Kickstopper: Dead Man’s Silhouette

Turning to Kickstarter to fund a print run of an expensive RPG core book with a niche audience is commonplace these days, so it’s no surprise that Kenzer & Company did a Kickstarter to fund their second edition of Aces & Eights, their Wild West-based RPG. Unlike, say, DeadlandsAces & Eights plays the subject matter more or less straight (with a significant difference I’ll get into later), which makes it a bit of a niche in the tabletop RPG market – in which fantasy, horror, and SF spins on historical settings tend to be more common than history played “straight”.

Why is this the case? I’m not sure. Maybe part of it is that geek culture buys into the idea that “historical thing plus wildly historical element” is more interesting than “historical thing”, despite the fact that if history has one lesson to teach us it’s that fact is often wilder than fiction. Perhaps another part is a dislike of historical research as an element of gameplay – though there’s an odd contradiction here, in that the same gamers who aren’t so keen on historical research might be entirely happy to play games in extremely detailed fictional settings in which boning up on bits of canon might become a significant part of running a game.

On this latter part, I wonder whether there’s something in geek culture which prefers the cast-iron certainty of an authorially-approved “canon” of a fictional setting to the grey lines and uncertainties that exist in actual historical research. In a fictional setting there are clearly designated goodies and baddies; in a historical setting, you get the same (people freeing slaves in the antebellum South = goodies, fucking Nazis = baddies), but you also have this big blurry mass in between. For some, that’s off-putting, particularly if they just want a bit of escapism; for those that prize historical roleplaying, those grey areas and that scope for research and study informing your gaming is often part of the appeal.

The cognitive trick you need to overcome is that it doesn’t matter if your game is 100% historically accurate, any more than it matters whether your Star Wars game is 100% canon – you will make mistakes in either. It’s just that in the historical game, debates on how a hazily-thought-out supernatural metaphysic interfaces with the action are replaced with discussions of historical points. Both forms of table talk can be constrained or encouraged to the tastes of those present by an attentive referee.

Such rants aside, though… is it any good?

 

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

As I outlined above, the plan for the campaign was to fund the printing of a new edition of Aces & Eights – a tuned-up and revised version of the game to mark the 10th anniversary of the original. By and large, Kenzer & Company were sensible about the stretch goals (many of them being of an electronic-only nature, some of which were existing products by them or other hands, and the Kickstarter pitch page does a decent job of getting across some of the major ideas of the game. (It’s got quite a good demonstration of how the “shot clock” concept works in gunfights, in particular.) The campaign wound up raising some $79,684, which was comfortably over their $20,000 target but wasn’t enough to hit some of the higher-level and more ambitious stretch goals (like a “leather GM screen”, however that was supposed to work).

What Level I Backed At

Campaign Ready! (International)

You receive an embossed hard cover copy of Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier RPG 2nd Edition, an extra copy of each Shot Clock (standard and shotgun), two decks of cards plus PDFs of ALL stretch goals we unlock through this campaign! Shipping rates apply.

INCLUDES:

  • Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier RPG, embossed leather hardbound
  • 2 period poker decks
  • One Copy of the Shot Clock game aid
  • One Copy of the Shotgun Shot Clock game aid
  • All PDF stretch goals!

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was originally estimated for December 2017; as it turned out, our hard copies came over a year late (I received mine in February 2019). Regular updates and PDF releases of material meant that as a backer I never felt like we were being ignored, and it was clear that Kenzer were consistently working towards the goal and making progress – it just all went a bit more slowly than they expected.

The shipping process, in particular, seemed to take an incredibly long time; it commenced in September for domestic customers, so based on when I got mine it took about half a year to get the books out to international backers. That’s frankly absurd, but then again the whole situation these days with international shipping is kind of ridiculous so perhaps Kenzer can be extended some slack on that front.

