Thursday, June 30, 2016

History of Wild West RPGs (Part Two: 2001-2006)

THE QUICK, THE DEAD, AND THE ACADEMIC
Westerns seem weird to me. So much of the mythologizing, the making of its iconic tales seemed to happen concurrently with event. Grand Wild West tales came around even as the West was being “won.” I suppose you could find other examples like the British Heroic Exploration myth or American Gangster romanticizing. But much of the Western got set down close to events themselves, gripped the imagination, and endured strongly. I can think of few other pseudo-historical themes that have that power.

In RPGs we have a handful of these genres that come back again and again. Samurai, Arthurian, Viking, and Roman fit the bill. We’ve had multiple takes on these, complete with reskins and reframes (fantasy pastiches, space versions). They pop up in RPG development across languages and eras. We have a few also-rans (Robin Hood and Gangsters come to mind). I think a smarter person than I could drill down and unpack the thematic connections between these five.

At Origins I did get to speak with a smarter person than I, Evan Torner, on a related topic. Evan works in both German and Game studies, not necessarily at the same time. I mentioned to him my surprise at the number of Wild West RPGs in multiple editions which came out of Europe. I suggested they arose from Italian cinema and the Spaghetti Westerns. He said it went even further back, that Germany had a massive appetite for the Wild West from the early part of the 20TH Century. A good portion of the backbone of Italian Western moviemaking came from German cinema veterans who’d shifted there. I love learning about that kind of thing, the transmission of these stories to places I didn’t expect. 

Originally I hadn’t planned on doing more with Wild West rpgs, but a few people asked me to continue the series. Since I don’t usually get requests, I thought I ought to oblige. So there it is.

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HIT THE MOTHERLODE
I focus on core books here or those that act as genre sourcebooks for a larger game. I’m also only listing books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. At the end you’ll see some miscellaneous entries, covering borderline or similar cases. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some releases. There’s a little overlap with the last list vis-a- vis 2001. If you spot something Wild West which came out from 2001 to 2006, leave a note in the comments.


History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen

A Japanese RPG from FarEast Amusement Research (F.E.A.R.). They’re the company behind recent English-translated games Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Both of these games have levels of mechanics some would call rich, some would call opaque.

Wikipedia describes Tenra the Gunslinger as, "...tak(ing) place in Terra, a fictional continent modeled after North America during the American Old West. Its theme is frontier spirit. The setting is fictitious, but actual historical Americans also appear as non-player characters. They include Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, Jesse James and Belle Starr. There are guns and steampunk items representing lost technologies (for example, phlogiston generators or aetheric drives). Players face monsters called the Dark. Player characters may be automata, bounty hunters, gunslingers, preachers, saloon girls, steam-mages, U.S. marshals and other archetypes as they ride the transcontinental railroad on their way to the far western frontier."

Terra the Gunslinger uses playing cards with a suit = abilities approach. F.E.A.R. later released Tenra War which mashed up this setting with Tenra Bansho and a mecha game called Angel Gear. Wikipedia also notes that “On a trip to Japan, noted game designer Greg Stafford noted that he liked the look of Terra the Gunslinger.” That amuses me.

2. Dust Devils (2002)
My favorite Westerns hint at the death of the genre itself: Unforgiven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch. The recent Red Dead Redemption, probably the most popular Wild West video game, embraces this. Dust Devils simulates those stories. On the one hand it’s about redemption, on the other it’s about growing old in a dangerous world. You start strong in Dust Devils, but over time can decline and weakern You have to choose how hard you’ll push that.

Like several other Western RPGs, Dust Devils uses playing cards for resolution; the GM is (of course) "the Dealer." PCs have four attributes Hand, Eye, Guts and Heart, each associated with a suit. In a conflict everyone builds their best hand of cards dealt from a central deck. A character's hand size comes mostly from relevant attributes. Conflict losses lead to attribute point losses. They can be recovered between sessions, but in play losing costs you. It means having to make hard choices about continuing to fight. Designer Matt Snyder released an updated version of this in ’07 called Dust Devils Revenged. That includes options to port the mechanics to other iconic twilight settings, like fallen samurai There’s a great review and overview of the game here at The Cardboard Republic.

