You know the drill. Lumping two sections together since neither of them is as finished or polished as they should be, but there’s enough here to get a firm foundation. More after the break.
Since I’ve been going at Deadlands full steam ahead, perhaps I should sit back and spend a little time defining what exactly it is. (Besides, so far all I’ve posted are notes I made in the past few years, I should at least expend the time and energy to write some new material for a change.)
The shortest way to describe Deadlands is to make it a sum of its lump parts: it’s the spaghetti western steampunk horror roleplaying game.
Oh boy. That’s a bit dense. Let’s go through it step by step to figure out what the hell it means.
Post after the break.
Hucksters are probably the coolest characters to play in Deadlands because of their mystique — they’re like the penultimate manifestation of the con-man gambler, making poker bets against the demonic manitou spirits in order to cast hexes. As such, they rule. (I am pretty biased, since I’ve mostly played Hucksters.) The Huckster calls to the spirits, then makes a poker draw to “gamble” with the manitou. Success means they can channel powerful magic through the Huckster’s body while controlling the manitou; failure means they lose a bit of their soul, or worse, the manitou channels essence into the Huckster’s body uncontrolled and the hex goes horribly awry (usually to the death and destruction of innocents or fellow posse members).
The iconic part about all this is that the player actually makes a poker draw—against a Fair (5 TN) challenge, the Huckster gets to draw 5 cards, and make the best poker hand possible, gaining more cards from Raises. Some hexes have a minimum hand to have any effect, but getting higher poker hands will net an improved result; in other cases, what you draw determines the hes’s effect (for damage or healing, for example).
Rollin’ the Bones
The poker draw is easy enough to transport over. You have a couple of options to give the Huckster enough cards to make a poker hand.
First is to try and keep the Classic style by rolling against a set difficulty—have a target number 3, or higher staggered difficulties depending on how powerful the specific hex is. Matching the difficulty nets 5 cards; each Shift gives an extra card. A Great character with her casting skill at +4 (and what Great character wouldn’t put their casting skill at +4) needs to roll a +3 on the dice to meet the most powerful hex requirements and get the minimal five cards; rolling against the Difficulty 3, getting a +3 on the dice nets them four extra cards, for a total hand of 9.
For staggered difficulties, you could set them around the following. Tricks (the equivalent of Cantrips) would need a 3, or even a 1. Decently powerful hexes could need a 5—so a Superb character would need to not botch to get any cards. Insanely powerful hexes, like rituals and sich, would need around a 7. It’s all a bit high, since most Dresden characters only end up with +5s to throw around, but nobody said starting level characters should end up with the really sick (difficulty 7) rituals. Or maybe they have to make multiple rolls, who knows.
I’m thinking of setting the minimum roll as +3 for hexes (+0 for Tricks) to get the starting five cards, with each shift getting an extra card—someone with a skill at +3 or +4 would end up with a few cards very easily, though it’s easy to end up fudging a roll and seeing a hex fizzle.
The easier way is to just give out as many cards as the character generates shifts, e.g., making the difficulty +0. There’s no guarantee that they’ll get the minimum five to make a poker hand this way unless you give them out as soon as the player reaches a set variable, but on the flipside, with a lot of points in casting it’s easier to end up with a boatload of extra cards.
So, now that your Marshal has set the bare difficulties required to get extra cards… what do you roll to get them? Classic Deadlands only had one skill, Hexslingin’, though I’m coming at it from another direction. Since it’s a contested showdown with the manitou, the Huckster rolls his Gamblin’ (straight out of Spirit of the Century) to beat the manitou; it’s that Gamblin’ roll that determines how many cards the Huckster ends up with.
However, I’m also tempted to keep Hexslingin’ around as a secondary skill. A hex might use the Hexslingin’ value as its base damage, or as its base duration; the Huckster might roll Hexslingin’ to reduce the time it takes to cast a hex, or whatever else the Marshal comes up with. (For example, a Huckster with Hexslingin’ rated at +4 would have: Soul Blast dealing a base damage of +4, Call of the Wild having a base duration of +4, or maybe it could decrease a ritual from A Week to A Few Hours (four steps on the time chart). Something to consider to give everything a base variable to go off.
Alternately, the Hexslingin’ could determine whether the Huckster wins the contest: give it the set difficulty to find if the Huckster wins his gamble, and use Gamblin’ to determine the number of cards they draw. Or, hell, scratch it and just go off of Gamblin’, or drop all the Huckster casting from Gamblin’ and only use Hexslingin’.
Makin’ the Hand
Regardless of how many cards you draw, you then have to make the best poker hand out of them—and the poker hand is five-card stud. The cards you can’t use get pitched; if you drew thirteen cards, you can only use five of them as your draw result. The others don’t count; even if they had some secondary effect due to a Knack/Background or Artifact (Wild Bill’s Deck), if they don’t fit in the hand, their effect doesn’t trigger. Exceptions are anything treated as a Joker, because you can’t get rid of bad luck that easily.
Jokers get their own special note. Both are wild cards, so you can use them as whatever card you want, but that power comes with a price. The manitou can decide to “tweak” the hex a little, depending on the situation. Maybe it goes off as normal. Maybe it buffs an enemy instead of killing them. Maybe the manitou decides that the hex’s best avenue of approach is through fellow posse members. It all depends on the Marshal. Make sure to keep them friendly-like.
Only thing worse than drawing a Joker is Backlash. Backlash occurs when you fail to cast a hex properly; e.g., when you Go Bust and end up with a total Dice + Skill effort zero or less. What’s goin’ down is that somewhere between channeling the manitou and getting the hex off on time, you flinched; the excess power from the manitou races through your body, wracking it in pain, but for some reason you can’t get that power to act as it should. When you get hit with Backlash, you get a free automatic Consequence—the Major Mental one Shaken. The hex also fizzles, so you basically done lost your action.
If your Marshal is feeling extra cruel, maybe you take Mental Stress damage equal to the die roll (three stress on a -3), or worse, equal to your Hexslingin’.
Tricks are a nifty little style of cantrip introduced in Hucksters & Hexes. For the most part, they generate a fixed effect: Groom cleans all the dirt and dust off you, for example. Why does it need a roll? Well, in order to make sure it doesn’t screw up… hence why the roll is so low. As long as you don’t botch on the roll, e.g. end up with total effort 0 or higher, it’s going to go off without a hitch. Failure means you take backlash. Because taking backlash is what the cool kids are doing these days.
