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. 🙂
This is a retrospective, and it’s not one I wrote with any great point or theme. I try to not be that self-indulgent with my writing, but I have decided to give myself some leeway when marking two decades in the business. I may have more thoughts tied into the length of my career as 2018 progresses… or I may not.
It’s 1997. I get a letter from Dave Gross, editor of Dragon Magazine. A physical piece of paper, that I swear to myself I will keep forever, but that is gone by the very next time I move, to a new house.
“I really like your dwarven name generator but can’t use it, as we just published our dwarf-themed issue last month.”
I curse myself for not even realizing Dragon did themed issues. I am an idiot.
“But,” the letter continues in tones of glowing hope, “if you could do the same idea but for elven names, and get it to me quickly, that would be very useful.”
It’s my very first chance to prove I can take notes. I promise myself I will never let ego get in the way of doing good work.
That promise ends up with the letter, lost between moves. Unlike the letter, I find it again from time to time.
It’s very difficult for some tabletop game professionals to pin down exactly when their career “began.” Was it when they wrote their first houserule, or designed their first new game—even if neither rule nor game ever went anywhere? Was it the first time they got paid for work in the industry? Does it matter how much they got paid? Does it matter how long the gap was before they next got paid? Is there an amateur level of pay we should consider before someone is considered a “professional”? And if so, where’s the line?
A few years ago I realized I could no longer lay my hands on documents that decisively tell me when I got my first payment for RPG design work, which was an advance for a WII Hero e-book which was never published. I don’t even know if anyone has the manuscript, anymore. But that rules out using “when I first got paid” as a start point for my career, because that day is lost to the mists of time.
So, my next major benchmark is the publication of my first paid magazine article to appear, which happened some months (or maybe even a couple of years) later, with the elven name generator called “By Any Other Name” in Dragon 251, which came out in 1998. I know that I had to write that well before it came out, and I had submitted other articles and drafts to people before that came around. I also haven’t had a year pass since then when at least some professional project was released that I was involved with the creation of. So now that it’s January 2018, I feel very comfortable saying my professional tabletop career began (at least) 20 years ago.
It’s 1999. I have flown out to Seattle, or so I think. Really, I’m in SeaTac, and I’m headed to Renton, but I don’t know the geography. Eric Cagle picks me up in one of the new VW Beetles. I have an interview at Wizards of the Coast in a few hours. I would have been interviewed a year earlier, I am told, but my resume had fallen behind a filing cabinet. I’m wearing a suit. I hate the suit.
I love SeaTac and Renton, despite having no idea where I am.
Normally, I neither think about nor feel much impact from this extended timeline. I am fortunate to count among my friends, coworkers, and colleagues people who have been in the industry much longer than I have, so I don’t feel particularly older than what I consider the “norm” for RPG professionals. While my work has shifted the steps have often been small ones, often with long settling-in periods, so I didn’t even notice the major milestones as they went by.
Going from 2nd edition to 3rd edition D&D came with a staff position at WotC, so the change in the game I was working on was the least of my big shifts. When I had a more-than-decade-long run as a full-time freelancer, I was scrambling for any work I could get, so I didn’t really notice growing from 3e to 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder, and Star Wars d20 to the Star Wars Revised Core Rulebook. I DID notice working on Saga Edition Star Wars, but at that point I had EverQuest (the pen-and-paper version), Wheel of Time, Gamma World, Black Company, and Thieves World games under my belt, so the enormity of it was less shocking that it might have been otherwise.
It’s 2003. Many of my major lines of freelance work have dried up. I can make the rent for a couple of months on savings, but I need a big project soon or things will get uncomfortable. My AOL account has a message from Chris Pramas. Didn’t I say once, he asks in sentences that manage to be professional and casual all at once, that I was a huge fan of the Black Company series?
I had said so once. At my interview at Wizards of the Coast, when asked if I could adapt any one property to D&D, what would it be?
Well, do I actually want to do that now? It’s a big job, and I’d be working for Dr. Evil…
I DID notice Freeport, City of Adventure, which I believe to be the biggest book I was the primary development force for, but at that point I was on contract with Green Ronin, and their support and assistance made it much easier than it might have been and seemed to define my career at the moment more than working on the book did. I kinda celebrated to a product a week, every week, without fail for a number of years for Super Genius Games and then Rogue Genius Games… but that ended when bigger jobs were happening, so it was almost observed more in the ending than the success.
