Tuesday, July 26, 2011

REVIEW: Weird West Roleplaying Game Basic Rulebook

After science fiction, I'm hard pressed to decide whether I like fantasy or Westerns more. Certainly I talk a great deal more about fantasy on this blog than I do about Westerns, but that's more an acknowledgment of how large fantasy looms in our hobby than it is a reflection of my personal tastes. That said, my direct experience with Western-themed RPGs is quite limited, with TSR's Boot Hill being the only one I played successfully for any length of time. Despite this, I've long been on the lookout for a good Western RPG and have even been toying around with one of my own over the past year (Saloons & Shootists is its working title). So, when Stuart Robertson released a Western RPG of his own, I took notice.

Called Weird West, Robertson describes it as a "streamlined and fast playing adventure roleplaying game for weird western worlds of cowboys, kung-fu, magic and otherworldly malevolence." Now, I'm sure some of you are already disappointed to read this description. "Not another occult Western game," you may be saying. Here's the thing: it's dead simple to remove the supernatural elements from Weird West, since, in the 8-page Basic Rulebook they're actually quite few. Do so and what you're left with is a nifty little game system that, frankly, could easily serve as the basis for a wide variety of roleplaying campaigns, regardless of when or where they're set. Before I expand on that thought, let's talk more specifically about what you get in $1 PDF.

First off, it's worth noting that Weird West comes in two formats, both of which you get when you purchase the game. One is a traditional 8½" x 11" booklet; the other is a much smaller (4.25" x 2.75") folded "pocket mod." I'm a big fan of small rulebooks, both in terms of page count and physical size, so I was very pleased to see the pocket mod version. Of the game's 8 single-column pages, only two are actually taken up with rules. The first page is its title page, with a superbly evocative illustration by Robertson that, to my mind, recalls Mike Mignola's work. The last page is a Fighting Chart that cross-references a character's Fighting attribute against his target's Defense. For the chart averse, let me say now that it's the only significant chart in the game and, with the pocketmod, there's really no excuse for everyone, player and referee alike, not to have the chart readily at hand while playing Weird West.

Weird West characters have four attributes: Fighting, Grit, Magic, and Skill. Players have 4 points to allocate amongst these attributes as they wish, with 0 being an acceptable score for any attribute except Grit, which governs a character's Stamina (as hit points are called here). It's worth noting that "Magic" governs any unusual ability, not just those that are explicitly supernatural. For example, the abilities "Fastest Gun in the West" or "Horse Whisperer" are both governed by Magic. Such abilities, even the more overt ones, are still fairly limited by the standards of most RPGs, meaning that Weird West falls more on the "low magic" end of the spectrum, though, given its open-ended nature, it'd be very easy to add more impressive and potent abilities to the game if one so desired.

Weird West is a class and level-based, though its classes (called "paths") primarily determine which attributes a character increases over time and at what rate. Thus, an "adventurer" gains 1 point in Fighting and Skill every two levels, while a "magician" gains 1 point of Magic every level and 1 point in Fighting and Skill every three levels. Characters gain levels at whatever rate the referee decides, whether that be at the conclusion of every session, every adventure, or more rarely. Roles also determine which dice are used to determine Stamina and the maximum damage dealt through the use of weapons.

Combat is handled simply through the use of a 1D20 roll against a target number derived from the aforementioned Fighting Chart. Damage is deducted from a target's Stamina pool. Once a target reaches 0 Stamina, a roll is made on another small chart to determine what happens, with results ranging from "Stunned -- lose next action" to "Death." "Difficult tasks," which is to say, tasks where failure has consequences, are resolved through a 1D6 roll, with 5+ indicating success. This target number is modified upwards or downwards based on any relevant attributes. The rulebook provides many examples of common tasks to aid the referee in determining their difficulty.

