Alana and I got back from TexarCon 2006 very late Sunday morning. If you haven't heard of TexarCon, that's because it is a very small game convention, with only 6 participants. Alana and I enjoyed ourselves. It was great to see all the Texarkana guys again. Mark and Tom were wonderful hosts, putting up with Sabine — our mutt — in their homes. Sabine, for her part, was much better behaved than we expected. She is very energetic at home when Jimmy and Jason come to game, but she was much more sedate in Tom's house. Tom and his wife Yoshiko cooked us a great dinner Saturday night, barbecue turkey burgers (with apple mixed into the meat; not something I would have tried, but it was wonderful) and shiskabobs. Better eating than I've ever done at a convention. We gamed until 1 am Friday night. We took a trip to Excalibur, the local game and comic store. This was our "dealer's room". Alana and I bought dice and the Acme Catalog (a wonderful book with all the Acme products from the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons), and a card holder book for Logan. Jimmy and Jason bought 10-sided dice for Godlike and/or NEMESIS. We gamed after supper, ending the scenario around 11:30 pm. Alana and I drove home less than an hour later, getting home around 3:30. I did bring a board game to play so that our "convention" would actually have three game sessions in two genres, but we didn't have time to play.
Last year I ran a game of Feng Shui for a group consisting of the Crazy 98s (Jimmy, Jason, and Alana) and Jimmy's and Jason's regular group (Mark and Tom). This year, the second annual TexarCon in Texarkana, Arkansas, featured an Old West theme. We talked about this last year, and right after the Feng Shui game I began researching Western roleplaying games for this year.
After conducting some research, I came up with this list of games: GURPS Wild West, D20 Modern using Sidewinder: Recoiled as the sourcebook, Action! with the Gunslingers sourcebook, or Chaosium's BRP system, either using Cthulhu By Gaslight and Pagan Publishing's Weapons Compendium, or the Worlds of Cthulhu magazine issue #3 article on setting Call of Cthulhu games in the U.S. old west.
I polled the players to help make my decision. GURPS Wild West was a good choice, but it tends to have a fairly slow combat system. (My own EasyGURPS combat system would fix that, assuming I could find the rules I wrote). The players, except for Alana, have experience in GURPS but it has been years since I played it. The Action! game looked very good, but none of us had used the system and combat looked quite fiddly.
My own preference was to use Chaosium's system. I know it incredibly well (don't need the rules to run it). Even without an actual Wild West sourcebook, I could have faked it. The GURPS Wild West sourcebook, like most GURPS books, is good enough to be used for pretty much any game. Chaosium's system would have been the easy answer, but we use that system an awful lot. I wanted to try something different. Plus, I didn't have the World's of Cthulhu issue with the Wild West article, so I didn't know how to handle things like fast draws. (In fact, fast draws as seen in the movies never happened, the Weapon Compendium has a suggested rule, and I came up with another option later, but this was all sort of beside the point.)
The winner was D20 Modern and Sidewinder: Recoiled. D20 is, of course, the most recent incarnation of the Dungeons and Dragons rules. A few years ago Wizards of the Coast, who bought out TSR, released a generic version of the D&D rules as "open source", meaning that anyone could write a game for it, provided they follow some licensing rules. For instance, to use the "D20" trademark you have to require the use of a Wizards of the Coast rulebook (such as the Dungeons and Dragons D20 Player's Handbook). You could also make the game "OGL", meaning that your game follows the basic rules but varies in some ways from standard D20. OGL books can stand alone, though they have a lot in common with D20. Sidewinder: Recoiled is a D20 book. There is an OGL Western book, but Sidewinder looked better. To play Sidewinder you need the D20 Modern basic book, which I received a couple of years ago as a gift.
(To muddy things, the OGL license allows for other versions of the main rulebook. The D20 rules are full of minutiae. True 20 is a new version of the rules that simplifies a lot of stuff. It's getting very good reviews. Spycraft 2.0 is a modern OGL book that fixes a lot of the stuff in D20 Modern, like the weapon effective ranges.)