It’s 2007. Stan! calls. I’m surprised, because I had no idea he even knew my phone number, Would I, he asks, like to write a Call of Cthulhu adventure?
I’ve never written anything for Call of Cthulhu. I haven’t played it in a decade or more, and I never played it more than 2-3 times. I don’t know the rules, and I am not an expert on the mythos. I don’t particularly LIKE Call of Cthulhu.
I enthusiastically state I’d love to write a CoC adventure. It’s probably true. And like many dealings with the elder unknowable beings I am planning to wrangle into a compact booklet of fun, that decision has consequences that alter the course of my life.
I certainly noticed Starfinder, though the transition from full-time freelancer to paid on-staff developer and designer at Paizo was well and fully made at that point, which made the benchmark seem less momentous somehow. I’ve been at Paizo for almost four years now, and that makes it hard to feel like anything I’ve done in my relatively short time on staff as anything more than getting used to being there, and trying to do enough to make hiring me seem like a good idea.
It’s 2013. I check my phone message machine, a physical device hooked to my landline with dinosaur sinew. To my surprise, I hear Wes Schneider’s voice. He wants to know if I was serious when I had last applied to Paizo. Would I really move back out to Seattle? Because if so…
A loud click tells me my answering machine cut of Wes mid-sentence. I panic. Obviously I have to call him back… and unlike most of his freelancers, I have kept track of his phone number at work.
He later jokes he hired me so I would stop calling him when working on projects for him, and use emails and texts like a normal person. He’s kidding.
It was only recently I realized I was still thinking like a full-time freelancer, despite having a steady contract job with Green Ronin for more than four years, and the Paizo job for almost four. Sometimes it’s less that I resist change, and more just I don’t actually know how to adapt to it.
In these twenty years there have been some major changes to how business gets done. I used to send proposals in print, with a Self-Address Stamped Envelope for feedback or rejection to be sent back to me my physical mail. The three-tier system of distribution was strong and broadly spread when I started, and there was nothing like Kickstarter (though patron driven projects existed… often advertised in physical print magazines). PDF products, and companies, did not (and could not) exist, though there were small scale and 1-man productions in the days of print, they just had less reach.
I remember when terms like munchkin and splatbook were fairly rare, and there were very few unmoderated places, be that forums of letters pages of magazines, for fans to gather and discuss what they loved… and hated… or blamed on the politics, incompetence, or greed of the people trying to make a living creating the games they wanted.
It’s 2014. We’re throwing a farewell for a Paizo employee who’s moving on to new opportunities. I tell a story about my first day of Wizards of the Coast, when I had to playtest the brand-new edition of D&D without having actually seen a final rulebook yet.
“Oh,” he says smiling. “Fourth edition?”
“Ah…” I stammer, a tad awkward. “No. Third edition. In 2000.”
His smile broadens. “I was in grade school then.”
But an equal number of things are about the same. The terms core rulebook, adventure, campaign, and miniature all mean roughly what they did 20 years ago. Game creators often still struggle for stability while pouring heart and soul into a complex mix of creative technical writing back by a hybrid of psychological theories and math.
Dungeons & Dragons is still the most commonly known brand. Most fans still don’t have a very accurate idea of what working in the RPG industry is like, even for people who manage full time salaried jobs.
Somehow along the way some people came to think I might have insight into what makes a good game, or what makes a good gamer, which are crucially different. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I have always enjoyed spouting my opinions. I used to be limited to doing it at friends or occasionally to whoever gathered at a convention seminar. Now I can track how many people in Australia clicked on a blog link. (And can ask fans to support me directly, through things like my Patreon… )
Design trends in games have proven to be a pendulum, but I also think genuinely good ideas continue to be created, recognized, and adapted. I doubt any game I write now will be completely forgotten in another 20 years, but I also doubt any of them will be the most current version of the niches they fill. My career only goes as far back as 2nd edition AD&D, but I certainly played several versions of the game before that. I expect to play many more, under many different names, if I make it two more decades.
It’s 2016. Starfinder is meeting the public for the first time, at the 50th anniversary of Gen Con. I don’t want to fight the crowds, so I give it a couple of hours, then go to where it’s being sold at a satellite both, outside the main organized play venue.
They’re sold out, and shutting down. But we brought more of that book than Paizo had ever brought of anything, so I go ahead and brave the main hall despite it being the first day.
By the time I get there, all copies of Starfinder are sold out. Instead of lasting a weekend, it lasted 5 hours.
