SHOTGUNS-N-SADDLES (S-n-S) is an excellent Wild West d20-type rpg with an old school feel. It will be easy to learn for anyone familiar with any other similar game and the basic system.
Sufficiently comprehensive yet flexible and not overly finicky, it is well-written and very organized. The material is nicely presented and the pen-and-ink art, which appears to all be the work of one person, is highly suitable; I find it effective. I especially like the portraits in the Legends of the West section, which although stylized, seem to capture the look and attitude of actual people. The entire book will not cost you too much in ink to print out (appreciated in a pdf). S-n-S is not a retro-clone of anything.
The greatest strength of the game is the degree to which it captures the Wild West of the movies, pulp fiction, and television. Historical accuracy is not the goal, but recreating the great drama, action, adventure, mystery, tension, and romance of the fictional West in an rpg, and at that, the author has achieved admirably, in spades.
A character possess twelve attributes, Athletics, Book Learning, Fighting, Frontier, Grit, Horsemanship, Perception, Presence, Shooting, Stealth, Strength and Quickness. Each is determined by rolling 3d6 and then translated via a table to a score between -2 and +2.
Players roll randomly to determine their character’s background and depending on the character’s background, +1 is added to between two and four attributes. A character’s background is not a character class, but in addition to the attribute bonuses it affords, the background provides a springboard for role-playing and for possible motivations.
There are twenty Special Abilities such as Born in the Saddle, Doc, Fast, Lucky, Quick, Tough Hombre, etc. A PC starts with one, determined randomly.
Although classes are not used, as a character advances, the player chooses additional special abilities and in this way may essentially create a sort of unique “class” during the course of play for their character. This will really appeal to many players. On the other hand, some might miss ready-made classes for their PCs.
S-n-S employs a three point “White Hat, Brown Hat, and Black Hat” alignment system. You might think of these roughly as Lawful Good, Neutral Good, and Chaotic Evil, but do not read too much into those correspondences. Alignment is not an integral part of S-n-S (for instance, it is not listed for Folk and Legends of the West) and if, like me, you do not use it, that will cause no problems. For groups that want to use alignment I think the “White Hat, Brown Hat, and Black Hat” system seems like a good way to go and will work fine for the Wild West.
A PC earns an experience point for each four hours the player spends playing that character. As characters earn experience points, they successively earn a level (added to checks), then a hit die, then a special ability, then a level, hit die, special ability, and so forth, cycling around like this. Rewards are earned at predetermined numbers of experience points, becoming harder to earn as characters progess; the first seven such rewards, for example, are earned at 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 experience points. This is a simple and appropriate system, in my opinion, and is quite good for an Old West game in particular. If a GM is really married to another system of experience points, such as awarding for foes overcome, solving problems, advancing the narrative, role-playing, etc. and penalties (e.g., playing outside of alignment) then adapting that to S-n-S would require some thought.
The combat rules, like the whole book, are well organized, clear, succinct, and very understandable. Initiative is 1d6 + Quickness, is individual, is rolled at the beginning of the fight and remains the same throughout the conflict. Rounds are 3 seconds. A typical zero-level type has about four hp, a pistol does 1d10 damage. No distinction is made between gun/weapon damage and subdual damage. Guns and ammo are grouped into general types; this is the best policy for this type of game.
NPCs and critters are dead when they reach zero hp. When a PC reaches zero hp he or she suffers a “Critical Hit,” the player rolls on a table to determine the effect, which is either death, unconscious & will die in time, unconscious for a time, no effect, or adrenaline surge (+1d6 hp). If additional hits are taken while at zero hp, then the Critical Hit effect is rolled again, with an increased chance for a more dire consequence.
Usually I am not too keen on rules discrepancies between PCs and NPCs during play, according to the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” principal but in this game and setting, I think the difference in what happens when reaching zero hp is fine. In fact I think it is a neat system. One reason is that PCs are quite vulnerable starting out. They begin at level zero, with about 4-6 hp (or possibly a bit more if they are lucky or if a GM elects to start PCs with max hp). This in a world where, for instance, a typical outlaw is 1st level, 2d6 HD, with about seven hp, and an Indian Brave, also 1st level, with 2d8 HD, has about 9 hp. At higher PC levels, the “Critical Hit” rule makes PCs tough, but there is always a chance of death at zero hit points, and it is right for the genre that a character that has advanced to a renowned central role should be hard to kill.
