Red Dead Online fans’ attempt to herd cattle nearly spiraled out of control

The Wild West RP server for Red Dead Online is a private community with one rule: You have to stay in character. So it was very strange for many of these players when, on Tuesday, they had to take an unusual role — a swarm of cows. Much like the cover of an Animorphs book, a group of five cowboys transformed into bovines so they could take part in a grander story.

This is the tale of the first cattle transfer on the Wild West RP server. The transfer was a massive effort to depict an actual bartering, start to finish, between two player-run businesses. No money changed hands, but the players exchanged the cows for 30 burlap bags of coffee beans and four musical instruments.

Normally, locales in Red Dead Online are owned by NPCs who hand out a bunch of Rockstar-written and -programmed quests. On this private server, player-owned and -operated companies claim landmarks around the map. Acting out their roles, these players establish trading routes, make deals, and use custom tools like shovels, axes, and loadable wagons to fully embody running a ranch in the Wild West. And ranchers always have cows, right?

Red Dead Online - one player, as a cowboy, hands the cow an apple with the caption “gives apple.” Another player, in the role of a cow, eats the treat with the caption “Eats it.” Image: Rockstar Games via LtVic

Under normal circumstances, Red Dead Online doesn’t allow you to own or manage cattle, but mods make it possible in this server. When players decided to trade their cows, they needed to escort the animals from one ranch to another in an attempt to make the transaction feel authentic and permanent. You might think playing a cow in a video game is a humble task, but it ended up taking these players hours to set up and complete.

Fans had to get wagons, guns, and server staff to manage technical issues, but more curiously, they needed volunteers to reject humanity and become cows. While mods make cow ownership possible, players only have so much control. LtVictory, who plays Varun Torino on Wild West RP, told Polygon over Twitter, “The staff could not just spawn in cows as the cows would not follow or obey commands.”

Cowboys scouted ahead to clear the trade route of enemies for the player-controlled cows. The human players, with their two legs, opposable thumbs, and manmade tools, were tasked with making sure the cow players made it safely from point A to point B, even though the cows … weren’t interested in the trip at all. “[The cow volunteers] did an incredible job regardless and didn’t make it easy on us,” said LtVictory. “When they saw gaps in the horses, they attempted to escape many times.”

There are also in-game threats to worry about, like wild animals or hostile criminals. But the players on the server proved to be the biggest threat. A player who was feeling a little rowdy gave one bovine named Sassy Cow some peyote. Sassy Cow’s player decided to lean into the role of being an extremely high, confused cow, and ran off a cliff — twice. The second time proved lethal, and Sassy Cow had to be euthanized.

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Other malicious parties tried to sabotage the entire effort, too. While server management had prepared with DDoS protection, the saboteurs still managed to knock the server down with a disconnect. The group, cows and all, had to huddle around camp and wait for everyone to return. The journey dragged on long enough that a storm descended on the players, and one player who had taken the role of a bull started charging cowboys in a panic from lightning strikes and gunshots.

But despite this, LtVic thinks that the experience was worth all the hassle. “It turned out into an even better RP scenario, so we had the unexpected camp interactions and had more time to interact with the cows and each other instead of just herding,” said LtVic. “So thanks, DDOSers.”

This first cattle run is just the start. Now that it’s been proven possible, the players will revisit the concept to try to refine and improve the process. Not every problem was a DDoS or force-fed drugs. The journey ended unceremoniously. “When we got to the ranch, we had to finalize corralling them and locking up the gate,” said LtVic. However, in doing so, they broke the fence — and the cows took their chance to flee. The hourslong journey ended with herding the cows again, loading up a wagon with lumber, and rebuilding the fence.

Every player logged off, relinquishing their cow vessels back to the standard AI. The struggle along the way, from the tragic death of Sassy Cow to the downtime spent huddled by a campfire, made the experience all the sweeter.