True Grit. That is exactly what you’ll find in the Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier RPG by Kenzer & Company. When I first saw the beautifully tooled leather-bound tome at GenCon 2008, I was very much intrigued by the concept of an Old/Wild West roleplaying game, but unfortunately passed on the opportunity to purchase it. So, I’m borrowing a gently used copy.
It is a massive book. It has a thick, leather-style cover tooled with a Western design and comes with a 400 page count. The cover reminds me a lot of the Time Life Old West series of books published beginning in 1979, and I’m sure that’s intentional. I only have one roleplaying game book that dwarfs it. Contained within this one book is everything one needs to play the Aces & Eights game from the basic (quickstart) rules to the advanced rules, mini-games, and even A&8’s alt-history campaign setting.
The historical elements of the game are pretty dead on. The firearms are correct for the period (though, I feel I need to correct them on the fact that a Henry rifle had a 16 round capacity instead of 15) and the price of goods are pretty accurate for the period. Their alt-history, “The West that Never Was,” setting is very believable and they have realistically extrapolated the outcome of history had a few key choices/events been slightly different.
The presentation is phenomenal. The period perfect paintings (many painted by the legend Charles “Kid” Russell), prints, and photographs really capture the Old West atmosphere. The rules are actually written in a conversational tone in a style that pays homage (yet is not overwhelming) to way people spoke during the period. In fact, I think Kenzer needs to hire Sam Elliott (or a similar gravelly voiced cowpoke) to narrate an audiobook version of the rules (it’s the voice my mind read the rules with and it rocked!).
Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo
For not having a class system, the Aces & Eights RPG has a ton of rules. The character stats and generation are obviously heavily influenced by Hackmaster, Kenzer Company’s other RPG. You roll 3d6 in order as well as d100 fractional scores (percentages) for each ability score (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Looks, and Charisma).
Dexterity and Intelligence help determine Accuracy while Dexterity and Wisdom decide Speed. A characters Reputation and Fame are calculated using Looks and Charisma. Everything but Looks can be adjusted during creation either through sacrificing scores or with Build Points.
There are random generation tables for about every facet of character creation (age, place of birth, handedness, height, body mass/weight, starting cash, reasons to go west, quirks & flaws, even your skill mastery is random in some sense). There is an entire appendix for detailed character backgrounds that has 24 tables to randomly generate your family history and back-story.
Personally, I’m not a fan of random stat generation, but it would be very easy to house rule a point buy mechanic. The random background generation sounds intriguing. It would have very little impact on mechanics, but would allow for a ton of interesting roleplaying opportunities.
I did find the use of fractional scores almost completely useless. It felt like it was more of a carry-over from Hackmaster than as a meaningful element to the A&8 rules.
The combat resolution mechanic used in Aces & Eights is pretty novel and I’ve only ever seen one other game use a similar mechanic. A&8 uses a system of silhouettes targets combined with a transparent overlay. You find a silhouette that reflects the position & stance of your target, add any necessary cover (boulders, doors, barrels, etc.) and then place the shot clock overlay where you’re aiming at.
You then roll a d20 and add any modifiers. If you get a 25 or greater, you get a bullseye. Below a 15 is miss (but there are optional extrapolation rules). Any result in between means you draw a card from a standard poker deck to see where you’re deviated on the clock. You then roll damage and consult the wound charts for additional effects.
It makes for a very realistic combat encounter since you could accidentally kill someone you were only meaning to scare. The wound charts also mean that a character can effectively die from a single shot even though the damage did not exceed his hit points.
There are no rounds in Aces & Eights, only a Count Up. Every action costs a certain number of counts and movement can be tracked separately from shooting actions. Since there isn’t necessarily an action every count and combat is very deadly, the combat sequence actually plays out very quickly.
The rules are built in a modular fashion which means you only need to add complexity as your game demands it. You can actually play simple showdown shootouts without out ever needing to dip into actual character creation. A few rolls and you’re ready to skin those smoke wagons!
Mini-games are a big portion of the supplemental rules. The designers did not a single resolution mechanic approach these elements. Some of the mini-games include cattle drives, gambling, bar brawls, chases, and convincing a jury you’re don’t need to be on the receiving end of a sudden drop with a short stop.
There are so many rules packed into this book, that I’d rather not cover them here, so I plan on doing some short supplemental reviews that cover some of these other aspects and touches on the rules in depth.
The hardcover core rulebook has seen two printings, but is now currently out of print. It costs a fistful of dollars with a list price of $59.99 as of the second print. For a few dollars more (read: a LOT more), you can grab it from Amazon or eBay. According to what I have read on the Kenzer forums and from commentary across the web, I guess both runs suffered from a significant (but not overwhelming) number of books with poor binding.
The second printing updated the rules with errata and clarifications, but a font issue rendered several tables undecipherable but Kenzer did release a download for fixed tables. There wasn’t space for an index in print, but Kenzer also released a download for that.
However, most of these issues are negligible to me; it’s fact that I didn’t acquire a copy of Shattered Frontier before it went OOP that is truly unforgiven. Now, I am in full swing of a Wild West Revival and I can only get my hands on a borrowed copy! [EDIT: Kenzer just released the core rulebook in PDF form for $24.99, rather expensive for digital if you ask me).
For those interested in giving Aces & Eights a spin, you can grab a print edition of the Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontiers Player’s Guide for $29.99 or grab a PDF copy of the Aces & Eights: Showdown rules for $9.99. Or wait until later this year, Jolly R. Blackburn recently mentioned that A&7 will go to the printers for a third run.
Wild West Weeks
- Welcome to Wild West Weeks
- Wild West RPG Database
- Into the Far West
- Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier
- Deadlands Reloaded
- Red Dead Redemption
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Part 1
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Core Mechanics
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits I
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits II
- 24 Hour Old West RPG, Traits III
- Wild West Minis Database
Listening to: Ennio Morricone – The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly OST – The Ecstasy of Gold
How the West Was Won
 While the A&8 game was made available for purchase early 2007, it did not appear on my radar until 2008 when it was nominated by the ENnies for Best Game, Best Production Values, Best Rules, and Product of Year. It ended up winning the Silver Award for Best Game as well as winning Best Roleplaying Game earlier in 2008 at Origins. Aces & Eights definitely has a pedigree.
 The Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook.
 The quintessential cowboy movie star; you might know him as The Stranger from The Big Lebowski.
 Millennium’s End RPG (sic), a modern spy game by Chameleon Eclectic.
 This year it was my turn to decide the destination for our family vacation. I picked Yellowstone National Park. Having visited the park twice when I was much younger, I was taken by nostalgia that has rekindled my early childhood attraction with the Wild West. This coupled with being completely taken and engrossed by the Red Dead Redemption video game has led me to deep immersion in all things Western (Old, Weird, or Wild).
 Jolly R. Blackburn was interviewed by the Role Playing Public Radio podcast in February.