Game: Shady Gulch: Roleplaying in the Old West
Publisher: Politically Incorrect Games
Series: Shady Gulch
Review Dated: 13th, February 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
Shady Gulch doesn’t exist. If Shady Gulch had existed then it would have done so in the old west, the dusty frontier and beside an abandoned gold mine. Luckily for the non-existent Shady Gulch other minerals would be mined from nearby and this would be enough to keep the town alive, small but alive. This is about all we’re told about the town in the entire Shady Gulch RPG. That’s a little unusual, but it’s also a little unusual to have a whole RPG in just 49 pages. My previous look at a Politically Incorrect Games RPG was The Colonies and although I thought that was a concise (it is), Shady Gulch is slimmer. There are other similarities between the two too; both use the same PIG 2d6 based game mechanics.
The game system is simple but solid. You’re trying to roll under a total determined by your character’s stats and skills. Bonus and penalty dice mean you roll more dice and take either the best or worst results. Character generation in Shady Gulch is class based. The classes, vocations as they’re called, are: Cowboys, Gamblers, Homesteaders, Scholars, Tradesmen, Lawmen, Outlaws, Soldiers, Businessmen and Drifters. Honestly, I think that’s all you need – with one important exception. Who else would be out and about in the old west? By very definition if you’re in the old west then you’re either a homesteader, a drifter or with the army. The others are just, well, vocations. The difference between a tradesman and a businessman is scale, tradesmen are much smaller scale and the vocation is spilt into defining sub-sections: hunters, performers and blacksmiths. Where are the Native Americans? If we want to be politically incorrect, where are the Indians? Eek. Hidden? Ambush? Not only is there no “Native” vocation for characters to pick from and there’s no sample brave in the small collection of NPCs at the back.
It’s Virtues and Vices that make Shady Gulch. Virtues and Vices are personality traits: loyalty, lust, greed, compassion, opium and others. The vocations characters pick come with a mandatory Vice and Virtue selection and many have instructions like “Vices: any one” which gives the player the choice. What I like about this system is that not only is are the blood and bullets of the old west built into the system so is the battle of human decency and law against corruption and lawlessness. What I don’t like so much about this system is that it rounds the bell curve of character possibilities more than otherwise. I mean; all real cowboys in this system will be loyal since all must have the loyal virtue. All businessmen are greedy since it’s a vocation vice requirement. If you want to play a philanthropist businessman then you and your GM will have to talk, chop and change. On the whole the system works, the pros out weights the cons.
Other game system features work well too. Reputation is perhaps even more important in the wild west as it is in the dark future cyberpunk genres that helped introduce the stat to roleplaying. The PIG reputation system works well and avoids too much of a chore in the number crunching. There are rules for the effects of alcohol and opium too – which are all the more important since both appear as Vices. There is just enough text on horses too. I think the game could have and should have had squeezed in a little more
Although there is next to nothing written on the town of Shady Gulch the game is not without flavour. There is a look at the sort of buildings you might expect to find in a frontier town: inns, hotels, telegraph offices, blacksmiths, etc. We’re told that a town of Shady Gulch’s size is unlikely to have more than one bank and so this quick tour manages to sly some location specific flavour into the mix. I’m not at all sure how many people or buildings the imaginary Shady Gulch has though, perhaps it’s not that important since westerns only ever seem to bother about the main street which runs straight through the town and the buildings on either side. Of particular success is a page full of western slang; I love this stuff, it really does help suspend disbelief. “The greenhorn’s six shooter was unshucked.” The flavour creeps in from other sources as well; each chapter and sometimes sub-sections begin with a western style quote. It’s an old trick but it works.
Shady Gulch is a printer friendly PDF and doesn’t need a second black and white only version. Shady Gulch is black and white, without sidebars and manages to get good use out of only a few illustrations. It is easy to stop noticing that you’ve just scrolled or turned over to another page with only text on it and that’s a hallmark of a good layout. The contents page uses internal bookmarks so you can just click on what interests you and jump straight there and the standard bookmarks are arranged into chapters. Shady Gulch is one of those PDF products that rise to fit one whole page into your screen whenever you use a bookmark so you’ll probably have to zoom in again straight afterwards. Since the game is a lightweight document there’s no annoying lagging when you zoom in or even when you scroll quickly through the pages and this makes it so much easier to read.
I liked Shady Gulch. I like it in the same way as I like having a quick but tasty snack between meals. At 49 pages long it can’t be called a meal of a roleplaying game. As a quick and convenient snack, or as the case actually is, a western RPG, Shady Gulch is a winner. What’s more is that I believe it would be easy enough to turn one session of game play into a whole campaign and then turn the campaign into an entire homebrewed campaign setting. If you wanted to make a meal out of it then you probably could.