Some hexes have different requirements to cast them, and exceeding those requirements makes the hex better. For example, Soul Blast requires at least a Pair to cast. If you drew Three of a Kind, that’s three steps higher on the chart, and nets you +3 additional damage. Woo-hoo. Others don’t have numerical effects, but increase the hex’s potency regardless: Call of the Wild goes from attracting bats and coyots to summoning bears if you get a high enough hand. Something to keep in mind: the hex can only get better.
Poker Hand Chart
As before, the card hierarchy is the same. Jokers, then Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks, then cards of descending numerical value. Spades is top suit, then Hearts, Diamonds, and lastly Clubs.
- High Card – unless otherwise noted in the hex description, holding an Ace (e.g., A♦) and nothing better. The lowest possible draw that can still successfully cast certain hexes.
- Pair – two of the same card (e.g., 8♣ and 8♦).
- Jacks – a pair, Jacks or other face cards (e.g., Q♦ and Q♥).
- Two Pair – two different sets of the same two cards (e.g., Queens and tens, Q♥, Q♣, 10♠, 10♥).
- Three of a Kind – three of the same card (e.g., three tens, 10♥, 10 ♠, 10♦).
- Straight – five cards in numerical order, mixed suits (e.g., 7♠, 8♣, 9♥, 10♠, J♦)
- Flush – five cards of the same suit, not in numerical order (e.g., spade flush, 6♠, J♠, 2♠, 5♠, 10♠)
- Full House – three of a kind plus a pair (e.g., Aces over fives, 5♥, 5♣, A♠, A♥, A♦)
- Four of a Kind – four of the same value card, from the four suits (e.g., A♣, A♦, A♥, A♠)
- Straight Flush – five cards in numerical order from the same suit (e.g., 6♦, 7♦, 8♦, 9♦, 10♦)
- Royal Flush – highest ranking poker hand, made up of the face cards and the ten, all in the same suit. (e.g., A♠, K♠, Q♠, J♠, 10♠ would be a Royal Flush of spades)
Example – These Rules In Action
So, Rupert wants to go Soul Blast some ornery Abomination on the outskirts of Dodge City. Soul Blast is an attack hex that pierces through the ether to strike the soul of a critter; it requires a Pair or Better to succeed, takes one action to cast, and can hit targets up to 50 Yards/Hexslingin’ level (which I’ll say is five zones for the purposes of FATE combat… not that it matters, the Abomination is lurking in the shadows two zones away). Rupert rolls his Gamblin’ to find how many cards he draws: the dice roll is +5-3, or +2; when added to Rupert’s Gamblin’ skill (+4) it gives a total effort of 6.
The number of cards Rupert draws depends on what the Marshal’s using to gauge difficulty. If it’s draw cards equal to the number of successes, Rupert draws 6 cards. If it’s got a difficulty 3 for five cards plus one per shift, Rupert’ll draw 8 cards. We’ll go with the latter option since that’s the one I’m leaning towards. (Yes, I made a real draw for this using the same ancient, heavily shuffled deck I used years ago for Deadlands, and yes, I pulled a sick hand.)
Rupert draws the following: 5♣, Q♥, 3♣, 9♠, J♥, and the extra cards net him 9♥, 9♣, 10♠, 9♦. He’s damn glad he got those shifts, because those three nines make a bunch o’ junk into a damn fine hand. That’s four nines, or Four of a Kind; none of the other cards amount to a whole hill of beans, so he opts for 9♠, 9♥, 9♣, 9♦, 10♠ as his final answer.
Soul Blast’s difficulty is a Pair; Four of a Kind is seven steps above that on the chart, so the hex is dealing +7 damage. Its base damage is equal to Rupert’s Hexslingin’ skill (+3), for a grand total of +10 damage to the ornery critter out in the wilds. Since Soul Blast overcomes armor and other defenses, that critter is probably cooked—it’s shit out of luck unless it can take Consequences, like what some powerful adversaries can do. Even so, in that case it’d be taking a Extreme (-8) Consequence, and two Physical Stress on top of that. Whuf.
Going the other route, and only drawing six cards, would have rewarded Rupert with 5♣, Q♥, 3♣, 9♠, J♥, 9♥, just enough to beat Soul Blast’s minimum requirement (a Pair); the hex would go off, but only doing damage equal to Rupert’s Hexslingin’ score (+3), which is not nearly as flashy or cool. There is one way around this: the Marshal could allow Hucksters to invoke an Aspect, spend a Fate Chip, and add +2 to the roll. Adding +2 to this roll would give Rupert 9♣ and 10♠, raising the draw three steps to Three of a Kind, for a total of +3 (hand) +3 (skill) or 6 damage. Much better.
Stunts, Knacks, Relics, and Increasing Your Power
Don’t forget that these break the rules in some way, and that by having them, things get even better. Coming up with the following Stunts might not be so out of line:
Dealer’s Choice [Gamblin']
You’re never happy without a deck of cards in your hands; poker and faro run through your blood. Any time you are dealt a card for any reason, including system mechanics such as initiative and Hexslingin’, you can spend a Fate Chip to discard that card and redraw.
Old Hand [Gamblin']
Prerequisites: Arcane Background: Huckster
You’ve been around a while, and what you’ve seen of the Hunting Grounds has made you a little more prepared to deal with its dangerous denizens. When you draw cards to cast a Hex, you draw them one at a time, and can stop drawing at any time you like. Downside is, you still need to draw a minimum of five cards. Upside is, with a little luck, you can avoid those pesky Jokers.
There are also certain Harrowed powers that let you draw extra cards, and a Knack (Born On All-Hallow’s Eve) that lets you discard and redraw cards at the cost of a Fate Chip.
Also end up with Relics, such as:
Wild Bill’s Deck
Legend says the old boy was gunned down holding Aces and Eights—the Dead Man’s Hand, because Wild Bill Hickock ended up shot in the back and killed before he got to play it. You got possession of that deck, some of the cards still spattered with a bit o’ blood, and a bit of the magical essence from that fateful dead man.
Power: There’s a chance of triggering the deck’s power on any successful roll where those blood-spattered cards pop up. Whenever you draw a card from the Dead Man’s Hand—A♠, A♣, 8♠, 8♣, J♦, the black Aces and Eights and the Jack of Diamonds—it raises your draw by one step (so holding one of those listed cards turns Two Pair into Three of a Kind; two would turn Two Pair into a Straight). Drawing all five cards within the Dead Man’s Hand is treated as the highest possible draw—a Royal Flush.
