Boot Hill: or, “That Wild West game you probably never heard about” – 1st Edition

Content Warning: this post contains an analysis on a game from the 1970s, and contains references to racism and sexism. Usage of the term “Indian” to refer to Native American people.

If you have been following this blog, you probably have at least a passing understanding of my feelings towards Gary Gygax, aka the (co)creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). What you may not know is that D&D was not Gygax’s only foray in table-top role-playing games (TTRPGs). In those early days, Gygax was quite prolific, creating completely different systems of games for different genres. These posts are specifically about his Wild West TTRPG, Boot Hill (BH). Gygax would only work on the 1st (1975) and 2nd (1979) editions of the game, alongside Brian Blume.

This post is somewhat different from previous posts. This is a review of both 1st and 2nd editions of BH, as I was able to temporarily obtain copies. Due to continued COVID-19 concerns, I was unable to do any play-testing of the rules as written. Because 1st Edition is a bit more of a slog to get through than initially expected, this will be a two-parter. Part 1 will be 1st edition, and Part 2 will be 2nd edition, with a few notes regarding 3rd (1990). Worth noting is that BH would get a 2nd edition a decade before Advanced D&D. In fairness, AD&D wouldn’t get a 1st edition until 1977’s Monster Manual, with the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide to follow respectively in ’78 and ’79.

The 1st edition is a booklet that sold for $5.00. Today, we would probably refer to something along these lines as a ‘zine. Each piece of paper is printed horizontally to create 4 pages of text, 2 on front, 2 on page. These were then organized by number, and bound with a couple of staples between a heavier stock cover. All told, the 1st edition runs 44 pages: 5 pages devoted to title page, index, and intro; 33 pages of setting and rules content; 1 page left blank for “NOTES”; 1 page devoted to a further “Product List” of other TSR games; and 4 pages of reference tables. In total there are 10 illustrations by 4 credited artists: C. Lesch, T. Lesch, J. Seaton, and K. Batey. Considering production value on TSR games at the time, it is likely that all four artists were local to the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin area in the mid-70s. I was unable to locate any additional information on the artists, including their full names.

***EDIT: Thank you to Tracy Lesch for reaching out to me about this to offer some clarification and context! From Tracy:

This was based on accounts of the time, some say it actually happened, some folks don’t. But the tale said that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday almost shot it out outside a billiards parlor. Holliday suggested they settle their differences with a showdown at 10 paces. Ringo reportedly said, “I only need 3 feet to take you down,” and pulled out a handkerchief, flicking the end at Holliday for him to take. In a handkerchief duel, combatants must retain hold on their end of the handkerchief while dueling, or be declared the loser/coward. It’s said that this duel was broken up by the local law before shots were fired.

I was 14 years old when I did this illustration for TSR. My father is Charles, who gave me some guidance at the time. He drew the “dead gambler” illustration with the antagonist that has smoking gun in hand.

END EDIT***

I am somewhat impressed by the layout of the book. It looks fairly clean and professional with paragraph text fully justified. The Index is neatly defined: Basic Rules; Advanced Rules; Optional Rules; Campaigns; Appendices; and Reference Sheets which are indicated as being meant to be removed from book. My guess is that Gygax invested at least some money into a word processor, because there is no way you would get pagination this clean on an old manual typewriter. Keep in mind, we are talking about 1975. The first “home computer” would not hit the market until 1977. There were some build-your-own kits on the market in 1975, but I do not believe they included any word processing software. It is possible that Gygax and crew had access to a professional editor who was just really good at this type of stuff, but all indicators are that Gygax published the 1st Edition of BH in-house (potentially literally in his own house in those early days). Today (2020) you could get a better printing and binding job done at your local big box office supply store.

Title Page: The name of the game uses an “old west” style font that I was unable to find a match for, but it clearly indicates to anyone familiar with the genre that this is, indeed, a game set in the “Wild West”. As if the font wasn’t enough to tip off the reader, immediately below the game’s name is text reading,

RULES FOR “WILD WEST” GUNFIGHTS AND
CAMPAIGNS WITH MINIATURE
FIGURES ON A MAN-TO-MAN SCALE

Okay, so right away, Gygax wants players to know that this is a game to be played with “miniature figures”. While people in 1975 may not have had immediate access to metal (would have been lead in ’75) or hard plastic minis like we do today, you could get a bag of soft plastic “Cowboys and Indians” toys of the same quality and scale as green army men anywhere toys were sold (including the toy aisle at most community grocery stores). As a kid back in ’80s, I had a whole mess of these cheap plastic dime-store figures, along with cheap building play-sets as well. I can only imagine what adults with paint, a hobby knife, and some polystyrene cement were able to do with these kid’s toys. If you were in an area that had an active table-top miniature wargaming scene, you may have had a local hobby shop that sold metal (lead) miniatures as well as scale train sets and rocket kits. If not, you probably had someone with the hook-up on a print catalog that you could purchase stuff through mail order. But I digress.

