I was never a fan of westerns when I was young, except for The Lone Ranger. Part of why that property appealed to me was its overlap with superhero narratives. It wasn’t until I was older, and I started watching grittier, somewhat more cynical westerns, that I started to appreciate the genre.
Being a gamer, once I started to appreciate the genre, I wanted to find a way to experience the story through roleplaying games. I gravitated towards the “weird west” subgenre, especially since I’ve always had a love of monster-hunting stories. The problem with this preference is that there are a lot of weird west narratives that ignore aspects of history that I wasn’t comfortable ignoring.
It shouldn’t be a secret that the western genre has erased many people of color and other marginalized people over the years. There is a tendency in weird west games where the “solution” to this is to ignore the historical without ever addressing it, focusing on the “weird” almost exclusively. I don’t want to see Indigenous people exoticized as “magical,” and I don’t want to see the Confederacy and Reconstruction shoved off into the phantom zone. For all of these reasons, I was very quick to back Haunted West, a weird west RPG by Chris Spivey and Darker Hue Studios, the same team that brought you Harlem Unbound.
Before we get going, I wanted to point out that I did receive this from backing the Kickstarter, and was not provided a review copy of the product. I have not had an opportunity to play the game yet. If you would like to hear more about this topic, I’ve also had the privilege to interview Chris Spivey on the Gnomecast as well.
Chronicles of the Old West
This review is based on the PDF version of the game. The PDF is 806 pages, with both full color and black and white artwork. This includes one page of credits, a page of legal information, a table of contents, a five page bibliography loaded with sources, two pages of acknowledgements, a three page blank character sheet, twelve pages of pregenerated characters (four example characters), a four page index, and a two page map of the alternate United States presented in the game.
There is a mixture of color and black and white art, as well as various historic photographs. Most of the book is set up with a two-column layout, and there are six different styles of sidebars, dealing with the following:
- Voices (Highlighting people or small groups)
- History (Calling out historical details related to nearby text)
- Weird (Suggestions on how to add weird elements to the setting)
- Mechanics (Alternate rules or examples of where rules apply)
- Balladeer (Information especially for the game facilitator, or Balladeer)
- Reconstruction (Information on how Reconstruction unfolded in the alternate timeline of the game)
What’s All This About
At 800 pages, you may think there is a lot going on in this book, and you would be right. If you are intimidated by a game with that many pages, however, much of the book is detailing history, alternate history, historical figures, the game system, an example campaign framework, and an adventure. The sections of the book are as follows:
- Ouroboros System
- The People
- Print the Legend
- The Balladeer
- The Ballads
- The Weird and the Unknown
- Haunted West: Reconstruction
- The American Myth
- Historical Folks
- Stops Along the Trail
- Bag of Nails
While the book presents rules for “weird” west gaming, and presents an alternate reality, it does discuss using the system for more grounded western games either in our history or the alternate reconstruction presented. Similarly, you can add the weird elements into either a historical or alternate history version of the setting. While there are events presented that explain the presence of the weird (both the magical and science fiction), those historical elements are modular, and not directly connected to the alternate version of Reconstruction.
The Game System(s)
The Ouroboros System that is presented in this rulebook is a d100 based system. The core resolution mechanic is to roll under a provided skill. For each 10 under the skill, characters generate an additional jack. When degrees of failure matter, those degrees are measured by 10s rolled over the skill percentage.
Gumption is a stat that reduces damage, and for tests not keyed to skills, characters have traits that work as roll under numbers as well, except with a d20. Characters have both Vitality (for bodily health) and Lucidity (for mental health). Grit is a resource that can be spent for some effects or burned (permanently exhausted) for other effects. Characters also have a western code, which is a paired set of values with a total value of 100. Whenever a character is facing a hard decision, they may need to roll against their code to take an action, meaning that characters that have a higher value in one code have a challenging time breaking that code.
