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Saturday 3 September 2022

The Other OSR—Frontier Scum

Beyond the great frontier lies the Lost Frontier, dominated by Covett City, a teeming, bloated city of exploited masses and stinking industries, which arises out of the tarry swamps its factories pollute. Melanethon P. Murrsom, sits at the head of the Incorporation which controls this coastal city and whose influence reaches far and wide. Inland across to Sunken Hill where coffins are chained shut before burial and the dead are said to ring their grave bells still even as looters plunder the coffins that rise from the swamp. Across Carcass County where the roots of the ancient bloodgum trees have a taste for flesh. To Slackgaff-by-the-Sea in Stubbshead County, strife riven by an unpaid debt owed to the Incorporation. To frozen Dalliance in the south across the sea, where the Allied Governess rules with a love as cold as the artic wastes beyond the newly reopened silver mines that the Incorporation previously closed and claimed to have been worked out. West to Fort Gullet, an oil city where the gun rules and Marshal Betjemen Knapp and his posse of ne’er-do-wells enforce their law at gunpoint. Beyond to Palace in the Dust Barrens where the Redrum Boys, outlaws all, protect the exiles, homesteaders, bushwhackers, and deserters from Incorporation carpetbaggers, sending them packing after taking all they have on them—plus a pound of flesh—back to Covett city, even as they ensure that the hill around remain lawless. To Sickwater Oasis in the north, where the klepto-meritocratic Outlaw Union recognises only the licences it issues, otherwise killing all lawmen and bounty hunters, and hates any other legalise otherwise to the point of murder. At the edge of the Lost Frontier stretches the Western Expanse, accessible by the hellmouth of Allhallows Canyon, and beyond that lies the Scree Knives, a purgatory of slat flats where only the desperate pioneer and sanctimonious sect finds a home.

This is the setting for Frontier Scum: A Game About WantedOutlaws Making Their Mark on a Lost Frontier. It is inspired by the Acid Westerns, such as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, which twisted the traditional westerns of the twentieth century and their conservatism with the radical counterculture of the sixties. Instead of codes of honour and morality and the mythic search for justice and a chance to begin again in a land of golden opportunity, the west of the Acid Western is infused with uncertainty and loss, the landscape and its promise of renewal subverted by avarice and ambition. The Lost Frontier of Frontier Scum is not the frontier of the Wild West, nor the frontier of the Weird West—its horrors being mundane and manmade, but a frontier, almost a hallucination of a twisted frontier of its very own. Published by GamesOmnivorousFrontier Scum is an Old School Renaissance adjacent roleplaying game, inspired mechanically by Mörk Borg, in which the players take the roles of Outlaws. They are criminals and they are guilty. They did the crime they are accused of and are going to be hanged. Perhaps, if they can escape their fate at the end of a noose, then perhaps they can make their mark—pull off the biggest heist, win the biggest pot in a poker game, hit a silver motherlode, or even reap their own brand of justice—on the Lost Frontier.

An Outlaw in Frontier Scum has four stats—Grit, Slick, Wits, and Luck—which range in value from -3 to +3. He also has a pair of traits which make him stand out, a crime which he most definitely did commit and why he is wanted (dead or alive), a background which helps define starting skills and equipment, plus a bonus skill and a bonus item. He also has a canteen of water, a stolen horse, and a gun and some ammunition. Most importantly, he has a hat. This hat will save his life. Probably. So, he should keep it close. Probably wear it. Character creation is entirely randomly, except skills. These are devised by the player, though the event which inspired their selection is randomly determined. 

Windor ‘Grubworm’ Casket
A Charlatan and a Fraud
Outlaw Scum with ‘An Artist’s Soul’ and ‘Plague-Pox Scars’
Who is Wanted Dead or Alive for the Crime of Attempted Fraud

Grit -2 Slick 0 Wits +1 Luck -2
Hit Points: 2

Sympathetic Begging (lost all his stock)
Bargaining (sold some actual treasure)
Disguise Disease (you caught the Plague-Pox)

Self-Help Bible
Expensive Perfume
Tin of sixteen biscuits

Stolen Mount
Donkey (HP 2, Morale 8, slow, bad at manoeuvring)

Pocket pistol (d6)

A stiff bowler, brushed to perfection, with an emergency ten dollar note inside the hat.