The only problem with the D20 route (other than the fact that I'm not crazy about D&D's levels and classes) was that I haven't played a D20 game in its current form, and the last time I played something like it was about 6 or 7 years ago for a one-shot (a roleplaying adventure designed to be played once, and not as part of an ongoing campaign). D20 Modern is fairly complicated, with lots and lots of options. Spycraft, which I have, is more complicated, mostly because it is aimed at modern spy type games and would have to be tweaked for the Wild West. I'm not afraid of complicated games; I used to own Advanced Squad Leader. I find in my advancing years that I just don't have the time to spend learning a long, complicated game. Jimmy, Jason, Mark, and Tom play D20 games (mostly fantasy) all the time. I didn't care for the idea of running a game that I didn't know very well. I could do it, but it would require a fair amount of work. Still, this was the game I had decided to run.
Then late last year I came across a game called Coyote Trail by Politically Incorrect Games. Soon after buying it (as a downloadable PDF), I chose it as the game system for our TexarCon scenario. It was different, easy to learn, and seemed to cover the period very nicely. Alana wants us to play a post-apocalypse game. PIG also sells a post-apocalypse game (Earth AD with the same rule system), so if Coyote Trail worked for a western, we could use Earth AD later. Everything fell into place.
The scenario was set in 1870 in western Texas. Instead of railroading the players into a set-piece scenario, the players' characters were free to do anything they wanted. I did have some things happening in the town, but the characters were not forced to deal with any of it.
The characters were relatively poor. There was a bank in town, which would make an obvious heist location. Two of the characters had a hatred of Union soldiers, so they were obviously interested when a buckboard with two soldiers and four cavalrymen on horses rolled into town. The soldiers told the sheriff that they needed help guarding their buckboard, which had the payroll for a nearby fort. The sheriff obliged.
The characters consisted of an outlaw (Tom), a hunter (Jason), a gambler (Mark), a young adult whose family had been killed (Jimmy), and a prostitute (Alana). The characters decided to steal the payroll, but while casing the cavalrymen they determined that something was not quite right. The cavalrymen were ragged looking. They didn't have the demeanor of soldiers. Tom surmised that the cavalrymen were not real, that they were probably after the bank. Jimmy concurred, opining that the payroll was probably fake. The group as a whole wasn't sure, so they decided to go after the strong box on the buckboard anyway.
The gambler rigged the town's Lutheran church to burn, then joined the poker game going on in the stable with the buckboard. Jimmy's character (I'll call him "the Kid" for ease of writing) groomed his horse, which was at the same stable. The town was alerted by the fire. The prostitute locked most of the soldiers in their hotel room, stopping them from interfering.
The hunter and the prostitute went for the horses, while the outlaw helped the Kid. The cavalryman guarding one entrance to the stable was caught by the Kid. The outlaw killed the man. The Kid rushed inside while the outlaw killed a deputy guarding the other door. The Kid burst inside and told the people at the card table — one of which was drunk on laudanum-laced whiskey provided by the gambler — not to move. Another deputy had passed out from the whiskey. The men rose from the table and drew their guns. Lead flew. One deputy was killed outright. Another was wounded, and so was the Kid. The wounded deputy was dispatched, but the drunk cavalryman remained.
The outlaw rushed in, followed by the prostitute and the hunter. Everyone fired at the cavalryman, but it was the hunter that dropped him.
When they checked the strong box they found $10 in coins. The rest of the box was filled with pouches of broken bits of chain and rocks to weigh down the box. It was all a ruse. The Kid was right: the "cavalrymen" were out to rob the bank. (Actually, they were out to rob someone coming in on the morning train, possibly hitting the bank at the same time). The characters escaped the stable as the rest of the soldiers moved in, guns blazing. They left the town, but the hunter, the outlaw, and the Kid went back to check on the stable. It was now guarded by townsfolk. (The soldiers had played up the attack as a spoiled raid on the payroll.)
With game time growing short, the players decided that their characters would head to the next town and a new adventure. The Kid had other ideas. He was leaving the gang for good. The outlaw couldn't allow that and shot at the Kid. The Kid turned around and stared down the outlaw. The Kid drew his gun. The outlaw and the Kid fired. The Kid, already wounded from the earlier altercation, collapsed to the ground with a bullet through his skull. The band of outlaws headed for the next town.
Characters in Coyote Trail have five "abilities": Fitness, Awareness, Reasoning, Creativity, and Influence. These range from 1 to 5. They also have skills, such as firearms, brawling, commerce, investigation, composure, etc. Skills have a rating from 1 to 8, though 2 through 6 is average.
