Greetings from the Cheesecake Factory in Doomtown.
The American West – and its violent colonization – assumes a large part of American fiction. This colonizing violence influences most RPGs: if not in the game’s mechanics, then in the narratives that the settings seek to inspire. This is tacitly true of all RPG settings to some degree.
It is most expressly the case in Deadlands, the setting from the Pinnacle Entertainment Group. We will get to the setting in a moment – we first look at the game system for the most recent edition.
The game system called Savage Worlds is the engine the setting currently uses (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2021). This system prioritizes speed of play over detail or arguable realism, and it falls on the emulation end of the simulation to the emulation spectrum. Savage Worlds emulates fast-paced movies, TV programs, and stories with a lot of engaging action. It emulates the mode of high-energy storytelling rather than a specific genre, such as horror or science fiction (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2018).
There are many different game engines. Each resolves game challenges in different ways. It is generally best to compare like to like. So, Savage Worlds is best compared to other game engines that use dice to handle task resolution. These fall in different places along the complexity and simplicity scale. For example, D&D leans towards complication, and more complicated still is Phoenix Command (Leading Edge Games, 1986). Savage Worlds is one of the least complicated systems in this context. Probably only Fate and Gumshoe are less complex systems that still uses dice (Evil Hat Productions, 2013).
Savage Worlds uses a point buy system – a player starts with a set number of points which they distribute to various abilities and skills of the character. Different dice, including 4-sided, 6-sided, 8-sided, and 10-sided, define the characters’ traits. The standard difficulty for tasks is 4. Hitting (to say nothing of exceeding) the four is more likely with a die with more sides. The system provides edges and hindrances, or advantages and disadvantages, allowing players to customize their character. The system also provides bennies, or points used to grant rerolls or other remarkable results.
Most table-top RPGs have systems for adjudicating special powers. This includes magic, impossible science fiction devices, mental abilities, etcetera. The system used by Savage Worlds is one of the cleanest and most elegant. Characters possess a set of power points with which they may use a set of power. The game provides a uniform set of powers used by magicians, mad scientists, priests, and mentalists. The description of the power determines in-game effects. At the same time, the player must describe how the power looks in a way consistent with their character (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2018). This is effective and simpler way than seemingly endless lists of spells and categories in D&D.
The system has other nuances, but that covers the broad strokes. Suffice it to say Savage Worlds is a clean and efficient system. The system works in many genres, including action, science fiction, horror, and high fantasy. So, Savage Worlds is a compelling game system. In 2003 it won the Origins Gamers’ Choice Awards in the Roleplaying Game category (Origins Game Fair, 2003).
The publishers have used Savage Worlds as the default game engine for Deadlands since 2006.
The American frontier, and the violence involved in colonizing the region, have a deep place in American identity. Traditional ways of understanding this colonizing and violence shaped American philosophy and folklore.
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner used the term “frontier” as a model for understanding American culture in his essay The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Turner argued that the frontier was “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” and that this violent process served as the foundation for American identity and politics. This idea did not start with Frederick Jackson Turner. Still, he was the first to organize this as a philosophy and to express it coherently. A part of his thesis included the claim that Native Americans, the terrain, and geography of North America, transformed the pioneers as they moved from the East to the West. The process made the pioneers into individuals prizing freedom and individualism (Turner, 2017). Turner published his essay three years after the American Census Bureau declared the frontier closed.
Turner’s thesis has influenced American rhetoric and thinking until today. Pushback on his thesis did not begin until World War II. Moreover, significant pushback against Turner did not start until decades later and happened as a part of social movements (Slotkin, 1985).
The supposed closing of the frontier in 1890 and the publishing of Turner’s thesis in 1893 are important dates to American mythmaking because of their proximity to Hollywood movies. Short films featuring Western iconography appeared before the turn of the century, and actual movies with fictional narratives set in the West appeared as early as 1903. The number of Western movies began to decline with the advent of sound in 1927 – it would pick up again later (Nenin & Everson, 1962). However, even in that early period, hundreds of western movies saw production and release. For example, actor Tom Mix appeared in 282 movies between 1909 and 1935 (Oklahoma Historical Society, 2022). This period also saw white and black hats as visual imagery to signal heroes and villains (Mackay & Maples, 2013).
