Kevin Wilson (Fantasy Flight Games)
Summary: Deadlands – serial numbers
Spellslinger is the 4th installment in the line of Horizon supplements by Fantasy Flight games for the d20 system. As stated in my previous reviews, each supplement straddles the line between mini-campaign setting and mod, complete with its own classes, some feats and unique rules or modifications thereof. Usually each game is very thematically focused and its content can be summed up in a single sentence. This one is an elfwestern. We had one good one, one stellar one and one mediocre one. Now we get another good one.
Spellslinger is a Wild West re-interpretation of all the old DnD tropes. Accusations of Deadlands imitation will have to be directed to the comments section. I have neither read nor played Deadlands therefore I cannot judge, but my first impression is that this is too generic to be a direct ripoff. It seems to have added classic western tropes and some western-era folklore to the usual smorgasboard of fantasy tropes that D&D 3.5
was composed of had degenerated into since it emerged fully formed from the foam of the sea hail Gygax!
So here’s the rub; Humans, elves, gnomes, dwarves and half-orcs have left the overcrowded and increasingly industrialized and magic-starved Old World for the frontier of the New world. The Territories are a lawless place, filled with danger but also great opportunity and shitloads of gold. The Colonists have largely driven the benevolent non-violent totally-not-a-stand-in-for-native-americans-hollywood-style otherkin Wolfmen out of the area and beyond the undead-haunted Grey Hills. And also everyone is really racist, except for the wise and noble otherkin. So chug down your white guilt and check your privilege we are checking out Spellslinger!
My fears of the SJW-bogeyman are assuaged somewhat by the character creation process. The Territories are dangerous so everyone starts at level 3. I would cry foul (I think all games based on dnd should start you off as a scrappy young whippersnapper with wits and an attitude but little to no experience), but given the addition and potency of firearms and the complete lack of personal armor this is actually a sound design choice. I will still cry a little foul. Foul! A second great idea was removing alignment since most Westerns tend to be personal stories with the character’s actions being driven by personal, rather then ideological reasons. Since Spellslinger is going for that nuanced shades-of-grey approach, this is a sound decision.
I was relieved to learn race in Spellslinger was not a social construct. All the usual races from 3.5 make their appearance, with notes on the lands they hold, who they dislike, what brands they usually manifest (brands are a very interesting alternate magic system discussed later on) and so on.
Some races get a small update to adjust them to the time period. For example: Dwarves now treat dwarven Scatterguns instead of waraxes as martial rather then exotic weapons. Bonuses to attack against goblinoids and orcs have been replaced with bonuses to hit against undead (the only creature that really qualifies as humanoid in the Territories would be the otherkin wolfmen) and some skill bonuses have been altered since skills have been streamlined. Background-wise, everything gets a little dose of grit, with half-elves being violent drunks, half-orcs being explosive-tempered dangers to their environment, dwarves selfish greedy assholes, humans basically just humans and halflings greedy tricksters. This is actually very well done and adds character to the setting, which makes the Grey Runners (otherkin indian wolfmen) so fucking lame by comparison.
Speaking of otherkin, you can also opt to play as an Indian Wolfman. Just picture a 6-7 foot tall 150 kg wolfman that acts like a 90s hollywood star-trek Indian that is totally at peace with nature and respects the land and doesn’t get why the Colonists come and distrupt it but they are totally peaceful etc. etc. etc. I would have liked at least one tribe of Wolfmen based on Comanche Indians but instead we get the sanitized version. Lame. The race gets +1 to level adjustment and has generally excellent physical abilities, can track by scent, have a natural attack, a +4 bonus on understanding their own culture, Tomahawk proficiency, great wisdom and lower intelligence
just like a real native american. This race is cool but the 90s hollywood reverse racism doesn’t seem to gell well with the gritty realistic way the other races are described.