You generate abilities by spending up to 10 points. As stated above, each ability has at least 1 point and no more than 5 points. Optionally, you can roll a number from 1 to 5 (using a 10-sided die, or a six-sided die and re-rolling sixes). For heroic games or one-shot games you can add from 1 to 4 points of abilities.
Skills are purchased from a pool of 30 points. Each character has a vocation with a list of skills. The skills in the list cost one point per skill level. Any other skills can be purchased at two points per skill level.
Characters make skill checks by adding an attribute to a skill (such as Fitness + Firearms to fire a pistol, or Influence + Negotiation to barter with a store keeper) and rolling two six-sided dice. The numbers on the dice are added together. The margin of success is equal to the skill total minus the roll of the dice. Basically, if you roll equal to or under your skill total, you succeed.
A roll of two is a Triumph (critical success) and gains special benefits. A roll of a 12 is always a failure. There are ways of rolling a Calamity (a fumble) and another way of rolling a Triumph (more about this later). I used the advanced system with difficulty modifiers. If your margin of success is greater than the difficulty level, you succeeded at the skill. The difficulty level is a number from 7 (impossible) to -2 (trivial). I did not use the Basic system, which uses bonus and penalty dice.
Combat is resolved in turns equal to five seconds of time. Players roll a six-sided die and add their character's Awareness and Fitness. The characters, and the gamemaster's non-player characters (NPCs), act in order from highest to lowest. Firing a weapon or brawling is just a skill check (with modifiers for range, etc.). If the roll succeeds, the character takes damage levels equal to the weapon's damage. Damage is either Injury, Fatigue or — in the case of taking "damage" from getting drunk — Intoxication.
All character have the same 5 levels of wound per type. The second, third, and fourth levels give a character +1, +2, and +3 points of difficulty, respectively. The fifth level knocks the character unconscious. Additional Fatigue points carry over into Injury points. Additionally Injury points above the five levels kill the character. Characters with 4 or 5 Fitness get a point of armour. Cover and protection also gain points of armour. Roll a six-sided die for each point of damage inflicted. If the roll is greater than the character's total points of armour, the damage is nullified.
Characters can have gimmicks. A gimmick is equivalent to a GURPS advantage or disadvantage, but they are broader. They fit well with the genre (while many GURPS advantages and disadvantages are generic). The rules don't have limits on the number of gimmicks a character can have. The Enhancement Pack includes Cliches. These work like Gimmicks, but they give cinematic effects, for those who want to recreate Silverado or Rio Bravo rather than Deadwood or Unforgiven.
I used a house rule from the PIG Coyote Trail internet forum to modify damage. As realistic as the damage rules are, I wanted something a little bit more heroic. I didn't want the players scared of gunplay, so I gave the players a special armour equal to their Fitness. For every point of Injury damage that failed the special armour roll, the player had the option of converting the Injury point to Fatigue. This worked very well.
I also used the optional rules for character creation, allocating 14 points to character abilities and 35 points to skills. I gave characters between two and four gimmicks.
Finally, I utilized the "house rule" that allowed the matching of a skill with any appropriate ability, not just the ability the skill is listed under. This isn't really a house rule, as Brett Bernstein, the game system's author, has stated in the PIG Coyote Trail forum that the game was intended to work this way from the start. This is an official ruling, though it is not written in the rules.
Coyote Trail is a western game. Tom and I each created soundtrack CDs for the scenario. Independently we started our CDs the theme from Clint Eastwood's, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. It's a bit cliche, but I just have to review the game with the same three adjectives.
Coyote Trail, and the genreDiversion game system it uses, is one of the new breed of "rules light" RPG rules. "Rules light" games focus on the fact that the rules should support the actual roleplaying while staying out of the way. Coyote Trail does this rather well.
It is a fast system. You can generate characters in about half an hour (less if you are experienced).
The combat system is pretty quick, too. This is something I've been striving for in recent years, skipping "realism" for something that will play quickly and give reasonable results. Coyote Trail does this. There are no hit locations. Guns do a set amount of damage, so there are no damage rolls. Given the ranges where our gunfights occurred, this was realistic enough. The game turns were five-seconds long and flew by quickly even with five players and four or five NPCs involved.
