This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.
It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.
“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.
“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.
That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.
It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?
A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.
So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.
It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.
I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.
Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.
Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.
It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?
I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?
Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…
I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.
It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?
I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.
I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.
I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.
It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…
A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.
He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.
It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.
In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.
I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.
It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.
“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”
But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.
Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.
Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )
Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.
It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.
They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.
By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.
I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).
I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.
But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.
And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.
RPGs are not, in general, trying to create a pure simulation of reality in the form of entirely consistent and all-encompassing rules (and acting as if they are, or even should, leads to unhappiness, silliness, or both). The rules of the Game part of an RPG can be distinctly different from a description of the objective rules that define a universe. People who want to take things ‘allowed” by RPG rules and dive down to what a world is “really” like if those rules are equally and evenly available to even citizen of the world are not playing the game as intended.
(And if they have fun doing that, that’s fine. But if they don’t, the flaw isn’t necessarily with the game rules.)
For example, it’s perfect acceptable to say “This ability can be selected by any player for their character. There are no limitations or restriction on a player doing so.” and a GM or campaign setting saying (or even being built so it is true without saying it) “This ability represents a very rare ability, and only a very few people in the universe have it.”
One early step in beginning a new RPG campaign or adventure that almost no RPGs ever mention is, everyone involved should be interested in engaging in that activity in a way that causes everyone to have fun. If someone actively doesn’t want to play, or their motivating for playing is to make other people unhappy and sadly yes, this happens), most RPGs are going to collapse under the weight of neutral or bad intentions. (This is, by the way, one reason why formal organized play groups often have some significant additional rules about player and character behavior, or collapse under their own weight. I remain in awe of people able not only to run such organizations, but write for them, build them,\and create environments where clearly most participants are having fun.)
If everyone wants to play the game for mutual fun, the fact the rules are often focused on what player characters can do (rather than what is unavailable to the majority of the population because not everyone is a Caped Knight Wizard of Justice) is rarely an issue.
Some people claim such a focus on PC abilities automatically mans the player characters are somehow “chosen ones” because they have access to options common NPCs don’t. Now, sometimes that’s the case, and that’s fine. I have often run games where player characters were, explicitly, somehow gifted in ways the vast majority of the population was not. Sometimes that’s a built-in rarity explained by the game. (“Only 1 in 10,000 people can learn the Rite of Heroism… and in this rare case, all four of you have that ability despite being from a village of 700.”)
But in other cases, the PCs have no special fate or inherent superior power. They are just the people who, at the start of the game, have ended up somewhere interesting. Maybe they have options other people can’t take due to genetics, but that doesn’t make them “chosen” despite the rarity, any more than having one blue and one green eye does. Or maybe they have just had unusual circumstances since birth—a lot of people feel anyone CAN become a professional artist if they spend the time and have the drive to do so, but not everyone does.
Put another way, if you were reading a piece of fiction about an interesting time and place where 25% of children die at birth, you wouldn’t want to focus on the people who died at birth at point of view characters. There’s nothing that “protected” the other 75% of the people born, they’re just the characters who are still alive to do things, so of course the story follows them instead.
So just because a game says “A character may select ‘Ouch’ as a power, which removes 1% of a foe’s health once per day with no chance of failure” doesn’t automatically mean the world is ruled by roving gangs of 100 11-year-old commoners who all have Ouch and thus can, as a group, kill absolutely anyone they want to. It just means some people have this and, if the campaign setting, GM, or adventure doesn’t call out Ouch Battallions, chances are they don’t exist.
Now it IS useful for an RPG to give a GM and players some idea of what NPCs and common folk in the game are likely to be like. This might be as complex as the kind of distinction between PC and NPC character classes in d20 games—no player character is going to select the strictly-inferior “warrior” if “fighter” is an option, but tons of NPCs do, and at the same time some important NPCs instead tale PC classes which lets you know (generally without explicitly saying so) that those NPCs are more important to the adventure or campaign.
Or it might be much more simple and subtle, like providing lists of NPCs game rules, or even just lists of inspirational media. If an RPG tells you it takes inspiration from the X-Men comics, Gifted television show, and movies Carrier, Firestarter, and Push, and the game gives you options to take extraordinary superhuman powers, it doesn’t also have to explicitly tell you that not every person in the world has those powers. That’s clear, in the types of stories it outlines as inspiration. You can BUILD a campaign world with that paradigm if you want to, but you should already know you are system-hacking.
I love system hacks, as Really Wild West might make clear. But once you go that route, it’s unfair to expect the rules to not force you to make some decisions to make the hack logical.
No RPG can fully, accurately, and deeply represent all the factors that determine who ends up with what abilities in a realistic world setting. We can’t even do that in the real world, even if we just limit ourselves to who will be successful out of a single class of kids. We can make educated guesses, based on experience and statistics, but some kid will buck those trends.
That kid, by the way, is the one many people want as their player character.
If you got this far, maybe you like these essays enough to help fund them? That’s easy and cheap to do, with my Patreon.
