03 December 2017

Sex and Drugs and Stephen-Stinkin'-Foster

A Wild West without vice front-and-center would feel hollow to me. Fortunately Boot Hill doesn't shy away from sin.

BH is pretty frank about the presence of prostitutes in most of its published adventures, which considering the time and the audience is remarkable. 'Saloon girls' are a feature of all the published adventures for BH, but a couple of the modules took the extra step of making sure the referee knew these are whores. The description of the High Pass Hotel in Dead Mule, from BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine, states, "Other special services are available on request, including laudanum and women." Promise City as described in BH3 Ballots & Bullets is equally explicit: the women of the Palace Saloon are described as "crib girls," which is an explicit reference to prostitutes, and the whores at El Parado, the town's cantina, roll their puteros with the connivance of the owner. There is no mention of prices.

The core rules of contain rules for handling drunkenness - in 2e, intoxication lowers Speed and Accuracy while increasing Bravery and, to a limited extent, Strength - an interesting quirk of these rules is, depending on your character's ability scores, it's possible for the increase in Bravery to make your character more accurate, by 'steadying the nerves,' while drunk than he or she is sober. Opiates are called out in the aforementioned adventures as well. As noted above, laudanum is available at the High Pass Hotel in Dead Mule, though once again there's no mention of prices, and the Promise City of Ballots & Bullets includes an opium den where pipes are available for 50¢. The latter states Wang Li's 'cottage' is primarily visited by Chinese, but the town includes only two Chinese families - in our campaign, we took the 'clients are almost invariably Chinese' statement as propaganda by the Wednesday Afternoon Bible Circle and gave the opium den a more vigorous and diverse clientele, which came to include a few player characters as well. Neither adventure provides specific rules for adjudicating opiate use, and it never really seemed necessary in our campaign to create any.

And since I'm on the subject of sex and drugs, I might as well give a shout-out to the rock and roll of its day, the music of Stephen Foster. Inclusive of subjects and themes popular among African-Americans, Foster's melodies are a ubiquitous feature of the period, mostly in the form of sheet music to be performed in the home - before mp3s, before CDs and casettes, before radio, most people made music, and sheet music for private performance was incredibly popular. Now, the blues which are the true precursor to rock and roll are still a couple of decades away in our campaign, but a bunch of drunk and stoned miners and cowhands singing "Hard Times Come Again No More" to a tinny piano or a scratchy fiddle is a staple of setting a scene in our campaign.

17 November 2017

The Wine List of The Welcome Wench

What follows is a reply to a thread at theRPGsite in which I put forth my idea of what's important in preparing a game-world that's meant to be played, as opposed to a game-world which is a referee's plaything. I've referenced this a few times in various online discussions, and I'll be coming back to this in coming months - I hope.
Read the bill of fare for the Inn of the Welcome Wench in The Village of Hommlet. If I start my campaign with nothing but the village of Hommlet, I know that there's a place called Keoland which exports reasonably priced brandy and wine. That could mean the quality is merely middling, or it's simply closer and therefore less expensive to ship - most likely it's some combination of the two. I get a sense that the vintners of Urnst enjoy some natural advantages over the Keoish, and that the two are probably trade competitors. I'm also pretty sure that Veluna is someplace special, because their wine is in demand enough to be found in a small country inn at a price few locals could ever hope to pay.

I can build a region from a wine list, a wine list that is something with which the adventurers can interact from the first time we sit down to play.

I didn't need to detail Keoland, or how it came to be called Keoland, or what it was called a thousand years before it was called Keoland, or what the terrain of Keoland was like ten thousand years before that and then a hundred thousand years before that, in order to plant the seeds - grape vines, actually - of a place called Keoland in the minds of the players.

My bullshit detector works really well, and it tells me the difference between 'stuff that matters to the players' and 'stuff that's primarily written for me.' My first order of business as referee is create stuff that matters to the players, and that means understanding what they are likely to want to do.

You know why Traveller UWPs work so well? Because they answer the questions player want to know first: can I fuel my starship? will the air kill me? can I pack heat? what kinds of gear are available?

25 May 2017

In the Long Run

The 'conventional wisdom' of some gamers is old school features like randomly generated characters and high lethality encourage 'disposable' characters and a 'lack of investment' in the campaign. Though I can't dismiss that this isn't a real thing with some players, it's not for me - if anything, I have the opposite problem, looking far ahead toward a distinctly uncertain future. I'm all about goals for my character, and while I usually start relatively small, it doesn't take long, as my character becomes enmeshed in the setting, for those goals to blow up to the realm of the dynastic.

My initial Boot Hill character set out to become a cowhand with the objective of saving up enough to buy a ranch of his own, an ambitious goal given his station but modest in terms of the setting. Bounties, rewards, and, most significantly, success at the card table allowed Eladio Luna to think big much, much sooner, giving him the capital to buy a herd and drive them to Dodge City. Along the way he won the deed to a general store in a card game and bought a saloon. Now, with over ninety thousand dollars in the bank and a couple of businesses to his name, Eladio finds himself standing astride a wholly different landscape.

Bear in mind, we're still playing 2e Boot Hill, which is about as unforgiving as a roleplaying game can be to player characters - yeah, you get an edge on attribute scores in chargen, but any greenhorn with a beat-to-crap Webley No. 5 can send your character to the last roundup with a single shot - so the best laid schemes gang aft agley, courtesy of a mortal wound. Troupe play offers some refuge from the itchy trigger-finger of Fate, a chance to build on a legacy - Eladio's brother, Pancho, is part of my troupe and could be expected to take over in the event of Eladio's death, and he has a non-player character sister who could also step up, aided by the third character in my troupe, a family friend of the Lunas. More intriguing, though, is that Eladio is about to become a father, giving him an honest-to-goodness heir to succeed him, and the beginnings of a dynasty.

