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Troy’s Crock Pot: Scratch’n a cowboy itch


Is it just a summer thing? Or does the fact I have two boys who run around with their holsters, cap guns, bandanas, stick horses and range hats have something to do with it?

Or how about the fact that there is nothing like plopping down on the couch late at night and watching “Duel at Diablo,” [2] “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” [3] a train-lovers’ guilty-pleasure in “Breakheart Pass,” [4] or just about anything else with chaps, six-guns and a lot of cowboys.

Summer is when I get my cowboy on.

Knowing when to switch up


Summer reading material

A good GM knows when his players’ interests shift and then finds the right game or setting to meet that demand. While the players in the gaming group I belong to seem satisfied with the medieval adventures of Steffenhold, they aren’t my only audience.

For me, that means catering to my sons’ interests as well. But they’re not in a roleplaying frame of mind yet. Hopefully, that’ll be somewhere on the horizon. But a board game will hold the attention of my 7-year-old and 5-year-old. Sadly, the pickin’s are slim for cowboy-themed board games in their age group. (Oh, to have grown up in the 1950s. I bet there was no shortage of cowboy games then).

The answer, of course was to make a game — from scratch.

Every GM’s a designer, right?

That brings up another summertime activity GM’s should embrace: game design. Whether its trying one’s hand at spinning out some homebrew rules for their favorite rpg or adapting a board game, there’s nothing quite like tinkering with rules. And it’s an exercise that has its roots in the formative days of rpgs.

In a recent podcast provided by the folks at Roll for Initiative [6], former TSR designer Frank Mentzer (Dungeons and Dragons rules set, 1984 [7]) talked about a favorite pastime of the wargamers of the 1960s and 1970s, especially those in the Evansville, Lake Geneva and Minnesota groups that would later create the scenarios and rules sets that would be the forerunners of D&D. Basically, in the downtime after running their weekend wargaming battles, they would deconstruct games from Avalon Hill and other publishers, adapting them and changing them to suit their needs.


Homemade card game

And this tinkering bug strikes people of all ages. It took me by surprise to see this scene when I took my daughter to summer camp. In the registration area, where the lines to wait are interminably long, these young folks were playing a homemade collectible card game. Eric, the young man in the rust-colored shirt, made the game from index cards, illustrating them in stick-figure fashion, noting powers and spells and whatnot on the fronts. (The fact he mentioned that his school library has a copy of “Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots To Inspire Game Masters” [9]in its gaming section was super cool, too.)

The goal of the exercise is learn how game mechanics work. Maybe it’s because GMs like broad vistas, over-arcing story lines and big-picture scenarios, but as a breed, I think we’re less into the mechanics than many players, especially the optimizers. Still, books such as Unearthed Arcana (AD&D [10], Third Edition [11]) exist because GMs love new ways of doing things.

So, what did I cook up?


Legends of the Old West board game

I modestly cobbled together “Legends of the Old West,” a board game I made with two goals in mind: teach the boys about the historical people of the west, the hardships of living in pioneer days, and maybe a smattering of western U.S. geography. (Well, that’s really three things. I hope the geography comes in handy when they’re ready to play Empire Builder [13].)

Basically, drawing from the deck of cards tells you how many moves to make on the outer track, and, by suit, what effect the current conditions are in the west. (The outer track is full of conditions, such as flooding, bandits, T-storms and drought).

The players then draw a Legend card, on each there is a paragraph biography and photo of western legend, such as

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson or Annie Oakley. Then the occupation cards let


A few legend cards and the condition track

the players earn travel chits, which enables them to visit the state corresponding to their legend card, whether that be by wagon, horseback, stage, steamer or railroad. Beware the Jokers. Draw those and someone has challenged you to a shootout (and the loser packs up to start the game again in Independence, Missouri). The winner is the one who collects the most legends cards after a number of predetermined rounds.

What’s in your chuck wagon?

If you’ve ever tinkered with the rules of your game, invented one out of whole cloth, or even shares my summer hankering for cowboy and western fun, I’d love to hear about it. Share your experiences here.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Scratch’n a cowboy itch"

#1 Comment By hattymchappy On July 21, 2011 @ 6:29 am

In the early 90’s (while in 4th grade) my brother and I collected the Marvel comic cards that had each hero’s or villain’s stats on the back. Without even knowing what an RPG was, we went on our dad’s word processor (That’s right, we didn’t own a regular computer yet) and created our own world maps. We stole some dice from Yahtzee, made up our own rules, and went on missions with the X-men and Avengers. That was the last time I played an “RPG” until after college when I got into D&D. It was a blast.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 21, 2011 @ 8:39 am

The problem with cowboy RPGs is that there are two types of characters: those good with guns and those waiting to be riddled with holes. 🙂

As for tinkering, there are way too many for me to list. Just off the top of my head:

1. Grafting or creating a better skill system for AD&D 1e

2. Integrating Rolemaster with AD&D, especially those way-cool critical hit tables.

3. Using GURPS or something homegrown for the human characters of Car Wars and Battletech (this was before Mechwarrior, and we only used GURPS Autoduel for PCs, we kept the vehicle combat “classic”).