The bell on the front door chimed, causing Gunner to look up, a smile leaping to his face out of habit. It froze midway to his lips, as he saw the figure slowly walking into his store. It was a short, broad woman, her antennae drooping with fatigue and dust covering her long coat and short-brimmed hat. The dust clung to her face as well, the delicate patterns common to a lashunta lost in the swirls of grime caked on her skin. The left side of her coat was dark, from the ribs down, and a ragged hole suggested the stain had a violent origin.
“May… may I help you?”
The visitor was rough, but Gunner sensed no threat from her. Not towards himself, in any case. But he kept one hand under his counter, near his shotgun. Just in case.
The woman moved slowly, but with purpose, crossing the room to his counter with firm steps. When she spoke her voice was as dusty as her clothes, but also filled with iron.
“I need a gun.”
She slapped a single golden credit on his countertop. A century-piece, sure, but not much for the price of a gun.
“Well…,” Gunner tried to think if anyone in town had an old derringer or wrack-piece they might part with for so little. It was often easiest to avoid trouble by seeing to its needs so it moved along on its own.
She nodded once, as if she could read his mind. And, a lashunta? Maybe she could.
“Cannibal Kid and his cult comin’ in on the noon train. I mean to meet them. I’d be obliged if I could do it with iron in my hand.”
Gunner felt all color drain from his face. Sometimes the Cannibals’ cult just got off a train and left town. Sometimes, they got… hungry…
“You… you going to face Cannibal on your own, miss?”
She shook her head. once.
“Got a posse. Good folks. Swedish rune-man. A gambler who hasn’t used all his luck, yet. And some crazy professor. But I can’t back their play as well with a fist as a gun. But I will, if I have to.
Gunner paused. Cannibal Kid’s loons had been a growing problem for years. And no one knew for sure if Cannibal had really been responsible for the destruction of the town of Pecan Prarie… but that was the best guess.
Gunner’d had family in Pecan Prarie.
Many people had gone after the Cannibal Kid, and ended up joining him for dinner. But there was something about this lashunta woman. Even covered in dirt and clearly hurt, her eyes were bright, and Gunner instinctively trusted her skills. With the right weapon, maybe she could end Cannibal, once and for all.
He reached under the counter, ignoring his own shotgun, and brought out a lacquered box. Opening it, he spun it to face the lashunta, revealing the gleaming, 4-barreled heavy pistol within. The name “Lewiston” was engraved on one barrel, and “Custom” on the one below it. Eight .454 rounds were nearly packed beside the pistol, each in their own satin-lined niche.
“Will this do, ma’am?”
The lashunta’s already bright-eyes nearly glowed as she reached out a hand and lifted the pistol from the box. The handle fit her hand even better than her own glove, and the expertise with which she checked the hammer, released the barrel-catch, and loaded all four barrels before snapping it shut left Gunner feeling he’d made a good investment.
“This will do just fine, mister. Just fine.”
Gunner slid the gold credit off the countertop. But if he heard good news about events at the noon train, he doubted he’d ever spend it.
Renown is an alternate equipment economy specifically for use with the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, though it *could* be adapted to other campaign settings. The idea is to alter the way PCs, pricing, and the world work in such a way as to keep an economy that feels more reserved, without seriously altering the ultimate balance of the game. Instead of all equipment being bought and sold exclusively for credits, higher-level gear requires renown, in keeping with the theme of famous gunslingers and frontier heroes of the Really Wild West.
As a recap, we’ve also looked at rules for mounted combat and shotguns, presented Badlands City and the Badlands Citizen theme, and presented a list of adventure seeds and inspirational media. While the really Wild West setting hack isn’t complete, there’s certainly enough material for it for a GM to build a campaign around it, if desired.
When using the Renown system, money by itself is used only to buy 1st and 2nd level equipment, which includes nearly all “mundane” gear such as rope, shovels, lanterns, and the vast majority of the worlds pistols. Even “extraordinary” 1st and 2nd level equipment, like an azimuth heat ray rifle (Really Weird West’s equivalent of a laser) is bought with normal credits. Such items can be sold for 50% of their value in credits.
Wealth per encounter, in credits and 1st and 2nd level items, never exceeds CR 2 values. If you face and kill a CR 7 Prairie Dragon… you get treasure, in credits and 1st and 2nd level gear, equal to a CR 2 encounter.
However, all characters also have Renown, which can be used to acquire items of 3rd level and higher, which are considered legendary items.
Renown is the measure of the character’s mystic legends. Some of that is normal reputation, and some of it is their impact on the Akashic record, the theosophic concept of a complete compendium of all events, thoughts, actions and intent to have ever happened… even if no one is aware of it. The Akashic record is recorded in the weft of the Ethereal Plane, and as characters perform actions, their impact on it grows. As a natural consequence of that impact, the characters end up with legendary gear, items that also have a greater impact on the Akashic record and naturally gravitate toward agents of importance and change who can get the most out of their extremely high quality.