We end this section with a note on racial tensions, the importing of grudges from the old world to the new territories, the mentioning of vendettas and hangings, a relentlessly stupid paragraph on segregation bemoaning the fact that women are expected to conform to gender roles (while all the men are apparently free to wear frilly dresses and drink tea instead of working in arsenic-laced mines, forming posses to fight off murderous indians and bandits and work on the railroad). I want to like you Spellslinger don’t spoon-feed me this bullshit. The Brands (think Magic marks) are also a source of division, with some echoes of Salem thrown in there. This is gritty as fuck and I think this works really well in portraying the type of stark, violent atmosphere that mixes well with westerns but Spellslinger is too busy assuring us it is not racist to notice how good it is. We are explicitly told heroes are the ones that do not put people in boxes and stand up to these injustices.
This is a thematic faux pas, the proverbial squatting and dropping a deuce atop the charity dinner lobster; there are so many injustices and dangers in the (Fantasy) West the decision to make it explicitly about fighting racial, sexual or magical prejudice is a bizarre one. Westerns tend to be small scale intimate personal stories, not saturday afternoon reruns of Saved by the Bell with revolvers but thank Anderson we can ignore this thematic nosedive and focus on things not shit.
We end this section with a note that everyone wants to be loved, free and happy, which is an absurdly naive perspective in flagrant contradiction of not just reality but even the fictional reality the game attempts to portray. If everyone just wants to be loved and happy and free that means that gunning down mobs of bandits is evil since they are committing crimes out of ignorance, bad upbringings or misunderstanding instead of them simply needing killing because they will harm others and they are too stupid or evil to ever change their mind, which would be appropriate for a Western, where justice is swift and evil is pervasive.
I said this game was good and it is but seriously this page almost caused me to put it down. We get another teary-eyed section about how even in the most cosmopolitan areas (just fucking say Europe and North-America you coward) racism and sexism still exist and they are serious problems and this game in no way condones them and if you are too much of a special snowflake to handle them you might remove them from your game. Based on this process of explicitly mentioning things in your game you do not support I am thus forced to assume Spellslinger and by extension Kevin Wilson and Fantasy Flight supports vigilante justice, pistol duels and banditry, as long as said pistol duels and banditry are neither racially nor sexually motivated. And of course we can “use the topic of racism in a mature and responsible fashion to facilitate [blah blah blah]” you fucking self-righteous navel-gazing prick I don’t want a lecture on the evils of racism I want to play a game about magic cowboys and you ostensibly set out to make one.
The excellent news is that the medication kicks in at around page 11, causing lead developer Kevin Wilson to suddenly recall he was in fact writing a d20 supplement and not a Gender Studies Textbook (though it should be noted that the error is understandable since both formats are known to cover entirely fictional topics of a fantastical nature). Armour in this game is effectively useless since all modern projectile weapons hit touch AC so each class gets no armor proficiency, a level based dodge bonus to AC that counts as a Dex bonus for the purpose of armor Max Dex to AC and a level based bonus to Initiative. The game has but 3 classes (with the Brands it effectively has way more but hear me out); Gunfighter, Maverick and Trailblazer, each based on Western archetypes. One may multi-class freely. Each class can either start with a single unique class ability that is super strong but may only be selected at level 1 (that is, character level 1, not class level 1) or with a replacement class ability derived from their Brand feats. These are called Core Abilities and they help differentiate your characters. Brands essentially function as replacement class features that allow you to play wizard, cleric, druid, anti-wizard or weird black-handed death-man versions of the three classes, at the cost of reduced core effectiveness.
The classes themselves are about what you’d expect. The Gunslinger is a tough motherfucker whose abilities mostly revolve around fucking shooting people with ranged weapons though you can make a melee focused Gunslinger if you are suicidal or a contrarian. The Maverick is your go-to for skills, a smooth philosophizing pimp that knows when to duck when the heat is on with excellent initiative and dodge AC but shitty BAB. If you have always wanted a cigar-smoking halfling cardshark then this is the class for you. The Trailblazer is basically the survivalist, for those of you wanting to play elf rangers or Wolfmen. It feels like the third wheel on a bicycle (the Dutch have a strange and intimate relation with bicycles, therefore it is possible that my international readership will not appreciate the full import of that comparison. I shall not waste your time with ramblings on the obvious moral superiority and benefits to physical fitness that comes with the ownership of a bicycle, I will merely assert that if you do not own one you are not really human. That is all).