An early d20 Wild West game, but not the first. That honor goes to Deadlands d20 released the year before. Sidewinder offers a solid overview of Western game elements and plenty of mechanics for those wanting crunch. The ’02 edition uses straight d20 OGL. The following year the company released Sidewinder: Recoiled. This shifted the game over to the d20 Modern rules and added almost 100 pages. I’m not a d20 aficionado, so I have a hard time telling what’s novel here. At first I assumed they’d added Action Points, used for rerolls and powering some feats. But a check of the SRD shows that comes from there. Sidewinder follows the OGL with classes reflecting themes over specifics, so you can be a Strong Hero, Fast Hero, Dedicated Hero or the like. That’s, as you might imagine, supplemented by Advanced Classes like Pony Soldier and Tin Star.

Overall Sidewinder: Recoiled looks nice. Be aware the vast majority of the book’s given over to mechanics. Of the almost 300 pages, ten cover environmental hazards, thirty present animals, and five offer a slight sample scenario. Only the twenty page introduction actually examines Wild West themes and then very generally. If you’re looking for a WW resource, this isn’t it. It has a good mix of art, though some of it is the same Dover Wild West illustrations we’ll see again and again in these games.

4. Cold Steel Reign (2003)
This first popped up on my Post-Apocalyptic lists. Here a small company takes on the a supernaturally devastated Wild West, reaching into Deadlands' territories with a new spin. In Cold Steel Reign a meteor strike during the American Civil War sparks a cataclysmic shift. It rewrites the geography and tinges the whole world with a "Western" frontier lifestyle. Despite that concrete framing, Cold Steel Reign spins off to drag in a host of craziness: demon-harboring constructs, Templars, and long-forgotten secret magics. I'd assumed this was a straight alt-history, but the reviews make it clear it dives fully into the kitchen sink.

Those reviews also suggest a clunky, crunchy system. Cold Steel Reign has an abundance of mechanics which switch from sub-system to sub-system. Add to that a host of editing problems. The game still has a FB page, last updated in 2012. You can also find character creation tutorials on YouTube. However Cold Steel Reign didn’t gain traction, with only the mammoth Player's Guide and a GM screen released. That's too bad. It has an awesome title and hints more than a little hint at Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

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 All Flesh Must Be Eaten in a Western mode; just shy of 40 out 140 pages if you count some of the game fiction. It’s a useful overview of the genre and shows Hensley’s expertise as he focuses on issues which might hit the table.

The volume includes four new settings plus conversion notes for Deadlands. "Singing Cowboys" offers a starkly black and white take on the genre. Here all cowboys are effectively bards. The zombies break all those rules and there’s a secret story logic to it. The “True Grit” Deadworld riffs on John Wayne and is set in the late 1880s. Here the zombies come from Anasazi sorcery, pitting cowboys against (undead) Indians. “Spaghetti with Meat,” of course, riff on the films of Sergio Leone and his peers. The PCs are tough loners in a terrible world made slightly worse by zombies running around. “Dances with Zombies” presents Sioux Indian heroes against undead American Army troops.

I’ve often wondered how many of these Deadworlds actually get run by groups and how many simply serve as inspiration. If you’ve played AFMBE, have you played in a particular one?

6. Link: West (2003)
Another one of my unproven rules is this: when many of the images I can find of your game’s cover have a discount sticker or show a pre-pub mock up, you may not have great game. Link: West offers a modest d20 Wild West adaptation. Oddly I’ve found two different publisher blurbs for the product. One mentions conventional d20, while the other indicates the game’s based on Big Eyes, Small Mouth d20. Other places suggest its built on Silver Age Sentinels d20, which I thought was close but not the same thing. A forum post by the publisher indicates it, “offers a bit of fantasy to the Western genre.” I’m guessing that refers to the Shaman and Mystics mentioned on the back cover. In any case, this game seems to have ridden off into the sunset.

I’m slightly sorry I went for that joke.

A Brazilian RPG. It’s the Western setting book for the generic rpg, OPERA (aka Observadores Perdidos Em Realidades Alternativa). Apparently at this point no Wild West rpg had yet reached the Brazillian market, beyond an article in the local version of Dragon Magazine. The Google translation of the game blurb reads, “Western United States, between 1860 and 1890 a heroic era marked by adventure by shootings saloons, duels to the setting of the sun and conflicts between cowboys and owners of farms. People have a place to call home, sheriffs and delegates have someone to hold, the bad guys have something to steal, the gunmen can put your weapons available to those who pay better. And meanwhile the dry tufts roll through the streets of the cities showing a mix of solitude and aridity. With its setting located mainly in three fictitious cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, '1887 - Under the Sun of New Mexico' brings with adventures in the best Western style.”

