Boot Hill being the only one I played successfully for any length of time. Despite this, I've long been on the lookout for a good Western RPG and have even been toying around with one of my own over the past year (Saloons & Shootists is its working title). So, when Stuart Robertson released a Western RPG of his own, I took notice.
Called Weird West, Robertson describes it as a "streamlined and fast playing adventure roleplaying game for weird western worlds of cowboys, kung-fu, magic and otherworldly malevolence." Now, I'm sure some of you are already disappointed to read this description. "Not another occult Western game," you may be saying. Here's the thing: it's dead simple to remove the supernatural elements from Weird West, since, in the 8-page Basic Rulebook they're actually quite few. Do so and what you're left with is a nifty little game system that, frankly, could easily serve as the basis for a wide variety of roleplaying campaigns, regardless of when or where they're set. Before I expand on that thought, let's talk more specifically about what you get in $1 PDF.
First off, it's worth noting that Weird West comes in two formats, both of which you get when you purchase the game. One is a traditional 8½" x 11" booklet; the other is a much smaller (4.25" x 2.75") folded "pocket mod." I'm a big fan of small rulebooks, both in terms of page count and physical size, so I was very pleased to see the pocket mod version. Of the game's 8 single-column pages, only two are actually taken up with rules. The first page is its title page, with a superbly evocative illustration by Robertson that, to my mind, recalls Mike Mignola's work. The last page is a Fighting Chart that cross-references a character's Fighting attribute against his target's Defense. For the chart averse, let me say now that it's the only significant chart in the game and, with the pocketmod, there's really no excuse for everyone, player and referee alike, not to have the chart readily at hand while playing Weird West.
Weird West characters have four attributes: Fighting, Grit, Magic, and Skill. Players have 4 points to allocate amongst these attributes as they wish, with 0 being an acceptable score for any attribute except Grit, which governs a character's Stamina (as hit points are called here). It's worth noting that "Magic" governs any unusual ability, not just those that are explicitly supernatural. For example, the abilities "Fastest Gun in the West" or "Horse Whisperer" are both governed by Magic. Such abilities, even the more overt ones, are still fairly limited by the standards of most RPGs, meaning that Weird West falls more on the "low magic" end of the spectrum, though, given its open-ended nature, it'd be very easy to add more impressive and potent abilities to the game if one so desired.
Weird West is a class and level-based, though its classes (called "paths") primarily determine which attributes a character increases over time and at what rate. Thus, an "adventurer" gains 1 point in Fighting and Skill every two levels, while a "magician" gains 1 point of Magic every level and 1 point in Fighting and Skill every three levels. Characters gain levels at whatever rate the referee decides, whether that be at the conclusion of every session, every adventure, or more rarely. Roles also determine which dice are used to determine Stamina and the maximum damage dealt through the use of weapons.
Combat is handled simply through the use of a 1D20 roll against a target number derived from the aforementioned Fighting Chart. Damage is deducted from a target's Stamina pool. Once a target reaches 0 Stamina, a roll is made on another small chart to determine what happens, with results ranging from "Stunned -- lose next action" to "Death." "Difficult tasks," which is to say, tasks where failure has consequences, are resolved through a 1D6 roll, with 5+ indicating success. This target number is modified upwards or downwards based on any relevant attributes. The rulebook provides many examples of common tasks to aid the referee in determining their difficulty.
Weird West is a simple, straightforward game whose old school pedigree is obvious in its flexibility and open-endedness. Though it's accurate to call it "complete," since everything you need to play is included in its 8 pages, I have little doubt that, over the course of a campaign -- or even a single adventure -- situations will arise that are not explicitly covered in the rules. Fortunately, the rules of Weird West are intuitive enough that it shouldn't be difficult to expand them into new areas. Just reading the rules, I found myself thinking idly about how easy it would be to create expanded rules for gambling and brawling. That's a testament to the solid and inviting design of this game.
I also found myself realizing just how few rules are actually needed in order to create a complete RPG. Nowadays, we tend to expect RPGs, even self-avowedly "lite" ones to be dozens of pages long at least. Weird West happily eschews such notions, focusing instead on fundamental systems that are both easy to use and to build upon. Ultimately, that's the real appeal of Weird West: it's a game that encourages tinkering but doesn't require it. As is, it's more than adequate for fast, pulpy Wild West adventures but it still leaves ample room for expansion for players and referees who like that sort of thing. It's more than worth its $1 price tag and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for it.
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking for a simple, intuitive system for Western adventures that you can easily add to and expand upon without any trouble.
Don't Buy This If: If you're either not interested in Westerns or prefer your RPGs to be more complex and exhaustive in their rules.