Frontier Scum: a review & retrospective

I legitimately don’t even know where to start.

I guess I’ll start with full disclosure: I was a playtester and unofficial dev consultant for the game, editor for the book, and scribe of the third-party license. I also happen to be friends with the designer.

Frontier Scum. Written & designed by Karl Druid. Setting text by Brian Yaksha. Additional art by Chalkdown, Skullfungus, and Michał Gotkowski. Published by Games Omnivorous. © 2022 Den of Druids.

Since starting this blog and getting work in RPGs, I told myself I would never review a project that I worked on. But after about 10 minutes of actually holding Frontier Scum in my hands, I broke. It’s simply too great a book and game for me to not write about.

This obviously totally unbiased review explains why I think it’s a remarkable book that contains a remarkable game. If you buy Frontier Scum, it won’t benefit me financially in any way, so I don’t see this review as a significant conflict of interests. It’s also an opportunity for me to share some behind-the-scenes tidbits from Frontier Scum’s lifecycle that might otherwise remain hidden and ultimately be forgotten.

Let’s ride.

Acid Western

Frontier Scum is not a Weird Western, a genre that bakes the strange and supernatural into the setting and system. The Lost Frontier is, at its baseline, a pretty mundane place; the intention—as with any good story—is that the strange and surreal are the source and driver of individual adventure plots rather than common occurrences in everyday life.

For example, the stat blocks in the core book encompass wild animals and everyday people. Some of these, like the cassowary or the leadsworn knight, add an unusual twist to standard Western stock, but they’re not supernatural or monstrous.

Prior to publication, Karl was encouraged to include some actual monsters in the book. He resisted, arguing that if he included goblins (for example), people would assume goblins are a common and accepted component of the setting; those were the sorts of assumptions he wanted to avoid. Instead, Karl stayed faithful to his source material and target genre: the Acid Western.

Acid Western is a film genre that emerged in the later part of the 20th century. It departed from previous Westerns’ romanticized notion of the Old West and instead explored dark, subversive, and existential themes.

Frontier Scum does away with the Old West entirely but keeps the dark, subversive, and existential. The Lost Frontier is entirely non-historical—just set in an analogous technological period—but it’s defined by very real historical issues: unbridled greed, human suffering, and brutal struggle against both nature and an unjust society.

Writing

Brian Yaksha’s prose delivers these motifs beautifully, in a way that only Yaksha can. (If you’ve also read CY_BORG, you’ll know exactly what I mean.) The Lost Frontier’s locales—which include scorching badlands, carcass-filled forests, frigid wastes, and everything in between—all have their own unique character, but they’re all united by the setting’s persistent pessimism and hostility. After reading the lore, you’ll never forget that it is an uncaring world in which the odds are always stacked against the PCs.

This NPC is a pun on my Discord username (DogQuixote) and a malicious personal attack. I guess that’s what I get for sassing Karl about his bootleg Mörk Borg classes. Image © 2022 Den of Druids, used with permission.

The book’s initial grim mood is balanced by the instructional text’s irreverence. Humor is rife in Frontier Scum, and you’ll find it in the random tables, the instructions themselves, and even the illustrations. But it never clashes with the overarching dark tone; the two complement each other to create a very absurdist feel.

The incidental humor also makes an important contribution to gameplay. It accommodates gamers’ common natural instinct to crack jokes to lighten tension, making the game more fun rather than merely a bleak deathcrawl.

System

Frontier Scum started out as a Mörk Borg hack called Doomdeath Gulch. It quickly and significantly developed beyond that origin, but the chassis is still recognizable: a light, d20-based system with four base stats (Grit, Slick, Wits, and Luck) that range from -3 to +3 at character creation. Mechanically, that’s more or less where the familial resemblance ends and Frontier Scum’s innovation starts.