I’m delighted that I continue to learn and, I think, get better at my craft. At the same time, I strongly suspect that I AM more than halfway through my tabletop game career. I can’t pull all the physical and mental stunts I used to use to keep up in this industry, and I have no idea if I have 6 more years in me, or 16. I suspect I’ll fade away rather than just stop, but one of the things I HAVE learned is that there’s very little point trying to predict what I’ll be working on in three years. I’m always wrong. Even if I am right about the broad strokes (three years ago I was pretty sure I’d still be at Paizo), I also miss major details (three years ago I had no clue Starfinder was even going to happen, much less that I’d play a major part in it).
I still play games with some of the same people I did 20 years ago, my wife included, but lots of other friends I knew and gamed with even a decade or more before that I don’t get to see much anymore.
But games are still my favorite social activity, and RPGs are still my favorite subset of games.
And writing, developing, consulting for, and designing games is still the only job I can imagine having.
For me, 2017 was the Year of Starfinder.
The year began with putting the final touches on the Starfinder Core Rulebook, and that system has taken the vast majority of my professional time. I even opted to do Starfinder work outside the office, due to how excited I was about the system, in both professional and personal capacities. That was part of a long string of decisions I made about what work to do, and how much of it, and not all of those decisions were smart ones. I do not regret any of the work I accomplished, but early in the year it became clear I had taken on too much, and that I had been flirting with burnout for months if not years.
For me, 2017 was the year I burned out.
Burnout, like anything, comes in degrees. I’ve gotten slightly burned out before, and always managed to use coping mechanisms to power through it. But I’m not in the my 30s anymore, and honestly I’m well into the tail end of my 40s. Some of the things I used to do, like pull all-nighters to get work done more quickly to catch up. I’m not physically capable of anymore. Other things require specific support networks that I don’t have ready access to anymore. To be clear I have awesome support networks in Washington, but they are different from the ones I had in Oklahoma, and I need to learn how to use what I have the right way, rather than try to use it the way I used my old social circles.
This was the year I first felt total burnout.
I began taking steps to deal with the burnout in the first third of the year… and those steps have begun to be executed but still aren’t fully implemented. Hopefully, in the next 30 days or so, I’ll be where I wanted to be with those. I had hoped to get everything in place over my long winter break, of which this is the last day, but healing my psyche from the damage I did by 8 months of burnout took pretty much this whole time. I’m not fully recovered as it is, but I am mentally upgraded from a casualty to walking wounded. I forced myself to socialize, rather than forcing myself to work, and I let me brain go wherever it wanted when I sat down at my keyboard. (And, most, it went to the Really Wild West setting hack.) That was bad for my long-term plans, but good for my soul.
In August, Starfinder was released, and that put a whole new kind of pressure, almost entirely self-inflicted, on myself. I am proud of what we have done with this game, which required herculean efforts from everyone involved. There were many late nights from many people in multiple departments, there was weekend read-throughs and long playtest sessions and heated debates about what the right choice was… but while it was all in the office, it was all handled on a professional level. Once the book, and the game, were out in the hands of fans, I had to decide to what degree I wanted to engage. As a social awkward depressive introvert with mobility issues, a big part of me wanted to step back from fans and public games and discussions. Those things take effort, and I was firmly burned out when they hit, though buoyed for a time by the rush of seeing the game sell out so quickly. But in the end, I decided to engage pretty heavily.
I’ve been a professional game designer for 20 years. And, as noted, I’m not producing the volume of material I did even a decade ago. I may not have another opportunity to be a big part of a major RPG release. And I was more involved with Starfinder than any core game that came before except the Star Wars Saga edition, and even with that I was much less involved with the line after the core rulebook than I am already being with Starfinder. The title Starfinder Lead Designer only means something if I choose for it to, and I don’t want to insulate myself from the people who have the most important option about the game—the players. So, even when it drains or frustrates me, I want to engage with those fans, online and in person. From reading forums to offering examples of my personal work on my blog to speaking at the PaizoCon Preview Dinner to running a game at the AFK Tavern for the public on Free RPG Day, I took the opportunities I had and tried to make more, to be part of the community building up around the game. Things like public speaking and running games for people I don’t know and trust are hard for me, but I also think I am good at them and that they are an important part of making a mark in my chosen field.
There is work to a successful RPG career beyond the work on making games, and for many years I didn’t understand that. I have advantages many other smarter, more talented, designers don’t and I want to use them. Much of that is for my own benefit, which I think is reasonable. But also, I want to have a voice in shaping this culture, as minor as my voice may be, and staying engaged is the only way to boost how far that voice is heard.