Foreword: Here Gygax explains how BH is different from traditional wargaming. He wastes no time in explaining the setting, just working on the assumption that everyone is familiar with the Hollywood Western. I’m not reading between the lines here. He states that. This is a game about gun fights. To quote, “In fact, Clint Eastwood Westerns are somewhat mild compared to the typical BOOT HILL game!” He then goes on to explain these can be contained scenarios or part of an ongoing, “epic of action.” “And larger scope can be given to either sort of play if players are given some henchmen — a band of desperadoes, a bunch of cowpokes, a troop of cavalry, a war party of Indians, a deputy and a posse. Showdowns? Dry-gulching? Range wars? Vigilantes? Yep, pard, It is all here.” That’s a lot of content to be found in around 40 pages, right? At this point, I’m somewhat incredulous of whether or not BH is going to be able to live up to Gygax’s hype in the foreword. He mentions “Indians” a total of three times on this one page, which doesn’t make me feel great where he will go with that. So, let’s keep going…

Oh, more of the foreword. I figured that would just be a single page. I was wrong. He breaks down that the book contains core rules, advanced rules, and optional rules. Kind of figured the table of contents would provide readers with that insight. He mentions his co-writer Brian Blume. He assumes readers are already familiar with Brian for his work on WWII wargames, and he shouldn’t have to tell you about all the stuff he and Brian worked on with Martian wargames. Oh, and Brian is working on other stuff, but he’s still hard at work researching the history of the Old West so that we will get more BH supplements in “THE STRATEGIC REVIEW”. (Little bit of digging reveals that The Strategic Review was TSR’s predecessor to Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. It would contain rules clarifications and additions, as well as scenario and campaign ideas.) He ends the foreword with, “Time to stop all the palaver and saddle up. If we hurry we can head ’em off at the pass!” – E. Gary Gygax, Tactical Studies Rules Editor, 1 May 1975.

Here’s the first interior illustration by Charles & Tracy Lesch, 1975. It shows two people standing face to face, with what appears to be a neckerchief stretched out between them, clenched in one’s right hand, and the other’s left hand. I do not know what this is supposed to be indicating. Was this some sort of alternative to shaking hands? I don’t know. There is no context given, and it looks to be a rough graphite sketch. ***EDIT: Thank you to Tracy Lesch for reaching out to me about this to offer some clarification and context! From Tracy:”

This was based on accounts of the time, some say it actually happened, some folks don’t. But the tale said that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday almost shot it out outside a billiards parlor. Holliday suggested they settle their differences with a showdown at 10 paces. Ringo reportedly said, “I only need 3 feet to take you down,” and pulled out a handkerchief, flicking the end at Holliday for him to take. In a handkerchief duel, combatants must retain hold on their end of the handkerchief while dueling, or be declared the loser/coward. It’s said that this duel was broken up by the local law before shots were fired.

I was 14 years old when I did this illustration for TSR. My father is Charles, who gave me some guidance at the time. He drew the “dead gambler” illustration with the antagonist that has smoking gun in hand.”***

Introduction: Here we start the regularly numbered pages. He lets the reader know the game is simple. Well, that’s good right? Except I’ve read enough books penned by Gygax in my life to know this is likely to be a lie. Things are not going to be simple, and the reader is going to feel like an idiot when they can’t figure them out later. So, you roll for your characteristics, place your figurines, then start shooting, apparently. That does seem simple. He mentions those who play-tested the rules should be able to jump right in. He references the LGTSA, which apparently stood for Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association. According to the Wikipedia entry, “Its early membership included Gary Gygax, Terry and Rob Kuntz, Ernie Gygax, Jeff Perren, Mike Reese, Leon Tucker, and Don Kaye. The group usually met weekly in Gygax’s basement. Brian Blume joined the LGTSA in the summer of 1973.” So, the play-testers that he is referencing are his buddies (and his son) in his basement. The LGTSA found that the more times they played, the easier it was to navigate the rules. I would have never figured that out. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the LGTSA for that insight. You can have a referee, but it is not required.

