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Friday, August 24, 2012

Review of the Boot Hill Module BH2- Lost Conquistador Mine

BH2- Lost Conquistador Mine as the title would suggest is the second Boot Hill module in the series for the miniatures/role-playing western game from TSR. BH2 was written by David Cook and Tom Moldvay, which is pretty cool when you think about that for a minute: respectively the principal designer for 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the editor of the Moldvay version of Dungeons and Dragons Basic working together on the same module. 
As noted on the frontispiece of the adventure was originally written as a tournament module, in this case taking place at GenCon XIII (circa 1980). Two years latter it would be resurrected as a production module. I can't say this is a bad thing, but like its Dungeons and Dragons cousins (A1-A4, which are also tournament modules) it shows signs of its origins. I've talked about it here and elsewhere on the web. I don't think these are necessarily bad ideas, just that they show their weaknesses as to what they were originally designed for. Now I could be way off on this as Boot Hill BH2 has nothing noted in terms of scoring like the A series.

To start off the review I like the graphic design. Like BH1. Lost Conquistador Mine really captures the mood of an Old West RPG. The hand tooled leather look is evocative of a leather riding saddle of boots. The module is the standard 32 pages for most TSR products at the time. The art inside is likewise good with Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway and Bill Willingham providing the majority of it by the looks.

Diving in, the introduction section is long and works under the assumption that the referee is a rookie which is not a bad thing. Next up it offers the time frame of the module as 1868, so not all weaponry is available yet. This is a nice twist in my opinion as there are some limits to note. But, before one goes any further, like BH1 there are gaps in the Boot Hill rules edifice to fill first. In this case rules for vigilantes, NPC reactions, crime and punishment, outdoor travel, dangerous animals, night fighting, telescopic sights and bronc busting. Wow that's a lot. As I previously states in my review of BH1, one could take all the extra rules in the first three Boot Hill modules and have a fairly hefty document that fills in the gaps of the ruleset. Sorry to sound like a broken record, I think the rules for 1s/2nd Edition Boot Hill are great, but definitely needed more work as an RPG.

The next part deals with the small town of Dead Mule, its buildings and inhabitants. Like BH1 there are a number of smaller events that can happen prior to getting onto the main portion of the module, namely the the Lost Conquistador Mine. In addition there is a separate key for the buildings themselves. The main hook of the adventure starts out is variation of the "a man walks into a bar handing out a mission." In this case the man is an old prospector named Dutch Jack who expires willing the PCs his belongings including a map to the Lost Mine. In way this is a also a variation of the main driver of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" where the confederate soldier dies directly sending Blondie and Tuco on the quest for the Confederate gold. From there it's off to the outdoor/overland travel to the mine. The map is a bit of a puzzle to figure out and helps bulk out the module.

The niggling part of the outdoor sections are that they seem disjointed in the keyed encounters once the PCs are on the way to the mine. I'm not sure if this is the fault of the module or the genre in general. In the case of BH2 most of them really have nothing to do with each other. If trying to mirror a genre like a western there needs to be more consistency. Most things in a western relate to one another in some manner. This can be done poorly and it can be done in an amazing manner like the D&D Basic module O2- Blade of Vengeance. O2 does a great job because the events build on one another leading to the climax of the module. I wonder if Wild West modules patterned off of O2 would likewise be well received. The issue here is that there are Wilderness encounters that are more or less in fixed spot and then Wilderness scenarios in the manner of the town descriptions and town scenarios. I'm of a mixed mind on this as it some respects its good, but in others it could be confusing. As I reread it, the jury is still out for me.

Finally the group makes it to the eponymous mine they are confronted with a series of short caves in the overall mine proper. I wont ruin the surprise for someone who has not read this beforebt this section does not fill up much of the module. And low and behold as if the reader cant guess, yes there is gold in this module, in the "room at the end."

In the end I like BH2, but I can't give it more the 3.5 out of 5 stars. There is nothing bad about the module per say, but the Lost Conquistador Mine is but a small part of it and really series of really small caves rather then a mine. This is about as close as one gets to a "dungeon-crawl" in the TSR line of Boot Hill modules barring BH5 Range War! which I have yet to procure. Like BH1 its a good module for beginners, that's both the referee and the players. I think it also speaks to a criticism I have heard before: the designers were really unsure of what to do with the genre when you can't just sent the PCs to the local monster hotel. It also shows in the case that if the final destination of a module is a cave or dungeon-like setting you really have to think it out: you can only rely on mountain lions and bears so many times in the Old West and BH2 has both.