The designer previously worked on a FUDGE adaptation, which influenced OPERA. 1887 apparently introduces new mechanics for character generation to the base game. The rules include some game fiction as well as scenarios for the setting. There’s a small review with an example character here. You can read more about the base system here.

I've never been sure how to pitch 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. DitV draws on Mormon history, but feels magical realist. That's not the most helpful description. The PCs are protectors and enforcers, the Dogs of the title. They travel from town to town acting providing stability and cleansing. The GM presents the players with a situation and they must come to an interpretation. From that they must then reach a judgement as to how to deal with it. But the basis and code the Dogs have to draw from is loose and subjective, meaning the party may disagree how to read the situation.

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 others, Dogs in the Vineyard evokes a feeling about the place and time. It's also a game with GM rules that made me re-examine what I was prepping for the table. If you’re interested in a niche, tough, alt-Western atmosphere game, check it out. If you’re looking for something more conventional or specifically about historical Mormonism in the West, you might not find it here.

A supplement for Action! System. That was Gold Rush Games second foray into generic systems after their work with Fuzion. It's a flexible 3d6+Skill & Attribute vs. Target Number game. AS carries over Interlock’s fascination with derived stats. The Gunslingers supplement has some basic adaptation notes (like how to handle a Western’s “Code of Conduct”) and then fifteen standard templates (Scout, Brave, Rustler) & how to customize those. It has new skills as well as a decent equipment list. Most of the book covers add-ons to the basics and genre specific bits. So alcohol and hangovers take up two pages. Nicely adventures get a larger share in this game than many others. The final third presents a version of Dodge City, two extended scenarios, and a set of plot hooks. The only discussion of the “Western” as a whole comes in various appendices which present a bibliography, glossary, and discussion of a few significant events (like the Homestead Act). That’s just shy of thirty pages, so not bad.

10. OGL Wild West (2004)
Part of Mongoose’s large-volume OGL genre series (OGL Horror, OGL Steammpunk). I expected to tumble through the usual over-stuffed d20 mechanics, but spotting Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as the designer gave me hope. There’s certainly more emphasis here on story, feel, and background. OGL: Wild West starts in the same place as other similar books, with thematic classes. These have evocative illustrations but no genre or real world examples. Occupations are called vocations here. The 21 presented seem more detailed than in base d20 Modern, with choices and additional talent trees. Action Points are called Luck here and seem to have a richer set of options, including establishing and changing events (like Fate Points). I have to note that Horses get their own feat set, a clever way of individuating those.

Unlike other d20 Wild West games, OGL WW offers more tools for the GM and more general resources. There’s a nice presentation of historical NPCs, complete with plot hooks. There’s a short section on Western towns, with example businesses and locations which would be awesome if expanded and developed. The books wraps with ideas for running Westerns, handling classic elements like gunfights, and a discussion of game-able history. It looks at Law Enforcement, the Railroad, Mining and other issues. OGL: Wild West is more developed than similar games, though I’m still left wanting more. OOH it’s a decent resource for GMs and worth picking up, even if you’re not doing d20.

11. Spellslinger (2004)
A thin d20-based setting with wizards and wagon-trains. Fantasy Flight's Horizon line reminds me of TSR's Amazing Engine and 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. It feels too short, but at the same time I’m unsure if I’d dig a full-scale release. It has the classic fantasy races overlaid with Western-y bits. The Western motifis offer more chrome than anything significant. Only about a quarter of the 64 page book deals with the background and setting, and even that’s almost half bestiary. If you’re interested in this concept, I’d recommend Owl Hoot Trail which more smoothly integrates the two halves.

12. Aces & Eights (2005)
When the “Basic Game” of your system has a detailed action point cost chart, two tables for combat modifiers, and a transparent hit location overlay you make me seriously worried about what the “Advanced Game” entails. Aces & Eights does just that, with a weird switch up. The first few pages of the game has you generate a character with two stats: speed and accuracy, rolled with a d4. Then you roll to see if you use a pistol or a rifle, your name, and your profession. Wow. Simple. Then suddenly a rogue chart pops up and your lying in the street in a puddle of mechanics…

But let me backtrack, because I actually weirdly like this game despite it not being my bag mechanics-wise. The original Aces & Eights from 2005 is a supplement- Showdown- for any Wild West RPG. It offers a detailed gunfight engine with a shot clock and the aforementioned targeting silhouette. I’m fond of this idea for many reasons. I remember other crazy overlay games and supplements like Killer Crosshairs. As well I have fond memories of grade school me buying a copy of Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger from Hobbyland in the mall. I desperately tried to make sense of the rules. I knew it had to be awesome because the mechanics were so dense.