When calculating rewards for an encounter, the difference between the normal wealth per encounter for CR 3 and higher encounters, and the maximum CR 2 rewards given out under the Renown system, is a character’s gain in Renown. Fighting off six Texas Tick Twisters may not earn you any credits or reward, but you gain Renown even if no one knows you did it, as it has an impact on the supernatural fore of the Akashic Record, which pulls legendary items toward you.
Legendary items aren’t common, and no amount of money guarantees you can buy one. These are the objects that have their own stories and rumors, and collectors and master craftsmen can spend lifetimes hunting down just one such item. These are things like a Lewiston Custom Original, one of the 12 original 4-barrel pistols built by hand by master gunsmith Ezrah Lewiston and equipped with tiny screws and pins to allow it to be customized by every user for perfect balance. While the mass-produced Lewsiton 4-barrel is based on the twelve Custom Originals, it lacks the exacting standards and precision of its legendary progenitors.
If you wish to buy a legendary item, you can cover the first 1,000 of its cost in credits, but the rest you must spend in Renown. In general such items are not for sale commonly, but the same power that causes Legendary items to be available only to those with enough Renown tend to put such items in the path of their destined users. A character can choose to buy one Legendary item, with an item level no greater than their character level +2, each time they arrive at a new settlement. The character’s player decides in advance which item they want, and normally it is available if they have the renown to cover it.
When making gear of 3rd level or higher, you must cover the first 1,000 credits of cost in money (high quality raw materials and precision instruments aren’t cheap, after all), but the rest of the item’s cost you may choose to cover in Renown. In this case you are imbuing such items with a bit of your own legend.
Parting with a legendary item restores some of the Renown used to acquire it… but not much. If you give away or sell a legendary item, you regain 10% of its Renown value to add back to your total. For example, if you sell one of the rare Lewiston Custom Original 4-barrel pistols, you regain 550 Renown, 10% of the 5,500 Renown required to acquire such a rare and storied pistol. If you sell a legendary item you can expect to be paid 750 + (1d6 x 100) credits by a collector or a major figure (senators, rail barons, Black Hand dons, bandit generals, high society types, and so on) or their agents. Such things generally then disappear from the world of adventuring, to live in a glass case or on the hip of someone who’s never in any real danger.
Legendary items have prices listed with an “r,” to indicate that all but 1,000 of the price must be paid with Renown.
This system does require a GM to add some flavor to 3rd level and higher gear, to set legendary items apart from 1st and 2nd level gear, but that’s not too difficult (and, honestly, players may be allowed to suggest backstories of the legendary gear they acquire, since it is part of their own Really Weird West legend once they get it). For some examples of how legendary versions of gear might be presented differently than 1st and 2nd level mundane gear, here are some pistols reskinned to fit the Really Weird West.
|Lewiston 4-Barrel||1||260||1d6+2 P||30 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Ajax Revolver||1||260||1d6||30 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Original Custom||7||5,500 r||2d6+4||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Statesman Revolver||7||5,500 r||2d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Trainkiller||10||18,200 r||3d6+6P||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Kingmaker Revolver||10||18,200 r||3d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
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Since there’s certainly no full published adventure support for the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, I thought it might be useful to both provide some adventure seeds, and provide a list of inspirational media. That said, a GM interested in running a Really Weird West campaign need not feel like every adventure needs to be custom-crafted from scratch. Most adventures appropriate to the Starfinder Roleplaying Game can be reskinned to run in Really Weird West (with space stations becoming port towns, starships becoming zepplins, hyperspace travel becoming riverboat or airship travel, other planets being other states and/or islands, and so on). Similarly, adapting adventures designed for related fantasy RPGs is easy by changing lost dungeons into lost mines or ancient civilization cities, and adding guns to most foes.
But if you do want to create your own adventures, or add introductions, side-quests, and major revisions to existing adventures, the adventure seeds below and inspirational media lists that follow should provide numerous appropriate jumping-off points.
1. You come across a dead, masked Texas Ranger, with a gunbelt full of silver bullets. He was clearly mauled by a giant wolf. This leads to an adventure tracking down a group of werewolf bandits.
2. A madman named Robur, operating in unincorporated territories, has nearly completed the Death Cloud, an airship with a rebuilt Martian heat ray so powerful it can destroy an entire city in a single shot. He’d see an entire army coming and wipe them out, but a small group might be able to sneak past his defenses and blow up the Death Cloud from within.
3. Someone has been stealing hegesistrati (a “hegesistratus” being a gearjack prosthetic), knocking out veterans of the War of the Worlds and ripping the most advanced gearjack technology from their bodies. At the same time, rumor is a new mad genius will sell you gearjack armor cheap…
4. A dragon is terrorizing the small town of Walnut Grove. It’s smart enough not to appear when the cavalry is around, and no one has found its lair, somewhere in the badlands…
5. The PC with the best pistol attack bonus receives a letter. The infamous killer and quickdraw artist Doc Valentine has heard people claim the PC is better with a pistol than valentine, and is coming to town on the noonday train tomorrow to call the PC out to a shootout.
