Deadlands Noir Companion (Savage Worlds)
Publisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
Page Count: 209
Release Date: 03/06/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
I’ve really been enjoying Deadlands Noir so far. It’s a nice mix of horror and detective work. It’s Call of Cthulhu, but with more mundane horrors and an emphasis on pulp action rather than antiquarian studies. I loved the core rulebook, I enjoyed the first adventure for the system, The Old Absinthe House Blues, and even found the two short stories (Tenement Men and Blood and Roses) to be fun little diversions. With four straight solid releases for the Deadlands Noir franchise, I had to wonder how long they could keep the streak of quality alive. Unfortunately, the streak ends here, with the Deadlands Noir Companion. While not a terrible release by any means, it’s definitely a turn for the worse, as it does a lot of things wrong and kind of sucked my enjoyment of Deadlands Noir out with one fell swoop, thanks to the multitude of bad decisions made here.
Let’s start with the first and most obvious one. When your PDF costs twenty dollars, it better be a weighty tome indeed. After all, Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition clocks in at over five hundred pages, and it’s $29.99. Deadlands Noir is less than half the size, and only ten bucks less. Now Pinnacle does overprice their PDFs, so this is really no surprise here, but it’s also a big no-no when the companion for a setting or system costs more than the core book. Deadlands Noir is only $14.99, so the companion, regardless of size, should be roughly the same cost. Anytime a companion is more than the core book, a red flag is being waved.
The second big issue is that the Deadlands Noir Companion commits the cardinal sin of being all over the place with dates and locations, thus locking in the metaplot in too tightly. This sort of thing is what the aforementioned V:TM did back around Third Edition, and it’s sad to see Pinnacle making the same huge mistake less than half a year into the spin-off’s release. Even worse is that where Deadlands Noir was mostly hands off from things like other Deadlands, spin-offs such as Hell on Earth, the Deadlands Noir Companion locks Hell on Earth into rigid metaplot continuity meaning, that it is GOING to happen instead of being a possible future for the setting. Whenever a metaplot is forced this heavily on players, they become passive participants in their own game unless they jettison the metaplot completely. I hate to keep bringing up White Wolf as an example, but the parallels are too eerie here. All the complaints about Third Edition, where PCs took a back seat to the metaplot and published adventure NPCs is ringing all too true here, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A good metaplot is written in such a way that players feel they can affect it. A bad one leaves them going, “What’s the point? Everything is already determined.” Where Deadlands Noir was in the former, the Companion is unfortunately in the latter.
The problems compounds further when you see exactly what you get in the Deadlands Noir Companion. There are four distinct locations, which is a great idea, because Deadlands Noir only provided information for New Orleans. However, things quickly go to pot when you realize these four cities are all in different decades, and none are in the same time frame as New Orleans in Deadlands Noir, which is set in 1935. This means you can’t string even TWO of these locations together without advancing time in some way, and there’s no real way to, say, pick up and move from one location to the next in the same time frame without a serious amount of work on the GM’s part. This means the vast majority of people playing a Deadlands Noir campaign will find the Companion interesting, but ultimately unusable. That’s extremely bad, and you have to wonder what the guys at Pinnacle were thinking when they ever considered going down this road, as it is neither smart nor accessible.
So here’s a list of what you get. There’s Chicago circa 1927, Shan Fan (San Francisco) circa 1939, Lost Angels (Los Angeles) circa 1946 and The City of Gloom (Salt Lake City) circa 1950. Again, due to the gaps in the time line, you can’t really use any of these locations in conjunction with each other OR New Orleans, unless you move up your campaign several years each time you want to change locations. This is just a terrible design idea in practically every way possible. We could look at things in a positive light and say that we now have five small locations to run campaigns in instead of one – but we’re still stuck to specific time periods for each. What the Companion should have done is list all four locations and how they are in 1935, so as to be compatible with Deadlands Noir‘s default time period and locale, OR it should have been one big timeline running from the 20s to the early 50s, which would then allow far more creative freedom in regards to where you set you campaign and allow for travel between locations.