Taint: Two downsides to the deck. First is that its owner slowly gains the Dementia: Paranoia disadvantage, thinking about how old Bill was gunned down; you start to envision yourself going in the same way. Second, and more worrying, are reports that Wild Bill has clawed his way out of the earth and is tracking down his twin sixguns—the ones taken off his body at the scene of his murder. If that’s true, it’s only a matter of time before he comes after his cards…
In the example above, if Rupert was drawing from Wild Bill’s Deck and had held the A♠ instead of the 10♠ as his final draw result, it would have raised the hex’s effect by one step—from Four of a Kind to a Straight Flush, bringing even more overkill at +11 damage the poor critter has to soak.
There’s some other artifacts and Stunts to convert, as well as some Knacks and backgrounds, but I didn’t do them yet and I’m lazy, so there you go.
The order of operations always starts with Spades, then Hearts, Diamonds, and Clubs in that descending order. In terms of card value, Aces, then the face cards (King, Queen, Jack), then the numerical cards in descending order. Always.
This is one thing I definitely want to keep, especially since it rolled over into Deadlands: Reloaded for Savage Worlds. Rolling for initiative gets you dealt a number of poker cards—at least one, and possibly as many as five—depending on your roll. Initiative starts with the highest card (Aces or Jokers) and moves down, according to suits and card values. (One of many reasons why you need 3+ poker decks to run this game, and why I say it has a ton of awesome but disparate mechanics). You keep these cards a secret, so nobody knows how the initiative order will break down. You might luck out and get a string of face cards, a bunch of low cards, or you could get a scatter-shot selection from across the deck.
FATE generally relies on Alertness or Empathy for initiative, depending on if it’s physical or social combat being established. It also ranges up to an effective total of 13 (+8 skill, +5 die result) for super-powered characters. Deadlands uses Quickness, as I recall; the closest FATE analogue is Athletics, and while similar, it’s not quite there. And Deadlands has a higher skill cap: rolling 4d12 enough will result in at least one of them Acing, so you have a good chance of making rolls upwards of 15.
So with that in mind, initiative could be determined something like this: rolling the relevant skill (Alertness, Empathy, maybe Quickdraw if you include it) and comparing the table below.
+d6-d6 Effort # Action Cards Up to 3 1 4-6 2 7-9 3 10-12 4 13+ 5
At least it makes sense to me. The idea is that you start getting more cards after you generate Spin, and for each three—as in, each additional Spin—you generate. A starting level character with Alertness at +1 will need to roll at least +3 to get a second action card. Someone with Quickdraw +3 will need to roll a zero to get stuck with one card, and needs just a +1 on the dice to get a second action. (You might want to bump the required Effort down by one step for 4dF since its rolls are lower due to that bell curve—so you’d have Up to 2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and 9+.)
Rolling a zero still nets one card, I should note. Also, going Bust on initiative draws? Bad mojo; you get one action, and get to go last, if the Marshal lets you go at all. Those pesky negatives.
Now that you have your cards, how do you use them? Each one you get is an action in the round; the person with the highest card passes that card in and goes first, then the person with the next highest card, then the person with the next highest card, and so forth. When nobody’s got cards left, if there’s still action to be done, re-roll initiative and deal out those cards. Again, they follow the same order of operations at the top of the page as everything else.
The exceptions to the standard order of operations are Jokers. Black Jokers are immediately put back in the deck, leaving you with one less action this round—bad luck bones you in Deadlands. Red Jokers can be spent to go at any point during a turn—you could go first, or interrupt a bad guy’s action. Downside is, you can’t hold Red Jokers up your sleeve—more on that later. The GM can use the Black Joker as a Red Joker, just because they’re cool like that.
One more time, let’s look at a standard action draw and see the layout:
Anne gets the Nine of Hearts and the Red Joker. Bob is dealt the Ace of Spades, the Seven of Diamonds, and the Five of Clubs. The GM has the Ten of Diamonds, the Nine of Clubs, the Eight of Spades, and the Five of Diamonds. (Lot o' cards. Being the GM has its perks.) The initiative order would be as follows: Red Joker - Anne, who can go when she wants Ace of Spades - Bob Ten of Diamonds - GM Nine of Hearts - Anne (Hearts trumps Clubs) Nine of Clubs - GM Eight of Spades - GM Seven of Diamonds - Bob Five of Diamonds - GM (Diamonds also trumps Clubs) Five of Clubs - Bob Of course, none of them will know this at first since they're keeping their cards secret. But that's the order in which their initiative will end up.
One more bit, holding cards Up Your Sleeve—sideboarding them for a later event. You don’t have to spend all your action cards, and can choose to forego an action to put the card “up your sleeve;” if you do, you get to spend that action card in a later initiative challenge. You’re short-suiting yourself now to be a little stronger next time. Pick your battles wisely.
The Starting Draw
Initially I was thinking of sticking with just the FATE skill pyramid, but I’m also wondering about how easy it is to replicate the Classic Deadlands stat draw. Basically, you draw 12 cards from a deck of poker cards, then discard any two that aren’t Deuces or Jokers. What cards you draw determines your stat values, and are assigned to your ten statistics: the card value gave you a die type, and the suit gave you a certain number of them.
So, each stat consists of a number of dice, as determined above. A Deuce of Diamonds would give you 2d4 for an attribute, while a Queen of Spades gives you 4d10. Classic Deadlands uses these dice pools to roll for skill checks; roll all the dice in a pool (e.g., Cognition rated at 4d10 sees you rolling four ten-siders for Cognition checks), re-roll any that Ace (e.g. roll their highest value, like 6 on a d6) while summing that die’s total. Then take the one highest die you rolled, compare it to the Target Number (TN), and count by how far you surpassed it. (So, for 4d10, you might roll 4, 7, 10+6, and 10+10+3. You’d want to take the last one since it Aced twice for a total of 23; against a standard tough difficulty of 9, you just made three Raises, which rocks out.)