Beyond my own trials, which were almost entirely self-inflicted and involved helping to make an incredible popular and successful game launch, I also had a lot of friends and colleagues have just fucking shitty years. I normally watch my word choice when writing a piece such as this, that people may share more than my game rules for Halfling space-muffins, but there’s nothing weaker than “fucking shitty” that can convey how rough some of the people I love most had it this year. Those stories and how they handled them belong to my friends, but I had multiple trusted, well-known people talk to me about suicide, or leaving the industry forever, or withdrawing from society as a whole. Fear, anger, and despair were not limited to just a few people in my circles in 2017. I hate it when my friends are in pain, and I hate it more when there’s nothing I can do to reduce the pain.
I have tried to be supportive. I have also tried to take better care of myself, because while these folks will leap up and carry me if I stumble… they’re tired and limping themselves. I have to love them enough to not ask them to hold my hand over self-inflicted injuries. I certainly am not saying I won’t ask for help if I need it. I am saying I owe it to the people who will give of themselves to aid me when I am in trouble to not get into trouble I could avoid by being smart.
For much of 2017, my personal gaming level fell dramatically. Though computer games and console games can take up some of that slack, to me nothing it more fulfilling than RPGs with friends. Nor was I lacking offers and opportunities, I just couldn’t make time. I have improved that situation some over the past few weeks, and look to dip my toe in more improvement on this front in the months to come. But I used to play 2 to 3 games nearly every week without fail, and living a life where I barely have time for 2 in a month is an adjustment I have not managed yet.
Obviously much more happened in 2017. Politics cast a shadow over everything, and seem to have damaged my relationships with people I love, but this isn’t a post about politics (and I think my positions have been made clear enough elsewhere). I broke a sofa. I got sick less than recent previous years. I took dental maintenance seriously for the first time in 30 years. I stepped way back in my role at various game companies, in part to try to deal with stepping up at other companies. I learned some life lessons, and unlearned some backed-in BS I’ve carried for decades.
In the balance, my 2017 was more good than bad. But it was also more hard work and worry than either good or bad.
I hope the next year will be one in which I can apply the lessons I have learned, and perhaps leave society better than I found it.
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The bell on the front door chimed, causing Gunner to look up, a smile leaping to his face out of habit. It froze midway to his lips, as he saw the figure slowly walking into his store. It was a short, broad woman, her antennae drooping with fatigue and dust covering her long coat and short-brimmed hat. The dust clung to her face as well, the delicate patterns common to a lashunta lost in the swirls of grime caked on her skin. The left side of her coat was dark, from the ribs down, and a ragged hole suggested the stain had a violent origin.
“May… may I help you?”
The visitor was rough, but Gunner sensed no threat from her. Not towards himself, in any case. But he kept one hand under his counter, near his shotgun. Just in case.
The woman moved slowly, but with purpose, crossing the room to his counter with firm steps. When she spoke her voice was as dusty as her clothes, but also filled with iron.
“I need a gun.”
She slapped a single golden credit on his countertop. A century-piece, sure, but not much for the price of a gun.
“Well…,” Gunner tried to think if anyone in town had an old derringer or wrack-piece they might part with for so little. It was often easiest to avoid trouble by seeing to its needs so it moved along on its own.
She nodded once, as if she could read his mind. And, a lashunta? Maybe she could.
“Cannibal Kid and his cult comin’ in on the noon train. I mean to meet them. I’d be obliged if I could do it with iron in my hand.”
Gunner felt all color drain from his face. Sometimes the Cannibals’ cult just got off a train and left town. Sometimes, they got… hungry…
“You… you going to face Cannibal on your own, miss?”
She shook her head. once.
“Got a posse. Good folks. Swedish rune-man. A gambler who hasn’t used all his luck, yet. And some crazy professor. But I can’t back their play as well with a fist as a gun. But I will, if I have to.
Gunner paused. Cannibal Kid’s loons had been a growing problem for years. And no one knew for sure if Cannibal had really been responsible for the destruction of the town of Pecan Prarie… but that was the best guess.
Gunner’d had family in Pecan Prarie.
Many people had gone after the Cannibal Kid, and ended up joining him for dinner. But there was something about this lashunta woman. Even covered in dirt and clearly hurt, her eyes were bright, and Gunner instinctively trusted her skills. With the right weapon, maybe she could end Cannibal, once and for all.