So, the goals explode. Why settle for a ranch when Eladio can buy an old Spanish land grant? In what other businesses should a cattle baron invest? GW McClintock and Ben Cartwright have timber mills, mines, banks. Opportunities abound for a man with ready capital.

One of the ideas that's been in the back of my mind - and moved right up front after the cattle drive - was buying land in Mexico. The porous nature of la frontera is a feature of many Western movies - consider that the end of Stagecoach is Ringo and Dallas striking out across the border to his ranch in Mexico to escape the law. Americans in Mexico is a staple of the Western genre, during the French intervantion (Two Mules for Sister Sara), the porfiriato (The Magnificent Seven), and the Revolución (100 Rifles). My tejano character and his hispana wife establishing a cross-border cattle empire sounds like a lot of fun, and a chance to create all kinds of mayhem - frex, one of the ideas to cross my mind is hiring American rustlers to steal Mexican cattle for his New Mexico ranch and Mexican rustlers to steal American cattle for the Chihuahuan range!

Some months ago, with this kicking around in the back of my mind as our campaign unfolds, I picked up Sierra Madre Games' Burros & Bandidos, and its lone supplement, Frontier, a strategy game-cum-roleplaying game - note to self, one of these days I need to spend time writing about these interesting paths-not-taken by mainstream roleplaying games - set along the Mexico-United States frontier from 1850-1920. It's trivially simple to integrate Burros & Bandidos' strategic turn rules into our campaign

Enter The Son.

The Son is a novel set in Texas along la frontera notable for its shifts in time-frame and character perspective from the early life of Colonel Eli McCullough, the "first son of Texas," in the 1850s, his son Pete McCullough in 1915, and his great-granddaughter Jeannie today. The novel was then turned into an AMC series - the series keeps the changes in timeframe between 1849 and Eli's captivity among the Comanches and 1915 and the McCullough ranch during the Mexican Revolution, but then diverges significantly from the book, which is actually not a bad thing - I enjoyed the book, but I don't need to see the same story, and I like the directions the teleplay is going. It's also feeding my imagination for what our Boot Hill campaign could become, particularly with the integration of Burros & Bandidos, a multi-generational epic sprawling across two countries.

But why stop there? The end of la Revolución mexicana takes us through the beginnings of Prohibition in the United States - why not segue into GangBusters? Could a Luna heir become a Treasury agent? Or a bootlegger running Mexican booze for the Mob? What about a Luna flying a Great War Dawn Patrol along the Western Front? How about a big-game hunting Luna bringin' 'em back alive, or a G-man hunting Nazi saboteurs, using Daredevils or Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes?

Now, the chances of any of this coming to pass are somewhere between slim and none - at best, I could simply find players interested in a Dawn Patrol game, or a GangBusters campaign, and name my character Luna, with an unspecified ancestry connecting him or her to Eladio and our Boot Hill campaign. But what an epic campaign that could be, and no matter how ephemeral my characters may prove to be - Eladio may not survive the next week, let alone the next sixty years - I never treat them as 'disposable' or 'expendable,' not with the potential for such a lifetime - such lifetimes - to be lived.

Who is gonna make it? We'll find out, in the long run

08 February 2017

Send in the Troupes

Inside the back cover of the 2e Boot Hill rule book, underneath an advertisement for Grenadier Models "Western Gunfighter" miniatures, is a list of credits which includes the playtesters - "The Players" - and the characters they ran: Jim "Gatling Gun" Ward and Julio Diego Garcia, Rob "Shoot 'Em Up" Kuntz and The Moonwaltz Kid, Tim "Elect Me!" Kask and Tim McCall, &c. The most intriguing to me is Mike "Hellfire & Brimstone" Carr's characters, Dwayne De Truthe and the Douglas Gang.

All of the playtesters' characters are included in the Promise City campaign description in the rule book, with their stats and nominal occupations ("Fictional Non-Player Characters Chart, pp 27-8) - and how cool is it that the playtesters' characters are non-player characters? Pretty damn cool, particularly since the playtesters are among the biggest names from the early history of roleplaying games. "Silver Dollar" Tim McCall is a saloon keeper and gambler in Promise City, and if "Elect Me!" is meant to be taken at face-value, then it would appear McCall was interested in holding public office. Julio Diego Garcia is a horse rancher; Montgomery Pickens, "The Moonwaltz Kid," is a gambler and gunfighter, ambidextrous and with a wicked good Gambler Rating.

In a campaign in which tongues were pressed firmly in cheeks - Dave Arneson's character is Ben Cartwheel of the Ponderous Ranch - Mike Carr's Douglas Gang stands out. I love whimsical names, silly names less so, and Mr Carr managed to hit my personal sweet spot like a motherlovin' gong with the Douglas brothers, their nicknames inspired by their Gun and Throwing Accuracy scores: "Deadeye" Douglas, "Bullseye Douglas, "Eagle Eye" Douglas - a 'half-breed' with maximum Throwing Accuracy - and "Pig's Eye" Douglas - the worst shot of the bunch, but also the fastest and steadiest of the siblings. Carr's boys were an inspiration to us in setting up our present campaign.

The rules for 2e Boot Hill are a snapshot in time of the ways roleplaying games were played in the earliest days among the hobbyists of Lake Geneva. The rules talk about campaigns involving twenty or more players, campaign turns of weeks or months, and the domain game of player characters in positions of power - in many ways BH is a mirror image of OD&D and its assumptions and presentation.

