A Shiny New Star — Wild West Horse Opera [Worlds of Pulp]

Worlds of Pulp

Wild West Horse Opera

Role Playing Game

Author: T. Glenn Bane
Publisher: Scaldcrow Games
Page Count: 190
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) – $11.99
Print – $15.99

From out of the dusty plain dawns a new horizon. Its travel was harsh and sometimes unforgiving, but it persevered. Every trail has some puddles, but it never gave up. Grinnin’ like a weasel in a hen house and fresh onto the scene grittin’ its teeth like it could bite the sights off a six-shooter, it’s mean enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch and crazy enough to eat the devil with horns on. It’s Worlds of Pulp Wild West Horse Opera, the newest western RPG on the market. All others better take shelter or get out before noon, cause there’s a storm is brewin’, and Wild West Horse Opera is at the front.

Lovers of pulp western films, novels, or television shows, where heroes carry seven-shot six-shooters, tales so tall they make Casey Jones slow down, and supernatural weirdness uglier than a new-sheared sheep now have an RPG for them. Wild West Horse Opera (WWHO) is the latest in pulp role-playing games from Scaldcrow Games. True to its name, it’s filled with traditional western themes mixed with pulpy goodness to satisfy anyone’s taste. It began as a Kickstarter funded in 2015 and was a battle to bring to market, but it’s author never gave up. Despite health setbacks and overextending workload from running two Kickstarters simultaneously, it’s here now waiting to be played and enjoyed.

Like many Western RPGs, WWHO replicates a romanticized version of the American Wild West. Pulling inspiration from mass media of the early to mid 20th century while remaining respectful to the indigenous peoples who roamed the plains before the great expanse. Its action is over the top and unrestrained as any good pulp story should be. Though it is set in the historic west, its stories run parallel or seen from afar as opposed to direct interaction with history. The game steers gamemasters to built their own stories instead of interceding into those already written. The game’s suggested base setting, Mythic Arizona Territory, is a mirror of reality with enough divergence to stay true to the genre but flexible enough to tell your own tales.

For the purpose of the article, I am reviewing a preproduction version of the PDF provided to me before its final release. At the time of this writing, it’s still undergoing minor refinements, but its mechanics and flavor will remain unchanged from its final form.

WWHO starts off with a picturesque stroll through the western setting, laying down the foundations of the western pulp genre as viewed through the creator’s mind and cinematic portrayal, quelling any angst or difficulty that the western setting might hold to today’s socially conscious mind. It calls upon the grand landscapes, positive western tropes, extraordinary adventures, and its heroes. WWHO is not only a pulp game, but it also provides weird west horror.

At its core lies the Bare Bone Beyond Mechanic. Used in other Scaldcrow pulp games and compatible with WWHO. Its mechanical components adapted to accentuate and replicate the feel of western pulp. Whether you roll Snake Eyes or Rolling Boxcars you can feel its pulpy flavor. The system uses 2d6 and sometimes a d3 to resolve actions. Within those rolls of 2d6 are dice variations known as Broken Rolls, Standard Rolls, Snake Eyes, Rolling Boxcars, and Straight Rolls. Broken Rolls separates the two, and each is read on its own with one coming before the other. Standard Rolls are regular rolls where results fall between 2-12 with the added bonus of rerolling doubles and then being added to the result. Snake Eyes, two ones, constitute a failed roll and halts any further action. Rolling Boxcars, two sixes, signifies a critical success. Straight Rolls are similar to Standard rolls without the bonus of rerolling doubles.

The first step in creating a character in WWHO is, to begin with, your character vision. What kind of hero do you want them to be? What drives them? What motivated them to leave the comforts of the east and head out west? What style of western character does the player want to portray? To aid players in the process are numerous western archetypes to choose from. Each archetype is fleshed out with all the components needed to build a character if the player chooses not to create their own. Chances are a player will find an archetype that fits their vision among the 30+ available.