6. The PCs order new gear from a major town, to arrive by train. The train is hit by bandits, and their gear stolen.
7. An unscrupulous lawyer has stolen the designs for a local ally genius’s rainmaking machine, which will save entire counties of farmers from a serious drought. He has a head start, but the PCs know he’ll be on a moving train for a specific leg of his journey, so if they can just rob the train and get the design back…
8. A young man in strange clothes claims to be a time traveler, and he needs to find his elder friend and repair his time machine before he does major damage to the timeline…
9. There’s a new addictive drug in the territory, premade black cigarettes called Coffin Nails. If the gang pushing it isn’t stopped, they may gain enough power to challenge the US government.
10. One Martian tripod, alone in the desert, is still active.
11. The Mole People are kidnapping singers, for some reason, and some of the singers that have taken are important high society folks that need to be rescued from their underground kingdom.
12. Someone has desecrated a Civil War battlefield, and the dead from both sides are rising up to punish the living until the desecration is made right.
13. There’s something in The Mist.
14. The lost city of El Dorado offers vast treasures… if you can survive the traps, guardian constructs, rival explorers, and Olmec lizardfolk who have taken over.
15. The Hatfields have turned to necromancy. The McCoys have turned to diabolry. Everyone else has turned and run.
(Though in fairness, I have been informed “We McCoys would never turn to diabolry. Unstable alchemical explosives, maybe. Ninjitsu, probably. Mentally unstable deities that are still good-natured even if they cause far more problems than they should, definitely. Gigantic robots that can flatten a town without noticing, oh you bet we will.”)
16. The Illuminati hid a vast treasure in a long-abandoned mine, and a series of obscure clues will allow the PCs to get to it before a cult that wishes to use it to summon an ancient, elder god.
17. It’s snowing in the desert, and only one person has the cold-weather gear everyone needs survive. And he’s selling it at a huge mark-up. And whenever he runs out, white wolves bring him more.
18. A mad military genius has built a rolling fortress, and plans to use it to destroy a group he dislikes, be that a native tribe, a pioneer town, or the PCs’ base of operation.
19. Characters with advanced melee combat skills are being kidnapped and forced to fight in a tournament of Bullfighters, who face off against minotaurs in a labyrinth arena.
20. A villager from a small, unarmed town begs the PCs to come protect them from bandits. The bandits number in the hundreds, and the villagers can only pay in food and a place to stay, but without the PCs help, the village will be driven to the brink of starvation.
Taking a broad view of “Weird West” as a setting to include any strongly-Western setting (even if located somewhere other than the American Old West) that adds elements of the supernatural, or advanced technology (steampunk or not), or visitors (from monsters to aliens to time travelers), there’s a lot of media that can act as inspirations to create your own adventures, characters, and themes. I’ve excluded things that transport Western plots and sensibilities into other settings (so no Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers or Dark Tower or Firefly, all of which might well also spark ideas), not because they are in any way inferior, but because they tend to be better known and I wanted to keep this list manageable.
It’s worth noting that while these are great sources of Weird West inspiration… that doesn’t mean they’re great as forms of entertainment. Many are quite good, but some are truly awful. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth skimming through (or reading summaries of them) if you can’t sit through them the regular way, in order to get inspired to riff new ideas and characters and plots from the bad stories. Myself, I sometimes fin terrible books and movies are actually better sources of inspiration, as when they do something really dumb I find myself thinking “It would have been cooler if they’d done X,” and whatever X is, that’s my new, cool idea.
It’s also worth noting that nearly any western, fantasy, or cyberpunk plot can be easily adapted to a Really Wild West campaign. It’s easy to add some half-orcs to a bandit gang, have long-dead sorcerers wear black cowboy hats, and turn megacorporations into railways and cattle barons. If that doesn’t feel natural to you, try describing the driving force of a plot as generically as possible. The Fellowship of the Ring can simplify to “a local boy is convinced my a mysterious wanderer to take something dangerous to the big city for advice, then decides to throw it into a volcano which requires him and friends to pass through an abandoned mine, all while hunted by the original owner’s forces and elite generals.” One you have it reduced to that level, it’s easy to replace the local boy, mysterious wanderer, something dangerous, big city, and abandoned mine to seem more Weird Western. So if a pioneer has to take a Crimson Spike, which turns any railway into demon-summoning railroad line, to New Holt City where the Elven Preservation Society convinces him that to keep it from senator “Boss” Morghul he must take it through the old Brimstone Double-Y Mine to a volcano hidden in the Rockies… THAT’s Weird West.
Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities, publisher Dark Horse Books
Black Jack Ketchum, publisher Image Comics
Bouncer: The One-Armed Gunslinger, publisher Humanoids, Inc.