He reached under the counter, ignoring his own shotgun, and brought out a lacquered box. Opening it, he spun it to face the lashunta, revealing the gleaming, 4-barreled heavy pistol within. The name “Lewiston” was engraved on one barrel, and “Custom” on the one below it. Eight .454 rounds were nearly packed beside the pistol, each in their own satin-lined niche.
“Will this do, ma’am?”
The lashunta’s already bright-eyes nearly glowed as she reached out a hand and lifted the pistol from the box. The handle fit her hand even better than her own glove, and the expertise with which she checked the hammer, released the barrel-catch, and loaded all four barrels before snapping it shut left Gunner feeling he’d made a good investment.
“This will do just fine, mister. Just fine.”
Gunner slid the gold credit off the countertop. But if he heard good news about events at the noon train, he doubted he’d ever spend it.
Renown is an alternate equipment economy specifically for use with the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, though it *could* be adapted to other campaign settings. The idea is to alter the way PCs, pricing, and the world work in such a way as to keep an economy that feels more reserved, without seriously altering the ultimate balance of the game. Instead of all equipment being bought and sold exclusively for credits, higher-level gear requires renown, in keeping with the theme of famous gunslingers and frontier heroes of the Really Wild West.
As a recap, we’ve also looked at rules for mounted combat and shotguns, presented Badlands City and the Badlands Citizen theme, and presented a list of adventure seeds and inspirational media. While the really Wild West setting hack isn’t complete, there’s certainly enough material for it for a GM to build a campaign around it, if desired.
When using the Renown system, money by itself is used only to buy 1st and 2nd level equipment, which includes nearly all “mundane” gear such as rope, shovels, lanterns, and the vast majority of the worlds pistols. Even “extraordinary” 1st and 2nd level equipment, like an azimuth heat ray rifle (Really Weird West’s equivalent of a laser) is bought with normal credits. Such items can be sold for 50% of their value in credits.
Wealth per encounter, in credits and 1st and 2nd level items, never exceeds CR 2 values. If you face and kill a CR 7 Prairie Dragon… you get treasure, in credits and 1st and 2nd level gear, equal to a CR 2 encounter.
However, all characters also have Renown, which can be used to acquire items of 3rd level and higher, which are considered legendary items.
Renown is the measure of the character’s mystic legends. Some of that is normal reputation, and some of it is their impact on the Akashic record, the theosophic concept of a complete compendium of all events, thoughts, actions and intent to have ever happened… even if no one is aware of it. The Akashic record is recorded in the weft of the Ethereal Plane, and as characters perform actions, their impact on it grows. As a natural consequence of that impact, the characters end up with legendary gear, items that also have a greater impact on the Akashic record and naturally gravitate toward agents of importance and change who can get the most out of their extremely high quality.
When calculating rewards for an encounter, the difference between the normal wealth per encounter for CR 3 and higher encounters, and the maximum CR 2 rewards given out under the Renown system, is a character’s gain in Renown. Fighting off six Texas Tick Twisters may not earn you any credits or reward, but you gain Renown even if no one knows you did it, as it has an impact on the supernatural fore of the Akashic Record, which pulls legendary items toward you.
Legendary items aren’t common, and no amount of money guarantees you can buy one. These are the objects that have their own stories and rumors, and collectors and master craftsmen can spend lifetimes hunting down just one such item. These are things like a Lewiston Custom Original, one of the 12 original 4-barrel pistols built by hand by master gunsmith Ezrah Lewiston and equipped with tiny screws and pins to allow it to be customized by every user for perfect balance. While the mass-produced Lewsiton 4-barrel is based on the twelve Custom Originals, it lacks the exacting standards and precision of its legendary progenitors.
If you wish to buy a legendary item, you can cover the first 1,000 of its cost in credits, but the rest you must spend in Renown. In general such items are not for sale commonly, but the same power that causes Legendary items to be available only to those with enough Renown tend to put such items in the path of their destined users. A character can choose to buy one Legendary item, with an item level no greater than their character level +2, each time they arrive at a new settlement. The character’s player decides in advance which item they want, and normally it is available if they have the renown to cover it.
When making gear of 3rd level or higher, you must cover the first 1,000 credits of cost in money (high quality raw materials and precision instruments aren’t cheap, after all), but the rest of the item’s cost you may choose to cover in Renown. In this case you are imbuing such items with a bit of your own legend.
