Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Retrospective: Boot Hill

I've talked before about the influence of Westerns on Dungeons & Dragons, so it's really no surprise that one of the earliest RPGs TSR produced after OD&D would be Western -- Boot Hill. Its original incarnation, which I never saw, was published in 1975 and was written by Brian Blume and Gary Gygax. Historically, this is interesting, because it reminds us (once again) that Brian Blume was not just a monied hanger-on but also a game designer in his own right. It's also a rare example of non-D&D work by Gygax, something one didn't see much of.

The edition I owned was the second, pictured here, which was published as a boxed set in 1979. The set contained a 36-page rulebook, a double-sided map, some counters, and old school percentile dice. As you would expect, the rules are very sparse, focusing largely on combat. Indeed, reading Boot Hill, one is immediately struck by how much more combat-focused it is even than D&D. This isn't surprising, since gunfights, saloon brawls, knife throwing, and the like are the primary things the game is intended to simulate. Most other actions could just be improvised either through roleplaying or simple random adjudication. In this respect, Boot Hill is the epitome of "old school."

Much like Dawn Patrol, there's a sense in which Boot Hill is more of a wargame than a RPG. Its concerns, both mechanically and thematically, are centered on violence in all its myriad forms. To call it, as its subtitle does, a "roleplaying game of the Wild West" is to be fairly generous, even in my eccentric opinion. While there are rules for forming posses, aging, and earning a living, they're quite vestigial. Playing a lengthy Boot Hill campaign would take some remarkable creativity on the part of the referee, even moreso than in OD&D, which at least sketches out an endgame. This gives Boot Hill a vaguely "beer and pretzels" sort of feel to it, as if it were intended primarily as a simulation of Wild West shoot 'em ups rather than anything more ambitious.

I know I never managed to do more with the game than run fistfights and showdowns. We had fun with the rules, but I cannot now tell you the name of a single character or recount a single session of our play in any detail beyond a vague recollection of a character getting access to a Gatling gun and laying waste to a lot of desperadoes who were attacking the town. Perhaps that speaks more to our immaturity, I don't know. Being a big fan of Westerns, I've always wanted to run and/or play in a Western RPG campaign, but, if I ever did so, I doubt I'd turn to Boot Hill to do it. Even with my level of simplicity and do-it-yourself elegance, I'd need to create too much from whole cloth. Thus, Boot Hill is an example of an old school game that I think doesn't live up to its full potential -- a pity.


  1. Your experience with this game sounds exactly like mine, including the inability to remember anything about any time I ever played. That also probably accounts for why it never really caught on.

  2. Most of my memories from sessions involved some sort of slapstick: the character that leapt and grabbed the rope on the mine elevator before realizing it was greased and of course fun with dynamite :)

  3. My highschool buddy and I played a rather lengthy solo game starring my ex-gunman, now gambler Geoffrey Whittaker, a man haunted by his past and what he did with the army. He was a killer who now regretted his past but kept on being drawn back into it by villains he thought had forgotten him. I was a grand ol time, unlike the "kill the next NPC in the book" style we played years before. I still have a very very fond feeling for the game, something that didn't come with playing either Gangbusters or Dawn Patrol.

  4. Oh and there was a 3rd edition:

    The last edition of Boot Hill was released as a 128-page paperback, with the map attached in the back.

    This 3rd edition of the classic BOOT HILL game is thoroughly revised and updated. It includes:
    • Fully rounded characters with over 60 skills to choose from;
    • Revised rules for shootouts and fistfights emphasizing quick thinking and quick action;
    • Extensive campaign guidelines plus historical background and a timeline of the Old West;
    • Two historical gunfight scenarios plus numerous short adventures;
    • Fold-out maps of Promise City and the surrounding territory.

  5. Never played it, but the western genre always influenced my post apocalyptic games more than my D&D. In a sense westerns represent a pre societal wasteland as opposed to the post societal wasteland of games like Gama World. Either way you are self reliant heroes bringing violent justice to the lawless in a great empty howling uncaring wilderness. I highly recommend Cormic McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for a true vision of a violent and savage west.