East of West, publisher Image Comics
High Moon, publisher Super Genius
Iron West, publisher Image Comics
Jonah Hex, publisher DC Comics
The Justice Riders, publisher DC Comics
Kingaway West, publisher Dark Horse Books
Lazarus Lane (El Diablo), publisher DC Comics
Magic Wind, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Pretty Deadly, publisher Image Comics
The Sixth Gun, publisher Oni Press
Trailblazer, publisher Image Comics
Zagor, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, author Paul Guinan
Boneshaker, author Cherie Priest
The Buntline Special and sequels, author Mike Resnick
Dead In The West, author Joe R Lansdale
Dead Man’s Hand, anthology, ed. by John Joseph Adams
Dead Man’s Hand: Five Tales of the Weird West, author Nancy Collins
The Dead Remember and other “Weird West” stories, author Robert E. Howard
Deadman’s Road, author Joe R Lansdale
Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Engine, author Mark Sumner.
The Encyclopedia Of Weird Westerns, author Paul Green
FRANK READE: Adventures in the Age of Invention, authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
The Golgotha Series, author R.S. Belcher.
The Hexslinger Series, author Gemma Files
Karen Memory, author Elizabeth Bear
Low Moon, anthology, ed. David A. Riley
“Mad Amos” stories, author Alan Dean Foster
A Road Paved In Iron, author Don Corcoran
The Shadow series, author Lila Bowen
Shadow on the Sun, author author Richard Matheson
Stagecoach Mary, author Jess Nevins
Straight Outta Tombstone, anthology, ed. By David Boop
The Sundowners Series, author James Swallow
Tales of the Far West short story collection, authors Gareth Skarka, Matt Forbeck, and others
Vermillion, author Molly Tanzer
Wax and Wayne series, author Brandon Sanderson
Zepplins West, author Joe R Lansdale
Deadlands Classic, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Deadlands Reloaded, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Devil’s Gulch, for BRP, published by Chaosium
Down Dark Trails, for Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, for Red Dead Redemption, published by Rockstar Games
Shadows of Brimstone, published by Flying Frog Games
Sixguns and Sorcery, for Castle Falkenstein, published by R. Talsorian
Werewolf: The Wild West, published by White Wolf Publishing
Back to the Future Part III, directed by Robert Zemeckis
Billy the Kid vs Dracula, directed by William Beaudine
Blood Moon, directed by Jeremy Wooding
Blood Rayne II Deliverance, directed by William Beaudine
Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler
Bunraku, directed by Guy Moshe
The Burrowers, directed by J.T. Petty
Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
Curse of the Undead, directed by Edward Dein
Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch
El Charro de las Calaveras, directed by Alfredo Salazar
From Dusk Til Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by P.J. Pesce
Gallowwalkers, directed by Andrew Goth
Ghost Brigade aka The Killing Box, directed by George Hickenlooper
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, directed by Grant Harvey
The Good the Bad the Weird, directed by Kim Jee-woon
High Plains Invaders, directed by K. T. Donaldson
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, directed by William Beaudine
Jonah Hex, directed by Jimmy Hayward
High Planes Drifter, directed by Clint Eastwood
Ned Kelley, directed by Gregor Jordan
Pale Rider, directed by Clint Eastwood
The Phantom Empire (1935 serial), directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Easton
Purgatory, directed by Uli Edel
Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird
Red Sun, directed by Terence Young
Sukiyaki Western Django, directed by Takashi Miike
Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, directed by S.S. Wilson
Undead or Alive, directed by Glasgow Phillips
The Valley of Gwangi, directed by James O’Connolly
The Warrior’s Way, directed by Sngmoo Lee
The White Buffalo, directed by J. Lee Thompson
Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse
Kung Fu, created by Herman Miller and Ed Spielman
The Lazarus Man, created by Dick Beebe, Colleen O’Dwyer, and Michael Ogiens
Legend, created by Bill Dial and Michael Piller
Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, created by Ryan Brown and Bob Carrau
The Wild Wild West, created by Michael Garrison
And, of course, the really Wild West setting is an example of weird west, and it’s made available by the supports of my Patreon! If you’re a fan, please consider offering a few dollars a month for support!
Scatterguns in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game are blast weapons, meaning they make attacks in a 90-degree cone, and only out to their first range increment. It would certainly be possible to make weapons that work that way, and it’s a great niche for a new type of weapon in a science-fantasy game… but it’s nothing like how shotguns work in real life. Shotguns do firing an expanding cluster of shot, but the cluster spreads at something close to one inch per yard traveled—nowhere near a 90-degree cone—and generally have an effective range between 5 and 65 yards.
Now, attempting to perfectly model reality is a terrible reason to change fun and effective game mechanics. After all, no one worries about how much damage you do to your sword when you parry another sword, even though this can be a serious long-term issue in the real world.
But getting a genre “feel” right IS a good reason to adjust game rules, and the Really Wild West campaign-hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game feels like it should have more Old West style shotguns. So a set of shotguns are presents, all of which use a more subtle “shotgun” special weapon quality rather than “blast,” and some of which have “double” to represent ubiquitous double-barrel shotguns common in the 1890 time frame of the campaign.
Double: The weapon has two barrels, each carrying a single round of ammunition. You can fire each round separately as its own attack, or fire them both at the same target as a single attack. If you choose to do this, you make two attack rolls against the target each at -1 (as the more powerful kick of both barrels going off increases the amount of rise from the barrel). Each attack does normal damage if it hits. You can reload both barrels at the same time if you are proficient with the weapon, but must do each as its own move action if you are not proficient.
