Dust, Westerns and kreplach
I don’t like Westerns.*
OK, that’s not quite true (put down those carbines, Cole Long and Ken Hite) – it’s really just the cliches of Westerns I don’t like.
Oh, really? You don’t like cliches? Well, actually it’s the cliche ecology of Westerns I don’t like. I love me some steely-eyed preachers if they show up in the ghost-haunted Philippines or Interzone; I’m OK with vodou-loa-busting gunslingers. I can even bear a posse if it consists of Makassarese pirates and spirit mediums. Shift the basically-Western narrative to Barsoom and I’m delighted. But the Western has worn such a deep groove through its own ingredients that my eyes just glaze over if a new sheriff rides into town and a posse rides out and a steely-eyed preacher spits baccy juice before delivering some tough-guy homily.
But there is a thing the Western brings that I do like. That I would like to see in some games out here in the DnD-circling multiverse. For me, the take-home message of the Western** is:
it’s up to you to make the world better.
And the Western is peculiarly well-pointed to deliver this message: everyone (that matters) in the Western has the same upbringing, which features a hefty dose of scriptural Right and Wrong – so everyone knows what they should be doing, but the defining feature of the Wild West is that the Law is weak so, shorn of the steel embrace of society’s strictures, we get to see whether people will deal with each other in a way that makes everyone’s life better or worse (and it’s usually worse).
The default case with DnD is essentially the same minus the assumed moral background, which is replaced with a hard-wired, zero-sum acquisition = destiny leveling up mechanic, which promises More and Bigger game and in-game status only and always at the expense of other characters in the world.*** So it becomes mighty surprising if anybody ever decides to do anything to improve anyone else’s lot.
This morning Jason Kielbasa said he’s concluded that his new game, Dust (mythical 1930s American great depression game) should be a game about carving out areas of optimism in a world of depression.
I would play that game. It’s the good part of the Western, just slightly divorced from the Western! Even better, if the Depression is a brief hiatus in the building of the great Foucauldian socio-legal machine, it represents a narrow window where you could try to carve out your safe haven in the wilderness, against the BBEGs of hunger and banditry and gubmint and the nascent interfering Feds and the bootleggers and the preventive-men and the cops and the robbers and the cowboys and the indians – you could try to build a better way – and then try to defend it in all the conceivable ways such different utopias would be attacked, by the resettling of the Leviathan on the land through the second half of the 30s.****
I’d even play a paladin in that setting, because as a paladin you’d actually have something to do beside enact violence on competing philosophies. You could do some good.
* obviously this doesn’t apply to High Plains Drifter.
** Messrs Hite and Tynes will tell you that one of the dominant themes of the Western is the Way of the Gun: one does not wish to pick up the tool of death because in doing so one relinquishes one’s civilisation, but somebody has to do it, and forever after they are tainted by it – civilisation must be defended but it cannot encompass those who must be so uncivilised as to do what is needed to defend it. That’s cool too, but it doesn’t help to shift a game that’s already about murderhobos away from the murderhoboing into any other activity.
*** hence the term “monster,” which means “unperson from which you may take without tarnishing your Lawful Good crown,” and hence also the boundary-probing orc babies encounter in Keep on the Borderlands, which seems designed to test how far you’re willing to buy into the implicit moral framework of the game. Carcosa of course makes hay with – and derives much of its power from – this categorizing game, by allowing PCs to be explicitly as monstrous as anything else while, with its 13 colours of men, making the lines between “human” and “humanoid” less certain.
**** look I’m just going to assume you know what I mean by all this Foucauldian/Leviathan stuff, OK? Otherwise I’ll have to post a syllabus on the end of this, and that will spoil the whole joke. The kreplach thing is a Pynchon reference, which I’m not going to explain further here.
Bonus reward for reading this far: this is what Carcosa Wacky Races looks like 200 years after the original race, after a massive influx of funding and materiel from all over the flailsnails multiverse has turned Carcosa into a Las Vegas tourist trap/paradise version of its former self, and its electroradiant hellscape has been declared a UNESCO multiversal treasure. The pilots of these sleek, polished rocketshells like to wax nostalgic about the old Burning Man spirit of the early races. Somehow, they say, the old adventure has gone out of the event.