(Author’s note: I have a free self-published book, P5 Westerns: People, Places, Powers, Possessions, Powers, & Plot. If you would like a more in depth breakdown, feel free to contact me and I’ll send you a copy.)

Playing a campaign in a fictionalized version of the American West is a fun concept that can provide hours (or if done properly years) of entertainment. There are a variety of tropes that can be called upon when designing such a game. However, there are several details that are important to get just right when doing so, which can be stumbling blocks along the way to a fun and stress free game. Here are the top 8 tips on running the best western game possible.

1 Get the location right
The American west is often a hot and dry place, known for its rolling hills, canyons, expansive grasslands, mining communities, and, in later times, its towns, complete with their boardwalks. While there may be patches of forested areas, they are far and few between.

Within the towns there’s usually a general purpose smithy, a tavern that also sometimes serves as a hotel, and oftentimes a whorehouse, a general merchandise shop that carries a variety of goods, and what they don’t have in stock, they can often order from magazines and have delivered to them or another location. Sometimes they’ll have a post-office, a claim office, and a telegraph office, which may or may not have separate locations. In larger settlements, they’ll have a doctor’s office, a bank, a jail/ sheriff’s office and perhaps courtroom combo, and maybe even their own church.

2 Get the history right
Ironically enough, when talking about the time of the Wild West, most people fail to recognize that it’s during the exact same time as the Victorian age in England, the Civil War, among other significant events. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on significant events during those times. 1850s, 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s
If you’re playing an alternate version with different history, you’ll need to list the major changes to the history and how it affected things down the line. One way of doing this on your own is to think of ripples from several stones being thrown into a pond at the same time. There’s immediate changes, and those changes will change other things. The ripples of one stone will intercept and cancel some of one stone’s ripples, while amplifying the effect of others. Thankfully, there are some pre-made western settings out there that have done that for you!

3 Get the System Right
The classic systems may not always be the right ones when it comes to the Wild West feeling because their rules are based around high fantasy, and it’s difficult to play the games without the magical classes. Some alternative ideas:

  • D&D 5E / D&D Next has a campaign setting that was reviewed here on Tribality. You can find part 1part 2,   part3.
  • FATE: Blood on the trail. The Old West. The American Frontier. But there are dangers on the trails. Not just natives or bandits either. For you see, last year, in Colorado, a whole stagecoach was set upon by vampires.”
  • Werewolf: The Wild West. There’s a review for this product here: Review of Werewolf: The Apocalypse set in the American West. It is referred to as the Savage West to indicate it is generally darker and grittier than the history of our own world.
  • Call of Cthulhu Wild West Scenarios
    • The Hunt for Kid Richter: This short scenario is really just a few encounters aimed at getting a disparate group of characters together in pursuit of a common goal, the eponymous “Kid” Richter. It contains no Mythos elements, instead leading the characters into a shoot-out with the bad guys which, if they survive, yields them part of a treasure map. The map leads to something called the Golden Scorpion, a pagan idol with which it’s promised there’s considerable supernatural phenomena associated.
    • Night of the Boot Hill Bandits: The Investigators are hired when the body of a prominent citizen of Elota mysteriously goes missing from the church. The body was actually stolen by a nest of Ghouls, but this is not the first such body they have taken. The ghouls’ theft of previous corpses has been covered up by the town undertaker, who agreed to conceal their activities in exchange for valuables from the town’s graves. However, their recent move into taking bodies from the church itself has frightened him badly, not least because he fears his bargain will be discovered. The arrival of the Investigators makes the opportunistic undertaker re-consider his position: perhaps he could point the Investigators towards the ghoul nest and high-tail it Back East with his ill-gotten loot.
    • Night of the Katchina: It is 1851 and Santa Fe has only just become the property of the United States, after the Mexican army was defeated nearby. While some have benefited from this change in ownership, others have not. Two groups who particularly stand to lose out are the local Navajo Indians (who believe they may be forced from their lands onto reservations) and Spanish landowners. Ahiga, a Navajo witch, and Miguel Otero, a local Spanish Don, have the common goal of returning the land to Mexican rule. And they have a plan. Kachinas are brightly decorated dolls crafted from wood. Ahiga has the power to imbue one of these dolls with an evil spirit, which will attempt to possess whoever comes into contact with it. He supplies three such dolls to Otera, whose plan is to send them as gifts to the families of high ranking army officers in the region.
    • Night of the White Buffalo: Ahiga, the Navajo Indian witch who created the Kachina dolls which created the havoc in the Night of the Kachina, also had another terrible plan to cause harm to the white men he saw invading his lands. He enchanted four stones, each created by sacrificing a human victim whose spirits became bound within the stones. He placed the four stones somewhere to the North, South, East and West of Fort Union, one of the largest US Army fortifications in the area. The Spirits were charged to allow Spaniards or Indians to pass unmolested, but to only allow White people to enter the lands around the Fort. Any White folk leaving Fort Union would be attacked by the terrible bound Spirits. Ahiga’s intention was that this would trap the invaders in their fort, either to starve or be killed trying to escape. One of the four victims sacrificed to create the stones was Ehawee, Ahiga’s sister. This betrayal has left her unsympathetic to her brother’s plans, and provides a chance for the evil plot to be defeated.
    • Trail of the golden spike: involves the search for a lost gold mine out West, a mysterious aerial villain calling himself The Condor, attacks on the PCs by pale assailants who may or may not be dead. Aviator adventure plus Western plus weird mystery.
  • A review of Sidewinder Recoiled. It is more than just a sequel or second printing however, as the original Sidewinder: Wild West Adventures (WWA) used the regular d20 rules, while Recoiled uses d20 Modern. Any time you try and update an existing product and switch to a different (although similar) rule set, there will be challenges which are mitigated by the fact that several authors of WWA have been principle contributors to Recoiled.
  • Deadlands is a genre-mixing alternate history roleplaying game which combines the Western and horror genres, with some steampunk elements
  • Aces & Eights: A game about the daring adventures and everyday lives of people in the Old West, Aces & Eights lets you tell the tale of the West that could have been, in your own words, deeds and history. The Aces & Eights game allows for rugged cowboys, brave Indians, murderous desperados, determined lawmen, sturdy prospectors, powerful rail barons, and all of the characters we think of when we watch a good western movie or read books about the expansion of the American frontier.
  • GURPS “Old West”  The American frontier was a legend, even while it was happening. Gunfighters, Indians, cowboys, miners, and mountain men, the Pony Express, the Texas Rangers and the outlaws they fought, the “rust-eaters” who pushed the rails west, the settlers battling fires, floods, stampedes, and sickness . . . their adventures made the nation what it is today!
  • The fan made “Old West” setting using the ubiquity engine: Ubiquity is an enhanced dice pool system that emphasizes storytelling and cinematic action. Like other dice pool systems, players roll a number of dice to determine the success or failure of a specific action. Unlike other dice pool systems, which can get bogged down in excessive dice rolling, Ubiquity has several key features that simplify play and encourage players to keep the story moving.

