Running Westerns

Despite the deep shadows cast by the placement of gothic buttresses in my very soul, I love the sun-baked elegance of classic westerns, and the dust-caked brutality of revival westerns.  Like many, I feel that the west is a rich source of material for long-term roleplay, and like some, I see no real need to stray far from real history in order to mine that material. I am not a fanatic on this issue, and if a fictional setting can be more easily and compellingly transformed into our game world than an historical one, I am all for that. It appears, however, that the fence on which I sit has room for very few bony asses like mine. In fact, there seems not only to be a great divide between those who want their Wild West RPGs to be ‘weird’ and those who want them to be westerns, but those who want to use or ignore actual history.

Dealing with historical fences:

The last western I ran, using Kenzer&Co.’s impressive Aces & Eights, was built on the basic themes of ‘family ties,’ ‘the transformative power of revenge,’ and the ‘lure of opportunity.’ For ease of adoption, we set the game in the Crucible,  and were thankful to have the setting material provided for us as a starting point. None of us had time to dig up and assimilate period information and agree on it all.

If I had been setting this game up to run with western aficionados, I would probably have set it in a fictional community or county of my own, in an otherwise real world the details of which, they – like me – would already be aware. I would have avoided making the primary setting be a famous historical location filled with renowned exploits and colorful characters, unless both the players and I laid out some pretty clear guidelines on what role history was to have in the game. As has been beaten to death in many articles, we can play spectators to history in our own lives, we don’t need to do it in our imaginary ones as well.

To my mind, the issue is as simple as recognizing how much time the group has to familiarize itself with a setting, and what information delivery methods for that setting are available to them, and balancing that with how much interaction with history and its great events and figures is desired by the group. I find it helpful that if this balance is off at first, it is easy to adjust as the game moves along. It’s simply a question of degree.

Preparing Compelling Tales of the West:

The first western I ran was done using Boot Hill… a long time ago. Suffice it to say that it was predicated on the idea of massive egos plus deadly force minus accountability and the theme – being kind – must have been survival of the fittest. Apparently, no one was fit, for by the end of the first story – such as it was – all the original characters were dead. Although this campaign never left the first town, the characters actions, and the common interpretation of proper behaviour in the West by the players led me to recognize then and there that I would have to be careful plotting the rest of the campaign… if it survived past all the noon-time gunfights. For a small town, it could have used more than one high noon per day.

Once you have set the tone and location, and agreed on the role of history and historical figures in the setting, the next stage is the theme. While I am open to a lot of alteration on other elements, I think a frontier setting so packed with elements of change, exploration, and challenge, not only needs strong themes to do it justice, it demands it in a loud and forceful voice. In a Time Magazine article dated July 4, 1955 an attempt at raising the American public’s view of the western was made in a piece called Cinema: Le Western, by referencing the views of foreign movie critics:

There are eight “great themes” for westerns, according to Critics Jean-Louis Rieupeyrout and Andre Bazin. whose book, Le Western, ou le Cinema Americain par Excellence, is the most exhaustive of the new studies. The big themes (based on a study of 150 westerns): 1) the birth of a nation, 2) gold prospecting, 3) the frontier and the great plains, 4) the linking of east and west, 5) men and beasts, 6) the War of Secession, 7) Indian warfare, 8 ) representative westerners.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,807299,00.html#ixzz1APgXY5Z8

While to my eyes these themes read more like setting elements, the recognition of the influences these archetypal backgrounds have  on a setting lead one’s thoughts unerringly through the wasteland of story conceptualization, to the lush pastures of a full campaign. Yeehaw.

Reese’s Zombies

For numerous reasons, not the least of which is long-standing tradition, the western has no problem whatsoever getting in bed with the more mature, but no less critically problematic, ghost story. It is hard to deny that some of the best films in the genre combine the classic ghost story with life on the frontier. The number which go farther into the supernatural than this dwindles significantly. Unlike when deciding on the degree to which history will play a role in your game, deciding on the inclusion of supernatural forces beyond the perceptions of the poorly-lettered townsfolk, is a decision from which there can be no recovery… unless you employ a mechanic which either introduces or removes the mystical from the setting in its entirety. The wheel has to turn for somebody.

Does this mean that one should not mix one’s supernatural with one’s westerns? Of course not. I trust we all know better than that. That said, it does bear mentioning that what this does mean, is that it is very, very easy to screw this mixture up, leaving you with ectoplasm all over your six-gun and not much else to show for it. Keep your powder dry, son. Keep your powder dry.

As that which does not kill us either makes us stronger or cripples us, I encourage people to push their own boundaries and try things which are hard. If you end up crippled, your tragic tale can be recycled in blog entries everywhere as a warning to others. If you succeed…? Magic happens! It’s a classic win-win.

If I were to consider running a more supernaturally populated western, such as Deadlands, I would approach it from the point of view that there are two periods available to both the players and the characters. The first period is the discovery phase where all the world is new, and the second is the phase where the secrets are out and have to be dealt with. As with all games with broad options for play, I find myself most often recommending a strict vision of what is and is not to be a part of things. I do not mean the GM simply deleting a host of options, although that may be necessary or the best option in a lot of situations, but in any case, the group – before play begins – should have a tacit agreement or understanding of what they are going to play. Especially once the player discovery phase is over this becomes extremely important. Roleplaying ignorance is about as much fun as trying to survive as a new character in Boot Hill with a maxed-out reputation as a gunslinger, or worse – roleplaying awe while Divas Mal trounces Caestus Pax under a Storyteller who thought that oh-so-infamous section was about doing that.

Again, it is a matter of degree. Although there may be a huge variety of options, critters, and forces at work in the setting, and while you may actually have included all of them in your setting, it is not required that they be involved in all, some, or any of your plots, and it can give the setting greater endurance if characters never encounter, or never realize they have encountered elements beyond those they have uncovered themselves. While not as necessary as when running a game like Call of Cthulhu, this form of controlled focus is a very necessary tool to keep stories moving, player directed, and ensure they have some form of impact and reward.

Final Thought~?

Simply this: try it – you just might like it.

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