Cowboy World

(This trailer is here to show you how to play Cowboy World. If you are wondering which archetype to play, just choose one of the Magnificent Seven!)

(And also because it is an awesome movie.)

Cowboy World is a Table Top Role Playing Game (RPG) based on the Apocalypse World Engine, a game system by Vincent Baker. It emulates different genres of Cowboy stories, from classic Louis L’Amour novels to the Spaghetti Western movies of Sergio Leone and zany modern Western movies like Disney’s Lone Ranger.

When you play Cowboy World, you sit around a table with friends, making up a story to see what happens. The way the story unfolds is governed by rules, and those rules insert random elements into the story by way of dice rolls.

Each participant controls part of the emerging story. The Players control one character each. (A Player Character or PC) Non Player Characters (NPC’s), and indeed the rest of the world are controlled by the Games Master. (GM)

Who wins?

Well, everybody, if the emerging story is awesome enough to remember!


Because it is fun. It is fun because stories are hard wired into the human psyche. It is fun because creativity is hard wired into the human psyche. And it is fun because friendship is hard wired into the human psyche. And when you combine stories, creativity and friendship at one table, awesomeness happens. It is like the perfect storm.

But why cowboys?

OK… Seriously… If you have to ask, then maybe you should rather be playing another game, like one about accountants doing accountant-y stuff?

Cowboy World is a hack of Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World and elements of various other RPG’s, including FATE, The Burning Wheel and the Tri-Stat System. All these RPG systems can trace their lineage back to the original Dungeons and Dragons conceived way back when by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

When we started Cowboy World, we wanted a Powered by the Apocalypse game because of its narrative power and simple game mechanics. While we could have developed our own dice mechanics, we decided to stick with that of Apocalypse World because it is already a standard in the Indie RPG industry.

We did not want the playbooks. On the positive side playbooks are powerful and vivid windows into the game setting: These are the people that populate this world, and this is how they think and operate. But playbooks also add complexity to the game, and limit the game in terms of what characters can be or do. This is evidenced by the hundreds of third party playbooks that are available for Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, the two biggest PbtA games out there.

Yet we wanted to be able to create truly unique characters so that who and what the characters were made a real and meaningful mechanical impact on the game. For this we turned to the Tri-Stat system (Big Eyes Small Mouth) for the idea of Body, Mind and Soul Attributes combined with skills. To differentiate the characters even more from each other in a mechanically significant way, we stole the concept of Fate points and Aspects from the FATE Core system. You can make almost anything a Character Aspect and it will be mechanically significant in game play. Lastly we wanted the players to play their characters deliberately, with specific goals in mind, so we stole the concept of beliefs and goals from The Burning Wheel RPG system.

How to win at tabletop role-playing games.

All games have winning conditions. In soccer it is scoring the most goals by the end of the game. In chess it is capturing the opponent’s king.

The winning condition of an RPG is to tell an amazing story.

These are the elements of amazing RPG sessions:

  • Suspension of disbelief, immersion, verisimilitude.
  • Identification with the characters.
  • Making meaningful decisions.
  • Conflict, Struggle, Stakes and Rewards.
  • Suspense, Release and Catharsis.

Suspension of disbelief, immersion, verisimilitude.

These three concepts are interrelated and go together.

Suspension of disbelief is the process where, even though we know that something is not real, and that we can never believe that it is real, we stop disbelieving that it is real for long enough so that we can pretend that it is real. It is a willing illusion that we create for ourselves that something is real. We cannot enjoy any form of story without it.

Immersion is the act of becoming completely and deeply involved in the game.

Verisimilitude is the illusion of the game world being true or real.

While it is quite difficult to predict what will produce immersion, verisimilitude and the suspension of disbelief, it is much easier to say what will definitely destroy it.

Lack of coherence and consistency: This means that your world must be consistent and internally coherent, even if it is far out fantasy. If Space Magic works one way today, it has to work in exactly the same way tomorrow. If a pilot gets G-force trauma while doing a certain manoeuvre today, the same thing should happen tomorrow. Human brains are wired to detect contradictions and inconsistencies, because that is one way we discriminate between truth and lies. So if your world is inconsistent, it breaks the illusion of truth.

Breaking Narrative Authority, or If the World Seems Made Up On the Spot. Yes we know that the world IS made up on the spot (Star Lords is a game of improvisation, after all) but we don’t want to be reminded of it. Anything that reminds us of it breaks the illusion. A very common way to do it is to break the rule that players only have control over their own characters. Example: The characters find a box that none of them knew of before, they open it and ask the GM, “What’s inside?” and the GM says, “You tell me.” Since the GM asks the players to make the world up on the spot, they are reminded that the world IS made up on the spot and immersion is broken.