  6. If you're looking for western RPG stuff, you might be interested in my 24-hour RPG entry Big Hearts in Big Country.

    It's a minimalist RPG where you use saloon cards and poker chips to track your character, and has a gunfight mechanic that makes for some real-life drama and fast-paced action.

    I never played Boot Hill myself, but I'd always been curious, since I've always had a soft spot for Sergio Leone. Thanks for the review!

  7. In comparison to GUNSLINGER, Boot Hill was a cakewalk.

    I've run a few games with it (2nd ed.), and owned 3rd, but would say that it was more my players lack of interest in the setting/period than anything intrinsically unplayable about the game system.

    Since we were a T&T campaign sort of group, not having rules for anything outside of combat was no obstacle. In fact, we rather enjoyed deducing how Strength was to be used outside of punching, etc.

    Although, as if to reinforce the idea, my re-purchased 2nd ed. rulebook sits atop my stack of wargames. ;)

  8. I played the 1st ed a few time with a friend of mine back in the 70s. Same experience--fun to play but no lasting memories and little to draw us back.

  9. (Tangent) Of all the TSR logos, I always liked the little wizard (pictured on the box cover) best.

  10. Boot Hill is fun if you have a Old West history buff willing and able to take the role of GM.

    I've never maintained campaigns for long myself but my father who is a miserable D&D DM just shines and does great as a GM for Boot Hill as RPG.

    Maybe it's a generational thing, he grew up when westerns ruled T.V. and is still a big fan of Western films. That along with a lot of reading on the subject has him able to whip up a wide variety of true-life and fictional characters.

    There is just so much source material available on the Old West that one doesn't really need a lot of it in the game book itself do they?

  11. I LOVE Boot Hill. Of all my TSR games, it comes in 2nd (after D&D, slightly ahead of Top Secret and Gamma World). I have the 2nd edition with the Cow Puncher cover, the excellent screen, and all 5 of the BH modules. I've played through at least a couple of these, as well as crossing over AD&D characters. It is an excellent game.

    However, I find it is very difficult to run with a gaming group of any size. It's based on the cinematic West, and in cinema what guy is always the fastest gun. So which of your players gets to play the honcho role? Sure you can do Silverado or the Magnificent Seven, but not every week...for extended play, the best size fits 1-2 players, maybe 3 (if you want a knife throwing specialist in the mix).

    Several of the modules make excellent "series" towns a la Deadwood, if you don't mind having more intrigue and less gunplay. Ballots and Bullets is an especial classic. I've read on–line accounts of BH3 games that turned into extended campaigns, post-election.

  12. I owned the 3rd edition of Boot Hill, but could never talk anyone into playing it.

    The western genre always seemed to have so much potential, but Deadlands is the only RPG I can think of that succeeded. Pinnacle basically had to take the old west and dip it in fantasy sauce to make it gaming worthy.

  13. Actually, Gygax did quite a bit of non-D&D work. Boot Hill is one, but he did a number of wargaming rules, such as Classic Warfare, Tractics, Don't Give up the Ship, Roundheads and Cavaliers, and a couple others, I think. He also wrote a number of articles in (very) old wargaming 'zines, as well (one of which I used to have in my collection, but sold for over $100 on eBay)

    [TANGENT: I prefer the Lizard Man logo over all others]

  14. I've always wanted to track down a coppy of Boot Hill, but I've never found a group interested. My only Wild West gaming has Been A fist Full of Zombies for AFMBE, and Werewolf the Wild West (a great game until you realize what your playing.)

  15. I've never played Boot Hill, but I've always wanted to.

  16. The western genre always seemed to have so much potential, but Deadlands is the only RPG I can think of that succeeded. Pinnacle basically had to take the old west and dip it in fantasy sauce to make it gaming worthy.

    Much the same way, the relatively recent Serenity RPG (definitely not "old school") injects the Old West into scifi gaming, using a basic premise similar to Traveller's.

    {TANGENT} My favorite TSR logo is the "wizard face" from circa 1980 - 1982. It's the one designed by Darlene Pekul, so what's not to love?