Reviewing the Swag

The Precedent: Aces & Eights – Shattered Frontier

Western-themed RPGs are uncommon; Western-themed ones with no overt supernatural, fantastical, horror-based or science fictional twists are even rarer. The first such game was Boot Hill, issued by Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR shortly after D&D itself, and whilst Aces & Eights does not directly take game mechanical inspiration from Boot Hill its structure is clearly based on it. Both games start out by offering basic rules which offer the baseline principles of gunfighting in the system, then provide advanced rules providing a more developed character generation system, more detailed combat rules, and rules on some other activities besides, and then a section on running the game as a campaign where rather than playing for a session and then stopping the characters and the action continue from session to session as the game chronicles the party’s exploits in the Old West.

Aces & Eights excels in two respects. The first is in its novel gunfighting system, which works on the basis of printed-out silhouettes of gunfighters in various poses and transparent “shot clocks” on plastic. You place the shot clock on the silhouette on the part of the body you are aiming at and roll; if you roll well, you hit the spot, if you didn’t hit the magic number then the amount you missed by determines how far away the shot ended up and a draw of a playing card determines the angle (so you can aim to shoot the gun out of someone’s hand, miss, and hit them square between the eyes). It’s a simple, tactile way of resolving gunfights and is nicely adaptable. With a little preparation, making your own silhouettes of approximately the right scale is easy enough, and adjudicating shots where the target is behind cover is simplicity itself – simply use a sheet of paper to cover the portion of the silhouette that’s behind cover and fire away. As far as timing goes, combat progresses in tenths of a second, with different actions taking different amounts of time, a great way of getting across the split-second reversals of fortune of a gunfight.

The second way it excels is in the sheer depth of the toolkit it provides. You can take a very simple approach to the game, or add more complexity to provide additional depth where you want it, and in general if you add a little complexity here and there you don’t need to add it everywhere else unless you want to. Characters made through the full character generation system can include intricately detailed pasts, or quick and simple backgrounds, and characters made by either route can work together in the same game perfectly fine. In-depth systems for particular circumstances – everything from horseback chases to cattle runs to prospecting to frontier jury trials – are provided for those who want that detail, but they are specifically flagged as options, there to use if you want to make the activity in question the primary focus of a session or a stretch of it.

The type of game Aces & Eights aims to support – and which its toolkit approach allows it to excel at – is a “sandbox” type of campaign – simply provide a town and a region of Old West wilderness it’s set in (an example town and surrounding area are provided in the book), have the characters roll up, and see what they get up to in the way of making their fortune and interacting with the various local non-player character. The sheer mass of tools provided in the book to support this approach can lead to week on week of Western-flavoured fun.

The main thing I dislike about it is the fact that it decides to pointlessly shoehorn in an alternate history background – one where Texas and Deseret remain independent, the Confederacy survived the Civil War, and Britain and France pursue their own colonial agendas in the Old West. To give Kenzer their due, this treatment doesn’t sanitise the Confederacy to the extent that, say, Deadlands does (with it’s “the CSA would have totally abolished slavery by itself, guys!” nonsense perhaps being the most tone-deaf, offensive nonsense I’ve ever seen in an alternate history), and they are clear about the purpose of the setting: the idea is to make sure the West remains contested territory, greatly delaying the extension of Federal power and more settled ways of life into it and thus staving off the decline of the Old West and the end of the frontier way of life. To be honest, I don’t find the impending taming of the Wild West to be a game-ruining theme (far from it: it was one of the more interesting bits of Red Dead Redemption), and I think you could fit in more than enough campaign play in the wedge of decades when the Old West was at its height anyway.

Moreover, I don’t agree with the other reason that Kenzer & Company cite for using an alternate history setting – preventing players from using OOC historical knowledge to their advantage – say, by buying up plots of land where gold historically was discovered before the gold was found. I find this reasoning even more nonsensical. For one thing, you can simply disallow a player from doing that because they are attempting to have their character act on information that they don’t have. If Kenzer & Company regularly play with players who willfully breach the IC-OOC barrier like that, then there’s dysfunctional play going on at a level which goes beyond the mere ability of a setting tweak to deal with. Likewise, it’s simple enough to say “History is as it was up to the point that the campaign begins, it can diverge from that point, but no I am not allowing you to invent nukes because your character does not have that knowledge.” Any player who refuses to go along with that very reasonable stance isn’t really participating in good faith, and can fuck off from my gaming table, thanks.

