Having been named after Logan Sackett, Louis L’Amour’s goodhearted outlaw, I suppose my love of the Western genre is something akin to destiny, or rolling Natural 20 for coincidence. There is something about the imagery of the Old West that just gets to me; the lone gunslinger staring down more hombres malo than anyone could rightly draw down, the search for buried Spanish Gold amidst a hail of Apache arrows, and the redeemed outlaw fighting for what’s right in a small border town….I’m getting chills just thinking about it. One problem here, these are all pretty cliché, aren’t they? We’ve already seen these movies, read these books or maybe heard that particular Lone Ranger radio show. The Western genre is ripe for adventures in the realm of Table Top RPG, but your stories and characters don’t have to be the same song and dance that we’ve all seen. Below are a fist full of ideas (sorry, I couldn’t help it) to kill those pesky clichés in your Western Campaign.
In traditional Westerns, the woman is often an 1800’s damsel in distress. How many times have you rescued a princess from a dragon in your fantasy world? Hopefully very few, because that’s pretty boring. Same goes for rescuing the widowed rancher’s wife or the hooker with a heart of gold. In the same vein, more modern Westerns have chosen to portray women in a much stronger light, making them gunslingers, revenge bent widows and even outlaws. All of these things are fine and dandy, but with over use, they too begin to border on the cliché. Just looking through history there are a number of women that could make for interesting character types while still remaining historically accurate if you so choose. Take for example Kate Warne, the first woman Pinkerton Agent. For those of you not in the know, the Pinkertons were basically the first major detective agency, eventually sneaking into the realm of a private army. Now baring in mind that the 1800’s were not particularly socially forward about women, Kate faced some interesting challenges in the world of antique espionage. Kate was assigned to weed out secessionist plots in the Confederacy by posing as a Southern Belle. This eventually led her to stopping the first assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln.
Using a female undercover agent allows for a character to navigate different avenues of Old West society because during that time there were some places where a woman was more welcome than a man. Maybe she is undercover as a prostitute trying to infiltrate an outlaw gang, maybe her posse is unaware of who she really is, perhaps she is working against her posse. Of course being undercover isn’t her only option. Maybe she walks the dusty streets side by side with other detectives, Bowler hat and all. How is she treated by those who don’t know how bad ass she is? How is she treated by her coworkers? Her posse? Other women? A lot of these social issues can apply to any female character, but there is something about being a two-sided, charisma rogue in the old west that just begs to be a character. If you are using Savage Worlds as a system like I do, there a number of Hindrances and Edges that can help you flesh out your spystress’ (just made that up) background.
#2 Health Issues
Now I totally understand that we play RPGs to be awesome. At least that’s my regular group and I am sure they aren’t the only ones. So naturally, when I suggest that you should look into playing a character with health issues I don’t need to roll anything to hear your scoffing. But lets think about this for a moment….Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven is aged and frail, Doc Holiday had chronic Tuberculosis, John Wayne’s character in El Dorado had a bullet lodged in his back. In a time of rather brutal surgery and poor sanitation procedures, it’s natural that many people in the Old West suffered from illness or physical hindrances. Many of the people that moved out west after the Civil War had actually fought in the Civil War. Most did not come out unscathed. Amputations of hands and feet were common, as were whole legs. Bullets could not always be removed from the body and a lot of bones couldn’t be set right. Having characters that reflect their hardships can make for some really fun role-playing opportunities and new approaches to combat scenarios. Perhaps you’re ex-soldier has a bum leg. He can’t move as fast, lowering both his agility score and increasing his need to use makeshift cover or stealth.
On another note, disease can play an interesting part in a character as well. Perhaps your character is well aware that he is dying of TB or Syphillis. How does that effect his psyche? Is he more reckless? Is he prone to bouts of depression or perhaps he ignores the symptoms, believing himself bulletproof in more ways than one. The same style of health issue could be played out with Alcoholism or Opium Addiction, both a regular ailment during the 1800’s. Savage Worlds has a hindrance called Addiction that requires the character to partake in their specific vice every so often or suffer the consequences of withdrawal. This could turn ugly if they were say….to be left for dead in the middle of the desert. These kinds of issues would also give the opportunity to work in some Sanity Mechanics as well, which might be fun and different depending on the Campaign. While talking about the environment, starvation, dehydration and hypothermia could fall under this jurisdiction as well. I’m going to leave you off with one example of an actual Old West BAMF that went down in the history books despite his own hindrance. John Wesley Powell was an explorer and Civil War veteran who explored the Colorado River system in 1869 all with one missing arm. That’s rafting, climbing, fighting bandits, and all that adventurey stuff that we love to do in our games….all with ONE ARM.
#3 Time Frame
Mr. Powell brings me to my next point, the time frame. We traditionally think of the Western period as this small frame of time History just after the Civil War. Usually somewhere in the 1880’s. While that is the era most famous, due to the like of Wyatt Earp, tales of Bandits, shootouts and Stage Coach robberies, it is really only the tip of the proverbial ice burg. Depending on the type of campaign you want and the story you’d like to tell, different years within the Western Period can shed some new light on how your table sees the traditional Western. The period of Westward Expansion in the United States encompasses the mid-1700’s all the way to the beginning of the 1900’s. This leaves all kind of room for different kinds of characters and adventures. You could do an exploration based campaign a kin to Lewis and Clarke’s expedition of discovery, you could have characters embroiled in the Mexican -American War or the Mexican Civil War making for a more military oriented campaign. One of my favorites, a la Red Dead Redemption, is exploring the dynamics of a rapidly changing frontier at the turn of the century. A time when a collectivist government sought to tame the individualist ideologies of the West.