On to Brands. Oh Kevin Wilson I cannot stay mad at you. Brands are a feat based form of spellcasting, but you must select a particular brand at 1st level only. Using brands, you can use any class as the basis for a sort of spellcasting template. The story behind it all is that on the Old continent organized magic has basically dwindled to nothing and has been replaced by certain branded individuals who were born with magical powers. After a healthy dose of persecution they are now an organized force in both the Old and the New world. The most feared are the Magi and the Black hand(the anti wizards), who are perpetually at war with one another and always cause massive collateral damage and loss of innocent life whilst doing so (keep it up Kevin that is fucking great). All brands are noticeable though they can be concealed.
Blackhands are spell resistant, sniff out magic and can use their blood to forge magic bullets that penetrate spell protections. Magi are murderous jerk wizards that have formed a wizardly order/militia called the Order of the Eye (since wizards may be spotted by their evil eyes) that takes over whole villages and blows up people with magic. Padre’s are the godless priests of Spellslinger (since the gods have fallen silent), able to heal wounds and cure diseases. The Pale Riders are the supernatural avengers of the Frontier, with phantom horses and Death touches and so forth. And you got your Skinchangers (druids) and your Steelhearts (magic dwarf metalworkers). Spells go up to level 5 with a hefty feat investment, a just and proper level of power for any post-high medieval technology fantasy setting.
Skills have, as is traditional for the Horizon line, been given a beautiful streamlining. By now one can predict how these are likely to go. Jump, Swim, Climb and Balance get lumped under Athletics, Diplomacy and Gather Information get lumped under Chat, Hide and Move Silently get folded into Stealth, Bluff, Disguise and Forgery get lumped under Deceive, Heal may be used to give first aid 1/day to offset the lack of magical healing, Disable Device, Sleight of Hand and Open Lock fall under Heist and so on and so forth, worlds without end amen. Add a whiff of New knowledge skills for the particular setting the game takes place in and we are on to feats.
Feats have been added to accommodate a game more focused on gun battles. Feats for cover, initiative, improved aiming (you may aim your weapon or brace it to get a bonus in this game) and better crits are all added next to some desert survival feats. By far the most interesting feats are the ones available to those who select a brand. Next to the brand-affiliated spellcasting feats, which essentially give you access to a few spells of a certain level with one additional level being added for each feat, all Brands are given the opportunity to gain new special abilities via these feats, and these are all pretty great and interesting.
Equipment section begins with notes on starting gp for 3rd level characters and a nice note on a possible Gold Rush, with real world price inflation taking place of as much as 2000%. A tiny detail that adds so much. Standard equipment is available but armor and medieval weaponry is considered exotic and very expensive. Spyglasses and water clocks are now really cheap. Again, it is these tiny details that show that Kevin Wilson, when he is not suckling on the poisoned teat of social justice, suckles on the poisoned teat of being a really good, meticulous and conscientious game designer. It’s those little touches that add so much verisimilitude. New weaponry consists of a variety of pistols, shotguns and rifles, as well as stats for tomahawks, broken bottles, crowbars, pickaxes and the odd race-specific weapon like the elven longbarrel or the Gnomish contraption. Equipment lists include such worthy objects as cigarettes, cards, dusters, springloaded holsters and dynamite. Of course you can file off your sights so you can draw your gun quicker or saw off your shotgun for more damage but less range.