Parting with a legendary item restores some of the Renown used to acquire it… but not much. If you give away or sell a legendary item, you regain 10% of its Renown value to add back to your total. For example, if you sell one of the rare Lewiston Custom Original 4-barrel pistols, you regain 550 Renown, 10% of the 5,500 Renown required to acquire such a rare and storied pistol. If you sell a legendary item you can expect to be paid 750 + (1d6 x 100) credits by a collector or a major figure (senators, rail barons, Black Hand dons, bandit generals, high society types, and so on) or their agents. Such things generally then disappear from the world of adventuring, to live in a glass case or on the hip of someone who’s never in any real danger.
Legendary items have prices listed with an “r,” to indicate that all but 1,000 of the price must be paid with Renown.
This system does require a GM to add some flavor to 3rd level and higher gear, to set legendary items apart from 1st and 2nd level gear, but that’s not too difficult (and, honestly, players may be allowed to suggest backstories of the legendary gear they acquire, since it is part of their own Really Weird West legend once they get it). For some examples of how legendary versions of gear might be presented differently than 1st and 2nd level mundane gear, here are some pistols reskinned to fit the Really Weird West.
|Lewiston 4-Barrel||1||260||1d6+2 P||30 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Ajax Revolver||1||260||1d6||30 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Original Custom||7||5,500 r||2d6+4||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Statesman Revolver||7||5,500 r||2d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
|Lewiston Trainkiller||10||18,200 r||3d6+6P||60 ft.||—||4 rounds||L|
|Kingmaker Revolver||10||18,200 r||3d6||60 ft.||—||6 rounds||L||+1 to attack rolls|
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Since there’s certainly no full published adventure support for the Really Weird West setting hack for the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, I thought it might be useful to both provide some adventure seeds, and provide a list of inspirational media. That said, a GM interested in running a Really Weird West campaign need not feel like every adventure needs to be custom-crafted from scratch. Most adventures appropriate to the Starfinder Roleplaying Game can be reskinned to run in Really Weird West (with space stations becoming port towns, starships becoming zepplins, hyperspace travel becoming riverboat or airship travel, other planets being other states and/or islands, and so on). Similarly, adapting adventures designed for related fantasy RPGs is easy by changing lost dungeons into lost mines or ancient civilization cities, and adding guns to most foes.
But if you do want to create your own adventures, or add introductions, side-quests, and major revisions to existing adventures, the adventure seeds below and inspirational media lists that follow should provide numerous appropriate jumping-off points.
1. You come across a dead, masked Texas Ranger, with a gunbelt full of silver bullets. He was clearly mauled by a giant wolf. This leads to an adventure tracking down a group of werewolf bandits.
2. A madman named Robur, operating in unincorporated territories, has nearly completed the Death Cloud, an airship with a rebuilt Martian heat ray so powerful it can destroy an entire city in a single shot. He’d see an entire army coming and wipe them out, but a small group might be able to sneak past his defenses and blow up the Death Cloud from within.
3. Someone has been stealing hegesistrati (a “hegesistratus” being a gearjack prosthetic), knocking out veterans of the War of the Worlds and ripping the most advanced gearjack technology from their bodies. At the same time, rumor is a new mad genius will sell you gearjack armor cheap…
4. A dragon is terrorizing the small town of Walnut Grove. It’s smart enough not to appear when the cavalry is around, and no one has found its lair, somewhere in the badlands…
5. The PC with the best pistol attack bonus receives a letter. The infamous killer and quickdraw artist Doc Valentine has heard people claim the PC is better with a pistol than valentine, and is coming to town on the noonday train tomorrow to call the PC out to a shootout.
6. The PCs order new gear from a major town, to arrive by train. The train is hit by bandits, and their gear stolen.
7. An unscrupulous lawyer has stolen the designs for a local ally genius’s rainmaking machine, which will save entire counties of farmers from a serious drought. He has a head start, but the PCs know he’ll be on a moving train for a specific leg of his journey, so if they can just rob the train and get the design back…
8. A young man in strange clothes claims to be a time traveler, and he needs to find his elder friend and repair his time machine before he does major damage to the timeline…
9. There’s a new addictive drug in the territory, premade black cigarettes called Coffin Nails. If the gang pushing it isn’t stopped, they may gain enough power to challenge the US government.
10. One Martian tripod, alone in the desert, is still active.
11. The Mole People are kidnapping singers, for some reason, and some of the singers that have taken are important high society folks that need to be rescued from their underground kingdom.