If the GM would say for instance, “There are three oranges in the box” those oranges will have the illusion of having been there the whole time.

Breaking Narrative Truth, or Rewinding the Story: Anything that is said at the table is true. This is why it is important to complete the mechanical stuff before narrating the effect of the roll.

For instance:

The player rolls a six.

GM: “He shoots you. The bullet slams into your chest, you are dying.”

Player: “I pay one Grit. It’s a partial success.”

GM: “OK, you are not dying. You hit the pirate on the jaw, sending him sprawling.”

Immersion is broken because the character died, and then suddenly is not dead any more.

The correct way to do it is as follows

The player rolls a six.

GM: “If you have grit, you can make that a seven. Do you want to?”

Player: “Yes”

GM: “You hit the pirate on the jaw, sending him sprawling.”

In the first example the mechanical stuff is interrupted by the GM, so she has to rewind the story. In the second, the Narrative Truth stays intact.

Intrusive game mechanisms: The mechanical part of the game should not be so involved that it breaks the flow of the storytelling. It is bad if the game has to stop so somebody can look up a rule in the book. It is even worse if there is an argument about a rule at the table. Star Lords has been designed so that all the moves may be printed on a few sheets. The moves that are used most will be easily remembered, so that after a session or two looking up the moves will only rarely be necessary.

Identification with the characters.

In stories we have to identify with the protagonists in order to be willing to share their journeys. In RPG’s the characters are the protagonists their players follow.

Players identify with their characters when they build their characters themselves, and then when they play them. It is while playing that the players find out who their characters are, what their motivations are and so on. For this reason it is good to have your players review their characters’ beliefs, goals and issues often, because if the players are invested in their characters, those things will not be static.

The GM can help the players identify with their characters by respecting the characters and being a fan of the characters. The story is not about the GM, it is about the characters. Give them the opportunity to shine!

Making meaningful decisions.

There is an apocryphal internet story of the Quantum Orc. It goes like this: The GM gives the players the choice to go either left or right. If they go left, they are attacked by an orc. If they go right, they are attacked by the same orc. So it is like observing the spin of a quantum particle: Until you observe it, the particle’s spin is both up and down. The act of observing the particle fixes as either up or down. The Quantum Orc is both to your left and to your right, until you observe it.

The Quantum Orc is the archetype of a meaningless decision.

Meaningful decisions are informed decisions. Compare: “You are at a split in the road. Do you go left or right?” with “You are at a split in the road. The sign to the left says ‘Manor House’ and to the right it says ‘Swamp’. Do you go left or right? Without some knowledge of the consequences of a decision, the decision is absolutely meaningless at the moment it is made. The first example is just a setup for a Quantum Orc.

Player’s decisions should influence and change the story on all levels. On the top level, the players should be able to choose the direction the campaign goes in. (For this reason, it is anathema for the GM to plot a campaign out in advance.) This means that whenever a specific chapter is completed, they should be presented with a choice of where to go next. Give them two or three possible next destinations. This principle goes down to the most immediate level, where players should be able to choose whether to go left or right.

This does not mean players have total control over what happens next. The GM mostly decides what happens next. The players choose how to respond to what happens and what the characters will do next. And often the dice determine the outcome.

Player’s should be given choices that will define their characters. The GM should challenge the character’s beliefs. If a character believes that “Life is sacred” give him the choice to preserve or destroy life. If her belief is that “Money rules the world”, give her the choice between money and her friends. Give the players moral dilemmas. Our moral choices are some of the most character-defining choices we can make.

Conflict, Struggle, Stakes and Rewards.

Conflict happens when something stops you from getting what you want. You cannot have a story without conflict. There just isn’t such a thing.

Usually conflict is between people who want the same thing, and both can’t have it. Or when people should want the same thing, but they don’t. We will say a lot more about conflict later.

Struggle is what happens when you engage in Conflict. Struggle is Difficult. It is Challenging. If the conflict is easily resolved, it is Boring.

Stakes are the reasons why there is conflict, and what makes the Struggle worthwhile. You are not going to run into a burning house to save your stuffed hippopotamus. You will do it to save your child.

  • Stakes have to be personal in order to be compelling. The pirates did not abduct anybody. They abducted your sister.
  • Stakes have to be personal in order to be compelling. The pirates did not abduct anybody. They abducted your sister.

