Yeehaw! Hacking the Old West Part 1
In this series of articles, I’ll provide some suggestions on how to create an Old West setting for an RPG. The player character choices, weapon rules, and equipment lists I’ll be sharing were created for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but work with almost any D&D-style system. With just a little more tweaking, the same ideas can even work with Powered by the Apocalypse or Cypher System rules. I’ll also be offering advice on choosing an existing adventure for adaptation to an Old West setting.
First, let’s talk about archetypes. When I first approached an Old West hack, I heard from quite a few people that I couldn’t have magic users or clerics as classes because magic wasn’t appropriate to the setting. To that I say poppycock! I am fairly sure that there weren’t really wizards or hedge magicians in Medieval England, as much fun as it is to think there were. Create the world you want to play in. Don’t feel constrained by what would make sense in the actual historic setting; create what makes sense for the feel, the excitement and the wonder of the world your players will be immersed in. The trick I used was to create archetypes that had historical touchstones, real or mythic, that the average player could associate with the Old West. For example, my magic users are based on an Appalachian granny witch and an ex-slave steeped in the magic of New Orleans. One of the clerics is an itinerant fire-and-brimstone preacher, the other, a son of Chinese workers from California who has a prophetic near-death experience. These are all people who could have lived in the Old West, albeit without any magical powers (as far as we know). One other thing - to not stretch the bounds of believability too terribly far, I restricted player race choices to humans and dwarves. You may decide halflings and elves rode ponies and shot six-shooters, but the atmosphere I was going for didn’t support other races.
Even though you certainly aren’t tied to “real” historical accuracy, it pays to do your research, particularly in a recent historical period like the Old West. Your game will come alive by including character names, physical characteristics and relations to events that are meaningful to the time. For my granny witch character, I read up on the magical things they did (and still do), the cultural origins of their beliefs, where it was practiced, and the ethnic background of the women who practiced it. For the Civil War veteran, I read up on the political climate in the border states before the war, and for the Native American scout, I researched the stories of real men and women who scouted for the US government in the days of the “Indian Wars”. For all the characters, I even went as far as looking up popular names for the years they would have been born and common surnames in the states they hailed from. That may have been a bit of overkill, but the point is to make extraordinary characters that are still grounded in enough realism to make them seem familiar and hence playable.
So, let’s have a look at some of the characters I created. Lamentations of the Flame Princess defines race and class as one in the same and includes Magic-Users, Clerics, Fighters, Dwarves and Specialists. (By the book classes also include Elves and Halflings, but I excluded those from my hack.) If you are using a different system, it is not hard to see how Specialists can translate into Rogues, Bards or other classes, types or playbooks you want to allow. I was running a convention game, so these backgrounds were included with pre-generated character sheets. If you choose not to use pre-gens, you might still want to provide some examples to fire up your players’ imaginations while they get the feel for the type of characters that could populate the world you are creating.
Etta Mae Calhoun
You was birthed and raised up in a backwoods cabin and you’d never left the holler until your dang fool husband decided it was time to strike out west. You settled down in Oklahoma, but then the old man up and died on you. People ‘round there didn’t appreciate your talents - most of ‘em never even heard of a granny witch. So you headed up into these here mountains looking to put yourself to good use. Maybe some of those womenfolk down at the saloon could use a good midwife. And maybe there’ll be a well that needs dousin’. On top o’ that, you’ve got quite a few tricks up yer sleeve that’d surprise even the folk back home.
You were born a slave in New Orleans. You learned the Hoodoo and the candle magic at your mama’s knee and always seemed to have the knack. When the war came and Lincoln said you were free, you thought it would be glorious, but things just didn’t change the way you thought they would. You took off West, lived with the natives for a time, joined a traveling Wild West show and made quite a name for yourself, given your “special” talents. Last stop was out in Fort Laramie where your old wanderlust struck again. Maybe you’ll catch up with the show later, but right now something is calling you to a new adventure.
Rev. George Wilhoit
Preaching the ever-lovin’ gospel is your life! There is but one God and he is great and glorious. He might even be just, but He sure as hell ain’t merciful. Your mission in life is to save the sinner from eternal fire and brimstone, even if you have to kill him to do it. The Lord surely does work through you in mysterious ways. Sure you are made of flesh, and maybe you have a weakness for a sip or two of liquor and a pretty lady, but you are redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Get thee behind me Satan! is your motto.
Your parents brought you along to California when you were just a baby. The streets and alleyways of San Francisco were all you really knew. Growing up, you knew better than to leave the relative safety of Chinatown, but you were an adventurous adolescent. One night, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a gang of white boys ambushed you for no reason except you were a ‘chink’. They left you for dead… and who knows? Maybe you really did die. All you know is that your ancestors visited you in that dark alley and showed you the way. When you came to, an ivory carving was in your hand and the fire was in your heart to find a master who could teach you the path. You never revealed any of this to your family, but something happened that night that changed you – made you powerful in a way you never expected. You are driven to understand this power and to use it to help the downtrodden of this world.
