Wednesday 11 May 2022

Six-Gun Friday



Gaetano Abbondanza

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The idea of a Western FF has been bandied around for years. Warlock magazine mentioned it as a potential genre in its occasional reader questionnaires but nothing ever came of it. There is an argument to say that it would not fit comfortably into Titan but as samurai and Eqyptian-modelled pyramids found their way in there is no real reason why a cowboy setting could not be worked in somewhere or other, especially as each part of Titan has a distinct identity of its own. When Six-Gun Friday appeared in Fighting Fantazine Issue 13 I saw this as a mixed blessing: it was a brave and welcome move into hitherto unexplored territory for FF, but I personally find most Western movies pretty tedious and they are my least favourite genre. That said, I do like the stylised violence of the Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone movies as well as some of the other (admittedly wildly OTT) spaghetti Westerns, the more revisionist  later efforts like Dances With Wolves, Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Soldier Blue  and Unforgiven, and the more original efforts like High Noon. Okay, basically I don’t like the traditional ultra-macho John Wayne/John Ford/Howard Hawks cowboys-and-injuns stuff.

So, what is Six-Gun Friday about? YOU play the part of a Marshall in a small Wyoming town. (Well, that immediately resolves the “how to fit Westerns into Titan” question – the answer is to simply not bother even trying!) The bank gets robbed and YOU set out to bring the perpetrators to justice who it quickly becomes apparent are the much-feared Friday Clan, a bunch of outlaws who tick lots of Western character trope boxes: two brothers who are the sons of a preacher man (to almost quote Dusty Springfield), an ex-lawman gone bad, a tubercular medic, a train robber, and a sociopath. In your pursuit of the Fridays you travel from your hometown of Bent Reed to the rather larger Cheyenne before engaging in a final showdown on a moving train en route to Phoenix. What is interesting plot-wise is that the Background gives no indication of what is to follow. Instead, the very lengthy and thorough Background is exactly that – a background to your character’s history, and a very detailed and convincing one at that. Section 1 then opens with you winning a game of chess against your Tonto-esque sidekick Rodrigo and then the bank robbery saga unfolds from there. Rodrigo leaves the proceedings pretty much immediately (so you don’t have to contend with a FF companion’s inevitable death) and then returns near the end to play another brief but plot-helping supporting role (and he stays alive, remarkably!) As you play on and get deeper into this gamebook, you soon discover that there are many ways through and there is no true path as such. Instead, the order that you might encounter the various Fridays in based on your decisions influences how each playthrough pans out. The scope for exploration of the possible paths is considerable and the replay value is, by FF standards, far higher than usual. Some paths will prove easier than others - being a marked man or not initially tangling with enough Fridays will make things trickier – but each one has its own little nuances and some can be negotiated with a minimal Skill score, although the more combat-driven paths will need a decent Skill for you to stand a chance, particularly in fist fights as all hand-to-hand opponents have high Skill and Stamina scores. There are also two possible endings: the optimum one has you killing all six Fridays, and a rather unexpected non-win outcome can be found where you turn bad and join the Friday Clan (a nice touch of anti-hero Western tropeage there). The train end Act is particularly climactic and very cleverly designed: essentially it is a gunfight where you follow a sequence of tactical moves and options, recording your Friday kills by noting down Xs – once you have five Xs noted down (and you can get two in some sections if you pull off some better moves and/or get lucky with dice rolls) you move on to the ultimate showdown with the Friday’s leader. This part really is exciting and is much more interesting than many FF final analyses as even this can turn out in a few different ways, plus it is a true test of your decision-making in conjunction with dice rolling and your initial choice of Special Skills (ie real RPG-influenced stuff).

On which subject, the mechanics of this piece are neatly modified to suit the context. You have to choose two Special Skills from five options: Fast Draw (which means you always get the first shot off in gunfights), Tracking (self-explanatory Tonto stuff), Detection (a bit Sherlock Holmes-y), First Aid (so your First Aid Kits restore 5 rather than 3 Stamina), and Spontaneity (a kind of common sense crossed with streetwise-ness). For once, these skills are all variously useful, none are useless, and there is no optimum combination. Instead they affect how certain moments play out and/or make some incidents easier to get through. Spontaneity is the most entertaining as you come up with all sorts of ways of wriggling out of situations, sometimes in amusing ways. Obviously, Fast Draw sets you up best at the end but the others will help there too in their own ways so it pays to play through several times using different combinations just to see what happens. What does strike you on creating your character is that there is no Luck score involved – whilst this may seem anti-FF it does avoid the potential clash of Luck rolls with Special Skill use plus as there is no magical aspect here it does make sense to exclude Luck. Standard FF combat rules are only used for fist fights where you logically cannot ever kill your opponents (and there are plenty of them which is a nice Wild West touch), with unique gunfighting rules being used for weapons combat: if you are shot you Assess For Damage by rolling 1d6 and adding 3 to the result to see how much Stamina you lose (this may seem harsh but getting shot is often pretty terminal so this is realistic), whilst firing at an opponent involves Testing Your Aim by testing your Skill with 2d6 but only rolling sub-your Skill is a success so a high Skill is handy if you go down the gunfighting route (and you have no choice at the end). A final unique rule is your choice of Primary Firearm: there are two to pick from, either a Colt .45 (-1 from the total when Testing Your Aim as it’s pretty accurate) or a Smith & Wesson .45 (+2 to total when Assessing Damage as it’s pretty lethal). Again, both weapons have their uses and neither is a better or worse choice. Finally, as Provisions would make little sense in the Old West, you have four First Aid Kits which each restores 3 Stamina (or 5 if you have the First Aid skill). You may argue that surely if time has moved on so has medical effectiveness, but getting shot can happen quite a bit in this adventure and there is only so much patching up of bullet holes that you can realistically do, so this makes sense too. An interesting point to note here is that this is one of the small number of FFs that defines exactly who you are down to your name: you are called Mathew Slade (which also defines you as male). I don’t have a problem with this (most Marshalls were male) but taking another name can be slightly distancing from it being YOU who is playing the lead role and I’d imagine the gender thing is off-putting for female players. Setting you as male though does help some of the interactions with female NPCs work properly and it is what it is.

