The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I hear a knock. On my wall.
I go outside, and what do I see?
A 15′ steam mech. Driven by a cowboy.
“Howdy, pardner!” he says. “I done moseyed up on ol’ Bessie here to git you to review Westward, the steampunk Western roleplaying game!”
“A steampunk Western game?” I says. “Okay, I can get behind that. But I gotta ask: What’s a cowboy know about building a steam mech?”
“Shoot, ain’t nuthin’ to it,” he says. “Well, ‘cept all the math. ‘Specially the decimals.”
“Yep!” he says. “Always gotta be worried ’bout the last roundup.”
Westward takes place on the eponymous planet (which rotates east to west, hence the name), 343 years after the colony ship Chrysalis crash lands upon it. The survivors, fleeing rampant mutations and gene therapy on Earth, are forced to make the most of limited resources by resorting to steampunk-like technology.
The colonists built Capital City, the hub of what amounts to civilization, in the shadow of the ship’s wreckage on the shore of the only known major body of water on the surface. Settlements spread out here and there in an area the size of a small continent, surrounded by badlands infested with bandits, dangerous local fauna, and humans gone savage known as Ferals (who serve to fill the “native” niche, more or less).
The setting has a “Wild West” motif for reasons mostly left to suspension of disbelief, seasoned with a hefty dose of steampunk technology and some residual advanced technology left over from the Chrysalis. Steam-powered mecha are common and robots are still around, but for some reason air travel is limited to lighter-than-air. In lieu of genetic tampering, which led to the flight from Earth in the first place, cybernetics have been re-discovered. I suppose one might think of the setting as being akin to a planet-bound Firefly with relatively advanced technology being more common in even remote regions. Honestly, I found that the firearm technology in particular hampered the “Wild West” feel, what with semi-automatic and even automatic weapons seeming to be readily available. The end result might be more like Mad Max with horses and mecha rather than cars.
Nevertheless, the author lovingly details the setting in terms of history and geography and provides numerous examples of fully-statted NPCs and creatures both native and imported from Earth. He goes a bit overboard with the latter — do we really need stats for chickens and ducks? — but better too much than too little. I did really appreciate the amount of detail given to native Westward fauna, even when it comes to fairly passive creatures unlikely to pose a danger to PCs. Such creatures add to the verisimilitude of the setting.
Westward uses a system called Cinema6, a variant of OpenD6 that is itself based on the D6 System used in the original Star Wars Roleplaying Game from West End Games. You can read my review of the latter here, so I won’t go too in-depth about the basic mechanics. Basically, to accomplish a task, the player rolls an additive pool of six-sided dice based on an appropriate attribute and skill in an attempt to beat a target number or an opposed roll. Unlike in the D6 System, the open-ending “Wild Die” is optional. Also unlike the D6 System, “pips” (bonuses of +1 or +2) are not used as increments between full dice levels for attributes. Instead, the attributes of Dexterity, Strength, Persona, Intellect, and Aptitude are rated in terms of 1-6 dice. (A robust scaling system handles superhuman Strength levels where applicable.)
The game uses Cinema Points as both experience points and as the game’s answer to hero/fate/drama points. (In the latter case, the Cinema Point adds an extra Wild Die to the roll.) In a seeming step backwards in game design, the system awards Cinema Points for defeating enemies; however, the value of a defeated enemy receives a multiplier based on the means of the defeat. For example, killing an adversary is with x1 of their value, while capturing the same adversary or converting him to your cause is worth x3. I like that a lot.
Some Features (character advantages) are “activated”, meaning that they cost Cinema Points to use. I’m not so keen on the fact that this also applies to certain equipment functions, which seems awfully meta-gamey.
Cinema6 offers a choice between group and individual initiative. The former offends my sensibilities, so I’m happy to have the option.
Damage is usually based on a roll of 1d6 plus a fixed score. (Given that these fixed scores can be pretty high, the roll often seems superfluous.) The target can reduce this damage using a roll of Vitality (based on Strength) plus armor. The end result is subtracted from the victim’s hit points, which the system uses in lieu of the D6 System‘s wound levels. I know hit points bug some gamers to no end, but to me, they’re easier to track than wounds, so this is a plus in my book.
Character creation is quick and easy, for the most part. Each attribute starts at 1d6, and players get 10d6 to divide between them, so evenly distributing the dice leads to a character with 3d6 in everything — dead average across the board. Players then distribute 7d6 between skills, which start at the level of their parent attributes.
Starting characters receive seven Cinema Points, which they can save or spend on Features. The list of Features is fairly extensive, making this a likely tie with equipment purchasing when it comes to time spent on character creation.
The game’s steam-powered mecha warrant a special mention. While the book includes six pre-generated steamechs, it also allows for custom mech creation using modular bodies, arms, legs, and augmentations. It’s a very slick system that allows for a surprising number of mech variations, both bipedal and quadrupedal.
I’m of the opinion that any good RPG rulebook can do with a good adventure to both illustrate and facilitate gameplay — an unusual setting like this one, doubly so. Westward doesn’t disappoint in this regard, offering eight fairly detailed adventure hooks conveniently broken down into episodes as well as one full-blown adventure. The latter offers many opportunities for both combat and interaction, although it is a bit on the railroady side — certain PC decisions could bring the adventure to a dead stop.
The book features loads of full-color art ranging from good to great. Overall, this is a very attractive rulebook.
The writing is both approachable and flavorful, with some amusing in-character commentary scrawled graffiti-style here and there. The text could stand a touch of editing here and there, but it’s nothing that hampers legibility. The layout is quite professional.
And speaking of professionalism, the book includes a comprehensive index.
Westward offers a very complete game with a tried-and-true system and a fascinating alien steampunk Western setting. If the premise intrigues you at all, I can’t recommend this game highly enough.