In the end I  recommend BH2 and if part of the "Promise City" campaign Dead Mule fits in well in the vicinity. It has some nuggets, but just like a gold mine you have to exert some muscle to get the reward.

As an aside I've been very fortunate on eBay getting my modules and paying between $5-10 per. All have been great quality with little staple rust and few if any blemishes.

Next up is either my review of Western City RPG or BH3- Bullets and Ballots. Stay tuned pardners.

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?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My 10 Favorite Westerns of all Time

Fueled by my growing re-interest in the Old West in general I’ve been either watching for the first time or re-watching many Westerns. My dad is a big fan of them and I watched quite a few in my youth/teens with him and then drifted away to other pursuits. As I noted in my post about Boot Hill I never played it since we were so focused on D and D. With my reawakening of Westerns my thoughts
have turned to western themed RPGs and my favorite westerns of all time

My list is not going to be to everyone’s taste and since I was born in a decade where they were decidedly on the decline (the 70s), my list will reflect my age. If I were to ask my Dad I’m sure his will be different with some being the same; some are timeless. So without further delay, this time in reverse order, my top 10 favorite Westerns of all time. 

#10 Open Range- This will surprise many people I think, but it’s actually quite a good movie. Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are great in this movie as is Annette Benning. In a few places the movie wanders off script in terms of logic and consistency, but for the most part tells a very good story of the end of the open range and the rise of the cattle barons. In fact the end of the open range was one of the defining moments of the Old West.

Costner’s character Charlie is not an anti-hero per say, but a man troubled by his past. When it comes to gun fighting however Charlie is more akin to an Old West version of Liam Neeson’s character in Taken. He just goes to town and obliterates everything in sight.

While some might see it as contrite the budding romance between Costner and Benning’s characters is a good representation of how people approached courtship in the 1800s: stilted, awkward but well meaning.

#9 Silverado- This is my guilty pleasure movie as far as Westerns, but you can’t go wrong with the cast, it’s damn impressive: Kevin Kline, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldbloom, Scott Glen, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese and many more. It seems that ensemble cats work well in westerns and Silverado certainly has the right actors. 

Silverado is a throwback to the traditional western tales after the revisionist’s westerns of the late 60’s and 70s. The tale is fun; you care about the good guys and actually want them to win. The fact that the movie is well shot, directed and done well in terms of cinematography just add to it. The final gun battle at the end has so many great scenes it’s hard to not like this movie.

#8 A Fist Full of Dollars- “My mule don’t like people laughing at him, gets the funny feeling they’re laughing at him” and “My mistake…. four coffins.” Those two lines are some of the best lines ever uttered in a movie, let alone a Western. Fist Full of Dollars is awesome! Oh yes, “The Man with no Name”, is a pretty cool moniker.

 #7 True Grit- If I had to pick just one John Wayne film it would be this one. His portrayal of Rooster is great! Some might not like it because its John Wayne, playing John Wayne, but I liked it well enough.

#6 Dances with Wolves- Surprisingly Costner makes the list again, but this movie is impossible to ignore in the Western genre. It’s telling that it’s a great story that has nothing really in common with other westerns, mainly focusing on Indians and Lt. John Dunbar’s interactions with them. In other words it’s a story that happens to take place in the west.

Dances is a visual and auditory masterpiece with sweeping vistas and scenery and magnificent soundtrack to accompany it. The majesty of Dunbar’s first ride through the plains with the “John Dunbar theme” playing is cinematic gold.

The movie and its characters span the range of human emotion: despair, loneliness, hope, friendship, love, hate, madness, pragmatism, and laughter.

Perhaps my favorite scene of the movie is the one where the old Indian chief pulls forth a Spanish conquistador helmet when he and Dunbar are talking about the coming of the white-man. The chief says this was from the time of his grandfather’s grandfather; implying that the Indians would survive this too. The viewer gets a great sense of sadness knowing that the Chief doesn’t know the tidal wave of settlers that is coming. Costner (the director too) side steps this by having the Indians leave their winter camp before the Army arrives. He then wisely ends the movie then and there, but sadly tells the story of the end of the Indian way of life as the end credits roll.

In short Dances with Wolves is nothing short of breathtaking.