That’s not that hard to convert to FATE; it’s a total of five different steps, so each one could represent a different +x skill modifier. If you wanted to do away with the pyramid, you could end up with a drawing chart like this:
SUPERB CHARACTERS GREAT CHARACTERS GOOD CHARACTERS Draw 16, Drop 2 Draw 12, Drop 2 Draw 8, Drop 2 Again, you can't discard Deuces or Jokers. Card Result Card Result Card Result Deuce +1 Deuce +0 Deuce +0 3-8 +2 3-8 +1 3-10 +1 9-Jack +3 9-Jack +2 Face Card +2 Queen-King +4 Queen-King +3 Ace/Joker +3 Ace/Joker +5 Ace/Joker +4
I’m not sure I’d do that, since you could easily end up with a stack of characters who have a bunch of +2′s but no high or low stats—on the middle chart, that’s 24 chances to draw a +1, while only 12 to draw a +2, eight for a +3 and six for a +4. Superb characters also have a higher chance of ending up with Deuces or pulling Jokers because they’re drawing so many cards. But it sure is tempting; the balance would work out to be about the same as in Deadlands, which put high value on high skills since most characters were saddled with d6s and d8s—enough to pass low difficulties, but not enough to thrive in the the horror/survivalist setting.
The number of skills aren’t too out of whack; with the standard skill pyramid, Superb characters have 15 starting skills in most FATE, while Great have 10 and Good have 6, and Dresden often starts them out with 15+ from working on pillars instead of a pyramid. If I had to go with the above systems, I’d opt for the middle one.
Why can’t you discard Deuces? Because they’re Bad Luck; when Fate frowns on you, you’re stuck with suck. What about Jokers? Those give you a Mysterious Background, which depends on both the Joker and the specific draw—I’d just use the draw system in the Deadlands Marshal’s Guide, and turn them into Disadvantages ala Bulldogs! E.g., negative Aspects that always start a compel escalated, can’t be bought off, and stick with the character until they’re dead (past even that if they end up Harrowed). (Or just plain old positive Aspects, if the PC drew one of the good ones.)
Harrowed & Hucksters
Speaking of Harrowed. Dying in Deadlands—specifically, in a Deadland, or a place with a high fear rating—gives you a high chance of coming back as a Harrowed, or walkin’ dead. You gain a bunch o’ scars, from whatever killed you, and while your heart stops, you don’t. That’s because a manitou takes over your body and reanimates it. In most cases, the Harrowed starts off barely in control of the manitou, though sometimes the manitou ends up in charge. Turning into a Harrowed comes after the Marshal draws a card at time of death and judges the results, but I’ll deal with that when I get to Harrowed.
Hucksters also have a lot of card-based mechanics; their deal with a manitou involves a poker draw, gambling bits of their soul for magical power. Winning the poker draw lets the spell go off as planned, but the neat thing is that you actually draw a poker hand to determine your spell’s effectiveness—you could end up making the best poker hand out of seven or eight cards. Again, something I’m going to get too later, but I’m looking at making Gamblin’ an active, effective part of Huckster casting. Never made sense why, when gamblin’ with the devil, Hucksters never need to roll Gamblin’.
So, bear in mind, a few more posts coming. (More if people actually comment on these what aren’t spambots.) On top of that, have a list of Aspects/Stunts which were the first things I converted over a year back, and from which this whole project originates. I’m still unsure I’d go with a Dresden Files hack for Deadlands—that’s way too much to convert, and I already know Classic Deadlands pretty well—but if I don’t use any of this, perhaps someone else can.
One of the more iconic Deadlands mechanics is its use of poker chips—something that survived through its Savage Worlds incarnation. The chips are very similar to the character points in Star Wars d6 in that they have two functions: first, to re-roll dice and add bonuses to them, and second, they’re traded in for XP as Bounty Points.
I already use poker chips as physical Fate Points, so the conversion from Fate Points to Fate Chips would go over fairly easy. I’m ditching Refresh to go more classic Deadlands here; feel free to tweak it. At the start of a session, characters blind-draw their chips from the Fate Pot, which is a bag with three colors of poker chips mixed up within it. Since my chip set is weird and small, I’d have to go with 10 Red chips, 20 Blue chips, and 40 Green chips (or alternately, buy a better poker chip set). Later on, PCs will also receive chips as XP rewards (or will draw more equal to their Refresh if that’s your style).
- Spent chips are put back in the pot.
- When a chip enters the pot, the GM draws one chip from the pot for their own use.
- You cannot make a re-roll when you went Bust on your effort—that is, if your total ended up a negative number, you can’t spent a chip to re-roll it, though you can still try to climb out of that hole by spending that chip to do something else (e.x., Invoke for a +2).
- Until spent, a PC retains all the chips they own—so it’s important to keep track of which colors you have, otherwise you’re getting Green/White ones back at the start of next session.
A chip’s color determines what you can do with it, slightly altering the existing FATE balance; the effects are listed below, though they also have secondary effects/abilities depending on certain Stunts or spells a character might have.
- Green Chips are the most common. Spending one and Invoking/Tagging an Aspect allows you to add +2 to one roll or make a re-roll. They can also be spent to power Stunts and spells. That’s it.
- Blue Chips are slightly less common. They have all the functions of Green chips, but can also be spent to add to your roll: roll another d6 and add it to your total, treating it like another + (positive) die.
- Red Chips are hard to find, but not the rarest of them all. They can be spent to do anything a Green or Blue chip can do, and spending a Red chip doesn’t let the GM to draw a chip from the pot. You can also spend one to make a Declaration.
(Deadlands veterans, keep in mind, this is with my non-standard poker chip set; normally it’s with 50 white, 25 red, and 10 blue chips in that hierarchy. Since my set has no white chips, I had to change that.)
It alters the FATE dynamic a bit; part of that is to retain the Deadlands flavor and part of it is to structure the game more towards horror. Declarations were pushed up because of the horror factor; letting the PCs dictate the world can negate a whole heap of the tension, and I think it has more potential power than the additional +d6.
Having the chips provide different effects can be confusing, since it’s adding in another variable to keep track off. Keep in mind the different colors’ effects when you’re handing out Compels (for the GM) or paying off Compels and other abilities (as players). Starting off a Compel with a Red chip might be enough of an incentive to accept it, where in another situation that character would hold out for two Green and a Blue.
Fate Chips in Classic Deadlands could also be used to heal wounds; the system in Fate works differently, where the stress tracks are more like hit points in D&D (stamina, fatigue, luck, and other likelihood to get hit) or Wind in Classic Deadlands; e.g., damage that clears up after combat’s done, while Consequences are the real sticking wounds. If you want to carry that over, you could use a guide very similar to this one:
- Green Chips can be spent to take a Minor (-2) Consequence.
