Adventure in a Nightmare-fueled Landscape: Deadlands: the Weird West
Deadlands: the Weird West (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, April 2021)
Kickstarter completely transformed board gaming a decade ago, and over the last few years it has thoroughly reinvigorated role playing as well. It’s the de facto launch platform for the hobby gaming industry these days, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon. I’ve been playing RPGs since 1979, and in all those years I’ve seen countless new and innovative game systems fail because they couldn’t grow beyond a small but dedicated fan base. Kickstarter has brought those systems a whole new lease on life — and an explosion of new content.
Deadlands is fine example. Created by Shane Lacy Hensley and published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 1996, the horror/steampunk game was a huge artistic and creative success, easily one of the most talked-about RPGs of the 90s. Talk wasn’t enough to keep it alive though, and for long stretches of the last 25 years the game has sadly been unavailable.
In 2017 Pinnacle stuck a toe in the waters with a reprint of the 1999 edition, Deadlands 20th Anniversary Edition, funded by a crowdfunding campaign. Emboldened by that success, last year they tried something much more ambitious: Deadlands: the Weird West, a massive box set containing a complete system relaunch using the Savage Worlds core rules. Deadlands‘ small but loyal fanbase enthusiastically rallied to support the new Kickstarter campaign, and it blew through its $10,000 goal, with 4,973 backers pledging a whopping $568,636.
[Click the images for Weird West versions.]
The Deadlands novels published alongside the 20th Anniversary Edition: Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry,
Thunder Moon Rising by Jeffrey J. Mariotte, and Boneyard by Seanan Mcguire (Tor Books, 2015-17; covers by Aaron Riley)
Now in the olden days (I’m talking circa 2017 here), if you missed out on a Kickstarter, the only thing you could do was tear your hair and gnash your teeth, and haunt the aftermarket, hoping to find a reasonably-priced copy on eBay. Those were dark and lean times, let me tell you.
Things are different in our new Enlightened Age. Game publishers view Kickstarter as a true launch vehicle, and many allow you to sign on after the campaign has officially ended — and most successful products eventually end up in game stores. That was certainly the case with Deadlands: the Weird West, which I bought on Amazon last month for $92 (an 8-buck savings off the Kickstarter price).
Back cover of Deadlands: the Weird West. That’s a lot of goodies in one big box
I’m very pleased with it. Johnny Chiodini has a fine overview at DiceBreaker.com.
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…
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).
The Deadlands: the Weird West weighs a whopping 4.5 pounds, and comes crammed with all kinds of goodies — including a gorgeous Game Masters screen illustrated by Federico Musetti.
Federico Musetti’s beautiful GM screen in Deadlands: the Weird West
The complete Deadlands Boxed Set includes:
– Deadlands the Weird West core rulebook (192 pages)
– GM Screen + Showdown at Sundown Adventure, by Rob Wieland
– Set of 25 Bennies
– Set of 7 Dice and Wild Die
– Poster Map of the Weird West
– Set of 12 Archetype Cards
– Set 12 Powers Cards
– Adventure Cards
– Infernal Device Cards
– Set of 6 Harrowed Cards
– Set of 5 Ammo Counters
Not sure what those “25 Bennies” are, but I think they’re the game tokens players use to re-throw critical dice rolls and change the outcome. They’re part of the Savage Worlds system, the core ruleset for all of Pinnacle’s roleplaying games.
Savage Worlds is required to play; get complete info here, and pick up the basic rules at DriveThruRPG for just $9.99.
Deadlands: Horror at Headstone Hill, part of the same Kickstarter
As part of the same Kickstarter, Pinnacle included two additional boxes (I told you it was ambitious). The first was The Deadlands Pawns Boxed Set, over 100 Deadlands characters and critters printed on thick punchboard. The second was Deadlands: Horror at Headstone Hill, a complete campaign set designed to showcase the new system.
Here’s the details (from the Kickstarter):
Now that the tales of the Servitors have been told in their individual Plot Point Campaigns, Deadlands is returning to its roots with more local yarns of dread, terror, and violent action. The new edition and supplements to follow turn their baleful eyes from the world-shaking events of the Reckoning to isolated frontier towns or sinister machinations in the few larger settlements. The Twilight Legion must root out the evil that lurks in all-too-human souls, the lonesome hills nearby, or the dark woods at the edge of town.
To showcase the return to more personal tales of horror and adventure, we’ve created the Horror at Headstone Hill campaign set!
The campaign features a single county in Wyoming and the terrors that lurk in a booming mining town and environs. Your heroes roam about the map, interacting with the locals, solving mysteries, fighting abominations, and — with luck and a steady shootin’ iron — eventually lower the “Fear Level.” That’s how you defeat the Reckoners’ terrorforming, amigos, and Horror at Headstone Hill showcases it front and center.