The game borrows Into The Odd’s auto-hit mechanic for firearms (except on difficult or tricky shots). Damage on some firearms explodes, so if you roll max damage, you get to roll your damage die again, nicely simulating fanning a revolver’s hammer or getting multiple shots off with a repeater rifle.

Ammunition is an abstract resource that takes up equipment slots. Frontier Scum folds the resource die into the damage roll; if you get a 1, you lose a slot of ammunition. So exploding damage, firing both barrels of your shotgun, and dual wielding are more effective in combat but incur proportionally greater risk of depleting ammo.

It’s a far cry from the early playtests where ammo was a discrete, scarce resource, and you had to roll to hit. As a result, we refused to use our firearms because our ammunition was so precious, and the revised mechanics make for much greater gunslinging fun.

Some items give characters damage reduction, a la armor, but Frontier Scum’s primary “armor” is hats. If a PC is hit by an attack, they can ignore damage and instead have their hat shot or knocked off their head—an outstanding example of how mechanics can contribute to the feel of a game. At the fight’s conclusion, the player can roll Luck to retrieve their hat and see if it survived the shot or blow.

Outlaw scum can also get out of tight spots with their Aces. Spending an Ace lets the player re-roll a single die. But whenever any player rolls a natural 1 on a check, everyone loses all their aces, which motivates players to remember and use them. Whenever a player rolls a natural 20, they can choose to gain an Ace, or they can learn a new skill.

A gentlescum is never without their hat. Unless they’re dead, of course. Image © 2022 Den of Druids, used with permission.

In Frontier Scum, skills give you advantage on relevant rolls, but there is no skill list; players make up their own. Character creation provides tables of prompts or scenarios (some generic, some based on character background), and you decide what skill you learned in (or used to get out of) that situation. When a player chooses a new skill after rolling a 20, it will likewise be something relevant to the action taken. Selecting the Ace or the new skill allows players to choose between short-term or long-term benefits for their stroke of good luck.

Another great mechanical addition to the game is conditions. There are two base conditions: Drunk and Miserable. (And, of course, the simplicity of conditions allows GMs to invent and use their own as appropriate.) When a PC drinks enough to become Drunk, they swap two of their ability scores; this can be fun to roleplay and may also become a strategic asset for some characters. Miserable is always followed by a qualifier (cold, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, etc.) that determines how the PC can end their misery (sit by the fire, drink some water, get some sleep, etc.), but until then, they don’t regain HP from resting.

If a PC falls to 0 HP or lower, they’ll make a drop or a death check for nonlethal and lethal damage, respectively. Failing a drop check simply means the character falls unconscious, but death checks are much more nuanced. There’s a chance the damage will kill them outright, but they’re more likely to receive a mortal wound that will kill them in minutes, hours, or even days. Not only does this keep players in the game, but it’s yet another fun opportunity for roleplay.

There’s also a slight chance that the brush with death will improve one of the PCs’ core abilities. This is actually one of the only three ways PCs can improve; the others are gaining skills and Frontier Scum’s extremely entertaining take on Troika!’s carousing procedure, “Going on a Bender,” which can become an entire adventure in itself.

This isn’t a comprehensive overview of the entire system or the book’s contents. Everything in it, from character creation to odd jobs and loot tables, are all intentional and well-crafted. But the topics in this section are the key reasons I think Frontier Scum stands out as a fresh and entertaining game.

Player Materials

Frontier Scum’s player-facing materials consist of a character sheet and a reference sheet. The character sheet is intuitively laid out and makes it easy to track where your gear is, conditions you’re suffering, and everything else about your character—and that’s only half the single-side page. The other half is your horse sheet, letting you quickly reference your mount’s stats, strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, etc.

The reference sheet contains literally every mechanic and procedure the player will need (and it’s very handy for the GM as well). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: every RPG needs this sort of reference sheet to facilitate quick, easy play.

The reference and character sheets are both straightforward but also extremely stylish. And that brings me to…

The Book

You can’t truly appreciate the full experience of Frontier Scum until you hold the book in your hands. It is a marvel.