Gun battle rules cover all the necessities to make d20 firearm combat not shit. Its not realistic but at least it attempts some semblance of genre emulation. One big change is the ability to actually aim a fucking gun, brace it, provide covering fire and pin down enemies. It almost reminds me of Dark Heresy, this is the shit d20 modern needed to not suck. While WotC would be content to produce a 95 page supplement entitled D20 MODERN: GUN’S BLAZING spellslinger gives you all this with one page. Splendid!
What else would one find in a western? Rules for Showdowns!
Incredibly good rules for showdowns. Basically, you can exchange initiative, dodge and BAB before you draw on a 1-for-1 basis. A daring game of rock-paper-scissors where one has to choose between speed, accuracy and defense. Every hit during a duel naturally counts as a coup-de-grace (that’s an automatic critical hit with a very high chance of killing you outright for any d20 luddites) or just a critical hit if you are shooting to wound. I can almost hear the Grand Duel by Luis Bacarov in the background (or any good duel music from a classic western, seriously listen to those they are all good). Naturally, no duel would be complete without means of fighting it before it even takes place. One can play a variety of dastardly tricks. A stern monologue delivered by a master wordsmith will sap the initiative before the fight, a feint can draw opponents off balance, a Concentration check may be used to better ignore the tricks of others (ah la Bronson in Once upon a Time in the West), all may employ the classic thousand yard stare (any Clint Eastwood western really) and a Sun in your Eyes rule. Ah las, no opportunity to play a ‘fistful of dollars’ trick with an Iron plate, but then again that was a bunch of nonsense to begin with. The chapter finishes with a very simple yet easy to use reputation rule based on the CR of the most powerful gunman you kill with the benefit being bonuses to chat checks and the drawback being murderous increasingly powerful glory-hunting gunslingers challenging you for fights at every town (CR 16-19 at some point jesus shit). And finally expanded rules for fighting whilst drunk.
The setting itself is a decent elfwestern. Small towns are beholden to either the magi or the Black hand, transportation is by stage coach, riverboat or the miracle of the gnomish railroad, the dwarves have discovered gold in the undead-haunted Grey Hills and are trying to keep it a secret from the other races, the region is overseen by a corrupt puppet Governor of the Old world whose sole duty is the collection of tax, religion has fractured since the old gods have stopped giving spells (something that actually makes fucking sense from a sociocultural elfgame point of view) and townships are given the sparsest of descriptions. The essentials.
One other thing is the Grey Hills if you want to inject some supernatural horror into your game. Everything that dies around the Grey Hills re-animates unless it is burned or eaten. They are the essentially the Lands beyond the Wall if the Lands had gold instead of nubile fiery-headed wildling women. The Pack (that’s the Grey Runners) tribes are described and somehow they are all at peace with each other despite the fact they have radically different opinions towards the Colonists that are invading their lands. I call massive bullshit. Some new monsters are added, like the Bunyip (based on…australian myth?!?), an abberation that haunts gold mines, a Grey Dead template and some Needlemen for when you want to fight cactusmonsters. Overall, they are good entries, though I suspect most of the interaction in this game will be with NPCs, not monsters.
A very good list of recommended sources is given along with some rules modifications if you want to tweak the game. The list betrays a genuine love of the western genre. This is, ultimately, not a cynical attempt at cashing in on the d20 boom but a labor of love, and it shows. Overall, Spellslinger, despite its distasteful concessions to neo-progressive gobbledygook, remains focused on giving you something fun and useful and comprehensively elfwestern and is subsequently an excellent product that I can wholeheartedly recommend, even to people who do not like kool-aid.
I do not know if it is the best elfwestern I have ever read, because it is the only one.
Pros: Terrific genre emulation. Nice customisable class system. Delicious streamlining. Nice gritty morally ambiguous atmosphere.
Cons: Veers close to trite Hollywood racism with its nature loving wolfmen-indians at times.
Final Verdict: 7 out of 10 rare availability 2000% gold rush inflated double priced polearms.
Next-up: A setting post, ill-advised rules tinkering with Carcosa and will I finally read Dark Albion?