Deadlands: Reloaded is my favourite tabletop RPG. It was the first one I ever played and for that reason it’ll always have a place in my heart, but even so there’s something about the atmosphere of Shane Lacey Hensey’s Weird West that keeps pulling me back, time and time again.
The first new edition in 15 years, Deadlands: The Weird West, is currently on Kickstarter and, thanks to a preview copy I’ve been poring over for a few days now, I can confidently say it’s shaping up to be a pretty special chapter in the roleplaying game’s storied history. Weird West definitely iterates on Deadlands, rather than completely reinventing it, but there’s still plenty for series fans to be excited about. At the same time, it provides a perfect starting point for new players.
Let’s start with the story. As has always been the case in Deadlands, the Reckoners, a collection of evil spirits trapped in another dimension called the Hunting Grounds, are trying their best to turn Earth into a nightmare-fuelled hellscape - a dead land, if you will - so that they can cross over and live there permanently. In Deadlands: Reloaded, they were pretty close to pulling it off but now they’re on the backfoot. Their chosen champions, a bunch of ne’er do wells called The Servitors, have been defeated, so they’ve gone back to square one: spreading their terrifying, corrupting influence through the small, unsuspecting towns of America as a prelude to bigger things. Indeed, the upcoming tabletop RPG’s tagline appears to have changed from “There’s hell on the high plains” to “There’s horror on the high plains” which, given the infernal nature of so much of the game’s lore, is delightfully quaint.
The Weird West has a more granular focus on storytelling, which is where the series has always been at its best.
What this means in practical terms is that Deadlands: The Weird West has a more granular focus on storytelling, which is where the series has always been at its best. The larger, quite literally world-ending adventures are great and all, but to me the true beating heart of Deadlands is in the sordid mystery rocking a backwater hamlet, the fightin’ words exchanged in a small-town saloon or the unspeakable beastie waiting in the corn to devour an unsuspecting cowpoke.
It’s a welcome and refreshing reset and, to help support it, the new edition lays out a pleasing number of locations both big and small. The city of Lost Angels is detailed to reflect its current status in the continuing timeline (spoilers: it’s ruined), while mesa towns such as Devil’s Armpit and Manitou’s Bluff offer up a slice of horror in a more parochial setting. Gomorra also makes an appearance, which is very pleasing for anyone who’s played Deadlands’ excellent collectible card game spin-off Doomtown. No matter the size or historical importance of a location, The Weird West gives you an indicator of just how fearful the populace is and offers some lovely bits of intrigue to fire off the imagination of any would-be GM (or Marshal, if you will). There’s also a random generator to help you come up with a pulpy adventure on the fly with just a few dice rolls.
As well as advancing the story by a few years, the new edition of Deadlands also retcons something that, for a long time, has been an uncomfortable stumbling block in the series’ tone. In Deadlands: Reloaded, the American Civil War ended in a stalemate, meaning the Confederate States of America were very much still A Thing. While the player’s handbook specifically stated that “by 1879, racism is becoming a thing of the past in the Weird West” and definitely steered players away from making racist characters, the idea that racism was effectively over in that world was a difficult one to swallow when the states advocating slavery throughout the Civil War still existed. Thankfully, this is no longer the case for The Weird West: the game’s history definitively declares that the North won and the CSA has been disbanded. (Thanks in part to a time-travelling narrative involving characters from Arthurian legend, if you were wondering). Again we are reminded that bigots still exist in the world and that they are small-minded people, but thankfully they no longer have vast swathes of America to call their sovereign territory. It’s a relief, to say the least, and deftly handled in the text.
Back to the gunslinging. With its attention once again on small-scale stories, Deadlands: The Weird West comes with a strong emphasis on creating distinctive, memorable characters. The actual changes to the gameplay system are modest: a few new edges and some fun new backgrounds, for the most part. Blessed characters have also been shaken up - whereas previously these faithful characters prayed to the Lord for divine intervention (thereby making their potential for holy deeds potentially infinite), they now rely on a stock of slowly regenerating power points in the same way as other magic.
There's a strong emphasis on creating distinctive, memorable characters.
The rules for duelling have been completely reworked and they are excellent. Whereas before you effectively had to pause the game to play a hand of Texas hold ‘em, now each player gets dealt an initiative card facedown, to be revealed later in the third round. In the first and second rounds, players can try to intimidate or distract one another, or even attempt to get a better initiative card - anything to gain a tactical advantage before the lead starts flying. In the third round, the cards are flipped and the player with the better draw gets to go first. It's leaner, more character-driven and does a great job of translating that decisive moment where all the posturing is over and fast reflexes determine who lives or dies. I used to avoid duels like the plague in Deadlands: Reloaded but now I am itching to play as a hubristic duellist with a short temper.
The way information has been collated and laid out is far clearer, making it easier to grasp the concept of certain character types and look up the relevant details. The Weird West rulebook on the whole is set out in a pleasingly player-forward fashion. Offering a very brief explanation of the world at the start, it saves the bulk of the lore for later and gets the reader focusing almost immediately on making a character. Only once you have a gunslinger in mind (or on paper) does it start to really spill the beans. The knowledge imparted gets more esoteric as the volume goes on, allowing readers to stop whenever they feel like they’ve absorbed enough to start adventuring. It’s a good conceit, keeping the mystery alive while minimising the amount of time people need to spend reading before they’re ready to hit the table.
Deadlands: The Weird West isn’t trying to completely reinvent itself. It’s a tighter, more refined version of the RPG I and so many others fell in love with.
It’s worth noting, however, that Deadlands is still very much a sourcebook for an existing ruleset rather than an all-in-one product. The core rules needed to run the RPG and create characters can be found in Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition, a pleasingly intuitive roleplaying system aimed at getting people to the table as swiftly as possible. Deadlands: The Weird West’s rules content is confined to additional mechanics and rules tweaks that help bring the setting to life and make its characters sing. First-time players may find it a bit of a faff to keep flicking between the two volumes in order to get a handle on the game, but once you’re familiar with the basics of Savage Worlds, this ceases to be much of an issue.
Deadlands: The Weird West isn’t trying to completely reinvent itself. It’s a tighter, more refined version of the roleplaying game I and so many others fell in love with. It’s well thought-out and extremely well presented. It also looks beautiful, with some stunning new artwork in the mix. Returning players will find it a rewarding update but, with any luck, it’ll also reel in a whole passel of new gunslingers.
The Deadlands: The Weird West Kickstarter campaign runs until May 13th.