I grew up on the stories of Louis L’Amour, spaghetti westerns, and videogames like the Red Dead series and Gun (does anyone remember Gun? It was pretty good), but I haven’t played too many western themed TTRPG’s. The few that do exist tend to lean more towards the ‘weird west’ and eschew the classical western genre. Dead in the West (DitW) by Will Donelson is an exception.
DitW’s design is much more grounded in the traditions of John Ford-esque westerns. You want quick draws? It has quick draws. You want good-ole frontier know-how? That’s a central mechanic. You want horses? Horses you get. It’s a game more about general stores and cattle rustlers than floating castles and marauding hordes.
As to the mechanics of the game: well, that is going to be a sticking point for some. There is a tendency in modern game design to streamline the various checks and attributes that a player might call upon to achieve some result, but Dead in the West recalls older design principles that veteran gamers will be a little more familiar with. There was a time in the TTRPG industry that might be considered a sort of ‘wild west’ in design. Games would throw multiple systems into individual games, each meant to emulate some distinct aspect of the world the designer was trying to invoke and DitW follows this philosophy. Even the simple act of determining your cowpoke’s (adorable) core abilities is made up of disparate methods and many members of the hobby might be frustrated by the variances. For example, to determine your three main Facets, you follow the fairly standard system of rolling 4d6, dropping the lowest number, and adding the rest together; repeat for each. However, for your three Scrappin’ abilities, you roll 4d6, drop the lowest, then assign one die to each. That seems fine, except the point of both methods is to derive a modifier somewhere between -2 to +4, so it’s unclear why there are two different methods.
I realize that most designers do not have access to the same dedicated fan base or professional pool of respondents that more established companies have access to. That being said, DitW could have benefited from a little more investment in playtesting and editing. There is certainly a lot of creativity at work and some interesting design choices that deserve exploration. Fun can certainly be had with Dead in the West, if you are up for putting in a little leg work. If you want to give it a shot (pun intended) then you can pick it up at https://deadinthewest.gumroad.com or listen to a playthrough run by Donelson himself on the podcast RPG Roulette. Good luck Cowpoke.