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.