- Blue Chips can be spent to take a Major (-4) Consequence.
- Red Chips can be spent to take a Severe (-6) Consequence.
So, they’re pulling double-duty as Fate Points and health if need be. And that’s before we even get into…
Rewards and Bounty Points
Chips are are also awarded as a way to track XP. They’re handed out for defeating Extras, excellent roleplaying, creative thinking, proactive self-direction, making a cool Maneuver, and results of in-game events with more complexity than “I rolled a die really high.”
- Green Chips show up for being amusing or clever in game, doing something impressive or creative, or for having one of your Aspects/Consequences make life inconvenient in a new and creative way (e.g., as a self-compel, or taking a GM-based compel in a more interesting/complex direction).
- Blue Chips are gained from doing something incredibly witty, when you find an important piece of info, or when you overcome a minor obstacle. They are also awarded to characters who work their Aspects in ways that awe everyone at the table.
- Red Chips are rewarded for excellent roleplaying (staying true to character even when it might cost you your life), when you find a critical piece of info, and when you defeat a major hazard.
And after you’ve received chips, you can spend them as FATE points, or they can be handed in to become Bounty Points to increase your abilities, replacing whatever existing FATE rules you’d otherwise be using for advancement. (You can keep the skill pyramid requirements if you wish, but I think there’s enough restrictions on growth here already, so I wouldn’t restrict to the pyramid after character creation.) When spending these, don’t forget, you’re exchanging of the very same Fate Points that keep you alive. Don’t spend all of them in one place.
- Green Chips are worth 1 skill point. Thus, buying Drive at +1 costs one Green Chip; to raise your Guts from +3 to +4, you’d need to hand in four Green Chips. That’s not as hard as you’d think.
- Blue Chips are worth 2 skill points. Or, they can be spent to buy a new Stunt, provided you meet its requirements; don’t forget, each Stunt lowers your Refresh rate by +1.
- Red Chips are worth 3 skill points. Or, they can be spent to gain a new Aspect; don’t forget, each Aspect raises your Refresh rate by +1.
Chips of Legend
There’s also two “special” colored chips which only go into the pot due to in-game events, and have major abilities. As in, these shouldn’t be handed out like candy; that said, don’t be too stingy with either. If your players keep doing horrible acts, you might need to buy more Black chips—FATE has mechanics designed to complicating the situation, and that’s just what Black chips do. If the players are pulling off some epic stuff in-game, and are having some trouble carrying on, toss in a Legend chip or two to sweeten the pot—maybe someone’ll get lucky and pull one right before they need it.
- Black Chips are put in the pot any time the players raise the area’s Fear Level (more on that later) or otherwise do something evil and stupid that makes fortune frown. Black chips can sit around in the pot to haunt a party for weeks; when one gets drawn from the pot, fortune finally catches up. The black chip is removed, so whoever drew it is now down a chip—tough luck. Every person in the party gains a purely negative Aspect of their choice related to whatever event caused the black chip to enter the pot. Worse, the chip escalates all Compels related to that Aspect—compels start at two Fate points instead of the usual one. Bad luck is always stronger than good luck.
- Legend Chips are gained from doing something good and noble, lowering the Fear Level, and/or reaching the end of a campaign arc. They can be put into the Fate Pot or given to a specific character as a reward. Legend chips can be spent to do anything any other chip can do: Tag/Invoke for a +2 bonus or re-roll, make a Declaration, power a Stunt, act as a Severe (-6) Consequence, and to add another +d6. Legend chips can also be spent to put a temporary Aspect on a player character; they can be used to re-roll even on a roll that went Bust; and they can be spent to remove either all of one character’s Consequences or all the damage on their stress tracks. And spending a Legend chip doesn’t allow the GM to draw from the pot. Needless to say, these are valuable and incredibly rare.
In Deadlands, proper reward balancing is an art—much like in FATE, where you have to balance compels with the PCs’ expenditure rate. The burden is placed on the GM to make sure the characters have the resources to survive, but also allowing them to raise their stats without worrying about needing those chips to live in another hour. Not everyone likes the balance of using your XP to keep you alive in a given session, because that balance is hard to attain, especially if the GM isn’t dealing them out properly. I like the system because it makes the choice—spend it now as a Fate Point to live, save it for later to get better stats—that much more interesting.
If you think it’s too hard on players—pitch it.
But resource allocation is a staple of any horror game, so I’d recommend trying it out at least; by wearing the GM hat you can always start giving more rewards, or scale down challenges, if they’re having more trouble than you want them to have.
I love Deadlands. It’s the perfect synthesis of style and substance, a fusion of form and function that made its disparate parts flow together like they belonged. I’m not just talking about its genre-mashup roots—spaghetti western + steampunk + weird west/American gothic horror + fantasy = Deadlands—but the way the designers incorporated “western” elements into the game. Like using poker chips for bonuses and XP tracking, and drawing from a poker deck to resolve other mechanics. Even the jargon: you don’t roll Resolve, you roll Guts; Scrutinze replaces Investigate; you have Overawe and Hexslingin’ and Scroungin’ and Tale-Tellin’. It lives and breathes the Weird West. Gritty horror and close-shave survivalism knocking boots with hardboiled Men With No Name and Wild Wild West.
As much as I love it, the system’s mechanics are kind of a mess; it’s a hostile game to teach new players. Those form/function syntheses mean you have dice mechanics, card mechanics, and poker chip mechanics, amongst others, and various sub-sets of those to boot. You have a clunky dice pool mechanic plus Aptitudes (what normal games call Skills) that involves rolling different sets of different dice for different attributes—your Mien might be 3d12, but your Spirit might only be 2d4 (you poor bastard)—and sort of like other dice pool games of the era (Roll and Keep, Storyteller, Star Wars d6/early Shadowrun), the dice “ace” (explode/open-end), and you pick the highest one. That doesn’t get into the several dozen sub-rules, each with their own sub-system.
So I’ve thought a lot about converting it—rather, bringing chunks of the game wholecloth and slapping it onto—the Dresden Files RPG. I think it’d be a good fit, even though I’d argue FATE is one of the least-qualified systems for a horror game. So it’s more of a ruleshack and expanding FATE’s rules with Deadlands ones, so sue me.
System requirements would be 2d6 or 4dF as usual, plus a set of poker chips and a deck of 54 playing cards—the normal 52 plus the two jokers left in. Having both a book with FATE rules, and the Deadlands Player’s Guide and Marshal’s Handbook would be helpful.