So is there anything actually positive to say about the Deadlands Noir Companion? Well, about half of the collection is extremely well written. I enjoyed the Chicago and Shan Fan sections, and there is a lot to work with in either location. The Chicago section is really the only one in the book that actually has a Noir feel to it, while the Shan Fan locale is highly unique and offers some really interesting situations and characters for people new to the Deadlands universe, while longtime players of the Weird West version will enjoy seeing how things have changed in Ghost Rock Central. Lost Angels is… okay. Movie Town is well done, but the division and contrast between that and The Holy City kind of shreds the Noir feel, and the entire section falls completely apart by the end, leaving you to wonder why it was even written in the first place. See, so much of the Lost Angels section revolves around Sister Judith. She is the focal point of the location, the mood, the theme and the city itself. Everything written to let you effectively use the location of Lost Angels revolves around what she had done and is currently doing. In this aspect, everything is solid, cohesive and really well done. In fact, I would have said seventy-five percent of the book is well written, but the big long multi-chapter adventure at the end completely destroys all the quality work that was done here. Why? Because Sister Judith DIES AT THE END. This is truly terrible, because it pretty much renders the entire Lost Angels section moot. It’s one thing to have a portion of a supplement or sourcebook because unusable or incompatible as a product line goes on, but this is honestly the first time I’ve ever seen it happen in the SAME BOOK. Who is running quality control over at Pinnacle? This wouldn’t be so terrible if somewhere in the section gave GMs information on what the city will be like or run like after Judith’s death, but no, the adventure just ends and it’s off to The City of Gloom. This is so ill thought out, it’s hard to believe this Companion is written and edited by the same great team that did Deadlands Noir, but it is in fact so. Effectively, the Lost Angels section is little more than a series of adventure seeds where the others allow you to re-use the settings even after you play the adventures contained within. This wouldn’t be so bad if the adventure seeds weren’t the majority of the section, but they are. The actual description of Lost Angels is twenty pages, and the seeds and mini-chronicle take up thirty-seven. OUCH.
The City of Gloom gets even worse because there is no Noir at all, even though, you know, this is part of the Deadlands Noir line. Instead, you have a section that has far more in common with the bad atomic age sci-fi/B-horror movies of the 50s. This is obviously what the writing team was going for here, and that’s fine, but when I pick up a product that has NOIR in the title, I guess I expect NOIR, and not something that would have been great MST3K fodder. When the entire section, and even the final core adventure, revolves around one of the big bads from The Weird West, who has since died and been reborn into a giant robotoic body housing his undulating brain in glass tubing, well, that just defenestrates even the slightest facet of Noir that you could hope for. As well, this section, more than any other really, slaps the GM and players with the feeling of “Screw your campaign, this is OUR game and you will have it unfold the way we want it to,” right down to locking in certain characters as unkillable or untouchable because they show up in Hell on Earth. Look, a well written RPG book is meant to guide or suggest things to a GM and let them formulate their own ideas and scenarios. It’s meant to let them make the game all their own. Unfortunately, Deadlands Noir Companion does the exactly opposite, ESPECIALLY with The City of Gloom. I can’t tell you how much I hated the constant references to a future that they are saying IS going to happen, when it should be written in a way that suggests this could happen, but the GM doesn’t HAVE to go that route if he or she doesn’t want to. Add in the fact the section is a mix of bad sci-fi and even worse Cold War espionage adventures and you have a combination that soured me on the whole affair.
The thing is, Pinnacle would have been better off selling these four locations as separate PDFs that players could pick and choose from. They would feel a lot more flexible and optional that way. Unfortunately, the whole is actually less than the sum of the parts here, and all four sections combine to give the feeling of a rigid, inflexible campaign setting, where it doesn’t matter what the PCs do as everything is already predetermined in the end and players are just along for the ride. The Companion feels so completely alien and opposite to the core Deadlands Noir book, it’s not even funny. There you were, just given suggestions and occasional allusions to what happened in other Deadlands settings with no attempt to make you feel like you needed to be familiar with AND own said variants. The Companion, however, goes for a hard sell that these other Deadlands settings are not just recommended, but almost needed, which is in poor taste.
For twenty bucks you are getting an expensive PDF that will do far more to turn you off to Deadlands Noir than anything else. Only one of the sections is actual Noir infused, and another is a weird Noir/morality play hybrid that completely destroys itself by the end. Another is a well done 20s Kung Fu-esque piece, and the fourth is just terrible in pretty much all aspects unless Noir somehow means to you Cold War Era shenanigans and terrible sci-fi bits that neither you nor your players will be able to take seriously. It’s unfortunate, because there are some quality adventures and/or writing in this collection, but taken as a whole, the Deadlands Noir Companion just does too much harm to the campaign setting and to push players away – which is exactly what a setting companion SHOULDN’T DO. It should accentuate, not destroy, what was already built. If you’re fine dealing with locations where everything is laid out for you and your players, to the point where you will feel like you are merely rolling dice instead of actually role-playing, you might have a more positive outlook on this book, but for me, the Deadlands Noir Companion is pretty much a bunch of my pet peeves rolled into one big mess.