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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review of the Boot Hill Module BH1- Mad Mesa

Boot Hill modules were/are something of a mixed bag in a lot of ways. This is especially true when you break down the run and consider that BH1-BH5 covered two different editions over the span of 1981-1984. Now granted the structural differences between 1st and 2nd are minor, but a point none-the-less. Five modules in the span of three years, with one being a Gen Con tournament module (BH2) is not a great track record. Of course D&;D was taking off big time for TSR at the time so they rightly focused their attentions on their breadwinner; can't fault them for that.

As covered here, Boot Hill is one Hell of a game and was one of the very first RPGs written in any genre and was written by Brian Blume and Gary Gygax.  So back to the basics: 5 modules and before I get to far, I will be reviewing all of them: BH1- Mad Mesa: Mad Mesa (BH1), Lost Conquistador Mine (BH2), Ballots and Bullets (BH3), Burned Bush Wells (BH4) and Range War! (BH5). Right now I have 1-3 and just finished reading through BH3.

First off I'm a big fan of the graphical presentation of the first three modules echoing quite capably the look of tooled leather. Plus my favorite old school artist of TSR's heyday has drawn the cover: Bill Willingham! Anytime you have him and two-gun shooting its going to be good. There is also a number of his pieces throughout, that's even better. Everything about the look of the module says Old West; so mission accomplished. Another plus is the early covers look very much like the awesome Time-Life Series "The Old West". (Speaking of which I was just able to complete that entire series in one fell swoop! Woot!) Surprisingly, I like even the Jeff Dee stuff and a Erol Otus drawing here and there. For Dee his range of motion is excellent, his figures show movement well. I like his stuff better here then in D&D. The inside cover has a map of the town of Mad Mesa and the back cover a fanciful Mesa Gazette.

So onto BH1 itself. BH1 is a collaboration between Jerry Epperson and Tom Moldvay (of the Basic box sets fame). Mad Mesa is 32 pages which is pretty much standard length for a RPG module. Like some of the products that TSR was churning out at the time, Mad Mesa includes a section (and a rather large one) for solo play via the "choose your own adventure" rules. But, even before that it adds (like all Boot Hill products do) some additional rules. This can't be understated enough: as written the 1st and 2nd edition Boot Hill rules are so sparse it's not even funny, I mean the holes are large enough to drive a steam locomotive through. Mad Mesa fleshes out the sections for law and order and NPC reactions nicely in this regard. One could take the Boot Hill modules and create a supplement in order to flesh out the missing sections to the game and call it part II to Boot Hill! It's no wonder that 3rd edition Boot Hill is a much more complete system, its not that hard too do.

The starting premise for the solo play is pretty straight forward. The PC is riding, it's getting dark, and he needs a place to spend the night. Shots ring out then die off.   From there its picking numbered entries until you reach the end and successfully complete the tale.The entries are going to mean that play happens fairly quickly. The main purpose is to get a sense of how Boot Hill plays as system and allow the referee (they were called GM's yet) a chance to ply his trade without any plays in order to get a firm grasp of the game.

The multi-play section borrows from the solo section. It relies on the main NPC catalyst  "Uncle Zeke" being related to one of the PCs to get things moving. This in itself is not bad, because in Westerns RPGs, interactions with NPCs really, really matter, more so then fantasy RPGs. Why is that so?  It becomes apparent in terms of Boot Hill and western modules in general in how they divert from a traditional dungeon crawl RPG. Westerns are not so much location (a wizard's tower, a dungeon, a cave with monsters is to traditional fare) as they are character interaction driven. Westerns are not reliant on humans in funny suits ("monsters") for the ease of the variety they provide.  What BH1 does is give the referee a bare bones plot to go from and then adds encounters to use to further round out the expeirence. In a way being a referee in Boot Hill seems a tougher order of magnitude then being a Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons.

The 5 1/4 pages that comprise the multi-play section are good in my opinion as again the referee is going to need to a fast thinker. Most have some way to connect to each other and almost all of them have a tie into the solo play section. The Kane-Russell Cattle War could go on for months/years of game time. Of course many of these hooks could lead into nothing more then excuses to fling TNT and blaze away with six guns, nothing wrong with that by my estimation.

I've only recently  have really gotten into the Western RPg scene, but using Mad Mesa would work quite well as a Village of Homlet or a Keep on the Borderlands type module for those not up to speed with the game itself. The great part is that its a town keeps the main focus small in terms of scope although the cast of NPCs can be sprawling. Later the referee can broaden the appeal and scope as the players and their characters become more established.

If I were to use BH1, I'd probably set it in a more "mythical" Old West rather then the actual historical Old West. That is not to say a Weird West however. I think that is one area where modern western RPGs fail is they fall back to "six guns and sorcery" because its difficult to structure adventures that aren't a typical dungeon crawl and are more ropleplay driven.

Out of 5 stars I give it 3.5 as there are no real flaws with it, but no really deep hooks to make it stand out. It relies (as does the Boot Hill rules) on the talents of the referee to bring it to fruition. The closest comparison for Boot Hill is at its heart more akin to Chainmail then it is to D&D. In summary: I like it, it looks good and is an  useful module in my estimation but not a barn burner.

I should add my next review might be the Western City RPG before  BH2- Lost Conquistador Mine as I've also been reading through the Western RPG from Mongoose Publishing/Redbrick which I received as a gift. It's a pretty neat system but not one I'm sure I'd use; more on that at a later point.

How about the folks out there? Anyone actually play this? better yet "back in the day?"


  1. I have ordered it from Amazon and probably will receive it in the next few weeks. When I were a wee lad back in the day, I glimpsed a copy of Boot Hill but no one I know played it or had it. I have the second edition as a PDF somewhere and love the "real people as NPCs" bit, but it is lacking in depth from the standpoint of a guy who came up on AD&D 1e

    I'll let you know what I think. I primarily got it for the solo aspect but if it will support a mini campaign maybe I steal some of the goods

  2. I look forward to your insights on it.

    Boot Hill is s great, great system but very sparse. As I say: "skeletal" owing to its roots in miniature war gaming. That said I still love the system.