Rearranging FATE for Horror
First off, Deadlands characters live nasty, brutish, and short lives. That’s hard to replicate in FATE, but there are ways. Starting off with Good characters—15 skill points, three or more stunts, six Aspects—would be a start. They’d be rounded enough to function, while a bit short in everything, just like Deadlands characters—it takes a while to excel, and that’s mostly from balancing your intake and expenditure of fate chips (see next post). The kicker is Fate Points. Starting them off with fewer, like ICONS does, makes those points more valuable (and powerful). I’m tempted to ditch Refresh in favor of handing them out as XP rewards ala Classic Deadlands. Or, tweaking Refresh: make it equal to (Aspects – Stunts). Either way, characters would start with three Fate Points… the same number of chips they draw at the start of a Classic Deadlands.
Next, fear plays a big role in Deadlands, much as it should in any horror game. In Deadlands, you had Wind, which was roughly a long stamina track. I’d create a third stress track to deal with that; call it Wind for old time’s sake, have it start at 10 and add in bonuses from skills like Endurance, Spirit, and Guts (see later). This would be used to represent shock, trauma, and fatigue—a combination of what the mental and physical stress tracks do, basically moving all the horror-themed parts from those two tracks into a third one.
Deadlands is set up perfectly to make most of its abilities into Aspects or Stunts (Luck O’ The Irish, Shoot ‘Em Or Recruit ‘Em). Pretty much anything that requires a random poker draw or roll—e.g., the Scart Table, Mysterious Pasts, Knacks, and Veteran of the Weird West draws—well, their results will probably end up as a character’s shiny new Aspect or Disadvantage. Or, in layman’s terms, a compel machine.
I’d keep most of Deadlands’ other eccentric features as mechanics, such as the poker draws for initiative/Huckster spellcasting, and the Fate Chip system, along with some of the heavier rules. Mainly because cutting and pasting means that you won’t have to devise a whole new system of spellcasting for Hucksters (for example), and because it already works pretty good .
Deadlands History and Terminology
Since I’m lazy, a brief overview of the setting’s history can be found here.
Ace: Not just the high card in poker, but Classic Deadlands’ cute jargon for when a die “explodes” or open-ends—rolling a 10 on a d10, for example, will “ace” the die, so you re-roll it and add that result to the previous total. This kept going on as long as you can “ace” the die; I’ve seen pretty stupid-high results before (10+10+10+10+3 = 43, for an Old Ways Shaman to “get” a physics joke.)
Blessed: Those who can use the power of faith: someone who can channel essence of the Judeo-Christian religion into this dark world. Someone who can invoke miracles to fight evil.
Bounty Points: Fate chips that you can spend to increase abilities. Fate Chips pull double-duty as both XP and bonus rolls, so how you spend them is really damn important.
Dead Land: A place so overrun by the Reckoners’ foul evil that the entire place is so corrupt, twisted, and tainted as to be hostile to known life. Everyday objects become twisted, writhing mockeries of their former selves, and everything appears more grotesque and dark. Wilderness dead lands are terrible places; urban ones are downright horrifying.
Fate Chips: Deadlands’ version of bennies or action dice or Fate Points; poker chips that can be spent to increase bonuses, reflecting fate shining on that character at that moment. Can also be turned into Bounty Points.
Fear Level: Just how dark and awful things are. A canyon in a Fear Level 0 region would look pretty normal; one in Fear Level one would be a little darker than normal, even in mid-day; in Fear Level 3 would be jagged, sharp, and foreboding, with flickering lights and subtle movements in the dark recesses; one in Fear Level 6 would exist in a deadland, a place where no sane person could deny the presence of the supernatural, where the trees writhe like jagged skeletons and rock formations would look like groaning heads. Lowering the Fear Level of an area decreases the power of whatever evil beasties live nearby, and makes the local populace feel safe and secure. Raising the Fear Level gets you in a whole heap o’ trouble.
Ghost Rock: The fabulous, glowing green rock found in some Western mines used to power the strange steampunk devices of mad scientists. A semi-magical material that burns hotter and longer than coal. When being burned, ghost rock let loose a wailing cry like the screams of the damned, hence its name; scientists claim it’s just steam and gasses escaping from the porous rock, but the screaming can often sound quite familiar.
Going Bust, or just plain Bust: What happens when your roll’s final total—post modifiers and abilities—ends up a negative number. When you Go Bust, you can’t re-roll your dice as you normally could… though you always try to solve your problem by throwing more dice or bonuses at it.
Great Maze, The: The California badlands area shattered by the 1868 earthquake, where the lowlands were consumed by the sea. The remaining uplands and hilly areas are the Great Maze, winding across the new inland sea. It’s filled with rich silver, gold, and ghost rock mines, but is lawless territory, carved up by numerous ruthless factions.
Harrowed: Sometimes a man just won’t stay down: some recently dead can be resurrected by the manitou into Harrowed, the blighted, sentient walking dead. In some cases the dead man retains free will, while in other cases what’s left is a puppet controlled by the manitou.
Hucksters: Some gamblers known as Hucksters have accessed the hidden power within decks of Hoyle’s playing cards. Hucksters make poker bets against demonic spirits known as the manitou; by betting parts of their soul in exchange for magical power, a Huckster can attempt to harness the manitou’s mystical power to cast a spell. Only if they win.
Hunting Grounds, The: Extradimensional spaces where the Reckoners and other big, nasty, demonic monsters originate. The Indians used to be the only ones who could access it, keeping the Reckoners at bay, but a splinter-faction led the Reckoners to Earth so now the demons are more-or-less free to try and consume the world.
Mad Scientist: A particular breed of inventors who make strange, powerful, and unstable devices, harnessing the power of ghost rock. These devices tend to emit the screams of the damned (the ghost rock) and have a bad habit of blowing up. That hasn’t stopped the mad scientists.
Manitou: The manitou are otherworldly spirits of the Indians who dwell in the Hunting Grounds, which can be dominated by shaman or magicians who can channel their magical power—the manitou are either bonded, dominated, controlled, or lose a bet to a huckster. Needless to say the manitou aren’t real pleased about that, and tend to take any advantage they can get to bend these magicians over the table in return for the abuse.
Marshal: What Deadlands calls the GM.
Posse: What Deadlands calls the group of players, the adventuring party, etc.
