Sunday, February 14, 2021

Western Gunfight (1970): the First RPG?


In 1970, a group of UK gamers located in Bristol published the first edition of their Western Gunfight rules, which recorded systems they had been running locally since the late 1960s. In the pages of their own obscure Bristol Wargames Society Journal, and in the widely-read Wargamer's Newsletter, they began to position these games not as traditional conflict simulations, but instead as ways of telling Old West stories involving continuous characters, like the villainous "El Manolito" enjoying the spoils of his success in this 1970 rendering above. When they shifted their focus to these characters and stories, had they crossed the threshold into what we should call "role playing"?

The Western Gunfight Wargame Rules furnish a striking example of the emergent properties that can appear in a man-to-man scale wargame campaign when it is staged in a setting familiar from genre stories. The Bristol gamers quickly recognized that their approach had become different from the norm, and began documenting their perspectives on embodying characters. Their sessions were run by an umpire, and as the account of El Manolito from Journal #8 shows, could have ten or more players controlling the "goodies" and "baddies" in their sessions.

Their gunfighters were individuated by level of experience (novice, average, or professional) and various quantified abilities like specific weapon proficiency and nerves. Although man-to-man scale "skirmish wargames" remained a niche within the small miniature wargaming market in 1970, the Bristol Old West rules found an eager audience. Lead designer Steve Curtis informed Don Featherstone of Wargamer's Newsletter that demand for the rules was high enough to justify an expanded spiral-bound edition in the fall of 1971. 

The Bristol group would soon expand on their ideas in their Colonial Period spin-off in 1972 (incorporating combat resolution with their early d20), which gives a sense of how they viewed player agency and its relationship to the rules:

Largely thanks to Featherstone, word of their antics got out to America. For example, Gary Gygax read the five-page writeup of the "Incident at Peseto Grande" in the January 1973 Wargamer's Newsletter with interest, which surely prefigured his own group's experiments in the Old West setting. But it is moreover timely because it showed that Gygax had been exposed to the Bristol group's thinking in the era that Dungeons & Dragons was taking shape.

Throughout 1973, as D&D gradually made its way onto paper, the Bristol gamers continued to talk about the potential they discovered in "having characters with lives of their own who find themselves in situations and then behave in character rather than simply acting in their own best interests." 

They stressed how each campaign session was built around "cooking up interesting situations involving one, some, or all, of our stock characters in Pima County, New Mexico. The situation might follow from a previous game, e.g. after an incident at Thornbury Way Station... one of the Hole in the Fence gang, Slade, was wounded and arrested by Sheriff Seth Harker. Long Haired Steve [Curtis] and the boys have decided to spring him! Alternatively, the game could revolve around an entirely new factor, e.g. fresh Apache raids from out of the Guadalupe Mountains."

As Curtis himself would put it, "Who wins doesn't really come into it." All this ultimately led the Bristol gamers to ask, in the title of one of their articles, "But is it really wargaming?" They hoped it was -- they considered themselves wargamers and hoped to sell to other wargamers. But the fact that they had to pose the question, that they were sufficiently aware that some would hesitate to classify their activities as wargames, was perhaps the earliest published inkling of the dawn of a new genre. It furthermore starkly illustrates that the shift toward character and story driven games was not unique to the Twin Cities and Lake Geneva -- it was instead a broader movement.

Once RPGs became a thing, many previous "miniature wargaming" titles were rebranded as RPGs, including some Old West games. The most famous is of course Boot Hill, a 1975 TSR pamphlet which would be redone as a boxed RPG in 1979. But that was far from the only one: the British Once Upon a Time in the West rules, published as a wargame in 1978, were hastily amended with a supplement called The Return of that presented the rules as role playing "cause that's what they are," as the game's publisher insisted.

And inevitably, when Lou Zocchi reissued a boxed set of the Western Gunfight rules in the early 1980s, the cover would call it the "Old West Gunfight Role Playing Game." Rebranding earlier miniature wargames as RPGs was often merely a commercial ploy, though we'd be hard pressed to find an earlier ruleset reissued as one. Moreover, given how the Bristol gamers recommended using the Western Gunfight rules, would deeming it an RPG really be so different from how a certain set of "rules for fantastic medieval wargame campaigns" itself came to be understood in retrospect as a role-playing game? This comes down to questions about the distinction between rules and play that make it difficult to definitively classify RPGs even in the present, like whether role playing was an emergent or intended property of D&D. The shift from these wargames to role playing was, as they say, an elusive one.

We might well wonder what Steve Curtis thought of the rise of role-playing games, and whether his Western Gunfight would have qualified as one, but he did not live to see those days. Curtis had muscular dystrophy, spending much of his life in a wheelchair, and died on August 18, 1975, at the age of 28.

[And if you'd like to hear me doing this live, this was the focus of a talk I gave at RopeCon in 2019.]


  1. Fascinating! I had not heard of this.

  2. You know, there's a boardgame from 1969 that I've seen called an RPG --- Dynasty, designed by Paul C. Huang. It appears on lists of games that are both rare and good. Would love to someday see your take on it and whether it's connected to D&D history.