Boot Hill also opens the door to players running multiple characters, right in the opening crawl, though not as presented in the example of the playtest characters: ". . . [I]n a large game, a player could conceivably take on the role of two different characters if carefully arranged and monitored by the referee. In such an instance, the two roles would have to be completely independent and not subject to conflict or possible cooperation. For instaance, a player could have one role as a major rancher who is seeking to expand his holdings and another character who is an outlaw specializing in stagecoach robberies" ("HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED," p. 3).

This conception of multiple characters is very different from what is implied by the existence of the Douglas gang among the playtest characters. so when we sat down to plan our campaign, we discussed how to handle this. Since we were opening with BH1 Mad Mesa, and the town would be set outside our campaign sandbox of El Dorado County, it felt awkward to create multiple characters for each player at that point in the game as neither Mad Mesa nor BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine lend themselves to the kind of campaign which would feature distinct characters in the way the rules suggested right out of the gate - Mad Mesa is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style solo adventure which can adapted to a more traditional 'party' approach, and Los Conquistador Mine is an excellent tournament adventure which, again, presumes a cohesive 'party of adventurers.' BH4 Ballots & Bullets, on the other hand, is perfect for "completely independent" multiple characters, in line with the approach offered in the rule book, but playing truly "independent" characters would likely mean either playing characters on different sides of the political conflict in Promise City - not a deal-breaker by any means - or playing one character as disinterested in the political conflict - again, not a deal-breaker, but not ideal, either.

And there was the Douglas gang, staring out of the back cover of the book, suggesting a third way.

We decided we would each run three characters, with the second and third characters introduced after our characters left Dead Mule following Lost Conquistador Mine and moved on to Promise City, as we ramped up to Ballots & Bullets. How to treat these characters was discussed at some length - would they be independent from one another? would they be 'henchmen?' could they be close allies? - and in the end, as with pretty much everything else with the campaign, we left it to one another's good judgement.

So we set about making our troupes. My first character - and the only one of the three original characters still in the game - Eladio Rogelio Luna de la Cruz was joined by his brother and a family friend in the spring of 1874, to join Eladio's cattle drive. Francisco Teodosio Luna de la Cruz - Pancho - is five years older than his brother Eladio, and straight from the git-go the brothers couldn't be more different.

Pancho Luna
AttributeMod'd RollDescriptionAbility Score
Gun Accuracy99Deadeye+20
Throwing Accuracy00Deadeye+20

So, Fate dealt Pancho a full house: three rolls of 99 or better. He's a bull of a man, with a sharp eye and a steady hand. This immediately suggested the boys' nicknames for one another: El Gordo y El Flaco. Pancho's not slow, but he's nothing like Eladio - which also suggests another set of nicknames for the boys, El Búfalo y El Lobo - even before Eladio participated in a score of gunfights since leaving home last spring. Pancho's no coward, but he lacks Eladio's hard-won steely cool - if Pancho is spared long enough to top out his Bravery and Experience scores, he's going to be even more formidable.

Pancho's phenomenal Accuracy scores offer a real advantage in the game: sharpshooting. The Sharpshooting rules (2e BH, "SHARPSHOOTING," p. 13) allow a character with an Accuracy rating of "Crack Shot" and above to either take a bonus to their wound severity rolls, reflecting their ability to hit the target cleanly, or to choose the location they want to hit - a head shot, or a gun hand, frex. One of the more interesting options for Pancho, given his Deadeye Throwing Accuracy, is to target a limb with a lariat, giving him the option of a sort of ranged grapple attack.

Growing up in the same bunkhouse as Eladio, Pancho learned to play cards, so he gets a Gambler Rating, a pretty anemic 44. His age is 26, making him a shade too young for Civil War service, but his stats suggest something else entirely to me anyway. Both Eladio and Pancho are the sons of a ranch foreman, a vaquero tejano who helped bring a herd north for a Nebraska rancher and stayed on with his family; both boys grew up in the saddle alongside their father and the rancher's three sons - more on them in a moment - tending cattle. The Greene's ranch is located not far from Fort Kearney, which suggests that Pancho, with his sharp eye and steady hand, found additional work as a buffalo hunter bringing in meat for the fort. With that in mind, now it's time to kit him out, and of course that means a buffalo rifle.

The buffalo rifle in Boot Hill is a dangerous weapon. It's one of the slowest weapons in the game and fires only a single shot before needing to be reloaded, but it has the longest range, and with the optional stunning rule ("STUNNING," pp. 13-4), the buffalo rifle's stopping power gives it a 25% chance of incapacitating its target when it hits, rendering them unable to function the following turn and at half-ability the turn after that. It's the perfect weapon to take advantage of Pancho's greatest strength as a combatant, his sharpshooting skill, so Pancho's primary weapon is a Remington No. 1 'rolling block' rifle, for which he wears a pair of bandoleers packing .45-77 cartridges. He carries a big-ass hunting knife, of course, as well as something more exotic: a tomahawk.

Recall that in our campaign each player can choose a couple of personal items for their characters: trophies, keepsakes whatever - Eladio's, frex, are a rosary made from blue glass trade beads and a buffalo robe. For Pancho, his first item is a Pawnee tomahawk-pipe that he took off a dead Sioux in his only gunfight prior to the start of the campaign. Like the buffalo gun, the tomahawk also has a chance to stun when it strikes its target, so a pattern emerges: Pancho gives himself a chance to disable his opponents with every attack.

