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Deadlands Tabletop Review

Okay, so let’s talk turkey about some tabletop gaming goodness. I decided that I ought make a choice on something that people can still get their hands on and that I happen to know a ton about. That narrows my list down to only a couple of games, but, I feel that I can draw on this pool for at least a couple of reviews before I start talking about moldy oldies that are near and dear to my heart.

So, where to start with Deadlands?

Deadlands is a game in which players take on personas in a fictional American West. History changes on July 3rd, 1863. A strange fog settles around the battle of Gettysburg and when the third day of battle kicks off, the Civil War takes a turn for the weird. Soldiers who fall and die get back up, only to attack anyone who gets too close. Tales of strange and conflicting facts emerge and the battle rages on longer than in our own history. Gettysburg is walled off, and both sides retreat. The War extends and by the time the setting starts in 1883, the Civil War is unresolved, with a cold war between North and South.

The weirdness does not stop there though. As time wears on strange advances in technology appear, most of which are fueled by a mineral discovered after a great quake in California dubbed Ghost Rock. The rock burns twice as hot as coal and twice as slow, and earns its name by the way it howls when you burn it. Obvious threats emerge such as the Mojave Rattlers, giant worms that roam the deserts, and the Maze Dragons that stalk the ruins of the California coast. But more insidious threats – vampires, wendigo, lycanthropes – hide among men and prey behind human facades. Settlers in the frontier cower in fear during the nights as it seems something is preying on them as they sleep. Fear grips the Union and the Confederation.

And they’re right to be afraid. Because the monsters are real. Mysterious forces have converged to bring terror to the world, and so long as fear grips the nights, the monsters are the only ones winning.

Candygram, ma’am.

And that’s why the world has heroes. In Deadlands, you and your posse go out and learn about the strange forces that have turned the American frontier into the Weird West. And whether or not you’re a true hero or a bad hombre who’ll do anything for money, your character becomes embroiled in the battle for every soul on Earth.

It gets better.

You’re not just regular folk, not if you don’t want to be. Sure, you can be a straight shooting Texas Ranger using only his wits and his guns. But, for the more daring, you can take on the New Science as a so-called Mad Scientist, creating strange new inventions with the strange properties of Ghost Rock. Or you can be an Indian brave, using shamanic powers that are as real as any other threat in the west. Feel like gambling with devils themselves? Become a hexslinging Huckster, bartering with demonic forces for infernal powers. And, if your character does end up on the wrong side of the dirt in Boot Hill, well… who knows? Sometimes, the dead just don’t stay quiet anymore. You might rise as one of the enigmatic and seemingly damned Harrowed – a fusion of the soul of both mortal and Demon – and enter into a long struggle for dominion of the body you are both forced to share.

Here I come, back from the dead… HOLY CRAP!

Not enough? Well, there’s two spin-off settings as well. The first comes in the aftermath of the Last War, a nuclear Ghost Rock bomb holocaust that has ravaged the Earth. Mutants, demons, raiders and other unspeakable horrors stalk the land as mankind fights its last desperate battle against the forces that have destroyed their world. Lastly, there was Deadlands: Lost Colony, which offers the final frontier on the planet Banshee. When Ghost Rock was found in outer space, the Hellstromme Industries corporation built a gate above the Earth that would take them to the planet Banshee in the Faraway System. The Last War did in the gateway home, and stranded settlers must face a strange world that seems set to destroy them now that they’re stranded with nowhere else to go. The native aliens wage war against them in a conflict bearing all of the hallmarks of the struggles of Native Americans versus American settlers.

Deadlands not only has an immersive world for players to enjoy, it also has an  engaging system that gives it a unique flavor. The usual bucket o’ dice that most gamers are familiar with (and in number – multiple D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20 are all required) but it also incorporates standard playing cards in both systems, old and new. Initiative is handled by poker priorities, with Aces being high and counting down, and depending on how fast your character reacts determines how many cards you draw. Poker chips are earned and treated not only as experience points, but also as a mechanic to change fate itself.

I ran Deadlands for roughly a year back in 1999 and 2000, and to this day, the players in the campaign still talk about the times had around that table. Despite the player-hostile system (we actually lost a character who later returned from the dead to rejoin the party) more good times came out of that story than I think any of us could count, and it’s one of the few games that I’m not sure I could ever do justice to again if I ran it. It’s had a long run. It’s been viable and in print since 1996, making it a fifteen year-old title that just won’t die. Its original incarnation is still my favorite, though D20, GURPS, Savage Worlds and even a Reloaded version with its own revised system all had their debut.

This is the cover for the most recent edition. So now you have no excuse not to buy it on sight.

The books unfortunately are pretty costly – but they’re worth their weight in gold. If you don’t mind PDF editions, you can also get them thorugh the usual suspects online and print them on demand.

All in all, you could do worse than this title and there’s nothing else I can do but give this a five stick review. When someone volunteers to marshall this game… take them up on it. You won’t be sorry if you do.

Frank has been the caffeine-fueled evil overlord of HeyPoorPlayer since 2008. He speaks loudly and carries a big stick to keep the staff of the HPP madhouse in check. A collector of all things that blip and beep, he has an extensive collection of retro consoles and arcade machines crammed into his house. Before founding the site, Frank was a staff writer for the blogs Gaming Judgement and NuclearGeek.

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