Gygax suggests avoiding “rigid” scenarios, and instead just setting up a town, populating it, and then letting the players have at. He suggests using 25mm or 30mm scale figures. For current point-of-reference, Games Workshop/Citadel games like the Warhammer series are standard 28 mm (1:64) scale. Most fantasy role-playing miniatures over the years have been at 25 mm (1:76) scale. 30 mm (1:61) was a standard for pre-1970 wargaming minis, so I’m guessing members of the LGTSA still had plenty of these, and they were also of a similar scale to S scale model trains. Because he uses specific model scales, Gygax is signaling that the dime-store “army men” aren’t right for his game, because they are 54 mm (1:34) scale. Gygax also takes this opportunity to personally take a shot at Airfix plastic minis, by stating, “which don’t hold their paint jobs,” and how metal (lead) minis are more desirable. He then lets the players know they can use paper cut-outs until you can obtain “proper” models.

Sidebar: Airfix is still in business, and they are still producing plastic models. They are a UK based company, and were purchased by Humbrol in 1986, then Hornby purchased Humbrol and Airfix in 2007. Unlike TSR, which became defunct after Wizards of the Coast bought them out and ended the imprint in 1997. Also, worth noting, lead stopped being used to make metal miniatures around 1993, after some consumer protection lawsuits out of New York. Apparently, it was a bad idea to make “toys” out of lead or something, with miniature wargamers insisting their lead minis were not “toys”. Guess how that argument went for them in court?

Scale: And here you were thinking that just got covered in the introduction section, right? Nope. Here he tells you the Figure Ratio, which is 1:1. I, uh, don’t know why Gygax even mentions that, right? So, one figure is equivalent in scale to…one figure. I’m clearly missing something that is probably old miniature wargaming related. There is a lot of that in some of these early games. Many assumptions are made regarding the player’s prior experience with table-top wargaming. Time: 1 turn = (approximately) 10 seconds. Distance: 1 inch = 6 feet (assuming 25 mm scale). Gygax notes the time scale should be approximate, but still fixed at that unit, because they tried “distorting” it, but there were “adverse” results. Simply put, if one character’s action only takes 6 seconds, then they could do that action 5 times over 30 seconds, while the 10 second action could be done only 3 times. In the end, they arbitrarily set it for 10 seconds, no adjustments.

Characteristics: Alright! Time to roll some stats. There are four stats: Speed; Personal Bravery; Personal Accuracy; and Strength. You roll two ten-sided dice numbered 1 to 0. The first die counts as the first number, second roll the second number, to generate a result between 01 and 00. What we generally now refer to as “rolling percentiles”. There are four charts for each stat. Your percentile roll determines the stat. Okay. This is going to get confusing. The stats are not numerical. They are descriptive. For instance, Speed goes from “Slow” to “Greased Lightning” with a total of 10 descriptive level markers. “Greased Lightning” is the result on a roll of 96 to 00, and you have to indicate what “level” it is. So, that means a 96 is “Greased Lightning 1”, while a 00 is “Greased Lightning 5”. In comparison, “Slow” is 01 to 05, but there is no differentiating between if you rolled a 01 or a 05. Wait. Upon closer examination, the differentiating “Greased Lightning” stats are OPTION rules, as opposed to ADVANCED rules.

Rolling my character: I rolled a 60 for my Speed, which means my gunslinger is Very Quick. I rolled a 62 for my Personal Bravery, which means I am Above Average. Oh, I have to roll twice for Personal Accuracy, once for thrown weapons, and once for fired weapons. Well, why not make those two entirely separate stats, right? But I’m already here so, 16 and 75 means: Below Average for thrown weapons, and Good for fired weapons. Now we move on to Strength, which oddly has not only descriptive ranking, but an associated numerical ranking from 8 to 20. Let’s see what I get! An 82! That means my Strength is 16 (Hardy). An 84 and I would have been 17 (Strong). Hold up. I rolled an 82, and I’m not strong? Hold on, there’s more. Under the charts, it shows that there are Bonuses and Change in Ability modifiers. Would have been nice to know beforehand. The Bonuses apply if rolling a “personal figure”. This translates as what we now refer to as the Player Character or PC. Well, this is my gunslinger, so I apply this chart. With bonuses: Speed 65 – Very Quick (no change); Bravery 67 – Brave (increased); Thrown Weapons 26 – Average (increased); Fired Weapons 75 – Good (no change); and Strength 84 – 17 (Strong) (no change). Looking at the info for Change in Ability, and that is for stat improvement. Basically certain actions, which have not been described yet, if successful, can increase your percentile roll, which is why on your character card you want to record your percentile roll and your characteristic result.