All characters have Propensities, which are similar to what other games may call feats, stunts, or qualities. Propensities have different tiers, and the higher tiers of Propensities start to access abilities that become close to, or definitely, supernatural. Additionally, there are some pools that are optional based on what modules are added to the game. In the more tactical version of the game, characters have Stamina Points to spend to take actions and reactions, and when characters have access to certain supernatural abilities, they use a Weird Pool to power different abilities.
There are three modes of play (but also, see below in this section):
- Dead Man’s Hand
- Quick Draw
- The Badlands
Dead Man’s Hand is the default version of the rules, where NPCs have simplified versions of the same stats presented for player characters. Quick Draw is a more narrative mode, where characters narrate what they are doing until the Balladeer challenges their story, at which point, they assign the number of jacks needed to succeed, and players either generate those successes, or suffer consequences due to their degrees of failure. The Balladeer doesn’t roll in this mode.
The final mode is The Badlands, which is meant to be a much more tactical version of the rules. Instead of having a broad set of actions you can take on an initiative turn, various actions and counter actions cause the players to spend stamina, and a character may not have much stamina left on their own turn depending on what they do up to that point.
You assign their traits, pick a Paragon Archetype, assign skills, pick peculiarities and propensities, assign your western code, fill in some details about how you got started on your path, and your level of knowledge. Finally, there are a series of life path tables based on the different archetypes, which provide you with life events that also modify your starting statistics. Older characters might have a few more entries, but this will also push their western code to bigger extremes.
The archetypes are:
- The Academic
- The Drover
- The Gadgeteer
- The Gunfighter
- The Holy
- The Hunter
- The Law
- The Libertine
- The Mystic
- The Official
- The Practitioner
- The Resolute
These archetypes are designed to be flexible. An Academic could be a historian, a doctor, or a scientist. The Holy applies to preachers, medicine people, or rabbis. The Law could be a U.S. Marshal, or a Lighthorse Indigenous person, watching over their nation’s lands.
The game specifically avoids detailing cultural beliefs as supernatural powers. Instead, there are several broad areas of magic/supernatural effects available to all characters:
- Alchemy (Supernatural physical “sciences”)
- Demonology (Summoning and binding dangerous spirits)
- Medium (Contacting the dead)
- Pharaon (Gambling with special magic cards)
- Psychoscopy (Psychic powers)
- Weird Science (Sci-fi inventions that may push logic a bit)
Characters gain access to these abilities by taking associated skills. Some effects require planning, materials, and time to employ. Constructing rituals often share the same elements as crafting, such as Alchemy or Weird Science, where it may take a long time to pull off the planning and the execution, but in each stage, additional jacks might move the time scale down, for example from years to months, months to weeks, etc.
There are lots of stats for different gear. Damage from weapons ranges from a d3 to a d12, with various bonuses applied. Gear can also be customized, and there is a sidebar where you can find rules for the proper care of guns, and what happens when characters don’t take care of their sidearms.
History is never completely removed from mechanics in this game, and this is true in the gear section as well. For example, you often get the history of when several bits of gear were introduced into the west, along with anecdotes of varies items. I particularly liked the commentary on the substandard, but fancy looking pistols favored by overbearing Confederate officers. There are core stats for horses, and lots of different modifiers for different breeds, and the ability to assign them a trait and personality in addition to the core stats.
The secret “fourth” game mode is found in the appendix, where there is a list of moves and several playbooks based on the archetypes in the game, introducing the ability to play in the setting using Powered by the Apocalypse rules. There is more than enough to use this functionally, although this section lacks some of the standard elements you might be used to seeing, like agendas and principles. It does incorporate some later generation PbtA “tech,” such as rolling three dice and taking the two highest for advantage, or the two lowest for disadvantage. The traits and different pools maintain similar terms to the base game.
History (As It Is)
There isn’t just one section with historical information. There are sections that address what hasn’t been highlighted in American history, and many times there are sections in between the rules elements that also touch on a few historical elements related to the rules being presented. In addition to the broad discussion of history, there is an entire section that introduces historical figures from various marginalized groups that go beyond the old west legends that have been presented over the years.