Your Ma died of the influenza when you were still in swaddling clothes. Oh, the family back in Ohio begged your Pa to send you back. It wasn’t right, a single cowpoke trying to raise up a sweet little thing like you. But Pa wasn’t having a word of it. When he wasn’t out on cattle drives, he taught you how to shoot a six-gun and ride a horse. Other times, you just fended for yourself. You could arm wrestle and fist fight as good as any boy, but mostly you liked shooting. You can hit a rattlesnake at 50 paces and fry it up in pan and get along just fine. Maybe someday you’ll be a famous sharpshooter, but right now you’re just looking for adventure.
You lied about your age to join up back in ’61. Being from Kentucky, you could have chosen either side, but you believed in the Union and, hell, you and your kin didn’t own any slaves. That was for rich folks. In fact, you worked right alongside of plenty of black men when crops needed reaping or a barn needed raising. But the war sure wasn’t what you expected. It was endless horror and disease and shooting at boys that looked just like you. And when you came home in one piece, you wondered what it was all for. This “reconstruction” was a mess and all you could think of was getting as far away as possible. So you headed out to the territories. A fellow as fit, big, and strong as you could make his way anywhere. And the war taught you how to kill without backing down and how to survive ‘most anything – valuable skills out here.
Alonzo P Farquhar
Hailing from Boston, Mass and descended from a long line of educators and no-nonsense businessmen, you are considered a bit of a black sheep in your family. You think nothing of taking off for parts unknown – China, Mexico, Egypt! – to find the rarest antiques and oddest religious icons. Yes, you’ve traveled the world and you have learned the secrets of ancient civilizations, but now you’ve gotten wind that perhaps the strangest and most intriguing adventure of your lifetime may lay out West at your own nation’s back door. You have some slight apprehension about the moral and intellectual quality of your fellow adventurers, but the quest for knowledge always requires a measure of personal sacrifice.
You grew up hunting in these mountains and you gained a reputation as the quickest and slyest. It is said you can catch a rabbit with your bare hands and skin it before it knows it’s dead. The cavalry paid you a salary for a time to scout out ‘rebels’ and bring them to justice. That’s where you got the nickname – even on a pony with a bow in your hands, you could sneak up on the wariest warrior and snag him from behind, or worse. It was all well and good while their enemies were your enemies, but now the US government has broken their treaties and decided your people are the rebels and need to be sent away to make more room for the white man. But there’s more than one way to skin a rabbit. You have no intention of heading off to some ‘reservation’. You’ll stay put and make your own way in the land you know best.
Back in ’49, you headed out to Sutter’s Mill and panned plenty o' gold, then when you got sick of people makin’ fun of your, ahem, reduced stature, you headed for the hills, and you never came back. Yer a tough ol’ geezer with a great big axe and if anyone happens by, they don’t stick around long. But after all these years, your gold's runnin' a wee bit low, and you need some pipe tobacco and supplies for brewin’ ale. Ya ken there's more gold to be had (and you don't even hafta mine it) if you just join up with some of these adventurers. Just for a bit, mind you. Until they plumb wear you out with all their jabberin’.
You’re about four and a half feet tall and just about as wide, but don’t let that fool anyone – you’re as fit as a fiddle and as tough as a goddamned nail. You’re also quite proud of your luxurious beard. For a time, you traveled with the Clostermeyer Brother’s Circus – more of a freak show, to tell the truth. That got boring and the pay wasn’t much, and one night while enjoying several beers at a local saloon, you struck up a conversation with the proprietor, Miss Louise. Her plan was to expand her services to the local gentlemen. She needed a bouncer; you needed a new line of work - it was a match made in heaven. But now you’ve got a bee in your bonnet to do something a little more productive and adventurous with your life.
I tried to infuse each of these characters with personality, some more serious and some more comical, and a short backstory that made sense in an Old West setting, giving a few hints players could hang their hats on to further develop traits and interpersonal dynamics of their own. There are many more archetypes that are appropriate to the Old West. The city slicker, the brothel keeper, the gunslinger, train robbers and Pinkertons, the frontier sheriff, the cattleman…and, of course, cowboys. If you want to play up a Steampunk theme for a Weird West setting, you could add inventors, engineers, train conductors, cavalry officers, professors and land barons, too. Any and all of these could be tied to a class or type as either player characters or NPCs in the adventure you want to play. Let your imagination be your guide.
In the next article, I’ll go over how I turned muskets and blunderbusses into shotguns and six-shooters, maces and halberds into lassos and hatchets.