WWHO characters stand atop their nine Core Abilities: Combat, Agility, Might, Magnitude, Toughness, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower, and X-Factor. Each Core Ability adds to the character’s Abilities. Abilities are the character’s skills and can build upon each other and placed in a character’s basket. Baskets are multiple abilities stacked upon each other to complete the task at hand. The more Abilities used to accomplish a task, the more packed the basket becomes, granting a larger rate of success. The number is not infinite, and rules guide what can be placed in one’s basket. This style of mechanic delivers a pulpy feel to the game. Dice results are pitted against target numbers, which determine success or failure. Characters begin with the Abilities within their archetype and more from a long list to further customize their character.

To err is human, and each character in WWHO features Conditions. Conditions are flaws in a person’s personality. Be it haunted by their past or bad temperament, Conditions are there to act against the character. They are there to provide context to a character’s behavior when faced with circumstances that trigger them. They are meant as roleplay enhancements when activated or optionally mechanical hindrances to dice rolls. They provide extra excitement and obstacles for players to overcome.

Double sixes, Rolling Boxcars, provide additional bonuses to players. When double sixes arise, the rolling player gains Boxcars Points on top of the six each player begins the game with. Boxcars Points are a commodity that is spent to add extra abilities to one’s basket on top of the free abilities already allowed. They can also be used to enhance dice rolls after the dice are rolled, except on rolled Snake Eyes. Snake Eyes is always a failure. Spent Boxcars Points can increase damage and also give the player the ability to alter the narrative. Each Boxcars Points spend cost a set amount. It costs three Boxcars Points to add one to a character’s initiative roll and eight to alter the story. Players a free to trade Boxcars Points with each other as well as spend points on each other’s dice rolls in a positive manner. Boxcars Points provides agency to players within the game and enhances their abilities to reach hero status.

A character’s abilities used over and over becomes second nature to them. They become what is known as Recall and Muscle Memory. These stacked Abilities develop a set rating and no longer require a  roll to determine their success. They can be only be utilized by spending Boxcars Points. If a player wishes to use them without spending Boxcars Points, they risk failure and resetting the basketed abilities back to normal until it becomes second nature again.

Throughout the game’s when characters face Encounter Scenes, dangerous or potentially dangerous adversaries, they earn Building Points. These points are later spent to enhance or gain new abilities. Each Building Point earned allows the player to roll against an ability they wish to raise; one chance per increase. The ability is raised when a Straight Roll, unmodified by Boxcars Points, exceeds its current ranking. The player is welcomed to try as many times as they wish until successful or until they run out of points to spend.

Once the players have their character fleshed out, they can start to equip them. Starting cash is universal among most characters unless otherwise stated in a character’s archetype. Each character has a rank that determines their monthly incomes. Characters can earn more through adventuring. WWHO provides plenty of period-appropriate gear and weapons to choose from. It also provides a basic abstracted economy for gamemasters to follow in four categories: Standard, Successful, Rich, and Filthy Rich.

When engaging in combat, the highest score on a standard 2d6 roll determines who takes action first. Snake Eyes and Rolling Boxcars create special events that affect initiative rolls. Once the initiative is determined, the combat is resolved in four phases: Winning Phase, Losing Phase, Second Winning Phase, and the Resolution Phase. Initiative winners act first in the Winning Phase and losers in the Losing Phase. Initiative winners act a second time in Second Winning Phase and Resolution Phase is for Death Saves, non-aligned personas to act, and uncontrolled activities such as derailing of a locomotive, a runaway horse, and other elements out of the characters control.

Characters can attack and defend in combat while reducing damage through their toughness and layers of protective clothing. Called shots, attacking more than one target, combat maneuvers like Stand your ground, Cocked and Ready, Hold and Receive, Cover a Target, and standard combat RPG modifiers enhance that cinematic feel of western action.

A character’s survival in combat is marked with Hit Points. Hits Points are what they appear to be, the amount of damage a character can sustain before getting measured for a pine box. Its number derives from the character’s Toughness, Willpower, and Magnitude core abilities. When a character’s Hit Points reach zero they must roll a Death Save, which is equal to their Magnitude. Failure results in death and business for the town’s undertaker. Keeping true to the pulp genre, a dying character is granted their last words or a simple gesture. Whichever they choose must be simple and brief and close to the point of expiration. Those lucky enough to pass their Death Saves fall into unconsciousness and begin the slow process of healing. Gamemasters who wish to add more pulp to there games can activate an optional rule to allow characters to Shake-Off Damage, taking slightly less damage with the consequence of instant death at zero hit points.

