Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Study In Cool: Deadlands

Colin, my Laotian houseboy, just called to say that dinner would be late because he was busy pruning my prize-winning azaleas. I told him I'd beat him for his impudence later. But enough of my domestic employee troubles. Now, I have time to add another blog entry. I see that I've already solicited a comment in my original post. I cannot stress to you enough that I will only continue to write these articles so long as I get feedback. Because it's all about my ego. I'm a game designer, after all.

I mentioned Deadlands in my previous post, and I think this game makes a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

First, back to my assertion that Deadlands' concept isn't zombies + cowboys. That was the shorthand a lot of us in the game design industry used to describe the game, and it was really grossly unfair. It was much more than that. The genius behind Shane Hensley was that he viewed Dungeons & Dragons through the prism of the Wild West. There were fighters, clerics, and wizards, but they were viewed through the Wild West filter. There were spells and monsters and magic items, but they were Western spells, monsters, and magic items. I think he basically asked himself "what does Mystara look like in the 1860s?" Indeed, I wish that had been the game, since I don't like alternate history (the South lost the Civil War, get over it).

Mechanics: Deadlands uses dice, because every game has to use dice. But it also uses a deck of playing cards and poker chips. Because the fundamental trope of Westerns is the poker game. When you sit around the table playing the game, you feel like you're in a Western. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but if the game had just included dice, it wouldn't be Deadlands.

Graphic Design: The artwork, the covers, the trade dress, all screamed "Deadlands!" You knew exactly what game you were playing when you picked up a book. Whenever I go into a game store, I can see those obnoxious yellow-orange covers from across the room. Who didn't love that picture of the Hanging Judge?

Concept: Here's the secret to this game's success. Many game designers craft a story for their setting. At a certain point, this makes sense, because there has to be a central conflict. But this concept has to be overly broad. In Deadlands, you can fight the Reckoners, or the Indians, or protect the trainload of ghost rock from bandits.... You can either see this as there being a lot of conflicts from which to choose, or there being no read central story line. This is Deadlands' beauty; you can do what you want with it. It's not tightly scripted. This is a mistake that some game designers make. They don't want you to play your game, they want you to play in their story.

So, Deadlands succeeds because it adheres ruthlessly to it's central concept. Fantasy Wild West. It's in the mechanics. It's in the art and trade dress. It's in the setting. It's a great example of stellar design work.


  1. Grrr. I just typed up a fairly long comment on this entry and then wiped it out by accidentally wiped it out by being in the wrong tab. >:|

    What I meant to say is that your point about how tightly scripted a game is resonated a lot with me. The more tightly scripted a game is, the less likely I am to enjoy it. And often, licensed properties tend to be guilty of trying to get you to exactly recreate what happened int he original property (the original Dragonlance products, for example). But I still find it funny that two of my old standbys, the go-to games for when I want to play, but not play anything else are licensed properties that neatly avoided that trap (and yes, you were line developer on one of them, Ross... ;) ).

  2. Another good post, Ross.

    I find it interesting that you talk about tightly scripted games here, since in some ways, Deadlands was *very* tightly scripted. It had a very involved metaplot that drove much of the product line, including the games' sequels "Deadlands: Hell On Earth" and "Deadlands: Lost Colony", and I think that in many ways, PEG wanted players to play in their story.

  3. Now that's an interesting point. I played in the office Deadlands campaign, and I never felt as though I were playing in a highly scripted game.

    You didn't *have* to play the metagame. I think there's a difference between really detailed setting and backstory, and tightly scripted. In the former, you don't get to play what you want.

    For example, in Star Trek, you could have played Klingon pirates attacking Federation shipping lanes. You could play traders in a little ship selling replicator parts. We let you do what *you* wanted to do.

  4. Hi Ross,
    I agree that it was pretty easy to ignore the Deadlands metaplot, but the fact is that the game line and supplements were designed around telling a *big* (and pretty cool) story. The good news is (or was) that there was enough other cool stuff to do in "the Weird West" that campaigns could avoid the big story.