Ride, Cowboy, Ride - The Forgotten Boot Hill
Mention the words "Boot Hill" to most ordinary people and they'll respond with "Dodge City," a reference to the long-forgotten Wild West town which is home to the cemetery of that name. Mention Boot Hillto a gamer and they're likely to respond with "TSR," a reference to the soon-to-be-forgotten gaming company who, aside from revolutionizing the gaming industry with Dungeons & Dragons, managed to churn out a forgotten (but certainly not forgettable) Wild West RPG a couple decades ago.
Nowadays, if you mention a "Wild West Role-Playing Game" to people they're most likely going to think of Deadlands, Pinnacle Entertainment Group's "weird west" take on Cowboys and Indians. But as recently as the early 1990s, TSR was still quietly churning out new editions of Boot Hill, a game they originally published in 1975 as their second RPG (if you need to ask which was the first, you need a kick in the head) and released in a 2nd Edition in 1979.
Created by Brian Blume and Gary Gygax, the game never achieved the fame that would be seen by Dungeons and Dragons, in part because the game's setting (the Wild West) wasn't nearly as high concept as D&D's fantasy setting. Let's face it--no matter how many spaghetti Westerns Clint Eastwood was going to pump out, you weren't going to sell a Western RPG to a mass market. Cowboys and Indians, Tired. Cops and Robbers, Wired. Or something like that.
But there are at least three other reasons why the game never climbed beyond its "third-tier" status:
1. Too Soon -Much of the reason for the game's spectacular failure was that it was so far ahead of its time. Almost from the very start, Boot Hill managed to incorporate concepts that the gaming world wouldn't see again for decades. Things like realistic combat systems where one shot can kill anyone; an emphasis on 10-sided (percentile) dice instead of 6-siders and 20-siders; the sort of ambiguous morality that comes from role-playing as a bunch of outlaws, as opposed to the polarizing "Lawful Good versus Chaotic Evil" alignment system of D&D; and the strange notion of NOT having a "Dungeon Master" run everything, instead relying on "group consent" instead. Even the 3rd Edition release in 1990 managed to be ahead of its time 15 years after the initial release, bringing to the market one of the very first true "skill-based" RPG systems around.
2. Too Unstable -The differences between each of the three editions are as disparate and varied as the differences between D&D, AD&D, AD&D2e and D&D3e. Which is to say, they may as well be entirely different galaxies in the universe of role-playing games. In fact, aside from the fact that they're all based on a Western theme, about the only thing they share in common is that they're all out of print now. And it's for that very reason that they give us a good look at the evolution of the gaming industry itself.
The 1st & 2nd Editions, for example, were almost entirely geared towards combat rules, being designed back in the day when everyone played with miniature figures left over from wargaming, and tons of dice on the table mingling with the lead figurines was standard operating procedure. But when the 3rd Edition rolled around, character stats changed, skills were added, and combat was de-emphasized, as a sort of nod to the new generation of gamer who was ready for a Vampire or a Werewolf. The first two editions used percentile dice for just about everything, from character generation to combat to tracking, but the 3rd Edition really only used the ten-siders for character generation, after which point you had to bring out the 6- and 20-siders. And so on.
3. Too Spartan - Perhaps the biggest gripe most people have with Boot Hill was its lack of setting. Of course, you'd think that with so much material on Television and at the Library you'd not need setting shoved down your throat, but that's like saying that Dungeons & Dragons could have succeeded without Dragonlance or Greyhawk or Athas or the Forgotten Realms. The truth of the matter is that the world your game is based in is at least as important as the rules themselves, if not more important. After all, who cares if you have the world's most detailed combat system if there's nothing to do but shoot one another and rob banks. It's the difference between Quake and Half-Life: both First-Person Shooters, but only one deserves to be called a Role-Playing Game by any stretch of the imagination, and that's because of the storyline.
Take, for example, one of the few adventure modules released for Boot Hill 2nd Edition, Mad Mesa. No background, no motivation, no true storyline. Just a bunch of cowboys wander into a town and have some random encounters throughout the night. Either you die or you leave town.
Compare this to something like, say, The Village of Hommlet and The Temple of Elemental Evil from D&D, modules jam-packed with motivations, betrayals, interesting situations and characters and, most importantly, tied into the larger campaign setting of Greyhawk, which means that it's easier to work into an ongoing storyline for your characters.
That said, why would you possibly want to check out this game for yourself? Well, there are lots of reasons. Since it's the most recent, I'll focus on the 3rd Edition rules (if you can find 1st or 2nd Edition material, more power to you!).
1. Simple and Sensible - You've got five attributes (Strength, Coordination, Observation, Stature and Luck), all based on things you can't personally provide your character in the game. What do I mean by this? Well, note the absence of Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma--these are things that you, as a player, inevitably and necessarily bring to your character. Thus, rather than forcing you to play a stupid, nasty person, the game allows you to role-play to your heart's content using your own intelligence, only providing the necessary attributes to play the game.
2. Detailed Combat Rules - There's more about gunfighting here than in any other three gaming systems you want to choose, combined. Shootouts, gun battles, fistfights, combat on horseback, explosives... you name it, it's here, along with information on all the weapons you'll need to win the day, from revolvers to shotguns and rifles.
3. The Details - While the system as a whole leaves out quite a lot (the 3rd Edition is the worst, since the entire RPG consists of one single 128-page rulebook, and no more), the little details make a big difference if you're into that sort of thing--things like rolling attributes and skills for your horse, to samples of historical gun battles like the Shootout at the OK Corral.
In retrospect, Boot Hill will probably go down in history much like an extra in a Cowboy film, that guy in the white hat who gets shot about 10 minutes into the film without ever uttering a line. Which is to say, it's easily forgotten, and will have little impact on others around it. But for those who were lucky enough to experience Boot Hill during its heyday, there's something special about the game that just can't be described; that same something special that keeps Hollywood cranking out Western movies every few years, despite the fact that nobody seems interested in them any more.
There'll always be a place for the Wild West. It's not an expansive ranch out on the Great Plains; it's a lot closer to home, and to the heart.
Coming up next time, I'll review another classic TSR game which fared almost as badly as Boot Hill did, although it managed to climb a few steps higher on the ladder off success than its forgotten cousin. Get ready to roll for mutations with Gamma World.