Shotgun: A shotgun can fire slugs or shot (which have the same cost). Slugs work normally. Shot means firing a cluster of balls that spread into a widening pattern the further they get from the muzzle of the shotgun. As the pattern expands, the chance you hit a target with one or two balls goes up, but the chance you hit them with most of the balls goes down. For each range increment after the first, your attack gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls, but does -1 damage per die. If the damage is reduced to 0 or less, the target takes no damage.
A sawed-off shotgun has a shorter barrel, causing the balls to spread more quickly. A sawed-off shotgun has a shorter range increment (of your choice, to the nearest 5-feet, to a minimum of a 5 foot range increment).
As a set of sample weapons for Really Wild West, here are a series of double barrel shotguns, pump-action repeaters (which were new technology in 1890) and shotgun revolvers (which existed but never really caught on, but seem perfect for a Weird West setting).
|Double Barrel Scattergun||1||100||1d8 P||15 ft.||—||2 rounds||1||Double, Shotgun|
|Repeating Shotgun||2||260||1d8||20 ft.||—||7 rounds||1||Shotgun|
|Kensington Revolving Shotgun||4||2,400||2d6||20 ft.||—||6 rounds||1||Shotgun|
|Double Barrel Coach Gun||7||5,500||2d8||15 ft.||—||2 rounds||1||Double, Shotgun|
|High Plains Repeater||7||5,500||2d8||20 ft.||—||7 rounds||1||Shotgun|
|Kensington Revolving, Elite||8||5,500||3d6||20 ft.||—||6 rounds||1||Shotgun|
|Double Barrel Dragongun||10||18,200||3d8||15 ft.||—||2 rounds||1||Double, Shotgun|
|Damascus Repeater||10||18,200||3d8||20 ft.||—||7 rounds||1||Shotgun|
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I am on vacation, so I may post a bit less for a couple of weeks than I have on average this month… so I thought I’d leave you with an entire microsetting. It even has an index page that lists and organizes all the articles that came after this one, the Really Weird West index.
This is Victoriana Pulp Weird West Adventure.
The year is 1891. The place is somewhere in North or South America, generally far from established law. In 1890, the War of the Worlds happened. That’s over, but wow has tech taken a leap forward.
This is a campaign played using the Starfinder Roleplaying Game with the following adjustments.
*The game’s top level is 10th, not 20th. After 10th you get +1 RP, +3 SP, +3 HP, +1 feat, and +2 skill points every 20,000 XP, and ability score upgrades every 100,000, but your class level doesn’t change.
*Humans are most common, with legacy races second-most (many of whom look a lot like humans), and Starfinder core races rare and usually the result of accidents or experiments (such as Dr. Moreaux’s creation of vesk from alligators… )
*All magic is theosophy. But it still works just like in the rulebook.
*Everything is analog, but all abilities that work on technology work on everything that isn’t exclusively magical.
*“Credits” is just shorthand for “credit on the bank,” meaning you have US dollars and lines of credit. Gold and silver coins get used too. All prices are the same, but represent a unifed currency exchange that exists because of the Babbage-Bell Grid, which allows room-sized computer “difference engines” in major cities to communicate over telegraph lines.
*Shock weapons are lightning guns, flame weapons are flamethrowers, lasers are heat rays (from Martian tech). They always have a maximum of 10 shots (adjust usage accordingly).
*Projectile weapons are pepperboxes (four shots, but add +2 damage to every die of damage), revolvers (six shots, but +1 to attacks), or tube-fed (eight shots).
Cryo, plasma, sonic, and untyped ranged weapons are available only as weird loot from adventures (but see the mad genius feat, below). They are generally called Freeze Guns, Heaters, and Thunder Guns.
*No one much wears armor. You get a bonus to EAC equal to your level, and a bonus to KAC equal to your level +2. If you are proficient with heavy armor, you get an additional +2 bonus to EAC and KAC. You can wear armor—light armor costs 100 and gives +1 to KAC, with a max Dex of +5 and an armor check penalty of -1, while heavy armor costs 150 and gives +2 to EAC and KAC, with an armor check of -3 and a -5 ft. speed adjustment.
*You can wear armor upgrades as “gizmos.” These are steampunky/theosophic devices that do weird stuff. Force fields are Etheric Shields. Jump jets are Jack’s Spring-Heels. Jetpacks are DaVinci Wings. Get creative. But it takes skill to use more than one gizmo at a time. You can use at once one gizmo, plus one for every kind of armor you are proficient with, +1/3 character levels.
*Computers are too big and bulky to be of any use to anyone but people operating out of stationary huge houses and mad geniuses (see the Mad Genius feat), but there is a Babbage/Bell grid of difference engines using telecom wires to send and receive info. These work like Infospheres, but work on hard wires.
*Augmentations and upgrades exist, but are normally only available as treasure (but see the Mad Genius feat). These things are steampunk as heck.