WeaponSpeed modifierBravery modifierWeapon Speed modifier= Base Speed

WeaponAccuracy modifierBravery modifierExperience modifier+ 50 = Base Accuracy

Pancho's other personal item is his clothing, a traditional Mexican charro outfit. The suit is his father's - Pancho is Dionisio Luna's spitting image, but the father has gotten too heavy to wear the clothing anymore and Pancho took it for himself. Eladio was an infant when his family moved to Nebraska and other than his long hair, he dresses in the style of the white families among whom he grew up. Pancho, however, is old enough to remember life in Gudalupe County, and he carries the image of the vaqueros alongside whom his father worked when Pancho was a boy. Pancho shares Dionisio's shaggy hair and bushy mustache as well as his charro dress. As far as personality, what's emerged so far is a character who is methodical, moral, and steadfast; Pancho is a simple man, without Eladio's penchant for excess or overweening ambition - the older brother is content with his place in the world and views his little brother as immature and avaricious. So far this has manifested itself as Pancho being both protective and judgmental of Eladio since the brothers were reunited.

Lincoln Greene, on the other hand, is right at home in Eladio's world. The Lunas grew up on the Greene's ranch; descended from English Catholics, the Greenes share a co-religionist bond with the Lunas which transcends the usual employer-employee relationship - all three Luna siblings were taught to read and write and figure by Mrs Greene alongside her own children, and the kids grew up like an extended family. Lincoln is the youngest of the five Greene children; he has two brothers, Hunter - who died during the Civil War - and Forrest, and two sisters, Myrtle and Olive. In terms of abilities, Lincoln Greene is very different from the Luna brothers.

Lincoln Greene
AttributeMod'd RollDescriptionAbility Score
Gun Accuracy64Fair+5
Throwing Accuracy81Very Good+10
Strength46Above Average14
Bravery65Above Average+1/+3

While Eladio was gifted with exceptional Speed and Pancho with extraordinary Accuracy and Strength, Lincoln's attributes are fairly ordinary for a 2e Boot Hill character: he's fast but not blazing, accurate but not a sharpshooter, fit but not powerful, brave but not iron-willed. There's really nothing about him that stands out, until I roll his Gambler Rating . . . 03, in a game in which 01 is the best you can achieve. And the picture of Lincoln Greene emerged: he grew up on a ranch but herding cows for the rest of his life doesn't appeal, and working for his older brother, Forrest, appeals even less. Because he was born later than the other boys, at a time when the Greenes were established and successful in their ranching business, Lincoln's parents could afford to send him to secondary school and college; Saint Louis Academy and Saint Louis University, Jesuit schools in their namesake city, were selected for the ranchers' son. Life in the Gateway City appealed to Lincoln, particularly its many temptations - gambling, horse racing, whiskey and women - and he was expelled from the university after his first year by the Jesuit fathers for 'dissolute living.' Chastened, Lincoln returned home, resigned to life on the family ranch, but stories of gold in the West encouraged him to return to college, this time the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, where he obtained his degree in 1873. Lincoln returned home to Nebraska, preparing to head west to Colorado or California, but thousands of dollars sent by Eladio to his parents convinced Lincoln to follow Pancho to the territory. Lincoln joined the cattle drive as wrangler of the remuda, normally a job for a younger, inexperienced cowhand, but while Lincoln's not over-fond of cows, he's passionate about horses and the job suited his temperament. Like Eladio, Lincoln immediately fell in with the gamblers of Promise City - embarrassingly, he lost his poke the first time he sat down at the tables in the Palace and had to be staked by Eladio.

Lincoln Greene dresses the part of a cowhand but with a little money in his pocket, he's likely to assume the garb of a young gentleman or a professional rather than a saddle tramp in the very near future. He's not a gunfighter, which is reflected in his choice of weapons, a .41 Colt 2nd Model "National Deringer" and a thin but sturdy boning knife.

WeaponSpeed modifierBravery modifierWeapon Speed modifier= Base Speed

WeaponAccuracy modifierBravery modifierExperience modifier+ 50 = Base Accuracy

So, that's my troupe: a cowhand, a buffalo hunter, and a miner. I haven't entirely figured out what makes Pancho tick yet - there's still a lot of character development to be discovered there. Lincoln Greene, on the other hand, has come to the fore as a strong character in his own right, and he opens up new vistas for me as a player: prospecting and mining, horse breeding and racing, operating an assay office. One funny thing that's come up is Eladio and Lincoln refusing to play cards against one another: each has a story about why, but the story changes every time it's told, so no one knows the real reason and neither seems inclined to tell the 'true' story anytime soon.

The other players' troupes consist of a pair of Pinkertons, 'Mad Murdo' Cunningham and 'Black Jack' O'Reilly, and Cunningham's valet, Abimael - both Pinkertons served in the Army of the Potomac, while Abimael was a slave in the Cunningham's Virginia household, active in the antebellum Underground Railroad and serving as a Union spy during the war - and a pair of Southern grifters, Lemuel Cash and his 'sister,' Carolina, and Carolina's Chinese servant (and possibly her actual brother?), Sing Lo. (As noted above, whimsical names have a long and distinguished history in Boot Hill, so while 'Cash and Carrie' is a terrible pun, it's fitting.) The Pinkertons and Abimael are hard at work for the stockmen's association ridding the range of rustlers - small ranchers, actually - while the grifters seem to be ping-ponging back and forth, in the manner of A Fistful of Dollars, between the two factions in Promise City in the run-up to the elections.

The other players have also done a great job making their characters distinct - Murdo, the Virginia gentleman who fought for the Union, and Black Jack, the Irishman from the docks of Boston, are good-cop-bad-cop partners with Abimael as their 'Huggy Bear,' whereas Lemuel, Carolina, and Sing Lo are comedy gold, intentionally and unintentionally, making promises to the Bible Circle and the Boosters I think will be impossible to keep once the city council race starts in earnest.

