Read-Through and Review: Frank Coleman’s WEST (First Edition BETA)

Call me special. Perhaps because of my Pathfinder read-through, perhaps because I’m just easy, I received a request from +Frank Coleman to review his new RPG, called WEST.

The PDF is a scant few pages long, so I figured I’d dive right in. As I told Mr. Coleman, I can’t promise to like it, but I can promise to try to be fair. I first wrote the review, then sent it to Mr. Coleman, and asked him to comment. When he does – and we’ve exchanged several cordial emails on the subject – I’ll paste his comments in-line.

So, here we go. I’ll comment on each section of the rules in turn, occasionally quoting them verbatim if I need to illuminate a particular point. Always keep in mind that this is the BETA version of the rules, that they’re undergoing/have undergone playtesting and improvement, and that things are in flux until it goes to final press!

About WEST


Well, the first paragraph seems to imply that anyone who likes complex rules cannot also have story, cooperative game-play, or individual character development. Apparently, those of us who play such games are all rules-lawyers.

I object!

Oh, wait. Was that too lawyer-ish?

Anyway, from a pure marketing and sales standpoint, I’d change this intro, focusing on the core mission of the work in a positive way, rather than disparaging a potential (buying!) audience. Even if it wasn’t meant that way, it’s all too easy to interpret it as such.

Here’s the original paragraph:

WEST is a flexible game system created for the use and enjoyment of all those whom favor the story, cooperative game-play and individual character development over a series of complex rules, the never-ending drama of rules-lawyers and the hassle of downtime administration. The purpose of WEST is to eliminate all of that and help you get down to plain ‘ole fun!

And here’s what I’d do instead:

WEST is a flexible game system created to support an interactive gaming experience focusing on story, cooperative game-play and individual character development. It creates a structure designed to avoid rules-lawyering and downtime administration. The purpose of WEST is to help you get down to plain ol’ fun!

I think the second is more positive-sounding, and invites you in. Also, WEST does not provide a setting (though it was written with the Old West as an example, it never really influences the rules other than in the equipment section). It’s a challenge resolution system first, with narrative-based character differentiation thrown into the mix.

What is WEST

Ultimately, it’s a card-based resolution system. OK, interesting! No dice, huh?

It’s also explicitly a Rule Zero game, but with a twist. Instead of “the GM is always right,” it’s more “you will need a set of House Rules” to ensure the system is tuned to your needs.

I approve. I’m a big Rule Zero guy.

What do I need to play WEST?


Very little. The rules, a deck of cards, a 3×5 card or piece of paper to write notes on, and a pencil.

You may need a Game Master, but you can also play cooperatively with two Master Decks.

NOT required to play WEST

The term “Master Deck” appears without warning. In a PDF-based game, a forward-link to the rules section or glossary would be a good idea. If you want to go all dead-tree, I’d like a reference to what page this is on. In this case “Master Deck (p. 6)” would be helpful.

And boom! This is also designed for Live Action play. Interesting.

One thing that might bear noting: as your character advances, you may need several decks of cards to round him out, not just one. You won’t be carrying an entire blackjack shoe with you, though – don’t worry about that.

What is the difference between Tabletop and Live-action WEST?

The first paragraph starts off strong, with a compelling description of what the rules differences are (none!), but lays out that you’ll be acting out the roles in a controlled environment. It’s written in an engaging fashion that makes you want to try it.

It then presents six rules:

