Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Haunted West

You know you want this
in your Boot Hill Game...
A few days ago I got to play a game of Boot Hill using the 2nd, 1979, edition (which are very similar to the 1975 1st edition in its little brown book) of what can best be described as a percentile driven cowboy gunfight game.  Boot Hill's rules are simple and spare, solely designed for rolling percentile dice to mercilessly kill characters and NPCs alike.  There are very few rules about anything other then various forms of Western mayhem, and no implied setting beyond a list of statistics for famous Western gunfighters and a weapons list where the better items are listed as 'available after 1870'.

Yet I enjoyed Boot Hill, I've always liked the idea of the system, murderously fast gunfights in the collective American (or possibly Italian) cultural confusion of the Wild West. Playing with the players from Hill Cantons, with Chris K running things (he's clearly run Boot Hill before) makes for a fun game and plenty of jokes about the inherent idiocy of the Western genre. While the mechanics of Boot Hill are strangely sparse, creating only a 'white room' where gunfights between faceless cowboys endlessly repeat, Cantones County (Hill Canton's Western equivalent) has already been fleshed out to a fair degree.  Best, these character generating 'Fast Packs' build character backstory almost as quickly as the quirky modifier heavy rules of Boot Hill (Really it only has 3 meaningful statistics so it's not that bad) allow for character stat creation. 

When I rolled "calico dress" as a fashion statement, several guns and a "child named William" as my character's possessions, my own fast, frail, accurate and fairly inexperienced gunfighter quickly became "Sally Murder" the last survivor of some sort of old order religious wagon train, loaded down with the guns of her dead fellows and her nine-year old son (at least this is her story, she might just be a mad murderess). The other players were able to concoct equally amusing backstories with equal speed based on the possessions randomly generated by these tables.  While this is an important lesson (one I've long embraced) that equipment and a few random items can lay the basis for interesting characterization, the world that the strange gun thugs of Cantones County exist in still seems pretty bare. 

Boot Hill's rules cover combat, exclusively and without variation.  Almost a page on the effects of exploding dynamite, but nothing sneaking past sentries in the gloaming to take up a position on a rocky outcropping and snipe the local mine boss from cover on behalf of his perturbed workforce (this was the plot of the recent game).  While articles in ancient Dragon magazines have some strange errata, mostly stats for fictional TV cowboy gunfighters, even the adventures offered are tactical map based gun battles against outlaws (and a Tyrannosaurus Rex) - individual scenes that may be fun but don't offer much variety or campaign play and suggest no space for expanding ones campaign beyond gunfights.
A famous US President as Supernatural Monster Slayer - Jason Hauser
This doesn't really appeal to me, while I enjoy Western shootouts as much as anyone who watched a lot of UHF television as a child, Marty Robbin's "Big Iron" gets old fast. It gets old especially fast with the Boot Hill rules which use a static speed and percentile rolls to determine who gets shot in the groin. My own inclination for Western gaming is the Weird Western, where supernatural elements abound, but this of course is hard to mechanically model in a system as narrowly focused on cinematic gunfights.

Western supernatural creatures need a few special rules, and my inclination is to try to make encountering them less something different from a standard combat out of a video-game or Dungeons & Dragons and more like that of a horror movie.  Supernatural creatures don't just kill, they terrify and haunt, causing flight, panicked shooting and even heart attacks.

All supernatural creatures cause Fear, even the harmless Jackalope is a sign that one has crossed from the mundane into a the unknown and uncanny, where a fast hand, keen eye and well maintained shooting irons provide little aid to survival.  Encounters with the supernatural will cause Fear, using the table below, and many supernatural creatures can make attacks that cause Terror, inflicting direct psychic harm to a character's Courage (a statistic derived from Bravery).

Courage: To model supernatural terror each entity or character will need a "Courage" stat calculated in the same way Strength is based on the initial percentile attribute.  Thus a gunfighter with a 60 raw Bravery score (Above Average) will have 14 points of Courage while one with a 70 raw Bravery score (still Above Average with the same Bravery modifiers) will have a Courage of 15 points.

Courage is used for two things, both as a reserve of mental health (when it drops to 0 the character will face dire consequences) and to determine how the character reacts to normal fear.  Normal frightening situations occur whenever the GM thinks they should, principally when exposed to elements of supernatural terror, such as being in the presence of a supernatural creature, encountering a haunting or a scene of uncanny and unnatural murder, but also perhaps when a character faces other dangerous or unsettling situations.  2D10 are rolled against the character's current Courage (with the modifications below) and if the roll exceeds the current Courage score the character is frightened as described in "Effects of Fear/Terror" below. If the roll is below the Character's current Courage the fright is resisted without negative consequence.

