Frontier Scum Is A Rules Lite Western RPG With A Heart Of Lead

A few weeks ago, the Criterion Collection announced that their specialty December programming would include a block dedicated to winter westerns. Gathering together films like "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Ravenous," the collection casts a wide net, drawing on the history of the American West to combine the classic with the mondo and beyond. This collection also served as the perfect framing device for my first campaign of "Frontier Scum," a 2022 tabletop roleplaying game from writer Karl Druid set in a twisted, funhouse version of the American West.

Falling under the Old School Renaissance or Old School Revival subgenre of games, "Frontier Scum" is a rules-lite game that is inspired by the dark fantasy RPG "Mörk Borg" and draws its inspiration from, quote, "gun and hat times." The game is a love letter to every incarnation of the Hollywood Western, albeit one that has little patience for some of the genre's more unsavory tropes. Early in the rulebook, Game Marshalls (GMs) are warned that this setting is not an excuse to tell stories that glorify the "racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted stereotypes and tropes of the Old West." This warning offers a contemporary framework for revisiting the American West and reminds players that the darkest moments of our history make for the ugliest sandboxes.

The first thing you notice when you open "Frontier Scum" is the layout. Using a combination of original and public domain artwork, Karl Druid and his team have elected to explain the world through the aesthetic of a Western newspaper. Bizarre advertisements are scattered through the book, and each of the various territories — presented with just the right balance of description and abstractness by Druid — feel like hyperbolic stories from far-flung correspondents. The regions mapped in "Frontier Scum" mirror the exaggerated hellscapes of a George Miller film, and it is no surprise that movies like "Dead Man," "Bone Tomahawk," and even "The Lighthouse" are named among the game's direct influences.

Create the perfect outlaw

Like most OSRs, character creation is also a breeze. "Frontier Scum" offers a combination of D6, D20, and D66 roles for character creation, allowing people to randomize (or select) their backstory and skills. Each outlaw has four main characteristics — Grit, Slick, Wits, and Luck — and each attribute maps to a corresponding skill check that is easy to intuit. Players roll a D6 to determine their maximum hit points and then randomly select (or choose) skills that are more narrative-based than mechanical. These skills are intended to give outlaws advantages in specific scenarios, but how each player interprets these outcomes (such as a skill that resulted from having the best day of your life) leaves a lot to the imagination.

It also means there are no wrong answers. For one character — a cowgirl wanted for hired arson — her skills manifested around fire-starting, a handy skill to have in a campaign set in the snow. Another player wanted to start the game with a piece of shrapnel in his chest that could stop a bullet. Since that suggestion felt wonderfully in line with the spirit of the game, we negotiated a compromise: he would roll a die when hit, and if the number matched the number on a predetermined roll, his damage would be ignored for a single round. This mechanic created a bit of zero-session horse-trading between the GM and the players and, in doing so, solidified the boundaries of each character.

As befitting a Western-style roleplaying game, "Frontier Scum" has a lot of fun with combat and gunslinger tropes. For one, you do not need to roll for basic gun combat. Instead, characters start the game with a pistol or rifle, and the game assumes a level of proficiency with that weapon — each standard ranged attack is an automatic hit. This approach means every gunfight is inherently deadly, and players who elect to stand in the open and draw down on their opponents will soon find themselves in a wooden box. Even better, "Frontier Scum" tweaks the deadliness of combat with a thematic hat mechanic: at any time, you can elect to have an attack knock your hat off your head, a potential one-time buffer that will absorb all damage from a single source.

Each outlaw also starts the game with a random horse, donkey, or mule with unique likes and characteristics. In my group, a character named Calamity Pain owns a horse named after her real-life partner, a running joke between them that will no doubt come back to bite me in the mule during our first deadly gunfight. And thanks to that player's D66 roll, her donkey also loves to watch duels between other gunfighters. These little bits of flavor reinforce the "acid" nature of the acid Western, allowing both players and GM to build out a world that is as realistic or fantastical as we see fit.

Fight to your last breath

But perhaps my favorite mechanic is the death mechanic. Even a Looking-Glass version of the American West is dangerous, and "Frontier Scum" manages this tension well by offering a wide variety of animals and outlaws ready to take your life. If you are unlucky enough to lose that fight, you may live, die, or — in the tradition of many great Westerns — play out a few final turns or even sessions as the walking dead. Roll poorly, and your character becomes fatally wounded, but a D6 will determine how long they can gut out those injuries. Your slow death could last minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

In presenting players with a table for dying, "Frontier Scum" takes a small mechanic from "Mörk Borg" and brings it to new heights. The threat of death would be a fun narrative device in any roleplaying game, but in "Frontier Scum," this roll offers a brilliant marriage of mechanics and theme. The dying gunslinger is a time-honored tradition in the Hollywood Western. Films as wide-ranging as "Shane," "The Great Silence," and "Tombstone" have bartered in the image of a dying gunslinger and introduced an element of fatalism that has come to define the genre. Part of me hopes my players will never need to act out their prolonged deaths. But when I close my eyes, I see droplets of blood in the snow.

In the coming weeks, my party will explore the danger and the beauty of Dreckgullard's Desolation, wedging themselves in a cold war (pun intended) between the all-powerful Incorporation and the mysterious Governess who runs the snowy South. And in choosing to play a game grounded in a version of our history — where trains, outlaws, and townships are the funhouse images of Hollywood legends — I already find that "Frontier Scum" offers a balance between the possible and the impossible that is intoxicating as a storyteller. I had pitched this as a warm-up game before we moved on to something bigger, but this is a world worth lingering around. Here's hoping my players have their guns and hats at the ready.