*Technological items exist, and are steampunk/Martianpunk tech-but there’s no broadcast/receiving technology. You can have a comm unit… but it only works when hooked up to a Babbage/Bell telecom wire (some of which do cross various badlands, to keep cities in communication with each other). You can generally buy such things.
*Magic items and hybrid items exist, but are generally only available as treasure (but see the Psychic feat, below).
*Vehicles exist, they are just all steampunk. Big airships and sea ships also exist, and use the starship rules (but damage against characters from big airship weapons is x2, not x10).
*Other purchases exist, and can generally be purchased, they’re just more rustic and snake-oil sounding.
*UPBs are Ulysses’ Paraphernetic Bobimathings, a famous universal construction gizmo created a decade ago by the legendary (but never seen) inventor Ulysses S. Abernathy. Any number of them is a total of 2 bulk. They otherwise work like normal UPBs.
You may select no more than one genre feat, from the list below. At 5th level you may select a second genre feat, if no one else in the campaign has taken it.
A Contact in Every Port
Benefit: In every settlement you come across, you have at least one local (at neither the bottom nor top of the social ladder) who is helpful towards you. These may be old flames, pen pals, admirers of your work, a spy network, the last citizens of the lost subterranean empire you were queen of, or whatever else you decide to define them as. Even if you abuse these allies and reduce their attitude towards you, it goes back up one step (to a maximum of helpful) every time you gain a level.
Benefit: When you are adjacent to a target in a secluded area where the target cannot see or hear any of its allies or your allies, any nonlethal damage the target takes in a surprise round before the target acts is quadrupled. If any of these conditions end you cannot use this feat again on the same target until you have gotten an attitude or friendly with the target, or if the target does not realize you are the same person when you next are adjacent to it in seclusion.
Chandeliers and Rigging
Benefit: As long as there are hanging ropes, lights, sails, rafters, trees, or similar dangling objects nearby, you have a fly speed of 30. If you end any turn not within 20 feet of a dangling object, you must land or you fall.
Benefit: Rather than suffer frightened or panicked conditions, you simply take the penalties of the shaken condition. Additionally even when confused or mind controlled, you never attack yourself or an ally unless you wish to.
Benefit: You may use your Charisma modifier (rather than Strength or Dexterity) when making attack rolls with weapons, and add your Charisma modifier (in addition to any other ability score that applies) to damage rolls with weapons.
Prerequisite: Engineering as a class skill.
Benefit: Select one technology type: cryo, plasma, sonic, untyped ranged weapons, computers, or augmentations. You can create such items using the normal Starfinder item creation rules. You also get a pool of one item per character level of such things for your personal use (which no one else can make work), but your total item levels worth of such items cannot exceed double your ranks in Engineering. You can swap out what items you have each day, but new items don’t come with full loads of fuel, batteries, or ammunition.
You can select a second category if you are 5th level or higher, and a third at 10th.
Prerequisite: Mysticism as a class skill
Benefit: You can create magic items using the normal Starfinder item creation rules (and hybrid items, if you have enough ranks in engineering for them). You also get a pool of one item per character level of such things for your personal use (which no one else can make work), but your total item levels worth of such items cannot exceed double your ranks in Mysticism. You can swap out what items you have at each new character level, or with 30 days of downtime.
Benefit: You gain 5 additional maximum Resolve Points.
Benefit: Whether you are a gunsmith, or veteran soldier, or just weirdly lucky, you almost always have access to special weapons. If you have access to your normal equipment and have not lost that since you were in a typical town, you have access to one weapon of your level, one weapon of your level -2 (if the result is 1 or more), and one weapon of your level -4 (if the result is 1 or more). You may select weapon normally only available as treasure.
These special weapons may have double the normal usages, or reroll one damage roll per combat, or have one weapon fusion it qualifies for. If you wish, you may give up one of these special weapons to instead apply an additional benefit from this list to one of your remaining special weapons. You can swap out your special weapons at a major settlement or weapon cache.
Nearly every time-period appropriate fiction works in this setting. The heroes are part of a worldwide tradition of larger-than-life figures, and after 1st level can generally expect to be accepted as noteworthy experts in the field of adventure, if nothing else.
This is a world where Sherlock Holmes is world famous and alive, secretly waging a war with Professor Moriarty and aided by Nick Carter and Inspector Donovan. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison publicly wage thought wars for scientific superiority, though Marie Curie is actually making more headway with Martian technology and Beatrix Potter has mastered the hybrid red weed the Martians brought with them. Dr. Moreau is busy with his experiments somewhere in the Pacific, Dr. Jekyll wanders the world looking for a cure, Old Shatterhand works to bring justice to the badlands, Sir Henry Curtis explores Africa (ignoring the fact people already live there), retired Otto Lidenbrock has established multiple routes to the center of the earth with his nephew Axel (though Gräuben Lidenbrock runs most of the expeditions, as her husband Axel is too afraid to make the journeys), and Professor Challenger just received his degree.
