Game: The Way of the Dead
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Inc
Series: Deadlands: d20
Review Dated: 12th, August 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 4/10 [ Just shy of the mark ]
Total Score: 4
Average Score: 4.00
The Way of the Dead, I thought, promised two things – information on the powerful, glamorised and thus favourite character “race” of the undead Harrowed and conversion rules to turn your entire collection of original Deadlands into the d20 system. Ah. Silly me.
It’s a 96-paged, soft back, black and white book that comes in at just under $US 20.00. That’s on the expensive side. I was struck straight a way was the giant sized font the book uses. If you want to make a serious price per page comparison then you should probably take off a half dozen pages from The Way of the Dead’s total. There’s an advert in the back and so there goes another (the OGL license appears in the front but since every d20 book has one I’ll not count it as a penalty). There’s a twenty-page adventure in the back of the book too. Some people like this sort of thing, and although I rarely pay for pre-written adventures I sometimes see the benefit of them as “bonus” material. In this case, though, while I’m still searching for my d20 conversion rules the adventure isn’t a bonus, it’s filler. We’re down to 69 pages for help on the Harrowed and the conversion rules now. There are eight pages given over to this fellow called the Prospector and his plan that involves the Harrowed. That’s nice but if you don’t intend to use that – perhaps doubtful that the old man can pull it off – then we’re down to 61 pages.
So, is this 61-paged book worth nearly $20? No. It’s not worth nearly $20 at all.
However, I’ve set the book up for a fall here; as any Deadlands fan will tell you. You can’t get away with discounting key NPCs like that so easily. To their benefit Pinnacle handles this very well and presents important NPCs in the right way. Deadlands is a campaign setting in the truest sense in that it puts important people on par with important places, magical items and brewing wars. Another important NPC the book mentions is the Harrowed called Stone. This fellow is a nasty, a menace by which to terrorise your players with and Pinnacle refuse to give his stats. Good on them. If he’s that powerful why does he need stats? So your players can kill them? They’re not _supposed_ to kill them. If you can accept that then the lack of stats shouldn’t be a bother. Indeed, Stone must survive unbeaten by the players since he’s also a key figure in the future and in bringing about Hell on Earth.
So, Pinnacle has my support on the issue of not providing stats for key NPCs and clearly I don’t think that detracts from the book. I don’t agree with all of their roleplaying core assumptions though. Notably, I don’t think it’s a wise idea to have a character race which is so clearly more powerful than the others and I think it’s an even worse idea to try and counter balance game mechanics with role-playing possibilities. The Harrowed are super tough and dripping with powers; the Way of the Dead begins by introducing even more powers for them rather than, as I hoping, offering up some sort of mechanical balance for them. The idea put forward is that although the Harrowed are way more powerful there will be times when being undead will undo you. The reactions of NPCs are likely to be highly negative if you’re one of those Harrowed with a zombie like appearance. What happens if you play for months out in the wilderness where there are no NPCs with sensibilities to frighten?
Chapter Four talks about a few groups like the Texas Rangers and the Pinkertons as possible threats to PC Harrowed. It’s true, they are. I’m not won over by the inference that the Harrowed have yet another level over other characters though; even if this one is an inherently plot based. On the other hand, if the Pinkertons and the Texas Rangers are more generic groups (as they actually are) who operate against all sorts of unnatural creatures in the world then including them as suitable foes and checks against the Harrowed is simply rehashing information already available and charging us for the privilege. In the same chapter the Reckoners, the big bad guys, are listed as a threat to the Harrowed PCs. Duh! That’s a bit like having to buy an extra Star Wars supplement on Jedi Knights and finding a chapter reminding us that the Empire doesn’t like them.
Finally, by page 52 the Way of the Dead starts up a chapter on how to handle Harrowed in your game. The author makes no bones about how awkward the Harrowed can be and that’s a good thing. The advice on offer ranges from fairly weak, such as the poorly titled “Educated Your Players” section, to the better stuff where the book tells us that other evil Harrowed may turn up and cause problems as a direct result of the PCs doing to well. That might sound obvious at first but the balance of behind the scenes supernatural activity is quite a fine line in Deadlands and it’s nice to see this sort of thing make print. Bizarrely though the section on how to handle Harrowed finds itself distracted on awarding these undead heroes with even _more_ power if they’re around when a fearmonger is taken down.
Oh yes, there are supposed to be conversion rules in here too. There are a few pages of them and they begin by pointing out that it’s rather hard to convert a skill-based game to a level based game. Well I never! That’s exactly why I wanted the book. Unfortunately, Pinnacle can’t think up a particularly good way to convert the systems either. We’re left with the suggestion that the Marshal (the GM) should work something out with the players. Grrr! That’s not the sort of thing I expect to find in a book advertised as having the conversion system in! If you don’t give up in despair then you’ll find some actual mechanics to help you along, there is a suggested way of turning Deadland coordination and dice type into d20 attributes. There’s even a little table to suggest which two “old” Deadland attributes can be used to work out d20 Intelligence and Wits. There’s a matching table for skills but it’s not so helpful; the wisdom of the skill version table suggests such gems as using the d20 “climbing” skill in place of the “climbin'” skill, or the d20 “Handle Animal” in place of the “Teamster” and to use “Ride” rather than “Horse Ridin'”. Phew! Thanks for the help. I don’t think I would ever have worked that out of myself!
If you’re planning on running a Harrowed heavy Deadlands game then you’ll find a use for this book.