Author Archives: okcstephens
I haven’t referred to the Really Wild West setting as “steampunk,” because to me it’s a distinct Fantasy Weird West genre, rather than a “true” steampunk setting. Of course, steampunk is as much an aesthetic as a literary genre (certainly true now, regardless of its origins), and part of my issue with calling RWW steampunk is that I am going much more for a western aesthetic than a steampunk one. I’d also want to parse out the distinctions between steampunk, gearpunk, cogpunk, diselpunk, pulp, weird west, fantasy, and a bunch of other things related to speculative fiction settings of the late 1800s before I was comfortable referring to (or marketing) my setting as “steampunk.”
But, there certainly is going to be significant overlap between people who are interested in Really Wild West, weird west, and those who are interested in steampunk. And, ultimately, I suspect the weird west, pulp, and steampunk genres are very much like La Belle Époque, the Gilded Age and the Victorian Era—they aren’t the same, and it’s hard to pin down exactly what is unique to each and what is shared, but there’s certainly a lot of intersection.
Classically, one element of steampunk is that steam-engine level technology is capable of much more advanced devices than in the real world, allowing more modern devices to exist in larger, bulkier, brass-rivet covered steam versions. I’m not depending much on steam as the main technology of Really Wild West, because my setting advances electricity and magic as much as it makes steam more efficient. There are some things common to steampunk stories in RWW, such as Babbages (or “difference engines”) that are gear-driven computers (that can communicate over the Babbage-Bell Grid, creating a kind of primitive internet), and massive airships acting as floating cruisers and battleships, but in most cases those are using an imaginary technology developed from the inclusion of a form of advanced theosophy (magic) in the setting, or reverse-engineered from Martian tech after the War of the Worlds, rather than super-efficient steam. Steam engines exist, but RWW isn’t the steam age anymore. Aetheric engines are more important than steam turbines.
On the other hand, the “punk” elements of steampunk, as a social movement, make sense for my Really Weird West setting. Not all steampunk settings borrow the “punk” part of cyberpunk, but I think it’s worth remembering as a spine of the body that includes so many related and overlapping ideas. Much of the “punk” part of cyberpunk is about wanting to live free of mainstream society’s constraints and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of social expectations. That certainly borrows from the punk musical and cultural movements of the real world 1970s and 1980s, but in cyberpunk, that rejection is often frames in terms of the collapse of the benefits of society and, with cybernetics and AIs commonplace, asking what it even means to be human.
Some steampunk settings have their own versions of this punk-ness, while others just focus on the dashing heroes of society, whether they are the champions of wealth and aristocracy you’d expect to be promoted by society itself, or plucky underdogs of low station who rise to fame and power… and then generally become not only accepted parts of mainstream society but also proof that anyone of sufficient quality can succeed by bootstrapping, and thus a backhanded claim that the rules of society should be respected because they include opportunity to improve yourself if you are properly deserving. I find this to be especially true of steampunk set in or based on the 1800s US.
However, the imaginary 1891 of Really Wild West is a time of rapid societal change, whether that’s the impact of Reconstruction and the Progressive Era of the United States, the turn toward science and rationality of the Porfiriate of Mexico, or the removal of Otto Von Bismark from power in Germany. On top of those real-world social pressures, the setting of Really Weird West is dealing with the cognitive impact of magic being codified as real by the Theosophic Society over the past generation and proof of alien life (and both its technological superiority and desire to kill us) in the War of the Worlds just a year earlier. While polite society in major urban centers is trying to pretend nothing has changed, in their hearts people know better. Literature, science, music, poetry, and acceptable social behavior have all changed, and many people are actively rejecting its rules which, to be fair, are based on those of the real world at the time and thus include a lot of objectively terrible racism, sexism, classism, and bigotry.
In the frontier lands, that change is even more pronounced. Where lawlessness is more common, society has less power to enforce both its good and its bad dictates. Sure, lawless lands often include a lot of robbery, fraud, assault, and murder, but they also have weaker social codes insisting everyone fall in line with societal expectations. Not no social codes of course—each town, business, cattle barony, and gang can have its own society requirements no less strict and merciless than those of “Back East.” But while that means people can’t automatically be free of bigotry and racism, it also means they don’t have to go as far to get away from it. Given how dangerous it is to live outside of town that might be a short trip into a shallow grave, but the option exists.
That very danger also means that people who refuse to follow the norms of society, but who have a particular set of skills, can find more than one place that will accept them at least as long as there’s a problem they can fix. It’s no coincidence that this sounds like the plot of numerous classic Westerns, but it’s also the plot of numerous cyberpunk stories. In many ways the gunslinger is the original “punk” character concept… and before that the samurai, and local hero highwayman, and some Greek heroes. Punk heroes, as independent experts who thrive outside the system, can exist in the largest numbers in campaign settings where society has a weakened grip. In cyberpunk this is often because corporations have grown to be so powerful that they can challenge the government-controlled legally defined societies, and virtual reality is competing with meatspace, and the gaps between those factors are shadowy realms where expertise is more important than adherence to societal standards. In a Western, Really Wild West included, there’s a similar conflict between the expansive, technocratic societies and the less mechanized and more sparsely-spaced aboriginal societies as well as the rapid expansion of new forms of transformation and communication into areas with vast untamed stretch of exploitable natural resources. RWW, of course, adds magic, an alien invasion, and weird science to the mix to create even more instability, and larger shadows where the punk character concept comfortably fits.
