Words by David C. Obenour
Nothing lasts forever. Seasons come and go. Trails meet and part. You knew this had to end eventually. Just weren’t expecting it to be so soon. Doc has some pills and elixirs for it but the way he rambles on about them you wonder if either is much better than what they are supposed to treat. Well, ease. Not treat. Doc was clear enough about that. No real treating. But none of this is what is eating away at you. Not really, anyway. It’s those damn Death Brothers. After what they’ve done.
In Cowboys with Big Hearts, you and a few other fatalistic chuckaboos from out at the tent city are off on one final mission. Can you do it? Maybe yes. Maybe no. No harm in trying to right that last wrong. All that’s left is harm anyway. Giving and receiving it.
Off Shelf: You mentioned three medical journals as the inspiration for Cowboys with Big Hearts, how did you come by them and what about them was so particularly inspirational for this game?
Jason Morningstar: I’m always nosing around in history and looking at primary sources, and games often assert themselves there. A long time ago I had a job that required me to dig through old medical journals, so I knew they were a rich source of weird and terrible material. In the case of Cowboys with Big Hearts, I started with the idea and was confident that I could find sources to both solidify my framework of diseases and treatments, and to make them feel real.
OS: Starting with the passages that you instruct players to read aloud, you maintain an in-character tone for the entire manual. Why did you make this choice and what effect do you think it has on crafted the world?
JM: This was an experiment! I think it works. What I wanted was for the characters to seem like they had a little agency, like pushing them hard was a personal affront. I think it was the right choice for the project, since the florid language of the time really sells the situation and that would sound a little stilted coming from a cool remove.
OS: Where did you find inspiration for this writing style? Do you have any favorite examples that helped to craft and guide it?
JM: I love old literature as much as I love old journals and newspapers. So while I can’t list specific inspirations, reading a lot of 1870-1900 sources just gives you the ability to mimic the cadence and tone and word choice of the time. You can’t read “Lydia Sherman: Confession Of The Arch Murderess Of Connecticut : Bloody Deeds Perpetrated With A Cold Heart, Numerous Poisonings, Trial And Conviction” without picking up a thing or two, stylistically. Mary MacLane’s “I Await the Devil’s Coming” is a great read from late in this period. Any newspaper in this period is boiling hot garbage full of lies, and just wonderful to read and absorb.
OS: The importance of hats and horses are well-known maxims of the American West. Can you talk more about that? From what you read and researched, did it hold true?
JM: You can think of a horse like a car throughout American history, certainly. I think the hat thing is a little overplayed, and “cowboy hats” was not really a thing, but it’s a great roleplaying hook.
OS: You have some rich archetypes you’ve created as the available chuckaboos. What were your considerations in the characters you presented? Were there any particular figures – from myth or legend – that you had in mind behind them?
JM: I am not a big fan of the Big Myth of the American west, and wanted to use the character archetypes to throw sand in the gears of anyone who came to the game determined to relive it. So there’s a Jewish character, a mixed race character, any and all of them can be women. I hope it is freeing. I wasn’t really thinking about particular people or historical inflection points, but broadly I hope they reflect reality a little bit.
OS: Many of the medicines found in a character’s “black bag” reference how addictive they were. While players can certainly tell their stories as they see fit, was addiction ever a consideration for gameplay in Cowboys with Big Hearts? Is there a reason why you decided to not lean into that?
JM: You’re right, most of these products are really hair-raising in their particulars. I think that’s obvious, and it is an obvious choice to make a character who is addicted to one or the other, and that’s something for a group to sort out themselves, since not everyone wants to play with that topic. The game works fine without it – you’re dying, who cares – but it also works well with it.
OS: The way you have players choose The Outrage they are looking to right is a really genius way of helping the group set the tone and rails of the story they are about to tell. I was wondering if you could talk more about how you came up with that and what you see as its strengths?
JM: Giving the players the opportunity to edit the game a little by removing stuff they are not interested in, or would find traumatic to deal with, is just an expression of love and trust. I’d hope that any group would do this – I’m just helping by making it ”the rules”. I think it is an evolution of how I think about safer play generally.
OS: Having players start by each selecting and then leading a chapter based solely on title is a really interesting concept. With only a few words to hint at the narrative that will unfold, what were you looking for when naming these?
JM: Three things, I think – first, some just need to be really evocative and strange and we can trust in apophenia to do the work of meaning-making. Second, some need to be hyper-specific to give the players crunchy bits to work with – place names, people names. Third, just as with the selection of chuckaboos, it is a chance to make a statement about the setting. It takes place in Chiricahua territory, so I didn’t want to erase the Chiricahua. They exist, they have agency, they are not some faceless bad guy – all based on how they show up in chapter titles.
OS: Oftentimes I would imagine the awkwardness of launching into chapters – particularly the first – would prove the highest hurdle. What advice would you give a new player of Cowboys with Big Hearts as they start the narrative before the rest of the table is able to chime in with scene building support?
JM: You’re right, this sort of game leans very heavily on player creativity and initiative. My best advice is to be really obvious and go really big. Start a scene in media res. You’re supposed to be chasing the Death Brothers, so start by chasing the Death Brothers. Don’t worry about pacing – the Death Brothers can take care of themselves. I once played a game where we killed them in the first scene. Guess what happened next?
OS: What do you think are the best types of supporting questions or suggestions for the other players to offer the player who’s building their chapter?
JM: Be a fan! Compliment them on how cool their ideas are. Any time they say “this guy…” or “this place…” chime in with “you mean Virgil Anderson? You mean Horseblood Gulch?” – make it feel real, and help them with the specifics if they want to accept your offers. If you get the chance to add something, make it complicated and tie it to a chuckaboo. “Is that the cousin who visited you at Sunny Slope?” “Didn’t you get run out of Horseblood Gulch?”
OS: Set back East with its own Outrages and Chapters, No Horses Welcome is a fun additional way to storytell within the world of Cowboys with Big Hearts. Are there other supplements or stories you’d like to explore yet?
JM: I feel like I could extend Cowboys with Big Hearts in lots of directions. It’s a time and genre I really like, and mashing up the relentless revenge-fueled picaresque with unusual places could be really fun. Send ‘em on the Grand Tour of Europe. Send ‘em to Alaska in ‘98. If the demand is there I will be glad to write them!