On Getting What You Don’t Want
In talking about the upcoming Deadlands TV series, I touched on the idea that the property was experiencing a bit of a comeback. It’s finally getting some long overdue exposure, and some of the things that made it great back in the day, like the Doomtown CCG, were returning. This is mostly true, but part of what I implied is seriously misleading. Deadlands never truly died as an RPG. It just died as far as I was concerned.
Deadlands was first published in 1996, with a much needed 2nd Edition revision coming in 1999. When Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000, they did so with the OGL, allowing whomever wanted to use the broad concepts of the D20 Rules as they saw fit the ability to adapt it into their own publications, thereby strengthening D&D’s brand.
And D&D 3.0 went huge. It was impossible to ignore.
In an industry like this one, a success story like D20 did not go unnoticed. Seemingly overnight, every company that had available resources placed their chips on some variant of D20, hoping to catch a little of the same lightning in their very own bottles. For a lot of companies, this meant coming up with compatible products. White Wolf, for example, licensed both Necromancer Games and Sword & Sorcery to come up with sourcebooks and material. AEG put out a line of mini-adventures, as well as GM toolkit books. Green Ronin and Guardians of Order started taking the system apart to see how it ticked and offered systems hacks for D&D players to use. There was a lot of great material available for D&D players to modify their home games, one way or another.
Other companies, like Holistic and Pinnacle, started to convert their products over to D20, thinking that this was the wave of the future. Deadlands D20 came out a year later, and there was such a push to support it for the gaming community that they started releasing books that were dual-statted between Classic Deadlands and the D20 version. They made a brave face of it, releasing seven books within 2001 in order to be able to properly play the game, but the interest simply wasn’t there. Whether or not the investment into a new system ended up bankrupting the company, production on the original games ceased shortly after the D20 books were deemed a failure.
Pinnacle did release one original product during this time, in amongst converting their original stable of products over to D20, but given its eventual resting place in the cheap bins of the gaming shops and conventions, I can’t say that it did any better than any of the Deadlands conversions. Weird Wars did an admirable job of building out Horror in World War II, but given that most of the source material for the game was lodged in somewhat obscure DC Comics fare from the 1970’s era, it’s not surprising that the game didn’t hit everyone’s interests. (That said, I realize that much of Deadlands owes its origins to the Weird Western Tales that DC put out at the same time. The difference is that in this day and age, a lot more people are familiar with Jonah Hex as a property than they are with the Haunted Tank stories.) From my own experience, I’ve come to believe that the Weird Wars RPG fared a lot better amongst gamers than the Deadlands D20 games did, but this is also from the response within my extended network of contacts. Like Deadlands D20, enough sourcebooks to play the game fully were released before the line died.
A few years later, Shane Hensley came out with the Savage Worlds rules, based on his perception of what had made Deadlands a failure of a system. According to his dev notes, he’d driven around to various player groups, gaming with them to get a feel for a new rules set based on the Great Rail Wars miniatures rules. Once he solidified these rules to his liking, they became the basis for all future games from what remained of Pinnacle Publishing.
Then once Savage Worlds had become enough of a mainstay in the industry, Deadlands was released with these new rules, adapting the concepts into the greatly simplified system. The classic Weird West setting was followed with Hell on Earth (the post-apocalyptic setting) and Deadlands Noir (the newly minted Pulp setting). Noir is specifically built with Savage Worlds rules in mind, where the other two settings are converted into the new system. As yet, there’s been no sign of the much maligned third setting from the original run, which set the action in space.
As a sidenote, it still strikes me as weird that Deadlands: Lost Colony went over as poorly as it did. At the time, the general reaction was that no one could conceptualize the idea of ‘Western in Space’ as a game concept, even though strange coincidence had it hit the market shortly before Firefly hit TV. Both products were cancelled before they were able to fully find their voice, but these days people actually remember Firefly. (And as RPG’s go, the Firefly derived products have a wider product base.)
So, while Deadlands still exists as an RPG product, it does so in a form that I’m not even remotely interested in. And if the Deadlands TV show takes off, it will be the Savage Worlds version that will get sold in the rush to see the origin of the world. While I could hope for reprints of the Classic Deadlands material, I’ve heard from enough sources that Shane Hensley himself has no interest in making those books available again, likely in favor of making sure that the Savage Worlds books stay in the limelight.
To say that I hate Savage Worlds is to minimize my distaste for it. And I appear to be alone in this thinking, if the internet is any arbiter of taste. I could go into specifics, but I’ll save that for its own subject, rather than tack an RPG review onto the end of a different commentary.