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Hard Times in the Big Easy: A Review of ‘Deadlands Noir’

Deadlands NoirName: Deadlands Noir

Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment Group

Writer: John Goff

Year: 2012

Players: Two or more

Ages: 12+

Playing Time: Indefinite

Pages: 144 pages

Genre: Pulp horror RPG supplement

Retail Price:  $19.99 PDF

Deadlands Noir started out as a Kickstarter project submitted by Shane Hensley in May 2012. Shane’s fundraising goal was $8,000 and he met that goal in two and a half hours while eventually ending up with over $117,000 around a month later; clearly there was plenty of interest in this setting as well as John Goff’s writing talent.

Deadlands Noir is the evolution of the Savage Worlds Deadlands saga and it fits between the Weird West and Hell on Earth settings. For those of you not familiar with the Weird West setting, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. In this alternate world of the late 19th century, a great earthquake shook California. This catastrophe created a maze of mesas and water filled canyons in the Golden State. This series of canyons came to be known as the “Great Maze”. As a result of this earthquake, miners discovered a new miracle ore which they dubbed “ghost rock”. Ghost rock was so named because when it was burned, it emitted a howling noise. Essentially, the reason for the howling is ghost rock contains the souls of the damned and when the ghost rock is burned and used up, the soul within burns as well.  How’d you like to power your car with ghost rock? You’d need a good stereo to drown out that cacophony for sure! Aside from these disturbing sounds, ghost rock was found useful as a super fuel and spurred new and wonderful technological advances. The Civil War soon arrived and ghost rock gave rise to horribly creative ways for both sides to kill each other. In the 1880’s, the War of Northern Aggression ground to a halt effectively creating an independent nation known as the Confederate States of America. Oh, wouldn’t General Lee have loved this game? Around this same time, Mormons decided to create their own nation and named it The Republic of Deseret. The Sioux Nation followed suit and declared their independence as well. Fast forward to the 1930’s: The Great Depression arrived, banks failed, stocks plummeted, and the nation was plunged into dark economic times.

We’ve arrived at the world of Deadlands Noir.

Deadlands Noir Art1I’ve played only a handful of Call of Cthulhu games and Deadlands Noir has a similar feel. Deadlands Noir involves private eyes and gumshoes investigating corruption and supernatural events and sometimes both at the same time. It’s up to you to determine what kind of character you want to play. Some suggestions given are con artist, dilettante, grifter, parapsychologist, private investigator, patent scientist, and others. Humans are the only race allowed in this game and, since the game takes place during the Great Depression, every character starts with Poverty as a mandatory hindrance.

The book contains a “Guide to the Big Easy” which is sort of like a Fodor’s guide to the more well known areas of New Orleans. I’ve been to New Orleans a few times and it was fun to read Goff’s descriptions of real places and events intermixed with his Deadlands Noir setting and characters. Several times I had to ask myself what was fact and what was fantasy. The Photoshopped photos of some of the characters appear to be Kickstarter backers, personal friends or associates of Goff and Hensley. Some look dangerous indeed and others downright harmless. Of course, it’s always the friendly and innocent looking ones that you gotta look out for!

Deadlands Noir Art3Let’s talk a little about the supernatural in Deadlands Noir. Magic can be granted by divine entities – voodoo spirits called “loas”, dangerous and evil entities called “manitous”, or magic can come from within the casters themselves. The types of characters which can use magic are grifters, patent scientists, voodoo practitioners, and harrowed. Grifters are described as supernatural con men who offer up their vices to dark entities in exchange for magical abilities. These vices of course can be anything:  peyote, whiskey, gambling, etc. Patent scientists are those inventors who use ghost rock to create devices that appear to defy the laws of science. They’re called patent scientists because with all the competition from other scientists to invent something new and make them rich, these characters all rush to the patent office to be the first with a claim to new inventions. Voodoo practitioners probably don’t need much definition. When most people think of supernatural phenomena in New Orleans, they normally think of voodoo.  The harrowed are an interesting breed as these are individuals who have died but been brought back to life by a demon (manitou). For the most part, harrowed continue living as they did before and the manitou sits back and enjoys the show.  On occasion, the manitou take the reins and wreak havoc while driving the body of the harrowed host.

