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.