In general, one of the great strengths of S-n-S is the attention paid to situations which are integral to the Wild West movies, pulp fiction, and television shows that are its inspiration. The discussion of horse chases under combat is one example.
Another excellent example where the author has provided rules to handle a classic situation, right out of the movies, is the rules for Showdowns. This is the dramatic confrontation between gunfighters in the street. This could be handled by usual combat, as the author notes, but having effective, special rules to handle this iconic Western scene is a great idea!
At some time in a Wild West rpg, poker, of course, will come up. The perennial question of “how to handle poker,” is often answered with “why not just play poker,” but the response to that is the same as if two characters arm wrestle, why the players do not actually arm wrestle, or if the PCs need to jump an eight foot wide chasm, why not mark off a eight feet with tape on the floor, and have players try to jump. Additionally, actually playing poker can take a lot of time and in my experience can actually have the opposite of the intended effects of enhancing immersion, feel and color because all of a sudden the group is not playing an rpg but is playing cards, even if efforts are made to stay in character. (That is just my personal experience and opinion).
S-n-S uses a system to handle poker using dice. Each hand of cards is “modeled.” Anteing up, bidding, bluffing, cheating, and folding are all covered. It is a good system for handling hands of a poker game in an rpg.
“THE CINEMATIC WEST”
This is the author’s very apt phrase for the setting that the rules are designed to emulate, which is not the historical West. Capturing the atmosphere of “The Cinematic West” is a great success of the game. And this brings us to two of the best things in the book, the chapter on the “S-n-S West,” and the chapter on “Legends of the West.”
In “The S-n-S West,” the author discusses, in general terms, not specific to the S-n-S system, a large array of aspects of the Wild West, from Bad Girls and Bounty Hunters to Silver Mines, Stage Coaches, Telegraphs, and Trains, and lots more. The real success of this chapter is that although it is about color and feel, that is not all it is about – it is also highly usable material in the game. Most everything discussed is presented in terms of how it appeared in the West (i.e., the “Cinematic West”) but also how it can be used in gaming, amounting to a chapter full of a whole lot of possible hooks and seeds for adventures. A GM who likes to flesh out details and has some imagination can get a ton of mileage out of the short descriptions in this chapter, for use in any Wild West rpg.
The “Legends of the West” Chapter is extremely good as well. Here we have 24 famous personages from Bat Masterson and Belle Star to Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp, with full statistics and descriptions, and each illustrated. This is another chapter chock full of great color and highly usable material. Very valuable. There are also quite comprehensive lists of NPCs and Critters covered, to keep the PCs busy.
JUST A FEW…
… minor personal quibbles. Because we are all opinionated folk, and like to tinker and throw about our two cents, right? (Us rpgers). With combat, I do not like a natural twenty rolled th automatically being double damage and a natural one automatically being a fumble or gun jam. I am also not wild about the Called Shot rule as stated. A player may elect to aim for a particular hit location, taking -4 th penalty and +1d6 damage if shooting a critical location (e.g., head presumably) or achieving a special effect such as knocking a gun out of somebodies’ hand. I feel this can get fussy, with many Called Shots, the effects of which the GM needs to judge on the fly. I think Called Shot should be a Special Ability and the effects of Called Shots spelled out in more detail.
These slight nit-pickings of mine are obviously very minor things that are easily house ruled without any “breaking” of the system at all. Similarly, you could tinker with most any aspect of the game if your group is amenable, and the rules are flexible enough that there will be no systemic problems.
There is a very fine adventure included, “Tumbleweed Valley,” which would be a great start to a campaign, or suitable as a one-shot for a group to learn the rules and so forth. I will not say too much (no spoilers!), but suffice it to say, it is an especially good Wild West adventure.
Highly recommended! It is a great value. If you have not tried a Wild West rpg but are interested, this would be a great place to start. Using the included adventure, you could be up and running in no time. If you are already into Wild West rpging, using another system, you will still find valuable ideas, source material, and possibly rules you might well adapt.