Sunday, December 8, 2013

Remembering Boot Hill a Wild West Role Playing Game

Of all the early role playing games, by far my favorite was Boot Hill. We had a long running campaign for several years in the mid to late '80s with four different judges (what the game master was called in Boot Hill) and a whole bunch of interesting characters. A player character might appear as an NPC in another game. For example at one point I had an outlaw hunted by one of my other player characters who was a Texas Ranger. I had three characters that survived long term during that campaign, and greatly enjoyed playing each of them. I first started playing Boot Hill in 1981 under the first edition. Those games were short and deadly, and never turned into a campaign largely due to player character deaths. I would not return to the game until about 1984 when our gaming group picked up a copy of the second edition. For the next six years we played it off and on going through all of the modules except for the last one, Range War, and a lot of homemade adventures. Many gamers complain that Boot Hill was too deadly, but due to how we played the game our characters survived. For one thing stand in the middle of the street, fast draw your revolver type of gun fights were rare in our games. In those six years of playing Boot Hill only two gunfighters were regularly played and the number of gun fights they fought in could be counted on one hand. Thanks to exceptional stats the two of them never received a mortal wound. They always outdrew their opponents. We also had a Texas Ranger that had a reputation as a gunfighter, but his stats and his reputation were such only a couple of NPCs ever called him out. All other shoot 'em ups our characters were in they dove for cover. We never shot it out at close range, and there was always something to hide behind. Thanks to this, our characters survived. I have to say I had more AD&D characters die than I did Boot Hill characters That is not to say there was not a large number of player character deaths in our Boot Hill campaign. It was Boot Hill after all. It is to say we did have several characters that survived long term. Usually if we retired a character it was because he had reached a point where his goals had been reached or in the case of some characters they went back East or left the country. Part of the reason our characters survived was because we were not playing in the real Wild West. We were playing the Hollywood version where only supporting characters and extras die. The heroes always survive. Too, everyone talks about how easy it was to die in the old West, but the truth is deaths were not as common in shoot outs as one would think. For example at the OK Corral only three of the eight participants died. Now this may sound like a lot, but it is not when you consider it took place at fairly close range with little cover. Our characters never would have let themselves be caught like that.

As I said I only ever played the first and second editions. The second edition is the one I am most familiar with. The rule book was not long. It consisted of only 36 pages, and much of that was combat rules. There really was no background material. You did not need it. There are thousands of hours of Wild West movies and TV shows and probably millions of pages of Westerns to draw on, not to mention history books as well as material from the era. For example, for prices of items one of our GMs obtained a Sears catalog from the 1870s. Another bought a book on guns of the old West complete with statistics. There was no problem in fleshing out our campaign. For setting we started out with the huge map of Promise City and surrounding El Dorado County that came with the boxed set. Later we designed our own settings using historical maps. The four modules further fleshed out our campaign. Smaller adventures published by TSR were also used.

First and second edition relied on percentile dice for much of the game. This was a first as most games of the time used six and twenty siders. Player characters had only six stats and they were, Speed, Gun Accuracy, Throwing Accuracy, Strength, Bravery, and Experience. There were no stats for charisma, intelligence, or wisdom as these would have no bearing on combat, and Boot Hill was about brawling and gun play. These stats were determined by rolling two percentile dice which were further modified by adding a certain number to the stat determined by a special chart. Thanks to this chart a player character was always above average in some way. Characters then received $150 to buy equipment and/or a horse. Character generation was fast and simple. The role player could then flesh out the character as they saw fit. We always developed fairly complex backgrounds for our characters. Some of the more memorable ones were Max Faraday, a Confederate Civil War vet with a PhD who made a living as a medicine show man. Another was an exiled Englishman of noble birth who had stolen the family's valuable signet ring and was being hunted for it. Even our more mundane characters were interesting. My character Tyler was a Kansas farm boy with exceptional strength from pulling a plow as his father could not afford a horse. He once killed a horse just by punching it in the head. His partner was Hammer, a young gunfighter with exceptional speed and gun accuracy trying to make a name for himself. The two had to leave the country when they accidentally blew up a train. The plan had been to blow up the tracks and make the train stop so they could rob it, but Tyler fell asleep and when startled set off the explosives just as the train was crossing them. They quickly became the most wanted duo in the campaign with a very high price on their heads wanted dead or alive.

