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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Genre: Writing the Western
"genre" is a "category of artistic, musical, or literary
composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content"
(Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition). Roleplaying genres
are very similar to novel and cinematic genres—they fall into the
same categories and are marked with the same motifs. Examples of common
RPG genres are western, detective/spy/mystery, horror, science fiction,
fantasy, and superhero. Many of the genres have subgenres, such as cyberpunk
or steampunk under the science fiction genre, splatter and monster under
the horror genre, and so forth.
There also exist metagenres,
such as noir—we can imagine westerns noir, detective noir, horror
noir, and so forth. (For those unfamiliar with the term, noir works tend
to be dark, brooding, and filled with moral conflict.) Comedy, tragedy,
and romance are also, arguably, metagenres.
The intelligensia have
traditionally looked down on genre works because they are not unique works
of art—genre material relies on common themes, motifs, stereotypes,
and cliches. The very best genre material uses them but also rises above
them, such as Clint Eastwood's superb movie "Unforgiven," which
calls on the western stereotypes but simultaneously investigates them
from the point of view of an older, experienced, more world-weary and
bitter man. However, most of us without such pretensions to high culture
simply enjoy genres for what they are—unassuming, entertaining,
familiar fare with its own history and tradition.
Every genre revolves
around one central theme—the Hero's Journey. In the Hero's Journey,
the protagonist travels through some sort of ordeal, physical or emotional.
In RPGs, there are multiple protagonists—the player characters.
They are called to the adventure, receive help from allies, pass tests,
and attempt to defeat the enemy, gain some sort of reward, and return.
The genre determines the trappings of the journey.
The Genre and Subgenres
The western is a quintessentially
U.S. genre, although it has been appropriated and translated well by foreign
directors like Kurosawa. Nevertheless, the western genre embraces values
that are held highly by many U.S. citizens. Recent westerns have explored
sensitive topics such as women's, Native Americans', Chinese immigrants',
and blacks' rights and roles in the west, or environmental exploitation
and depredation. Because the western's values involve individualism and
freedom, any plot that threatens or questions those values is fair game
for an Old West adventure.
Westerns as handled
in RPGs don't have any clear-cut subgenres, except possibly the horror
western, in which superstitions, Native American curses, folk tales and
so forth affect the western protagonist.
There are relatively
few western RPGs on the market, even though the western provides a rich
source of gaming material and adventure ideas. The classic was TSR's "Boot
Hill," now out of print. Hero Games published Western Hero. Today's
best western-setting game is undoubtedly Deadlands, a western horror game
set in the "Weird West."
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In a western, the Hero's
Journey is usually a conflict designed to resolve a complex political
and/or moral issue. Typically the protagonists fight to protect their
family, their ranchland, their freedom, or their gold. They might fight
to stop a cattle baron or a railroad baron from encroaching on their lands.
They might protect their homestead from Native Americans or protect Native
Americans from homesteaders. They might deal with issues of slavery or
prostitution. In some cases, the protagonists might be good-hearted bad
guys, gamblers or train robbers stealing from the big banks or wealthy
villains. In a western, dangers are usually physical, but there is also
a strong undercurrent of moral danger—the threat of giving in to
corruption, of losing one's freedom, of turning a blind eye to justice.
There's a strong streak of machismo in westerns, but also a sense of honor
and gallantry. Often a western addresses themes of good and evil pitted
together by using the classic stereotype of the white hats versus the
black hats. More modern westerns may muddy the waters with moral ambiguity,
pitting the morals of the present day against the values of the Old West
and tarnishing the hitherto larger-than-life western hero. The hero must
struggle to change, or to remain the same, in the face of a moral threat.
Western heroes are usually
bonded together by friendship and a common past. Their tools for accomplishing
their quest are guns and horses, but also loyalty and moral righteousness.
In some westerns, the tools may be tainted—for example, the protagonist
may be reluctant to pick up a gun again, for fear of becoming a murderer
or descending back into a dark past. Alternatively, the protagonists may
be scoundrels, using questionable tools and strategies to achieve their
The setting is the North
American Old West, around the first half of the 1800s, often but not always
west of the Mississippi. Tombstone, Arizona; Dodge, Kansas; Deadwood,
South Dakota; Durango, Colorado; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Cottonwood, California
... the names have their own desolate beauty, conjuring up images of dusty
streets, weathered wood, sweating horses and the smell of cowhide and
gun oil. Often westerns "cross the border" to include Mexico
or Mexican-owned states. Less often they cross the border into Canada
and French-owned territories.
