Wild West

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by R. Dan Henry with additional ideas from rec.games.roguelike.development discussions

SETTING ISSUES: Out of the Dungeon

The Sheep calls the lack of dungeons, "the biggest problem" for a Western RL. I call it the biggest opportunity. This should be setting out to produce something different. If you try to duplicate the pseudo-D&D setting, you might as well just stick to pseudo-D&D derivative fantasy worlds.

This isn't to say you can't use some of those tunnel-building algorithms you've worked so hard on. There are caves and caverns, there are abandoned mines (or non-abandoned mines if you're in for a bit of blood-thirsty raiding), and twisting maze-like canyons.

But there's also the open land, areas of large rock formations, towns, ranches and farms, train stations and trains, forests, forts, camps, desert, swamp, mountain slopes and valleys and passes. Some of the action should be in more open spaces, but that doesn't mean you don't have terrain to generate. In fact, you realistically get the sort of variety that is often suggested be unrealistically shoehorned into underground complexes.

You could have the entire game set on a moving train: anything falling off would be out of the game; you'd have passing obstacles like tunnels, low bridges or tree branches, that would matter if you got on top of a car to fight -- and it wouldn't be right not to. You could be conducting a daring train robbery or stopping one or some more exotic train-based crime, like kidnapping a rich heiress or loading up a car full of dynamite to set off in the city.

Likewise, enemies won't include stock fantasy or sci-fi figures, but there's plenty of fightin' in store for a decent length game. Here are some encounter possibilities (not all hostile):

Humans: miner, clergy, outlaw, lawman, crazy old prospector, cattleman, shepherd, pioneer, townsfolk, gunslinger, drifter, private eye, traveling salesman, dime novelist, journalist, singing cowboy, cook, rustler, farmer, rancher, school teacher, housewife, saloon girl, piano player, traveling performer, various Indians, if not post-Civil-War then slave or escaped slave, con artist, gambler, lady of the evening, bounty hunter, adventurous lad (e.g., Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn), mayor, banker

Animals: prairie dog, buffalo, deer, coyote, wolf, rabbit, black/brown bear, grizzly, puma/cougar/mountain lion, scorpions, tarantula, Gila monster, black widow, fox, eagle, hawk, falcon, vulture, cattle (stampede!), horse, hound dog, beaver, skunk

Other: weather (hailstorm, thunderstorm, flood, snow, tornado), cacti, deserts, bad water, wildfire, prairie dog hole (minor pit trap), tumbleweed, falling rocks

SETTING ISSUES: The Western World

There's nothing that says a Western setting has to be (pseudo-)historical. One option is the "Fantasy West" -- a land of gunslingers, outlaws, and the usual cast, but with Indian magic that works, maybe voodoo, spirits, superhuman characters, and the like. I'd suggest four things for research if you go ahead with this: Native American folklore, Anglo-American folklore (especially "Western", exploration, or new settlement related stories -- the axe George Washington used on the cherry tree would be a cool artifact item), African-American folklore, and the role-playing game Deadlands, which is a "supernatural Western" style game. Of course, I'd say look at Deadlands after you've whipped up some ideas of your own so you get in your own brainstorming first, then compare notes.

Another option is blending sci-fi elements with the Western. This can be subtle or as blatant as having the Martians land and having to fight this extra-terrestrial invasion. Wild, Wild West and Brisco County, Jr. are possible resources.

Even sticking to the historical West, you've got some variety of setting possibilities. Is it the edge of the frontier, focusing on taming the outlaws or subduing the natives or simply setting up some kind of a functioning settlement? Is it a riverboat gambling adventure or a train journey or a cattle drive or a pioneer wagon train taking the Oregon Trail? Is the player-character a born Westerner or transplanted Easterner? European immigrant? Mexican? Native American? Negro? The PC's POV should be taken into account in designing the game. Is the setting pre-, post-, or during the Civil War?

These decisions will also decide the values that underlie your game. A frontiersman of any sort will tend to avoid personal matters in conversation, but a band of Indians may be quite close and open. A Civil War era scenario may assume a certain form of patriotism or focus on personal entanglement in a time of difficult decisions.

There's a fair range of technology and you have the whole world to pull elements from (e.g. kung fu ala the Kung Fu TV show -- there were Asians in the American West). You do have to decide how historical you want to be: pick a period and try to stay accurate to it or mix up, say, famous outlaws of the entire "Wild West" era? Real West or Mythical West? Can a sufficiently heroic character fire more bullets between reloads than his weapon can hold? The "historical" Western can be gritty or humorous, hard realism or extremely cinematic.

There are some additional elements one may want to develop in order to emphasize various aspects of the Western:

1. Horses. Implement the different strides of a horse. Provide varying types of horses and individual variation (different stats, descriptions, behaviors). Horses can learn tricks. There is room for a variety of horse-related skills. Some games may want to simply use the horse as a device to transport the hero from one scenario to another, but others may develop the character of the horse, a central feature of many Westerns. A cowboy's horse should certainly be important and likely an outlaw's horse, too. A Plains Indian game would absolutely need detailed horses.