WWHO base world setting is the Mythic Arizona Territory. As mention before, it’s a mirror universe to history where the gamemaster and players can create their own stories. A lot of care is placed in aiding the gamemaster in building their own world or utilizing the world setting. A wonderful hex map of the Mythic Arizona Territory is provided filled with prop towns to utilize.

Prop towns are standard western towns that provide the basic and most common shops, townsfolks, and happenings in such towns. Prop towns are to be used over and over again with a simple change of the name and layout, creating less work for the gamemaster. WWHO offers a fully developed prop town called Gunshot with over 46 detailed locations for gamemasters to use over and over again as well as random features that surround it.

There are many tools for gamemasters to use. Among them is a fully stocked corral of NPCs complete with stats, descriptions, backgrounds, conditions, abilities, equipment, and horse companion, plus normal animals and critters to encounter along the trail. There is also a list of 128 story hooks, some developed by Kickstarter backers, to keep a campaign going for years. Another tool WWHO uses is called Simple Low Impact Characters (SLIC). These SLICs are non-descript NPCs, background characters that require little development. They allow a gamemaster to quickly create an NPC based upon their level of competence. Each SLIC is ranked and uses existing creatures or archetypes as needed for more detail.

The greatest gamemaster tools this book provides is its extensive random generators. It has a generator for Towns, Canyon/Mountains, or Pulp Events, a Pulp Villain Designer, Random Terrain Features, and Town Development. All events can be selected at random with a Broken Roll of 2d6 or chosen from the list. But the greatest generator WWHO gives us is the Horse Generator.

A western hero’s greatest companion is their horse. Be it Trigger (Roy Rogers), Silver (The Lone Ranger), or Topper (Hopalong Cassidy), horses play a huge part in western stories, and WWHO recognizes their importance with a horse generator that unflattens the five-letter word that falls under a character’s list of possessions. This generator is more than a basic set of characteristics but several randomized charts that give life to an important and often overlooked NPC. Players pick at random or choose a horse’s breed, color, facial and leg markings, behaviors, and special forte.

Now one of the craziest features in this game is called the Cosmic Eye. It’s like a magic eight ball for gamemasters. It’s to help gamemasters answer questions they may have trouble answering. Once again, it uses a series of random charts with different outcomes to aid the gamemaster to develop their answer. Anyone familiar with the RPG Ironsworn will find it’s a lot like their Oracle mechanic. A series of suggestions aid the gamemaster in brainstorming an answer.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, WWHO is multi-genre in which weird west/horror elements can blend into the setting. A gallery of supernatural beings and creatures, a random event generator geared toward horror, are provided. Even a developed cult called “The Circle of the Night” is at the gamemaster’s disposal, which provides the background on the organization and its practices.

The book wraps up with a sample of gameplay, a historical timeline of events from 1822-1890, adventure seeds for pulp and horror-themed play, nine Wild West cooking recipes to inspire your taste buds, and a list of recommended movies to watch.

Well, was the wait all worth it? In the time Wild West Horse Opera hit Kickstarter to its final release, it easy to see a lot of research, thought, and time was put into the project. It’s clearly reflected in the work. The game mechanics accentuates the feel of a pulp game, and it’s attention to detail to the western genre is present. The rules are clearly written and very well organized. The book uses a decimal numbering system for each chapter and subsection, which I found useful when writing this review. It allowed me to quickly find the sections of rules and undoubtedly will aid a gamemaster at the table. The publication layout is very clean and well thought out. It’s interior black and white illustrations are highly detailed, ooze pulp, and a lot of flavor. The extensive random generators have applications well beyond this game or system. I, for one, will no longer have a simple horse in any of my games. It took a long time to make it, but it’s finally here, and it’s a welcomed addition to the western RPG genre.

~Stephen Pennisi

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