There are many important topics that get touched on here. There are clarifications on the vast number of black and latinx cowboys that have been ignored over the years. There are discussions of people of color that settled in various locations in the west, forming their own communities. It talks about how LGBTQ+ people were present in the old west, and the various contributions they made.
Historical figures like Bass Reeves (likely the inspiration for The Lone Ranger), Mary Fields, and Nat Love are highlighted (with historical details that should be noted if you happened to watch the excellent, but not always historically accurate movie, The Harder They Fall). Various important Indigenous historical figures not only are highlighted, but presented with their actual names, in addition to the names most often used in American historical texts.
In addition to the presence of marginalized people being highlighted in this treatment of history, many narratives that have developed over the years about our “mythic west” are challenged. For example, the ubiquity of the brothel as a cultural center and sexual practices are discussed. Various atrocities committed by the U.S. military against native cultures are spelled out, and the number of treaties broken are highlighted. Laws put in place to make Chinese workers more vulnerable, as well as to stigmatize Chinese women, are discussed. If you haven’t examined the stories you have heard about the west, there is a lot you are going to learn in this section about how people were exploited and dehumanized, even as the country’s narrative moved towards the abolition of slavery.
The “Stops Along the Trail” section details many real-world locations, including notes on alternate history and the supernatural. The entries for all these locations include the following sections:
- Stake in the Civil War
- History: Then and Now
- Key People
- Weird West
- Plot Hooks
I enjoy this standardized presentation. I like that this gives you solid historical information, but also makes sure to add in the “table ready” elements of the location with “weird west” and “plot hooks.”
History (As It Could Have Been)
This may have been the section I was anticipating the most, because the game makes brief references, and I really wanted to see what this alternate west would look like. This isn’t an alternate reality where the unpleasant aspects of history just don’t happen. It’s still a rough patch of time, where marginalized people fight to survive and gain their rights. With a different structure to Reconstruction, however, those fights yield different results and more positive change.
I don’t want to ruin too much of the surprise, but I want to make sure to emphasize this alternate Reconstruction, because it’s so well done. It doesn’t feel like a facile alternate history to set up the game premise. It starts with the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Lincoln being more initially effective than in our world. There are missed opportunities to reconcile the Indigenous nations to the United States that result in more bloodshed.
However, as this alternate history progresses, many Indigenous people find their own sovereign location. Texas becomes a much different place, restructured by the federal government to help black people start over. Historical figures like Harriet Tubman end up in very different positions. In Tubman’s case, she is commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel working with the Freedmen’s Bureau.
With Texas greatly changed, and with Reconstruction being far less conciliatory to former Confederates, some remnants of the Confederacy end up as recurring raiders, moving back and forth on the Texas/Mexico border. There is no “lost cause” narrative. The Confederates that cling to their treasonous actions are clearly violent malefactors.
I think one of my favorite sidebars in this section is the plot hook for Lost Legacies. This introduces the idea that there might be detective agencies that specialize in reuniting families that have been torn apart, with player characters potentially working as agents of one of these agencies. I love the idea of being able to do something like this that is a literal small-scale version of the concept of reconstruction, as a theme.
The Weird, Campaign Concepts, and the Bag of Nails
Throughout the sections that deal with the weird, we learn that there was specifically a meteorite that fell from the sky, and as that meteorite fell, it damaged the walls between various realities, opening the door for magic and super-science to function.
In the Balladeer section, there are various locations introduced. Unlike the locations in the “Stops Along the Way” section, these are locations that didn’t exist in the real world. Random charts are provided, and a point-buy method for building settlements is detailed. My favorite example settlement is a town that can only be approached from one direction, which touches on multiple realities. People in this town may all remember different core elements of history from their own world, and trying to leave by any other path introduces radical elements from other realities.
