Boot Hill, 2nd Edition
“Role-Playing Game of the Wild West”

TSR Games, 1979

Designed by Brian Blume & Gary Gygax
Developed by Brian Blume
Edited by Mike Carr
Artwork by David C. Sutherland III and David Trampier
Box Cover Art by Elladan Elrohir


8 1/2 x 11 inch booklet, 36 pages
23 x 35 inch map, double sided (a town on one side; outdoor terrain on the other)
64 1/2 inch counters, showing cowboys, Indians, and horses.
9 1/4 x 11 1/4 x 1 1/4 inch box

The original boxed set included a set of percentile dice; these are missing in our copy.

Contributed to the Museum by Scott Hedrick

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Role playing and the Wild West should have gone together like ham and eggs. Before RPGs, it was common for boys to head into their backyards with toy guns to play "Cowboys and Indians." It would have been a natural jump for role playing to head into the same territory, but for some reason, it didn't happen. Western RPGs are rare compared to swords and sorcery settings, and for many years, Boot Hill was the main contender among a very small pool of competitors in that setting. It never matched the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons or even Gamma World.

In spite of the fact that it never became very widespread, Boot Hill was a name that most old-timers were familiar with, even if they'd never seen a copy. It quietly went through three editions; the Museum's copy is the second edition. Even in the second edition, Boot Hill is still an early RPG. This could be seen in the sparse background materials (although it had more than its contemporary, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons), and the emphasis on rules mechanics rather than playing a character. In fact, Boot Hill was half wargame, with the bulk of the rules for simulating gunfighting. Like a wargame, Boot Hill came with a tactical map and counters, and these were almost a necessity for combat.

The rules were subdivided into the Basic, Advanced, and Campaign games. The first two of these were solely for gunfighting; the Campaign game was where the role playing was fleshed out. The Basic game included character generation (necessary for a first person wargame) and combat rules, and took seven pages. The Advanced rules were a page and a half, and optional rules took up another two and a half pages. The remaining twenty five pages were the sparse Campaign rules and nine appendices, which included sample scenarios and campaign settings.


Creating a Character

Boot Hill characters had six characteristics: Speed, Gun Accuracy, Throwing Accuracy, Strength, Bravery, and Experience. Notice that these all related to combat ability: there were no characteristics for intangibles such as intelligence or appearance. (Well, Bravery, perhaps, but Bravery modified other abilities for combat.) These characteristics were generated with percentile dice and checked against a separate table for each characteristic. These tables provided a description of what the score meant (examples: "slow," "quick," "greased lightning"), and a translation to an ability score, which ranged from -10 to +20, depending on the characteristic in question.

Like the Westerns that it was simulating, Boot Hill drew distinctions between major and minor characters. Characters run by players were major, by default. To create them, die rolls were modified at character generation. If a player rolled a twenty-five or less for a characteristic, twenty-five was added to the roll; if a player rolled a twenty-six through fifty, fifteen was added to the roll, and so forth. Player characters could not get a score below twenty six in any characteristic, making them at least "average" in all characteristics.

Once characteristics were rolled, players got $150 to purchase equipment. The price chart supplied listed weapons, ammunition, holsters, horses, and tack. This needed to be done before computing the two derived characteristics ("First shot determination" and "To Hit"), because weapons influenced how quickly a gunman could fire. First Shot Determination was based on the character's Speed score, modified by their Bravery and weapon speed. To Hit score was calculated by the character's Bravery, Experience, and the relevant Accuracy score.



Like a wargame, Boot Hill's combat system followed a set turn sequence, starting with movement, then gun combat, and finally hand to hand brawling. Actually, there were two combat systems, one for guns (and thrown weapons, such as a knife or tomahawk), and the other for brawling.

The movement system was where the miniature wargame roots of Boot Hill were most obvious: characters had a number of movement points based on how fast they were moving (crawling, walking, running, riding), and different types of movement cost different numbers of points: going up a slope cost double; going through a door cost an extra point; moving up or down stairs subtracted six from the movement allowance per flight of stairs. Character facing while moving was crucial, as they could only shoot at targets within their field of vision (a 90-degree arc). None of this would be difficult to do with either a map or a set of miniatures.

Once movement was done, gun combat was fairly simple. Characters acted in the order of their First Shot score, trying to roll below their derived To Hit number. If they succeeded, they rolled percentile dice twice more on the Wound Chart. The first roll determined which body area was hit, and the second determined the wound severity, the probabilities varying based on which body part was hit.

Wounds were rated as light, serious, or mortal. Light wounds did three points of damage to the target's Strength score; serious wounds did seven points, and mortal wounds were immediately fatal. Character Strength scores were not the original percentile roll, but determined on a table at character generation, ranging from eight to twenty points. Thus, a character could withstand at most seven bullets, and there was a real chance of being killed on any single shot. Gun battles must have been pretty tense, with characters being very careful to take cover.

Brawling combat was more complicated. Characters went through two brawling rounds for each turn, and had to choose to punch or grapple. Punches were any blow intended to cause damage, including fists, gun butts, and slamming chairs over people. Grappling was wrestling and grabbing at a foe. In both cases, the attacker rolled 2d10, totalled them, and looked up the result on a table. Both tables listed the actual attack the character ended up making (jab, hook, haymaker, arm lock, kick, bear hug), the damage caused to the opponent, and the die roll modification, if any, to the opponent's attack next round.

Grappling was likely to lead to some sort of a hold on the defender, seriously impairing their ability to fight. To break a hold, defenders needed to grapple back. Some of the results on the grapple table broke holds; there was roughly a 25% chance of doing this.


