Posted on August 2, 2012 by Flames
Available at RPGNow.com
You can’t keep a good game down. Deadlands has been around for over 15 years. It’s gone through two editions, a d20 version, and two Savage World editions. It’s spawned spin-off games ranging from sequels like Hell on Earth and Lost Colony to acclaimed CCGs like Doomtown. The game recently returned to Savage Worlds for the line’s budget minded Explorer Editions. The Marshall’s Handbook is built for the brave soul looking to take his or her players on a tour of the Weird West. It’s built for fans of the setting that want to use the slimmed down Savage Worlds rules, which were born out of the original Deadlands rules.
Deadlands tells the tale of a world of a shattered North America in the year 1880. The Civil War dragged on for over a decade. California fell into the ocean. The discovery of ghost rock, a strange new fuel source, allowed for infernal devices to change the way the world worked. Monsters roam the shadows of the West. It’s up to small bands of heroes to put those monsters down with spells slung like cards and bullets fired from rifles. This is the best steampunk horror western setting on the market, taking cues from Army of Darkness, Wild, Wild West, and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
This edition splits the core book in two. The Marshal’s Handbook lets the GM (known as The Martial) in on many of the settings Big Secrets. Returning fans already know the truth about much of the setting, but a lot of things have happened inside the game world. This book summarized what’s happened in the setting, what happened during the game line and hints at what is to come. It also gives a brief overview of the West itself, from the secret societies Back East to the shattered California coastline now called The Great Maze. The book finishes off with several monsters and threats ranging from stats for big names like Stone to outlaw bandits looking to shoot up a cowtown.
This book also has unique mechanics. Many of the Arcane Backgrounds have to pay a price for their cool powers. This book talks about how bad those prices are. Hucksters deal with demonic backlash. Mad scientists are called that for a reason. A favorite of Marshals everywhere returns in the Veteran o’the Weird West table gives players a chance to start further along the trail to herodom with a built-in story hook. Grit is explained and how it interacts with the Fear Level in certain areas. The bad guys feed off fear, so going into that abandoned mine to kill the ghost wolves is more difficult than if you do it at high noon in Dodge City.
It’s finally good to have all the big secrets in one place. Deadlands has sprawled out over dozens of books and games. It’s nice to have the big points of that information in one place clear as day. Some fans enjoyed scouring multiple books looking for hidden clues to the secrets of the setting. Those days are long gone. Even the long standing “If You Stat It, They Will Kill It” rules is gone to the wayside. The Big Bad Guys now all have stats, including very clear ways to put them down for good. These methods are not easy by any means, but a campaign could be built around dealing with getting the materials needed to win.
This is one of the issues with the book. Most Savage Worlds setting books include a Plot Point Campaign, which is an outline and collection of short adventures for GMs to run. These books do exists but are sold separately for Deadlands. The closest the book comes are random encounters based on the different areas discussed in the book. There are also a ton of excellent adventures for the original rules set, but the GM will have to seek those out rather than pull together a plot point campaign from the book. Marshals will need to do a little more work to start a campaign rather than flip to the next Plot Point.
The lack of GM advice is also an area where the book could improve. The books is packed with the setting’s history and creatures. It doesn’t have much in the way of how running a western is different than your standard fantasy campaign. Deadlands has a lot of genres in the air and keeping them all together can be a challenge for new GMs. The book’s monster section is extensive, but giving up some of the more obscure ones for a section on a typical western town (and how to turn it into a hell hole) would be useful for anyone coming into the game fresh. Choices like this make the game seem to be written for an audience that already knows it, which should never be the case when a new edition comes out to lure in new players.
One of the big resources available to Marshals is Pinnacle’s excellent website. The website contains more than just character sheets. It has cheat sheets for the arcane backgrounds, Adventure Cards unique to the game, The Player’s Guides for the two Plot Point campaigns available (which include all the mechanics free of charge), a printable train terrain and conversions for some of Classic Deadlands most popular adventures. The forums are also some of the most friendly and helpful ones on the internet and have been since the original game came out years ago. Being a Marshal is a scary thing but there’s a lot of backup out there.
Bottom Line: GMs looking for a break from the usual looting and spookstories should check out this version of a classic game line.
Review by Rob Wieland