Even with the incredibly descriptive New Orleans setting, you might still be struggling to create an adventure for your players. Well, step right up! John Goff has just the cure for what ails you, a case generator. I’ll give you an example: Step One:  I roll for the hook; A business or corporation hires the characters to look into something. Step Two: I roll for the event; Whoever hired the characters is afraid of something or someone. Step three: I roll for the perpetrator; The perp who is causing problems for the employer is a complete stranger. Step four: I roll for the motive; it’s greed.  Step five:  I roll for evidence characters can find to break the case; It will be documentary evidence. Possibly a newspaper clipping? Maybe public records? Optional step: I roll for the location; I come up with the Riverside location of New Orleans. Another optional step: I roll for a plot twist and determine the perpetrator is actually working for someone else who doesn’t want to be known. Just like that, I’ve got the wire frame for an interesting noir adventure. As an additional option, Goff provides a campaign-length mystery which can be played in installments. This campaign is called Red Harvest and contains seven individual adventures. I won’t spoil the details but the titles for the seven adventures are:  The Lady Vanishes, Lost Love, A Chance in Hellstromme, A Friend in Need, Homework, Down in the Bayou, and A Neat Little Package.  And if  all THAT wasn’t enough to get you going, you also get a number of Savage Tales, which are mini adventures, to be be inserted into the Red Harvest campaign.

No RPG is complete without interesting monsters and NPCs and Deadlands Noir is no exception. Some of the more interesting entries were:

  • False Face – A creature which resembles a circus clown and moves most freely during Mardi Gras or masquerade balls. Anyone read Stephen King’s book It?
  • Haunted Car – Yes, I’m a huge fan of King and this entry caught my attention as haunted cars are capable of falling in love with their driver and becoming murderously jealous.
  • Hyde – This creature is the result of someone drinking booze filtered through ghost rock. Guess what the resulting drink is called? Redrum. Love it! Goff obviously has more than a passing familiarity with Mr. King’s books and movies.
  • Deadlands Noir Art4Walking Dead – These are smart and conscious undead beings that eat “sweet, delicious brains”.
  • Zombies – These are not the same as walking dead as these are rare creatures created by the Red Sect. Zombies are nearly invulnerable and can only be killed by dismemberment or several hours of exposure to fire. Rick and his AMC The Walking Dead cronies would have a hard time with these buggers.
  • Agents – These are the Union’s Men in Black who investigate and cover up supernatural events.
  • Texas Rangers:  This is the Confederate’s answer to the Union’s Agents. Their motto is “Shoot it or recruit it”.

One of the things I loved about John Goff’s writing is he’s sprinkled colorful sayings throughout the book. As an example, when describing corruption he writes, “There’s a joke in the city that says you can buy off most of the officers with the same thing you give an elephant at the circus – a handful of peanuts”.  Another is “I’m gonna make you bleed out so many holes the vampires will think you’re a buffet.”

All in all Deadlands Noir reads like a wonderful combination of history book, journalism piece, tour guide, a Who’s Who directory of New Orleans, and pulp novel. Hensley brilliantly weaves facts with fiction to create an alternate reality of New Orleans and the United States. You’ll get drawn into the setting so much where you have to ask yourself which portions are real and which were created specifically for this game. It’s good, very good. The fantastic art throughout helps to create as well as maintain the dark, mysterious mood of the game. Even if you don’t incorporate this setting into your gaming, you’ll find it a great read and source of inspiration.



All in all Deadlands Noir reads like a wonderful combination of history book, journalism piece, tour guide, a Who’s Who directory of New Orleans, and pulp novel. Hensley brilliantly weaves facts with fiction to create an alternate reality of New Orleans and the United States.

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David Hinojosa

David first learned about roleplaying games in junior high when he heard some kids talking about this new game they were playing. His curiosity got the best of him and he bought the blue Dungeons and Dragons box set at his local hobby store.

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