Designer's Notes: GURPS Deadlands: Hexes

by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson

What excites me most about hucksters, the gambling spellcasters of Deadlands, is the way they come by their powers. Matching wills with dark spirits is pretty spiffy, and the cards are cute, but searching for esoteric lore in Hoyle's Book of Games makes something deep in my soul cackle joyfully and rub its hands with glee. I confess: I'm a bibliomaniac. My heart thrills at the prospect of diving into an ocean of paper in search of the good stuff.

This made it a lot of fun to write Hexes, but it also meant I had to work at keeping myself in check. The temptation to flesh out the role of books in GURPS in excruciating detail was strong, but the Powers That Be frown on loading down the system with armloads of new abilities and rules, no matter how cool they are. This is, I think, for the best; it compelled me to contain my bibliophilic frenzy to the page or two that was absolutely necessary to address the way hucksters work with Hoyle's, and save the space for hexes and templates and other good stuff.

What excites me most about Designer's Notes, however, is the fact that I'm allowed to throw restraint to the wind. So here I present all the fun crunchy and sparkly bits that I couldn't in good conscience put in Hexes itself: some new abilities, more rules for building a library to put Alexandria to shame, and a hex that was a bit too over the top.

New Advantages


3 points

You study from books quickly and thoroughly; as long as adequate written materials are available, you may study a skill on your own as if you had a teacher. If the extended Libraries rules below are being used, you may not raise your skill above the highest single library point rating in the Library you're studying.



Those with a scholarly inclination tend to accumulate large collections of books covering their chosen field of interest. These collections serve as a resource for private study and as a source of information when their personal knowledge fails them.

Mechanically, Libraries are similar to Contacts (p. CI22). A Library has an effective skill and a degree of reliability, but instead of Frequency of Assistance, a Library has Research Time. Books are always available, but they may not be well-organized or easy to use. Research Time determines how long a PC must spend hitting the books before coming up with the desired information (or concluding that his library can't help this time).

One hour research time: triple cost
One working day research time: double cost
One working week research time: listed cost
One working month research time: half cost (round up; minimum cost is always 1).

Reliability works slightly differently for Libraries as well. Libraries can give false information, but they can't report your inquiries to the police.

Completely reliable: Only on a critical failure will the Library be totally unable to answer the question. On an ordinary failure, the desired information can be tracked down if the PC is willing to spend double the usual research time collating obscure references. Triple cost.
Usually reliable: On a critical failure, the Library will provide false information. On an ordinary failure, the PC may continue the research for twice the usual research time, after which the Library will roll again; if the second roll is a failure, the Library doesn't have the information needed. Double cost.
Somewhat reliable: On a failure, the Library doesn't have the desired information; on a critical failure, it provides false and misleading information.
Unreliable: Reduce effective skill by 2. On any failure, the Library provides false information.

Every Library has a particular specialty. A character's collection may span multiple fields of interest, but such a collection consists of more than one Library.

Quick Writer

2 points

You churn out words at an incredible pace. When writing books using the extended Libraries rules below, you may roll against Writing and the skill written about twice a week instead of once. A quick writer may still use the bonuses and penalties for a rush job or a leisurely project; a rush job for a Quick Writer involves rolling every two days, while a leisurely project permits him to roll every week.

Scholarly Aptitude

3 point/level

You were born for the academic life. Your level of Scholarly Aptitude is a bonus when you study Research, Teaching, or Writing: when you learn a scholarly skill, learn it as though your IQ were equal to (IQ + Scholarly Aptitude).

New Disadvantages


-1 points

You can read and write, but you don't like to. Written material longer than about a page is a crushing ordeal that puts you to sleep. You may not take the Writing or Research skills, and may not study from books at all.

Only Literate characters may have this disadvantage, and the base Literacy for the setting must be at least Semi-Literate.


-3 points

You are extremely bad at conveying your ideas. Your attempts to explain things invariably wander into incomprehensible metaphors liberally studded with muttering and vague gestures. This habit should be roleplayed as far as possible without inciting violence from the other members of your gaming group. You may not take the Writing or Teaching skills. If the extended Libraries rules below are used, you may not write useful books.

Extended Libraries Rules

Building and Maintaining Libraries: Libraries don't appear out of thin air; someone has to find and acquire the books. Not every group will want to keep track of the details of this process, but for those who do it can add new dimensions to the game. Valuable books can be treasure, payment for services rendered, or even the main goal of an adventure.

If the group agrees to play out in detail the process of collecting books to improve their Libraries, the GM may rate each book collected with a certain number of library points. Each time a PC accumulates another 200 library points worth of books in his Library's field, he may increase the value of his Library by 1 CP. This improvement may increase skill, improve reliability, or reduce research time; however, the GM need not allow every type of improvement. A character who has rounded up 200 books, each worth 1 library point, probably won't be able to reduce his library's research time. Of course, a Library's owner must be able to read a book in order to make use of it; the dedicated scholar learns several tongues in order to make use of all texts available.