The Live-Action Rules for WEST

  1. There’s a device to signal out-of-character talk. This is useful; +Nathan Joy and the group I play Dungeon Fantasy with use two chat windows as well (though it’s blurred): one for OOC chat and the other for character action and in-character dialog.
  2. Another is a general piece of advice not to use real weapons in the game. No real guns, if you use realistic mockups they should have the orange tip that says to any observers that nothing obviously lethal is going on, and no metal knives or swords. This is all sensible advice, though obviously individual groups will probably deviate – but you can always do whatever you want in the privacy of your own home. By publishing this rule, it lays down an official expectation of what you might find if you were to go to play WEST at a convention or other public gathering. More on that later.
  3. No touching. Really, “no assault.” Offensive touching is not appropriate, and where there might be any doubt, don’t do it. Again, good advice.
  4. No stunts. Focus on the imagination and the story, not the physical action.
  5. No drugs, including alcohol. This one’s going to be oft-violated, I can tell. I’ll get to commentary on this along with #6. 
OK, so the first five rules all make sense to me. The last of them?
    6.  Dress the Part. The game insists if you do live-action WEST that you’re in costume. This paragraph has a strong streak of One True Wayism in the flavor text. There’s also some editing mistakes in it, which will be corrected before it goes to press, I’m sure. 
But where the intro promises a low-investment experience (all you need is the rules, a deck of cards, and your imagination!), this section throws that out the window.
It also says “you can’t get into the spirit of the thing unless you immerse yourself in it.” Well, the Royal Shakespeare Company would disagree – at least as far as costumes and props are concerned. They used to come to my alma mater, Rice University, every year at the invite of the Rice Players, and I recall four of them (three?) doing the entire cast of Twelfth Night with nothing more than moving a ribbon around to designate what part they were playing – no swords, no crowns, coins, or fancy costumes. Granted, not wearing jeans and t-shirts either, but it’s absolutely possible to immerse yourself in a role without props or costumes.
Ultimately, I think this section should be re-titled rather than rewritten (though I would rewrite the Dress the Part section) as “Rules for Live-Action Convention Play” rather than any play at all. After all, “it’s your game, have your house rules, and do what you want” is right there in the intro.
Here’s the Dress the Part section, and my suggestion:

Dress the Part– Yes, costuming is a rule! It is a role after all. This is part of the liveaction rules for a very real reason: You can’t get into the spirit of a thing unless you immerse yourself in it. WEST is a game you should prepare to play. Because character creation is so free-form and simple it will depend largely to flesh him or her out and develop them further. The harder each player works at building the atmosphere together the easier it is to believe you’re really there. It’s part of the cooperative experience. You owe it to each other. Research everything your Game Master gives you, build a persona and get together a costume!

My suggestion

Dress the Part– Yes, costuming is a rule, and is part of the live action rules for a very real reason: It tells your fellow players you’re serious and invested in the shared experience. If you’ve traveled and invested time, effort, and money in the game, it’s fair to have the same expectation of others. Because character creation is so free-form and simple it will depend largely on each player to flesh him or her out and develop them further. The harder each player works at building the atmosphere together the easier it is to believe you’re really there. It’s part of the cooperative experience. You owe it to each other. Pay close attention to everything your Game Master gives you, build a persona and get together a costume!

Granted, this is my own personal flavor on things, but I think the above suggestion is bang-on for convention play, but not appropriate for five men and women gathering at a home or other space for some free-form weekend fun.

How do you create a WEST character

Fourteen cards. You get the entire series of cards: Joker, plus 2 through Ace. You pick your suits based on  how you envision your character.

The game is based on the concept of certain suits being considered trump. Three of the suits represent certain flavor: clubs are physical activities, diamonds are mental attributes such as perception and cognition, hearts are charisma-based. The game gives a simple rule for the value of a trump suit in a challenge, and (on the face of it) it’s potentially a minor one, giving you a slight edge in certain contests. There’s a pointer to Resolving Challenges for how this really matters.

Spades are ignored for no particular reason that I can tell, at this point in the rules. Maybe they come up later. (They do).

Initiative Order


Pretty straight-forward. Draw a card, take actions in order based on the value of the card, improved if the action being contemplated is pertinent (if you draw the 9 of clubs in a physical task, it counts as a 10). Joker means you’re boned and cannot act. All of this is in real time.

Resolving Challenges


Ah. All of this is a modification of the rules of the card game War. I would honestly move this way, way up in the sequence of the rules presentation. This is an editing and sequence issue, not a content one, so it’s easily fixed. The rules for trumping belong here, not under character creation. Initiative order should probably be a sub-head under Resolving Challenges as well. Plus the definition of a challenge should come first! That sort of thing.

If you’ve never played War, you may well be lost here. ” . . . meaning that the card values are tied – War would result.”

OK, so? What does that mean?

