Monday, December 27, 2010

Time Gone By

I took in the Coen Brothers’ rendition of True Grit on Christmas day. My short review: It’s very good. It also got me to thinking about an element of Westerns and other historical genres that often seems neglected in fantasy and science fiction role-playing games.

An exchange between Texas Ranger LeBoeuf and Rooster Cogburn about where they served in the Civil War sets the events of True Grit in a specific time, or at least, a specific era. This is pretty common in Westerns, though there are, of course, ones that take place in the vague “Old West.” It seems to me, there are roughly five eras in the the Western genre:
  • frontier era of buckskin clad mountain men and the wild places.
  • Civil War and the Indian wars with blue versus gray as backdrop.
  • The post-Civil War Indian warfare
  • The classic gunfighter era of a mostly Indian-free West with range wars and gunfights in corrals
  • The Dying West of aging heroes and outlaws whose time has past
Now, no one comment (please) to tell me this list is historically inaccurate!  I'm well aware that, in real history, these eras aren’t distinct and overlapped quite a bit.  I think this rough, somewhat fictionalized progression suits my purposes here. These eras aren't always important to what the heroes in Westerns are doing, but they define the world in which their exploits take place. The world of the 1840s frontier is very different from 1881 Tombstone, and even moreso from 1913 Mexico.

So I wonder how many people have exploited the march of history as backdrop in their fantasy games. True, Medieval sorts of societies changed quickly less than that of the nineteenth century, but they did change--and fantasy worlds maybe even more so. Is the adventuring experience for characters in one decade the same as the next? Has there been a revolution, or a new dynasty come to power? Maybe a plague, even collapse of a mighty empire?

Is history something happening in your games, or it only something that once happened in the remote past? Do progressive campaigns reflect the passage of time, or do they tend to all take place in a nebulous “now”?


Pontifex said...

I wanna go see this movie too, but the wife won't go, so I will have to wait for NetFlix.

I have been in a similar mind for a while about the parallels between westerns and classic medieval fantasy.

Maybe Tolkien secretly loved the old West?

Shane Mangus said...

True Grit is on the top of my "must watch" list. As to your comments, I think it would be quite interesting and cool to begin a long running Western game, and slowly transition the campaign from one era to another. I am with you, as I would choose your era-scheme over the hard fast historical setup. The frontier, gunfighter and Dying West eras being my favorites of the five.

Dave Przybyla said...

I think The Wild Bunch is the classic "Dying West" movie.

Dan said...

On the video game front, Red Dead redemption did an excellent job of dipping into contemplation of the Dying West.

In my homebrew setting, I try to have a sense, not just of history, but current events too. I have old places with lots of history and new places that are recently settled and developing. It's especially important for the political games of nobles and senates - without change there is no politics.

Crucially, while I have an idea of how things are changing and the agendas of various factions (history may repeat itself, or the civilization may develop in completely new ways) the players are likely to be the deciding factor, or send things in a direction I hadn't even imagined (if they want to get into power games that is - they may sail off into the sunset and clobber monsters instead, which is also fine).

Trey said...

@Greg - I suspect it's more that a certain type of story is part of our cultural DNA, but you never know.

@viz - I'm inclined to agree, though Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also plays with this notion to very different effect.

@Dan - Good points. Events become unpredictable just like they would in real life. :) From what I've heard, I agree on Red Dead Redemption, though I think its also an example of playing loose with historical accuracy.

Unknown said...

I think my favourite wWestern era is the age of the Walker Colt. I just love that ridiculously huge gun.

As for the march of history... Well, I think you know where I stand on that. To put it in a sentence, I believe you cannot have a story without history.

And your list is quite astutely put together, I'd say. At least for the purpose of fiction.

Trey said...

Thanks, Harald.

I too am a fan of the aesthetics of the Walker Colt, though I also have a liking for its cousin the Dragoon. In my youth, I loved the sleeker Peacemaker, but now the clunker, older cap and ball revolvers seem to old more interest.

Anyway, yeah I thought of your world as presented in your blog as good example of the sort of movement of history I was discussing. :)

Clovis Cithog said...

Unrelated to historical events, I stole an idea from traveler to determine when equipment is available.

TECH LEVEL describes when an item is easily available for purchase. In game terms tech level (TL) is measured in Roman Numerals from I – X.
(the old west is TL VI, We currently live in TL XIII)
Technology is the application of science and manufacturing to produce durable goods and consumer products. Technology allows a civilization to harness the forces of nature for energy. A society that obtains higher technology will increase the wages and quality of life for its citizenry.

People live in caves or grass huts. Fire is used for heat and cooking. Travel is on foot or by dugout canoes. Tools and weapons are made from wood, stone and hide. This is the typical TL for castaways, tribesmen and inhabitants of jungles.

People live in clay or stone buildings. Wind is harnessed for simple sailing ships such as galleys and triremes. Agriculture and writing is discovered. Polytheistic religions are common. The domestication of the horse allows cavalry as essential military units. TL II was available during the Peloponnesian Wars and the Old Testament.

People live in wood homes, while public buildings are made from marble or granite. Oil lamps are used for illumination. The main ocean going vessel is the longboat. Stirrups, nails, broadswords, and simple machines are available. In some parts of the world, the elephant is domesticated. TL III was available during the Roman Empire.

Common people live in wood homes while nobility live in stone fortresses. Churches and wealthy estates have glass windows. The invention of hay allows nations in non-temperate climates to maintain powerful cavalries thereby transferring military power away from the coastal or sea faring nations. TL IV was available during the Crusades.
The development of reliable cannons has rendered most stone fortresses obsolete. The printing press allows rapid exchange of news, information, and knowledge. Common people can afford glassware and china. Medicine becomes a true science. The telescope and sextant makes navigation of the oceans and seas dependable. TL V was available during Columbus’ voyages.

Unknown said...

In the 1810s and 1820s, when Americans were talking about the "South West" they were talking about what is now Mississippi.

Trey said...

True enough, though those decades are really before the era of the classical Western I was considering here, which I'd view as beginning roughly in the 1840s.

Trey said...

@Clovis - That seems like a useable overview. So my question would be: have you played in all those eras in your game world, or do your campaigns stick to one era with the others strictly as background?

Ray Rousell said...

Interesting post, in my group we always try to play as historically accurate as possible, but its always difficult as we have a modern point of view , this has caused a few arguments from time to time!!