The covers are the material used for hardback books, but it’s been left uncovered and directly printed on. The effect is a striking, very rustic appearance unlike any other RPG manual I know of. Photographs do not do it justice.

The cover design is one of several that Karl played around with. It’s the one I initially liked the least, but it’s the one Karl liked most, and in the end, I have to admit that it’s grown on me. Although it doesn’t jump out at you, the images do convey a sense of the game’s deviation from the typical historical Western or Weird Western.

The cover also prepares the reader for what they’ll see inside: the supermajority of the core text is laid out like a publication from the 1800s (Karl bought and scrutinized a reprinted Sears catalog for instruction and inspiration), right down to grid and typographical choices, and the visual distressing simulates a sense of age and wear. The in-world advertisements are one of my favorite compositional elements in the entire book, and they’re also a chief purveyor of the setting’s black humor, but the whole thing is very playfully and entertainingly self-aware.

With a few artpunk exceptions, the core text is all laid out like a publication from gun-and-hat times. Image © 2022 Den of Druids, used with permission.

The major part of the book that deviates from this presentation is the introductory adventure. “Escape the Organ Rail” instead uses a very clean, uncluttered, and user-friendly presentation. Chalkdown’s visual strategies are direct descendants of “Rotblack Sludge,” but he doesn’t simply mimic Johan Nohr’s work there; he skillfully adapts it to the content.

Since the adventure is linear (literally on rails), the train cars are presented in order, and since PCs can only move forward or backward, there’s no need for flipping several pages at a time. (The only exception is if PCs decide to climb onto the roofs, which is handled at the start of the adventure.) The abstracted map runs along the bottom of each page, and Chalkdown fills space by illustrating each and every car in appropriate and expressive detail.

“Escape the Organ Rail” departs from the rest of the book’s visual style in the interest of clarity and usability. Image © 2022 Den of Druids, used with permission.

The adventure itself cleverly inverts the train-heist trope so common in Westerns and their derivatives. But moreover, the conflict demonstrates Karl’s vision for Frontier Scum adventures: things seem fairly normal until they suddenly become very, very bizarre.

The exposed binding is both stylish and highly practical.

All of this content is contained in just 64 pages held together by an exposed binding. Besides being aesthetically appropriate, the exposed binding is extremely practical. Frontier Scum simply opens and lies flat with no effort—no weighting down pages, no cracking the spine. The uncoated paper is light enough that it barely arches but heavy enough to be sturdy without being stiff. Flipping through this book is as effortless as swiping through digital pages on a phone or tablet.

Visually and materially, this is one of the most creative and well-crafted books I’ve ever seen.

Conclusions

Frontier Scum the game and Frontier Scum the book are probably the most exciting RPG product I’ve come across since Mörk Borg and Mörk Borg. Its concept and lore inspire ideas without pinning GMs down with unmanageable detail; its mechanics are simple but robust, and it supports players with useful materials; and its visual and physical presentation align with its setting to create as much of a sense of immersion as is possible in printed documents.

Frontier Scum was a labor of love, and it shows at every level from game design to materials. If you’re looking for a fun game, an engaging artbook, or both, then this belongs at your table and on your shelf.


You can get Frontier Scum direct from Games Omnivorous while supplies last. Physical copies will also be available from various retailers in Europe and the US, and digital copies are available on DTRPG. You can find more third-party content under the frontier-scum tag on itch.io. The official website also has downloadable sheets and various other resources.

Liber Ludorum is entirely reader-funded. Please consider lending your support.

Or if you really like Frontier Scum, consider purchasing my third-party adventure The Bark Witch of Carcass Country.

Recent posts

2 thoughts on “Frontier Scum: a review & retrospective

  1. Brilliant review of a brilliant game and product. Couldn’t agree more on the praise. Can’t wait to play the crap out of this.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: