Sunday, May 1, 2011

S is for Saloon

"You know, a good, smelly saloon... is my favorite place in the world."
Paden, Silverado

One would think that the saloon in a western RPG could easily work in the same way as a tavern in a fantasy RPG. After all, their genre trappings are pretty similar: food, drink and pleasurable company, perhaps a game of dice or a hastily started fistfight. But apart from that, the two don't really serve the same thematic purpose. The standard fantasy tavern is a location to acquire information that leads to an external adventure: a guy in a cloak gives you a map to mysterious treasure or the local guard captain tells you about a series of toad attacks. As a gamemaster, you think more about the interactions that the PCs can have in a tavern, rather than the space itself. Other than the ubiquitous tavern brawl, there aren't really that many important gaming moments happening in the tavern.

Saloons are a different story. There are tons of climactic western moments that take place in the center of a saloon: the two opening gunfights in Desperado, the introduction of Clint Eastwood's Manco in For A Few Dollars More and the first sparks of righteous anger out of Robert Mitchum's JP Harrah in El Dorado all come to mind. But what sticks in my mind the most is probably this scene from Silverado of Paden retrieving his hat from one of the outlaws who left him for dead in the desert. It's been one of my favorite films since I watched it with my mom at about age 5, an unabashedly archetypal western with the man who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back behind the director's chair. It distills everything that I like about the heroic Hollywood Wild West into an incredibly quotable package.

The saloon question has gotten me thinking about Robin Laws' section of Feng Shui entitled "The Map Is Not Your Friend." As Feng Shui is a high-kicking Hong Kong-style action movie, setting everything up in a 2-dimensional map space causes the players to "stop focusing on the action scene in their heads and instead directing them to a dead, lifeless piece of paper." Something tells me that I should definitely be considering something similar for my Bullets and Tequila game, even though Savage Worlds runs really well with miniatures. My previous cinematic combat rules, inspired by the combat rules for Gregor Hutton's 3:16, cut all of the different ranges down into five categories (Melee, Close, Short, Medium and Long) that can easily be qualified on the fly to players. If someone's got a sawed-off shotgun and is told that there are three enemies in Close range, it works well both for the game master (you don't need to make up absolute ranges on the fly) and the player (you always know who's in range). Still, I've never tried them out in practice yet, so we'll see how it goes.

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