BASIC RULES: Holy cow! We are just on page 3, and start in on the basic rules. This endeavor may require a bit more time than I initially thought it would, but hey, I’ve already got my character rolled up. I’m going to call her “Wynonna”. Except I’m not sure my gunslinger can be a woman. Not without penalties to Strength, at least. More on that later. We start with:

I. Turn Sequence: The basic rule uses Sequential Movement which consists of: A. MOVEMENT; and B. COMBAT. Simple enough. So, each player moves in turn…as outlined in the MOVEMENT section. Then, after moving, each player has the option to engage in combat. From what I can tell, all movement and combat in a turn happen effectively simultaneously with the basic rule. Nope, I was wrong. Players all call out what target they are shooting at and how many shots at the same time, but order of firing is determined under the FIRST SHOT section.

Alright, so there is going to be a lot of this, so I’m going to break down my perception of the Rules as Written: Sloppy design. If your first section references five later sections, these rules are poorly laid out. Apparently there is also a BRAWL phase after COMBAT.

II. Movement: The MOVEMENT section is what I would expect from Gygax, having played early editions of D&D and AD&D. Lots of variables, depending on if you are walking, running, crawling, on horseback, traveling through difficult terrain, etc. This shows the same lack of foresight Gygax had with D&D/AD&D: he couldn’t imagine anything past combat.

III. Weapons: Oh goody! This is usually where these old games shine, in their ridiculously exhaustive listing of weapons!…And, I got my hopes up for nothing. There are sixteen ranged weapons listed. These have stats for: Range in inches, divided up into Short, Medium, and Long Ranges; Rate; Weapon Speed; Ammunition; and Reload. Already, I see some issues. If you were note playing precisely at the scale suggested, you would have to adjust the ranges yourself. Of course. Gygax told you what scale you should be playing with. How dare you not! Oh, there are a lot of variables with these weapon stats. Be prepared to understand that when actions start, you have to announce if your weapons are holstered, drawn, or drawn and already aimed.

I’m starting to hate this game.

Oh, look, a picture of a pirate…no, a prospector. Wait. He’s riding a horse, I think. This illustration is by J. Seaton. The more I look at it, the more disturbing it gets. I’m sorry J. Seaton.

IV. Combat: This has to be reasonably easy to pick up, right? Uncle Gary said the rules were simple to understand at the beginning of all this, and I’m only on Page 6, consarn it! (Yeah, that’s right! I can type Hollywood old timey slang, too!) Okay, I’m trying really hard not to type expletives right now. 1st you determine FIRST SHOT, based upon the chart of the same name. So, you don’t roll for FIRST SHOT. You total up all the positive and negative modifiers for each shooter. Whoever has the higher modifier according to the chart shoots first, and then so on. In case of a tie, the shots are fired simultaneously. The chart is poorly designed. In the text, Gygax just keeps stating “X” is self-explanatory. No, they are not!

Gary Gygax just expected everyone else to intuitively understand his rules as written (RAW). This is not unique to BH. In this section he is talking about how wounds act as modifiers, but note, he has never mentioned what wounds even are before this section. He just assumes you are reading the rules in a non-linear fashion, or that this is your 2nd or 3rd time reading through. Once again, he thinks all of this is “easy”.

Back to the action!

Okay, so rolling to hit. Every attack starts out at a base 50%, and then you go through the modifier chart. There are forty-nine (49) different modifier possibilities. Admittedly, some of these are part of a grouping, like the eleven (11) different Individual Accuracy modifiers (you only select one of these). Still, this is a lot of math, and you have to do this every attack. Now, if you have a firearm that lets you fire three shots in one COMBAT round, you will have the same roll on all attacks (-10 on each shot). This does not appear to be cumulative. So, if the other factors put you at 70%, it would be 60% on all three shots instead of 70%, 60%, 50%.

Oh, now he tells us what wounds are. If you hit, you roll percentiles, and a 01-50 is a Light Wound, which results in -3 to Strength; 51-85 is a Serious Wound, and give a -7 to Strength; and 86-00 is a Mortal Wound, and target is DEAD. If Strength reaches 0, target is unconscious, but not DEAD. That was just the FAST HIT LOCATION chart. On the next page is the EXACT HIT LOCATION chart, which means you roll twice. Once for location, once for severity of hit. Leg and arm hits are never fatal, but chest and head have a higher chance of fatality. Clearly, Gygax was not an expert in firearm injuries, even in the “Wild West”, as there were plenty of cases of people dying from gunshots in the extremities, and also the unusual cases of people surviving head shots. Apologies, you can survive a head shot in BH, it’s just the odds are definitely not in your favor.

Looking all this over, I see that there is one way to basically obliterate every opponent: scattergun at short range at rest on a solid object. That alone, without considering Accuracy and Bravery will put your hit chance at 90%. On top of that, you get a +15 on HIT LOCATION rolls. Keep in mind thought, that’s at short range only, which is only four (4) inches.

