As both a native East Texan and a fan of Savage Worlds, the Pinebox setting Pinnacle has been publishing has really piqued my interest. After all, most Yankees (that’s anyone not from Texas for you non-Texans, by which I mean Yankees) think all of Texas is either a Clint Eastwood Western or an episode of Dallas. My life growing up in the Piney Woods of East Texas was nothing like either of those experiences. Instead, my childhood was much more like growing up in the Deep South, especially since I grew up very close to the Louisiana border.
So knowing that one of my favorite game companies was going to tackle the little known area where I grew up, I hesitantly excited. The recent release of East Texas University was the first opportunity that I got to actually see some of it.
And I have to say, they’ve done a good job. I’m don’t know if the author is actually a native East Texan, has lived there for a while or he just did a lot of research but, reading East Texas University is like reading a travel guide to my home. Ok, in my experience, there were fewer chupacabres and demon possessions but otherwise, it’s quite authentic. In fact, in the whole book, I can find only one “fact” that couldn’t actually be true. One of the fictional landmarks in the setting is a geographic impossibility bu that is seriously overbalanced by the number of little details thrown into the product that are very true to East Texas.
Or, to put it in East Texas terms: I figure they done a purty aight job. Actually that statement is a good example of some of the flavor they put into the product to give players and game masters a feel for the region. There is a section for both vocabulary and dialect in the players section of East Texas University. For example, Yankees think that “Coke” refers only to the Coca-Cola beverage. Natives of East Texas know that “Coke” refers any carbonated beverage including Pepsi, Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew. There are even a few phrases in the list that I’m not familiar with but I can hear coming out of the mouth of an East Texan.
One of the other small touches is that the ETU mascot is the Raven. This is minor but that just happens to be the name the Cherokee gave to their friend Sam Houston, the man who would go on to be the first President of Texas. And even just little facts like these are not where the feel of the region ends. There are also cultural things that are very Piney Woods like the fact that the law in Pinebox, the small town near ETU is a small police force while the law at ETU, which is out in the county is up to the Sherriff’s department in the county. As someone who grew up in a place where there was no police department, this is very familiar to me.
Another important point that is discussed, at least in passing, especially for college students is the concept of wet and dry counties. For you Yankees, a wet county is one where you can buy booze (except part of Sunday, Jesus is still watching, after all) and a dry county is one where you cannot. The border between the two is invariably lined with bars and liquor stores and would be well know to any college student.
For those of you who are not interested in East Texas, I pity you. Nonetheless, there is still plenty you’ll find interesting, because East Texas University isn’t just a fairly faithful representation of life in East Texas. Idyllic as that might be, unless you like hunting and mudding it would also be pretty boring. So, thrown into the mix and to make the setting much more interesting, there is a lot of paranormal strangeness going on around East Texas University. Imagine your basic small town, situated out in one of the last really dense wildernesses in North America where Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and X-Files is all happening at once. In fact, that adds another level to the spookiness. Unlike Sunnydale, Pinebox is surrounded by wilderness that is dangerous and unclaimed even without being filled with monsters and demons.
While this is still a Fast! Furious! Fun! setting, it, like many others in Savage Worlds, strays to the darker side. There is a lot going on under the surface in East Texas University and Golan County, like Sunnydale has a death rate that must raise the eyebrows of outside officials.
And the setting doesn’t just limit itself to ghosts and demons. Apparently, there is plenty of room for conspiracies, cults and cryptids in the Piney Woods where I grew up. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about it and thankful that I got out of there. I’m questioning the wisdom of going back for Thanksgiving.
In keeping with the normal people facing supernatural terror theme, East Texas University is a distinctly low magic setting. In fact, the Arcane Backgrounds from the Core Rulebook are banned and are replaced by Ritualism rules. These are a modification of the rules for rituals given in the Horror Companion and are rife with opportunities to fail, go horribly wrong, or just cause unexpected results. Add to that the fact that each ritual has to be carefully researched out of some ancient tome, which has to be found, and that they can have very difficult to procure components that are used up every time a spell is cast and it seems obvious that the answer to a supernatural menace has to be some investigation and a shotgun loaded with rock salt as often as it is magic.
But East Texas University isn’t only a setting about hunting the things that lurk in the shadows at the edge of human knowledge. As might be expected from the last word in the title, it is also about going to college and it handles this aspect perhaps even better than the location or genre rules. Each rank is considered a new level in school. Novices are Freshmen, Seasoned characters are Sophomores and so on. Instead of the Dean (the title given to the game master in this setting) having to keep careful track of the date and the players having to keep careful track of how much homework their characters do and when they’ll find time between stopping a werewolf apocalypse and laying an angry ghost to rest to write that term paper, the entire academic process is largely abstracted. Each time the characters get an advance, they make a roll on their academics skill to see how well they’ve done in their classwork. There are also extracurricular activities that the characters can select that have various effects on their studies and lives.
One of the best things about East Texas University is that it does not have to be used whole cloth. People interested in one aspect of the game and not the others will find it is quite easy to pick apart the strands that make up the game and use them for other purposes and in other campaigns. For example, Pinebox and its inhabitants and the culture presented could easily be used as a setting without the school portions, and could even take out the supernatural elements. An alien invasion encroaching on the area would make a compelling campaign, for example. There’s nothing more classic than some good ol’ boys teaching some alien scum why you don’t mess with Texas.
On the other hand, if a Game Master wanted to run a college game, in any setting, ETU has all the information needed to pull it off. Separating those elements out would make an excellent base for any school setting. It would be just as easy to use the East Texas University system to run a game about a super hero high school or perhaps a wizarding academy as it would be to run it as it is with the inherent story and supernatural elements involved.
I went into East Texas University expecting a lot. Much as I would have liked to have picked apart the product, especially given my background, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it and a whole lot that was right. I was much more than pleasantly surprised by just how good it is. Even people who aren’t from East Texas can get the feel of the region and anyone who enjoys any of the many occult shows on TV now and in the recent past will love the game system and the supernatural elements included in the product. So round up your Scooby gang, grab your rock salt loaded shotgun and head out into the Big Thicket and Piney Woods to find yourself some trouble.