Added Details

The advanced rules added more detail. Most of these were due to a minor change in the movement rules. Where the basic game had characters moving one at a time, with initiative determined by a die roll, the advanced rules had everybody moving at the same time, requiring written orders for each character at the beginning of each turn, or everybody telling their move to a referee. Simultaneous movement meant rules for what wargames call "opportunity fire." A character on watch could fire at a figure that crossed her line of sight, even if the target began and ended his move in cover. The advanced rules also gave information on vehicles (wagons and trains), and the ability of bow and arrow users to arc their shots, so that they could shoot from behind cover. The advanced rules also added morale: minor characters could refuse to fight if a percentile roll was greater than their Bravery characteristic.

The optional rules made for further complications. They included rules for sharpshooting, getting stunned, counting how many shots a character could make before an opponent could react, use of dynamite (and the hazards of 1890s dynamite), gun misfires, gatling guns, and cannons. There were also rules on gambling ability, and how to simulate gambling, including cheating.

Most of the extra rules were combat-related, and the increased detail probably slowed combat down. A smattering of rules (vehicles, gambling, use of dynamite in blowing safes) were suitable for role playing only. Role playing was introduced in the remaining two-thirds of the rule book.

Campaign Rules

The rules for setting up a campaign began on page fifteen, but they were sparse. They described the use of the maps, and gave rules for movement on the large scale outdoor map. There were rules on creating posses, and tracking people; rules on character age and effects of age; healing wounds; and a cost of living table. (Yes, "shave and a haircut" does cost two bits.) There was a short list of typical minor characters (typical homesteaders, cowboys, Indians, bartenders, etc.). The rules then devoted five and a half pages to list the statistics of historical gunfighters characters might, exchange bullets with.

All of this would be pretty sparse, but it was fleshed out in the nine appendices. There were two scenarios for players to practice their gunfighting skills (The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Battle of Coffeyville) and two rough campaign settings, both of them around Promise City. In the first, Promise city is set up as the center of the campaign, a rather rough city that's part of a gamblers' round, where skillful gentlemen harvest the citizens' money. The second campaign setting is larger scale, centered around a different Promise City, a cultural haven in the territory. A batch of fictional minor characters are provided for the first setting (but these are largely statistics and professions; there are no personalities or motivations), and the second has a variety of towns, settlements, and terrain features listed with thumbnail descriptions. The second campaign includes goals: outlaw characters try to accumulate $100,000 and escape alive. The lawmen characters try to apprehend or kill all of the outlaws, earning reward money for each. It was expected, if there were enough players, that major outlaws and lawmen would be player characters, and they would compete against each other.

The remainder of the appendices were a mixed lot. Appendix A was a description of "the Code of the Old West," which described how one went about killing a man and how the law responded to it. Appendix F consisted of four sentences encouraging referees to steal plots from movies and television programs. Appendix G listed the types of loot an outlaw might obtain from various crimes. Appendix H showed how to combine Boot Hill with TSR's other RPGs: D&D, AD&D, Gamma World, and Metamorphosis Alpha. The last appendix showed typical interiors for a few buildings on the Promise City map.

The rules combining Boot Hill with other games deserves further comment, especially as they illustrate the designers' thinking on how armor and hit points worked in the other games. In Boot Hill, a single bullet could well prove fatal, and no character could be expected to survive more than seven hits. But for fantasy characters, while armor was scant protection against bullets, damage was still relatively minor: a rifle did only 2-8 damage, and a shotgun did 1-10 points of damage. This would be enough to kill typical, zero-level civilians, a player character could generally shrug off a number of bullets.

While we might expect knightly armor to provide little protection from firearms, the same conversion factor looked silly for Gamma World: Powered Battle Armor with a built-in force field merely meant a Boot Hill gunman was -8 to hit (on a scale of 1-100, remember)! We have trouble seeing how black powder weapons of the 1800s could be so effective against 24th century military gear...but that's how our imaginations work.


Closing Comments

Boot Hill was a little rough as RPGs go, but so were most of its contemporaries. It wasn't so much a simulation of the real West as a way for players to enter the television series and movies of the genre. If much of the focus is on gunfighting, that's the way the genre felt, and there are times when that level of detail is important to a game. If the background information was sparse, at least there was a rich collection of movies, books, and television programs to draw upon for inspiration. Sadly, the Western had lost much of its popularity by 1979, so perhaps it's no surprise that Boot Hill never took off.

We find it instructive to compare Boot Hill to TSR's other offerings of the same period. While Boot Hill felt sparse, it had no need for collections of spells, monsters, or treasures, which accounted for roughly one third of D&D's pages. We also noted the lack of character scores for mental abilities, such as intelligence and wisdom. But these characteristics had a direct effect on D&D characters, modifying spell-casting. Even the supposedly useless charisma score of D&D was needed to recruit hirelings and henchman. Like D&D, Boot Hill had exactly the characteristics needed to play the game. There was no attempt to deepen players' ideas about their characters, motivations, or skills beyond combat (or gambling). Speaking of combat, Boot Hill's hand to hand fighting rules clearly informed AD&D's lamentable hand to hand rules. In Boot Hill they make sense; in AD&D they are a confusing graft.

D&D players trying Boot Hill might be surprised by the deadliness of combat; but this is true to the genre. Unlike Conan, who could battle entire legions before being knocked unconscious, in a Western, men die after a single shot. Boot Hill characters did not go up levels, and their opponents could be other player characters. In this, Boot Hill foreshadowed the RPGs of the late 1990s and early 2000's, at least until the d20 system engulfed the RPG market.

We note that the success of the Deadlands RPG by Pinnacle Entertainment made Western RPGs popular again. Most of these use a Weird West with magic or other ahistorical elements; the Dogs in the Vineyard game by Vincent Baker uses an ahistorical Western setting as well. It's good to see this neglected American genre come back.

June 27, 2004; updated August 10, 2013

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