Reward is what you get when you win the conflict or succeed in your struggle. The Reward must match the stakes. In the example above it is the reward of saving your child’s life. It is also the recognition you get for being a hero. It is the honeypot you get when you pull off a heist. It is the result of defeating the Big Bad Evil Guy. When you complete missions, you earn Rep with certain factions. In horror scenarios, it is simply surviving.

Reaching your Goals is a reward that earns you Grit.

Character progression is also reward; In Star Lords characters pay 5 Grit to buy more skill points, or to overcome issues.

Suspense, Release and Catharsis.

Suspense is not knowing if or when the Bad Thing you are dreading will happen. It is that feeling of dread that your character may die or that you may lose the Stakes. Suspense is like an elastic band: You pull on the elastic to create tension. The more tension in the band, the bigger the Release.

Ways to create suspense:

  • Character death must be possible. In some modern RPG’s the characters never die. Knowing that your character will win every fight creates the opposite of suspense, which is boredom. Make sure that your players know that character death is real!
  • Create suspense with description and setting: A derelict space hulk as setting creates one type of suspense, a sunny day at a garden tea another.
  • Show them what will happen if they fail. In fiction writing this is called foreshadowing. In a horror game, show a victim of the monster. If they are in a space battle, blow up some of their allies’ ships.
  • Raise the stakes: First they thought it was for the money. Now they are fighting for their lives.
  • Escalate the danger: As they get closer to the climax, throw tougher adversaries and challenges at them.
  • Let them race against the clock: The ship is decompressing – you have 4 minutes to hard vacuum. The bomb will go off in 3 minutes.

Release is the feeling of relief when the suspense ends. The reason you stretch an elastic band is to shoot it. The farther your stretch it, the better it shoots. The greater the suspense, the greater the relief. (Remember you don’t want to stretch the elastic band it till it breaks! )

Catharsis is like Release, but for other emotions. A good way to get catharsis is to make your players REALLY hate their enemies. Make your Big Bad Guys very evil. Make the conflict personal. Have them hunt the characters relentlessly. That way, when the characters finally defeat their nemesis, there is a feeling of catharsis – which is a powerful emotion.

Going Weird

The dark man in the leather coat comes over to your side of the bar. He sits down, and places his glass of rot-gut whiskey in front of him on the counter, studying it intently.
“You’re Calvin Dumas,” he says after a long silence.
“What’s it to you?”
“Nothing. Names don’t matter.”
He dips his finger in his whiskey and draws something on the stained countertop. A cross. “I hear Mortdecay Bozeman doesn’t like you. I’d say you’re a dead man walking.”
You shrug. Twelve gunfights, and still kicking. “I can help myself.” The gears in your prosthetic right arm hum as you slap your six shooter on the counter top. “In fact, this here Peacemaker’s for hire.”
The stranger is amused. “It won’t help you in this fight. You’ve got no idea.”
A spark of anger rises in your chest. “Get to the point, man.”
He thumbs five dollars off a wad of notes and places them next to the Colt. “I need a body guard. Will that cover tonight?”
“I thought you said guns won’t help,” you say as you pick up the notes and count them.
He shrugs and gets up.
“If there’s a fight, you’ll owe me twenty.”
“Only if you help.” He turns and walks out the bat-wing doors.
You swear, and follow him out into the cold night, crossing the street to the Colorado Saloon.
Bad piano music and a woman’s laughter spill out the front door. For a moment you think that’s where he’s heading, but then he makes a sharp right turn and slips into the alley next door to the undertaker’s.  He stops, and backs into a shadow.
“We wait here,” he whispers and pulls you in beside him.
Minutes pass.
Then a woman screams behind the Colorado.
The stranger leaps over a barrel and races around the corner. You run after him, the butt of your Peacemaker firmly in your right hand.
Light spills from the Colorado’s scullery door, illuminating someone stooping over a fallen body. It’s a woman, her long black hair cascading down her back.
The stranger stops. “Get away from her,” he growls.
She gets up and stands with her back to the stranger. When she speaks, it is like honey.
“Why Obadiah. You found me at last.”
“Step away from her. Now!”
She turns and flies at him with animal ferocity, her eyes blazing with hellfire and her lips curled back to reveal impossible fangs. Fresh blood drips from her chin onto her white dress.
Your response to the horror of the demon’s face is instant, a survival reflex: You fire. Three bullets rip into her left breast, flinging her back against the wall. But then she snarls and leaps forward at Obadiah, clawing at his throat.
He sidesteps and grabs her by the throat with his right hand.
“Tell Mortdecay I am coming for him. His time is up. Then go kill yourself, before I find you again and make you wish you did.”
She screams in fury as he shoves her away. Then she turns and runs, disappearing into the night.
Obadiah kneels next to the body lying in the dust. He gently turns it over. It is a young girl, one of Bullshit Mary’s new recruits.
Her throat is ripped out.