24 December 2016


In keeping with its spare design, 2e Boot Hill contains exactly one 'social skill,' minor character morale (p. 13). Player characters are as courageous as a player chooses for them to be when faced with "difficult or desperate situations," but "minor characters," defined as "associates of the player's character or other persons incidental to a game" like clerks. are subject to morale checks rolled against their Bravery attribute scores when faced with "a critical situation," such as "an armed and potentially deadly enemy." Morale for minor characters is rolled at the start of the "situation" by rolling against the minor character's Bravery attribute score - a roll over the Bravery score means the character "will act to avoid the confrontation."

The core rules provide two modifiers for the morale roll. First, the roll is adjusted downward by fiver percent for each of the minor character's companions - there's perceived safety in numbers, and the rules go on to add that a minor character is not subject to morale rolls after the initial check if his group outnumbers the opposing group of characters.

The other morale bonus is provided by characters with a "reputation." A "major character" has a reputation if the character has "experience equal to 8 or more gunfights." What exactly is a "major character?" The rules imply without saying outright that the player characters are "major characters," but it also hints that significant non-player characters may be treated as "major characters" as well, using the examples of encountering Wild Bill Hickock or Wyatt Earp as triggering morale rolls. A character with a reputation provides three times the benefit to morale as an ordinary friend or companion (-15 versus -5 on a d% roll).

There are special morale rules for cavalry and Indian war parties but beyond that, the game says nothing more on the subject of social interactions beyond 'the referee will decide.' This would change with the first module, BH1 Mad Mesa. Mad Mesa significantly expands the rules for minor character morale - now specifically targeted at non-player characters, "a character not controlled by a player" - by further defining circumstances which may trigger a morale check, such as "calling a person a card cheat" or "being insulted," and adding a number of additional modifiers to the morale roll. Now a character who is "enraged," drunk, or defending his personal property gets a bonus to morale roll, while a character facing someone with a reputation or wounded takes a penalty. The most interesting modifiers have to do with companions getting killed: if the npc is near another individual who is killed, the penalty is +5 to the roll - remember, this is roll-under the Bravery score - whereas if the individual killed is a friend, the bonus is -10, so if some hired gunhand eats lead at the Railroad Corral, that'll rattle a fellow, but if it's his brother, then he's gonna git the varmint who kil't his kin.

The other social interaction rule added to Boot Hill in Mad Mesa is the NPC Reaction Table. For me, this is the one glaring omission in the core rules, but the simple 2d6 table in Mad Mesa makes up for it, particularly the list of modifiers that comes with it. In these modifiers are complete social rules for BH campaigns.

Most of the games with which I'm familiar use some sort of character attribute or ability as the basis for modifying reaction rolls. Charisma or some similar 'personality' attribute score is the most common example; skills or skill levels are another. Original, 'classic' Traveller interestingly gives a bonus for reaching a certain rank in the military services, along with bonuses for certain skills.

Many reaction roll modifiers in Mad Mesa, however, are based on something else entirely: the character's actions in the game-world. Affiliate yourself with the law. Suffer a conviction as a criminal. Spare a non-player character's life. Kill a non-player character's friend. A character's decisions reverberate through the setting in the way the world reacts to her. How a character interacts with others in the setting carries significant consequences. In short, the character gains another reputation, not based on gunfights survived but on how the character is perceived in the social milieu of the setting, based on how the player roleplays the character.

Because a character's social reputation is based on the character's actions, the reaction table modifiers all serve as an incentive toward certain behaviors. If you want to develop a positive reputation, then there are actions to pursue and others to avoid. There's a catch in this: most of the modifiers benefit law-abiding behavior. Should an outlaw react favorably for a character affiliated with the law? Or will they gravitate toward those who are criminals? The simple solution here is, for characters who curry favor with outlaws or pursue a life of crime, just flip the modifiers when interacting with other crooks.

There are even tactical considerations baked into the reaction roll modifiers. Want to avoid a fight? Stay away from a man when he's drunk or angry at you - let 'im cool off. Want to pick a fight? Send an ally to buy him drinks, then insult him to his face - he'll be ready to throw down.

The next module for the game, BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine, introduces some additional reaction roll modifiers; the ones most significant for our campaign have been the racial bias modifiers, with 'Mexicans' receiving a -2 and Indians and 'half-breeds' receiving a -4 penalty to reaction rolls. Written specifically for the town of Dead Mule, where racial animus is an important factor, these take a little judgement to apply: my character, Eladio Luna, doesn't take a penalty in dealing with hispanos, frex. BH2 modifiers for allegiance during the Civil War have affected another character's social interactions in the campaign as well.

My character's complex relationship with the setting is reflected in the reputation of modifiers he's acquired over the course of the campaign so far. He felt the sting of prejudice as a Tejano (-2) and his esteem suffered when he plead guilty to misdemeanor assault after shooting a gambler who called him a cheat (-1). Serving on a deputy US marshal's posse and twice being deputized to guard prisoners created a favorable impression (+2), as did rescuing horses from a burning barn and fighting a band of renegade Apaches single-handed (+1). Regular attendance at Mass ingratiated him with the Catholic community in Promise City (+1); this proved particularly significant when vigilantes met to consider running Eladio out of town or lynching him and the Catholics among them spoke on his behalf.

I like social skills in roleplaying games, but I don't ever feel the need to play a game with such skills again; I'd much rather see reputation rules instead, as they reflect not who the character is in but the consequences of roleplaying and a life lived in the setting.

05 December 2016

How Many Hexes is the Ponderosa?