Raise: Beating your Target Number (TN) by 5 nets you a Raise, which might boost your roll or give you a chip. You can get multiple raises—beating a TN by 15 nets you three Raises. Think of it as beating DCs and getting rewarded for it in d20, or Spin in FATE.
Reckoners: The Indians opened up a gateway to the realm of the Reckoners to fight back the incursion of European settlers. Reckoners feed on emotions, primarily fear, and embody just about every evil force you’ve ever heard about. Just having one around can make the world a dark, grim place. Their goal is to make the Earth a grim wasteland.
Shaman: Indian spellcasters who channel elements of the spirit world into this one.
Smith & Robards: The company that provides Mad Scientists with their materials and schematics, and distributes their inventions to people with more money than sense. Imagine a Sears Roebuck catalog filled with things like Gatling pistols, suits of exoskeleton powered armor, steam-powered buggies, pneumatic dynamite chuckers, autogyros, and other things that are prone to explode. You get the idea.
Target Number: Difficulty, DC, TN, etc. What you need to roll to succeed at something. Deadlands used a sliding scale which started at 3 for “easy” tasks, then ranged upward to 5, 7, 9, 11, and beyond.
Wind: A health tracker (think HP) for shock, fear, fatigue, and other similar trauma—run too long or see something too horrifying and you start to lose Wind. When you run out of wind, bad things happen; if you’re lucky, you just pass out.
If you haven’t guessed from a few nerdy, deep-cut hints, this is Ridley Scott’s return to SF, a film long rumored to be a loosely-connected prequel of sorts set in the same universe as Alien. That may or may not include xenomorphs. But does involve a ship similar to the one found at the beginning of the first film; you know, the one with the alien eggs and the space jockey, which is one of the hints keen-eyed viewers might have spotted in the video above.
I’m interested to see how it pans out, because a return to the world of Alien—and a dark, mysterious, high-quality return like Prometheus seems to be—would be hella. We don’t see enough good SF/horror hybrid films. Scratch that, we don’t see that many good SF films in general.
Though if it is a prequel, it suffers from the same prequel problem that made the Star Wars prequels such a terrible idea. (No, not wooden acting, or bad ’90s green-screen effects.) The technology and spaceship look loving amazing, but it’s way more advanced than anything in the Alien universe so far. Hell, the ship’s actually got sub-orbital flight capabilities; all the other Alien films involved people using shuttles or dropships to get down. How could it be a prequel to the first film, when the Colonial Marines sixty-plus years after the first film didn’t have tech half this advanced?
This also depends on it being a prequel, which Scott has been tight-lipped about, so maybe he’s just using similar aesthetics to fuck with us. Or maybe it’s actually a loosely-connected sequel (gasp). And I’d buy the excuse that the Nostromo was an old-school industrial-grade klunker, and not a high-tech scientific research vessel. But still, between our advancements in (and expectations for) day-to-day technology and the high quality of movie SFX today, prequels for ’70s SF movies will never look like prequels.
Regardless, it looks awesome; whatever its connection (or lack thereof) to Alien, it looks to be a tense thriller in its own right. Since it opens in June, I’ll have something to watch once Avengers is through.
If you don’t get the short, it means you haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing. A loose homage done by Zombie Zombie, in reality Frenchmen Etienne Jaumet and Cosmic Neman. A nice little electro-pop tune with elements of horror and post-rock.
All in all, it creates an assortment of tags the likes of which will not soon be repeated.
Here’s a quick little exercise. Without thinking about it too much, write down the first fifteen colors you can think of. Quickly. Don’t overthink it. Just fifteen colors, the first that pop into your head that will stick with you.
C’mon. This text isn’t going anywhere.
Just do the damn exercise.
… Alright, hurry it up, I haven’t got all day.
By this point I’ll assume that you’re either skipping over this crap to see where I’m going with this, or you’ve gotten to the point of this exercise: most likely you’re finished (or close enough) and starting to second-guess your choices. Maybe your list is lacking those primary colors you use in everyday life. Maybe your list doesn’t have all those cool niche colors, shades and tones that pop up in your interior decor, desktop wallpaper, and so on.
(Protip: You are me if your list of colors would be equally fitting on classic muscle cars as for Space Marine chapterhouses, and includes the complete absence of color.)
The point of this long and tortured metaphor is that there are only around either 64 or 96 main colors to choose from (unless you were one of the cool kids with parents who could spring for a 120-color Crayola box). If you include b-movies, and who doesn’t, I could easily come up with over a hundred horror movies, which means that choosing fifteen “best” horror movies is damn hard.
Obviously, I was bound to leave something out, so here are the top films I forgot, left off, or otherwise am second-guessing with.
Army of Darkness: Is it bad of me to consider Shaun of the Dead a horror film and this one the humor film? Ah well. One of the greatest and most quotable nerd movies not made by Monty Python.
The Others: I’d honestly forgotten about this gem until I saw it in the new arrivals on Netflix. A great ghost story in the fine British ghost story tradition, with a number of sharp twists, some amazing characters, and a few solid scares. I can see why it doesn’t rate as high, though: it’s one of those movies where knowing the twists and tricks makes any subsequent viewings less entertaining. That or because watching it streamed to my TV is nothing like seeing it in a huge darkened theater.
The Blair Witch Project: Again, maybe this is nostalgia talking, but I thought this was a pretty slick film for a low-budget horror entry. I saw it late in its run, sometime after the actors were appearing on late night talk shows, which deflated all the wonderful hype: the Sci-Fi and History channel fake documentaries, the promotional blitz, the “found footage” angle… I soaked all the crap up. It had some seriously tense moments, even if the overall experience was something of a letdown.
The People Under the Stairs: This was about the 16th film that popped up every time, even though I’m not sure calling it horror is accurate. It’s Wes Craven, yes, but it’s his attempt to combine his horror expertise with an urban fantasy fairy-tale angle which tries to straddle that line between Magic Negro cliche and prostitute older sister gritty and inbred mutant offspring weird. It’s not a bad movie, not a good movie, and I think I’ve seen it far more than any sane person should.
Signs: I love this film for its suspense and tension. Plenty of eerie occurances drove me to the edge of my seat; what brought it all home was the scene of Joaquin Phoenix watching the South American Birthday Party alien footage. Unlike The Sixth Sense, this one was actually scary, though I liked the first one more. But you do have to turn your brain off, because the plot is ludicrous aliens too retarded to rrealize this planet is made up of stuff what kills them is about as inane as aliens invading just to harvest our gold. It’s around the point M. Night Shyamalan stopped being Hitchcock 2.0 and jumped the shark—yes, I liked Unbreakable too, sue me—but at least the tension was well done.
