Series Info...Playing with History #9:

Settings, Part I: Westerns

by Michael Karlin
May 28, 2003

“Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” — Henry Brooks Adams, historian.

I don't buy into the theory that history repeats itself.

I once went to a speech given by the Polish ambassador to Canada, HE Pawel Dobrowolski. He's an incredibly articulate man, a historian by education. At this speech, he said: "History doesn't repeat itself; instead, it consists of themes that reappear as sad mimicries of their past selves." People and cultures are not the same, and as such, there are many themes in history that evolve through the times as perceptions change, but the phenomenon of history actually repeating itself is extremely rare. What on Earth does this have to do with historical fiction gaming? I'm trying to make the point, or getting Mr. Dobrowolski to make the point for me, that each time period and geographic location offers a unique game setting. You can thread a thematic strand from one setting to another, but each offers enough caveats and exceptions to spice things up.

There are many, many exciting setting opportunities for game development that are under-explored, and this irritates me. Most popular historical fiction games tend to revolve around Middle Europe. Now I don't mind Middle Europe as a setting; when performed well, it offers a time period marked by the waxing and waning of wildly different ideas that clash in great conflict. Unfortunately, many Middle European-era games tend not to really pay attention to these aspects, and that stinks.

I'm not here to rant against a certain setting; instead I am here to talk about other ones that I find interesting, and some thematic issues when dealing with them.


I want to see a proper Western.

Westerns take place in the south-west of the United States during the 1800's. The American expansion west was competitive and occurred at a rate much faster than the authorities in Washington bargained for, so frontier townships were established before a law enforcement body could assert itself. Several ingredients made this era a powder keg. Firstly was the unchecked personal freedoms and an available cache of arms, facts that made order difficult to achieve especially when the population was sparse and spread out. Secondly, many bands of natives were being displaced from their lands and they were more than happy to defend them to the death. Thirdly, political unrest and revolution in Mexico destabilized the north of the country, allowing the US to assert its influence in the region. But while the army was quite prevalent in those regions fighting native peoples and Mexicans along the border, they distanced themselves from enforcing law in the individual towns. This left the communities to try and enforce the law using local authorities, some of which were effective and some of which were not. Themes of law and criminality are acute in this era, from a societal level to an individualist one. Leading a frontier life is difficult, and turning to a criminal life was a romantic and attractive option. It's usually easier to take food by shooting the farmer and stealing it then tending to the herd or crops yourself.

Queue the music, the wind and tumbleweed and the hot, scorching sun. Now enter the cowboy.

The cowboy is the attractive anti-hero. As moving herds became dangerous business between coyotes and bandits, and makeshift law enforcement groups that lacked jurisdiction outside of their one-street town, large farms began hiring mercenaries to protect their investments. These were not kind, honourable sorts who paraded around for glory like a medieval knight. Cowboys were often societal outcasts or rugged individualists who preferred to make a living by spending inordinate amounts of time with cows then humans. Movies tend to show large armies of bandits living behind every hill, but I imagine that a cowboy's life was actually a fairly uneventful one. However, we are speaking of historical fiction, and you do have creative licence to work with.

For those who enjoy mysticism, a Western genre gives the opportunity to explore the rich native folklore and shamanism that is uniquely tied to nature and spirituality. The conflict between this and the encroaching modernism that is the East would provide a fascinating dynamic.

The merits of the Western subgenre are great. Townships were usually quite small, especially at the onset of the era. This means you don't have many rooms to design, because outdoor expanse requires fewer details than a bar-room or frontier bank. This allows you to create a large world that can still be supported by a small population that stays around the focal point of the town. It also means that players will cluster around a few key spots, nurturing the social atmosphere of online roleplaying. Secondly, you have many different character development options. Disgruntled Mexican revolutionaries, disgruntled natives, disgruntled cowboys, disgruntled bandits, etc. All have varying motivations and opportunities for advancement, while all being related in their general contempt for their lot in life. I think you might have concluded that Western life wasn't rosy.

The flaw of the Western genre as approached in an online roleplaying game is the lack of control the staff has over the player base. I'm not saying that staff should be oppressive and control all aspect of roleplaying, but some ability to sway plot themes is important for the creative staff ( la StoryPlotters) should have. but this is a time and place that places emphasis on individualism and personal freedom, so even if the staff were to play the mayor, sheriff, native chief and bandit leader (all positions that PCs should realistically occupy, in my opinion), there would be elements completely out of their reach.

The Western genre is a great one in many respects, especially for those who like to roleplay in smaller groups.

So go out and make one! I'm a bit busy.

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