Cowboy World Weird is an homage to the weird tales and pulp fiction of the first half of the previous century. It combines the cowboy genre with weird horror and steampunk.

Enter a world of vampires, skinwalkers, demons, ghosts, empty men, elder gods and steampunk gadgets. The land itself is blighted by wandering spirits. Evil reigns. Characters have a Sanity stat, if it is reduced to 0, they go insane and are removed from the game.

“Horror” is a feeling of overwhelming despair because of seemingly invincible evil forces hunting you. At first your only hope of survival is to run. Then you realize that your only chance is to turn, face the evil, and fight. But the odds are stacked against you.

The things that go “bump” in the night really are going to eat you.

A guide to combat in Cowboy World

In Cowboy World there is no special combat mode. There is no turn order or initiative. There are no miniatures and no map. Combat happens exactly the same as any other actions in the game.

Tactical games are about numbers that simulate range, speed, accuracy, tactical positioning and so on. In Cowboy World combat is more like directing a movie. The focus is on the characters and the cool things they do. Go watch a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. The cowboys face each other. You look in their eyes. An eyelid flickers. The Man With No Name flicks his poncho back. You know what is going to happen. Then it is all over, with four corpses in the dust. Or watch any modern action movie. When fight scenes happen, there is no explanation of the combatants’ powers and skills, or tactical positioning. You just see what they do as the camera zooms right in to the point of impact. A fist connects with a jaw, flinging the head back. A knife flashes and blood gushes forth. When the camera pulls back you see the aftermath.

Cowboy World combat is fast. It may be resolved with two or three rolls. This is an intentional design feature, as we wanted the focus of the game to be on drama and role playing, not drawn out combat simulations.

Cowboy World combat is deadly. Again this is intentional. Veteran fantasy RPG players may come to the game thinking they can solve everything with violence. But if they play as murder hobos they will not survive long. They will soon learn to talk instead of fight, and to brawl instead of drawing their guns.

Remember, if a character fails three consecutive rolls, she is dead. (Shoot, Harm and Heal) And there is no resurrection. Dead means dead. Period.

If you are uneasy with a high mortality rate and want a more lighthearted game, then make the weapons less lethal by increasing their Harm modifiers, and give less NPC’s shooting skills.

One Move or roll does not represent one blow or shot fired, but one significant outcome. This means that each roll may represent a lot of blows in a brawl or many shots fired.

The GM and involved players are free to narrate as many or as few blows during a brawl as they want to, as long as the outcome of the exchange of blows conforms to the result of the die roll.

The same goes for a gunfight. Each Shoot roll may represent many shots fired. During the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds. In Cowboy World that whole gunfight would be represented by a maximum of four or five rolls.It is up to the GM and players to narrate the most awesome battle possible.

Every fight must be motivated. All characters, NPC’s included, must know exactly why they fight and what is at stake. Do not make an NPC draw his gun on a PC unless there is a good reason (being drunk may be a valid motivation for a gunfight) because he will probably die. NPC’s must have a high self-preservation instinct. If the odds are against them they should surrender or run.

Describe the fictional space: When there is a fight, make sure the players have an idea of the fictional space the characters find themselves in. If it is in a saloon, they should be using chairs and bottles as weapons, and tables as cover. In a canyon in the Sonora, there are boulders and shrubs to hide behind, and rocks to start rock falls with. In Cowboy World, things in the environment that are important for fights are called “Tactical Elements”.

A Shoot roll should seldom be the first roll of combat. The most important part of a cowboy movie gunfight is often the long moment when the antagonists measure each other up before the shooting starts. Stay true to the genre and build the tension before the stuff hits the fan! Use the Read a Situation move to create an advantage. Use the Read a Person move to see if you can find a psycological weakness. Make them roll  Nerve to see if they have what it takes to face death.

GM: “Bart stands 20 feet away in the street, facing you, his feet apart and his hand hovering over the butt of his Peacemaker. He hollers, ‘You got what it takes, Yellerbelly?’ Since Bart is known as the best gunfighter in the territory, roll + Soul + Nerve.”
George: “I rolled 8. I want to see if I can make him lose his temper. He has to draw first otherwise I’ll be in trouble.”
GM: “Roll for Read a Person.”
George: “Eight again. How gan I get him to lose his temper?”
GM: “You remember something about his mother being a lady of ill repute. Maybe if you insulted her…”
George: “I say, ‘I hear your mother was so ugly, her pimp had to pay your old man to have her!’ I take +1 forward… That’s ten on Use a Skill, Provoke.”
GM: “Bart roars and draws-”
George: “I shoot him.”

