending on which sort of personal mojo a Deadlands character was using, it often hinged on their ability to activate it with chips. This allowed the powerful stuff to be limited accordingly, as it was eating into potential experience, but it also offered a different economy than games like Star Wars or Torg, where the points had to be rationed out between skill rolls and powers. And for the most part, it worked really well.
There were exceptions, however.
As far as games went, Deadlands was not terribly well balanced. The two most egregious abuses of power that I found in the course of play were Harrowed and Blessed, oddly enough. The damned and the sainted were able to fuck over the experience system in ways that probably should have been accounted for.
Harrowed were the setting’s resident undead. Generally pretty zombie-like in appearance – although that was just the flavor most people were familiar with, as there were other options – Harrowed were the unquiet dead that had been brought back from beyond for some reason or another. There was a mechanic in the game (card based, of course) that allowed a character slain in the course of a session to randomly determine whether or not they were able to rise from the dead and return to play with a host of new powers.
The problem was that, by becoming Harrowed, they no longer worried about being killed the same way the rest of the party might have to. And on the surface, this seems wildly obvious. The problem is that, for a lot of people, chips in Deadlands were used mainly to reduce wounds. If wounds are no longer an issue the same way, the player that’s got a Harrowed character suddenly has a vast surplus of experience coming their way. It doesn’t take long for a posse of characters to be quickly overshadowed by the guy with the undead cowboy.
There were some vague ways to try to remedy this imbalance of points, but none of them did much beyond taking the character away or forcing the player to try compensating through role played angst. The dead guy may end up with long scenes lamenting his cursed state, but he’s also the best and fastest gunslinger in the group.
The other end of the scale has the Blessed breaking the game. Most of this came from the specific splatbook on the characters, but they were pretty good even in the main game. Blessed, logically, are the preachers of the setting, who are dedicated to smiting evil in a world gone wrong. They have a good stock of powers to back them up, and unlike the wizards of the setting, the Hucksters, they don’t have any real mechanical drawback to their powers. Where the Hucksters risk physical or mental damage in casting spells, the Blessed don’t have to deal with much more than a code of conduct that guides them.
Where it becomes game breaking, however, is when the less obvious setting rules come into play along side the new rules presented in the book for the Blessed characters. In the context of the setting, Blessed are usually preachers in the Old West. As such, they’re based mostly on their Spiritual abilities to power their supernatural effects, but they also have to be able to command an audience. (This falls into my usual contention that Social Combat in most role playing games is either poorly implemented or ignored, leaving it open to abuse by players that understand the system.) And buried in the rules are the effects of trying to fight back against the main villains of the setting with stories. Specifically, every time a story about triumphing over evil (y’know, what the characters did last week?) is told to an audience of specific size, the party is rewarded with a special kind of chip being added to the pot. And this chip can be used to invoke Old Testament styled Acts of God.
This is the high end of abusive power for Blessed. The more readily available perks allow them to substitute their Faith score (usually their highest stat) for most combat defenses, become empowered by their god to resist damage naturally, and gain spare experience points simply for converting people to their cause. A properly tweaked out preacher can have scores of experience points just for walking around money. When they add in the Acts of God nonsense, they become vaguely intolerable.
I say this from a position of experience, as I have played enough Blessed characters to give Marshals a lasting sense of dread. Yeah, I liked my characters well enough, but they weren’t especially fair to the other players.