Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013--
Although I always found Deadlands intriguing, I never got into the game. For one thing, the old west was never a setting that interested me. For another, my original impressions from reading the core rulebook back in the 90s seemed like the setting borrowed heavily from Shadowrun world-wise, but then put things in the Old West and made things more intentionally evil. Raven and his machinations = the Great Ghost dance, the CSA coming about, Native Americans reclaiming their lands, evil corporations abound. The other was that the rules set kept changing. You had the original rules, the revised rules, the Savage World rules, the d20 version and there was even a GURPS version of all things. Pinnacle was just too all over the place for my liking. Now that said, I thought the writing was fantastic, the mechanics were unique and very memorable and the art was pretty good. It just wasn’t my thing.
Well all that changed earlier this year when Deadlands Noir went up on Kickstarter as a crowd-funded project. I loved the concept and the teases we were given but I was still hesitant to join in, especially as I was funding so many other things at the time. In the end, I didn’t back Deadlands Noir, but I plugged the project heavily in my Kickstarter column and watched over eleven hundred people raise $117,000 for this thing. In late December, the official PDF version of the book was released to backers and via DriveThruRPG.com to people willing to fork over $14.99 for it. I eagerly snatched up a review copy when it was offered and have spent the past two weeks flipping through this, along with my copies of Savage Worlds and Deadlands: Reloaded to fill in mechanics and story gaps.
I should point out that Deadlands Noir is NOT a standalone product. You absolutely need a copy of Savage Worlds to use this book as it is the rules-set Deadlands games currently use. As well, you’ll probably want to be familiar with the Old West version of Deadlands as well to better understand the game and its backstory. You won’t need to know anything about Hell of Earth, the post-apocalyptic version of the game, which is a good thing. I admit that I wish Pinnacle had made this its own standalone book complete with rules ala Vampire: The Dark Ages, or similar products, as it would have brought in a lot more newcomers. Still this way, they make more money as newbies need to buy two or three books and veterans don’t need to wade through mechanics they already know by heart.
Deadlands Noir takes place around 1935 in the same universe that Deadlands: The Wild West/Deadlands:Reloaded takes place in. I know some would expect a Noir game to be set in the 1920s, but setting this game after the 1929 stock market crash and during the dust bowl makes perfect sense considering Deadlands is a depressing and dark game whose antagonists rely heavily on fear and negative emotions. The Roaring Twenties was a pretty upbeat time compared to the Great Depression, wouldn’t you say? The sourcebook talks a little bit about the universe’s history and how it diverges from our own, but for the most part you’ll need Deadlands: Reloaded to really understand the Deadlands universe. That said, you can just play Deadlands Noir with this book and the Savage Worlds core rulebook, but it’s best that the Marshall (system’s term for a DM/GM) is well acquainted with the history of the setting in all its forms. Deadlands Noir really only focuses on the city of New Orleans. In fact, it might have been better to title the book Deadlands Noir: New Orleans because the bulk of the book only covers that city. There is lip service paid to other areas, but you’re pretty much stuck with the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Mississipp’. Other books in the series will cover different locales like Chicago, but for now, this is all we get. So if you really have your heart set on playing Deadlands Noir in a different city, you’ll have to wait or make it up on your own.
Now just because Deadlands Noir focuses exclusively on a single city doesn’t make the book disappointing. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Pinnacle has put an amazing amount of detail into describing their New Orleans of 1935 in the Deadlands world – a feat that is all the more impressive when you realize the book includes new mechanics, a full campaign, several short adventures on top of the campaign, a ton of NPC and antagonist stat blocks and so much more. I was extremely impressed by the amount of content shoved into this one book. With only a fifteen dollar price tag, this is a shockingly good deal. While it’s not the best sourcebook to come out in 2012, it’s still one any Deadlands should pick up. Hell, I’ve only read Deadlands books here and there and I was still blown away by what lay betwixt both covers.
The first third of the book is for players and GMs alike. It covers sample character backgrounds, the house rules for the game that separate Deadlands from a standard Savage Worlds game, new Skills, Hindrances, Edges and gear ranging from guns to submarines. You then get a two page map of the city in its current state and a seven page introduction to New Orleans. After that the section for players rounds itself out with on how to roll detective work, and various forms of magic users (Grifters, Patent Scientists, Voodoo Practitioners and Harrowed) . After that the rest of the book is for GM’s eyes only.
The GM’s section is where things really get good though. That’s where you get to separate fact from fiction in this setting and learn just how severely screwed up the world is. You’ll get a more in-depth look at Fear Levels and also the darker side of magic use in Deadlands Noir. The real gem here though is “The GameMaster’s Guide To New Orleans” which is sixteen pages long and covers all sorts of things from key players to important locales in the city. The other really nice section is “Making Mysteries” which is a seven page guide on how to write a Noir adventure. It even includes a random adventure generator to boot. I tried it out a few times. For example, here’s one I rolled up:
A stranger with a fat wallet and a fatter gut approaches the players with an offer they can’t refuse. It seems a valuable MacGuffin was stolen from him and he wants it back. As the players search the scene of the crime and scour for clues, they’ll eventually discover an old rival of the client stole the MacGuffin believing t was a piece of a bigger puzzle even its original owner didn’t know about. They track down the thief to the Garden District of New Orleans, only to learn he was nothing but a patsy for the man who really wanted it – a congressman. Before the thief can finger the true guilty party, his brain pan gets some unexpected ventilation, leaving the detectives with questions rather than answered, but a recovered McaGuffin whose owner now knows there’s something more to it than meets the eye.
Deadlands Noir also contains an extreme large number of adventures. While none of the adventures are fully fleshed, there is enough meat here that a Marshall can easily run with them. Red Harvest is a campaign of six adventures (seven if you count where the gumshoes put all the pieces together) which really lets players get to know the Deadlands of the 1930s and New Orleans in particular. By the times the PCs are done, they’ve probably made some powerful enemies, but hopefully at least one powerful friend as well. The book also contains a whopping fourteen (that means twenty/twenty-one adventures in all!) “Savage Tales,” which are short little one shot adventures for players who love to huck dice but don’t have a lot of time. These adventures run the gambit from passable to extremely cool, but he fact there are so many adventures in this sourcebook blew me away. Honestly, as I re-read this review, it’s hard to believe Pinnacle’s staff fit all this content into just 145 pages!
Deadlands Noir finishes up with those aforementioned NPC collections, which ensures Marshalls will have all the characters and/or monsters they need to run any of the adventures in this book, or better yet, to help them get started on making adventures of their own. I have to admit I was really impressed by everything in this book and unlike the wild west setting, Deadlands Noir is a version of the game I could actually get my friends and colleagues to sit down and play. It carries on the spirit and feel of the original Deadlands while giving it a whole new fresh twist. I’m really kicking myself now that I didn’t partake in the Kickstarter and picked up some of those extras like the Noir Companion and the dime novel. Even for people new to Deadlands, or those that just have never had the chance to actually play a game of it, this is a really well done book and well worth reading. I can’t wait to see what else comes out for Deadlands Noir and I know I won’t be the only one.
[5 of 5 Stars!]