1 out of 5 rating for Deadlands Back East: the South
As a self-defined "Spaghetti Western with Meat," the setting of Deadlands is quite squarely west of the Mississippi. But near the end of the Classic product line a pair of sourcebooks were released detailing the Union and Confederate countries in the more industrialized east.
As a long-running hybrid of horror and Western tropes, Deadlands has a lot of material which made it unfriendly to new prospects. The unwieldy Classic system and NPC-centric metaplot are two such concerns, although perhaps the greatest is the alternate history handling of a Confederacy that successfully broke off and eliminated racism and slavery from its society. That this sentiment more or less matches many talking points of Neo-Confederate whitewashers of history, and how said groups have turned out to harbor racist elements among their number because of said Lost Cause ideology, has been the element that turned away the largest number of gamers from the setting in my own experience.
Although this book was written in 1999, the slave-free, supposedly post-racial Confederacy lives well into the line, and Back East the South is the most detailed work on delving into how the Weird West's Southern States operate. No setting revisions or expansions have been released for the Back East locations since, so this is the most up-to-date one we really have.
For the book proper, Back East: the South's first half is an in-character traveler's brochure of the Confederate States' environs east of the Mississippi along with interesting locations, major cities, and strange goings-on. The second half is a GM's Only section revealing the truth of the aforementioned places along with new monsters.
The setting's delivery is haphazard, its own world-building leaving more questions than answers. Although split between three authors all from the South, certain regions get more screen-time and detail than others. North Carolina is perhaps the most fleshed-out, with discussion on Appalachian folklore such as village healers who gain their powers from never seeing the face of their fathers to the tale of local university student Peter Droomgoole's disastrous duel over a beloved. Compare this to South Carolina and Tennessee, whose environs are hardly detailed save for the cities of Charleston and Nashville getting the lion's share of words. Every state has its own supernatural terrors and mundane evils of wicked men, but in some cases you may have but one or two plot hooks before the Game Master has to resort to their own material. Taken holistically there's a lot of material for a "Weird East" game: Florida teems with limestone caverns full of monsters from humanoid rat-like monsters to prehistoric sea creatures; ghost ships of long-dead pirates sail the Carolina's Outer Banks and even up the Mississippi River; restless spirits of dead soldiers rise to do battle again and again; rural Appalachia teems with remote giants, witches, and spirits from Cherokee legend.
But perhaps the most pressing answer on readers' minds is how the fictional Confederacy managed to overcome racism slavery. Even by the standards of Lost Cause rhetoric it's poor. There is no mention of States' rights anywhere in the text, and in the world of Deadlands not only was slavery a Constitutional Amendment, it was vital to the economy and a huge portion of the rich Planter class who vigorously defended it. President Davis pursued manumission in order to gain British and French military aid, at first offering freedom to slaves who joined the army but then to all African-Americans once a black South Carolinian officer threatened desertion.
This all happened without notable violent insurrections, infighting, or the Southern Aristocracy pulling every dirty trick in the book to keep their wealth and status. And when slavery was outlawed in no small part due to black soldiers voting, said plantation owners supposedly retreated from public life and politics. Although the text would contradict itself later by having them matter a lot in state and local affairs.
The Confederacy went from fighting for an evil cause to fighting for nothing at all. The Aristocracy, the greatest perpetuates of human misery in the region, either had most magnanimously see the light after Sherman's March or joined a racist occult society the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights are supposedly an example of "isolated racism" that the book encourages rather than entire communities or systems, but they control economics and politics on an international level from the Caribbean to the South. The African-American population more or less assimilates into broader Confederate society, and precious few word count is given over to notable black people of the era or their cultural traditions besides mentions of Vodou here and there. More praise is heaped upon white Confederate officers such as Robert E. Lee or Patrick Cleburne than the real-world Abraham Galloway or the fictional black Confederate soldier John Buckner who strong-armed the country into universal manumission. Real-world progressive actions by the Union are either eliminated or given over to the Confederacy as credit in order for the latter nation to gain the moral high ground. Examples include the Emancipation Proclamation only being passed after the Confederate universal manumission, or the Union choosing to uphold slavery in Tennessee and thus turning Southern blacks against them when in real life said order was shortly eliminated and caused many ex-slaves to join the Union Army.
And in spite of wanting to paint a post-racial era, systemic racism is still in vogue in the South. Racist serial killers in Charleston are targeting African-Americans of high social standing, and the local police turn a blind eye to the violence. The Knights of the Golden Circle dominate the ghost rock mines in North Carolina and bribed, blackmailed, and replaced every port authority of note in the Caribbean. White foremen on farms still whip black workers supposedly free, and the black folk hero High John the Conqueror is a wanted man for making a habit of showing up arrogant and violent white men. And this is not mentioning more subtle dogwhistles such as one heading in the history chapter labeled "Birth of a Nation" after the famously racist pro-KKK movie of the same name, or how one of the monsters is an undead Hangman of a lynched victim who can only be permanently laid to rest after being choked with their own noose.
Once on a 2013 post on the official forums, one of Deadlands' main writers explained how the designers made a non-racist Confederacy in the genuine belief that this made the setting more inclusive, avoided the tricky scenarios of portraying period-era bigotries in an otherwise "historical" era, and remaining appealing to the widest possible amount of gamers.
But on both an in-game universe level and meta-level of broader fans and customers, nostalgia over the Antebellum South has not resulted in a more inclusive setting. The failing public education system along with a concerted propaganda campaign by Lost Cause devotees can be to blame for pulling the wool over many American's eyes, but the actions and words of those who still carry it have come out in the open since the deadly Charlottesville Rally of 2017.
In 2015 Kenneth Hite, one of the writers of this book, retconned the Confederacy to be more explicitly anti-black in Deadlands Noir. I figure this may showcase changing attitudes on the writers' part. With the release of Savage Worlds Adventure Edition earlier this year there's talk of an update to the Deadlands setting given the recent metaplot. This may not be much to go on, but part of me hopes that the writers at Pinnacle Entertainment have taken notice of recent developments over the public discussion of the Confederacy's legacy.
It is perhaps Back East's fumbled handling of race that is Deadlands' greatest fault, which cannot save the rest of the work. Although written in 1999 the sentiments carried on throughout the game line, and has been the greatest barrier against bringing new players and customers into this great gonzo setting of gunslingers and hexslingers. Much like the real world's South, the beauty of Deadlands does not need to tie itself to the Confederacy to survive, and we can achieve so much more once we cast down the Stars & Bars.
Let us hope that the writers' desire of an inclusive setting, and Kenneth Hite's willingness to confront the bigotries of Dixieland, carry forth into the new Deadlands to be released in 2019.