One of the best parts of changing the time period is the difference in technology. A Western doesn’t NEED six shooter and Winchesters per se. Muskets and Sabres can be an interesting change of place, requiring different tactics in battle. But also, with the 1900’s we have the advent of new technologies like semi-automatic handguns and the first real mounted machine guns, trains, cars, motorcycles (watch Big Jake and the Wild Bunch to see what I mean). This could pit all sorts of Western archetypes against a more “modern” but equally ruthless enemy, the United States Government. The changing technology begs for different casts of characters as well. Early in the Western period we have Scholarly explorers, frontier soldiers, scouts, mountain men and a much larger Native American presence. Later we might see aging gunfighters, men who grew up with stories of wild adventure but now face the reality of a dying way of life, Native Americans are now on reservations and politicians strike shady deals for land grants and water rights. The point of all this is to remember that the Western in not just John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, ghost towns and outlaws. There is room for nearly every story you would want to tell or whatever character you might want to be.
#4 Native Americans
Native Americans are an integral part of the popular vision of the Old West. Unfortunately, the most often find themselves as targets at the end of iron sight. While it is true that Native Americans were often at odds with the European settlers, that was not always the case. Nor is it the case that they were basically uncivilized barbarians. Every nation had very complex social structures, architecture, and farming practices. Many were nomadic and relied on horses brought from the Spanish as their cultures were redefined. They were NOT the “noble savages” that they are now portrayed as. As a historian and teacher, I realize that it can be controversial to talk about the “negative” things that Native Americans did, but the fact of the matter is they are people too. Prone to the same emotions and actions as everyone else and driven by both survival and their cultural imperatives.
Don’t shy away from creating a Native American character. The group's dynamics and role play opportunities are vast. Not all Native Americans used bows, not all rode a horse, some were friendly to the European colonists, and others were bitter enemies. One of my favorite Westerns is called Hombre and stars Paul Newman. I don’t want to spoil it if you are going to watch it, but it is a great movie about a Native American Gunfighter. The trope of the “Half-breed” is also as cliché as it is often racist, especially when they are portrayed as walking the line between “civilization” and “wilderness" as stereotypical dichotomies. The main point here is that Native Americans can and should be portrayed but they do require a bit more research and conscious avoidance of stereotype in order to avoid those clichés we are talking about. It is important to remember that Native Americans are not a homogeneous people. Do yourself, your role playing, and your group a favor and research your character. What nation are they? What happened to the band? Are they reservation bound? How do they feel about the U.S. Government? You take this stuff into account and I can guarantee you will get so many Bennies for role-play, it’ll be ridiculous.
I know what you’re thinking: “Setting? But it has to be in the West, doesn’t it?” that answer is no, of course. Especially with the advent of Firefly (rest its soul), obviously Sci-fi Westerns are extremely viable. Same goes for Fantasy Westerns as seen in Joe Abercrombie’s fiction. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. The Western era spawned a whole slew of characters ripe for play, and not all of them stuck around the cactus and canyons. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rode down to South America. Think of the interesting adventures one could have as an outlaw in the border towns of the Amazon Jungle. Another good is example is the Middle East. There were a number of Civil War Vets and Gunfighters that hopped aboard a ship and ended in in the deserts of central Asia. One of my favorite short story characters, Francis Xavier Gordon aka El Borak (written by the creator of Conan, Robert E. Howard) was a Texas gunfighter turned Desert Nomad and had a bunch of adventures with his Muslim companions. The character was based on actual men that did the same thing. This was also a time where trans-oceanic shipping was still a big thing. Perhaps your gunfighters take jobs as protection against smugglers in the East Indies, or fight pirates of the coast of Africa.
While the setting of the traditional Western takes place in obvious locales, what really makes it a Western is the theme. Humanity against the Wilderness, the Wilderness against Civilization; you keeps these things in mind and really you can make a western just about anywhere. The themes adapt nicely to fit other genres, like fantasy and sci-fi, but there is so much room for the use of the historic time period itself. You don’t have to limit yourself to the likes of New Mexico and Arizona, you don’t have to be a cattle rustler, lawman or even ride a horse. Do a bit a research, find a place and time that intrigues you and run wild. The true spirit of the West will be conveyed in character actions, set pieces, role playing and storytelling, not just the picturesque landscape. So strap on your Colt, mount your horse and ride off into the sunset….or don’t. Because that’s really cliché.
Logan is an archaeologist and a teacher….yes….like Indiana Jones….But he’s not afraid of snakes and doesn’t use a whip...he uses a lasso. Being an adventurer by heart, it’s only natural he found his way to Table-Top Gaming. Whether swinging a Barbarian’s axe, drawing down on a yellow-bellied outlaw, or fighting Nazi scum, adventure is always on the menu.
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