REVIEW AND RETROSPECTIVE: Boot Hill (1975, 1979, 1990)

Why is this game good?

The historical Shootout at the OK Corral was bloody, but only relative to A Quiet Wednesday Afternoon at the OK Corral. Two of the gunfighters involved were injured and in need of recuperation, two more mortally wounded, and the rest either ran away or didn't take a scratch.  

As for the version my group enacted through Boot Hill 2E’s historical scenario cum tutorial--well, let’s just call it the Shootout at the Definitely Not OK Corral. Two combat rounds of splattering heads and bursting abdomens left the sidewalk sprayed with five dead gunmen’s worth of organs, the last outlaw surviving only because his morale crapped out before the first shot and he was obliged to flee. 

So much for the game’s beginner scenario. It was time to create our own, custom, considerably less resilient player characters.

About an hour of rolling percentile dice and cross-referencing nested tables later the party encountered their first gunfight, and inside thirty in-game seconds (and thirty out-of-gaming minutes) there were dozens of holes in the floor, ceiling, bartender, faro dealer, resident outlaw, local preacher, and one player character, to say nothing of a half-dozen knife and tomahawk slashes. By my estimate something like a hundred dice were rolled. Any single attack by the players or nonplayer characters could have been lethal to the victim gulping in the crosshairs.

There was a mumble-fringed silence when the combat wrapped. As I tried to figure out just how the hell leveling up was supposed to work, one player, the newest to roleplaying, asked the question on everyone’s mind:

“Why is this game good?”

Boot Hill (1975)

You could say Boot Hill was the second roleplaying game to be professionally published, and it would be a very good way to start a very unrewarding argument. 

It’s certainly true that it was released in 1975, just one year after Dungeons and Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames, and that nothing with a claim to the title RPG was released in the interim. However, there’s a credible-if-nebbish argument that Boot HIll only gets grandfathered in as a roleplaying game because of historical revision and circumstance. 

Remember that D&D and Boot Hill publisher Tactical Studies Rules (later TSR) only stumbled onto the idea of storytelling games with tabletop gaming components through experimentation with smaller-scale and potentially serial wargame scenarios; both D&D and Boot Hill are products of this period, but the first edition of Boot Hill at least doesn’t seem particularly interested with transcending it. It seems a lot like it's coming down on the wargame part, not so much the roleplaying game. 

It’s tempting to observe the game’s ability scores, experience system, and talk of “campaigns” and “playing a role,” and see a roleplaying game in the modern sense (or even in a sense acknowledged by that strange original D&D pamphlet, which did strive for a kind of verisimilitude and depth in the structure of its persistent gameworld), but before the 1977 revolution that was the D&D Basic Set these terms had a very different context. The original Boot Hill refers to “roles” for characters, but to create a character who has a role did not mean to create an individual who will be inhabited by a player in any especially open-ended sense. It meant to create a wargame unit whose objective in pre-arranged combat scenarios, and in abstract overworld-y movements, is thematically emergent (eg, the Sheriff must track the Outlaw and then shoot the Outlaw). While today’s RPGs use “campaign” to mean “a single ongoing story with a consistent party of characters,” in its original wargaming context it refers to a series of connected battle scenarios that logically follow from one another. There can be some overlap between the two, especially in early wargame-derived RPGs, but the difference tends to lie in how much players are expected to inhabit their characters between these combats; how valid, interesting, and worth “visiting” the characters were meant to be when not knee-deep in the dead. 

So although the Boot Hill book says it’s suitable for “campaign play,” there’s a few clues (besides the fact that like the original Dungeons and Dragons pamphlet, it was labeled and marketed as a wargame) that it was never intended for roleplaying in a modern dramatic “I hail the bartender” sense. The actual two-and-a-half page campaign chapter addresses very little beyond traveling overland, tracking enemies, and obtaining objectives from locals. The last word on these activities: when “one or more players have figures in the same area and one so desires,” “table top actions may occur.” In this context, “table top actions” refers to miniatures combat. 

There are only three components of the game which can be argued to suggest dramatic and not strategic play: gambling, which is boiled down to a dice roll and has the obvious practical effect of providing funds for guns and supplies; drunkenness, which almost meets the dramatic roleplaying criterion of being objectively a bad idea (since there are few mechanical advantages to getting your character drunk) but more probably exists to add flavor to pre-designed combat scenarios; prices for a very few non-useful goods and services, such as whiskey, beer, barbering, and marriage licenses. These latter items are far outnumbered by the weapons and rations and hired gun salaries informed by the game’s core mechanics. It’s possible that the few less-than-necessaries were included as lonely, meek suggestions that players engage enthusiastically in their character’s day-to-day lives; much more likely they were included to add spice or flavor to the hassle of resupplying, to put a touch of color in the story suggested by a wargame scenario, or because their prices were discovered while researching the rest of the equipment sheet and thrown in because what the hell (never a bad guess in this era of game design, where most gamebooks are written, edited, and published by the same enthusiastic nerd for his fifty or so colleagues).