I was surprised by how well the Gimmicks focused character behaviour. I've played GURPS games where character advantages and disadvantages get in the way. This didn't happen here. Most of the Gimmicks came into play.
Probably the best feature of the game is its price. $4.95 gets you the core game in an Acrobat PDF format from Politically Incorrect Games. This is the 76 page rule book with character creation, task rules, Old West background information (including a two page price list), rules for character advancement, optional rules for making the game more cinematic, two adventures, three reference pages, a character sheet, character templates, and even a die you can print on card stock and glue together. For $1 you can buy the Enhancement Pack, which includes rules for Cliches and explosives, an adventure, and a better character sheet (with room for horse and/or wagon stats). However, for $6 you get the core book, Enhancement Pack, and a Whitewash City cardstock saloon (suitable for miniatures games or RPGs; it even has an interior floor plan) that you can print out and assemble.
There aren't a lot of weapons to choose from, but the core book has rules for converting weapons from the excellent Knuckleduster Firearms Shop, a generic supplement that can be used for any western game. This is only available as a softcover book, sold through their site.
Coyote Trail is an update of an older game called Shady Gulch. The new Shady Gulch Revisited is a fully formed western town, available as a PDF for $2.50. Politically Incorrect Games sells a set of "Disposable Heroes" cardstock miniatures. Two more supplements, Indian Trail and Straddle County are due soon (very soon for Indian County). The company offers you print-on-demand options if you'd rather have them print out the manuals and send you a hardcopy.
I didn't run any of the adventures, so I won't comment on them.
This is not a game for munchkins. There are too many ways to break the system. There are no limits on Gimmick purchases, other than gamemaster fiat. If your vocation makes you take a gimmick, it doesn't cost you points for a positive gimmick or gain you points for a negative gimmick. This makes some vocations "cheaper" than others. The "secondary" vocations (the vocations that all fit on page 7 and which are less fully explained than the other vocations) "better" in terms of points.
In fact, the Drifter vocation is easily the best of the bunch: you can select any skill at character generation as a vocational skill. You can't raise the Drifter's skill to more than 5 points during character generation, but a munchkin is going to buy as many skills as he can anyway, so he's unlikely to have any above 5 to start with. As it was, very few of the characters I generated had skill points above 5 (one, maybe two, had a single skill at level 6). The description of the Drifter says that he's unlikely to hang around for more than a single story. That's fine for a one-shot or short campaign, but I don't know of any gamemasters who would enforce this rule in a long running campaign.
Munckins will want to roll for their abilities. Rolling creates random abilities in the range of 1 to 5, averaging 3. If you choose to build your character, you get 10 points to spread across 5 abilities, thus averaging 2. At least you get the choice of where to put the ability when you choose.
I don't like the way "untrained" skills work. If a character doesn't have a skill, he is supposed to roll against a specific ability alone. This is not uncommon in roleplaying games. The One Roll Engine found in Godlike and NEMESIS does the same thing, but the lowest chance of success in that system is 1 out of 10, and only if the ability is a 2. In the case of Coyote Trail, it is impossible for a character to attempt something untrained if they have 1 in an ability, a 1 out of 36 chance of success with a 2, and a 1 out of 12 chance with a 3 (the average ability range). By contrast, an ORE character with average ability would have between a 28% or 50% chance of success when trying something unskilled. A Call of Cthulhu character begins with a Spot Hidden skill chance of 25%. Coyote Trail characters relying on their innate abilities are less potent than characters in other systems.
I admit that this is my own game experience interfering. A simple fix for this is to give characters skills with effects appropriate to their character, even if they "seem" odd for vocation. It might not seem appropriate for a Prospector to have "Investigation", but it would be the right skill for representing the character's ability to find hidden things. This is where Designer Notes would help.
The called shot combat mechanism is broken if you play anything but the standard, gritty version of the game, or if you use small calibre weapons. A character can aim at any location in the body for a +2 modifier. A shot to the head will kill an enemy (or put them into a coma). The rules imply that a called shot ignores armour, too. A +2 isn't a huge modifier once a character needs to roll a 9 or higher to hit, which is pretty easy to get if the character takes a 4 or 5 in Fitness. The modifier is simply too small. The outlaw character spent most of his time firing head shots. This isn't realistic in an era of inaccurate firearms. What's funny is that the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop comes out and says that this sort of aiming during a gunfight is unrealistic, yet the rules tend to encourage it.