Western themes include
duty, freedom, law versus chaos, the individual versus the large corporation,
and honor versus efficiency. Some common western characters are sheriffs,
drunkards, gamblers, card sharks, mysterious strangers, rustlers, horse
thieves, Native Americans, prostitutes (with or without hearts of gold),
gunslingers, mountain men, gold miners, doctors, school teachers, saloon
keepers, piano players, and barefoot children. Some common events are:
Fights (brawls or gunfights) in a
top of a stagecoach
top of a train
desert, while on horseback
Gathering up or opposing a
massacre (e.g., of or by Native Americans)
new cattle ranch
Escape from a
Native American tribe
not every GM will want to cross a genre in a campaign, sometimes an adventure
that has another "feel" is a welcome change. Most players will
be familiar with the motifs of these other genres and will recognize what's
happening as the GM introduces them. In general, players are happy to
have their characters fall in with a particular genre for a while. An
entire campaign could be cross-genre, too, if the GM and players are interested
in pursuing such.
• Set the game in an alternate Earth or another world entirely
• Use standard fantasy races to replace ethnic groups such as, for
example, Native American tribal people, Mexicans, Chinese, etc.
• Replace guns with hand-held bows or knives and/or magic
• Consider replacing cattle or railroad barons with evil mages or
• Create fantastic versions of typical western events, such as a
bar standoff between two inimical mages or a poker game in which magic
is being used to cheat.
• Set the game during the Civil War or some other major political
• Create NPCs who are spies, conspirators, and femmes fatale --
perhaps saloon owners, gold miners, and prostitutes.
• Make sure the protagonists stumble into a political web they never
• Reply on typically detective/spy devices, such as murder, theft
of important documents, rivalry between two political parties, etc.
• Take the showdown to the governor's or mayor's or cattle baron's
mansion, to gold mine shafts, or on top of a train.
• Bring in settings such as a remote town, abandoned ruin, or cemetery
• Mention Native American curses, dead misers, witchy women, dour
undertakers, towns where everyone up and disappeared one night, folk tales,
and other mysterious events and build on them to create monsters or spooky
events. Werewolves work well in the Old West.
• Bring in evil beings that regular bullets can't kill; but silver
• Emphasize the moral dilemmas and make the local pastor, chaplain
or priest a major NPC, either for good or for evil.
• Set a final scene in the spooky marsh, the haunted mansion, the
old cemetery or burial ground, around the gallows, in the town church,
and so forth.
• Think of "Wild, Wild West" or "The Adventures of
Brisco County, Jr." — use clockwork gadgets, time travel, and
other science fiction motifs.
• Involve the nation's government, perhaps making one or more of
the characters secret agents for the government, or the Texas Rangers,
the Pinkertons, etc.
• Emphasize the use of steam or clockwork technology to accomplish
things modern technology can already do ... or things we hope to achieve
in the future (steam-operated computers, etc.)
• Work in steampunk ideas, scooting the timeline over from the Victorian
period to the Old West.
• Create "men in black hats," secret societies, forbidden
research, and so forth—illicit tests in old gold mines, chemical
drugging of the resevoir, etc.
• Create a major villain and overarching villainous plot to be defeated,
preferably one that will buy up land, turn proud individualists into craven
wage slaves, and otherwise trample on the Great American Dream.
• The superheroes need not run around in masks, although handkerchiefs
over the face, war paint, and so forth could be used to good effect.
• Make sure guns aren't deadly; lots of bullets can fly back and
forth during those showdowns in the street, but superheroes should only
be nicked at best, and NPCs only wounded or killed when dramatically appropriate.
• This is your chance to throw people through windows a lot, have
them trampled by stampedes, and so forth. Don't forget natural disasters,
either, like flash floods or tornadoes.
• Make sure the villain's plot is overblown and outrageous; for
this genre you may want to mix in elements or horror or science fiction,
should be used sparingly and, usually, consistently. Players might get
confused or annoyed if one game is noir and the next comedic and the next
romance and the next tragic. Remember that each metagenre will have a
lasting effect on the character and the campaign. A Western RPG campaign
may easily be noir, comedic, or tragic. However, remember that few long-lasting
campaigns are always tragic—tragedy is only good in small doses.