12. Someone has desecrated a Civil War battlefield, and the dead from both sides are rising up to punish the living until the desecration is made right.
13. There’s something in The Mist.
14. The lost city of El Dorado offers vast treasures… if you can survive the traps, guardian constructs, rival explorers, and Olmec lizardfolk who have taken over.
15. The Hatfields have turned to necromancy. The McCoys have turned to diabolry. Everyone else has turned and run.
(Though in fairness, I have been informed “We McCoys would never turn to diabolry. Unstable alchemical explosives, maybe. Ninjitsu, probably. Mentally unstable deities that are still good-natured even if they cause far more problems than they should, definitely. Gigantic robots that can flatten a town without noticing, oh you bet we will.”)
16. The Illuminati hid a vast treasure in a long-abandoned mine, and a series of obscure clues will allow the PCs to get to it before a cult that wishes to use it to summon an ancient, elder god.
17. It’s snowing in the desert, and only one person has the cold-weather gear everyone needs survive. And he’s selling it at a huge mark-up. And whenever he runs out, white wolves bring him more.
18. A mad military genius has built a rolling fortress, and plans to use it to destroy a group he dislikes, be that a native tribe, a pioneer town, or the PCs’ base of operation.
19. Characters with advanced melee combat skills are being kidnapped and forced to fight in a tournament of Bullfighters, who face off against minotaurs in a labyrinth arena.
20. A villager from a small, unarmed town begs the PCs to come protect them from bandits. The bandits number in the hundreds, and the villagers can only pay in food and a place to stay, but without the PCs help, the village will be driven to the brink of starvation.
Taking a broad view of “Weird West” as a setting to include any strongly-Western setting (even if located somewhere other than the American Old West) that adds elements of the supernatural, or advanced technology (steampunk or not), or visitors (from monsters to aliens to time travelers), there’s a lot of media that can act as inspirations to create your own adventures, characters, and themes. I’ve excluded things that transport Western plots and sensibilities into other settings (so no Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers or Dark Tower or Firefly, all of which might well also spark ideas), not because they are in any way inferior, but because they tend to be better known and I wanted to keep this list manageable.
It’s worth noting that while these are great sources of Weird West inspiration… that doesn’t mean they’re great as forms of entertainment. Many are quite good, but some are truly awful. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth skimming through (or reading summaries of them) if you can’t sit through them the regular way, in order to get inspired to riff new ideas and characters and plots from the bad stories. Myself, I sometimes fin terrible books and movies are actually better sources of inspiration, as when they do something really dumb I find myself thinking “It would have been cooler if they’d done X,” and whatever X is, that’s my new, cool idea.
It’s also worth noting that nearly any western, fantasy, or cyberpunk plot can be easily adapted to a Really Wild West campaign. It’s easy to add some half-orcs to a bandit gang, have long-dead sorcerers wear black cowboy hats, and turn megacorporations into railways and cattle barons. If that doesn’t feel natural to you, try describing the driving force of a plot as generically as possible. The Fellowship of the Ring can simplify to “a local boy is convinced my a mysterious wanderer to take something dangerous to the big city for advice, then decides to throw it into a volcano which requires him and friends to pass through an abandoned mine, all while hunted by the original owner’s forces and elite generals.” One you have it reduced to that level, it’s easy to replace the local boy, mysterious wanderer, something dangerous, big city, and abandoned mine to seem more Weird Western. So if a pioneer has to take a Crimson Spike, which turns any railway into demon-summoning railroad line, to New Holt City where the Elven Preservation Society convinces him that to keep it from senator “Boss” Morghul he must take it through the old Brimstone Double-Y Mine to a volcano hidden in the Rockies… THAT’s Weird West.
Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities, publisher Dark Horse Books
Black Jack Ketchum, publisher Image Comics
Bouncer: The One-Armed Gunslinger, publisher Humanoids, Inc.
East of West, publisher Image Comics
High Moon, publisher Super Genius
Iron West, publisher Image Comics
Jonah Hex, publisher DC Comics
The Justice Riders, publisher DC Comics
Kingaway West, publisher Dark Horse Books
Lazarus Lane (El Diablo), publisher DC Comics
Magic Wind, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Pretty Deadly, publisher Image Comics
The Sixth Gun, publisher Oni Press
Trailblazer, publisher Image Comics
Zagor, publisher Epicenter Comics (English language publisher)
Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, author Paul Guinan
Boneshaker, author Cherie Priest
The Buntline Special and sequels, author Mike Resnick
Dead In The West, author Joe R Lansdale
Dead Man’s Hand, anthology, ed. by John Joseph Adams
Dead Man’s Hand: Five Tales of the Weird West, author Nancy Collins
The Dead Remember and other “Weird West” stories, author Robert E. Howard
Deadman’s Road, author Joe R Lansdale
Devil’s Tower and Devil’s Engine, author Mark Sumner.