The map of El Dorado County that comes in 2e and 3e Boot Hill shows the locations of mountainous and forested terrain, an area of badlands, a network of trails or roads, and major rivers and lakes, but it only shows two settlements, Promise City, the seat of El Dorado County, and Fort Griffin, an army outpost. The 2e rule book contains a list of features for referees - just names, in most cases - to add to their county map: towns, with brief descriptions of each, plus mountain ranges and hills, rivers and lakes, an Indian reservation and trading posts, and mines and ranches. It feels a little like B1 In Search of the Unknown for D&D or TS001 Operation: Sprechenhaltestelle for Top Secret, but with even less detail on the environment than those modules, or to the deck plans on the Warden in the first Metamorphosis Alpha. I love this approach to modules: it assumes from the motherlovin' giddyup that every campaign will be unique, that it's expected and desired for my El Dorado County to be different from someone else's El Dorado County.

The base map of El Dorado County and environs is gridded with hexes. The area covered by the map is impressive - the map itself is poster sized with a grid 111 hexes high by 148 hexes wide. with roughly 4.5 hexes to the inch. According to the rules (2e BH, "The Maps," p. 16), "The scale of the [county] map is one hex = 2 miles."

A question that comes up on gamer forums from time to time is, when a hex is said to be x distance across, at what points on the hexagon do you measure? As any old wargamer can tell you, distances on a hex map are usually measured from the center of one hex to the center of an adjacent hex, which means that the dimension of interest to roleplaying gamers is the height (h) of the hex - the distance center-to-center to two same-size regular hexagons is equal to the height of one of the hexagons. I don't think I've ever come across a game in which the distance across a hex is equivalent to the diagonal (d) or the side (s), though I've certainly heard gamers try to make the case for each of these, usually demonstrating they know even less about geometry than they do about games - remember, kids, work hard at maths 'cause innumeracy kills.

This means we're talking about a pretty extensive area for El Dorado County and those portions of its neighbors shown on the map, roughly 222 miles by 296 miles, or nearly 66,000 square miles of country to explore for the adventurers, and to populate for the referee. In terms of settlements, the rules offer twenty-two examples of towns and other communities for the referee to place on the map. The size of towns isn't give in terms of population, but in terms of number of buildings - the largest, Promise City, the only civilian settlement printed on the map, is given as "about 75 buildings," with the printed poster map showing "about 60 of them" (2e BH, "Towns," pp. 28-30).

Twenty-two settled hexes out of over 16,000 would seem to be the very definition of 'wide open spaces,' but are all those hexes really that empty? Many of the town descriptions describe nearby farms and ranches which the towns serve, but no other information beyond the names of a few of the largest ranches in the county is provided in the core rules. The most of the published adventures for BH don't add a lot to this - BH3 Burned Bush Wells, frex, only offers the locations of the ranch headquarters by their brands imprinted on the map - with the exception of BH4 Range War! which goes into significant detail, including a custom map with hexes representing 100 acres.

Before I dig into that, since Range War! tells us the area of its hexes, what's the area of the hexes on the campaign map? The formula for the area of a hexagon is A = (3√3 s2)/2 - deriving the length of a side from the height is s = h/√3. This gives an area of slightly less than 3.5 mi2 per hex - if we round off to 3.5 mi2, then we get 2240 acres per hex on the El Dorado County map.

Towns themselves take up an utterly insignificant portion of that acreage - Promise City, the county seat and largest settlement, occupies a mere 0.07 acres as shown on the printed town map - so how about those farms and ranches? As a baseline, let's start with that ubiquitous feature of the Western landscape, the homestead. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, settlers could claim a 160 acre parcel of land which they were then obligated to improve by building a dwelling and growing crops in order to obtain clear title after five years. The system was onerously abused by land speculators and most actual homesteads failed because the acreage allotted was insufficient for the climate west of the Mississippi River, but it's a useful means of estimating how many individual family farms might be found in a hex. A hex of 2240 acres will support fourteen homesteads, and a seven-hex cluster - the town hex and a hinterland of the six immediately adjacent hexes - may contain up to 98 homesteads.

Like the rest of the country, the population of the West in the late 19th century is predominately rural - in the 1870s, the period in which our campaign takes place, the US urban population as a percentage of total population was just under 26%, but this varied quite a bit in the western states: Nebraska and Kansas average around 16% while Texas an New Mexico are closer to 6%. I could very easily find myself going down the rabbit hole of researching the average rural versus urban household size in the US of the 1870s so I can derive a figure for the rural population surrounding an urban center based on the number of buildings in a town as indicated in the core rules, but while that would be an entertaining intellectual exercise, for purposes of playing a game I'd rather have a handy rule of thumb, so here it is: each building in a town supports, and is supported in turn, by five homesteads. This means the "somewhat prosperous" El Dorado County town of Justice, "located in an abundant farming area" and consisting of "about a dozen buildings," could be surrounded by around 60 homesteads, which suggests a hinterland of about four to five hexes. Since I don't think of them packed in evenly with one another, I'm going to call it a seven-hex 'footprint' with scattered homesteads on the periphery. Someplace like Rio Neches, a "backwater town" of a mere ten buildings, may have just 50 homesteads in its hinterland occupying around three hexes.

That takes care of the sodbusters - how about the cattlemen? As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, BH4 Range War! offers some ranch acreages with which to work. In the module, the "largest of the . . . County ranches," the McCloskey Ranch, "covers 26 square miles," giving it an acreage of 16,640 acres and a footprint on the campaign map of a little more than seven hexes - about the same as 100 homesteads. The Farrigan Ranch, on the other hand, is eleven square miles, or 7040 acres, covering slightly more than three hexes on the campaign map. The Hyde Ranch, which is shown on the module map but not described in the text, is closer to 11,000 acres or five hexes. Range War! is something of an oddity - it sets Promise City in Grant County, Oregon, not El Dorado County, 'somewhere in the Southwest,' and the author, Philip Taterczynski, clearly knows something of the settlement of the Oregon Territory, frex, referring to one of the farms outside Promise City as a "Donation Claim of 320 acres." Oregonian public land grants tended to be second in size only to those vast tracts granted to the railroads, so ranch sizes may be fairly large butthey provide a reference point for deciding how much land is occupied around a town by ranches. Moreover, a ranch of three to five hexes in size fits what's represented on the map for BH3 Burned Bush Wells, with the Rocking G perhaps being more in the seven hex range.