The Allies and Adversaries section divides up the potential threat level of creatures by the following levels:
- Wranglers (Minion level opposition)
- Shootists (Competent opposition)
- Cold-Blooded (More dangerous than any one Paragon)
- Beyond (Things beyond the ability to be measured with stats)
The example weird stat blocks include elements from Africa, the West Indies, Jamaica, Zuni, Chinese, Spain, Mexico, Ireland, Central America, Aniyunwiya, Japan, the Middle East, and the Dine cultures, as well as various local folklore elements of the time. While it’s not included in the Allies and Adversaries section, one of the appendices also gives examples of Cthulhu mythos creatures and magical traditions that can be added to the setting.
The sample campaign outlined presents even more historical elements which lean hard into the science-fiction side of the weird west. In this sample campaign, a railroad magnate’s son discovers ancient alien overlords that left the Earth but will one day return. Some “humans” have been made immortal and given the task to keep Earth in a state where the overlords can return and resume their control of the planet. Using alien technology, the magnate’s son forms a secret society that is attempting to hunt down the overseers left by the aliens, and to strengthen the Earth for a potential invasion.
In addition to this sample campaign, there is a more detailed adventure (referred to in the rules as a Bag of Nails). This adventure deals with an alchemist’s flying spiritual manifestation which is causing havoc nearby. While investigating the alchemist and the origin of the manifestation, there is the potential to run into plant/human hybrids as well as other horrors.
The “weird” side of alternate history feels a lot more open-ended than the alternate version of Reconstruction. There appears to be a lot of “what if” in these sections, rather than the detailed and intricately interwoven alternate history elements. This makes the game and the core, non-supernatural side of the setting able to flex into folk horror, monster hunting, sci-fi, or cosmic horror depending on the desires of the table.
Final Thoughts The alternate history of this game’s Reconstruction is well-realized and intricately planned out, without being too difficult to follow. It feels like a nuanced, plausible, but ultimately hopeful history of what could have been if history had moved in the right direction
The historical aspects of this book are a joy to read. They aren’t dry, but they have weight. The alternate history of this game’s Reconstruction is well-realized and intricately planned out, without being too difficult to follow. It feels like a nuanced, plausible, but ultimately hopeful history of what could have been if history had moved in the right direction, instead of retreating from a pivotal moment of change.
I love the variety of supernatural and science fiction elements touched on in the book. It’s both very imaginative, and extremely flexible in its execution of how to introduce the weird into the setting.
I am a fan of a good lifepath system for character creation, and I love how these lifepath events tie a character firmly to the life a character would have as the west progresses from Civil War to Reconstruction. the editorial comments ranging from historical anecdotal sidebars to the description of equipment are also appreciated.
While I don’t feel that the rules are too complicated, in a few areas I did feel as if I was dropping one or another ancillary rule in the process when reading through them. I don’t think I would have a hard time running a standard adventure, but I do worry that I would miss out on some nuances of spellcasting or item creation. While there are some good summaries of parts of the game, such as character creation, I still feel like I would have been a little more comfortable with a few more bullet-pointed procedure summaries.
There are a few places where it feels as if connected topics are separated by a lot of text. I know everyone is going to have different ideal operational layouts that work for them, but sometimes I wish a few more of the historical elements flowed into one another, and a few more of the supernatural sections were more directly connected.
I am extremely interested to see this setting progress. There was such a wide range of adventure hooks presented, I want to see what other wild ideas manage to make it to print. I’m also anxious to see if any grand adventures end up directly involving historical figures, one of the things I appreciated in some of the Harlem Unbound adventures.
I want to see what this system looks like applied to other genres and settings. Elements of it remind me of systems I’m familiar with, but in a new configuration. I was feeling undertones of Call of Cthulhu, the 40K RPGs from Fantasy Flight, and even Genesys. I want to see more of how these rules are presented, and how different modules could be attached to them.
Hitting the Trail
I’m happy that I backed this Kickstarter. I think the RPG industry needs more games like this, that are both functional and redress issues with both past games and historical errors.
I’m interested in hearing from you about what RPGs push boundaries and take the hobby in the right direction. Let us know in the comments below.