#5 HighPlains Drifter- A Clint Eastwood western with a touch of supernatural? Yes please. High Plains Drifter is a great story because the real villains in the movie are the townspeople themselves that the Drifter is there to defend. They are villains because the townsfolk murdered the Sheriff. Time goes by and the mysterious Drifter appears in town. It is alluded to (but never said definitively) that the mysterious Drifter is the sheriff having returned from the grave. Drifter is one of those movies that makes you think, especially at the very end when the Drifter rides away from Lago at the very end with the midget working on a tombstone that you can’t see what is inscribed on it. The midget says he doesn’t know the Drifter, to which the Drifter replies, “Yes, you do” and it shows the tombstone of Joe Morgan, the murdered sheriff.  

#4 The Searchers- This is widely regarded as the greatest western of all time and was registered as culturally significant by the Library of Congress in 1989. That alone says something. Additionally the American Film Institute named it as the greatest Western of all time in 2008. Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, and Natalie Woods the Searchers is THE Western for the older demographic. My own memories of it are hazy as I think I may have watched it one time only. It’s already at the top of my list to rewatch. Because my recollections are dim I’m looking forward to this one, as it will be like watching it for first time.

#3 The Good,The Bad, The Ugly- Out of the three in the Dollars Trilogy, the Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is by far the best. That’s not to say that the others a Fistful  of Dollars and a Few Dollars more are bad, its that The Good, The Bad, The Ugly is that good.

The twists and turns of the movie leave you at the edge of your seat as the movie traces Tuco (the Ugly) and Angel Eyes (the Good) pursuit of $200,000 in Confederate gold. The Mexican standoff at the end with the soaring score is likewise impressive as is the ending.

#1B Tombstone- It’s very tough to not list this movie and number 1, so I think of it as 1B. This movie is perhaps the finest retelling of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone Az, on October 26th, 1881. The previous “standard” was the Battle for the Ok Corral in the 1950s that left a lot to be desired.

The gunfight and the Earp Vendetta ride was THE event of the West, even with the myth that surrounds it so it’s fitting that this movie is at the top of the heap. Tombstone features an ensemble cast of Kurt Russell, Powers Boothe, Val Kilmer, Michael Biehn, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen Lang, Jason Priestly and Charleton Heston amongst others. But it is the acting
of Kilmer as Doc Holliday that steals the show. Doc as Wyatt would recollect later “was the deadliest, fastest, nerviest man I ever saw”. The whole movie touches on almost every part of the Earp/Cowboy war and where it takes liberties it does a good job making them plausible and seamless.

The telling also does well in presenting a fairly balanced view of the Earps. The Earps were canonically the “good guys” but their dealings in town says otherwise. The Earps weren’t necessarily the good guys and the cowboys weren’t necessarily the bad guys. The fact that event in the events of 1881 people on both sides were split in their loyalties.

The actors, particularly Russell, do a great job with the dialogue making it seem that you are actually in 1881. With all this in mind Kilmer as a menacing, Latin quoting stone cold killer with a southern drawl did the best acting as Doc Holliday. Closely behind him is Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo.
Going hand in hand with this is the cinematography since it was actually shot in Arizona.

#1A Unforgiven-  Of all of Clint Eastwood’s westerns, which are considerable, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Forget for a moment that this won Academy Awards (earning Eastwood Best Director) think of the script itself. Eastwood sat on it for 25 years so he would be just the right age to play William Munny. Now normally I don’t like anti-heroes who are anti-heroes for the sake of it, but Munny is cut from a different cloth: a man who was a drunken, stone cold killer whose acts include “dynamiting the Rock and Island in ‘69 killing women and children.” Let that sink in for a minute. So when he comes out of retirement for one more job, he’s doing it for the sake of his kids. Of course he’s coming out of retirement to kill two men who cut the face of a prostitute.

The cast of this movie is epic: Eastwood, Gene Hackman, & Morgan Freeman. Those three
alone make it a great. The interplay of William (Eastwood) and Ned (Freeman) is what makes the movie, then it shifts for the final scene where Munning takes it to Little Bill.

From the story side of the tale the best part about it is that the main characters are being contrasted by WW Buechamp’s writings throughout the movie with the mythological west and its events. In other words the how’s and what’s of what really happened and how they were reported or perceived being two different things. Hackman’s Little Bill is menacing without being over the top; a hard man who
utters some immortal lines, but none better then “Hell I even thought I was dead, turned out I was just in Nebraska.”

The final scene is perhaps the finest scene of cinema related to a Western, they don’t get better then this:

Honorable mention goes to the likes of Pale Rider, Hang em High, Little Big Man, Outlaw Josey Wales, Once Upon a time in the West, and Two Mules for Sister Sarah. There are plenty of great westerns and it’s a shame that the current regimes in Hollywood has rendered them as “already been done”. From what I understand the remake of True Grit and the movie Appaloosa are worthy westerns to see.