It's possible to reverse engineer this as well. BH3 Ballots & Bullets gives the number of cattle owned by the three big ranchers outside Promise City - as described in an article in The Dragon 18, a longhorn requires two acres of grassland, so this would suggest that, at a minimum, the Shaws of the Lazy S own "about 300 cattle," suggesting a range of, at minimum, 600 acres. Since all three of the big ranchers in BH3 are wealthy and influential in local politics, to the point of being a driving force behind one of the factions in Promise City, I would say this is an extreme low end at best.

El Dorado County should have plenty of small ranchers as well: "Four hundred and sixty acres might be little to you, Nathan, but it was a lot of country to me." For our campaign, to keep things simple, small ranches occupy 320 acres, equivalent to two homesteads, but they tend to be spread out more, such that there are never more than five in a hex. A settlement described as a cattle town will have 1-5 large ranches in its hinterland, with a number of small ranches equal to one-half the number of buildings in town. Stetson City, "a ranching town" of "about 20 buildings," has one large ranch of seven hexes and two of five hexes plus ten small ones occupying the equivalent of about two hexes.

All of this is subject to good judgement. In our campaign, frex, it's an established fact of the setting that the large ranchers - the Shaws, the Morands, and the Kings - drive small ranchers off 'their range,' so there aren't thirty-six small ranchers in the vicinity of Promise City. Plaza del Lobo, due to its "isolated locale" and "[r]ecurring rumors of bad water," doesn't have anything close to the seventy-five homesteads its fifteen buildings might warrant. Wild Creek, "a small but bustling lumber town," has only a couple of small farms and a ranch which provide supplies to the lumberjacks. These are guidelines, no more, no less.

So, to the titular question: how many hexes is the Ponderosa? According to a statement made in the first episode of Bonanza after the pilot, the Cartwright spread is a thousand square miles, equal to 640,000 acres. That puts the Ponderosa at a shade under 286 hexes, which is a lot of ground but still only a small piece of the more than 16,000 hexes which make up the BH campaign map.

13 November 2016

Secondary Skills

My favorite skill system from any roleplaying game is secondary skills from 1e AD&D. A player character receives a secondary skill or skills as follows:
Assign a skill randomly, or select according to the background of your campaign. To determine if a second skill is known, roll on the table, and if the dice indicate a result of TWO SKILLS, then assign a second, appropriate one. (1e AD&D DMG, p. 12)
And here's how secondary skill usage is resolved in the game:
When secondary skills are used, it is up to the DM to create and/or adjudicate situations in which these skills are used or useful to the player character. (ibid)
Got that? Pick a skill, or roll for one, and roll to see if you have a second, then make something up in the game when the skills could be useful.

I can hear gamer heads exploding even as I type. 'That's not a system! That's barely even a rule!' Yeah, I know, and that's why I love it so - it takes all the number-crunching and member-measuring out of skill usage.

Here's an example I wrote on Big Purple about using secondary skills in actual play:
When I ran 1e AD&D, secondary skills served as a sort of catch-all description of things the character knows about or can perform outside of the character's adventuring class. Frex, if your character's secondary skill is forester, she can cruise a stand of timber, fall a tree where she wants it with an axe or saw, rig a rope hoist, balance on a floating log, climb a tree using a rope, maintain a faller's tools, perhaps know a few elvish or gnomish words and phrases, if appropriate to the campaign, and other shit like that.
As I noted in the previous post describing my Boot Hill character, BH is conspicuously short on character attributes beyond basics related to combat: how fast is my character? how good a shot? how steady in a fight? how tough? how much fighting experience? The rules provide a tiny handful of bonuses or 'abilities' to player characters. If your character is a gambler, you receive a Gambler Rating. If your character is a scout or a detective, you gain a bonus to tracking rolls. If your character is or was an artillerist, then you can crew a cannon without the chance of blowing yourself up. If your character is a sharpshooter, you can call your shots.

The interesting thing here is, the only 'ability' for which the game requires a pre-requisite is sharpshooting - your character must have a Gun or Throwing Accuracy rating of 'Crack Shot' or 'Deadeye' to, frex, attempt to shoot a man in his gun-hand. There are zero rules in BH for determining who gets to be a gambler or a tracker or an artillerist. You simply say, 'My character is a gambler,' and roll for your Gambler Rating, or, 'My character is an Army scout,' and take the bonus each time you track. In my earlier post on character creation, I noted that a player could opt to take all three, and when one of the players in our game figured that out, as I alluded in the earlier post, he did exactly that: his character, Murdo Cunningham, is a former Union Army officer who learned to play cards with the other soldiers around the caissons as a member of the Horse Artillery during the Civil War - he then joined the Pinkertons after he left the service, 'shooting Chinamen for the railroads.'

Can you hear the heads popping again, amid keening wails of 'But . . . BALANCE?!' These few abilities in Boot Hill are perfectly balanced, by the highly expedient system of consensus around the table: 'Yeah, okay,' or 'Nah, not happening, dude.'

And that brings me to 2e Boot Hill's skill system: there isn't one.