Mechanically, Frontier Scum requires a simple roll of a twenty-sided die against a Difficulty Rating, the standard Difficulty Rating being twelve, with the appropriate stat applied as a modifier. The standard rules for Advantage and Disadvantage are used, the former primarily derived from a Outlaw’s skills, and each player has an Ace up his Sleeve, which can be expended to reroll any die result which is not a one or twenty. If a player rolls a natural twenty on an ability check, he has the choice of choosing an additional Ace or a new skill. (This new skill must relate to the situation under which it was rolled, up to a maximum of six skills.) However, if a player rolls a natural one on an ability check, every player loses all of their Aces! In general, Frontier Scum is player-facing, so the players roll the dice, for example, to hit with an attack or to avoid an attack rather than the Game Master rolling an NPC’s attack.

Gun combat is nasty, and shots always hit (except tricky shots which require a roll). Damage dice can explode, so characters can be killed with a single shot or hit with extra shots from fanning a pistol or slamming in more rounds from a repeater rifle! Fortunately, every good character should be wearing a hat. If a player is shot, he can ignore damage by having his hat shot off his head. Which is an entertaining emulation of the genre! Then afterwards, once the fight is over, a player can roll his character’s Luck to retrieve his hat and see if it is still wearable.

An Outlaw can take damage that reduces him to zero Hit Points, necessitating a Death Check. This can result in straight death, but it might leave him dying and losing ability points, but it could also result in the Outlaw gaining ability points! An Outlaw can also suffer one of two Conditions—Drunk and Miserable. Of the two, Drunk is the more entertaining, with the Miserable Condition either due to being skunked, rain-sodden, frostbitten poisoned, exhausted, or some other cause, which prevents the Outlaw from healing when rested until the cause is addressed. When Drunk, an Outlaw swaps two abilities at random and that is always how he reacts when drunk. It is a potentially entertaining effect, and depending on the value of the abilities swapped, could be disadvantageous to the Outlaw or advantageous.

For the Game Master there are numerous tables upon which to roll for inspiration, from ‘Scum on the Trail’ and ‘Scum on the Streets’ to ‘House Loot’, Pocket Loot’, and ‘Tomb Loot’. There is even a ‘Going on a Bender’ table, followed by ‘What Was Won’, ‘What was Lost’, and ‘Who You Owe’ tables for evening’s carousing at the saloon. There are tables of employment opportunities and bounties too, sufficient enough to provide a variety of encounters, set-ups, and developments. Frontier Scum also includes the scenario, ‘Escape the Organ Rail’, which begins with the Outlaws held aboard a black penal train being transported to their execution. Naturally linear in design—after all, the Outlaws have to fight and make their way up the train to the engine to effect an escape, the scenario is presented in car order from the Outlaws’ cells to the engine. Each car is shown in cross section rather than floor plan. The Outlaws begin play shackled together hand and feet, which should challenge the players until they find the right keys. Although Frontier Scum is intended to be a more mundane version of the Old West than the horror of the Weird West, the scenario does involve elements of the weird and horror. If the Outlaws succeed in stopping the train and escaping, there is the chance they get away with some loot, find themselves a patron, or if they want, there is an ‘Epilogue Or How To Spend 10,000 Silver’ table if they scarper.

Frontier Scum has an immediate presence. It is done as a board book, with a non-glossy, plain matte cover and no spine so that the glue binding is visible. The feeling in the hand is rough and tactile like no other roleplaying game. Inside, the black and white layout is done as a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue and it is incredibly atmospheric, pulling the reader into the setting with tight blocks of black and white, and period style illustrations. The graphic design on Frontier Scum really brings the game to life and adds so much to its atmosphere.

Imagine in 1895 if the paste up artist at Sears, Roebuck and Co., high on absinthe and laudanum, sat down to create a game of the vanishing frontier. Frontier Scum: A Game About Wanted Outlaws Making Their Mark on a Lost Frontier is what you would get, a roleplaying game of the last, dark days of desperate Outlaws surviving on a dream of the frontier turned nightmare, ravaged by avarice and ambition, and the vicissitudes of modernity and misuse.

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