In Australia the age of the bushrangers has largely ended, though Ned Kelly still runs a group of armored outlaws seen by many as local heroes. The rapid industrialization of many of the nation’s major cities, and a growing depression, is also leading to rising nationalism, rising cries for independence, and sadly growing racism against Asian immigrants and the continent’s aborigines.
In Canada the Dominion of Canada is just a generation old, and still struggling to settle land disputes with the US and between its own provinces. The Mounties are less than 20 years old, the Yukon gold rush is strong, and there is not yes a single unified code of law for the nation.
In Mexico military hero Porfirio Díaz rules as president over a stable, growing, wealthy Mexico. He rules with the aid and advice of the científicos (“scientists”), who reject religious ideas and mysticism to focus on scientific method and the accumulation of knowledge… though the Maximillian monarchy was just a generation ago.
In Japan Emperor Meiji overseas the transition of a nation from feudal power to modern power, and though samurai have had many of their privileges removed they still exist and the last samurai conflict was within a generation.
In the United States, there are still unsettled territories, though not as many as their used to be, and while veterans of the civil war have grown rare and aged, veterans of the War of the Worlds are now common. While the Indian Wars are mostly over, the indigenous peoples have been conquered by force, smaller military conflict still occur. A Ghost Dance ritual on the Northern Lakota reservation at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, led to the Army’s attempt to subdue the Lakota but, for now, the Lakota remain present and in control of the reservation without federal interference within their borders.
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Worldbuilding can often get bogged down in big-picture questions and large-scale issues. Yes, there’s use to knowing how rivers flow from mountains to sea level, what kinds of natural barriers are likely to become borders, and how socio-economic statuses can form political lines. But those questions still just outline nations and factions. At the scale that most players are interacting with your world, it doesn’t really matter in play if the border between Heroton and Badlandia is a river, a mountain range, or a big blue dotted line that runs through a flat plain. What DOES matter to players is how those places feel and act differently while you are within them.
And for that, it’s often useful to throw in just a few little details.
If the common drink for a culturally-interlinked area is a tea just known as Steeps, maybe the people in Heroton like it strong and bitter, while the peasants of Badlandia make it weak and sweetened with honeysuckle. Elves prefer red Steeps, while human throw away the red stems as tasteless. The dwarves of Ironbeard make Steeps with weak beer to ensure no diseases remain in the local water, while the gnomes of Rillridge ferment it until foam forms on the surface which is then skimmed off.
None of that *matters*, but those kinds of tiny details, when used in sparing moderation, can help bring regions and cultures alive. Players who don’t care can wave it off, but those who enjoy engaging in fictional cultures have the option of paying attention, and offering the Big Bad of Badlandia honeysuckle-sweetened Steeps at the peace conference. And maybe he smiles, and notes he actually always preferred it strong and bitter, like his parents made it… suddenly given a new context into his background, based on how he takes his tea.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of cultural detail and, as long as you don’t load ever city with 27 things you expect players to keep track of. Adding just one or two tiny differences can help immerse players, and make regions distinctive.
Nearly anything can be made into this kind of detail, but it helps if it’s something publicly noticeable (how the Halfling war bakers of Gnabysko bless their battle muffins in secret ceremonies isn’t going to impact player perception much, unless someone is playing a Halfling war baker), minor (so players don’t feel they must remember the detail or get into cultural trouble, which can feel like homework), and relatable (details that tie into activities players understand are more easily understood and remembered—the fact there are 17 “proper” foot stances for fighting with an orroc gutting axe is interesting… but for players with no melee combat training experience it doesn’t connect to anything they’ve done).
You can also build off a detail, creating slang and cultural notes that play off the detail. This can help the detail be memorable, but it also invites the players to dream up such phrases and ideas as well.
For example, let’s say you have decided that in the Free City of Campaign, street performers put out a boot for people to toss coins into, rather than a hat or other collection device. That’s easy to work into a campaign as an observed behavior, unlikely to make any player feel they have to memorize it, and replaces a common occurrence in a way players are likely to understand.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easy to see how some local slang might develop around the tradition. “Giving you the boot” could mean firing someone, so they now have to earn money on the street, while “Earning your boot” might indicate you are good enough at some performance to make a living as a busker. Having a “hole in your boot” could indicate someone is stealing from you, and “looking in the toe” could mean you’re scrounging for every last coin (like checking the cushions of your sofa).
If players show interest in a detail, and explore it, you can build on it. Maybe the boot tradition dates back to when soldier came back from a war, and without enough work used their hard military boots to gather coins as beggars, and the tradition grew from there. Maybe there was a tax on all labor performed ‘without boots” that was designed to exclude hard workers, but street performers used this to get around it. You don’t HAVE to do that kind of background work, but if players dig around it shows they have an interest in that element of your world.
Tiny details like this should be sparing, to ensure a world remains familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it. These are seasoning for the main course of your world, rather than the entrée itself. But used properly, that kind of seasoning can elevate the flavor of your creations, and make them much more memorable.
Putting My Boot Out
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