4. Alternative combat elements for AD&D (remember when critical hits were unofficial additions?)

5. consolidating/expanding skill lists for various games

6. Piecing together a superhero game that included elements of Champions, Villains & Vigilantes, and Superworld. We used this house system until Marvel Superheroes (FASERIP) dethroned it (although DC Heroes briefly threatened to do so as well).

7. Creating “Space D&D” (this was before Warhammer: 40,000, GURPS, and the d20 glut)

8. Using a fantasy engine to drive a “Gamma World” setting. Originally, we used AD&D with Gamma World as a tech/mutations add-on. Later, we did the same with Palladium Fantasy as a base, pieced together with other Palladium products (this was pre-Rifts).

9. Using GURPS as a base to build and run a “Highlander” campaign.

10. And, of course, while wearing my RPG Freelancer/Line Developer hat I’ve had to modify/expand various systems over the last decade.

#3 Comment By BryanB On July 21, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

So when does the board game go on sale? 🙂

#4 Comment By evil On July 21, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

I don’t have the cowboy urge….right now my group is working the 1920’s hardboiled gangster thing. As far as making up games or tweaking the rules, name a system and my group has probably done it. I’ve created my own systems, board games, and CCG type games several times over. It’s a great way to build community in your group (and another good use of index cards).

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 21, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

[15] – There’s nothing like those made up games. When I was growing up we used to do the same thing with baseball cards, some dice and a scorebook. It wasn’t Strat, but it was fun.
[15] – You sir, have too many irons in the fire for us mortals to keep up with. A one-size-fits all Supers games would be nifty, though.
[15]-I don’t think you can officially say we’re past the play-test stage, yet. Already the Jacks corner is causing fairness issues. I really have to nerf that bonus. But on the whole, my boys are enjoying it, and asking to play, so it’s been worth it.
[15] I hadn’t considered such tinkering to have community building aspect — though it should have been obvious. Thanks for adding that.

#6 Comment By Volcarthe On July 21, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

When I have the wild west itch, i turn to Deadlands. It’s all the camp and fun of spaghetti westerns with a splash of Wild Wild West, Brisco County Jr. and Call of Cthulhu.

I use the classic ruleset, but that evolved into Savage Worlds, and the Deadlands Reloaded setting for it.

#7 Comment By Razjah On July 21, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

I tinker a lot. Most of my tinkering is to get a game to have a certain feel. Want combats more dangerous? Add a cool critical hits table that I found online. Need orcs to be badass? Make them ogres, 10 ft tall and give them acid blood (piercing or slashing in melee causes 1d4 damage acid damage to the attacker). More Tolkien and Howard and less Salvatore and Paolini? E6 and cut magical healing.

I do small scale tinkering. I always worry about upsetting game balance when I tinker a lot so I try to find a system that does what I want.

For a while I wanted to have a wild west game, then Fallout: New Vegas came out and I had more than my fill of cowboy stuff.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 22, 2011 @ 6:30 am

[16] – Deadlands is indeed the gold standard of western rpgs. I’ve played some Sidewinder, myself. I wonder, has anyone given Aces and Eights or any other western rpg a spin?
[16] – There’s nothing wrong with small scale tinkering. It’s a great way to put your own stamp on a home game. That way players who are at your table know there’s something special to be had there. Something they won’t get in an organized play setting.

#9 Comment By Thammorn On July 22, 2011 @ 6:42 am

Being one of the fortunate ones who play in Troy’s toybox, I gotta say Troy is a certifiable genius when it comes to designing boardgames and Steffenhold has been more fun than the law allows.
Cowboys rpgs? I am SO there (I own copies of Deadlands, Sidewinder, AND that crunchy old TSR nugget, Boot Hill). Sadly, I’m apparently the only other cowpoke in Troy’s corral, so strappin’ on a sixgun and slappin’ leather is probably not gonna happen… (sigh)

#10 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 22, 2011 @ 7:05 am

[17] – No genius, but boy, how did I forget Boot Hill. Time to revisit that classic.

#11 Comment By MonsterMike On July 22, 2011 @ 9:59 am

Ahhh… Flashback to about 1985 playing Boot Hill. The game had some flaws, but was a blast to play. These days, I round up Savage Worlds for my western themed adventures. I use the core rules plus the weapons tables and spells from Deadlands Reloaded. I’m not such a big fan of the mechanics for spells from DR, so I stick with the normal system of power points from the core rules and just play in an approximately historical western setting.

#12 Comment By MonsterMike On July 22, 2011 @ 10:03 am

Also, if you want a very rules-light Old West RPG, check out Weird West on a well known RPG PDF download site.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 22, 2011 @ 10:22 am

[18] – Thanks for the tip about Weird West.

#14 Comment By BryanB On July 22, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

Coyote Trail is pretty darn good for a rules light Western RPG.

#15 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 22, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

[19] – I’m intrigued. Name sounds cool. I may have to check it out.