    1. Dynasty is covered in "The Elusive Shift," in the section after the one this blog post is basically excerpting. Dynasty has some of the earliest language about being "in character" in this sense.

  3. Another excellent view on how the shift occurs from wargaming to role-playing gaming.

  4. Your post made me to look up my copy of "Once Upon a Time in the West". I never played it at the time of publication (still too young), but bought these booklets somewhere in the mid90s.

    Interestingly, I also have a small booklet "Old West Posters and Signs" by Steve Curtis, copyright 1974, and "A Skirmish Wargames Product". (I forgot I had this, and don't remember where I got t from).

    It has all sorts of signs to cut out to attach to miniature buildings, but also has "flavour text" that provides some insight about the amount of creativity and storytelling that went into their games.

  5. The little booklet "Old West Posters and Signs" I mentioned in my previous comment, also has an advert for "The Colonial Skirmish Wargames Rules 1850-1900", and it says (a.o.): "Used with 30mm or 25mm figures, these rules bring you hot, personalised, squad-level action. Each man is a character in his own right. Percentages are used for all calculations and the necessary 20-sided Percentage Dice are available from us."

    I would have glossed over such paragraphs before, but ever since I've read your books, such paragraphs and their choice of words carry additional meaning ;-)

  6. I looked at the video of your talk at Ropecon. Very interesting stuff! But anyway, I do think the transition from a figure wargame to a narrative roleplaying is an important aspect of how roleplaying came to be. E.g. OD&D was sort of a "natural" evolution from miniature wargaming, but the real transition is e.g. how an almost pure literary narrative game such as Call of Cthulhu suddenly was published in 1981. For me, that seems to be a bigger jump rather than the first OD&D game - although it opened the doors, of course.

  7. Of the three, Curtis, Colwill, and Blake, Mike Blake at least is still gaming, and posts not infrequently over on the Little Wars Revisted forums for 54mm wargaming discussion ( Have you interviewed him?

  8. These rules were an influence on the development of Warhammer, in both its wargame and RPG forms. Rick Priestley has commented: “When Dungeons & Dragons came along, we were already doing something very similar, playing fantasy-based skirmish games with personalities inspired by the Skirmish Wargames Group”. I’ve blogged about it here: .

    1. There was definitely a continuum between "wargaming" and "role playing" that established itself very quickly. There were wargamers who wanted to know more about the personalities. One time a 3rd Reich player explained to me that Rommel and Guderian had different personalities and this should be translated to rules to matched the inner conflict that this would cause.

      On the other side, there were role-players who wanted "command experience" as different from "battle experience." E.g. there is a difference between organizing a unit as opposed to stabbing an orc through the chest. This lead people to Traveller and Warhammer, which made the distinct early on.

  9. And the rules are still available! They are part of John Curry's History of Wargaming project.
    Jon Salway

  10. Thanks for bringing back memories. I loved the character building aspects (I was 2nd Lt. Obadiah Snooks of the Glumdaglitch Highlanders) and the fact it incorporated real history in the mix.

  11. Back in the day, it wasn't at all uncommon to blur the line between skirmish gaming and role-play, even though "RPG" wasn't a thing yet. Maybe that's one reason why DnD became so popular!

  12. Late to the party, but I stay well clear these days...

    Always a pleasure to see you drifting in my direction in terms of emergent paradigms and conclusions from those, Jon!
    I smiled my way through your Ropecon presentation.

    In context, did you ever spot or follow-up on Svenny's comment to which I never received clarification, as referenced -> ?

    Best wishes & Keep well,

    1. I don't think we were ever really so far apart on this one, but the years have brought me closer, yes. Seeing the contemporary Bristol zines makes the case more compelling. On Svenny, I don't think that statement is an outlier for its time, but I'm not aware anyone has gotten follow up from him about it since.

    2. Given the implied timeframe that, to me, always reinforced the question how Arneson managed to pick up the Bristol Dice while somehow "missing" the Bristol Rules. Was the precise date of his London trip ever pinned down?

      (The Acaeum's helpfully providing 504 Gateway errors for links to half their forum archive just now; hey, ho...!)

      Glad you managed to track down the Bristol zines, Jon.

      Indeed not so far apart, either, with apparent personal acknowledgement that D&D "could be used for" rather than "was produced/published for" roleplaying and narrative creation ( ) as the Bristol Rules clearly were, although leading off PatW with D&D as the "progenitor of all RPGs" did rather put me on the back foot once again given the prevailing knee-jerk tendency that "everything before D&D is a proto-RPG" (paraphr.) per that fun little Dragonsfoot thread ( ), etc.
      Always depending on what list of criteria was chosen to confer such status (usually D&D-centric, of course... : )

      Aside, as not perhaps obvious from cold, hard text alone, the relative deadliness of D&D rules reinforces the "suitability for purpose" comparison and prevailing paradigms.