Friday, June 27, 2014
Review of the Boot Hill Module BH4- Burned Bush Wells
The 4th module of the Boot Hill series certainly has a weird name, at least to me that is. Much like the other Boot Hill modules I did not play Boot Hill back in the day as we were not into Westerns at that time (a shame) and most of our time was spent playing D&D and AD&D. For my own part I used to watch a lot of westerns with my father, but drifted away. A few years back I started watching them again and got hooked on Boot Hill. In any event BH4- Burned Bush Wells is a module produced by Jeff Grubb with some input from Allen Hammock and Brian Blume.
BH4- Burned Bush Wells is a "later" Boot Hill module. I say "latter" in that the graphic design has changed compared to the earlier modules and its apparent that at the time TSR was focusing on D&D and AD&D, specifically as their bread winners. Perhaps the power struggle at the time of the mid 80s also accounted for this. Perhaps there were not enough folks that were that interested in working on the line, Donald Kaye's untimely death not helping matters in terms of Boot Hill overall? Just speculation on my part. In any event it would be the second to last Boot Hill module and akin to the others before it. Weird to think that it was released in 1983, with only Range War to follow in 1984. From BH1- Mad Mesa to Range Wars it was span of 1981-1984 for the entire run of modules.
The cover and interior art
Elmore seems to be a polarizing figure for grognards in terms of TSR era art. In the realm of Boot Hill (and others) I think his stuff is very good and it certain captures the feel well, certainly for a western RPG. Another thing to think about: the American West isn't usually depicted in the winter, whether its a movie or art; usually its baking, scorching hot deserts and cactus. I also like to point out the crop with the snow on the bottom right corner outside the frame. In short, I like it. One thing that detracts is some of his art in the interior. Not that its not done well but a lot of his characters tend to look alike, a certain feel to them if you will. Perhaps this is where people object?
Like BH2 The GM is presented with an outline of events and like a movie certain scenes can happen at the appropriate place and time. As I've discussed with those of like minds over at the OD&D Pro Boards, its not so much as a "sand "box" but more like a "jungle gym". In so much that the idea is to provide a framework for the players but not have it be rail-roady This is a definite area where all of the Boot Hill modules struggle. A western has a number of self compartmentalized scenes, that tell the overall story leading invariability to the showdown. This works if it follows a movie script rather then fantasy sword and sorcery with six-guns and Winchesters instead.
One of the things that stands out with this and and every other Boot Hill module is the vast numbers of NPCs mentioned. In most cases I can't see this ever being terribly important. The local saloon keeper? Yes, we need to know his name, that of all of his kids? Probably not needed.
The main action takes place in the eponymous town of Burned Bush Wells in the dead of winter. As noted in the text of the module winter is a lean time in the west and the wolves are hungry. As Burned Brush Wells has a number of cattle concerns in the area they predators are naturally a problem to be dealt with. Rules are giving for hunting or trapping the critters along with the ubiquitous rules for animals that seem to make an appearance in every Boot Hill module.
The main mover and shaker is Lyle Underway the wealthiest man in town and with the most varied interests of the merchants/businessmen. He takes the role of the thoroughly unlikable power hungry businessman. He is applying pressure to the smaller businesses and cattle outfits in an effort to drive them out of business. The smaller businesses unite to for the BBBC (Burned Brush Business Council)* and retaliate over a deed, specifically the Waterhouse deed as it relates teh the Old Stage building. Underhay wants it, the PCs mostly likely end up with it and the thus a conflict is born. This is a classic western story done well in the form of an RPG. The hitch is the need to find out the former owner of the Waterhouse deed to make the transfer legal, thus foiling Underway's plans. Of course a man as powerful as Underhay is not going to let it just go at that owing to the fact that he has the law of the town in his pocket.
* The BBBC is a well thought idea that echos real like events like the Johnson County War in Wyoming that eventually drew in the US Cavalry. On one side was the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (the WSGA) and the other the smaller Northern Wyoming Farmers and Stock Growers' Association (NWFSGA). Or another parallel is the Lincoln County War of which Billy the Kid was part of.
Thus the most likely turn of events is that the PCs head out on the road to Gordon where events direct them. The overland trek is a realistic one looking at the random encounter table. Having just watched Will Penny recently I like the inclusion of Line Rider as a possible encounter (a very minor detail in the module to be sure but it shows that author had a good grasp of his content).
Another thing I like about the module is the inclusion of a ghost town. The town in question is Gordon and abandoned mining town that is largely just that: abandoned. The scenes that can take place there struck me as a very cool setting for a confrontation. Ghost towns abound in the west in real life but we have the hindsight of nearly a century and a half of space. In the game a town only recently abandoned lends an air of the campaign having been "lived in". Looking at other western themed RPGs, especially the ones of the last 20 years we get horror infused ones owing to Deadlands inspired games.
A minor point is the maps. In each case they are clear and concise, in short well done. They fit the style of the maps that appeared for various publications by TSR at the time as well as examples that appeared in Dragon a bit later.
Much like many of the modules before it BH4 is somewhat of a script, series of events rather then the dungeon crawls most are used to. I know I sound like a broken record in my reviews of the Boot Hill modules but it is something that they never addressed all that well.
By this stage in the run of TSR the focus was clearly on D&D. When one adds the looming war between the Blumes and Gygax its probably no wonder that the secondary games of TSR (Gamma World, Top Secret, Gangbusters, etc) took a back seat or dwindled on the vine. Boot Hill was a solid game and its miniature quasi-wargame roots show in the rules. It wasn't until 3rd edition Boot Hill that it became more of a role-playing game but by that point the ship had largely sealed.
The "cut scenes" (Labeled I-IX) in town as it were are well done. But its the section Waterhouse's Deed that I like very much the tramping up the stairs via the law to meet Underhay that sets in motion the events of the Waterhouse deed. I can easily picture this very event in plenty of westerns: the evil land tycoon/robber baron, etc confronts the hero(es) and tells them to clear out of to hand over what he wants, they refuse and the battle is on or at least coming to a head very soon..
As and aside by the time 3rd edition came out in 1990 my High School gaming group and I were not playing all that much in terms of AD&D let alone any other TSR games other then some side games of Marvel Super Heroes. In a sense for me, Boot Hill wasn't even a thought as I can't remember any of my high school group owning it let alone wanting to play it.
In my queue to review in the not too distant future is review of the elusive BH5- Range War!
Lastly, in order, to date here are my reviews of Boot Hill materials
Boot Hill itself
BH1- Mad Mesa
BH2- The Lost Conquistador Mine
BH3- Bullets and Balllots
On a completely personal note I bid a fond farewell to Eli Wallach who starred in incredicble westerns like "The Good, The Bad, the Ugly" and "the Magnificent Seven" to name but a few.