Potential Modifications to Fear Roll (2D10)
This would also work for a Weird Western
  • Character Wounded +3
  • Sign or Fright Specifically Names or is Directed at Character +3
  • Night or Darkness +2
  • Companion has Died During Session +2
  • Scene of Exception Gore and Violence +1
  • Fright Includes Corpse of Someone Character knew +1
  • Event Occurs in Wilderness +1
  • Event is Sudden and Surprising (a 'jump-scare' or other ambush) +1
  • Supernatural Entity or Event is Part of Character's Ethos/Pantheon/Tradition +1
  • Previous Warning of Specific Supernatural Event or Entity -1
  • Triumphed in Past Encounter with Same or Similar Supernatural Entity (e.g. haunting) -1
  • Character has Strong Religious Beliefs -1
While any encounter with a supernatural entity requires a Fear check (at least at its initial appearance and often every round) many supernatural creatures also have 'Terror' attacks which are similar to normal attacks, with a specific target numbers to hit, ranges and other elements common to normal weapons.  Terror attacks use a foes' throwing score to attack.

When a Terror attack hits the attack will instantly effect the target as described on the Effects of Fear/Terror table.  If the cumulative effects of Terror or Fear reduce Courage to 0

Effects of Fear/Terror

Damage Roll
Effects of Terror
01 - 20
Frightened - (-3 to Courage) -5 to all Accuracy , -2 to Speed
Shocked - (-3 to Courage) -10 to all Accuracy -5 to Speed - suffer a “Minor Derangement”
Disturbed (-7 to Courage) -15 to all Accuracy and - 8 Speed - suffer a “Major Derangement”
Terrified (-15 to Courage)  -15 to all Accuracy and -8 Speed - suffer “Major Derangement”

Damage Roll
Minor Derangement
01 - 20
Frantic Shooting - Empty ones weapon in flurry of badly placed shots, if indoors or in close quarters roll a to hit at -20 against each nearby friend (including self) for ricochets. Any hit does -10% damage. No further effect.
Jumping at Shadows - After the incident become terribly jumpy for the rest of the session, requiring a 2D10 check against remaining courage to avoid shooting at any movement or target that is not obviously friendly (with +2 speed).  Wears off after Session
Traumatic -That whole experience will be permanently etched into your mind - permanent loss of 10 Bravery and a fear (-2 to all future fear tests when facing same general type of horror) of similar events. Permanent unless cured by an Alienist.
Flee - Dash frantically away from fright, ignoring danger and allies.  After reaching a place of safety (camp, horse, public space in town) can wait 1D10/2 rounds to test bravery (2D10 under Courage) to regain control.

Damage Roll
Major Derangement
01 - 20
Freeze - Trapped in place, eyes wide with fear and hands limp.  Cannot act for 2D10 rounds and even afterwards is permanently hesitant (-5 Speed) and shake handed (-5 Accuracy). Permanent unless cured by an Alienist.
Mania - Mad as a Jack in the Box.  May not gain experience until cured and must undertake specific actions associated with mania (e.g. kill any snake seen, never enter a church) or suffer -7 to Courage for each time obsession ignored. Permanent unless cured by an Alienist.
Fits -You've got a case of the Fits, you're having one right now, and your hair has turned White.  Any future Fear or Terror effect will also result in a Fit, dropping the victim to the ground screaming, ranting and convulsing (or lying still and catatonic).   Fits reduce a victim to immobility and inactivity for 2D10/2 rounds.
Heart Attack - The heart races in terror, until fit to burst.  Collapse unconscious and roll 3D10 against current Strength.  If the result is over Strength the victim dies, if under they suffer a major wound and are unconscious for 1D6 days. Hair turns white and suffer a Permanent Loss of -7 Courage

The exceptionally brave, foolhardy or religiously motivated may decide to forgo other action and deny the existence of a supernatural foe - using science or rationalism to deny its existence, prayer or superstition to send the beast back to hell or sheer cussed stupidity to frighten it.

The brave fool's Courage is directly opposed to the Courage of the supernatural beast each round instead of taking other actions. If the hero's courage is higher a check on 2D10 is made against the difference between the two.  If the roll is under the score then the creature or haunt loses -7 Courage. At zero Courage the creature will flee or dissipate.