NPCs play a huge part in this adventure and it is very dialogue-driven, which is something I like. The dialogue feels like it is from Westerns and the various characters you meet are all very suited to the theme. In fact, the whole package is very well written and feels very authentic – the author must really understand and a have a fondness for the genre. Generally very long sections add to the sense of a slightly ponderous sweaty Western movie and work well in context. With this though comes the effect that this is quite a mature piece due to some of the language and concepts (prostitutes, etc) and it is certainly not for younger audiences (I did say I favour 15 and 18 certificate Westerns!) Alongside the emphasis on talking is an emphasis on driving the plot and the pacing in this piece is excellent as it builds to a heart-pulsing conclusion. It feels fast-moving and never lets up to the point where it is hard to put it down or find a suitable break point if one is needed. As there are many plot strands, Codewords are used very effectively here and I’m not a fan of these generally but here it helps keep things logical and in order without having hundreds of sections to work with. The fact that most of the Codewords are desert snakes adds to the atmosphere and the sense that the Fridays are bad news. A couple of the Codewords also have an ominous effect, quite clearly telling you that you are a marked man, which surely is not going to end well. One structural point which does alienate this somewhat from FF (and gamebooks generally) is that there is only one item to be found and even then it is far from essential (but it is at least another nice Western trope – a bottle of sarsaparilla bitters!) Curiously, the lack of items to collect barely had any impact on my playing experience so it obviously is not an issue, plus why would you collect items when you are tracking outlaws? Information and help is what you need here and you get these in spades from all the dialogue and run-ins with various people. It is worth mentioning that you never need to reload your gun (John Woo would approve) and I feel that needing to track and conserve your ammo would have been a neatly nuanced mechanic as you can otherwise just fire rounds off all over the place with no thought for the fact that keeping at least six bullets for the end might be prudent. It is a minor niggle, but it is there all the same, especially as gunplay is a big feature of this effort and there is no other inventory to have to manage bar your four First Aid Kits.

This brings me to difficulty. I have already said that a high Skill is a definite advantage, but a player with rock bottom Skill can still win if they are a bit more careful in which Special Skills and weapon they choose. A low Stamina though will give you no chance as getting shot will always do at least 7 points of damage, you can only ever restore your Stamina four times with First Aid Kits, and there are very few opportunities in the text to regain Stamina. Plus opponents are generally pretty strong (as they should be to survive n this environment). But then, as I have already said, getting shot is often fatal and survival of the fittest was a fact of life in the Old West, so this is realistic rather than just unreasonably hard. The fact that some paths are less dangerous than others though does make each playthrough either easier or harder depending on what path you find yourself following in conjunction with Special Skill choices.

I am often quite brutal in my criticism of the internal art in Fighting Fantazine’s mini-FFs. Some have had genuinely excellent art that sat well alongside the main series of books and their benefit of far higher publisher’s budgets. Others had amateurish rubbish that had such a detrimental effect that the adventures would have been better off without any internal illustrations. Massimiliano Amadesi (no, I don’t know who he is either but I’ve found a YouTube video of a comic book art exhibition he put on in Bologna a few years ago so I suppose he must be known for that) created the internals for this piece and I do rather like his thick-nibbed heavily-inked art. It definitely captures the look and feel of a Western and it is neither fussy nor sparse. His saloon scenes have lots of nice detail and he draws characters in a caricatural way that suits the stereotypes of the genre. I have just one gripe: the image for section 185 is from someone else’s perspective (unless you are having a pre-hanging out of body experience) as you are in it! The ‘Zine’s covers always carry the colour art for the given issue’s mini-FF and the dusty desert image by Michael Wolmarans (better known to many as Mike Tenebrae) for this adventure is very good indeed. The hand of cards sat front and centre shows a really effective summary of the feel of the adventure and the whole image overall is hugely effective.

I have briefly mentioned the lengthy sections full of Western flavour and the author’s obvious understanding and appreciation of the genre, but it is also very apparent that Gaetano can really write. The prose is excellent, the atmosphere is full-on, every character has their own personality and unique-ness (many also have motives for why they are where they are and why they are doing whatever they are doing, especially the girls), the pacing is perfect, and there are not even any obvious errors (neither textual or structural).

Overall this is a really classy and highly original effort in a whole new territory for FF to branch into. Given the real world setting and the adjusted mechanics there is the question though of whether this is really FF. Arguably it is not, but it is a cracking little adventure anyway and a good gamebook is a good gamebook regardless of the system. There is even a useful Afterword tagged on the end explaining the historical elements and adding even more context. And on top of all this, the title itself is very clever: there are six members of the Friday gang and everyone carries six-shooters. An excellent gamebook that should be played over and over again to discover all the different threads and path variations. This is potentially the absolute best of the ‘Zine’s mini adventures.