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Make Your RPG Westbound: An Interview with John Heffernan

You can’t deny that the Old West, Wild West, whatever you want to call it is an iconic and powerful space in the collective imagination – especially when you add “weird” to the descriptor, unleashing magic or steampunk or weirder into the setting. From Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series to Michael Chrichton’s Westworld to Firefly to Back to the Future III to Red Dead Redemption (and on!), creators have mined the Old West archetype for all its worth, and found rewarding stories.

So when John Heffernan and his friends decided to develop a custom RPG ruleset built from the ground up to accommodate firearms and using a 52-card deck of standard playing cards, it felt only natural that their setting blossomed into a fantasy world defined by the Weird West. Westbound was born. He’s Kickstarting it now, and it looks phenomenal – I can’t wait to get my roleplaying crew together and give it a go. (Which I can easily do, since the full basic game is available for free on their website!)

I spoke with John recently to find out more about Westbound, his crew of collaborators, and his company Isle of Bees. Read on to check out our conversation!

(The following interview has been edited for grammar and clarity.)

GeekDame: What captured your imagination about the Wild West and inspired you to build a new RPG setting around that concept?

John Heffernan: When we started Westbound, it was originally titled “Dust and Dragons,” because that’s what we knew would be in it. Our mission statement from the beginning was to make a high-fantasy RPG that used firearms in an organic way, without needing to buff melee weapons or nerf firearms.

Once the system was developed, that’s when we had to decide what the theme would be. There was some discussion about setting it in modern times or in a French Musketeers scenario, but we decided on the Wild West setting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it went perfectly with the system we developed, which used cards instead of dice. Drawing a hand had a poker feel, which instantly brought our minds to the old west. We quickly named the first two Sorts “The Gambler” and “The Cowboy,” and from there the setting was entrenched.

Secondly, when it comes to modern firearms, the Wild West was the first age of heroes. A time where one person could make all the difference. Its so robust for storytelling, which is evident in all the film adaptions to the setting.

GD: Introduce us to the Island of Bees. Who are the brains and hearts behind Westbound?

JH: The Island of Bees is a small team with a lot of heart. Westbound is my brainchild. I did all the designing, as well as the logistics, resource management, and recently the marketing.

The other members are largely volunteers, members of what was my D&D group at the time, although now we exclusively play Westbound. (Their request, not mine.) You’ll see them in the videos and they do a lot of editing and proofreading, not to mention being a sounding board for all my ideas.

Lastly, there are the artists, but there are too many to name all of them. Liam Maher does some of my favorite work. He’s fantastic at taking an idea and running with it.

GD: What’s your favorite part of the Westbound setting?

JH: Westbound‘s setting is largely told through the context, especially during character creation. When you make an elf, you’ll see that there is a divide between the City and Country folk and that, in a cruel industrial society, some elves will be child laborers on assembly lines for decades.

The Cael universe has a ton of details, but names, dates, and locations do little to inform a player about a world. Focusing on how the world relates to the player character will create a better feel for the world, as well as being more memorable.

As for favorite part of the setting, I would say its the goblin birthing pools. Its so weird, and disgusting, and informative.

GD: Does each player need only one standard deck of playing cards to play? How about for GMs? And do you plan to offer the custom decks you’ve debuted in the Kickstarter via your website in the future?

JH: The players and GM all have their own deck, although the GM’s use theirs a little differently. As you might imagine, playing a single character is a lot different than playing the entire world!

The custom decks and the book will hit stores as soon as every single item has been delivered to our backers. They’re our prime concern, and we’re in love with each and every one of them. If you’re looking to buy anything from the Island of Bees after the kickstarter, you would want to check in around December.

GD: Several people have mentioned Westbound‘s apparent similarity to Deadlands. Were you inspired by Deadlands in your game creation? Any broad game mechanics you want to mention that set Westbound apart from Deadlands?

JH: We constantly get messages from people relating Westbound to Deadlands. It gets irritating because the games are so vastly different.

As I’ve mentioned before, we created our system and then gave it a Western theme. We had played Deadlands before, but it never came up at all while we were designing Westbound because it was so clearly different to us. Where Deadlands is a Weird West game set in a zombie-filled USA, Westbound is a Fantasy Western set in an industrialized fantasy world.

When it comes to mechanics, its really hard to draw any similarities between Westbound to Deadlands besides the theme. Westbound‘s combat system, exhaustion system, magic system, sorts, breeds, archetypes, character creation, traits… It’s exhausting to mention all the differences, especially when our similarities come down to just Cowboys and Magic.

GD: You’re committed to offering the full game for free via your website, which is fantastic for players on a budget. Are you adding anything to the print version not available in the free rules set?

JH: The Island of Bees is all about Playing and not Paying, like the opposite of a mobile game. Westbound is a game first and a product second, which is why you can find all you need to play online. Our focus from the beginning was to make a cool game for people to play, and making money has never really been a goal, it’s just the side effect of a lot of hard work.

The full version of Westbound will include all the character creation options, visual aids, an expanded bestiary, and of course the gorgeous art. Most of all, you’ll be supporting us in making more Westbound content.

GD: Have you tucked any cameos into your setting? Who would you sneak in if you could?

JH: Westbound is filled with tons of inside jokes. We fit in a player character from our old D&D campaign which was just one of the players playing themselves inside the game. You may come across De Rock the Traveler, so I will give you a warning now about his fire-breathing elephant codpiece.

GD: Ha! Now, on to some just plain fun. What songs would pop up on your Westbound mixtape?

JH: During our Westbound games, the soundtrack of Bastion essentially plays on a loop. That being said, the song “I was the Sun, (Before it was Cool)” from the Starbound soundtrack is my go-to for rising action in any western adventure.

GD: What’s your favorite Western?

JH: Red Dead Redemption was amazing, especially in how it made you feel. I have a vivid memory of a stranger running into town and begging me for help. Aloud I yelled my horses name, “Epona!”, who showed up out of nowhere, picked me up without slowing down, and we rode off to save the poor pilgrim. It was amazing.

GD: Pooka armadillo vs. cactus dryad: who would win?

JH: When it comes to Desert Floramancy, I’m completely biased. I’ve seen what a Cactus Wizard can do first hand, and it involves the “Change Form” spell and a lot of prickly bear hugs.

Westbound has met is funding goals and several stretch goals already on Kickstarter! Head on over to back it yourself – there are 7 days left in the campaign, and tons of cool stuff still to come.

And if you’ve played the Westbound Quickstart game or a proper campaign of this game of Dust and Dragons – come back and tell me what you thought!

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