I never actually played Gunslinger.

Anyway, we jump forward to ’07 when Kenzer & Co took the core element of Showdown to create the massive, massive tome that is Aces& Eights: Shattered Frontier. It took home the Origins Award for Best RPG and a Silver ENnie that year. As involved as the Basic Game is, the Advanced Game is meatier. Stats run from 1-25, you both roll and spend for these, and everything has modifiers & effects. The skill list takes up two pages in ten point font. I had Rolemaster flash-backs throughout. You have wounds and damage effects that make Living Steel look easy (well, maybe not that bad). Still all of it's presented cleanly and clearly. If you want a high complexity and detail-rich Western RPG, buy Aces & Eights.

But here’s the thing, all of those rules take up the first 140 or so pages of this 400 page book. Even if we take out another 60 pages for the mechanical appendices, you still get about 200 pages of rich material It has a massive section on running campaigns, discussions of cattle drives, a chapter on gambling, and more. Beyond that Aces & Eights isn’t a purely historical setting. Instead you have a few historical shifts resulting in splintered political entities such as Deseret, the Republic of Texas, and the CSA. I dislike Successionist victory alt history, but YRMV. What you get is some serious thinking and world building. That’s done in the interest of adding more game-able material and interesting situations to the mix. Deadlands offers the only other Western even coming close to this. Its still a wall of text to wade through, but it doesn't feel like someone's campaign world write-up. Bottom line, even if you’re not interested in the system, Aces & Eights offers a useful sourcebook to any Western GM.

13. Coyote Trail (2005)
Coyote Trail had a basic and then expanded release the same year. It contains a complete and simple rpg system: roll below stat + skill on 2d6 to succeed. Penalty/bonus dice affect this. Characters pick a vocation which gives them a handful of base skills to pick from plus a “Gimmick.” Gimmicks give simple and colorful abilities. Coyote Trail's rules work also with PiG’s Active Exploits Diceless Overall mechanic take up about a third of the 150 page book. Twenty-five pages detail the locations & people of Shady Gulch, a sample city. About thirty pages cover Western stories and reference bits. Another thirty or so look at “Indian Trails, ” describing tribes, treaties, and wars. It’s much more attention than most Western games play. I’d be curious what a Native American gamer thought of the section. It seems to offer a respectful treatment and it’s certainly a resource these kinds of games badly need.

This game has two editions- a core version using Poker Dice for resolution (clever!) and a “Streamline” version using percentiles. Rather than a historical West, Gunslingers & Gamblers focuses on a cinematic universe from classic Hollywood and Spaghetti Westerns. In the standard system, players roll five dice with skills and traits allowing rerolls and additional dice. Players try to reach the minimum hand established by the GM. It’s a fairly simple system. I like the detail that tied rolls in combat “suppress” the defender, making them spend the next round checking to make sure they weren’t actually hit. The book contains some GM support and background material including a quick settlement generators and a sample community. It’s a small book, coming in at less than 100 pages with public domain art. The company supported it with several small supplements, still available on DriveThru. However their website is down, suggesting that we won’t be seeing more in this line.

15. Serenity (2006)
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 that until Serenity arrived. I imagine if I broadened my scope I could spot some other loosely Wild West-y sci-fi supplements. In any case the original Serenity RPG used an early version of Cortex that you either loved or hated. Margaret Weiss released several nice supplements before losing the license…and then regaining it as Firefly in 2014.

16. Other Western
This period saw several new takes on and editions of Deadlands. In 2001 Steve Jackson Games released GURPS Deadlands, which they supported with a couple of small supplements. Two years later, Deadlands: Savage West arrived, bringing the game up into the new Savage Worlds system. Another two years later would see the release of the updated and expanded Deadlands: Reloaded. WotC’s d20 Past (2005)has material on Wild West gaming, but that’s only a portion of it. Two electronic-only products are worth noting. Vs Outlaws (2006) is a mini-rpg built on the vs. Monsters system. The Fifth Wheel (2006) is a Western fantasy game aimed at one-shots where you play the law. Its about a hundred pages and you can find it on DriveThru bundled with its supplement, Frontier Edge. Finally I have to note that I left off two important Western supplements from my last list: Rifts New West and Spirit West.
History of Wild West RPGs: First Fifteen