4 Get the technology right
Unless you’re going for the feel of the Wild, Wild West TV show or the weird west technology of the Deadlands that have ray guns (for lack of a better word), you’re going to want to stay pretty true to the technology of the time. Trains exist, but are slow enough for a horse to catch up to. The Smith & Westin Colt shotgun is in prevalent use, as well as the six-shooter guns. Depending on the year, the telegraph, and later still, the telephone may exist. The camera does exist – but unlike today’s camera those whose pictures are being taken need to hold perfectly still, and the chemicals used to develop film can be found in most doctor’s offices. Dynamite also makes an appearance during this time frame.

5 Get the Players right
Players aren’t necessarily PCs. In westerns there are a variety of people who may have stakes in the ultimate outcome of a scenario. Among these are:

  • Native American tribes
  • The US Federal government / The Confederacy
  • The populace of a particular town
  • The railroad company
  • The bank(s)
  • The various farmers, as well as cattle and/ or sheep ranchers.
  • A mayor who want to track down a gang of ne’er-do-wells who are robbing stage coaches
  • Groups of various immigrants, typically facing discrimination.
  • A widow whose land is about to be repossessed by the bank or forced to sell if she can’t get her livestock to market
  • A gambler, who put everything on the line
  • A thief or gang of thieves that are robbing banks.
  • The prostitute who got caught in this lifestyle and desperately wants to find a way out
  • Gunslingers whose quick reflexes decide their life or death.

6 Get the mythology right
Even if you’re running a quasi-realistic version of the American West, and magic isn’t being thrown around regularly by the characters, there’s still a mythos to be explored. The Native Americans have their gods, and vision quests. If you do something like Kung Fu (martial arts western drama TV series) you have the mysticism of the Buddhism in the background. Even such things as a character who has quicker-than-the-eye draw reflexes, the silver bullets of The Lone Ranger, and the legendary exploits of Rin-Tin-Tin can become part of the world’s mythology. Even some of the well known tales of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe could be based in part of some reality in your world. If you use something weirder like the vampires or werewolves, or myths, or monsters from Native American culture make sure to make the most out of those types of characters as well. Meeting famous fictional characters can help make the campaign come more alive to the PCs.