Weird West is a simple, straightforward game whose old school pedigree is obvious in its flexibility and open-endedness. Though it's accurate to call it "complete," since everything you need to play is included in its 8 pages, I have little doubt that, over the course of a campaign -- or even a single adventure -- situations will arise that are not explicitly covered in the rules. Fortunately, the rules of Weird West are intuitive enough that it shouldn't be difficult to expand them into new areas. Just reading the rules, I found myself thinking idly about how easy it would be to create expanded rules for gambling and brawling. That's a testament to the solid and inviting design of this game.

I also found myself realizing just how few rules are actually needed in order to create a complete RPG. Nowadays, we tend to expect RPGs, even self-avowedly "lite" ones to be dozens of pages long at least. Weird West happily eschews such notions, focusing instead on fundamental systems that are both easy to use and to build upon. Ultimately, that's the real appeal of Weird West: it's a game that encourages tinkering but doesn't require it. As is, it's more than adequate for fast, pulpy Wild West adventures but it still leaves ample room for expansion for players and referees who like that sort of thing. It's more than worth its $1 price tag and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for it.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a simple, intuitive system for Western adventures that you can easily add to and expand upon without any trouble.
Don't Buy This If: If you're either not interested in Westerns or prefer your RPGs to be more complex and exhaustive in their rules.


  1. That sounds cool. I'll have to check it out!

  2. Call of Cthulhu set in the old west is about as close as I might come to a western campaign. For my next CoC, it's a toss up between setting it in the old west (post Civil War), ancient Rome, or prehistoric times. But I'm leaning towards the west.

    Last year I got my hands on a free, mint copy of Deadlands. It was very interesting, but in the end I decided I didn't really like the poker cards as a resolution mechanic, unique as it was.

  3. It's available for download for a $buck, but I don't know if it appeals to me even though I love Westerns.


  4. I bought it the second I found out about it, if for no other reason than because now I can always have a roleplaying game with me in my wallet.

    It's also a pretty neat little system. Its greatest value, for my part, was that it helped me to realize, like James, how few rules one really needs to run a game.

    Last I heard Robertson is working on an expanded "real game" version of the rules. So keep watching for more info.

  5. There was a comic in Heavy Metal back in the early 80s called Tex Arcana. It's online at http://www.texarcana.com/. Basically it's vampires, cowboys, midget demons and all sorts of chaos.

    My friend read it and immediately started a Hero System campaign set in the Old West. It lasted a while and we kept coming back to that theme for as many years as we played. Great fun.

  6. you should have a look at "Wild west" by Fantasy games unlimited



  7. Thanks for the in-depth review James! This was a nice surprise to wake up to this morning.

    Last I heard Robertson is working on an expanded "real game" version of the rules. So keep watching for more info.

    While I think WW is a real game as it stands now (keeping it lean was a design goal) I'm working on another slightly larger Fantasy game (more spells, monster stats, campaign / setting info etc) which will be based on the same system as Weird West.

    There was a comic in Heavy Metal back in the early 80s called Tex Arcana.

    Tex Arcana was one of the things I was reading while working on WW… :)

  8. Thanks James! I bought this (only $1, come on.. people spend more on a candy bar) the moment I read your review. It sounds intriguing. I like Deadlands (only played Savage Worlds), but I don't care for the overall story arc of dark sinister forces upping the fear to feast on by having Acme Fear Factories all over the "underdark.." That's just me though.

    I would like to see if this game gives me inspiration on a C&C Steampunk game I've been pondering. Damn those firearms.;)

  9. My only concern is that RPGNOW and DriveThru promote the game as '8 pages' when in fact the entire game covers only a single side of one page.

  10. @Hogscape: The one-page pocketmod version is a pretty small font-size. :) The other version is about 250 words/page.

  11. Weird West is awesome. I am using it to play a game set in a world like the one from the Samurai Jack cartoon. I'm really looking forward to the fantasy version too. Neat little system for sure.

  12. Re 'Weirdness' - I like the 'mythic' Westerns where something strange is clearly going on - Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter. I'm not sure how playable this sub-genre is; putting "Class: Revenant" on your PC sheet I think would tend to detract from rather than enhance the atmosphere.