Going over the rules, the firer may use either of the HIT LOCATION charts to determine damage to the target. Dealer’s choice, I guess. No idea why you would ever opt for the FAST chart, but to each their own.

V. Brawls: I just read this section five times. For someone who is lauded as being an expert game designer, Gygax really phoned these rules in. None of the brawling rules really make sense. From what I’m able to piece together you can throw a punch with each arm, or grapple. If you have a knife or other stabby thing you can stab and punch, but the stab uses the HIT LOCATION chart instead of the BRAWL chart. Here’s where it gets weird. The BRAWLING chart shows Adjusted die score as being 2 or less ranging to 12 or more. It does not indicate if you are only rolling 1d10 instead of percentiles, but that is the assumption based upon the chart.

ADVANCED RULES: Okay, so once you “master” the BASIC rules, you get the honor of being able to progress to the ADVANCED game. There is no reason to go here. Only additional disappointment lies behind Door #2. Just take the goat. I’m not going to go in great detail on these rules, just give a brief overview, noting particularly “what now?” type things.

VI. Simultaneous Movement Turn Sequence: All players write down on scrap paper how their characters are going to move, or what actions and contingencies they are taking, like “Wynonna is going to hide behind the water trough, and cover the entrance to the saloon with her peacemaker.” Then everyone reveals their directions and movement all happens at once. I hate this. I hate all of it.

VII. Advanced Movement: Here you need an impartial referee, because they determine whether any figures trying to stay hidden reveal themselves. Also, vehicle movement. This is also garbage.

VIII. Advanced Combat: First (but not last) special rule for “Indians” – Arched Arrows. Apparently ONLY “Indians” use bow and arrows. They can indirect fire over cover, for a 15% chance to avoid cover and be treated as a normal attack, unless the target also has cover over them as well. Also, rules for Firing at Horses. Yeah, you can totally attack someone’s horse, because this is Gygax. The man hates horses. Good news, horses are sturdier than humans, so they are 20% harder to get a fatal injury roll on. It’s the little things, right?

IX. Minor Character Morale: In basic play, the player only controls a single character, the “personal figure”, or as we call them now, player characters (PCs). In advanced play, the player may also control any number of minor characters, or the referee may instead control them. In contemporary RPGs, we refer to these as non-player characters (NPCs). Gygax had not quite nailed down the terminology in ’75. Even D&D at this point was still using “referee” and “Dungeon Master” interchangeably, which shows a design philosophy different than in many contemporary games. In BH, the referee was primarily to settle rules disputes between players, and occasionally interject and “play” minor characters. I just explained in much more detail what a minor character actually is in BH than Gygax bothers to explain. Like most of his rules, he expects the reader to already know what he is writing. So basically, you roll against the NPC’s bravery score, with modifiers. If you roll equal to or less, they do what their PC orders them to do. If you roll higher, they try to run. You have to make this check each turn, unless the number of enemies is reduced by casualties below the number of “friendly” PCs and NPCs. So once Wynonna and her ragtag band of townsfolk outnumber the desperadoes, the townsfolk don’t need to make morale checks anymore.

There are special rules for Cavalry. Gygax assumes you know what cavalry he is talking about here. He is not generally referencing horseback units. He is specifically referencing the United States Army Cavalry. How do we know? He talks about commanding officers (CO). Basically, while the CO is alive, they don’t fail morale checks. If the CO is knocked out of commission, they have to make regular morale checks.

Indians“. I mean, we knew Gygax was going to have more to say. Apparently “tribal Indians” are Very Brave, and their “War Chiefs” are Fearless. No morale checks until they suffer a fatal casualty. Really detailed rules here in this block about how these “war bands” lose morale. He also refers to regular “braves”. Yeah, this is the kind of casual racist crap you would find in the 70s and 80s, with most of the (white) population not even batting an eye.

X. Miscellaneous Characters: Here we have another chart of different types of NPCs, along with their suggested stats. The last column reads “Experience“. There have been no mentions of this stat previously in the book, nor is there an explanation in this section. (After a full read through, there is NO explanation for what Experience means in BH.) There are a lot of Western archetypes found here: Sheriff, Bounty Hunter, Miner, Gambler, etc. Two stand out from the others: “Indian” and “Saloon Gal“. The first for obvious reasons. Everything else is a profession, but then we have listed an entire human ethnic group. The second is because this is the first reference in the game to women. The default singular pronouns used in the book thus far are “he/him”. Now we see that the only role that women seemingly serve is “Saloon Gal“. And this is where we see Gygax’s belief in Biological Determinism kicking in, because the man just could not help himself. Every other NPC has a Strength listed as Any (except the Deputy US Marshal/Gunfighter at 15+). The Saloon Gal’s Strength is 13-. That means the strongest that a woman can get is Average. Some of you may say, “Well, that’s not fair. Any of those other character types could be women.” You would be wrong.