As it happens, the way I learned it you put three cards face down, and turn over the fourth and retry the contest. But when I played War, you kept the cards of the opposing player if you won, and since your character deck is never more than 14 cards, I don’t think you do this. This section needs to assume less! This is a recurring theme in this brief ruleset.


Degrees of Success


OK, so the difference between the card values in a contest matters, and there are such things as critical fumbles and heroic successes. These get no explication at this time.

Spades


Oh! Here’s the fourth suit. They are not associated with challenge types, they’re associated with skills. How many skills you have is limited to how many spades you have in your chosen character deck. Oh, and there are things called experience points, which allow you to get skills after character creation.

This seems a key concept that needs to be isolated to its own section, rather than tucked into something which itself needs to be in a different place.

Character Skills

These skills – trained skills – are things you can do. In GURPS, they’re skills, rather than Advantages or Powers or Ability Scores (like Strength). These skills are player/GM determined, looks like. This reminds me a lot of Aspects in FATE.

Skill Challenges


You call out that you’re going to have one, and if you have that skill, spades are trump. That’s a nice simple rule, though I might do something slightly differently. You get +2 instead of +1, and if you draw the right complimentary card, you might get even more. So you get a bonus simply by virtue of having the skill. If you then draw a spade, you get a further +1. If you’re doing a physical activity (like shooting a gun) and you happen to draw a club, you also get +1. If your skill is the GURPS-equivalent of Fast-Talk, then, you get +2 for having the skill, +1 if you draw a spade (and have the skill) or a heart, but bupkiss if you draw a club, diamond, or a spade without the relevant skill.

But as a rule, I shouldn’t propose rules-changes without having played the game, so I won’t. I’m sort of an inveterate rules-tinkerer, though, so it’s my nature. Alas.

The Master Deck vs. Character Deck


Really just a (useful) tool to keep the GM sane. All random NPCs just draw from a deck of regular playing cards, though if the PCs can draw a joker, I’d try and add 2-4 Jokers for the NPC deck as well.

The Character Card


Write down your name, description, skills list, items you carry, and character background.

The Surprise Rule


This needs to be tucked into the section on Initiative, which itself is a special type of challenge (a combat challenge).

Damage


It took me a bit, but damage is represented by either permanently or temporarily randomly losing cards. If you’re out of cards, you’re out of play (killed, but “out of play” seems as appropriate as not; how you’re out of play can be GM decision). A bruise is a card lost for only a scene (not defined; presumably when a scene starts and stops is also a GM decision). A wound represents a permanent loss for the entire game session. Unless you can find some Healing (below).

Frank Coleman elaborates: 


A lot seems to get clarified through the Hangout Play-tests. 


For example: Cards are drawn from the hand at random when a player-character is bruised or wounded by an aggressor. Those cards are permanently removed from play unless they are healed naturally (at a rate determined by the GM and returned at random in the same fashion) or by the use of a skill or device, which may give a bonus (degree of success) or increase the rate of healing. Yes, losing a low-numbered card is a good thing. It can increase your statistical chances of being better but that’s IF its pulled from your hand at random. The Joker (your auto-fail) always stays put. The 14 vs. 13 cards thing was a typo. There are 14 cards in a Character Deck, however once you lose your Joker you’re dead (if you take 14 wounds) if you take 14 bruises or any combination thereof down to 0 you’re simply unconscious.


A scene is an individual encounter, whether it is social interaction or combat scenario. When these “acts” end a character regains his or her bruises. Wounds do not return to your hand without a specific amount of in-game time passing (as determined by the GM) or through the use of skills and devices (medicine, medical equipment, etc.).

Weapons and Damage



Let’s start with the basic concept: injury levels are a certain number of bruises or wounds, maybe both. That works well.

The actual values are a mixed bag. A gunshot is one wound . . . but so is a leather whip. A quarter-stick of dynamite does seven wounds to everyone within ten paces (!!), while a keg of black powder only inflicts four (5) wounds within five paces.

These could use rationalization based on actual propensity to hurt people, but the general theory of the rule is simple and makes sense within the card-based paradigm of the rules.