If Really Wild West promotes the idea that exception people can rise above their stations and become heroes, it must acknowledge that doing so often means bucking the systemic oppression directed at numerous minorities. Certainly, if a group would rather not deal with such real-world issues, and the players would have more fun playing whatever they want without considering how people from a world based on the heavily-flawed real world of 1891 would react to them, they can do that. But asking a group to all agree not to take the expected real-world biases and bigotry too far may be more than everyone can handle, so there are also explicit notes within the campaign where any character background is explicitly appropriate. Specifically, even in the small amount of material written so far, the Dread Templars and Science Agents are both groups that accept anyone with the skills of a player character, and both are respected and established part of the campaign world. Being a punk who is part of a group may be a tad counter-intuitive, but it’s not really any different than imagining a cyberpunk hacker as part of a real-world collective like Anonymous.
All that said, I’m not likely to begin calling Really Wild West “steampunk,” but I won’t tell anyone else who does that they’re wrong. 😊
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Here’s a picture of my new desk, at the office.
Upon seeing that picture, Alex Augunas noted he wanted to hear the story about the boomerang.
And, weirdly, there is one.
My father was a professor of economics at the University of Oklahoma.
He was sometimes hired to teach short courses elsewhere in the world.
At one point, when I was a child, this included Australia.
When asked if there was anything I would like him to bring back, I said a boomerang.
So he did.
I learned to throw it (not well, and I beaned myself dead between the eyes the first time because I did it wrong, and I haven’t thrown one in more than 25 years).
So I kept it with me. When I was hired by WotC in 2000, I hung that boomerang as a decoration, because I thought it was cool to have a weapon at my desk.
Then I got laid off. And had to move back to Oklahoma.
I promised myself I’d come back to Seattle someday. And that promise got embodied in my boomerang I had kept at WotC.
It sat over my desk, wherever I was, for 14 years.
And now… I’m back. And so it the boomerang.
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Today is my 27th wedding anniversary. For those who saw me talk about this being my 20th year as an RPG writer, it’s easy to do the math—It took my wife Lj 6 years to convince me to try to get my home campaign ideas published in Dragon Magazine. Most of our marriage, I have tried to make a living my making things up and giving my made-up ramblings rules. For a lot of that, I was a full time freelancer, so she and I had to learn to manage on a very irregular income. But she also has always believed in me and my writing ability, and supported me when I wasn’t strong enough to support myself. I’d have given up long ago if not for my wife’s encouragement and ability to talk me through my options, and help me find the one that makes the most sense not just as a career choice, but as a life path. It is not overstating things to say that without my wife, I wouldn’t have a game writing career, but it also simplifies the issue way too much.
My wife is very different from me. She’s a bigger geek than I am. When I was still hiding game manuals for fear of being mocked, Lj was launching a gaming club in the public library. When I was convinced my ideas were mundane and unmarketable, she saw potential for a career. When I doubt myself, she is always prepared to give me an honest assessment, which is much more valuable than empty praise. Lj has made me a better man, but she’s also made me a better gamer.
It is humbling for me to think about all the way in which my wife has provided me with guidance and good examples, but that’s a few of the things spouses are supposed to do for each other. I tend to view my entire life through the lens of games. Since games are how I met nearly all my friends, and how I met the woman who is now my life, I think that’s actually pretty reasonable of me. But early in my gaming hobby, I was convinced I gamed the *right* way, and everyone else hadn’t reach my level of enlightenment yet. I saw things not in terms of what people liked, and what met their needs, but as what was good (because I enjoyed it) and what was bad (because I didn’t, and everyone else who didn’t was wrong, dumb, or both).
Long before she was my wife, Lj was the first person who enjoyed radically different aspects of gaming than I did, and was clearly smarter than me, as experiences as I was, and geekier than I was. I can’t overstate how important that realization was in slowly putting me on a path difference from Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. And just as it opened me up to seeing games differently, watching how my wife interacted with other people opened me up to seeing the world differently. It was only in realizing I was limiting my opinion of what was good to what I personally liked best that I was able to begin to contextualize things like empathy, which saved me from being an emotional monster.
That paid huge dividends for me as a human being. Flawed though I am, I still try to live up to an ideal Lj taught me to understand. But it also paid huge dividends in my development as a game designer and later developer. I learned that people could enjoy things I didn’t, and that it was possible to study what they did and didn’t enjoy and why. You can’t always please everyone, but sometimes you can make something more people will enjoy without weakening its appeal to the core audience you want. And, once you know there is no one true way to game, you can explore your own preferences and attitudes, and examine why you like and why you like it. Even if you don’t come to appreciate a broader scope of styles and elements (and I certainly have), just the examination of what you enjoy about your favorite things can be useful in finding the best versions of those things.
Twenty years of game design. Twenty-seven years of marriage. Two long, linked journeys. Neither is complete. Both have only been possible with the love, help, guidance, and support of my wife. And that support has only been possible because of a community of family, friends, co-workers, and gamers.
Happy anniversary, sweetie.
Speaking of things I have learned:
So, in all earnestness, I hate following up something that heartfelt with something as base as asking for money. But part of the support the community gives me is the ability to take some time to write things like this, and one of the things I have learned is you have to ask for that kind of support.
So if you want to see more of these essays, follow this link to my Pateon, and pledge a couple of bucks a month. 🙂