Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Wyrd Wyrd West: Alternate Western RPGs

Last week in my "RPG Genres I Wished I Liked" post, I mentioned the Western. A few people came to defend it- but a number of people talked about issues of history that kept them from wanting to run a cowboy game. One solution has been to dress up the genre tropes in other clothing- sci-fi, fantasy, whatever. That has a certain appeal to me- after all I hunted down a copy of Pelgrane’s Owl Hoot Trail at Gen Con, which has been described as a Western with D&D races.

So decided to go through and figure out how many non-standard Western rpgs I could find. I discovered more “Wild West” RPGs and key supplements than I expected. From those I pulled these fifteen games- somewhere between a third and a quarter of the total from the list. I’m sure I have a few games missing here- suggestions are welcome. A notable absence is Far West which still hasn’t actually been published as far as I can tell. I wonder if some good genre-mash ups with the Western remain: a pure detective game? luchador? cyberpunk (like an Etherscope mash-up)? Spies? Faerie tale? Superhero remains open- but only because I left off Arc Dream’s This Favored Land, which really covers just the Civil War. Perhaps a pulp-vigilante game with a Zorro or Lone Ranger twinge?

1990. An early oddball time travelling game. I'm sure most chrono-games have a Wild West component or module. It's easy and evocative. We’ve seen that in plenty of television series (Justice League, Dr. Who). But this one puts it on that front page and actually offers it as the only setting in the book.

1996. The great, shambling granddaddy of the Western gone weird. This has gone through multiple editions and remains a classic. Deadlands has a certain brilliance in bringing together horror, steampunk, magic, and crazy simple rules. It doesn’t quite have the same market share as it once, did but remains strong. I don't know if it is true but I always see this game as the logical result of Joe Lansdale's work. His weird Jonah Hex mini-series (with more than a little Cthulhu to them) and his edited anthology Razored Saddles (1989).

1996. The American West supplement for Castle Falkenstein. I suspect you could also include several alt-history settings in this list that have a Western overlap. BRP's Queensguard for example. As I mentioned on my earlier review of this, I like this supplement for its more mixed treatment of the history. It brings the questions arising from the era into the more four color world CF. It also wins for the Wild, Wild West references.

1997. An oddball coincidence or enemy planning? This came out the year after Deadlands. I have to wonder what the lead time was? Did WW see the success of DL and make this the next "historical" game they put forward. Or was WtWW already in development and playtesting, making the company sigh that they hadn't beaten Pinnacle to the punch. This game garnered a couple of supplements, but eventually died out. They did produce a number of cross-over adventures for the two games. I wonder if that was the first instance of that?

2004. There's a significant gap between this and the last item, suggesting that the genre of alt-Western had been served well by DL and company. It also suggests that some new media appear that got companies thinking about the Western again. RPG.Net's review describes this as Deadwood the rpg. Why on this list? Because everywhere's a Deadwood arising from an apocalyptic event which happens during the Civil War. That shatters the nation and adds magic and demons to the setting.

Eden throws its Stetson into the ring, with this Wild West supplement. Notably overseen by Shane Hensley (creator of Deadlands), we get zombie Eastwood on the cover. There's a good chunk of general advice for running AFMBE in a Western mode, and four new settings including a "Singing Cowboy" take on things. I’ve often wondered how many of these Deadworlds actually got run by groups and how many simply served as inspirations for GMs.

I've never been sure exactly how to describe Dogs in the Vineyard, except that it feels like it operates in an allegorical Western space. Is there magic? Are the demons real? I suspect that's a decision the group has to come to. But the combination of religious enforcers trying to keep their land pure and the "push your luck" mechanic of conflict make for a striking game. More than many other games, it manages to evoke a feeling about the place and time.

A thin d20-based setting with wizards and wagon-trains. Fantasy Flight's Horizon line reminded me of TSR's Alternity or WEG's Masterbook lines: attempts to make many settings to see which actually stuck. Grimm's the only survivor from this line. Spellslinger combines classic fantasy with the Western, with an emphasis on the fantasy side of things.

I think we can agree that Firefly's pretty much a Western in space? It has some other trappings, but it plays with and reflects those conventions. That's been a classic trope in sci-fi for years, and its even popped up as a theme in many Traveller supplements (especially on the frontiers). But we hadn't seen a full rpg embrace of that until Serenity arrived. I bet we see more- and I bet I’ve missed some that have come out.