You need house rules for all of this stuff; the GM should be able to roughly assign stats for weapons on the fly. You don’t need something as detailed as what I did for GURPS – in fact, that’s quite the opposite of what’s needed here – but general rules would be good. Getting hit with a small pistol like a derringer would be 1 wound, a larger one or a sword or axe is two, a rifle is three. Heck, “look up the damage in your favorite other RPG and convert” would work too! Dividing the GURPS injury dice by two or three for number of wounds might work, but you’d want to avoid such references in a game that doesn’t require much besides a 10-page rulebook. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to reality-check this stuff, since you want to avoid pinging the SoDoM. That will break immersion right across one’s knee.

Healing


Pretty difficult to heal up. Bruises come back right away from scene to scene, but wounds can take a while. There are guidelines for between-session healing and a general (and generally insufficient) hint at using skills to heal up.

The number of cards you’re cycling through is fixed and small. Losing them is probably a Big Deal (unless you lose a low-numbered card? Is that a good thing?)

Off-Handed Use
If you use the wrong hand for an action in play, you take a penalty. More on this later.

Wild Cards


Again, something that should be re-organized into a general section on Challenges. Wild Cards allow narrative modification, much in the way it happens in FATE. As long as the narrative element has not already been firmed up by the GM, you can add one. What impact does that have on play? Examples? None to be found, and they’re needed for something like this.

Experience Points


Interesting. You start play with a sequence of cards from Joker through Ace. You can promote cards, within limits, with experience. I wonder if it would be a good idea to have, on your character sheet, the sum of all card values in your hand (Jack = 11, King = 13, Ace = 14; standard character starts with 104 points) so that the GM, at least, knows what power levels are coming to the table.

Ballistic’s Report
So, that’s the survey of what’s there.

Overall, this seems like a neat concept, in that it’s more or less a simple playing-card addition to a set of LARP rules or tabletop rules. The mechanics are fairly simple and easily remembered – once you’ve played War, it’s pretty basic.

I do think that the manuscript (and remember, I’m reviewing a Beta version) needs to be re-organized – badly. Probably something on the order of

  • Playing the Game
  • Characters
  • Challenges (this includes cards and what to do with them)
    • Resolving Challenges
    • Combat Challenges
  • Props and Equipment

That sort of thing.

While I’ll give kudos for brevity, there’s too much left unsaid. If you’ve never played War, you can’t grasp the game. The process of character creation (you get a sequence of cards, but it’s up to the player to choose what suits he wants, and he can choose . . . any he wants?) could use an example or three. The game play seems like it would work a lot like the couple of sessions of FATE I’ve seen or played in, and that book is over three hundred pages long. I’m not saying that WEST needs a thirty-fold expansion in length, but taking the time to walk through some of the core concepts via examples would help beginners grasp the game.

Some of the rules seem overly specific given the abstract nature of the game. Off-Handed Use, I’m looking at you – the card-based abstraction present in the game drowns out something like this as an unimportant detail.

On the flip side, I think more detail is needed for some things. When you take a wound, you lose a card. But it might be (say) the three of diamonds, which means you’re better off now that you’ve been wounded than not! Probably should have a wound take off your highest card first, from Ace down to 2, so you grow less capable as you’re wounded.

And how many times can you go through your deck? All of that needs to be made more explicit, I think.

But would I play it?


As a tabletop game, alas, probably not. If I’m going to do something like this, I think FATE does it better. I should say, FATE seems to do it better at this stage in WEST’s development. One thing that might be interesting is to have short scenarios that can be played out in about an hour or so, so that you can pick up the game, read all 10-15 pages of rules, set up a scene, and play it out. That would put it midway between a full-on 300-600 page ruleset like GURPS, Pathfinder, or FATE and a card game like Munchkin.

As a LARP game – were I into such things with the time to do it? Absolutely, and I think this is where it can shine. I see it as a far superior resolution to something like Rock-Paper-Scissors, or even Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock. It has real strategic elements to it, can handle abstract but meaningful character differentiation through suit and skill selection, and it’s trivally easy to carry around a quarter-deck of cards.

Thanks to Frank for providing the advance copy of the manuscript and inviting me to review it!

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