By Kevin Kulp
Owl Hoot Trail is a fantasy steampunk Western game (reviewed here and here) published by Pelgrane in 2013. Clinton R. Nixon wrote the core of the game that Matt Breen and I developed. Our aim wasn’t to make a Western-flavored fantasy game that felt like D&D with spurs; it was to make a game just as deadly and cinematic as your favorite Clint Eastwood movie, except with giant steampunk monstrosities, gun-slinging Orcs, Dwarvish prospectors, and blandly smiling grifters who demolish you in a hand of poker while they chat secretly with each other in Elvish. If we ended up with female halfling marshals gunning down owlbear rustlers at high noon, we were hitting our design goals.
We hit our design goals.
It’s been a while since we’ve revisited the game here at See Page XX, so here’s a few alternate ways to play alongside some great game hooks for doing so.
Low Magic, High Grit
Someone says “fantasy heroes” and you squint suspiciously; you want your western game stripped down and all human, maybe with some supernatural weirdness to confound the players. Can do!
Keep the Mechanics, Change Out the Appearance
Keep the game mechanics for all the character races, but toss the appearances and cultural hooks (if any.) Pick a half’in, for instance, and you still get +1 to DRAW, Amity and Defense – without having to be small or have hairy feet. The players can describe their character’s appearance however they wish, and use the mechanics from any race that fits their character concept.
Think Twice About Supernatural Character Classes
If you want to cleave closer to classic Western tales, limit how much steampunk, spirits, mind control and word of the Almighty makes it into your game. You’ll want to keep the classes Gunslinger, Marshal, Ruffian, and Scout. Take a close look at Gadgeteer, Mentalist, Preacher, and Shaman. I love those classes and consider them incredibly fun to play, but they break the mold of the traditional Old West.
You might pick and choose as well, keeping some classes and eliminating others – or keeping the abilities in a class while describing them differently. Perhaps a Mentalist is a huckster or incredibly persuasive singing cowboy. Perhaps a Preacher’s abilities (some of them, at least) have incredibly mundane and non-supernatural explanations. Keep what you love, jettison the rest.
Make the Foes Match Your Tone
You probably don’t want the characters attacked by a chupacabra or giant ants if you want a classic western! Or maybe you do. Hey, I’m not judging. What we recommend is that you save time by using pre-written monster stats and just reskin them to look like whatever or whoever you want. Instead of goblins, you have feral children. Instead of a hellhound, you have a vicious trained attack dog.
Or better yet, introduce a small amount of horror or fantasy into your game by carefully picking and choosing non-human foes. The Marshal’s going to get a huge and unpleasant surprise the first time she tries to arrest a graverobber who turns out to be an honest-to-goodness ghoul…
Steampunk and Sorcery Extravaganza
Serious and conservative games are for weenies, you declare, and you plan to make your game sing by turning the “wahoo!” volume up as far as it can go.
Over-the Top Villains
No one likes a boring villain. No one. So make them memorable, clever, infuriating, and multi-faceted – even most of those facets just makes them more dangerous and conniving.
To do this, don’t ever have a villain with one driving goal. In the real world, few people are mono-maniacal. Sure, they may have a particular life goal (or two, or three), but they also may have families, loves, hates, and hobbies that help make them unique. Your villains can follow the same pattern. Perhaps the notoriously lethal gunslinger paints portraits of the men and women she kills, and delivers them to her victims’ families – and it’s nothing but a rumor that late at night those portraits can be heard sobbing. Or maybe the crazed steampunk inventor of clockwork monstrosities loves to knit, and sends all of his mechanical terrors out into the world with a nice little knitted shawl or bonnet. Why? Because he finds it hilarious, most likely. If there’s another reason, the characters will have to find it out.
It’s also fine to make great villains fallible, with visible weaknesses and flaws. That’s usually a much better choice than making a “perfect” villain; your players are going to want a handle on the bad guys to manipulate or goad them, and that’s most fun when they can detect a villain’s ego, pomposity, pride, or fear. Players feel justifiably clever when they spot their enemy’s obsession and then lure that enemy into a trap by preying on the knowledge.
Embrace the Weirdness
Cackling inventors drive giant clockwork spiders across the llano, stalking intelligent prey; a punchcard-driven sheriff metes out clockwork justice in a small town where even the worst ruffians call themselves his friend; and some miscreant is adding robotics to the local livestock, turning bison into steam-powered weapons platforms. Those cows and sheep aren’t actually going to combine into one hideous robotic cow-sheep amalgam that’s a 30’ tall baaing, mooing, clanking menace, are they? Well, yes, they probably are. Somebody should probably get right on stopping that. And by “somebody,” I mean “your players.”
If you love the idea of the weird west and want to differentiate this game from a traditional western, turn the knob up to 11 and embrace the unusual nature of the setting. Look at the four more unusual character classes and consider basing something interesting around them. To focus on Shamans, create a town (or even the entire Old West) where spirits are known by everyone to walk the earth and can be summoned, manipulated, allied with.. and feared. Not only are there nature spirits, the Rotting Marshal commands undead vampires and zombies from her corpse ranch out in the blasted deserts. If you’re going to carve out a space for civilization, you may want to start by eliminating the threat of your own dead kin betraying you.
For Preachers, consider a setting where there’s an apocalyptic battle going on between heaven and hell, and it’s being played out through the unknowing inhabitants of a small corner of the Old West, with only a few Preachers in on the secret. Hidden angels and demons walk amongst us, and every conflict symbolizes the fate for a portion of humanity. In this setting, when the Preacher tells you she’s a servant of the Almighty, there’s a damn good chance she’s speaking literally.
For Mentalists, think about mind control, con men, and controlling people through their information and emotions. You may picture a vast Shee conspiracy of mind-controlled lawmen across the Old West, an autocratic secret government just begging to be shattered by brave and independent heroes… unless, of course, the shee buy them off or kill them off first. Or you might imagine newsprint that quite literally changes the emotions of anyone who reads it, allowing a secret manipulator to turn whole towns into spies and secret soldiers, without the locals ever guessing how they’re being manipulated.
And for Gadgeteers, grab every steampunk trope you can think of and don’t limit yourself only to powers and inventions that are available to the player characters. Perhaps a massive metal, steam-powered spire is rising out of the prairie, and its only when the supernatural drill pierces a hidden cave system that the heroes decide to intervene. Perhaps clockwork knights are riding mechanical bison across the land, spreading word of the coming of a terrible new Iron Warlord. You can even mix genres: cowboys versus Far East robots or battle-suits in a roving, glorious battle to control the West.
Tying It Together
Whatever approach you decide to take, ask your players what they like best about the setting, and focus on that. Some people might love the clothing, inventions and trappings of steampunk. Others might be in love with the stark brutality and heroism of a classic western. There’s no wrong answers here, but you want to make sure you’re giving your players the mix of roleplaying, action and danger they crave.
That brings up a good point. We’re not going to say that Owl Hoot Trail has a high mortality rate among heroes, but you can fill up Boot Hill nice and quickly if you’re incautious. That’s not a bad thing. Just let your players know so that they set their expectations accordingly, and use the rules for Hardened characters on page 9.
We recommend you use Owl Hoot Trail for short series of 3-5 games, just like an arc in your favorite television show. The game runs beautifully with this structure, allowing you to end sessions on cliff-hangers and raise the tension until the heroes are able to resolve the dilemma (or die trying) in the final session.
And however you use the game? Don’t pull punches. Make your villains worthy of the title. Have an amazing time. And give the players hell.