Calculating Calamities and Triumphs is simple math, but the process is not intuitive. I know from experience that getting people to do simple math in their heads is not a quick process. People with learning disabilities, or people who are simply shy in group situations, have a hard time doing it. It doesn't help when the math is non-intuitive.
A Triumph occurs when snake-eyes (a 2) are rolled on the dice. It also occurs when the margin of success (how far you roll below the skill level) is greater than 6 plus the task's difficulty. For example: if a character's ability plus his skill level is equal to 12 and the character rolled a 3, the margin of success is 9. If the difficulty was 2, the result would be a Triumph. The player calculates the margin of success (a 9), adds 6 to the difficulty (6 + 2 = 8), and then decides if the margin of success was greater than this number.
This isn't a hard calculation, but it's something that doesn't stick in my mind all too well. It also doesn't come into play until the character gets at least 10 points in a skill + ability, unless the task is easy (negative difficulty). Until you hit 10 points in a skill the only way a normal or harder task roll is a Triumph is if you roll snake-eyes, but snake-eyes are always a Triumph. Using the game of Craps as a basis, it would be easier to say that a Triumph was a) a roll of snake-eyes or b) a dice roll where the margin was a 7 or more. Then you wouldn't have to worry about determining if the margin of success is greater than 6 plus the difficulty.
Another option would be to include a simple chart that cross indexed margin with difficulty to indicate if the roll was a Triumph or not.
For a Calamity, the margin of success must be less than the difficulty of the success minus 10. Remember, if you roll over your skill total the margin of success is a negative. Everything I said above about simply math is "more so" when it comes to figuring negative integers. So, a character fires a gun. They have a Fitness rating of 4 and a Firearms skill of 4. This gives a total of 8. They are making an impossible shot (difficulty of 7). The player rolls a 12 on the dice. The calculation is 7 (difficulty) - 10 = -3. The margin of success is a -4. This is less than -3, so there is a calamity.
Like Triumphs, this isn't a difficult calculation, but it does involve people calculating negative integers in their head or out loud. Like Triumphs, it only shows up when skill abilities are particularly low. An 8 (which isn't that low!) will only result in a calamity if a) the difficulty is -7 and b) the player rolled a 12. You never have a calamity under normal situations (difficulty of 0) unless the character is untrained in the skill, and even then only if they have 1 in the ability.
Again, a table could have been included that would remove the math. An easier method would be to have a Calamity happen whenever you roll box cars (12), as that already is an automatic failure. Okay, that might be pushing it, as it is only 1 out of 36 tries. How about having a Calamity Check happen if you roll box cars. On a Calamity Check, roll two six-sided dice. If the roll is greater than the skill plus ability, a Calamity happens (and a Calamity always happens if the Calamity Check roll is a 12). It doesn't take difficulty into account, but this may be a good thing, based on the next paragraph.
Because of the way Calamities work, your gun is more likely to jam or explode in your hand if you fire at a target far away, or if your target is running. Range to the target and the target's movement (not to mention your own movement) increase the difficulty of the task. As I described above, the higher the difficulty, the more likely you are to have a Calamity.
Now, I know why they did this. If Black Bart is holding a hostage in front of him, it is more likely that a character will accidentally shoot a hostage from a long way away than if they were at point-blank range. If a character is firing while running, he is more likely to shoot himself in the foot. If the lock is particularly difficult to pick, the character is more likely to snap a file in the lock mechanism and thus warn Black Bart that they were trying to break into his room.
On the other hand, there is the case of a character firing at a fleeing horseman. There are no innocent civilians to get in the way. Why should the chance of a Calamity increase with difficulty? Since a Calamity is the only way a gun will misfire, jam, or have any number of other nasty things happen (as described in the relevant sections of the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop), why should increased difficulty increase the chance of the gun gang-firing and exploding in the user's hand?
The answer is it should not. My suggestion of a Calamity Check would fix this.