Really, the only things in BH that even resemble 'skills' are gambling or sharpshooting: characters with a Gambler Rating can cheat, and sharpshooters can call their shots. But every character can track - characters who are scouts or detectives can do it just a little better. Every character can crew a cannon - characters who are artillerists can do it with no chance of the cannon exploding. There are no restrictions on dynamiting, or bronco busting - any character can attempt these without penalty. And there are no skills for all the picayune nonsense which pads the page count of so many roleplaying games, like Accounting or Assaying or Bartending or Saddlemaking - yeah, 3e Boot Hill, I'm looking right into your beady little snake eyes.

Now, there is a school of game design out there which argues that what the game covers in its rules is what the game is about, also known as 'gamers who never played Diplomacy, or didn't get it if they did.' The absence of rules for skills, or backgrounds, or careers - beyond a list of wages for varying Old West jobs - is not proof that the game is nothing more than tabletop skirmish rules - I'm inclined to think gamers who argue that point are, in fact, demonstrating their own lack of roleplaying skill or a terminal failure of imagination, but I admit I'm more than a little uncharitable in this. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

So, how do we decide what a character knows, and is good at, beyond the basic attributes and minimal abilities defined by the rules of the game? We each decide what our characters know, by background, vocation, or avocation, and "adjudicate situations in which these . . . are used or useful to the player character." My character is a cowboy so he can herd cattle: cut out a steer, rope it, hog-tie it and brand it or ear clip it. He can spot diseased cows, or turn a herd in to stop a stampede. He knows brands and a bit of husbandry, can free-trail a string of ponies, treat a lame horse, and can cook and sing, after a fashion. He can fix a broken cinch or build a fence or a cattle pond, though he's loathe to admit doing any sort of labor out of the saddle.

My character also enjoys hunting, so he can set a trap, recognize spoor, field dress a kill, then skin it and salt the hide. He grew up with a Pawnee wrangler on the ranch in Nebraska, so he speaks a little of that language and brags he breaks horses 'the Indian way,' without saddle or bridle.

And while he can build a corral with a gate, he can't build a house with straight lines or a roof that won't leak when it rains. He can cape an elk hide but not mount the head for his wall. He can keep the books for a cattle drive but he's not a banker. He's a skilled rider but not a circus acrobat. There are common-sense limits to what he knows, adjudicated by determining ". . . the extent of knowledge in question . . . and determin[ing] what could be done with this knowledge" (1e AD&D DMG, p. 12).

So how good is my character at cowboying or hunting? Let's take another look at 1e AD&D secondary skills:
However, some minor knowledge of certain mundane skills might belong to the player character - information and training from early years or incidentally picked up while the individual was in apprenticeship learning his or her primary professional skills of clericism, fighting, etc. . . . As a general rule, having a skill will give the character the ability to determine the general worth and soundness of an item, the ability to find food, make small repairs, or actually construct (crude) items, For example, an individual with armorer skill could tell the quality of normal armor, repair chain links, or perhaps fashion certain weapons (ibid)
The presumed competence of player characters' secondary skills in 1e AD&D is fairly low - the focus of the characters is on their class skills, with secondary skills meant mostly as flavor, not alternate career choices.

For our Boot Hill campaign, the presumed competence of the player characters is higher. If you describe cowboying or bartending or saddlemaking as your primary vocation, then you can do things a person experienced in that job can do competently - you don't need to roll against your saddlemaking skill to see ". . . whether the work was performed properly and to the customer’s satisfaction" (3e Boot Hill, p. 17).

In my experience, when you start worrying about stuff like who can make a better saddle, or worse, making a rule, assigning a value, and then rolling to determine who's more successful at making a saddle, then the experience of playing the game becomes one of seeing who has the longest numerical genitalia. In Flashing Blades - you knew I'd find a way to work in a FB reference, right? - characters who are Masters or Masters Superior of a skill no longer roll for routine skill usage - they are presumed competent enough that ". . . a character will automatically make most rolls to use that skill. Only in very difficult situations should he be required to roll against an attribute, and then, with a +3 bonus. Masters Superior need roll even less often; and, when they do, they receive a +6 bonus" (FB, p. 6). The game tells you that once your character achieves a level of presumed competence, that rolling isn't worthwhile anymore, except in the most challenging situations. For 2e Boot Hill, we've taken that as our baseline.

Since our characters' skills are constituted ad hoc, they're presumed competent, and there is no specific rule for adjudicating results, then how are points of failure, those 'difficult situations,' addressed in our campaign? Let's look at one of the scenarios in BH2 Lost Conquistador Mine, a wildfire that has the potential to trap the adventurers as they search for the mine. The scenario assigns a 50% chance of a horse to panic and bolt until they run themselves to exhaustion; if the adventurers attempt to gallop away from the fire, then there's a 40% choice of a horse breaking a leg or going lame and a thrown character suffering a wound. It's not, 'My character has +40 Horsemanship so I'm better at avoiding this hazard than the rest of the party' - it's, 'While your characters are skilled riders, you're each exposed to this hazard at this chance.'

This approach used to be very common in roleplaying games, before designers added more and more rules to differentiate the ability of characters from one another. At the time I started playing roleplaying games, your character was an archer because she primarily used a bow and looked for ways to maximize her advantage on the tabletop, not because she took the Archer class, an archery feat tree, and dipped into two different bow-related prestige classes. Despite nearly no rules-delineated differences between our characters outside of combat, we each have a good sense of what our characters can do well, in relation to one another and to the game-world generally. We're creative in interpreting what our characters know, and when questions arise, we resort once again to our highly expedient system of consensus around the table, sometimes making up an ad hoc roll, most of the time just waving it off, because our characters are good enough to walk and chew gum without rolling dice for success.