Boot Hill Synopsis

For the uninitiated, Boot Hill  (2nd Ed.) is an old Wild West RPG put out by TSR back in the 70’s.  It was one of the first RPGs to utilize percentile dice to resolve actions and combat.  The PCs essentially have no mechanical advantage over NPCs.  A bare bones setting was provided, fictional Promise City in El Dorade county located “somewhere in the South West.”  In D&D the purpose of the game is to accumulate wealth and grow in power; in Boot Hill the purpose is largely just to survive the next gunfight.

There are six character attributes:  Speed, Gun Accuracy, Throw Accuracy, Strength (basically hit points), Bravery and Experience (the number of gunfights the cowboy has already survived).  While these abilities are generated using a percentile roll, the raw percentile score is rarely used to resolve actions.  Rather, the score is used to reference a modifier for derived combat attributes.  You may have also noticed that there are no social or mental attributes; these functions are performed by the player via role-playing, something I personally find appealing.

The two derived attributes are First Shot and Hit Determination.  First Shot is basically initiative, which is based on your cowboy’s Speed modifier, Bravery modifier and the weapon’s speed modifier.  Revolvers are generally the fastest weapons; rifles the slowest.  It is also a fixed score; you don’t roll initiative dice to determine who shoots first:  First Shot is determined solely by character ability and circumstances (such as whether the character moved, is wounded, has surprise, etc.).  Hit Determination starts at a base of 50% for all characters, further modified by Accuracy, Bravery and Experience scores.

Characters improve by surviving gunfights (even if they technically lose the fight).  The degree of improvement depends largely on the character’s initial percentile score.  Low scores improve fast, but as they increase the rate of improvement decreases until the scores hit the high 90’s where they stop improving altogether.  It’s a simple, organic system that requires no record keeping and fits the nature of the game well.

New characters start with $150 to purchase a horse, weapons and ammo.  While an equipment list is provided, Boot Hill characters generally have few possessions, as opposed to D&D characters who are usually loaded down with all manner of gear and/or treasure.  In fact, there are no encumbrance rules what-so-ever in Boot Hill.  All characters move at the same rates, depending on whether they’ve chosen to crawl, walk or run.  One thing I noticed in Boot Hill combat, moving is a critically important factor (as is taking cover when you’re not moving).

Combat is the heart of Boot Hill, more so than even old school D&D, and this is where it’s wargame roots show.  You can tell just by reading the rules that they were originally designed to be a tactical skirmish game.  Combat rounds are resolved in the following steps:  all characters move, gun fire is resolved and then brawling is resolved if two or more characters are adjacent to one another.

While first shot determination is (mostly) fixed score, movement is not.  All characters roll percentil dice to determine move order, with lowest score moving first.  There are optional rules for simultaneous movement, but it seems to me they’d slow down the action too much even if they are more realistic.  The rate you move depends entirely on how fast you choose to move (i.e. crawling, walking or moving).  Boot Hill uses a 1-inch grid (or just measure out inches playing on a table top), where each 1″ equals 6-feet.  A walking character moves 6 spaces (6″).  I found it interesting how close this is to the 5-foot per inch standard of 3E; I was expecting a far more complex and esoteric system for movement.

Once everyone has moved, characters may fire their guns in first shot order, provided they have any targets in their line-of-sight.  Some weapons can fire more than one shot per round, with cumulative penalties.  The base hit chance is also modified by attacker movement rate, target’s movement rate (a running target is harder to hit), cover, wounds and the like.  If a hit lands, you roll percentile dice twice on the Wound Chart, once to determine the hit location and again to determine the severity of the hit (based on the hit location — so a hit to the head is more likely to result in a serious injury).  Guns in Boot Hill do not have individual damage ratings; a derringer has just as much potential to kill you as a buffalo rifle.  Everything comes down to the Wound Chart, and it is entirely possible for even a veteran gunfighter to die instantly from a mortal wound result.  Less-than-lethal wounds reduce a character’s Strength score; if Strength is reduced to 0 or less, the character is unconscious and may die unless the town doc gets to them in time.

Finally, if two characters are adjacent to one another and one of them wants to throw punches (in place of shooting), you resolve two ’rounds’ of brawling combat.  I guess this is to simulate the fast-paced nature of a barroom fight compared to the manuever and fire of a gunfight.  You can throw punches or grapple by rolling 2d10 and referencing a chart.  As far as I can tell, there are no attribute modifiers to brawling rolls, not even for Strength.  It’s a wild n’ wooly bar fight, where anything can happen, and I kind of like it.  Using the grapple table you can get people into bear hugs and head locks, necessitating a specific result on the grapple table to break free.  Again, a nice simple system for resolving grappling combat, something D&D has struggled with for decades.  Stabby melee weapons (like knives and tomahawks) use the punching table to determine if a blow lands, but roll for results on Wound Chart, whereas blunt melee weapons, like pistol butts, use the punching table to resolve both hits and damage.  Reducing someones Strength to 0 from brawling will knock them unconscious, but won’t kill them.

And that’s pretty much it.  There are advanced rules for cannons and gatling guns, using dynamite (with an emphasis on ‘realism’ over cinematic effect), tracking and gambling.  Layouts for a few sample buildings are included, as is a brief description of Promise City and the settlements of El Dorado county, and a list of famous historical cowboys, lawmen and outlaws statted out and ready to drop into your game to duke it out with the PCs.  The entire rulebook is only 34 pages long.


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4 Responses to “Boot Hill Synopsis”

  1. David Jenks Says:

    Thanks for the synopsis. Boot Hill was one of the *first* RPGs I was introduced to (and always has a small place in my heart).

    Oddly, the cover art is very different from what I remember–possibly I recall a module or supplement from the game, instead…..?

    • edowar Says:

      You may also be recalling the 1st edition cover, which was a biege-ish color with black ink, if I recall correctly. Also, the above is the box lid cover, I believe. The 2nd edition book has the same picture, just not in color.

  2. David Jenks Says:

    I remember a book with considerably more brown in it (like wood bark).

    No matter–the point being that BH is a great old game, albeit a little clunky compared to current RPGs. 🙂

    • edowar Says:

      Yeah, BH is a neat little game that does everything it claims to, namely emulate gunfights in the Old West. It is a bit clunky, but not as much as I remembered it being.

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