Ballad of the Pistolero – Wild West RPGing

I’ve been lucky enough to get my mitts on a review copy of Sean Van Damme’s Wild West RPG. I set down my six shooters, grab a glass of sarsaparilla, and take a good look at what’s on offer from this successful Kickstarter campaign.

Front cover image with lovely texture detailing

Ballad of the Pistolero (BotP), from Foxwood Games, is described as a d100 game set in a cinematic vision of the historic Wild West. This isn’t intended to be a realistic simulation or historical reenactment. It’s clear from the outset that one should focus on ‘feel and tone’. That’s A OK with me. It should also be noted that these are clearly intended as ‘quick start’ rules. We’re not talking double sided A4 rules lite but its not a weighty tome covering every eventuality either.

Look and Feel

For the purposes of review, I was given a copy of the PDF. This means I can’t give any meaningful input on the hard copy but the pictures I’ve seen look good and POD through DriveThruRPG is generally tip top.

This is a stick up!

Clocking in at forty four pages, this is a pretty slim volume for a roleplaying game but it might just be the small package that good things come in. There’s the usual ‘how to play’, character creation, combat and general rules, as well a section on creating foes.

The book is full colour throughout with lots of illustrations from Sean Goodison; mainly of the varying character professions. The cover art is provided Angela O’Hara and gets full marks for not falling into the trap of ‘old grizzled white guy with gun’. In fairness though, the vast back catalogue of western movies does seem to have more than its fair share of those. Instead, we have three very different individuals each with their story to tell (or past from which they’re hiding). There’s a nice textured overlay which adds to the old timey nature along with the neat choice of font.

The interior illustrations are all of a good standard but they are done in an almost ‘comic’ style. For me, I think this is slightly at odds with what I had in mind for a gritty western. They do provide a consistent look for the book though and great character inspiration for those that may be struggling. I particularly like the homesteader who looks like they’ve had more than a rough time of it.

Homesteader

The Rules

I might be slightly biased as I’m a big fan of the percentile system but these get high marks. If you’ve had any experience with WFRP or Zweihander et al, then you’ll take to these like a duck to water. Very simple and straightforward, the core rules are based around the skill test. The skill test revolves (no gun puns here) around taking your base rating, adding or subtracting any modifiers, and obtaining a final number. Take your d100 and aim to roll lower than this number. Simple. I appreciate the d20 is often seen as the go to but without getting into the math behind it, percentile systems are often the easiest for new players to pick up. Percentages are stuff we use all the time so when you know you have a 40% or 63% chance, one should get it pretty quick.

Apart from this straightforward roll, BotP also includes rules for criticals. Should you roll a double i.e. 22 or 33, then it’ll be a critical success if below the target roll or a critical failure if over. These have extra effects which are clearly explained. There’s also advantage/disadvantage which comes into play at times when fate is either on your side or working against you. When lady luck is smiling on you, you’ll roll another 10’s dice when making a check. You then can chose which ten value to use. Should you be out of luck, or caught off guard then roll the same but instead take the worse of the two results.

Character Creation

BotP is ideal for getting new players up and ready quickly. You’ve six stats (Brawn, Quickdraw, Vitality, Book Learnin’, Common Sense, and Charm) which you generate by rolling 3d10 and then adding 25. As presented you roll six times and assign as you see fit with the bonus that if you don’t roll any over 40, you can simply assign one to this stat. Personally I like a touch of customisation and like the assigning rules but I’m sure there will be others out there that will prefer to play it where the dice lay. To each their own.

As one might expect, there is also a range of derived stats and modifiers. Characters get a number of hit points equal to their Vitality modifier plus d10. Whats a modifier you ask? Well thats simply the tens value of any of the characters stats. So if you have a gunslinger with a Quickdraw of 47, then their Quickdraw modifier would be 4. I have my own thoughts on HP in games now but I’ll come back to that later when discussing combat. For added flavour, BotP also uses Moxie and Luck. Moxie, as the book describes, is, “that hard to define trait that lets them push forward longer and harder than they otherwise could”. Think of it like a special resource pool one can use over the day.

