by Kevin Kulp
My first mistake was in thinking Owl Hoot Trail was D&D with guns. I was just starting to develop and polish Clinton R. Nixon’s remarkable, streamlined game of old western fantasy, and I thought I was on well-trodden and familiar ground. I set up a sample encounter, one which I expected would make an easy and light-hearted introduction to the system. I took 15 minutes to stat up a party of four PCs and took the encounter for a test drive. If everything went as planned, this introductory romp would be the first gunfight that introduced people to Owl Hoot Trail. Piece of cake, right?
Ten minutes and three rounds of combat later, two of my PCs had been shot dead and another was twitching on the ground, gut-shot and unconscious. Three of the four bandits they’d just met were happily riding away up the trail, uninjured and whooping and waving their hats as they escaped. It was not, one might say, a romp for the good guys.
And really, that’s appropriate. “To ride the owl hoot trail” is an old western aphorism meaning “to take up the life of a bandit.” I quickly realized that the feel of this game wasn’t D&D with guns; this was a gritty Clint Eastwood western with fantasy and steampunk. Shee and half’ins and hill folk might exist in this world, but bullets hurt. It’s a lesson I carried with me through the development process.
I love the result. Owl Hoot Trail has five races: humans, shee, greenskins, hill folk, and half’ins. It uses iconic western archetypes for classes: gunslingers, marshals, ruffians, scoundrels, and scouts. There are four classes with special powers as well: gadgeteers, mentalists, preachers and shamans. We leaned heavily on the side of flavor and theme; a preacher can literally use her faith to rebuke a wrongdoer into stunned repentance, a gadgeteer can activate his crank-operated electroprod, ruffians get a bonus for smashing whisky bottles over their foes’ heads, and gunslingers are particularly good at facing down an opponent on a dusty street at high noon for a life-or-death duel.
PCs aren’t the only ones with local flavor. There are a lot of monsters out there on the lonesome prairie, and it’s a fair bet that you taste better than their normal fare. Dog-gobblers head after children after they clear out the local watch dogs. Harpies are vulture-like scavengers who choose to make their own carrion by corrupting fresh water, and then following travelers across the desert who then die of thirst. Ogres have been known to singlehandedly wield Gatling guns, and the haunting cry of the owlbear may sing you into the arms of death.
Owl Hoot Trail is half rules book, half adventure. Pages 65-128 showcase the adventure They Rode To Perdition, a multi-part mystery and starting campaign setting that’s centered on the little town of Perdition. The adventure is designed to be as non-linear as possible; antagonists and allies all have their own goals and time tables, and how (or if) the heroes upset those plans determines how the adventure goes. With as close to an epic storyline as you’ll find in a western setting, the PCs can change Perdition for good with their actions. Let’s just hope they like it when they’re done; ‘Ole One-Eye’s Saloon has particularly good drinks, and it’d just be a shame to burn it down by mistake.
Owl Hoot Trail, by Clinton R. Nixon and Kevin Kulp, is a 136-page, 6″x9″ book that sells for $19.95 US, now available in the store.