XI. Setting up a Town: Here Mr. Gygax suggests that you potentially include in your Western town a Mexican or Chinese Quarter. Or maybe even a fort nearby because of hostile “Indians”. Basically, to add some extra flair to your setting, add in a segregated section of the town. Keep in mind, “quarters” didn’t arise in these town organically. Non-white populations were forced to build away from the white settlers, even in areas that were already populated by non-white peoples. But hey, Gygax seems to think it would be fun to go ahead and toss in that detail for fun! Oh, and also, might as well remind people that “Indians” are hostiles! Yippee-ki-yay!

XII. Building Interiors: Nothing to see here. Seriously, there is nothing really of value in this section for anyone. Apparently, buildings have interiors, and you should have those drawn out.

OPTIONAL RULES: Here we find alternate rules for:

XIII. Alternate First Shot Determination: There’s not enough whiskey to make this rule make sense to me.

XIV. Greased Lightning Rule: Harken back to rolling stats. Remember the different tiers of Speed if you roll Greased Lightning. This just explains that in a First Shot determination, the higher tier Greased Lightning would go first.

XV. Sharpshooting: Higher Accuracy ratings make a character a sharpshooter. Sharpshooters can call targets or get extra shots a round.

XVI. Stunning: There’s a chart for this, depending on what you are hitting with, and if you hit the target from behind/surprised.

XVII. Intoxication: Booze decreases Speed and Accuracy, but increase Bravery and Strength.

XVIII. Professional Gamblers: Normally if characters are playing cards, the players actually play cards to determine the winner. However, if a professional gambler character is at the table, they get to cheat by rolling percentile dice against the other players at a +15 to the gambler’s roll. If they win three times in a roll, the other players get to roll to see if they catch them cheating by rolling equal to or less than the gambler’s Cheat ability. How is the Cheat ability determined? The gambler rolls percentile dice until they get a result of 50 or below. That is their Cheat ability. It is not indicated whether this is rolled at character creation or at the beginning of each gambling session. It is also not clear how a player character gets to be a professional gambler.

XIX. Dynamite: It goes BOOM. The rules are basically for safecracking, but makes it clear that you don’t want to be near it when it goes off. There’s a chart for damage based upon proximity and quantity (by stick). The chart is poorly formatted.

XX. Misfires: There’s a chart for different types of firearms. Only the Cap & Ball Revolver has a chance of exploding. Clearly Gygax never observed a shotgun barrel explode. It now becomes more obvious why Gygax was adamantly opposed to firearms in D&D (but not lasers, for some reason): he had no real idea how firearms worked.

XXI. Stray Bullet Rule: It is exactly what it sounds like. If you miss your target, path a straight line out based upon shooter and target. If there is another person within one inch of that line, there is a 1% chance it will hit them. If there are five people, there is a 5% chance it will hit one of them. That math doesn’t really seem correct, does it?

XXII. Gatling Guns: They go BRRRRRRRR. Basically they have a 3 inch wide “swath” of fire that extends out 200 inches. Anything in that zone if probably taking damage, as indicated by yet another chart. Why not a cone? Who knows.

XXIII. Cannons: Also go BOOM. Rule only applies to “cannister” (my dictionary spells it “canister”) rounds, so cannons use a cone-shaped area. Targets who are within the first 10 inches are just dead. No rolls. The cone is described as being, “22 1/2 % to each side of the barrel. The maximum range is 60 inches.” Make sense of that. I think what Gygax meant, is that the cone was a 45 degree cone (so, 22.5 degree on each side). Leave it to Gygax to describe a cone in the least understandable way.

CAMPAIGNS: We’re nearing the end, even though we are only on page 22. Wait, we’re only on page 22? All of this, and we’re only on page 22? I’ve been working on this review for days, and I still couldn’t play this game. In this section we have what appears to be additional optional (or maybe advanced) rules. Effectively though, these rules are for “big” overland maps stretching miles, while normal play is in a contained “town” map. This section contains rules for foot and mounted travel speeds on a “hex” map with a scale of 2 miles per hex. Turns are weekly or monthly, depending on…stuff. In this section you find out how to do things like a cattle drive, or forming a “posse” to pursue bandits or…”Indian raiders”. Those are the two examples given, plus and “etc.” Oh, you can also track outlaws or…yup, you guessed it…”Indians”. It is also apparently more difficult to track “Indians” unless they are going through settled areas.