I don't know enough about this game from Avalon/Comstar to make an assessment. Apparently there's a Pathfinder release in addition to the original self-contained version. It appears to be more of a fantasy setting with Western bits tacked on.

Another fantasy world with Western elements added on. The d10-based game's available for free download online. While the cover and design makes the game look fairly WW, the actually feel of the setting doesn't quite match that. The publisher describes it as a “mix between old western United States, medieval Europe, fantasy, magic, horror and science fiction.” So, you know, pretty much everything.

A western location, but one with built in suggestions for how to convert and use it with fantasy, steampunk, and even space-opera. I like that concept- it recognizes that in practice the Western gets transformed more often than not. The cover art certainly sells the non-standard approach, with a gun and spell duel in progress. And, of course a close-up butt shot. I’d like to see more books take this approach- with locations and ideas about how those might get used with slight genre tweaks.

A tiny, tiny little rpg with highly streamlined rules. Staurt Robertson aims this to cover "weird western worlds of comboys, kung-fu, magic and otherworldy malevolence." All of that in 8 2.75" by 4.75 pages.

A supplement for the Woodland Warriors game, offering a chance to run anthropomorphic creatures in a Western game. It offers a new take on the setting, and wins just for the concept of Prairie Dog Cardsharps. Oddly I used to own a copy of Furry Pirates, the fuzzy supplement for another genre I’m not as sold on. I wonder if you could do a version of Mouse Guard with this?

Six-guns, bounty-hunting Orcs, and gadgeteer Elves. The most recent entry into this genre- offering a slim and pretty cool d20 resolution system. I like the balance of flavor and simplicity here. It feels like a Western setting which has evolved with fantasy races. While some of the other fantasy/Western versions patch together elements, this game comes across as an organic whole. It reminds mea little of later Shadowrun, where the game have finally come to terms with the implications of the races in the setting.  I'll write up a more full read-through in the next couple of weeks, but I'd recommend it right now. It has a fairly extensive campaign in the back, making it a natural for GMs who want to jump in right away.


  1. In many ways, I think it's the straight Western that's been under served rather than the weird one. Not that their aren't "normal" Western games of course, but there seem to be almost as many genre-blending variations.

    1. The list I put together ended up with about three dozen straight (or fairly straight) Western rpgs, Western sourcebooks for generic rpgs, or (in a few cases) independent Western setting products. I think the striking thing is not number of games, but how few of those published actually have legs- most have few or no additional materials published after the core material (Boot Hill, Western (Swedish), and Sidewinder might be exceptions but even those have a fairly modest line).

  2. I remember that the old Shadis magazine actually published a mini-setting, with a lament that straight Western campaigns actually suffered from insufficient source material for campaigns. Most examples that people were familiar with were cross-genre TV shows(Wild Wild West as espionage+pulp+western and Lone Ranger as pulp+western), and movies (whose premises expired after resolution).

    I don't know if anyone ever mined other sources like Paladin or the Rifleman or Gunsmoke or Bonanza.

  3. (Tim Ballew/Risus Monkey here writing from a pubic computer)

    I whole-heartedly agree with the Sixguns & Sorcery shout-out. Defintiely my favorite in the list. Though I don't yet own Kevin Kulp's Owl Hoot Trail. That one is on my must-have list.

    And Dogs... I have never read the rules but I am a fan of Apocalypse World. Methinks I needs to check it out.

  4. The second campaign I ever ran, circa 1978 or 79 I guess, was a Boot Hill game that was the first and last Western I ever ran.

    It was epic, awesome and so fun, complete with the perfect group of people and I'm just not sure I could pull it off a second time.

    Heavily influenced by TV and comic book Westerns like Rawhide, Bonanza, Jonah Hex and Cinnamon Star.

    The campaign featured a Singing Cowboy (who sang - think Wild West Bard), a Masked Gunslinger, a Native American Mystic and others up against Ghosts, Steam-Driven Robots and an evil Railroad Baron.

    I'd love to be able to do it again but I wouldn't use any Weird West game. I would want to find a good, simple Western game and add the Weird myself, just like the last time.

  5. I have GMed Firefly using the Classic Deadlands system minus the magic stuff and setting. It fits like a glove. I've ran 3 different campaigns and it is a blast.

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