Luck on the other hand is a different beast. In Ballad of the Pistolero, a character’s luck is a finite resource and something that can’t be treated lightly. Although I’m cautious of finite pools in general, the way it’s presented means I’d happily give it a go. Luck is used in two distinct ways. Sometimes a character may be required to effectively make a skill check against their luck. Perhaps you’ve grabbed your gear in a hurry and need to roll to see if you remembered to grab your matchbook? The other use is to ‘spend’ luck to add a bonus to a roll or negate a negative effect.

Folks of a certain age may have fond memories

Professions

Once you’ve got your stats out of the way, you need to pick a profession, of which BotP has a fair few to chose from. There’s everything one might expect from Bandit(o) and Bounty Hunter through Gambler to Stagecoach Driver. Each of the fourteen professions comes with a number of skill proficiencies, gear, and a special ability. In most cases, this ability requires expenditure of moxie and gives a suitably thematic advantage. For example bounty hunters can gain a bonus when searching for a specific person or object and cowboys can lasso and wrangle with the best of them.

There’s a surprisingly full set of skills presented here and with the inclusions of feats, plenty of opportunity to create diverse and interesting characters.

Them young’ins probably think of this when you say the Magnificent Seven though.

Combat

Keeping in line with the streamlined nature of the product, BotP delivers a fast paced combat resolution which, whilst straightforward, does not leave you feeling short-shifted.

Make sure you’ve the right tool for the job

When there’s a showdown, characters roll a d10 and add their Quickdraw modifier to obtain their initiative order. Highest first to lowest last. Each character has three action points (AP) a round and can spend them in a variety of ways when it’s their initiative. This covers your usual move (1 AP), attack (1 AP), and reload (1 AP). Special abilities and skills may require significantly more AP to enact. In addition, you might want to leave some AP to dodge when your set to receive an incoming blow or six-shooter in your direction.

AP which isn’t used in a turn doesn’t disappear. Instead it ‘saves’ in a pool you can use in following turns; up to a total of ten. The only limit to what you can do on your turn is limited by your AP total so this enables some truly cinematic action. Perhaps your gunslinger has remained in cover saving themselves for a spectacular unloading of both their pistols…

Attacks and Damage

With attack rolls being similar to skill checks it’s again easy to get to grips with. Now I mentioned above my wary nature of modern(ish) games which use HP as I find it often clashes with the story being told. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that folks have been using the concept of hit points for decades but when the bullets are flying and there’s a lack of magic healing, how does one account for recouping from a shoot out?

Instead of straight up wound levels, BotP takes a half way house approach introducing Stamina Points as well. Without rambling on, think of these as a kind of ‘shield’ or grit that characters expend when taking damage. This could be a lucky miss or minor grazes and bruises. This refreshes during a rest but if it gets too low, you’re in real trouble of getting a serious wound or bleeding out.

Running Games

For all the good stuff in Ballad of the Pistolero, I’d have to say that it might not be the best place to start for a group of novices starting out on their first foray into roleplaying. Someone like me doesn’t need an introduction on how to roleplay or create a scenario so it’s not exactly a criticism. This set of rules knows what it wants to do and, for me at least, does it well.

Classic western action doesn’t need to be taken too seriously

Steering clear of any weird influences, although it wouldn’t be a stretch to include them with a bit of home-brewing, as well as not trying to be too historically accurate, there’s still a wide scope of western cinema to work with. It would be just as simple to run a gritty Tombstone style game as it would a heroic M7 or comedic Three Amigos. With a solid set of rules, all you need is a bit of impetus and imagination.

Does it hit its mark?

On the whole, for me, yes. There’s a couple of things I would have like to have seen more of such as stats for critters as opposed to just human enemies but nothing an experienced group couldn’t overcome. I’d also want to tinker around with the luck rules as I think it could be detrimental over the length of a campaign. I’m a bit of a tinkerer as a GM/Narrator so this shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Indeed, the fact that I could see myself running a campaign, let alone simply trying to rustle up a one off shows there’s gold in them there rules!

Again thanks to Sean for a review copy of the rules. You can find them over on Twitter (@DammeSean) where they actively engage with the RPG community. As always, you can drop a message below or join us over on Facebook page. If you want more general geeky tweets you can find me @brother_rooster.

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