Combat in the second edition of Boot Hill was deadly. Many role players have complained about how deadly it was. However, I lost as many AD&D characters as I did Boot Hill characters. In Boot Hill it was in all how you played the character. Combat was turn based. A character had a certain number of movement points, and different movements cost different amounts. How many movement points also depended on whether you were walking, running, or crawling. Once movement was done, gun combat took place. Characters fired in the order of their First Shot score and then tried to roll beneath their To Hit number, these numbers being determined by their stats with various modifiers. If a character hit they then rolled percentile dice to determine where they wounded the other character and the severity of the wound. The amount of damage done to a character's Strength depended on severity and where the wound hit the body. A shot to the leg may not mean much of a loss to Strength. A shot to the head could mean death.The final part of a turn was hand to hand combat which was fairly complex. The player character had to decide whether they were going to punch or grapple. A punch could be striking someone with one's fist or with an object like a whiskey bottle or revolver butt. The result of these were determined by a roll of two ten sided dice rolled and added together and checked against a chart, one for punches and one for grappling. These charts determined what kind of strike the character made and what kind of damage was done. In our games we allowed players to state what they were doing like making a right hook or hay maker so we dispensed with that part of the chart. There were also rules for running a campaign which came in handy if one had a long running game.

And that was about all there was to second edition. While I saw copies of the third edition of Boot Hill, and I think one of the gaming group even bought a copy in 1990 when it came out, we never played it. At the time our second edition campaign had reached an end point and for the most part many in the gaming group were getting out of gaming. I stopped playing role playing games for the most part in 1992 and in that last year all I played was Robotech. After 1992 I never played in a campaign of any game again, and only played a handful of stand alone games. That said I recently obtained a copy of the third edition of Boot Hill and have been reading it, acquainting myself with its rules. It is a totally different game. For one thing the rule book is about 130 pages long, much larger than the second edition rule book. The player character stats changed. In third edition they consist of Strength, Coordination, Observation, Stature (basically fame), and Luck. These are determined by rolling two ten sided dice and adding the two numbers together. This is the only time ten siders are used in the game. The result is further modified by a chart. Like the second edition, player characters are average or above. In addition to the change in characteristics skills were added. Player characters have work skills and weapon skills. No more than half of a player character's skills can be weapon skills. How many starting skills you can have are determined by a chart based on the character's characteristics. The most skills a character can start with is ten. Weapon skills start off at 1 point. One can add to this by taking another skill in that weapon. For example, say I want a 3 in knife and I start off with ten skills. When taking knife it takes one of my skills so I now only have nine with a score of 1 in knife. I raise it to 3 and now I only have seven skills I can get. Work skills work differently. One simply chooses the skill and the rolls two ten sided dice adding the results together to get the score. Some skills give an automatic score in another skill. For example if a player character gets Dentistry they get an automatic skill in Medicine of 6. Skill checks are made throughout the game. Simple tasks require no skill check, but more difficult ones do. For example a player character who is a doctor would not have to make a skill check for stitching up a minor cut, but were they to perform major surgery such as to remove a bullet from near the heart they would, and that would probably be with modifiers making it even more difficult to make the roll.Once the skills have been chosen, the player can flesh out the character on their own giving them a background, description, and so on.

One thing I have noted about character generation is that it is harder to say roll up a crack sharpshooter off the bat in third edition. One has to get the right stats which is easy enough if one gets lucky dice rolls, but then they have to invest in weapon skills to get the character's proficiency up as well as take the work skill Fast Draw and hope for a lucky roll with it. Given only ten skills it would be difficult to roll up a gunfighter capable of standing against seasoned NPC gunfighters. I see this as a failing in the third edition. Part of why we enjoyed the second edition so much was having someone with a fast gun hand, known far and wide for their skill. As I said we were playing the Hollywood version of the Wild West.

Another addition to Boot Hill with the third edition was an experience system. Under first and second editions characters did not advance. They pretty much had the same stats at the end of a campaign as when they started the game. In third edition so many points are given for say surviving a gunfight or bringing in an outlaw or other game play activity. When a player character has enough experience points they can use them to increase a characteristic score or increase a skill score. Thus at the start of a game a player character may have a knife/sword skill of 2, but be able to raise it to 3 after a couple of games by investing enough experience points.

Combat is more complicated than second edition in my opinion and relies on 20 sided dice instead of percentile dice. One thing I noted is that it seems a lot harder to get killed in third edition than second edition. Even if a player character gets a mortal wound a Luck roll is made and if successful the wound is reduced to serious. Until I actually judge or play a game though and see the combat system in action I do not know if it is harder or easier to hit a character in combat.

I plan to see if I can get a group of the old role players together, even if it is only two or three of us, and see if we can start a campaign using third edition. One thing that I am disappointed in is I do not have the Promise City map. I only have the third edition rule book. That map was invaluable to our campaign as our characters regularly returned to Promise City.

As I said Boot Hill was one of my favorite early role playing games. In fact the only role playing game I may have liked as much was Daredevils (a game set in the 1930s using the pulp genre of fiction as a backdrop).  I truly enjoyed those years I played it, and no doubt had my gaming group not drifted a part we may have continued to play it for several years. I think all totaled I may have played as many games of Boot Hill as I did AD&D. I have very fond memories of it, and recommend it to anyone willing to use a little imagination and careful play in making their characters come alive.