  17. I loved 2nd Ed of Boot Hill. tried to adapt its combnat system to the AD&D missile combat, given up.

    To those into western RPGs, check out indie RPG titles "Dust Devils" and "Dogs In The Vineyard". A few unique mechanics unknown in TSR games.

  18. Boot Hill 2.0e (ha) was the second RPG that I played. Thinking back on the three months we played it straight--before dropping it and never picking it up again--James' observations about its weak points as an RPG seem pretty accurate. My little brother and I pretty much played it as one long stream of shoot outs and heists. Weirdly, we even had a gatling gun stealing' and shoot 'em up too even!

    In a way BH is even more old school than D&D in the sense it stayed even closer to its wargame roots. I thumbed through my old raggedity-ass copy last night and got stuck re-reading the campaigns section. It struck me that the fictional campaign (complete with long list of TSR-staff inspired NPCs like ranching baron Mr. "G") was far more of a Braunstein than the RPG campaigns we all know and love. The players section of that campaign even allows for the to line up into two competing teams of lawmen and outlaws--with a clearly defined monetary goal for which individual player wins.

    Actually sounds kinda fun on second thought...

  19. I have to agree with JB. The biggest problem with Western RPG gaming is the lack of character diversity: Everyone's a gun-man. In comparison, D&D's inherent structure offers multiple interesting roles (fighter, thief, cleric, magic-user).

    With work into story and setting you can overcome the limitations on character diversity and create interesting party dynamics and good scenarios, but it's much harder.

    That, more than anything, is why Western RPGs didn't catch on, and is also why Deadlands DID work. They solved the character diversity problem by adding magic.

    For similar reasons you could probably use a variant of Feng Shui RPG to do a good Western.

  20. A friend of mine is absolutely crazy about Boot Hill. He used to run a campaign with a session every birthday, as a present to himself and us. Totally hilarious.

    The game system is definitely a minis game in the wild west.

    I love westerns, but wouldn't use Boot Hill, not even 3rd ed.

  21. Andreas: I wish I knew your friend. I might have to start running Boot Hill on MY birthdays, dammit (unfortunately, I have to wait till November).

  22. We played a lot of Boot Hill for about a 12-month period back in the early 80's. While there was some roleplaying to the games (I remember one of the players playing a shotgun-packing barber), most of it was robbing banks and getting in gunfights.

    Regarding EGG's non-fantasy design work, don't forget about Cyborg Commando. :o)

  23. "Back in the day", the same fellow in my gang who ran the Keep on the Borderlands also ran Boot Hill (with the boxed set you pictured). His step-father had acquired an impressive set of Time-Life books on the Old West, which was a great resource.

    Kenzer's Aces and Eights looks like bottled lightning to me, but the Western seems to have less appeal these days among gamers at least in my back forty.

    BH is IMO a remarkably elegant set of 1:1 skirmish rules. Fire, Hack and Run (by Mike Gilbert?) proved in the long run too hard, while many others were too soft. As Goldilocks might say, BH is "just right". (YMMV)

    Dawn Patrol was a gem. Who owns it now -- Hasbro? I think that it could still do quite well for someone without the means to get into the "How much for Pokemon?" league of big buck$.

    I think that might fairly be said of many "old-school" games. As with labor, there are tiers of capital. If we could get a cheeseburger only by having Bill Gates cook it, a lot of Americans would go hungry!

  24. Around 1980-81 I ran a game that was pretty much kitbashed modification of Boot Hill and AD&D.

    Our campaign included a Singing Cowboy (who actually sang), a Masked Hero/Lone Ranger type, a Native American Shaman, a mysterious red garbed Stranger (possibly undead) and a Half-Mexican, Half-African American Bandit with a heart of gold. We rode into the sunset after battling Steam-powered robots, Haunted Trains, Moriarty-like Masterminds and a clone of Billy the Kid. Oh yeah.

    I think I was 12 at the time.

    See more 'Games That Should've Been Reconsidered!" on my ol' EN World thread 30 Years of Weird -

    Barking Alien

  25. "We rode into the sunset after battling Steam-powered robots, Haunted Trains, Moriarty-like Masterminds and a clone of Billy the Kid. Oh yeah."

