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.
If you’re American, I’m going to outright expect you’re at least passingly familiar with the Western genre. It’s something that’s been ingrained as part of our culture and mythos since before people finished “winning” the West—large, open expanses of desert and plains, free-range cattle drives, outlaws and sixguns. It’s not just part of American history, but it’s become a larger than life genre hearkening back to those mythic pioneer days.
Spaghetti westerns are a specific brand of western films that saw Italian filmmakers using American actors to film westerns in Spain; they cropped up in the mid-1960s because of how popular the genre is overseas, and how dull and predictable the westerns coming out of Hollywood were getting. The films brought gritty noir-style antiheroes, darker plots, over-the-top action, and melded them together in something that’s both camp and dead serious. Death is constantly nearby, and both heroes and villains resort to brutal tactics or have questionable morals. Oftentimes the films lack staple tropes like indians and covered wagon caravans, instead dealing with seedy border towns and corrupt warring factions. And the cinematography itself blends traditional western vistas with intense close-ups and long shots more typical of foreign films; the films’ inspirations were equal parts Raymond Chandler and Akira Kurosawa.
The name “spaghetti western” started out a negative connotation– a bowl of spaghetti is a mess, much like the film’s jumble of nationalities, and it’s a kind of ethnic dig on the Italian filmmakers to boot—but at this point, it’s become a popular brand of film that’s remembered for re-invigorating the western genre. They also propelled actors like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to stardom.
The best spaghetti westerns almost always include a lot of Sergio Leone’s films, namely the Dollars Trilogy (consisting of A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and his Once Upon A Time In The West. Of course, just about any pulpy western falls into the same class, whether it stars Henry Fonda or John Wayne or Gene Hackman. There’s been a string of good westerns in recent decades, including The Quick and The Dead, Tombstone, Unforgiven, Silverado, Open Range, and the fantastic remake of True Grit.
Imagine if Victorian Age society (the late 1800s through the first decade of the 1900s) had modern contraptions such as aircraft, computers, bullet-proof armor, and the like, but using the technology of the age: Gatling’s rotary machine gun, Babbage’s difference engine, Nikola Tesla’s electricity, Thomas Edison’s various inventions, and the most important of the age, steam. Take that old technology, take the Victorian aesthetics, and apply modern speculation to it: that’s steampunk. In essence, it’s trying to create anachronistic technology in the gilded style and high fashion of the past. Steampunk is tied specifically to Victorian Era Britain and the American Wild West; it features the iconic designs, the gritty pollution, the highs and lows of the Industrial Revolution taken to their logical extremes.
Famous Steampunk works include the Bruce Sterling/William Gibson collaboration The Difference Engine, Tim Powers’ Anubis Gate, Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Arcanum: Of Steamworks And Magic Obscura, the obscure game Space 1889, and Phil Foglio’s Girl Genius comics. Just Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about; you’ll end up with a lot of pictures of people in costume with props, decked out with plenty of lace, leather, and brass.
There’s a lot of western steampunk to draw from. Wild Wild West was a miserable movie, but it had many elements to draw inspiration from. (Mechanical spider-mechs, for one thing.) Brisco County Jr. is probably a better choice. Alan Dean Foster wrote a bunch of stories collected under Mad Amos that fit the bill; Cherie Priest has written several novels set during an alternate steampunk Civil War (Boneshaker, Dreadnought, and Ganymede) which also feature heavy supernatural elements (such as the undead); while Mike Resnick’s Buntline Special is a bit shallow, it’s also the closest we’ll get to a true Deadlands novel.
A style of fiction or media designed to induce dread or feelings of fear. Deadlands is borrowing from several angles of horror media.
The first would be the horror of lurking dread, of terrors lurking in the unknown, and the brave souls who (for some reason) either stumble into them or set out to track them down. It’s a psychological style that owes much to Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as modern interpretations such as The X-Files, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Psycho, and The Silence of the Lambs. This isn’t the horror of jump-out-gotcha! of slashers, but more the subdued paranoia that a serial killer is coming to get you.
The second would be American Gothic, specifically Southern Gothic. American Gothic is a genre riddled with heavy baggage, from slavery to hostile relations with the natives, transferring the traditional European Gothic to a dark continent with but a few pinpricks of Western Civilization dotting its dark shores. The New England cities are young, but can still house ancient evils, say Poe and Lovecraft. After the time-line advances past the Antebellum South being smashed by Civil War, we have Southern Gothic depicting a kind of Southern ennui reaction: “deeply flawed characters, decayed or derelict settings, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, racism, and violence.” Shockwaves from the Civil War.
The third is horror survivalism, not to be confused with survival horror, though the two have a lot of overlap. Basically, the horror of surviving: struggling against harsh environmental conditions, against the lack of adequate preparation or supplies, against towering obstacles. Having the deck stacked against you and overcoming those obstacles, even by a slim margin, and possibly at some cost to yourself. In many cases, avoiding combat—preserving both yourself and your supplies—is the ideal choice.
You really ought to know this if you’re reading my blog. A tabletop game played with pen, paper, and funny dice in which players take the role of characters in a fictional setting. A combination of improv theater (roleplaying), board and miniatures war games (outcome resolution mechanics), and a radio drama or magazine serial (a recurring cast of characters embarking on fantastic, larger-than-life adventures).
The Weird Western
The specific genre of Deadlands would be Weird Western: an alternate, possibly darker version of our own American Southwest from around the 1880s. Magic and the supernatural might be truisms of the world, or science fiction elements could be introduced; steampunk-style gadgets, mad science, weird science, and other grim children of the Industrial Revolution might be the word of the day. In any case, it’s blending the Western genre with the occult, fantasy, and/or horror, making the Wild West pretty Weird.
Again, a bit to draw from for inspiration, though most of it is pretty obscure. The aforementioned Cherie Priest and Mike Resnick books, Mad Amos, pretty much anything Joe R. Lansdale wrote, Stephan King’s Dark Tower series, the video game Darkwatch, Trigun… if you stretch it a tad, you can include Firefly/Serenity and Cowboy Bebop. For the comic lover, look into Jonah Hex and Weird Western Tales.
Needless to say, with all these elements, it’s easy to make Deadlands into either a game of pure camp and Old West stereotypes (ala Blazing Saddles or Support Your Local Gunfighter), or into a grimdark horror setting to rival the World of Darkness at its angst-iest. The best Deadlands campaigns probably split the middle ground, keeping the stereotypes to a tolerable, realistic level, and leaving the horrors conspiring in the shadows until the heroes ride, boldly ride to combat them.