So, movies featuring the West, and western themes and stories, began mass production when the violent colonization of the West was still a living memory. Mix himself had been born in 1880 – a decade before the census declared the frontier closed. Movies helped to disseminate that imagery and iconography to a broad audience. On a related note, Hollywood chose the specifics of the Western because of cheapness and simplicity – the deserts around Hollywood were easily accessible and cheap to use. Turner was right in that the frontier had been a shifting thing across American history. Around 250 years pass between the first enduring European colonies on the East coast in the early 17th century and the end of the American Civil War. About 35 years passed from the end of the civil war to the end of the frontier. Despite that time difference – 35 years after the Civil War versus the 250 years before – the colonization of the Westernmost states looms most prominent in American folklore and imagery. This is because movies disseminated those images, stories, and Turner’s thesis.
All that to say, frontier colonization is part of American culture, and the ideas that come with it can serve as a reflex for many American people. A lot of these ideas appear in Dungeons and Dragons as a result.
Robin Van Gilder points out in a 2020 essay that a necessary part of the colonialist mindset is the myth of available land. This land, and all its resources, are out there and effectively waiting for someone strong to come along, take it, and make use of it. An RPG campaign world is a problem to be resolved by what Turner would call pioneers. Van Gilder writes, “It is not something to be approached as an existing system to be engaged with on an equal social level, but something to be challenged and conquered” (Gilder, 2020). Thor Olavsrud wrote an essay with a similar theme. Olavsrud observes that the difference between our present narratives about the American West and the standard narratives of D&D is that the locals are evil. Drow are evil, kobolds are evil, orcs are evil in addition to being ugly and foul smelling. However, as Olavsrud points out, evil, savage, and unappealing are the same rhetoric used to describe non-whites at the time Turner composed his thesis. As Olavsrud writes, “You don’t really need even to squint to see that these stories are cut from the same cloth” (Olavsrud, 2020). In D&D, the party kills the drow, kobolds, and orcs and takes their stuff. In the frontier, the pioneers kill the Natives and take their stuff – including real estate.
With all that groundwork laid out, we can finally get onto Deadlands.
In 1996 Shane Lacy Hensley published the RPG setting Deadlands, which is expressly the best and worst of the American frontier as a fantasy table-top RPG. Since its inception, the setting has served as a mix of genres, most clearly the western but also horror, action-adventure, science fiction in a steam-punk sense, and fantasy.
The setting of the game is the American West in an alternate history. History is openly the same until 1863 and the battle of Gettysburg. The battle-dead rose as zombies at that point. Zombies at Gettysburg meant more than Robert E. Lee and George Meade saying, “what the fuck.” It meant magic had become possible in the world – broadly speaking, this included steam-punk devices, divinely granted powers, and more. These changes meant the Civil War drug on for an entire decade rather than five years. A magically induced earthquake sunk much of coastal California and left a dense island network behind. A supernatural version of coal called ghost rock appeared and allowed for impossible technical devices. The Union needed a coast-to-coast railroad after the eventual end of the protracted Civil War. That need turned into a protracted shooting war between the companies trying to build that rail line. The Mormons of Utah establish their nation during this chaos, and independent native American nations form in the northern and southern great plains.
Any number of actual monsters began appearing all the while, sinister forces schemed, and the light of Western civilization faded. Because behind the zombies at Gettysburg, the appearance of ghost rock, the sinking of California, and other troubles are four malevolent spirits called the Reckoners. These entities are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the goal behind their manipulations is to end the world. They have powerful servants in the form of a cannibal preacher (now dead), a zombie gunfighter, a mad scientist who is like a much worse version of Rick Sanchez, and a malevolent Native American shaman.
This is the landscape in which the player characters find themselves. A party will usually find themselves grappling with some local problem that in a small in a way that matches the narrative of many old western movies. Except in the Deadlands, threats the townsfolk face are usually not just local bandits but witches, robots, and robot witches. Later the adventures scale up to grander and more terrible things – but that is only a possibility. This edition of the setting mostly avoids epic-scale adventures.
Like most TT RPG books, the 2021 edition of Deadlands discusses using the rules, character creation, provides special rules unique to the setting, information on monsters, and narrative details of the setting. It is also ergodic literature. The prose is clear, though a fake Old West patois sometimes appears. Deadlands provides some novel uses for playing cards, which helped inspire my use of cards in my book Inn Between Worlds.