    I'd buy that campaign. :D

  26. I think that Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico could easily be back-dated, and The Mask of Zorro and The Legend of Zorro are other fairly recent cinematic inspirations for what I think could be very engaging scenarios. The remake of 3:10 to Yuma would fall under that heading as well.

    I think it is rather to the point that Colt threw out an "equalizer" of sorts among men (and women, and children) bent on bloody mayhem.

    The career of one who is notable merely for being quicker on the draw -- until the day of being slower -- is easily swamped in the deluge of gunslingers.

    As a little boy, I was drawn to biographies; Dodge City was a notable nexus of colorful characters. It's how one ends up in Boot Hill that makes the difference between (anti?-) hero and "zero".

  27. JB, move to Sweden! That's where my Boot Hill crazy friend lives. :)

  28. GUNSMOKE (the TV show) is pretty much what the customary D&D setup evoked for me, except that the dungeons stand in for a part (Indian Territory) of "the Range".

    Bonanza and Big Valley had brought home even more the value of "NPCs" and relationships.

    (It's sort of odd to me to refer to TV in relation to RPGs, and I pretty much would not know what I was talking about if it came to TV today.)

  29. "I'd buy that campaign. :D"

    Seconded! That sounds awesome. I may have to steal some of those ideas for my BHiBC campaign...

    Those examples remind me of "Wild Wild West" (the original TV show, not so much the movie remake) and "Brisco County, Jr." which often had tropes like that. Both are available on DVD, and might serve as fertile source material for a wild west campaign.

  30. I not only never played Boot Hill, I haven’t even made a character for it. ^_^

    I’ve long been wanting to run an old west campaign inspired mostly by the Wild Wild West and Brisco County, Jr. I haven’t been able to decide on a system to use for it, though.

  31. I always lingered over the Dragon Magazine ads for Boot Hill, but I never played it. There were some other Western RPGs I haven't seen mentioned yet. Hero games had "Western Hero", and Iron Crown put out a Rolemaster source book called "Outlaw" for running a Western world. I have a copy of Outlaw around here somewhere...

  32. Boot Hill had a really nice feel to it. My friends did have a mass-population campaign in high school for a while.

    I got my girlfriend to play it a while ago (bit of a Western fan; after playing 3E D&D a while back with some frustration). Her response was something like, "This is wonderful; why don't modern RPGs work this way?" And that's what then allowed me to persuade her trying OD&D, with very good success.

  33. I remember Boot Hill games featuring lots of gruesome injuries and high rates of character mortality. (Can a brother get a healing potion up in this saloon...?)

    I could never figure out why TSR insisted on inventing new rules for every genre... D&D, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Gangbusters, Top Secret, etc. Remember the appendix to the 1st ed. DM's Guide with rules for converting characters from one system to the other? Didn't it occur to anyone how dumb that was? Presumably, people would have been more willing to try different games if the rules were fundamentally compatible a la GURPs.

    Of course, one could run a robust Boot Hill campaign by applying D&D game design principles. Boot Hill is one-dimensional in that everyone's a simple gunfighter, but it wouldn't be that hard to create additional classes: thieves, cavalry officers, medical doctors, con men/snake oil salesmen, silver-tongued preachers, Indian braves and shamans, Chinese railroad workers/kung fu masters, Zorro-type figures...

    Man, I wish I knew what happened to my old Boot Hill game...

  34. I ginned up my own horrific western and it was my most popular game/campaign, by far.

    It was a genre mash-up of the Old West (immediate post-CW) and Lovecraftian horror: Cowboys & Cthulhu.

    The primary resources I relied on were the old percentile Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers, Outlaw, and an oldie-but-goodie TSR product, Gangbusters. Lesser influences were Top Secret/SI and Oriental Adventures (basis of martial arts system).

    The mechanics were derived from Star Frontiers. Percentile-based, skills/attributes-based, etc. I had many templates that one could draw upon, as a mash-up of all the Old West archetypes, city slicker, Cthulhu, etc. provided many, many ideas.

