A powder keg’s more thrilling when it hasn’t blown up yet

Friday, November 10th, 2023

When Dungeons & Dragons was young, it had a western counterpart called Boot Hill that I only knew through the crossover rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Adam Rutskarn went back and gave this “cowboy miniatures game from the 1970s” a try:

The basic rules are pamphlet-sized. Players randomly generates gunmen to shoot at each other with unexpectedly realistic firearms. Though a “powerful” character might tend to go first or hit more often, where they hit and how much damage they do has nothing to do with character (or player) skill. All hits debilitate, and a fifth of the time they’ll kill outright with no recourse for the victim.


There are no skills, attributes, guides, or systems in the early editions unrelated to stacking up bodies. Mechanically, all it simulates is violence.

Boot Hill is the best political intrigue system I’ve ever used.

With no rules for political intrigue, the rules couldn’t get in the way. He created a town:

I baked violence, fear, greed, and vanity into every level of the region. I filled the badlands with an organized crime network, the Roundup Boys, and carefully noted their relatives and connections within the town—especially relations the characters were likely to meet. I made two opposing railroads and gave each its payroll of enforcers, toughs, and hitmen. I decided that the Lewis, Chicory, and DeMorgan railroad was represented in town by one of its cutthroat owners, but Western United only by its founder’s naive son. Finally—of course—I went straight for the high-octane templates and created a list of the top ten most dangerous wanted criminals in the Arizona territory. Most were not local to my town, but a few were, and many more were connected to its smugglers, importers, and crooks. Naturally, both Western United and Lewis, Chicory, and DeMorgan had quietly hired a top killer for their staffs.

Everywhere in town, I stretched tensions as thin as they’d go. Here, a deeply crooked and vicious campaign for sheriff. There, “respectable” business owners versus “rowdy” roughnecks. In the boonies, robbers versus marshals, marshals versus deputies, robber gangs versus robber gangs, a gangs robbers versus its robbers. A powder keg of a county, always ready to blow.

Then I dropped the players into it.

He designed his setting to offer the constant threat of violence: the tension of knowing that a sudden and fatal battle might result from any misstep:

After all, a powder keg’s more thrilling when it hasn’t blown up yet.

Not many games discourage players from pissing off NPCs. The worst thing an aggrieved character can do is fight you, and that’s just where most RPG characters are built to succeed.


Played ruthlessly, Boot Hill‘s mechanics and milieu produce very different expectations. That any character can die easily in a fair fight is almost a moot point; if you provoke a cattle baron or a slimy industrialist or a crooked sheriff, he’s not going to get his henchmen and fight you fairly. He’s going to pay someone to shoot you in the back with a shotgun, and if you’re not ready for it, that’s not much better than a death sentence. The only reason the streets aren’t awash with blood at all times is that the NPCs are also hapless mortals that have to watch where they step.


Faithfully roleplaying the game’s emergent “villains,” or the characters willing to risk death and murder to get their ends, comes with a set of broadly-applicable rules. Don’t fight unless the rewards or risks are too great to avoid it. If you’ve got power or money, abuse it to keep yourself safe and your interests protected. Confront enemies directly only when you’ve got the force to bully them into backing down or surrendering; otherwise, strike from ambush. Use the extent of your cunning or guile. Be wary of crossing other powerful interests, like the law or organized crime; strike surgically whenever possible. Wait for the right moment.

Very naturally, the players found themselves observing the same rules.


That the game has simple randomly-generated combat stats helped me design a thorough, reactive campaign setting. If the game had classes, levels, races, or tactical options, I would be obliged to either create combatants by hand or study each in detail, limiting my precise grasp on each faction and their strengths. If the game were even simpler, like Apocalypse World, the players would know too well what to expect from their opponents. Instead I found myself perfectly between the two extremes.

The vicious, tense, and bloody combat made players very afraid of the consequences of mis-stepping. There was a fear, a tension, a thrill every time they even picked up the dice; if they were attacking they knew they were taking a great risk, and if they were being attacked, they knew they may have made their last mistake. Between these isolated combats there were no rules or clattering of dice to distract them from playing their characters and angles; the immersion was total.

There was another benefit to not having any social mechanics at all in the game, counter-intuitive thought it might seem for a game about managing adversarial relationships without combat. While combat in Boot Hill is decided immediately and obviously, and is thus very well suited to open dice rolls, the game’s social conflicts created tension by being uncertain. One never knew whether to trust an NPC, whether an NPC trusted them, whether a bluff had succeeded, or whether a threat had landed. They had no reason to expect success because a number was high or failure because a number was low. Instead, I simply presumed that each PC was reasonably charismatic and putting their ideas as well as possible. From this position I used my well-developed understanding of the game’s NPCs to determine whether they would be fearful, greedy, honest, smitten, lonely, tempted, or reasonable enough to be persuaded. I would never argue against social mechanics in general, or even in most campaigns, but stripping them from play here made for a tenser and more engaging experience.

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