I am interested in running an American Old West RPG/campaign that doesn't rely on fantasy/mystical or sci-fi/steampunk elements. What system do you recommend, and why do you think it captures a more historical Old West appeal, especially when compared with other systems?
For some reason a lot of the Western RPGs out there have a lot of mystical junk mixed in, Deadlands being the coolest of the lot. You can always "file off the magic" but if you are looking to use published products without fooling around, you definitely want a Western RPG tuned for that.
I own two of those. The first is Boot Hill, the original Western RPG published by TSR back in the day. It's non-supernatural in origin, and had five adventures published, but it's crufty in that 1970s RPG kind of way and hard to find.
The second and my favorite is Aces & Eights, a currently supported game from Kenzer & Co., the guys who do Hackmaster. In 2009 it took Origins RPG of the Year and the silver Best RPG ENNie. I really like it - it's a 400-page faux leather bound book sporting an in-depth shooting system (uses a transparency "shot clock" overlay, lots of detail).
Besides having a lot of in-depth genre appropriate skills (Telegraph operation), flaws (Fourflusher), and gear (Bottle of Laudanum - 29 cents), it has chapters with rulesets for cattle drives, prospecting, and trials. This is brilliant and makes it a lot better for a Western RPG than "insert generic system here."
It has no supernatural, but it is a slight alternate history. I'm not really even sure why, it's not alternate history in the usual "add Nazis!" sense, just that the Civil War stalemated and some stuff like that.
Useable as written
Aces and Eights:
Lots of rules crunch, but looks pretty well done. I've not run it, but have readit, but it plays it very straight and has several bits that can be moved into other systems easily. The Jury Trial system is quite promising. Note that the design is grounded in the Old-School mentality.
Supplement for Hero System 4th Ed. Several genre specific rules to emulate the traditional western using the Hero System. Hero System rulebook required.
GURPS: Old West
Supplement for GURPS. I've Run GURPS, but not the OW setting. Moderate rules crunch, lots of non-combat options. GURPS Core rules required.
More a minis-game than an RPG, as written, but intended for RPG play. The editions are all pretty bare bones. If you like Old-School, it's workable.
Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes:
While intended for the Noire era, this one is readily used for 1875-onward. System is based upon Tunnels & Trolls, but with a skill system. Limiting the tech is simple, and the game is very flexible.
A few non-recommends of note:
Dogs in the Vinyard:
While set in the West, this game is not a western. It's a faith drama, possibly leaning to soap opera by group. It's focus mechanically is on the decisions and rituals of "the Faith"... which, by the tenets in the book, is clearly historical Mormonism in Deseret, albeit presented in a fairly neutral way. The characters are law enforcement for the Territory, with great power, and a high duty.
To quote from the GM section, "Your job as the GM is to present an interesting social situation and provoke the players into judging it. You don’t want to hobble their judgments by arguing with them about what’s right and wrong, nor by creating situations where right and wrong are obvious."
There is also a strong supernatural element, that, while removable, is part of the extant rules.
The system includes all kinds of the right tech, and can easily be used for Western games... but the system isn't very cohesive; 3 different task systems are used for various subsystems. It plays just fine; the uses are consistent in when to use them. But the gaping holes on the character sheet after ripping out the steampunk elements will leave players wondering what they're missing, or require a rework of the character sheet. No specific western supplement that I can recall, either.
Excellent fantasy 1880-1900 era game. Some of the very best cultural books. But it's very strongly fantasy themed, and while easily pulled out, a large part of its appeal is the non-humans and the steampunk elements. It can and does, however, work well enough to do a straight western game, if you have the Sixguns & Sorcery supplement. Just be prepared to ignore 2/3 of the rulebook contents of both core and S&S.
GURPS has a ton of material for any historical game.
- There's GURPS Old West, which covers a strictly historical Old West setting
- GURPS High Tech, which covers from the industrial revolution, so that covers trains and six-shooters
- GURPS Low Tech, which covers tech from stone age to pre-industrial revolution, for survival in the wilds as well as covering the technology of the Native Americans
- GURPS Who's Who provides a detailed look at some real characters from the period
- GURPS Timeline provides a good game-oriented overview of the historical events of the time
- GURPS provides detailed rules for gun combat; including the Old West staple of the showdown, alternate loads in shotguns (The old widow peppers your backsides with rock salt!), fanning revolvers, etc..
Now, many of those books could be used for a non-GURPS game, as GURPS books so often are. But the system itself is very good for modeling regular people. Some systems are so intent on dealing with heroic feats that you get something like "1 is poor, 2 is average, 3 is excellent, 4 is human maximum". With GURPS, many normal human characters can have a useful stat range from 7 or 8 to 13 or 14.
Going with GURPS gets you a ton of historical material; including events, people, and equipment. It gets you a system where guns are dangerous and well detailed. It gets you a reasonable economy where the price list and value of gold align.
BTW - I love the shot clock and all the minigames from Aces and Eights, but the system itself was clunky IMO. I hardly got through making a character.
Aces & Eights is a good but rules-heavy RPG that plays the West straight.
Dust Devils is a rules-light RPG that tends towards short-form games, several sessions at most. It uses poker as a mechanic!
Other systems I know of would need the magical bits filed off, e.g., Deadlands.
I can speak of the quite astonishing combat system of Aces & Eights. The use of a shotclock and the physical positioning of an aiming grid over a target adds a remarkably visceral feel to the game. The combat track with every action taking its own amount of time also makes for a situation where a duel at high-noon is both tension filled and involves more thought than simply rolling for initiative.
While I only own the combat supplement (which I believe can be added to any game for increased realism) I have enjoyed its use in the past. The lists of weapons and details even in this tiny booklet make it a fine product and the entire game should be quite complimentary to your requirements.
You might want to look into White Wolf's old Werewolf: The Wild West. Sure, it has supernatural right in its title, yet in our experience it's incredibly easy to leave out all the non-realistic elements and create and play simple humans. We played with the werewolves in, but ran a longer non-supernatural "campaign prelude" during which every PC was considered and played as "human only", and it worked quite well.
Another option might be going for Call of Cthulhu, again without the supernatural but utilizing the Cthulhu by Gaslight sourcebook which deals with the 1880-90s, which may be considered the final era (the end) of the Wild West period. It would take some work considering that Gaslight focuses on London, UK, but a resourceful Keeper could work wonders with it, imo.
I don't have a lot of experience with the western genre, but my group used True20 to good effect once. You might also try d20 Modern with the D20 Past supplement. The key benefit to both of these is that the technology of the era is statted out.
There's always Savage Worlds, too, if only because it's generic and flexible enough to pull it off without too much tweaking.
And of course, FATE could do it no problem. Slight tweaks to Spirit of the Century should be about right.
Maybe out of print but Goldrush games Gunslinger: Wild West Action! is worth checking out.
Whenever I'm unsure which system to use, I use Cortex. It's not targeted at a single genre, and you can add/remove/modify the skills and specialties for the genre you want. For an Old West genre, I think the only changes I would make is replace Pilot with Ride, and remove Tech. It's a fairly easy system to pick up for GMs and players.