“Boot Hill is full of fellows who pulled their triggers without aiming”
It was early 1988, I was staying over at my friend Dan’s house for the night. Normally we would spend the entire night trying to rescue Princess Zelda, but this time was different. Dan and I had played D&D before but he wasn’t part of my regular group of D&D friends and we usually only played nintendo together. Dan and I were friends because our moms were friends and he went to a different school, so we really only hung out when our moms did.
Dan had found a beat up copy of Boot Hill 2nd edition at a garage sale so we spent this night learning how to play and making characters. After an hour or so of this we decided to try to play. Dan was going to run a shootout between my cowboy and some NPC bandits. In the time it took to roll the percentile dice all of 3 times, my hero was dead on the floor of the saloon. I made a rushed second character, with little to no detail, and spent the rest of the night trying to run away from the bandits and avoid getting shot.
I remembered the game as being too hard and never played again.
I was as wrong about that as I was about just about everything back then.
Recently I became inspired to give it another go. So many great new western movies have come out in the last few years, I decided a western RPG would be worth a shot, and so I found an old copy of the 2nd edition Boot Hill rulebook and dug into it.
For a game produced in originally in 1975 (and reprinted in ’77), and the 2nd edition in 1979 (and reprinted in ’84 with new cover art), the system works amazingly well. The 2nd edition is only slightly removed from the original version which was basically just miniature tactical shoot out rules. The 2nd edition added enough elements of role playing as we know it today to make it just detailed enough to fill the 34 staple bound pages (5 of which are devoted to a detailed list and stats of “the fasted guns that ever lived”).
Boot Hill covers all the basics, and only the basics. Gambling to gatling guns are covered, but if you want to try to do something more complicated, like pick a lock or fast talk a guard, you’ll have to wing it, as there are no skills or detailed resolution system for anything beyond the most basic functions of a two dimensional wild west cowboy. But the things that it does cover, it covers exceptionally. That combat system that I remembered as being to brutal was still extremely brutal, but perfectly so.
The core rules system in the 2nd edition is the same as the 1st edition, the second RPG ever made by Tactical Studies Rules inc. (TSR), this game was the first to use two ten sided as percentile dice and rely solely on that as the core game mechanic. Combat is as fast and smooth as it is lethal and efficient. The cowboy with the highest base speed shoots first, rolls percentile vs. his base accuracy to hit, then the game master rolls location and damage on one percentile based table. If you don’t die instantly, you lose either 3 or 7 strength points depending on severity, from a maximum of 20 (but the average is about 13 to 15), so you really only can survive 2 or three shots before you end up in the games namesake cemetery Boot Hill. The system has no alignment rules allowing for players to be as morally ambiguous as the spaghetti western anti-heroes of the late 60’s. There is no clear “level” system, partially because most characters won’t survive a single game session, but it does include experience modifications to speed and bravery with each survived gunfight.
Surprisingly, this system languished after the 2nd edition. The 80’s were a big time for TSR and the core product D&D and its offshoots kept Boot Hill on the back burner with only a few supplements being produced between ’81 and ’84 and not a lot of support to the game stores or placement in the big toy stores and book stores like Dungeons and Dragons got.
In 1990 TSR published the 3rd edition Boot Hill game as a complete 128 page overhaul with all the expected crunchiness of a game system written in 1990. While it added the missing details for a full role playing experience, it lost the simple, brutal elegance of the original that captured the essence of the genre so perfectly.