The point isn’t that stories weren’t told with Boot Hill, that it shares nothing in common with modern RPGs, or that it didn’t offer a fully-realized experience. The point is that care should be taken when imagining what games like this actually looked like to play. Almost inevitably, revisiting and playing old games with a modern group will result in experiences conforming to more recent paradigms of play. A modern group trying out the first edition of Boot Hill might have players enter a saloon described by the referee, order drinks in-character, chat up a bartender also portrayed by the referee, crack a joke, inadvertently offend a fictional cowpoke, fail to apologize, and end up having to set up miniatures for a fistfight. This kind of organic, granular shift from dramatic roleplaying to combat would have probably been unfamiliar to the original Boot Hill’s old guard; the existence of the saloon would at best be a pre-arranged feature of an objective worldmap, and the desire to have a combat there would prompt the players to devise the above scenario.*

Boot Hill 2nd Edition (1979)

But even by 1975, the paradigms were in flux. TSR was starting to realize they had a revolution on their hands with this Dungeons and Dragons thing, or at least a shining lucrative trend in a not particularly lucrative market. Boot Hill 2nd Edition launched in 1979 and by then bore the legend “role playing game” proudly on its cover. The introduction states that the game “is designed to function as a game in two ways--as a set of rules for man-to-man gunfighting action, and as an outline guide for...an ongoing series of continuing events....it is in this latter way that the game fully reveals all its enjoyable possibilities--as player characters pursue their individual goals and interact with each other in a continuing game situation.” In this capacity, the game identifies the need for a “gamemaster,” a role referred to in the previous edition exclusively as “referee.” Clearly, the modern RPG paradigm has fully arrived. It can be argued that this 1979 recontextualization, and TSR’s retroactively-imposed identity as “founder of RPGs,” are what allow the 1975 original Boot Hill to snake “second ever RPG” on so many lists.

So how does Boot Hill 2nd Edition’s newfound identity as an RPG affect its mechanical structure? It really doesn’t. There are still no attributes, skills, or traits for player characters that aren’t relevant to wargaming-styled armed combat scenarios. Rules that fall within this violent purview are only incrementally expanded or refined from the original, and after a brief comparison I’d say the most significant change is that 2nd Edition has a greater quantity of optional and advanced rules (few of which, frankly, come off as very stable or thoroughly thought-out). 

A quick summary of how both editions work: 

All random probabilities are resolved by rolling percentile dice. For laymen, these are two ten-sided dice rolled together and read together as the tens-place and ones-place of a number between 1 and 100. In a way this is the most honest and transparent way to address probability, since everyone can figure out the chances of getting a certain percentile roll at a glance, but since it’s a little ungainly (people don’t like reading percentile dice) and inelegant (it turns out there’s such a thing as a fun way to roll dice and this isn’t it) it’s rare to see them used often in a game published after 1980.

Creating a character does mean rolling stats, but the process is basically unique to this RPG. Your random percentile dice rolls (plus a small boost for being a player character) define attributes like “Speed,” “Firearms Accuracy,” “Bravery,” and “Gunfighting Experience,” but these values aren’t frequently consulted or modified as in other games; they only exist so that you can cross-reference them with tables and compute the only three numbers that actually matter: First Shot Determination (how quickly your character acts in the firing round), Hit Determination (how likely you are to hit with your weapon), and Strength (effectively just your hit points). Modern games have a few stats that determine many useful numbers; this game has many stats that determine few useful numbers.

When combat breaks out, you start the round by rolling morale for minor characters. Then a movement phase begins. All combatants rolls percentiles raw, with no modifiers whatsoever, to determine who moves their miniature first. Moving during this phase may make you harder to hit (or less likely to hit someone) .

Next begins the firing phase. Players announce who they’re shooting, in what fashion (from the hip, aiming, from cover, etc), and how many times (if they’ve got a reasonably fast-shooting weapon). These modifiers and a few more are taken into account to modify each characters’ First Shot Determination; then, from the highest FSD to the lowest, all announced shots are taken.

Players modify their Hit Determination by relevant active conditions (how many shots have been taken, their own health, whether the target moved, cover, etc) and roll percentile. If the dice register a hit, the location of the hit is ascertained by another completely unmodified percentile dice roll; a second, also unmodified roll is cross-referenced with the location of the hit and determines the severity of the wound (light, serious, or mortal, with mortal injuries resulting only from hits to the chest, shoulders, or head). If the person being shot at has hard cover protecting the part of their body that’s “hit,” no damage is inflicted. Non-mortal wounds may have effects on shooting or running, and if they stack up past a victim’s character’s Strength score, they have an acute effect on breathing.