7 Get the abilities right
When playing a western themed game, there are a variety of skills and abilities that should be ubiquitous. For instance, unless there’s an extreme in-character reason for a character not to be able to ride a horse, all characters should be able to do so. Furthermore, someone in the party should be able to hold their own in steering a team of horses for a carriage. It also would be handy to have one (or more) characters be able to be fast on the draw for a gunfight, though not all characters necessarily need to be wearing one at all times as evidenced in typical western shows and movies. Maybe one (or more) of the characters are card sharks. Perhaps there’s a doctor in the party traveling with them for his own reasons, though it also wouldn’t be beyond the pale to have a stage magician and “miracle cure” hawker be in the party. But all this is from the mindset of Americans who grew up with the stories of how this nation was formed. Maybe in your world you could turn things on their head and have a party made of nothing but Native Americans, hunting buffalo, getting odd and end jobs, and fighting the never ending expansion of the US government claims on your ancestor’s lands.  

8 Get the conflicts right
The Wild West conflicts can be seen at both an individual level and at an expansive far reaching level. Interestingly enough, historically, some of the problems that were elsewhere were either less, shifted to another population or simply nonexistent at times.

D12 Conflicts You Can Use Immediately In Your Western Game

  1. Cattle are disappearing the PCs need to find out what’s going on.
    1. The animals are wandering off through a hole in the owner’s fence, they can be found and brought back
    2. The animals are getting stolen and rebranded because another brand lines up identically
    3. The animals are getting eaten by a wild animal or a mythical creature like the chupacabra
  2. Native Americans
    1. The Native Americans have intercepted and stolen a shipment of guns. It’s up to the PCs to get them back, peacefully, if possible.
    2. A settlement was destroyed by the Native Americans. The only survivor, a girl, is raised by the tribe that slaughtered her family. It’s up to the PCs to save her and teach her the ways of her people.
    3. The Native Americans have raided the town where the PCs are due to buffalo scarcity and lack of promised governmental assistance. It’s up to the PCs to settle them down before things take a more violent turn.
    4. The PCs are requisitioned to deliver a shipment of supplies to the Native Americans. Little do they know that amidst the shipment is are blankets
  3. A woman and her two daughters are traveling by coach. In each of their possessions they have one piece of a puzzle – a contract for land, a deed for a gold-producing mine
  4. A crazy old miner comes into the town and goes into the surveyor’s office to make a claim. But instead of his claim the surveyor puts in someone else’s name. When the man goes back to the location, there’s trouble for him. It’s up to the PCs to discover the fraud, if they can.
  5. Robberies
    1. A bank robber is in the area and according to the pattern of robberies, the town the PCs are in should be the next one struck. It’s up to them to stop the robbery before it happens.
    2. A revival tent comes into town and while much of the town is participating, a series of robberies takes place and those running it are accused of staging it for that purpose. The PCs must prove their innocence
  6. There’s a strange creature that attacks people and animals at night, it’s up to the PCs to figure out what’s going on and stop it.
  7. There’s a strange disease going around. It’s up to the PCs to find the source and stop it before it spreads.
    1. As it turns out, the cause is dirty water that’s been contaminated by people dumping waste into an old open well which connects to the underground water supply.
    2. As it turns out, a seasoning that quite a lot of the town is using was mixed up with a local weed that has unpleasant side effects but tastes amazingly similar.
  8. People are suspicious of strange goings on and the superstitious townsfolk accuse orphans of being the troublemakers. They, of course, are innocent of the accusations.
  9. A gunslinger comes into town trying to get into gunfights with whoever he can. It’s up to the PCs to stop him before he shoots up the entire town.
  10. A notorious gambler has hired the PCs to get him out of town with his ill-gotten gains. They need to do so discretely without the town’s folk becoming too upset with them for doing so.
  11. A group of immigrants from a foreign country are peaceably seeking work. Unfortunately, the townsfolk are not only unwelcoming to them, but consistently cause them trouble. It’s up to the PCs to show the town the error of their ways.
  12. A natural disaster (fire, flood, stampeding herd) is threatening the town. It’s up to the PCs to help rally and organize the town to face the threat.
  13. (bonus) A coach or train having something valuable on board is arriving in town and it’s up to the PCs to protect it against notorious thieves.

Use these tips to help enliven your western setting, bring out interesting characterizations, breathe life into your lackluster towns, and better prepare plots for your PCs to solve.

As always, feel free to comment, like, and reshare!