2. Alcohol(ism). Booze was big. The aging drunk as hero might demand that one maintain a level of alcohol between shaky-handed withdrawal and too-drunk-to-shoot. Generally this isn't likely to be a central element, but probably worth treating as a significant flavor element.

3. Reputation. A man don't have much that's really his. Money and jobs come and go. Youth and love fade. But a man can build a reputation. Maybe your word is as good as a contract, maybe you just are known for being fast with a gun. A useful feature for nearly any Western RL, reputation becomes almost indispensable for a gunslinger's saga. Of course, while some will sensibly avoid someone with a dangerous reputation, others will call him out hoping to seize some glory for themselves.

4. Gambling. Even in Maverick, a TV series about professional gamblers, the gambling itself wasn't that central. Only recently has the idea arisen that simply watching people play cards counts as a show. There were plenty of different games of chance played in the Old West, but various forms of poker are the most cliche. If modeling a New Orleans gambling house or a riverboat casino, a variety should be offered, but for other settings, a poker table should suffice. In addition to changing the amount of money in one's hands (and if this is your only reason for including gambling, please don't -- there should be more interesting ways to seek one's fortune), the gambling table is a good place to pick up news (here you can find rumors), learn of employment opportunities (legitimate or otherwise -- so the table provides "quests", but don't call them that, "job" will do), and the chance of combat as someone decides (rightly or wrongly) that cheating is going on.

5. Hanging's Too Good For Him. But that's what we do, so hang him high. Don't neglect the little bits of iconic Western detail, including rough justice. An outlaw character who is captured will be busted out of jail or end his career on a rope. In fact, no matter how the game ends, there should be some sort of flavorful conclusion, even if it is a few lines describing how he rides mysteriously into the sunset.

GAMEPLAY: Toto, We Ain't in Middle-Earth Knock-Off #343 Any More

WHAT TO DO? You probably aren't on a mission from God to find a magic McGuffin or out to kill the Devil. So what kind of games can you play?

A cattle drive! Move your herd from the bottom of the map across the top of the map over and over, meeting various obstacles and dangers.

The Civil War! Sure, much of it was fought back East, but you could take on a small army of damn Rebels or Yankee devils in a more Westerly location. You could also do a U.S. vs. Indians battlefield.

Shoot a man just to watch him die.

You are a lawman. You have to clean up a series of towns, each larger and meaner than the one before. If you clean up the worst town, you win and become elected governor of the territory. Once a town is "cleaned up" (bad guys dead or jailed, order restored), you can finish any business (buying, selling, giving a donation to the preacher) and go on to the next town with the "R"ide into the sunset command.

You are a bad man. You travel through a series of criminal opportunities. Case out the situation, pick your target, steal the loot, get away to move on to the next opportunity. Sometimes you'd have a town with few possibilities, sometimes there would be a bank -- but maybe the assayer is a better target? Sometimes you'd have a shot at a stagecoach, a train, or a group of miners returning from the fields.

You are a warrior of your tribe. Paleface intrusions threaten your people. You must attack their settlements throughout your territory and drive them away. If you can destroy the cavalry fort, they will be forced to withdraw from your land for a generation.

If you want a traditional search-quest, a lost mine or buried treasure will do the job.

And, of course, you don't have to do a "realistic" Western at all -- the West has ghost stories, tall tales, Indian magic, etc. These open up some more possibilities -- but I still advise against making the whole game "explore the abandoned mine, kill the bad guys, and find the thing".

GAMEPLAY: The Quick and the Dead

Combat is at home in the Western as in High Fantasy, but there are obvious differences. There's still hand-to-hand fighting to be done, whether fisticuffs, bayonet charges, or melee with anything from a tomahawk to a broken bottle to a cavalry saber to a pitchfork, but there's also ranged combat. You might find some bows in the hands of poor Indians and thrown weapons have their place, but the main weapons are firearms. There are also explosives, which can be used in combat or for demolitions.

Combat should involve movement as much as shooting, the use of cover and positioning to gain advantage, not to mention the development of lightning reflexes if you intend to get into actual gunslinging, where the first to draw has the advantage. Don't forget to count your shots; unless you're in an old Hollywood Western, you'll run out of bullets and reloading takes precious time.

There should be commands allowing you to combine movement and actions (such as firing a weapon, but possibly other actions as well -- indeed, you might want to make a generic combination command UI that takes the movement and the activity separately, e.g. instead of entering a single command, you enter a movement command and a non-movement command [possibly a "stand still" and a "do nothing" command] such a "4s" to indicate that you want to move left while shooting). Firing while retreating or moving from one bit of cover to the next is a classic Western technique.

