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.
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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
- Physical Attributes are the most important category for nearly all cowboys.
- 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.
- The cowboy who really has a lot of those skills is probably bordering on being a genuine Working Cowboy.