Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tall Tales RPG - A Review

Tall Tales: Wild West B/X Fantasy Adventure Game by Mark A. Hunt is currently available in ebook (pdf) format from DriveThruRPG for $8. I'm not affiliated with Mark, don't get a dime for this review, or if you click on the link.

Tall Tales is, as you can guess from the full title and cover, an RPG set in the Wild West using the basic mechanics of the BX edition of D&D. The pdf is 96 pages, but it's in digest size and single-column layout, which makes it convenient for viewing on a tablet, I'd guess (haven't checked mine on my tablet yet). It's illustrated in color, using plenty of paintings found in the public domain, including several full-page illustrations.

The game covers character generation, has six character classes (plus a pay-what-you-want supplement with three more classes is available), money & equipment, rules for running the game in and out of combat, animal and human opponents, a section on XP/rewards/treasure, and a lot of novel little touches that fit the setting and mood of a Western. There's an appendix of suggested readings, mostly historical from the looks of it. There is also a character sheet (reminiscent of the classic BX/BECMI sheet) both on the final pages and as a separate pdf file in the zip.

For game mechanics, it uses the six ability scores we all know and love, AC, HD and HP, XP, Morale, yadda yadda yadda. If you know BX or BECMI D&D, you know most of the mechanics. One novel renovation of the rules is the saving throw categories. Instead of magic wands and dragon breath, you have things like Gumption and Observation. In other words, the saves function both as avoidance rolls for negative consequences and as skill rolls. And they're thematically appropriate to the setting.

The six character classes are Gunfighter, Desperado, Snake Oil Salesman, Mountain Man, Brave, and Singing Cowboy. The PWYW supplement adds the Lawman, Gambler and Preacher classes. Each character class is capped at 6th level, and hit dice cap at 4. It's interesting to me that Simon Washbourne's Go Fer Yer Gun rules (and all of his other games that I've checked out) also cap at 4 hit dice. I'm curious if it's some sort of convention laid down by Boot Hill? I never played BH, but was under the impression that it was level-less. It's not hard for anyone with any old school edition of D&D or a retro-clone to extrapolate higher levels if desired, although since the prevailing genre is medieval fantasy, maybe six levels of Western RPG are enough for most people.

Of the classes, they all have two to four simple special abilities that they can use. Some improve with level, some don't. Most are what you'd expect. Gunfighters are the toughest and ablest combatants. Desperadoes try to cheat and swindle, Mountain Men are adept at survival and get a wild animal companion. Braves are excellent trackers with a few spiritual gifts for healing and divination. The Medicine Man gets an interesting potion brewing ability, which becomes more reliable as the character gains levels. With enough time and some luck, they can brew potions to help the party (eight sample potions are provided in the rules). The Singing Cowboy has the ability to charm their way through encounters and also has a trusty mount.

The three classes in the supplement add more of the same. The Gambler has some luck influencing abilities. The Lawman gets community support and a deputy/sidekick. The Preacher gets a charm-like ability and minor healing ability. I'd say they look like they're not necessary additions, but don't seem likely to break anything if added in to a campaign.

Instead of dollars, the game uses gold pieces. Weapons cover common melee and ranged weapons of the period (tomahawks, spears, cavalry sabers, pistols, rifles, shotguns, dynamite, bows, etc.) Armor has an interesting twist. How well you're dressed determines your AC. Work clothes are like leather, fancy duds are like chain (but cost the same as plate in D&D), and heavy clothes protect like plate (but cost the same as chain in D&D). Wearing a white/black hat and/or a tin star can act like a shield, improving AC by -1 each (optional rule, but I like  it). General equipment covers lots of period-specific gear you might want, including livestock, land, town services, and musical instruments. There are special rules for mounts, as well as construction costs for buildings. Several pages are devoted to retainers (all in all similar to BX).

The game mechanics are all, as far as I've seen, identical to BX or BECMI mechanics (searching for secret doors, pursuit and evasion, falling damage, stuff like that). I'll be honest that I did skim through this section since it does seem so similar. There may be a few small differences and tweaks to some of the mechanics, but for the most part it looks the same to me. One area where it does make some changes is the saving throw rules. Not only are the categories different (and also used as skill rolls in some instances), but the rules also suggest that failures don't always need to be drastic failures. Sometimes, a failure might be a success but with complications. A failed jump might leave you hanging by your fingertips on the opposite ledge. A failed Riding save might mean you drop your weapon. Things like that. Again, this is a nice modification to the rules that helps set the feel of a lot of Western media (especially old serials like The Lone Ranger or Zorro).

The rules for running encounters and combat also seem more or less, if not exactly, the same as BX. There are a few additions. There's a fast draw rule for modifying initiative and chance to hit. There's a "shields shall be splintered" type rule where once per session a character can avoid damage but take a penalty to hit and movement for 24 hours by getting "shot in the arm." These are some nice touches that make it a bit different from standard D&D but again fit the theme and tropes of the source material well.

The last 20 pages or so of the book have details and suggestions for fleshing out the setting (including the wild animal and human opponent/NPC stats). There are lots of interesting bits of advice, lots of random charts, and all sorts of goodness to get the feel right. What is the town like? What are the NPCs like? What happens if the PCs get arrested and sent to trial? What happens if the PCs hang around town all day or all night? How much loot do the opponents carry? How much money can the party get if they pull off a stage coach or bank robbery? This section has a lot of useful information to help spur your imagination and present interesting challenges to the players, and to help the GM keep the game moving.

I mentioned above that the format is digest size pages and single column. This makes the pdf very easy to read. The pdf is also bookmarked, making it easy to navigate. I did find plenty of spelling/formatting errors...but then I teach English as a Foreign Language so spotting mistakes like that is just something I'm trained to do. And since I have found a few mistakes of my own in Chanbara now that I'm playing it again, I can't complain.

The game has an Open Game License at the end, so you're free to use the Open Game Content in it in your own products or create your own derivative works.

Overall, it's a nice simple set of rules. I should probably go over Go Fer Yer Gun again and do a comparison post some day. I like both, but Tall Tales seems a bit simpler over all which means it's probably going to be the base rules set if I ever get my Caverns & Cowboys game idea going.