Romance has long been set in the Old West, although of course it depends
on the players' willingness to play along.
• Emphasize darkness, rain, fog, and mist. Smoke from wildfires
or trains is also appropriate. Snow may even be used to good effect. Grey
autumn and winter seasons are best for this genre.
• Create characters such as the corrupt mayor or sheriff, the sheriff
or deputy on the take, the prostitute who'll do anything to get ahead,
and the hardboiled but moral gunslinger
• Emphasize corruption and double-crosses, and use slang-filled,
cynical, snappy dialog. Land takeovers for cattle ranching or railroad
building are good bets; or you could try a "Chinatown"-like
plot based around water rights in the West.
• Rely on low-impact plots, like murder, theft, graft, blackmail,
and so forth. In these kinds of Western, the moral question takes precedence—how
can the protagonists succeed without becoming as dirty as those they oppose?
• Emphasize investigation and confine combat to ambushes and the
final confronation. Fisticuffs should be emphasized, with guns used only
as a last, deadly argument.
• Break expectations with characters who bend or shatter the stereotypes—for
example, think of the Jackie Chan movie "Shanghai Noon" with
a Chinese protagonist and his politically correct cowboy sidekick, or
"Blazing Saddles" with a black protagonist and his gunslinger-with-the-shakes
• Take Western cliches and give them a twist, such as the showdown
where neither opponent is brave enough to shoot (but unwilling to admit
it) or the poker game where every side is cheating outrageously and the
table is filled with dozens of aces.
• Emphasize slapstick (the lowest but easiest form of humor in an
RPG) and/or verbal humor (if you and your players are witty) and incongruous
events; possibly mistaken identities. Westerns particularly lend themselves
well to horse or barfight pratfalls and silliness.
• Keeping throwing setbacks at the characters, but never in a way
that will make the characters despair or that will turn the comedy into
• End on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the
end and everybody getting their "just deserts." In Westerns,
making the protagonists sheriffs or ending with a wedding are good ways
to close the adventure.
• Emphasize catastrophic events, such as storms, droughts, massacres,
racial tensions; these should be metaphors for the problems facing the
small Western community.
• Create characters with both good and bad sides; no matter how
good the individual, s/he must have a tragic flaw that will lead to his
or her downfall. In a Western, which usually emphasizes morality anyway,
this is especially appropriate.
• Emphasize a spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the physical
struggle. If possible, have the player characters break the "Code
of the West" or their duty to an employer, friend, loved one, or
• Force the PCs and NPCs to face the consequences of their actions;
in a Western, have the stray bullets hit innocents and make sure the characters
are around for the funerals. Don't let them turn their faces away from
lynchings, massacres, beatings, and other inhumanities.
• Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, the struggle
to understand ethics and morals, and unhappy endings in which people die,
are imprisoned, go mad, or fail to succeed at some goal. Note that tragedy
should NOT be used often in RPGs!
• Emphasize settings that throw the two together—make them
work for a common goal or flee from a common enemy (or natural disaster).
Show that they both share the Western ideals of freedom and individualism,
even if they interpret them differently.
• Create a romantic interest who is good-hearted and good-natured,
proactive, ethical, courageous, treats romantic interests with respect,
and doesn't fold under pressure. In a Western, the romantic interest should
be a staunch individualist who has to come to realize that he or she needs
• Emphasize the Code of the West in which the good guys (and maybe
even the bad) may shoot each other at the drop of a hat but will always
call women "ma'am," doff their hats, stand up when they enter
a room, apologize if they cuss in front of them, and otherwise act like
rough but respectful gentlemen.
• Have fun with romantic rivals, but gently steer the campaign away
from the rivalry ending in a shoot-out (or else your romantic Western
will turn into a tragic Western); fistfights, however, are fine, as is
some other kind of rivalry (making the most money, building the nicest
• Emphasize positive values, the healing power of love, and the
growth that two people can help each other achieve. Both members of the
couple should be equally strong and vulnerable, with neither always becoming
the victim to be rescued.
originally written September 22, 2000
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