APPENDICES: This includes two sample scenarios: Gunfight at the OK Corral; and Battle of Coffeyville. There is also an appendix for “Prices and Wages”, that surprisingly has nothing on it about prostitutes. Well, except the entry for “Waitresses” actually is “Waitresses, etc.” No other entry for occupation wages has an “etc.” tacked onto it. Oh, but here we get a drawing of Belle Starr by K. Batey 4/75! This is literally the only reference to a woman being able to be a gunslinger in the game, and it is a sketch.

SUGGESTED READING: Now, Gygax was a lot of things, but the man did like to read, so I’m sure that he and Blume did in fact read all of these books. 26 books in total. Three are specifically about Wyatt Earp/Tombstone. There are a lot of titles containing the word “gun”, but none of them are actually about firearms, but rather the men who used them. Only a handful of the books cited were published within the 10 years prior to 1975, but really, how much can be written about the same very specific range of time and people? (That’s rhetorical.)

After this, there is a blank page titled “NOTES” and a “PRODUCT LIST” of other TSR books and accessories. Dungeons & Dragons is $10.00 and is a boxed set containing THREE BOOKLETS! There’s a sci-fi game called Star Probe which sells for $6.00. I’m going to see if I can find a copy of that game somewhere, because I am curious. I see that Chainmail is still available for $5.00, which is important, because the version of D&D on this list references rules in Chainmail, so better grab both of them. You can also subscribe to THE STRATEGIC REVIEW! for $1.50 for four issues. It does not state how frequently the newsletter is released, so that $1.50 could have you set for two months or two years depending on how much Gygax feels like typing. TSR pays all postage and shipping, so that’s pretty sweet. Back in the 70s, USPS shipped everything for pennies. It just may take four to eight weeks to get delivered. Things were different back then. Instant gratification was basically only for big city folk. You also have to keep in mind that other than the dice, every product that TSR was shipping was print media, which had its own special reduced shipping rate. The last four pages are BASIC and ADVANCED rules charts. None of the OPTIONAL charts are reprinted in the back. As mentioned in the beginning of the book, these pages were to be carefully removed from the book. If you had a local print-shop, you could probably have them run copies of the chart sheets on their Xerox machine. If you happened to have the right connections at a school or library in 1975, you were more likely to have access to a crank mimeograph machine. If you’ve ever seen a blurry copy of something in purple ink, it was probably a mimeograph duplicate. Now, you couldn’t just pop in the charts and crank them out. You first had to make a stencil master to make copies of. That means you would have to type out the charts on a typewriter with a stencil setting, then put the stencil in the mimeograph, and crank out the copies. I knew people still doing this with charts from TTRPGs until around 1990 or so, because the school would let students use the mimeographs, but not the Xerox, because the ink cartridges were EXPENSIVE.

OVERVIEW: Gygax wasn’t the visionary of clean game design some make him out to be. While BH has a decent visual layout on first glance, the placement of certain rules lacks any consideration to how anyone would go about learning to play the game. There are references to rules not yet mentioned, but no indicator of what page those rules are found on. As I said before, Gygax expected players to intuitively figure out the rules. If you couldn’t manage that, well, that was clearly your failing. Effectively, the entire book is antagonistic. That fits Gygax’s philosophy of gaming perfectly though. To him, gaming was antagonistic. This likely has to do with Gygax’s gaming background being in tabletop wargames. BH doesn’t have a solid design philosophy behind it, either. Are the players playing cooperatively or competitively?

And now, I’m going to talk about the sexism and racism on display in BH. Gygax makes a point of using he/him pronouns when describing both players and their characters. This is not just because the “default” pronoun in the 70s was the masculine. In some future posts, I’m going to go into all of the times that Gygax blatantly declared he was sexist on Main Street. For now, just know that not every game would default to male pronouns. Many games would use neutral terms like “YOU” or “PLAYER 1” or other indicators. TTRPGs were different, and Gygax would really set the tone for a lot to follow, defaulting to example players only in masculine terms. The reasoning? Gygax did not believe that “girl” brains were inclined towards his combative games, and only preferred what was effectively playing out soap operas, or “social games” as Gygax would occasionally refer to them. This also explains the anger that Gygax would have on open display to how HIS games started being popularly played in the 80s with developing stories (seriously, this dude HATED the idea of an ongoing story narrative).