These rules can also be used retroactively to work out the contents and values of the books already in a PC's library. This can be interesting for plots involving theft or damage to the library, but is likely to be more trouble than it is worth. Among other things, it invites the question of how many points a major university library is worth; sometimes leaving things abstract is for the best.

Some Sample Books

Hoyle's Book of Games: 8-18 library points in Occultism, depending on edition; 4 library points in Games.

Shaw's Guide for Gamblers: 18 library points in Area Knowledge (Weird West); 6 library points in Occultism.

A Short Treatise on Whist: 4 library points in Occultism; 3 library points in Games.

The Tombstone Epitaph's Guide to the Weird West: 13 library points in History; 3 library points in History: Esoteric.

The Ranger Bible: 20 library points in Area Knowledge (Confederacy); 13 library points in Occultism; 4 library points in History: Esoteric.

Sutherland's The Unquiet Dead: 8 library points in Thanatology; 7 library points in Occultism.

Washington's Neo-Zoology: 6 library points in Zoology; 5 library points in Occultism.

Blueprints from Darius Hellstromme's labs: 2-5 library points in Weird Science.

The Proscribed Manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci: 25 library points in Weird Science; 10 library points in Engineer (any).

The Black Heart of the Susquehanna, A Novel: 12 library points in History: Esoteric.

Aristotle's Poetics: 12 library points in Literature; 4 library points in Performance.

Newton's Principia: 16 library points in Physics

The Art of War: 7 library points in Diplomacy, 12 library points in Strategy.

Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management: 3 library points in Savoir-Faire; 12 library points in Savoir-Faire (Servant); 4 library points in Administration.

Many hucksters and other scholarly sorts keep notebooks and other short manuscripts on their findings and observations. These texts are usually worth from 1 to 4 library points in their particular field; only rarely is such a notebook truly valuable, but they often contain good observations.

Writing Books: An author trying to write an informational book must make rolls against Writing and the skill he is attempting to write about at the end of every week of work. Success on both rolls means the book gains one library point. Failure on either means that the week was wasted making doodles and crumpling up sheets of paper. Critical failure on either or both means that the author has gotten stuck; the book may not be improved further. Critical success on either roll means that the book gains two library points. Critical success on both signifies a stupendous insight: the book gains three library points, and the book is free from the usual maximum limit on its library point rating until the author critically fails and stalls the book.

An author may not write a book with a higher library point rating than his skill level in the relevant skill or in Writing. A volume containing information on more than one skill should be treated as multiple books.

Writers may take advantage of the +3 bonus to Writing for a generous amount of time by rolling every two weeks instead of every week. They may also roll twice a week by accepting the -3 penalty to Writing for a rush job (see p. B48 for details).

Dogs Playing Poker

This hex allows a huckster on good terms with the nature spirits to summon a number of them to fill out the table when he plays poker with a manitou, and to take on the appearance of a nature spirit himself for the duration of the poker game. The hex gets its name because dog spirits are the type of spirit most easily persuaded to play a game with an unfamiliar mortal, though it's not unheard of to sit down to a game with a dog, a coyote, a raccoon, and an eccentric buffalo.

Nature spirits, like their manitou cousins, can't play poker worth a damn, but their very presence confuses a manitou badly - it's not sure who it's trying to beat anymore, and it sure doesn't know how to count cards. Frequently, a manitou faced with a six-way game of five-card draw with one- eyed jacks and suicide queens wild will fold before the game even gets going. This means that the huckster can dare to take on larger manitous than he usually would.

In game terms, a successful casting of Dogs Playing Poker allows a huckster to boost the hand of an immediately following hex by one level for every nature spirit summoned. The hex to be assisted with Dogs Playing Poker must be declared before either hex is cast. If the huckster fails to get even a hand of Ace on the boosted hex, Dogs Playing Poker does not take effect.

Dogs Playing Poker has significant risks, however. If the huckster fails his casting roll on the second hex, the nature spirits will be angry that they didn't get to play after being called away from whatever they were doing, and will inflict backlash on the huckster. Worse, however, if the huckster suffers backlash while casting Dogs Playing Poker, he has inadvertently recruited a group of manitous to back him up, thinking them to be nature spirits. In this case, he must go through with the second hex. It automatically fails, and he suffers backlash once for every manitou involved - once for the manitou summoned for the second hex, and once for each "nature spirit" summoned.

Only a huckster with the Initiation advantage can learn this hex. Dogs Playing Poker can not be used to boost another casting of Dogs Playing Poker.

This hex introduces huge variability into hexslinging; it allows for immensely powerful hex results when it succeeds, and devastating trouble when it fails. Many GMs may not want to allow the chaos that this hex can unleash.

Time to Cast:

2 seconds






Number of Spirits Summoned

   Two Pairs




   Full House


   Straight Flush   


   Royal Flush


Special Thanks

Unfortunately, the list of playtesters didn't make it into the book. I'd therefore like to take a moment here to thank Jeff Wilson, JT Benton, Frederick Brackin, Tyler Childers, Joe Deckert, Perry King, Jeff Raglin, L. Myke S., Ralf Tschulena, and everyone else who posted to the playtest.

Further Reading

Article publication date: November 1, 2002

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