Saturday, February 23, 2008


Just a rumination of mine. I don't know if I've said this on the blog before, but I've noticed how 'genres' tend to be based in a particular cultural framework- especially fantasy. Traditional western fantasy is of course based off the myths and legends of the medieval era; knights and damsels, witches and wizards, dragons and fey. Magical Realism, meanwhile, is a label sometimes given to the modern-day equivalent- stories that feature fantastic elements while drawing on the myths and legends of the present day. The X-Files and Unknown Armies would fit this loose classification (not to be confused with Contemporary Fantasy, medieval fantasy stuck into the modern day). Steampunk is based on the dreams and ideas of Victorian-era England. At any rate, gives a far better rundown that I ever could, but I'm just throwing this information out by way of introduction. The next step in my thought process was to wonder about what cultures have been neglected.

And that's how I came up with this idea: An rpg based on the shared fantasies of the 19th-century American Old West. Not the gritty historical fiction of the Western genre, but a setting based on the rip-roaring tall tales and folk stories of that time, where the players are outlandishly skillful/powerful/intelligent men and women who can stand to-to-toe with the likes of John Henry, Paul Bunyan and Calamity Jane. Mix in a healthy dose of native american folklore- particularly the occasional trickster spirit and/or talking animal- and you've got a setting that's a far cry from your average tabeletop fare.

The game would be all about life on the frontier and beyond- the sort of existence where a brave, hardy soul can thrive like nowhere else. Players might be skilled at tasks like hunting, fishing, trick shooting, horse riding, and any manner of working-class trade. Folk heroes were just that: folk, distinguished not by having a special set of skills but by being great at the sort of tasks most games leave to the NPC peasants/civilians. To put it differently, the fantastic elements of this game wouldn't be separate from the mundane ones. Even if the tall tales of the old west include things like a boat so large its mast scraped the moon, you could still argue that they were still more well-grounded in reality than your average game of D&D.

What's interesting is that this extends into the area of violence. Even when a folk hero's were in an area like gunplay, they were used for the purpose of trick shooting- not killing people. Tall tales were very PG in nature- you tussle with a bobcat, knock an ornery fellow out cold and kill a few deer, but that's about it. There's a friendly, lighthearted tone that makes you reevaluate (Of course, since today America's tall tales are all passed down as children's stories it's also possible the stories with things like Paul Bunyan punching the corrupt lumberyard boss's head off were left by the wayside.)

I'd like to do this as a game that expanded on the roots of these tall tales- bragging contests and group storytelling. Characters would seek to pull off outlandish stunts- the game would escalate over the course of the story not just by throwing more challenges at the protagonists, but by having the scenario become increasingly ridiculous. The waterfall that's a hundred feet high doesn't become two or five hundred feet high when you're at higher levels, it becomes so high that the baby salmon who go over the edge all reach adulthood and begin swimming back upstream before they even reached the bottom- which is just as well, because a small town has sprung up smack dab at the base of the cliff. Since the wind could push the water one way or the other for a time, the folk there just thought they were gettin' some nasty downpours once and a while. Strange but true, friends- the only reason Jed and I didn't just squash a pair of houses is that the women there knew the value of a good home-cooked meal. They cooked bacon and eggs every morning, and the smoke just wafted up the chimneys and up through the rain. Now, Jeb and I were taking the chance to sleep in- we'd been falling for about a month now, and I'm afraid we was gettin rather lax in our habits- but that aroma of fresh-cooked bacon woke me up pretty quick after a month of living on river water and raw fish. I could just see the ground down below, so I woke up Jeb and we both started swimming up just as fast as we could. We'll both admit to being a tad panicky at the time, because the kids in that the village spent a good ten minutes watching us swim up through the rain in the middle of the street, about a yard off the ground. It was only when we were starting to go back up that one of the older boys threw a rock to get our attention.

Okay, that's enough of that- I assume you get the idea. At this point my only reservation is whether this would be worth making into a normal tabletop rpg. So long as the tall tale is a core part of this setting/game, it seems like numbers would just trip up the gleeful exaggerations that make these sort of stories so fun. My inclination is to either use this as a motive for investigating diceless systems, or just provide the setting/description as a guide but have the 'rules' be the same as they've been for a century and a half- a group storytelling exercise whose closest modern-day parallel is Baron Munchausen. Then again, Mutants and Masterminds could probably do a passable job of keeping the flavor while remaining heavy on the crunch. Guess I'll be filing this one away for future speculation.

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