First off, some birthday congratulations are in order; the 27th of February is the 10th birthday of Independence Games (formerly Gypsy Knights Games), owned by John Watts. My very best wishes to you John and the team at Independence Games, here’s to many more years publishing!
To celebrate, all orders on the Independence Games webstore of $5 or more will be discounted 35% at the checkout, which includes PDFs of the Clement and Earth Sectors, Action Movie Physics and Rider! This discount is available until the end of the day (Eastern Time) on the 1st of March. The Independence Games website and store can be found here.
Talking of Rider, the Cepheus Engine rules set is steadily expanding the settings that it is available for, showing the versatility of the basic mechanics. To emphasise this, I’m going to take a look at an unfamiliar RPG setting; the Old West. Back in the eighties when I used to buy White Dwarf magazine and pour over the game listings, I used to notice but not take any notice of a TSR game called ‘Boot Hill’. Apparently this Old West RPG was quite popular but that’s as much as I know about it. So when John Watts forwarded me a copy of Independence Games’ latest product ‘Rider’, I thought this was going to be an interesting experience stepping into an unfamiliar game setting.
Rider is quite a hefty book, being 356 pages in length. It is available from DriveThru RPG for $19.99 and is also available in print format for $59.99 (which includes the PDF). Its a complete set of rules and setting for playing games set in the Old West period of American history, the height of which could be considered as the nineteenth century (some scholars consider the specific timeline to be 1803 to 1959). This is the period of European expansion across North America; the age of gun slingers, sheriffs, wagon trains and Native Americans. There is a huge amount of scope for adventures, so what does Rider give you to achieve this?
The book is broken down into the following sections; these aren’t the exact headings (there are 23 in total), but these are how I would relate them:-
The Basics and Skills
Situations and Interactions
Refereeing the Game and Adventures
The Basics and Skills (pages 13 to 36)
The book starts with an introduction to roleplaying and general concepts of how to play the game. Of course, with this being Cepheus Engine-based, the core mechanic is rolling for a result on 2D6. What are the common themes in playing the Old West? Eight are listed in a table, which includes for example, exploration, frontier settlements, drifting or espionage. The skills section looks at how skill checks work and the types available – a full description is provided along with what variations are encompassed in the general heading. Most of the skills are immediately recognisable as they are pretty generic coming from Cepheus Engine, but there are appropriate specifics listed. Notable ones include: ‘Draw’ – the ability to unholster a firearm quickly or ‘Heavy Weapons’ which has specialties listed ‘Cannon’ and ’Gatling Gun’.
Generating Characters (pages 37 to 167)
This section, under a number of headings actually takes up one third of the book. Characteristics are based on Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Education and Charisma. An additional attribute is introduced; Reputation (REP). This is a measure of how recognisable the character is – which depending on the situation can have a positive or detrimental effect. The character generation process follows a similar format as other Cepheus Engine games where you have a backstory, career, aging process, injuries and life events. If your character comes from a wealthy enough background, they can attempt to go to college on a roll of EDU 8+. Again, the process for advancing through your career is the same as Cepheus Engine where terms are for years in length and you have the same process for survival (and mishap), commission, advancement, skills and rank/benefits.
So what sort of careers can you play? First off you are provided with some descriptions before the actual character generation section. You have the choice of: Bounty Hunter, Buffalo Hunter, Clergy, Con Artist, Cowboy, Craftsperson, Doctor, Gambler, Gunslinger, Homesteader, Law Enforcement, Mountain Man, Native American Warrior, Outlaw, Politician, Prisoner, Prospector, Railroad Worker, Soiled Dove, Soldier, Stagecoacher, Trailblazer and Vagabond. Some careers have variations, for example a Soldier can be from the Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery or Support. There is also a useful system for increasing characteristics and skills through earning adventure points and success points.
Equipment (pages 168 to 208)
Here you are presented with a selection of equipment from the Old West; for the purposes of Tech Level this corresponds to TL4. The range of kit available starts from basic melee weapons through to ranged weapons such as the pistol, rifles, shotguns and heavy weapons. There are some really nice illustrations and I never knew there were so many variations of the Colt revolver! Heavy weapons are limited to the 12-pounder cannon and the Gatling Gun. Equipment continues with lists and descriptions for accessories, clothing and transport – this being the Old West means horses! Various breeds with respective characteristics are provided, rounded off with a few other domestic animals.
