Friday, August 21, 2015

Owl Hoot Trail

I made a mistake: I avoided Owl Hoot Trail (2013) when it was released.

In my defense, back in 2013 it seemed like a new D&D-based (I don't want to say "rip-off" but...) game was being released every other week. Most of these were fantasy heartbreakers, but some of them were "D&D + other genre" tweaks. The vast majority of them were derivative; they seemed like the sort of thing that warranted a couple pages of house rules, instead of being a wholly new product. I lumped Owl Hoot Trail into that category, and I was wrong.

Owl Hoot Trail is a D&D-based game set in the "fantasy west," but the game is so well-done and focused on its premise that it rises above being a D&D hack. The elements of character creation will be familiar to most gamers: you choose a race (half'ins [hobbits], hill folk [dwarfs], humans, orcs, shee [elves]), origin (greenhorn or native to the frontier), class (gunslinger, marshal, ruffian, scoundrel, scout, gadgeteer, mentalist, preacher, shaman), and figure out the usual details (hit points, equipment, etc.) Instead of the usual six ability scores, Owl Hoot Trail uses three broader thematic categories: Grit, Draw, and Wits. The ability scores are point-assigned rather than random roll, another slight departure from the norm.

There is also a simple skill system with a short but encompassing list of skills: Amity, Learning, Toughness, Wilderness, and Wile. Wile, for example, can be used for reading a person's motives, intimidation, seduction, and bluffing at the poker table. Although that level of abstraction won't work for everyone, I think it works well in a game that aims to be fast-paced and loose. The skill system itself is a standard d20 + modifiers vs. difficulty class assigned by the GM. Similarly, combat is handled with a d20 + modifiers roll vs. the opponent's Defense score.

If that's all there was to Owl Hoot Trail, it would be easy to write off. What really makes the game shine is how it zooms in from that general resolution framework to focus on areas that are linked to the genre it is emulating. For example, the combat system introduces the ideas of Zones and Trailin' to better emulate a cinematic Wild West gunfight. Zones are abstract measures of distance; if you move to a new Zone (scrambling to get behind a water barrel for cover when bullets start flying, perhaps) you are Trailin'--you take a penalty to your defense and act last in initiative order. There are also more detailed rules for gunfighter duels, high-stakes gambling, horse charges, cauterizing wounds, mooks (cowpokes and cowpunchers), etc. The subsystems presented in the book are small, but very flavorful.

Small and flavorful is also an apt description of the fantastical elements in Owl Hoot Trail. The uncanny powers of mentalists, gadgeteers, preachers, and shaman are given very brief descriptions, but they fit the game's atmosphere very well. The bestiary is similarly slight on details, but it's more than enough to populate your fictional fantasy frontier with beasties. The world-building section of the book is a scant few pages, but I get the impression that the action of Owl Hoot Trail is meant to take place in front of a broad-strokes backdrop; the attitude seems to be "describe something with fantasy western flair and get on with it," which I can appreciate.

All of the "game" takes up half of the book. The other half is a mini-campaign called "They Rode to Perdition" that is meant to be played over four or more sessions. Frankly, I love this and wish more games would include a starting set-up this extensive. The adventure does a great job illustrating how the game is intended to play, how to bring in the subsystems where appropriate in an adventure, and how the adventures to come can be structured. The adventure also looks like a ton of fun.

All in all, this game is a great little package that seems ideal for quickly getting into a game--short campaigns or one-shots might be ideal here. I also reckon this might be a great first game to expose a green table-top gamer to. The physical object is a slim, digest-sized volume with decent black and white interior art. It is available here.