A true land o’ the dead.
If I haven’t outed myself as an RPG nerd in my writings yet, well, here we go with no more room for wrigglin’. I’m not just talking the computer RPGs (though I do like those), I’m talking the old school pen & paper, grab the Cheetos & Mountain Dew and hang out in the parents’ basement style of roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: The Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu… I’ve played ‘em all, and more besides. Heck, one of the less well known offerings is responsible for my first ever professional writing credit.
Why do I bring this up? Well, Zombie Ranch owes many debts of inspiration, and one of them is to an imaginative bit of genre mashing that debuted as an award winning RPG way back in 1996. Deadlands.
Now sadly, for all the praise I’m about to lavish on this game, I’ll have to admit I never actually have had the chance to play it. This phenomenon isn’t uncommon amongst pen & paper gamers–we’ll see something intriguing, buy the book, read and love it–but then, for one reason or another, it just never gels into a game session, much less a campaign. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not having enough other people that are interested. Sometimes it’s a matter of a setting you love, but a game system you never quite wrap your brain around. Deadlands may have been a little of column A and a little of column B for me and my friends. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a system that eschews the generic and helps enhance the experience of the genre being represented–I even wrote a whole Satellite Show entry on the subject–but despite the on-the-drawing-board awesomeness of having a game in an Old West setting where everyone playing has a poker hand and poker chips that help affect their characters’ fates, in reality it does make things a lot more complicated when you’re already juggling stat sheets, pencils and dice, and probably have a lot of the table taken up with a map and miniature figures as well. Certainly it’s not a system I’d spring on a first-time pen & paper gamer who is still trying to figure out the difference between the d8 and d10.
That’s enough about that, though, because even if you never play it and never intend to, the Deadlands book is worth buying just for the setting alone. It’s a fascinating, well done combination of retro-futurism with the Western and Horror genres, written by people who both know their history and know how to warp it. It’s a world, for instance, where the American Civil War never ended, because things somewhat literally went to Hell right in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg, with the dead soldiers of both sides rising up to murder the living regardless of whether they wore the blue or the gray. Why? That’s a whole other story in itself, tying in to Native American legend and a proto-”Ghost Dance” movement, which, unlike in our world, actually worked–sadly, with a powerfully bad result.
I could go on and on, but the short version is that a lot of the Old West still happens as we know it, but it’s gotten a lot weirder and darker than even the tallest of the tall tales that might have been spun around a dark and lonely campfire on the prairie. There’s even a “steampunk” aspect on top of everything, though I hesitate to call it that because I think to do so does a disservice to the whole horribly eerie idea behind the mystery substance known as Ghost Rock that has enabled such strange new leaps in technology.
Now over the years the game has been re-released several times, including the obligatory d20 version. Should you buy those? Having not read them, I can’t tell you for sure since I don’t know how much of the setting material is preserved in them, and the setting is the goldmine for me. My original 1996 copy is still sitting in a prominent place on my gaming shelf, so I’m set, but if you see a copy on E-bay, for instance, I reckon you could do a lot worse than to pick it up.
As a final exciting development, I’ve learned that this year’s going to see a new series of comics set in the Deadlands world! The news came out of Emerald City Comic-Con earlier this month, and names like Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (of Jonah Hex fame) are attached. Everything old is comin’ ’round new again, and they couldn’t have picked a richer property to mine for tales of the Weird West.