Thursday, May 30, 2013


Nathaniel Graves, by my brother-by-another-
set-of-parents-entirely, Morgan King.
Years ago, I came up with a character for a play-by-post Mutants & Masterminds campaign named Graves. Graves, by day, was a geeky CompSci major at Freedom City University with a slight obsession with comics. By night, he donned an old duster and Stetson hat he'd inherited from his grandfather, and, using the mystic powers contained within them, fought crime as a ghostly and mysterious gunslinger with the ability to manipulate shadows and mold them to his will.

Little did Graves know that the powers granted by his costume came from a demon trapped inside of them. Long ago, back in the 1880's, a small-town sheriff named Nathaniel Graves was framed and executed for the murder of his wife and daughter. Just before the rope tightened, he offered a prayer to anyone who would listen: Let me get revenge.

Someone answered.

He rose from the grave three days later and began cutting a bloody swath across the Old West, tracking down and exacting revenge upon those who wronged him. The more he killed, the stronger he grew, but the more he lost himself in bloodlust. Near the end of his journey, he met an Iroquois mystic who told him the truth: he was possessed by a powerful spirit of evil, and once he had completed his blood-soaked vengeance, it would completely consume him and be free to wreak havoc in the world.

With the mystic's help, Graves performed a ritual to trap the demon's power and return himself to the grave.  As they were underway, however, the last of Grave's targets arrived with plenty of backup and started shooting. The mystic was wounded in the initial volley, and Graves was forced to start shooting back in self-defense. It came down to the wire: just him and his last victim, the leader of a bandit gang he'd run with upon a time, with the demonic bloodlust churning and boiling inside him and urging him to kill this one, last man and free it forever.

Fortunately, there was just enough of the old sheriff left to hold his ground. While he stood there, barrel of his ghostly revolver pressed to his enemy's head, a silent war raging within his mind, the mystic managed to complete his ritual. Nathaniel Graves died, and the demon was trapped in a nondescript couple of relics: the old gunslinger's hat and duster.

As I wrote Graves' backstory, I realized that the tale of Nathaniel Graves' bloody vengeance was a far more interesting story than his descendant's. I started fleshing things out and building the basic skeleton of what would, I hoped, become my first true stab at writing a novel.

A few months ago, I found out that Deadlands existed.


Deadlands is both a pen-and-paper RPG system--at least, in its Classic incarnation--and a tabletop campaign setting. It's currently being published as Deadlands Reloaded, for use with the Savage Worlds gaming system. Savage Worlds, in turn, is a ridiculously flexible and simple system with the tagline and philosophy of "fast, furious, fun." I haven't actually gotten to play around with it yet, but reading over the rules, I'd say that's pretty accurate.

Deadlands itself is set in the late 1870's/early 1880's in an alternate version of our history.
 The big split occured in 1863, when the Battle of Gettysburg abruptly ended in a draw thanks to, according to eye witnesses, the dead rising up and firing indiscriminately on both sides. This, in turn, led to a decades-long stalemate between the North and South, and eventually to a tense cease-fire (and, thereby, official recognition of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation).

Then, in 1868, a massive earthquake hit California and basically shattered the West Coast all the way from Mexicali to Oregon. Sea water rushed in and flooded the place, and what used to be the western half of the state became a confusing labrynth of free-standing mesas and treacherous waters called the Maze.

The earthquake also revealed a brand new resource: a strange new ore called ghost rock that burns far hotter and longer than coal, even if it makes a strange "wailing" noise while it does so. Scientists experimenting with the stuff discovered it allowed all sorts of previously unimaginable steam-based inventions, and, when mixed with various compounds, could create all sorts of bizarre and useful results.

Thus, the Great Ghost Rock Rush of '69 led to miners and opportunists of every race, color, and creed to flood (heh) into the Maze in search of fortune. And ghost rock began to flow back East, powering a massive new technological revolution and generally shaking everything up.

Also, there are a few other changes.
This is all stuff everybody knows, even the stuffiest ivory-tower East Coast intellectual. There's an awful lot more that folks out West know, though, even if their friends and families back home think it's a bunch of superstitious hogwash.

There are things out there. Monsters made of the corpses of murdered innocents. Huge, burrowing horrors that prey on stagecoaches and lone riders. There are places where it's not safe to go out alone at night, and there are places where it ain't safe to go out at night with a whole posse of heavily-armed gunhands.

It's not just monsters, either. Indian shamans can call upon the spirits to perform miracles, both benign and terrifying. Chinese martial artists can level an entire building with a single, glowing punch. Ambitious cardsharks cast spells by playing Poker with the devil. Even some seemingly sane and rational gunslingers, who rely on cold steel and hot lead rather than some hokey mysticism, are said to weave magic and arcane sigils into their pieces that let them make impossible (and impossibly devastating) shots.

Most importantly--at least as it relates to my tale up above--is the fact that sometimes, the dead don't stay dead. Evil spirits called manitou are always on the lookout for promising hosts. A gunhand who takes a premature dirt nap, particularly one who could cause a lot of trouble in the wrong hands, has a chance of waking back up as one of the Harrowed. He's still himself, mostly, but not always. Every now and then, the spirit animating him puts itself in the pilot seat and gets up to as much trouble as it can. And even when they're not in charge, they're always trying to urge their copilot into doing the wrong thing.

See the problem?

Yeah. Dammit. Little did I know that, a decade or more before I started thinking about the Ballad of Nathaniel Graves, somebody else had already staked out a claim on that idea and mined out the ghost rock beneath. It's just a bit disappointing.

That said? Gorram, this setting is cool. I've been picking up the Reloaded books as I can and completely devouring the tasty, tasty fluff within. I'm currently reading The Flood, which details the Maze and the major players within it, not to mention a full campaign for a posse considering taking on the area's local Big Bad.

Sadly, I doubt I'll get a chance to run a game any time soon; I'm already involved in two weekly D&D games, one of which I'm in charge of. I just don't have the time, or, I suspect, the willingness of my friends to invest (both financially and mentally) in yet another system. And so I bide my time. But those of you who aren't burdened by such considerations should definitely consider giving the setting (and Savage Worlds) a looksee; if you have any love at all of the Old West and its mythology, or alternate histories circa the middle 19th century, I think you'll find quite a bit to like.

Enjoy, pard'ners.

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