Weapon Resistance and Immunity
Many supernatural creatures are highly resistant to bullets, some are even immune, especially spirits, ghosts, haints and such (who still are often weak to blessed bullets, silver bullets and things like fire, the blood of the innocent or holy water).   However, resistance isn't the same as immunity - where a fighter truly believes that they can kill a supernatural creature with there's the possibility that they can and this test of will between the gunman and supernatural creature is resolved by comparing the current Courage of the target and shooter (using the calculation for Shunning above).

For each point of Courage below that of the supernatural being the shooter is at a -10 to hit and damage the creature. Strong belief or special ammunition/weapons may add to the shooter's Courage score for this purposes.

Supernatural Strength
A lot of large and especially durable supernatural creatures can shrug off most wounds, and any wound on a creature with a Strength score/bonus of the human maximum (20) will take only light wounds (-3 STR per hit) that have no effect on the creature's abilities until reduced to a 20 STR score.  Thus the first five wounds to a Sasquatch (STR 35), regardless of hit location, will mostly serve to annoy the beast.  The sixth wound and any that follow can actually kill or seriously injure the monster, as normal.
Promotional Still - Harry & the Hendersons - 1987

Sample Monster:

Sasquatch - In the pines and mountains the ponderous Sasquatch roam silent bishops to nature’s cathedrals.  Despite a peaceable nature these huge reddish furred humanoids dislike human intrusion into the glades and canyons they claim and protect. Their territoriality often leads them into conflict with miners and loggers, and their teeth and pelts  are valuable, making most interactions between humanity and Sasquatch kind violent.

In combat Sasquatch are dangerous, highly resilient melee opponents and while they are normally nearly silent (they can move through forest and mountain regions undetected and concealed from all but the most skilled trackers) the terrible roar of an enraged Sasquatch produces primal fear. Sasquatch can run through dense forest or rough terrain faster then a man.
Sasquatch(1D6/3) SP: +4  BR: 90 CR: 17 STR:35  ACC: 0/+10
Terrible Roar*
RF: 1** R:1 N/A SP:+4 A: 2 Range: 6/45/-/-
*Terror Attack **Effects all in range
Rend and Crush*
RF: 3 R: N/A SP:+9 A: N/A Range: 4/-/-/-
* When Brawling Sasquatch attacks are a +4 on the punching/grappling tables and inflict wounds as if wielding a weapon.
Huge footprints in the snow or a creek bed.  Wise mountain men know that these are a warning, rather than an accident and following them will often lead to a Sasquatch ambush.

A wildcat miner’s camp in a state of destruction and decay.  The place stinks of death and the simple cabin appears to have been torn to pieces, heavy logs broken and ripped from their places.  A closer search will reveal broken human bones, scattered bent tools and rusted weapons.

A large red pillar of stone is carved into a stylized humanoid shape here above a sprawling and beautiful vista.  Beneath are offerings of flower garlands and similar simple handicrafts, likely the work of local tribespeople.  If asked, natives will say that the stone has been there as long as anyone remembers and that the groves beyond are forbidden to hunters.  


  1. If you weren't already aware of it, I suggest looking up Manly Wade Wellman's "The Desrick on Yandro" or check this website: for some Boot Hill appropriate monster ideas.

    1. Thanks I've read most of the Silver John stories, and they are pretty good!

  2. I'm a huge fan of Boot Hill and the 2nd edition is my preferred rule set (as I've blogged about before). I also dig on the idea of a "weird west" and have many of the original Deadlands game books, though I dislike its cumbersome system immensely (and have only had the most abbreviated sessions with it).

    Something like what you propose...tacked onto BH...would be ideal, though I'd probably want to streamline it even more.
    ; )

    1. Yeah it could use some streamling, maybe a table for bonuses/penalties to shooting supernaturals. Of course if it was streamlined how would we know it was Boot Hill. I find the Boot Hill system a bit dry really. Like if it's gonna be a Western RPG it should have ways to resolve non-gun fight situations, and is a gunfight simulation more gruesome wound tables.

      With the right group though it's a lot of fun.

  3. Played Boot Hill campaigns on and off over the years. While the games is mostly a gunfight game it's not all that hard to add a new stat or three if you think a campaign needs it as other rules in the book are unlikely to clash.
    My father ran a short campaign maybe a decade ago and his knowledge of the escapades of the old west, history, and weapons made it fun.