First, the setting:
The year is 1876, and the American Civil War is still going on. Why? Because on July 4th 1863, a group of Indians crossed over into the spirit world and opened the door for hostile being to move from thier world to ours. Our fear is their currency and they are on a spending spree. California fell into the ocean, revealing deposits of something called Ghost-rock. It burns practically forever (imagine that as a power source), but wails like a banshee as it does. With the renwed power of the Indian tribes and the loss of California, the USA and CSA are at a standoff against each other. meanwhile, the released spirits are wreaking havoc and the deaD RISE AGAIN. Some of these things you can’t shoot; that’s where it helps to know how to handle the cards. That is, you can cast magic with a deck of cards if you know the right moves. Sometimes having religion will give you some supernatural tricks to pull too. As a setting, DEADLANDS is just incredible and has a lot of fascinating stuff going on.
The mechanics: As an old AD&D player and then a Cthulhu player, I had trouble understanding the mechanics. After having looked at a White Wolf product for the first time, I now understand that the mechanics of DEADLANDS are the World of Darkness dice pool with some proto-D20 aspects and a card-playing gimmick attached.
I think the basic concept is that you have a dice pool based on either your skill OR your attribute. However, the die-type ranges from d4 to d12. Your attribute is determined by a card draw; the value of the card determines the die type and the suit determines your pool size. If you get an “ace” (best number on a die), you roll again and ADD the rolled to the base. Your best value counts in a dicecheck against a target number chosen by the GM (this sufficiently reminds me of a DC that I’m interested in the d20 version as well).You have wound levels that track your health and you use experience to buy up your dice pool. You have merits and flaws and taking more flaws gives points to start your character with. Sound familiar?
The card playing motif returns for initiative (you draw cards for actions in a turn and follow order) and magic (the strength of your effect dpends on the poker hand that you draw). You also get fate chips, which allow you to add dice to your dice pool. There are also some color plates that show an archetypical character; this was a big help in figuring out character creation goes.
Content: A lot of the book is spent on mechanics (about third). ANother third is 1-2 page descriptions of character “classes”, including being undead. Unfortunately, these are very short with minimal information on anything (obviously, you should buy all the splatbooks). My big beef is the huckster (spellcaster). For the hex to work, there is a minimum poker hand that must be drawn. Usually this is 1 pair or higher. Frankly, it’s not that easy to get a pair without extra cards. I believe that the power level was raised in future splats, but the huckster seemed somewhat ineffective of a character.
The last third is for the GM only and tells of the ssecrets of Deadlands. Overall, a good section.
So to summarize, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
The Good: very innovative concept, looks fun to play, great atmosphere. I like the fate chips (although I would make them more powerful; white rerolls one die, red choose a value for 1 die, blue allows a change of reality that is small, like the villain’s holster is still buttoned or the character remembered to bring his pocketknofe after all).
The Bad: many aspects not well explained; more samples of rolling dice for different situations needed. Hucksters’ magic seems ineffective
The ugly: EVERYTHING requires buying another splat, and the book is so vague, and the metaplot requires keeping up with the releases. Wait, who published this again?
Anyway, DEADLANDS was a fun read and looks exciting to play. If you are just starting, the d20 version might be more natural to the game but this version has many fun aspect, like drawing cards for attributes.