A Game Per Year: Boot Hill (Bonus 1975)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of Boot Hill

Boot Hill is one of the earliest roleplaying games ever published, coming out just a year after the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. It has a Western theme, with the players taking on the roles of gunfighters in the Old West.

Reading the game now, it’s a slight little booklet with character creation and combat mechanics. The kind of a roleplaying game where the word “rules” can be used as a synonym for the totality of the work. At the back, there are also descriptions for two famous Western gun battles and a map for a typical town.

The wargame legacy of roleplaying games is very present. Boot Hill bears a lot of resemblance to modern board games like Descent. The focus is on combat encounters on a map even if the players have the freedom to try anything that characterizes many roleplaying games.

There are a few interesting incidental design elements. Supporting characters can be played by the Referee or by players. Thus, you could take on the role of a bank teller, a waitress or a drifter as needed in addition to your main character. You can also play without a Referee altogether, meaning that the option of GMless play is present.

The rules are structured on a two-tiered system, where you start by using the basic rules and then when the group is comfortable with those, add advanced rules. These seem strangely ad hoc when you read them now, because they were created before a lot of the best practices of system design emerged.

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