What is fascinating is how much racism Gygax managed to cram into a few sentences here and there. He made it clear that “Mexicans” and “Chinese” were effectively background set pieces to add in for flavor. “Indians” were there to be antagonists that even got their own special rules. If you don’t understand how having special rules for “Indians” to use bows and arrows is racist, you, like Gygax, don’t really have a very accurate understanding of the “Wild West”. Most Native Americans were forced out “West” after being displaced in their original lands to the east of the Mississippi. The “Trail of Tears” wasn’t just a forced relocation: it was the destruction of entire cultures. It was genocide. They were placed on what was considered inhospitable land, often bordering on other Native American cultures that called those regions home, and then just expected to survive with effectively no support from the U.S. government. It wasn’t the world of the old Western matinee serials. The U.S. Cavalry that Gygax so admires? Murderous scum. There are plenty of accounts of U.S. Cavalry forces slaughtering women and children, many of those accounts written by the men in the U.S. Cavalry or journalists accompanying them to write of their “great” deeds. Gygax was well aware of this. It isn’t that he just didn’t care (not saying apathy towards racial issues is a good thing, here), but that he painted them as purely antagonists that existed only to be hunted and killed by the players. “Indians” to him were no better than Hobgoblins in D&D. It is no coincidence that Gygax groups many of these “humanoid” foes into “tribes”. Not once does Gygax suggest that a player could make their character as something other than a white man, and it is HEAVILY implied that you are going to make a white man as your gunslinger.

In summary, this wasn’t a “fun” nostalgic look back at a product from 1975. This was a journey into a poorly written game created by a smug asshole who didn’t think women should be playing HIS games, and thought that anyone not white was at best a prop and at worst a sub-human monster to be used for target practice. It was, like many other games, a way for Gygax to live out his white man’s power fantasy. It really does make sense why Gygax shifted away from tabletop wargaming, because in a lot of those games it was white guys against slightly different white guys. Maybe it just didn’t scratch the particular itch that Gygax was seeking when it came to simulated killing? Where’s the sense of moral superiority when you play a Waterloo game for the 100th time?

If you have read this far, and your thoughts are, “Yeah, real objective of you!” Well, I never even implied my goal was objectivity. When it comes to a review like this, only a liar or someone who grossly misunderstands the nature of subjective/objective would try and claim an objective analysis of the material. This isn’t physics. Also, so many (primarily white men) in the TTRPG community hold Gygax aloft like some sort of sacred/profane idol. He wasn’t a man worth that praise. His games weren’t even especially inspired or inventive. There are some sources that say he cribbed most of D&D from rules created by Arneson, and that Gygax basically turned it all into a jumbled mess that could only be played if your group “house-ruled” it to the point it no longer resembled what Gygax put on the page. On almost any of these games, Gygax is not listed as the sole author, but he sure went out of his way to make people think he was.

Next up: Boot Hill 2nd Edition. I’m guessing it doesn’t get better.

3 thoughts on “Boot Hill: or, “That Wild West game you probably never heard about” – 1st Edition

  1. Hey Clark, I saw your review, thanks for the mention! I just wanted to add a little to explain one of my drawings. You had posted, “Here’s the first interior illustration by Charles & Tracy Lesch, 1975. It shows two people standing face to face, with what appears to be a neckerchief stretched out between them, clenched in one’s right hand, and the other’s left hand. I do not know what this is supposed to be indicating. Was this some sort of alternative to shaking hands? I don’t know. There is no context given, and it looks to be a rough graphite sketch.”

    This was based on accounts of the time, some say it actually happened, some folks don’t. But the tale said that Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday almost shot it out outside a billiards parlor. Holliday suggested they settle their differences with a showdown at 10 paces. Ringo reportedly said, “I only need 3 feet to take you down,” and pulled out a handkerchief, flicking the end at Holliday for him to take. In a handkerchief duel, combatants must retain hold on their end of the handkerchief while dueling, or be declared the loser/coward. It’s said that this duel was broken up by the local law before shots were fired.

    I was 14 years old when I did this illustration for TSR. My father is Charles, who gave me some guidance at the time. He drew the “dead gambler” illustration with the antagonist that has smoking gun in hand.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Tracy, thank you so much for the response!

      I had never heard about that account before between Ringo and Doc, but I will definitely add an edit to my post with your permission.

      Thank you also for sharing a piece of history regarding TSR and table-top role-playing in general.

      Did you ever get a chance to play “Boot Hill”?

      Like

      1. An edit would be just fine with me. When it came to my drawings in Boot Hill, I based them off of historical info, mainly because I was afraid I wasn’t going to “get it right.” Thank God for my dad the historian!

        I thank you for what you do, discussing RPGs and table-top games. Keep preaching that gospel, brother! Maybe you can cover some of my other favorites, like Fight in the Skies, Car Wars, Dungeon!, Marvel Super Heroes and maybe some Avalon Hill Games.

        I have played Boot Hill, most recently at GaryCon. I also got to play a unique scenario in which it was mashed up with spacemen, it might have been a Gamma World/Boot Hill combo, lots of fun! Keep blogging, my man!

        Like

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