    I have been steeped in Westerns since the time I could speak and provided much color to the game. I would alternate straight western themes with Lovecraftian horror on the frontier. First adventure was taken straight from the John Wayne movie "Big Jake."

    We had a gambler/pistolero, who was face-man, an indian medicine man, a buffalo hunter, an adventuring antiquarian, and a mountain man whose creator insisted on speaking in the dialect of "authentic frontier gibberish."

    Good times.

  35. Sorry to comment on an older post - but I, like jfruser, was pretty much raised on westerns; High Noon, the Magnificent Seven, Butch Cassidy, the Wild Bunch, etc. -- my old man loved them.

    As result, one of the very first TSR games my dad bought for us to play was Boot Hill 2nd edition. I'd like to think it all nostalgia, but I loved that game then - and, after playing it the other night with my wife, I love it now.

    But I tip my hat to anyone that ran a functional campaign with those rules. I never could do it.

    Nor did I really ever want to.

    Recreating the Magnificent Seven and the Coffeyville heist was good enough for me.

    As an aside, my wife got a great kick out of the many Abdomen/Groin shots she managed.

    I think I should be worried.

  36. I don't think you could call our campaigns "sustained" but BOOT HILL was one of those games we'd dust off when we had a whole bunch of folks who wanted to play because we could have such massive shootouts.

    A few highlights of our games:
    * Most of our sessions involved some sort of bank robbery.
    * My favorite character was Marshall Jim Scott, whose primary job was to foil said bank robberies. The Marshall was as fast as greased lightin' but had a hard time hitting what he aimed at.
    * We would often pause in the action to play a few hands of poker when the party hit the salloon.
    * The finale of the adventure was often a huge shootout, either in Main Street or in Kevin's Bar and Grille.
    * Most of those shootouts somehow involved excessive use of TNT. Often the user of said explosive took more damage than the folks he was trying to hurt with it.
    * We had a rule that if your character died, and you could run into the kitchen to roll up a new one, and if the shootout wasn't done yet, you were allowed to re-enter the battle at some point determined by the Referee.
    * In all my years of playing BOOT HILL, Marshall Jim Scott never died. Not once. :-)

  37. My experience was different from what Im hearing. We played a couple long running campaigns with beloved characters me and my friends can still talk about 25 years later. I did add on a home brew skill system .. skills rated 1 to 20 .. resolved on percentile rolls .. each skill level added 5% to your success chance. We were fans of the old Kung Fu tv series so I added in a Martial Arts chart to go along with the brawling and wrestling charts. The first big campaign was a north vs south game .. one pc was a northern yankee general ... the other pc was a southern reb colonel .. who refused to give up after the war was over .. his troops eventually morphed into an outlaw gang. great play from both players .. the second campaign was a revenge tale .. players family was murdered by outlaws .. he goes after them .. breaks laws in the process becoming an outlaw himself .. although one with a heart and honor .. haha great times!

  38. I know this is a very old post, but I had to put in a thought or two on my own experiences. I actually ran a sustained campaign of Boot Hill from 1980 until 1985. During the course of this campaign, I added quite a few house rules to enhance the play outside of combat; rules for riding, expanded traits and qualities for horses, a more detailed hit location and damage chart and enhanced and expanded items tables (which included a three page breakdown of frontier American weapons - a passion of mine!) The campaign was centered around a family from Texas who had come out of the Civil War with some issues. The player who rolled up the first character named him after his favorite Norse god and his favorite Martian, so we had the Texas gunfighter Loki Tarkas. The campaign started in a small Texas cattle town, expanded through a Kansas trail town and finally ended in a Colorado mining camp. It's still the campaign my old group remembers most fondly.

    I miss Boot Hill. May have to blow the dust off of it!

  39. I am running a Boot Hill 2nd ed. game. I added the rules for "How to Ease the Boot Hill Identity Crisis" from Dragon #46 and am running "Lost Conquistador Mine" without too many hitches. This provides a (very) rudimentary skill system and a few background elements. Other than that, I haven't noted the lack of a more robust rule set a hindrance on roleplaying. The only thing I miss is an observation system; I make do by simply deciding on a percentile target number based on my judgement of different factors.