rating: 0+x

I should've been a cowboy
I should've learned to rope and ride
Wearing my six-shooter riding my pony on a cattle drive
Stealing the young girls' hearts
Just like Gene and Roy
Singing those campfire songs
I should've been a cowboy

(from) Should've been a cowboy Toby Keith

Basic Information

The Cowboy is the archetypal character of The Western, perhaps the quintessential American hero. In the simplest terms, a "cowboy" is someone whose primary job is tending a herd of cattle on a ranch. The average cowboy earned approximately a dollar a day, plus food, and, when near the home ranch, a bed in the bunkhouse, usually a barracks-like building with a single open room. The term "cowpoke" may also be used, even in genre, especially for older hands for whom "-boy" might be insulting.

In more general terms, it can be any character that has the appearance and mannerisms of a cowboy. Note that many Western Characters have similar garb to the Cowboy, so some caution should be taken in placing them in this category.

Modern usage also applies it pejoratively to under skilled workers in other fields (such as "cowboy builders" or "cowboy coders").

Subtypes include:

  • Cowgirl: The Distaff Counterpart of the Cowboy. Generally a Plucky Girl in Western garb, who can ride and shoot as well as any man.
  • Dude Ranch Cowboy: A working cowboy, but whose job is to give "dudes" (tourists) a taste of The Theme Park Version of ranch life.
  • Lone Cowboy: This is the fellow who is running his own ranch often by himself on a shoestring budget, the equivalent of the Determined Homesteader.
  • Philosopher Cowboy: This is The Smart Guy who decides he prefers honest work amid the outdoors. Can come very close to the Warrior Poet.
  • Rodeo Rider: This fellow is a working cowboy on the off-season, but whenever there's a rodeo, he's off to show off his riding and roping skills.
  • Singing Cowboy: A cowboy who sings as his primary avocation. This trope is purely a product of Hollywood.
  • Vaquero: Mexican or Mexican-American cowboys. It's from them that we get the word "rodeo" and many of the events and equipment included in it.
  • Working Cowboy: A cowboy who actually has a job herding cattle and spends the majority of his time doing that job, not just an extra in The Western.

This character type often overlaps with:

  • The Drifter. A fair amount of ranch work is seasonal, and a cowboy without a solid reputation often had to go where they needed extra hands, rather than hold down a steady position. And not a few had the wanderlust.
  • The Gunslinger. Most ranches were staffed by working cowboys, but usually at least a few were "good with a gun" despite not being professional gunfighters. All of them were expected to wield a gun if the ranch was attacked (known as "riding for the brand"), loyalty was highly prized, and drifter cowboys were often suspect for this reason. If a fight was expected the boss might go ahead and hire him some gunfighters.
  • Wild West Outlaw. The Evil Counterpart of the Cowboy is The Rustler, who uses the same skills to steal cattle and horses.



Game and Story Use

  • Most campaigns in The Wild West will have lots of NPC cowboys, the descriptions above can be used to give a little more color and distinction to them.
  • Other settings could easily import the Cowboy motif. Medieval Spain actually invented the cowboy (see Vaquero). Certainly, a fantasy world could do the same, possibly with something more exotic than just Cattle to herd. Get along little hydras!
    • 2000AD had several runs of time travelling cowboys herding dinosaurs.
  • Bear in mind that for much of the "classic Western" era, a lot of these men would be veterans of the War between the States and thus potentially quite experienced fighting men.
    • Former rivalries - or allegiances - could follow them out to the West. As could other secrets - such as records of war crimes, cowardice or treachery.

Building This Character


  • Most cowboys are going to be low-level NPC extras.
  • Specific named cowboys could be of any level. Frontier life is rough, and has plenty of hard lessons to learn.



  • Riding, and Survival are the primary skills that every cowboy needs.
  • Unarmed Combat and/or Marksmanship - both are just about mandatory, but only to a basic level.
  • Additional skills they may pick up include Animal Handling, Athletics, Farming, and Rope Use.
    • Like most farmers, a wide range of practical skills can be appropriate - including craft skills such as carpentry and metal working.
    • The cowboy who really has a lot of those skills is probably bordering on being a genuine Working Cowboy.


  • Veterans may have all sorts of physical, political, social and psychological baggage from their military service - ranging from networks of old comrades to old, badly healed wounds.

"So you're a cowboy?"
"M'a cowpoke ma'am"
"But you look after cows?"
"Yup, sum'times ah do … but mostly ah jus' poke em"

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License