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 . 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.