Also, while some gunfighters stand in the middle of the street trading shots (note that both parties missing until they need to reload isn't unrealistic under these conditions, but one hopes if your character is actually supposed to be a professional gunfighter, he'll shoot better than that) and still others remain carefully placed in defensive positions (at a window shooting at targets in the street typically), many will have reason to get around during a fight, leading to the need to crouch or crawl to improve defense or stealth, while sacrificing speed. A set of "postures" can allow a redistribution of points from areas of defense, offense, movement, stealth, and any other factors that might reasonably be considered influenced by whether you are walking tall, running like hell, rolling, crouching, crawling, or traveling by some other method. Before you think this sounds too complicated, consider that this is merely a variant form of a feature found in ADOM and ToME, but with a clearer conception of what the various bonuses and penalties come from.

For ideas for cover, I can't do better than quote Jim Strathmeyer: "People in westerns are always able to find cover. The desert of the old west isn't just sand... there's giant rocks and cactuses everywhere. Not to mention tombstones, walls, carts, canyons, outhouses, wells, and trees. Even inside, there's tables, chairs, beds, and bars to hide behind." Of course, there's stuff to make weapons from as well. No barroom brawl is complete unless glassware and at least one chair gets smashed.

One thing I recommend is implementing "partial cover" objects that you can shoot through without penalty if you are standing next to them, but which otherwise tend to block or penalize shots that travel through them. This simulates hiding behind trees, barrels, wagons, etc., a form of defense that really only works if you're next to them (for that matter, windows are probably best implemented as partial cover objects. A wall too high to shoot over is "full cover". If you are inside a building and Wacky Pete, the Cannibal Prospector, is outside, you can't shoot each other through the walls. Find a window or doorway.

...................................... Example: @ has wisely taken cover
....0.............*.S................. behind a row of barrels (0) --
...@0......................*.......... good thinking as long as they are
....0...........D..................... not gunpowder barrels. There are
....0...............D................. some trees (*) available for
....................*D................ cover as well. The Sheriff (S),
...................................... is still a step away from the
nearest tree, so the tree will interfere with his shooting at @, as well
as @ shooting at him. Well, that still may be the smartest approach. One
foolhardy deputy (D) is in the open. He may be charging the barrels in
hopes that the best defense is a good offense or he may be crawling in
hopes of improving his defense. If this is grassland, he might even be
hidden or at least be picking up a negative to @'s chance of hitting
him. One deputy is hidden behind a tree, having achieved the benefit of
cover, but the deputy next to him is a bit hazy on the rules. Even the
most generous calculations will not place the tree in @'s firing path,
so being next to the tree is not protecting him at all.


The "Roguelike Alphabet" section of my theme features is meant primarily for those using traditional ASCII graphics where monsters are represented by letters, but even if you are using tile graphics, they are a resource for filling out your game's population.

  • A Apache, Arachnid, Abolitionist, Archer, Animal
  • B Blackfoot, Blacksmith, Bandit, Bear, Buffalo, Bowman, Balloon, Bicycle
  • C City Slicker, Cowboy, Cow, Chinaman, Confederate, Chief, Coach, Coyote
  • D Dakota, Dude, Dancing Girl, Dog, Deputy, Donkey, Drunk
  • E European, Englishman, Explorer
  • F Farmer, Fur Trapper
  • G Gunslinger, Gambler, Gatling Gun, Gringo
  • H Horse, Horseman, Hot Air Balloon
  • I Indian
  • J Johnny Reb, Judge, Journalist
  • K Killer, Knife Fighter
  • L Lakota, Lawyer, Lumberjack, Lawman
  • M Mexican, Miner, Marshall, Mule, Mountain Lion, Mountaineer, Mayor, Mustang
  • N Navaho, Negro, Northerner, sNeak, Nun
  • O Outlaw, Old Man, Old Woman
  • P Paleface, Piano Player, Preacher, Photographer, Politician, Prospector
  • Q Quickdraw,(visually, could be a stout animal w/tail, wolverine, badger, etc.)
  • R Rancher, Rustler, Rebel, Reporter, Rifleman, Rider, Ranger
  • S Sioux, Sheep, Snake, Scorpion, Southerner, Slave, Sheriff, Settler, Stagecoach, Singing Cowboy
  • T Texan, Townsfolk, Trapper, Train
  • U Unionist
  • V Veteran, Vehicle
  • W Wolf, Warrior, Woman, Wagon
  • X (visually, guy with his hands up -- could be corpse symbol)
  • Y Young Gun, Yankee
  • Z (sleeping guy), Zorro


Oh, really, if you can't even find Westerns, you'll never write a roguelike. The only pointer I would give is to not forget radio, if you get a chance to listen to old radio Westerns. Westerns were pretty big in the Golden Age of Radio.

Deadlands is currently published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Their website is at http://www.peginc.com/