The Encyclopedia Of Weird Westerns, author Paul Green
FRANK READE: Adventures in the Age of Invention, authors Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
The Golgotha Series, author R.S. Belcher.
The Hexslinger Series, author Gemma Files
Karen Memory, author Elizabeth Bear
Low Moon, anthology, ed. David A. Riley
“Mad Amos” stories, author Alan Dean Foster
A Road Paved In Iron, author Don Corcoran
The Shadow series, author Lila Bowen
Shadow on the Sun, author author Richard Matheson
Stagecoach Mary, author Jess Nevins
Straight Outta Tombstone, anthology, ed. By David Boop
The Sundowners Series, author James Swallow
Tales of the Far West short story collection, authors Gareth Skarka, Matt Forbeck, and others
Vermillion, author Molly Tanzer
Wax and Wayne series, author Brandon Sanderson
Zepplins West, author Joe R Lansdale
Deadlands Classic, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Deadlands Reloaded, published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group
Devil’s Gulch, for BRP, published by Chaosium
Down Dark Trails, for Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, for Red Dead Redemption, published by Rockstar Games
Shadows of Brimstone, published by Flying Frog Games
Sixguns and Sorcery, for Castle Falkenstein, published by R. Talsorian
Werewolf: The Wild West, published by White Wolf Publishing
Back to the Future Part III, directed by Robert Zemeckis
Billy the Kid vs Dracula, directed by William Beaudine
Blood Moon, directed by Jeremy Wooding
Blood Rayne II Deliverance, directed by William Beaudine
Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler
Bunraku, directed by Guy Moshe
The Burrowers, directed by J.T. Petty
Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
Curse of the Undead, directed by Edward Dein
Dead Man, directed by Jim Jarmusch
El Charro de las Calaveras, directed by Alfredo Salazar
From Dusk Til Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by P.J. Pesce
Gallowwalkers, directed by Andrew Goth
Ghost Brigade aka The Killing Box, directed by George Hickenlooper
Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, directed by Grant Harvey
The Good the Bad the Weird, directed by Kim Jee-woon
High Plains Invaders, directed by K. T. Donaldson
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, directed by William Beaudine
Jonah Hex, directed by Jimmy Hayward
High Planes Drifter, directed by Clint Eastwood
Ned Kelley, directed by Gregor Jordan
Pale Rider, directed by Clint Eastwood
The Phantom Empire (1935 serial), directed by Otto Brower and Breezy Easton
Purgatory, directed by Uli Edel
Ravenous, directed by Antonia Bird
Red Sun, directed by Terence Young
Sukiyaki Western Django, directed by Takashi Miike
Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, directed by S.S. Wilson
Undead or Alive, directed by Glasgow Phillips
The Valley of Gwangi, directed by James O’Connolly
The Warrior’s Way, directed by Sngmoo Lee
The White Buffalo, directed by J. Lee Thompson
Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse
Kung Fu, created by Herman Miller and Ed Spielman
The Lazarus Man, created by Dick Beebe, Colleen O’Dwyer, and Michael Ogiens
Legend, created by Bill Dial and Michael Piller
Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, created by Ryan Brown and Bob Carrau
The Wild Wild West, created by Michael Garrison
And, of course, the really Wild West setting is an example of weird west, and it’s made available by the supports of my Patreon! If you’re a fan, please consider offering a few dollars a month for support!
I have gotten some feedback about how much writing I am doing now, on my vacation. Most of it is from a place of love and concern, and a little is friendly but understanding ribbing, but at least a small percentage of people genuinely don’t seem to understand the difference between RPG writing as a staff designer or developer or as a freelance writer, and the leisure-writing I have been doing the past week.
So, for those few folks, here is the most important distinction, distilled down.
I wasn’t feeling like writing anything tonight.
So I didn’t.
And that has no impact on my livelihood, or that of my friends, colleagues, and employers, so there’s no guilt, worry, or backlog that has to be made up later.
(And the more people who support me through my Patreon, the more writing time I can afford to spend on this blog and other freebies!)