Once the shooting phase concludes there’s a final stage wherein characters in melee range can wrestle, punch, and stab one another. It’s about as functional as it has to be. Considering that any single pistol attack can scoop someone’s melon off, nobody’s honestly living or dying based on technicalities of the grappling rules.

In some ways this is a crude system, and the fact that it was originally intended for wargame play informs the jawdropping and egalitarian carnage the dice dole in out in a given combat. I introduced the game to my group as a joke and a novelty (if not of an entirely foreign sensibility; after all, it filled a hiatus in their 2nd Edition D&D campaign). We jumped straight into the OK Shooutout scenario without first studying the rules, laughed at how messy it got, and--when the last player arrived, and a few other game ideas were thrown out--proceeded to character creation with a giggling madlads attitude. The player characters randomly generated were not entirely promising. One, it was randomly determined, was sluggish and had never actually been in a gunfight before. Another couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with any firearm. A third was scrawny and decidedly bullet-susceptible. 

Once equipped and given purpose, the party set about causing trouble. Combat broke out swiftly and broke out hard. It was very quickly obvious that there could be no expectation of safety in a gun battle. There’s no such thing as an enemy too weak or too poorly equipped to be a threat when a few good rolls can kill any character stone dead; even if there were, there was no great difference between the abilities of PC and any given NPC. Shotguns in particular made the sweat rise on player’s brows, as one hit from a shotgun at close range could mean as many as four rolls on the dreaded Wound Chart. It hardly matters how lucky you are: if your enemy’s rolling four Wounds on you, you’ll be hard-pressed not to die outright.

That said, many attacks--maybe even most attacks--miss. That’s part of the thrill, actually. I don’t know in what sense this game does (or any game can) simulate the technical strategies and logistics of a gunfight, but firearm violence in Boot Hill is appropriately terrible and awe-inspiring. There’s an excitement, a desperation not to be out in the open, a panicked need to fire a half-dozen shots from the hip even if it means a greater chance of missing and a bigger waste of ammo--any chance of taking out an opponent before they get lucky and paint the mesa with your brains. Every time the dice come down it’s life or death, and even if combat’s not quick and breezy, it’s never boring because every dice transaction can kill or maim. I was surprised by how quickly players learned to crave the clatter of plastic, the fear and psychotronic red-spattered spectacle.

On this strength entirely we’ve scheduled another session. The system has no other selling points; actually it has no other points at all. It was designed to create tense exciting gun battles, and by way of being a goresoaked deathfest with just enough strategy to feel like you can save yourself, it accomplishes it. It really is a testament to how a careful dispensation of risk and reward can make or break an experience. Given its labyrinth of tables and needlessly convoluted character creation mechanics I’m pretty sure you could design a better Wild West gun battle game than Boot Hill 2E, but I’m surprised by how little I’d care to look for one.

Boot Hill 3rd Edition (1990)

There was in fact a third edition released in 1990. It contains far more traditional RPG trappings, such as non-combat skills, but significantly overhauls the mechanics to suit developing modern sensibilities (ie, that a character’s build should be a logical and intuitive organism and not a rat’s nest of isolated faithfully-recorded table results). It has few fans.

It’s worth mentioning for non-Americans that our interest in Western fiction is very cyclical. The biggest boom came in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with our domestic and imported offerings growing gradually less cheerfully optimistic and more vicious and bloodthirsty as the public’s perception of the period decayed. Generally people consider the release of the dreary, bitter, goresoaked farewell to innocence The Wild Bunch to herald the death of the craze in 1969. 

Boot Hill 1E came out in 1975. Which, I get it. One of the early TSR developers loved Westerns, and wargames were niche by birthright, so there wasn’t that much more risk in genre experimentation than there was in making just about anything. And then the D&D craze kicked in after ‘77, and polishing up Boot Hill 2E and releasing it to the suddenly expanding marketplace seemed like a slam dunk. In this chronology, 1990 is the year that confuses me. What made that seem like a good time to release a Western system? Did Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition’s release the year before make them cocky? 

We may never know. TSR is dead and Wizards of the Coast can rarely be bothered to pillage its tomb. We’re unlikely to see a Boot Hill 4th Edition. If you’ll pardon a flash of grognardise from someone well at home with floofy art games, that’s just as well. Somehow the mind fails to picture the modern, polished version of a game awe-inspiring for its arbitrary and vividly-realized brutality. Sooner or later the game would feel either abstract or fair, and either would mean an end to terrors already perfectly realized.

--

*...is my best educated guess. Please keep in mind that customs of tabletop gaming shifted dramatically after 1977 and that I played my first tabletop game, 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons, about two decades afterwards. I’m informed here by readings of many old texts, journals, and secondary sources, but don’t claim to be an authority.

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