The Deadlands: Horror at Headstone Hill Boxed Set contains an introductory booklet on the region for the players with notes from Tombstone Epitaph reporter Lacy O’Malley and the Twilight Legion, a Marshal’s guide detailing all the locations on the map and a full sandbox-oriented Plot Point Campaign, a poster-sized map of the county, and a selection of player handouts to drive this incredible tale of six-guns and sorcery to its bloodstained conclusion!
Like the Weird West boxed set, Horror at Headstone Hill is now available in game shops (and online) — and at the bargain price of $29.99, it’s a great value.
Deadlands spin-offs: The Great Rail Wars, Hell on Earth, and Deadlands Noir
I’m thrilled to see Deadlands roar back to live. West Western is one of my favorite fantasy genres, and Shane Lacy Hensley’s brilliant setting for Deadlands is one of the finest examples I’ve ever seen. It’s had an enormous impact on the gerne, and has inspired countless novels and games in the same setting.
Wikipedia lists over a dozen spin-off products, including board games, card games, a miniatures line, and much more. Here’s just a few I’ve found:
Deadlands: The Great Rail Wars — miniatures-based wargame by Shane Lacy Hensley (Pinnacle, 1997)
Doomtown — collectible card game (Pinnacle Entertainment, 1998)
Deadlands: Hell on Earth — RPG set in a future haunted wasteland (Pinnacle Entertainment, 1998)
Deadlands: Doomtown Range Wars — miniatures-free tabletop wargame (Fantasy Flight Games, 2000)
Deadlands: Lost Colony: Showdown — collectible card game using the Lost Colony setting (Pinnacle, 2000)
FRAG Deadlands — board game in the Frag series (Steve Jackson Games, 2001)
Deadlands: Lost Colony — RPG set on another planet, with sci-fi and horror elements (Pinnacle, 2002)
Savage Worlds — a miniatures and RPG system based on The Great Rail Wars
Deadlands: The Battle For Slaughter Gulch — board game (Twilight Creations, 2009)
Deadlands Noir — John Goff’s Savage Worlds-based Dieselpunk RPG set in 1930s New Orleans (Pinnacle, 2012)
Deadlands Noir: The Big Easy — competitive card game (Last Lion Games, 2019)
Catch up on the fast-growing Deadlands product line at the Pinnacle Games website.
Our previous Deadlands coverage includes:
Deadlands: Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry (2015)
Deadlands: Thunder Moon Rising by Jeffrey Mariotte (2016)
Deadlands: Boneyard by Seanan Mcguire (2017)
A Fistful of Deadlands by Ty Johnston (2021)
Draw Your Guns, Pardner, For More Deadlands! by Ty Johnston (2021)
See all our recent Gaming articles here, and our top-notch coverage of the Weird West here.
i LOVED this system back in the day, the card based/dice system they used was new and interesting, the setting, while i am not into westerns particularly, the weird west is very interesting to me.
and i am glad you included a little Great Rail Wars because holy shit did me and bud’s have fun with that miniatures battle system. they i think though not having played all, had the best ongoing story line battles any mini’s game has tried. theu had a couple campaign games where you could level heroes and i feel like change up the squads based on what happens was very interesting at the time of mission cards and no campaign 40k offered. i was sad to see it not popular and continue on.
these days i dont get to play anything, even online anymore, and i miss it dearly, ad havent bought a new RPG book to just read in a while, maybe this would spark some interest again, though with the recent spelljammer and dragonlance announcements too it might be a time i just search out online games myself, though i am always very shy.
I haven’t heard that much about RAIL WARS — but what I have heard has been very positive. It seems like it’s been enormously influential.
It didn’t seem like it sold that well, and copies are hard to come across. But I’d love to try it.
I found a copy of Rail Wars on eBay! I think it has everything except the rules. It’s already in the mail, and I’m anxious to get my hands on it.
It seems like there was a small amount of support material — for example, the expansion pack A Fist Full o’ Ghost Rock, which had three new scenarios, and the The Great Rail Wars Reinforcements cards . Do you recommend getting any of the expansion material?
oh man, the scenarios/campaigns were the best part, you would battle your armies (AVOID LOOSE ROCK HILLS, i slid down one and died HAHAHAHA!) and the heroes you created could level up and move on from scenario to scenario. it’s been… wow maybe 15-20 years since we used to play after the local movie retal place classed. we played everything story that came out that much i remember, but we played almost every mini’s game that had come out during those years. silent death and great rail wars were always my favorite. but i was always looking for a more campaign oriented mini’s game then 40k or warzone could offer.
i guess i dont have much to offer in suggestions for what to get, i think i just get hyped up when i see the old box. i hope you didnt break the bank based off my enthusiasm.