Throughout the book, the art is striking. It is all full color and does an excellent job of conveying the setting excitingly. Some of the best pieces are the flying ghosts with a train engine on page 78, the zombie bandits on page 100, the Indians killing monster buffalo on page 130, and the werewolf on page 193 (Pinnacle Entertainment Group, 2021).
Now, we explore the problems with the setting.
The book also permits using Texas Rangers as characters and monster hunters. This is like a game set in the wake of WWII letting players have former SS officers as monster hunters and characters. Gamers can do this but ignoring the catalog of sins is problematic. This is the Rule of Cool trumping the Rule of the Plausible, to say nothing of the Rule of Good Taste. This is a problem that runs through the entire setting.
The strength and presence of the American government are vague in this setting. 1884 is the starting date for the setting – more than a decade after its version of the Civil War ended. It is plausible that the prolonged war preoccupied the military and government. However, that ended more than a decade ago in the setting. Why has this government not responded to a Chinese warlord seizing many of the remaining islands of California? Why is it not at war with the Coyote Confederation? It is silly to assume the military and government are such non-entities 13 years later. This is particularly true in the face of such persistent and dire threats to America’s power and prestige.
The book presents a setting where the American government will tolerate explicit corporate war crimes against American citizens inside its territory with mass casualties – this happened during the rail wars. Either this is an incompetent American government to the point of being a non-entity, or it will abide by any sin against its people to protect its power. Either interpretation changes the tone of the setting. This government cannot control anything or does not give a damn so long as it gets a cut. This has significant implications. For example, if that is the situation then why hasn’t most of the Deadlands not just dissolved into feuding warlord territories?
On a related note, why are the only native groups permitted nations the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, and the Kiowa? Why have tribes like the Modoc and Yana not turned the situation to their advantage and seized control of Californian islands?
The setting uses the notion of magic, weird science, and other powers as a mix of large-scale secret and one-off gags. This is implausible. It is vastly more likely that elite circles, business interests, and government officers would attempt to monopolize all these powers. The existence of the powers would be openly known, but not openly available, and made to control the population. It is easy to imagine people like Helena Blavatsky and the Fox Sisters running such companies or agencies. This is when they were alive and claimed to have magical powers.
One of the major villains of the setting is named Raven – the evil Native American shaman. Use of the character in the setting smacks of the “Savage Indian” and the “Magical Native American” tropes. The character seems like one of the worst creations of Robert E. Howard. Running a Native American character is possible for a player. Still, these characters smack of red face, and the book casts the heroic Indians squarely in the “Hollywood Natives” and “Braids, Beads, and Buckskins” ideas of Native American cultures and people.
A meta-level goal of the players is they fight the Reckoners by reducing levels of fear across the countryside. They do this by slaying monsters, defeating bad guys, and making the country a better place. A better place for who is the salient question. The tacit answer is the people who call the west a frontier and are shedding blood to claim and colonize the region.
The book uses the term “frontier” in a Frederick Jackson Turner way. The native Americans use the word “home” and dislike all the illegal immigrants violently moving in. Every small town the party saves from monsters is a town of squatters and land thieves who got that property through violence. This, along with its treatment of Native American issues and the implausible aspects of human behavior in the setting, renders it all shallow.
In short – the setting should be much madder. It strikes a tone where things are familiar enough to be recognizable and strange enough to be interesting. It does this at the expense of exploring the ideas and possibilities of the setting.
For context, Wraith the Oblivion is a challenging game. Deadlands goes out of its way to not be challenging and be thematically comfortable – even when it would make sense for it to be uncomfortable and thoroughly challenging. This prevents it from achieving what it could have in terms of RPGs as an art form. However, credit where credit is due, the setting remains widely popular. It continues to make money for Shane Hensley and the others at Pinnacle Entertainment Group. There is no shame in that position.
But this put me in an interesting position. Temperamentally I cannot say Deadlands is RPG art because it refuses to engage with the more profound questions of the material and even with its premise. However, the thesis of this series is that group engagement is the meaningful quality of RPGs as art. Deadlands is thoroughly popular. So, I must acknowledge that its success should qualify it as an artifact of RPG art to be true to my premise.
However, I would have preferred something tonally closer to watching Django Unchained while on acid, while Deadlands is more like watching Blazing Saddles while drinking.
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Oklahoma Historical Society. (2022, January 27). Tom Mix Museum. Retrieved from Oklahoma Historical Society: http://www.okhistory.org/outreach/affiliates/tommix.html
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Weird