Put them under concentrated fire. They will soon learn how deadly it is. If a person is under Concentrated Fire, he takes -1 to all Body rolls. Remember that when a person is under concentrated fire at Close range, the penalty to Body rolls is the shooter’s Shoot skill.

The solution for the PC’s: Make use of Covering Fire. If the PC’s do not work together in a fight they will probably not survive.

GM: “Bart draws his gun and start shooting at you at close range.”
George: “I attack him with my knife.”
GM: “Roll brawl, and since you are under concentrated fire at close range, take -3 for Bart’s Shoot skill.”

GM: “Bart and his gang are hunkered down behind the turned over wagon, ready to shoot. If you want to cross the road to the saloon, you will be under concentrated fire.”
George: “I run for it!”
GM: “Shots ring out and the bullets whistle part your head. Roll + Body + Athletics / Acrobatics and take -1 for being under concentrated fire.”

If an NPC draws his gun on a PC and the PC does not shoot back in response, he will come under concentrated fire. On the other hand, if the PC is already under concentrated fire, even shooting is at a penalty. If a PC is under concentrated fire and he does not do something or take cover, tell him the consequences. If he still does not act, he is shot.

Keep track of the NPC’s: When there are more than one NPC in a fight, identify each enemy so that the players can keep track of them. There is more than one way to do it:
Name each NPC, if there was reason to do so before. Give each an identifying mark: The guy with the red bandanna. The guy with the sombrero. The guy with the limp. The one-eyed trapper. The cowboy behind the bar. And so on. Draw a rough map on a piece of blank paper and mark the NPC’s positions with numbers or stars. Make sure the players know which ones are wounded so they can take +1 against them!

Characters with low Body and Shoot modifiers are not necessarily helpless in a fight. Characters with Soul +1 use other people to do their fighting for them. Sheriffs and Marshals may deputize civilians. Anybody may hire a gunslinger (if she can afford it). The Henchman move is written in such a way that any henchman can potentially be as powerful as a PC, since henchmen roll + the PC’s Soul + Skill, or even Fame or Infamy. If the henchman has the Shoot skill, that adds another +1 to the roll. Remember that when a Henchman fails a Shoot roll the GM is within his rights to let the PC who commanded the henchman to get shot! The hard move that follows on a failed roll should mostly be against the PC who failed the roll. Characters with Mind +1 use the Read a Situation move to create an advantage for everyone in the party. A +1 bonus in a fight is really a big deal!

PC’s should not always fight when provoked or even when shot at. It is often prudent to run rather than face superior numbers. For that reason “encounters” in Cowboy World should not be “balanced”. (“Balanced” here means that the PC’s have a specific statistical chance, say 80%, to beat the opposition in every fight.) Part of the game is to know when to stand, when to call and when to fold. Not balancing encounters will force the players to come up with creative solutions to difficult problems.

And lastly, gunfights always have consequences. Most NPC deaths by the hand of PC’s should have consequences in terms of Fame or Infamy. Even though Cowboy World lies on the frontier where the law is often miles away and corrupt, the law does exist. And if the law does not get involved, there are always family, friends, gang members or vigilantes to mete out justice or take revenge on the killers.

The Clockpunk. A Dungeon World Playbook

clockpunkTime wants to be free!” Anonymous.

If time is a river, the past is a mountain spring. It is fixed and can’t be moved. But the future! The future is an infinite delta of possibilities. If you can see it you can bend its course to your fancy…” Hieronymous, infamous timehacker.

You understand the flow of time. You are able to capture the substance of time in mechanical devices, and you know how to harness the energy of time to do work. So you make clockwork timehacking devices that bend and break the flow of time, or harness the energy of this flow to your own benefit.

You are the Clockpunk.

Get the playbook here:

Pirates! A Dungeon World Sourcebook

piratesTo find out about Dungeon World, click here…

“So ye want t’ be a jack tar, Laddie? Let me tell ye about life aboard a sailin’ ship. It be hell. Ships may be out t’ sea for months. The food be bad – dry bread full o’ weevils and rancid salted pork better fit for makin’ soap. Sanitation be worse. And disease! Yer teeth fall out and yer ears rot off. Do somethin’ wrong? It’s the cat o’nine tails for ye or even the keelhaul! And don’t even think about piracy or ye’ll be swingin’ from the yardarm!”

A Dungeon World sourcebook for your pirate campaign. It contains rules for naval combat, black powder weapons and giant sea monsters.

It also contains the Sea Dog class playbook.

Get it here: