YEEHAW! HACKING THE OLD WEST PART 2
In the last article, I talked about how to develop archetypes for player characters and NPCs for an Old West setting. Now that your world has people in it, you’ll need to give them some weapons.
The first step is deciding what weapons you want in your game. Some decisions are easy. A knife is still a knife, and bows and arrows function in pretty much the same way as they always have, but an engraved halberd is probably not very evocative of late 19th century North America. When we think of the Old West, most of us immediately think of six-shooters and rifles, and those will be the biggest challenge to hack into an existing rule set. If the system you’ve chosen uses very simple weapon mechanics or, better yet, already has firearms mechanics, the task can be as simple as mapping Old West guns into the existing system and then eliminating or reskinning any weapons that don’t fit with your vision. If, on the other hand, you are using more complex mechanics and there are no existing rules for firearms, you’ll have to invent something from scratch.
I was lucky that my chosen system, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, had recently published Early Modern rules that included mechanics for firearms. However, since they were designed for more archaic firearms and didn’t include everything I wanted, I still had to revise the mechanics a fair amount.
Before I talk about how I made those revisions, let’s talk a little about guns. Guns are tricky. In real life, even a small gun that fires a bullet into someone’s skull is quite lethal. Even against a large, very strong adversary, a gun is a formidable weapon. Yet, in role-playing games, that scary humanoid bad guy can shake off your gunshot damage and come right back at you with his full attack. Some of that can be explained away as grazes and flesh wounds, but even a critical hit never seems to me to do what guns really do. Which is kill things. To be fair, if damage tables looked like this:
Gun probably dead
combat would be pretty dull.
So instead, as gamers we typically use damage numbers that are more in line with arrows or swords. But, in my opinion, guns must be at the highest end of the scale to keep even the thinnest veneer of believability. That, of course, can introduce an issue if the overpowered weapon leaves the axe-wielder and the archer feeling useless and left out. The other issue with guns in an Old West game is that every player is going to want at least one. Partly because they do high damage, but also because we all want to be Wyatt Earp or Jesse James, Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, or maybe even Quick Draw McGraw.
In creating firearms mechanics, what can you do to address these two issues: being inherently overpowered and having universal appeal? You could develop rules for knockback and ramped up damage based on attack scores and bonuses, but all that was too fussy for me. You could restrict which classes can use firearms, but I didn’t want my players to feel cheated. I’m sure there are many ways to tackle the challenge, but my strategy (for which I am completely indebted to James Raggi and his LotFP rules that I shamelessly stole and included in my hack of his game) is this:
Make guns dangerous to use.
As you can see, pistols and rifles have great range and good damage, but it is a lot harder to hit your target at the longer ranges. And they sometimes jam or misfire. Clearing a fouled weapon takes a round or two. A six-shooter needs loading less often, but it takes 3 or 4 turns to load it when you run out of bullets, and while you are fiddling with your gun, you can’t run away, attack, or defend. A bandolier can help speed up reloading, but in a game where you might be exposed to fire or concussive attacks, having live rounds strapped to your chest comes with its own risk.
The table above is compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but the concept you want to incorporate is the same no matter how you shoehorn it into the system - make sure guns don’t become the “We can all stand safely in the back and calmly keep firing guns until everything is dead.” weapon. Of course, the other equally important strategy is to also give guns to the bad guys - at least the ones with opposable thumbs.
There were two other items I wanted to have available to players to give them a uniquely Old West experience: lassos and whips. Although I classified them as weapons and assigned damage numbers to them, what I really wanted was for players to have a chance to try things like roping the possibly booby-trapped door handle from a distance, or lassoing up two or three baddies in black hats at the same time to immobilize them for a round.
In playtesting, my players had fun with these two additions to the weapon list and, as the GM, I enjoyed the players role playing more complex actions than they usually would with their bows or axes.
All my Old West weapon rules were tweaked into their present form during playtesting. No matter how you hack guns and lassoes into your game, you’ll want to test your decisions with real live players, making sure your new rules don’t, on one hand, slow down or interrupt the flow of your game or, on the other, become a get out of jail free card that kills the excitement of combat.
In the next article, I’ll explain how I revised a fantasy armor and equipment list for my cast of Old West adventurers.