(Full disclosure: I know this game's author. This is not an objective review. I am positively disposed to both F. Killian and Stone Dark Bruceman Games)
|art by F. Killian on instagram.|
Bone Orchard Gospel is a roleplaying game set in another world's Old West, on a continent settled by colonists who believe the lands they came from have been destroyed by their god. It is a horror game, in the sense that there is fear and woe, but not in the sense that players should expect werewolves or pod people.
The book is around 100 pages, written and illustrated by indie creator F. Killian. In setting out a world and a system, Killian keeps a utilitarian style, trusting to the content and the art to communicate the mood. These pieces do create a singular effect, though some will no doubt find them jarring. While the interior is well-printed, my copy's cover had notable pixelation. While this is no worse than some spot art in my copy of Gardens of Ynn, it is something I hope would be fixed in later printings.
The book is well laid-out, and I found it easy to reference during play. However, while the book is available in PDF, I find that format worse than usual for this book. The text, while ordered properly and with effective header placement, feels like a long bloc when viewed on a laptop screen. After a few pages of foreword, Killian offers about 20 pages of background on the land of Ludt. Much of this is an overview of the two religious sects that define the canonical enmities of Ludt, Jasperism and Miterism. The minutiae of these faiths, and of demography, society, and mores are not covered. Instead, the Judge (GM) is told to run Ludt in the way they see fit. Instead of reading an in-depth restatement of the American West, you are told that Jasperites have patron saints of inquisition, mercy, and colonialism.
The Rules (Troopers, Vaqueros, and City Men)
|art by F. Killian on instagram|
The rules for character creation and play are shorter than even this brisk overview of the world. In addition to a concept (such as "train robber" or "town doctor") PCs spread points among four features: Gumption, Civilization, Grit, and Learnin'. To test their ability, they roll a number of d6s equal to twice their feature and try to get multiples of the same number. So if you're trying to, say, gun down a rival pistolero, that might be a "match 4" check. You would roll twice your Grit score and try to get four of a kind on the roll.
This turns out to be really hard, so when you really need to succeed you can "copper a feature," rolling extra dice at the risk of getting an equivalent penalty should you fail. In running the game I learned that coppering frequently can be essential to player success, which also means that there is constant risk of shattering a character's confidence when they fail.
Each weapon has its own damage table. This is the most amusing part of the book, where dreadfully lethal armaments are graced by illustrations of violence and distress. Whenever you roll on these tables, you always have at least a one-in-six chance of dying outright.
It is around here that we are greeted with this instruction:
In respecting that, I will simply say that there are three one-shots which can be played in series, as well as a short story set in Ludt. I ran the first one and it is excellent. All three contain elements of horror in the form of terrible consequences which, while the party may avert them, are on track to come down hard without being telegraphed obviously. In play as I narrated the epilogue of the one-shot (or "Yarn"), the players grew quiet and serious. It was heavy. It weighed on them. And I knew that while I hadn't expected them to avoid the final consequence of the adventure, it was something totally possible. This final effect was something I have not achieved in many games, and in my mind excuses the minor oddities you find in any indie product.
The short fiction piece, "A City Man", is excellent, but beyond this review's scope. I will say I like full-on fiction at the end, as in Bone Orchard Gospel, rather than in the front, as in what I've read of Vampire the Masquerade.
Bone Orchard Gospel is not an OSR game, but it features a some of the best features of that movement. Character creation is smooth, gameplay simple. Combat is deadly and smart play is rewarded. The example yarns prove good examples for how to tell horror stories in a roleplay setting, where failure and misery is the river of the world.
I would recommend this game to people entranced by the art, those looking for unique and simple resolution mechanics, folks who want a good game for one-shots, and fans of Dark Tower, True Grit, or Dogs in the Vineyard.
I would not recommend this game to those looking to run a long campaign or pulpy adventure, to people who would only be interested in the PDF, to those who don't want to own games which mention horrible themes, or to people who own fewer than eight d6s.
Bone Orchard Gospel can be purchased on DriveThruRPG. Currently, only the PDF is available through tat seller, but the paper copy is available elsewhere for around $15.