Another oddity: if a character with a 1 in an ability succeeds at an unskilled roll, the result is automatically a Triumph. This is because rolling snake-eyes is the only way to succeed if your ability is a 1, and rolling snake-eyes is always a Triumph.
The skills are so broad that you end up with extra abilities that may not fit a character concept. When I created the hunter I did not give him Investigation as I didn't think it was warranted. When he and the outlaw went to search a room, I realized that the hunter was incapable of reliably searching a room unless I allowed him to use his Tracking skill. This felt odd, but it's the only way for the rules to fit the character concept since he didn't have an Investigation skill. When I read the skill description the Investigation skill did not seem appropriate for the character. Now I believe almost every character should have the Investigation skill.
I'm glad I gave the characters 14 points in abilities and 35 points (plus points from negative gimmicks) for skills. We ended up with competent characters that were not overly heroic. If I gave everyone Investigation at a reasonable level — which is a really good idea as Investigation is the generic "search for something" skill — I would have been hard pressed to come up with competent characters. This is not a big deal in a one-shot. I'm not sure how viable starting characters would be if I had created them using the rules as written. They would have only 10 ability points and 30 skill points, before Gimmicks are purchased.
In the same vein, there are no guidelines for creating "grizzled" characters with lots of experience. Beginning characters appear to model young adults. Sure, you can give the grizzled characters more skill points, but how many?
The term "Reaction Roll" is used in Advanced Skill Resolution, but it is never defined. There is a roll you make in Basic Skill Resolution to see which character goes first. This is a Reaction Roll, though it is never explicitly named in the rules. Brett Bernstein confirmed this on the PIG forum.
As mentioned, the game doesn't have a lot of weapon statistics. I used the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop to come up with gun stats. As per the conversion process, I determined Short, Medium, Long, and Extreme weapon ranges. There is also a Point Blank range (which gets a -2 difficulty), but the book doesn't give you stats for a gun's Point Blank range.
The book is professional looking, but I thought the organization could have been better. I don't like it when books come up with advanced rules that say, "use the basic rules, except where we modified them here". I'd rather that they just rewrite the section fully so I have all the rules in one place. This is particularly true of PDF rules, where I'm footing the printing cost myself. I thought "Expanding the Game" should have come before "Western Legends", keeping all the rules together. The book really needs an index (admittedly this is less of an issue if you just use the PDF version).
I wish there were more character vocations. There are no Outlaw, Prostitute, or Bounty Hunter vocations (to name a few), even though these are pretty typical Western stereotypes. There are no native vocations, either, but Indian Trail will handle that.
With a couple of bumps, the game went very smoothly. The rules certainly function "out of the box". Coyote Trail is an excellent set of rules for one-shots or short campaigns.
I'm not sure how well it would work for a longer campaign. I don't think it's quite right for my players, as they tend to come up with character concepts and then fit the skills to that concept. This type of character concept doesn't mesh well with games that have a few broadly defined skills. The hunter player (Jason) mentioned that he would want to redo his character, based on the character not having the Investigation skill.
If I were to do another one-shot with this system,\ I'd be more generous with the skill points, throwing the character generation system out the window (except as a guideline).
I don't know if our group would like the low-powered characters this system generates at the start. I think they'd want more "heroic" characters, if for no other reason than they tend to create "experienced" characters.
You'd be hard pressed to find a better game for players new to roleplaying, or for characters from unknown backgrounds. It's an ideal one-shot system because of the ease of use and the deadliness of the combat system.
I would like to try the game again sometime, though I would try it with my proposed method of handling Calamities and Triumphs.
That having been said, I think the next western game I run will be in Chaosium's Basic Role Playing system, found in Call of Cthulhu. I have a method for handling fast draw duels, and I know the system by heart. Arc Dream's NEMESIS (freely available for download) is another option; I love their combat system. I was planning to use Earth AD for a post-apocalyptic game, but I think I'll use a different system instead (perhaps D20, more likely Eden Studio's Unisystem as seen in All Flesh Must Be Eaten). The source material, particularly Shady Gulch Revisited is applicable to other systems, and I think Indian Trail will be usable with other systems, too.
I definitely got my money's worth out of the game!
By putting this on my blog, I invite other members of the Crazy 98s (with Tom and Mark as honorary members) to contribute their comments.
4 Good Years
8 months ago