In short, I wouldn’t use the “Shattered Frontier” setting Kenzer present; nicely, they make sure that most of the details of it are shunted to an appendix and the premise doesn’t bear on the rules to any great extent, so if you want to go with a more “straight historical” approach to the setting there is absolutely no barrier to you doing so.

Although it didn’t spark any massive craze for Western-themed gaming, Aces & Eights seemed to have a respectable enough showing in the market; I’d certainly put it alongside Deadlands when it comes to the top Western RPGs out there, and would probably prefer it to Deadlands unless I specifically wanted a “Weird West” approach to things. It was supported by a small but nicely-implemented range of support products, such as Rustlers & Townsfolk – a folder of loose-leaf character sheets, each of which detailing a different non-player character for the referee to unleash on their campaign at a whim. The format is quite nicely done – if you want to see who’s propping up the bar at the local saloon just reach into the folder, randomly draw a suitable number of sheets, and then take notes on them and slip them into your campaign notes folder as necessary should it look like they’ll become recurring figures.

The Product: Aces & Eights – Reloaded

The Reloaded edition is essentially a reorganisation and updated presentation of the game, as opposed to a full-on redesign of the underlying system. Offered in full colour, with a rulebook that I find a bit easier to navigate, the approach here is to provide a clear presentation of the central game; more peripheral activities such as the microgames surrounding frontier justice or cattle runs or the like have been removed from the core book and made separate mini-supplements, which means that the Reloaded edition is actually a bit slimmer than Shattered Frontier.

Now, if you wanted to, you could absolutely paint this as an economic decision on the part of Kenzer – why sell one product to a customer when you can sell three or four, right? In addition, reducing the page count like this may well be a decision made with an eye to thriftiness – between this and the shot clocks feeling thinner than those from the original book, it seems like that Kenzer have been trying to take a more cost-effective approach to producing the material. It’s worth noting that Shattered Frontier only had two print runs, and I wonder whether part of that was down to the sheer bulk of the book driving up production costs, such that the profits of one print run weren’t quite enough to cover the next.

At the same time, I can see the benefit to having this rearrangement of the material to hand, particularly in terms of the clarification it offers to the character creation process. There’s various aspects of the game which are better-communicated here, or which simply stand out a bit more; in particular, the advice on how to approach a Western campaign – the way Kenzer define a Western campaign – makes it clear that Aces & Eights is intended to be a “history simulation” type of game, much like Maelstrom was back in the 1980s and Ars Magica can drift into being if you allow a lot of the non-magical aspects of the game become a big deal. The historical details of day-to-day life are part of the point – hence the way the professions system is structured – but also the way that violent action can disrupt all that is important, and which is often the spur to action. You could pick all of this up from the original book, but it’s in starker relief here.

The Minigames

Delivered via PDF and, in some cases, via printed booklets, these are fun ways to add extra depth to particular matters. As well as the “frontier justice” trials and cattle drives and whatnot from past editions, this version of the game line includes Merle Rasmussen’s quite nice treatment of the subject of stagecoach lines – a business PCs can get involved with in various ways and which is an iconic feature of the Old West.

Faro Decks

These are decks of cards intended to be similar to cheap-quality 19th Century decks of the Old West era – so the cards have square corners as opposed to the rounded corners people tended to be more used to, the artwork on the court cards is a bit doofy, the cards are tinted to look a bit grimy and greasy, you don’t get the numbering at the corners of the cards that you’re used to seeing, and so on. Not essential, but fun accessories.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

Just Right. The additional shot clocks are undeniably handy, in particular.

Would Back Again?

Yes, for the right project.

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