The Crazies (remake): One of the few instances where the remake is better than the original. Combine the post-9/11 mindset with anti-Gubbment, flouride-in-the-water, chemtrails-level paranoia. Far from a perfect movie, though it’s got a lot going for it, and does all the basic horror tricks right.
The Walking Dead: It’s not a movie, otherwise it’d be up there. Not just because of its graphic novel roots, but because it does the zombie genre right: looking at the survivors, an introspection of humanity, rather than taking the cheap scares and obligatory zombie film cliches.
Grindhouse: This was the previous horror movie I saw in theaters before Cloverfield; Deathproof was a Tarantino-style snorefest—seeing it at three in the morning after a hard day of finals and moving my boss in didn’t help the long, dull conversations from people we’d just met, and had less invested in than the people what died—but Planet Terror was a spectacular exercise in zombie-action theatrics. Oh, and the trailers were pretty badass.
This list is also incomplete; I’m still catching up on the films I missed while I was in college. Somebody tell Netflix to get off their ass and put The Descent and 28 Days Later on streaming.
The full list (and meme) are as follows:
The rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen HORROR films you’ve seen that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.
- The Thing (1982)
- The Birds (1964)
- Alien (1979)
- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
- Shaun of the Dead (2004)
- Pitch Black (2000)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Them! (1954)
- Se7en (1995)
- Jaws (1975)
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
- Halloween (1978)
- Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Tremors (1990)
- Cloverfield (2008)
I know I haven’t been keeping up with the gaming-related articles; trying to turn that around now that I’m through listing horror films (for the moment).
Zombies have had a major rise in pop culture over the past few decades: the board games Zombies!!! and Last Night on Earth, Dead Rising, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, Shaun of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, Planet Terror, The Walking Dead, World War Z… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only natural to incorporate them into roleplaying games, given how popular and enduring the genre is.
But how do you make zombies scary? Their horror, along with the “fear” associated with vampires and werewolves, has diminished to naught with the rise of zombies as a trope in and of itself.
Originally they were a parody of life contrasting with the serene peacefulness of the afterlife concept we’ve acquired from the Victorian age; a perversion of what makes us us—life—the forceful and unnatural reanimation of unlife. The Victorians had a strange fascination with death, and made a thing out of taking death photos and wakes: the stillness of death captured on the stillness of photography, a strange fascination with its tranquility. (The Victorians were weird.) Instead of living peacefully in death, our rotting, shambling husks return, showing the decay and grotesqueness of death.
In recent years, George Romero’s vision of shambling corpses has done more to influence the genre than the original mythology of Haitian voodoo. The drive has been to make zombies into the result of a plague, a perpetual motion machine of killing and eating and rising again, which in and of itself is terrifying: something that cannot be countered or defended against by conventional means. And when you eventually die, you are stripped of your humanity, returning, without your bidding, as a ravenous corpse to continue spreading the disease.
But does any of this make zombies inherently scary? Nope. We all know the pieces of this picture: rotting flesh, ravenous hunger, groans, shuffling, soulless stares. They’re even less scary in a fantasy setting, where a holy character might have the power to drive them away (or turn them back into dust, ala Van Helsing). What makes zombies scary, besides the obvious, are the standard things that make all horror scary: the threat of dying, the isolation, atmosphere, tension. Once the world is dark, grim, lonely and atmospheric, that’s when zombies start being scary.
Still, there are quite a number of other tricks to pull with zombies.
Make them ambiguous! Some of my favorite uses of zombies are when they appear to be something else entirely. One of my friends’ games that I borrowed involved a group of FBI agents lurking around in recent-post-Katrina New Orleans, being stalked by what could be either looters or walking dead. My Weird Wars game used a lot of zombies spread all over the place; technically they were humans infected by a Lovecraftian parasite, but let’s not split hairs. Nobody realized they were zombies until they entered fisticuffs with them, and found out after one’s brain case had been split open. In any case, making your zombies act more like something else—or, rather, less like zombies—is a neat trick to play early on, before your players have figured out what exactly they’re in the middle of.
Description! These are rotting, horrible un-creatures. Play up the five senses you may forget to describe: how bad they smell, the squishing sounds they make, the bits hanging off their open rib-cages and their empty eye sockets pecked clean by birds.
People you know! This is a trick that’s showing up with some frequency now: have someone the character knows, or one of the characters, become infected. How long they have before turning, and how the group deals with the problem, now becomes its own narrative driving force. Maybe it can be staved off with something grotesque: eating or using something from a zombie, mayhaps.
In other cases, have a player run into somebody they knew: unless they were already established early on, don’t expect too much roleplaying other than “I’ll miss you” *blam*, but it’s a great time to run fear or sanity checks after blowing away a close friend.
Plague! Again, a new but well-used development. How each plague spreads is different: in some cases, you need to die by zombie attack, while others just need contact, or a simple zombie bite.
Conserving Resources! Not just ammo and food, which will be in short supply during a zombiepocalypse, but also game resources. If you’re in a system that uses bennies or bonus points that can be spent for ingame bonuses, cut down on those: only allow them to be spent ahead of time. No rerolls or post-roll bonuses puts more emphasis on the dice, making it into a make-or-break event instead of something the players have security nets to cover.
Zombie Flavors! Fast zombies, burning zombies, exploding zombies, tough zombies, zombie animals, zombies who can use simple items/guns… the purist in me thinks these are pure cop-out, but if you’re playing a zombie game, your players might want (or might not expect) a variety in undead. Or you could just change them up altogether, and make them into something else entirely… the creatures in I Am Legend were theoretically vampires, acted like zombies, and were unique to that story/film, for example.
Play the other side! Here’s one that I always wanted to do: subvert the trope and have the players play semi-intelligent zombies. Combine aspects of the zombie genre with a heavy dose of White Wolf-style introspection and “personal horror.” Probably a bit too roleplay-heavy and cerebral for most people, but I think it’s a viable idea. (Yes, it’s Harrowed from Deadlands as a party mechanic.)
Also, check out Libris Mortis if you’re into Pathfinder or d20. It’s one of the greatest d20 supplements, and worth every penny.