Illegal Activities (pages 209 to 226)
Gambling (pages 209 to 222) has always played a big part in many Old West scenes, so how do you translate this into an RPG? I’ve never been someone who has played (or liked to play) card games so it was useful to see an extensive section describing the background to how specific games developed and how you would actually play, eg. Poker. However, there is a difference in you (as a real person) and your character (as someone who has a good gambling skill) so the author provides some useful tools (including how to cheat!) in how to play gambling games through a set of dice rolls linked to skills.
There are a couple if pages looking at what drugs and alcohol was available in late 19th century and how this could impair a character. The section is rounded off with a more detailed look at the Reputation (REP) score if a character and how this fluctuate according to what actions they take, for example surviving a famous shootout or robbing a bank.
Combat (pages 227 to 265)
It’s pretty inevitable that your characters are going to get into a bar room brawl or shootout at some stage in a Rider adventure, after all the Old West was a pretty lawless place. This is addressed in quite a bit of detail in the ‘Personal Combat’ section, which includes a section on the use of the ‘Draw’ skill for shootouts. Vehicle combat and chases are described as well, though due to the tech level vehicles are limited to stagecoaches, wagons and stream locomotives.
Animals (pages 266 to 278)
This provides statistics for the common animals that you would find in the late nineteenth century. The same Cepheus Engine format is used, so there is potential for the animal statistics to be used in other games; for example full descriptions include Buffalo, Mountain Lions and Grizzly Bears.
Situations and Interactions (pages 279 to 330)
Now that you have your ‘characters and combat’, it’s now time to set the game up. ‘Situations and Tasks’ explores some of the Old West situations that can form the basis of a game. Three specific situations are described in not just a description, but with some useful game stats: Cattle Drive, Bank Robbery and Train Robbery. ‘Social Interactions’ describes a number of encounter tables and how to deal with things such as legal or patron encounters. ‘Towns’ looks at frontier settlements and those of a larger size and background (in the section ’Commonly Found Buildings’) is provided to give the referee a starting point to create the setting.
‘Non-player Characters’ provides the referee with several tables to generate NPCs, based around the same careers that are available to players.
Refereeing the Game (pages 330 to 345)
The final section of the book provides the referee with some very useful tools with which to put together a game; this will be especially useful for those who aren’t that experienced in running a role-playing adventure. This very much helps with the preparation of a game and making sure it runs as smoothly as possible. The book finishes with the final section ‘Adventures’ which builds on this and looks at the different types of concepts behind games and how they are structured. A character sheet on page 345 finishes the book, with a useful index at the back.
Though the Old West isn’t a setting that has ever really piqued my interest, I wanted to keep an open mind when I received my review copy and I must say, I did enjoy reading Rider. Being based on Cepheus Engine, its a game system that is familiar and the book is easy to read, with a clear layout throughout. If anything, this makes the game very easy to adapt and link into other settings; a number of sci-fi films and TV programmes frequently use or dip into the Old West setting. For example the film ‘John Carter of Mars’, some ‘Firefly’ episodes use a frontier Old West-like setting, even Star Trek ends up on worlds which are like the 1880’s. Adventures could dip in and out either through being set on a low-tech world, or inter-dimensional travel for a change in pace from ray-guns and aliens.
There is a *huge* amount of reference material in old films and series from the 1930’s through to the 1970’s, when ‘cowboy’ films popularity started to tail off. There probably wasn’t many weeks going by when there wasn’t an Old West film being broadcast on one of the TV channels, at least here in the UK in the 1970’s and 80’s. I also remember my grandad having loads of novels set in the Old West when I used to visit my grandparents house. If you’re looking for ideas for adventures, there is plenty of reference material out there.
If your intention is to use Rider as a standalone product then you won’t be disappointed, it’s well written, has plenty of source material and character development for referees to draw upon. There is lots of colour artwork provided by a number of artists. Its an excellent ‘toolkit’ to create games from, though there isn’t any specific location setting included in the book. If I had a criticism, I would have liked to see the adventures section developed a bit more with some actual scenarios, for example perhaps in the style of the ‘21 Plots…’ books. Hopefully this is an area that Independence Games will be able to address in the future, as there is plenty of scope for developing the game setting and Rider certainly deserves this.
Overall a very enjoyable book and game setting to review and definitely well worth checking out. I would like to thank John Watts for kindly sending me a copy of Rider to review.