thoughts on futuristic/alt-historical Westerns

I’m creating a (scenario? setting?) that’s best termed as a “Mars Western”, because you know I love Mars.

I think the Western presents story tropes that have value (albeit critically). Man WIth No Name, the Deputy, the Eastern Dandy, etc. I don’t think the Western is exclusively and entirely the stories of the, well, genocide and war that happened at that time. [I might be just an apologist here that needs to get with the program. That’d be a fair criticism.]

I used to think that porting the Western tropes to a fantastic/alt-historical setting is a way to have the tropes without the horrors. (And I’ve totally made this argument back at the Forge circa 2004, lol.) However, I’m coming to like this idea less and less. Even if we jettison the tropes that are tied to racist/imperialist attitudes, to create a Western without the Indian Wars may in fact be erasing the Indian experience from existence, so ultimately going even further than said wars.

And then again, I think back to Shadowrun, which (if I recall) had a plot element of “duuuude the american indians came back isn’t that awesome go shamans”. I have taken this to be a fundamental game design lesson of how to be embarrassingly tokenizing. I also don’t want to specifically make a plot point in alt-history that specifically recreates those crimes. I feel stupid of dragging POC into the future just to do more bad shit. That’s dumb.

Here’s a recent idea I had for my “Mars Western”: It’s 20X6, and the colonization effort on Mars has been largely transnational. However, there’s a dead colony out in the Hellas basin (“Colony One”) that was the most populous hub and that was largely autonomous of the trade corporations that set up most of the later Mars colonies. Some refugees/exiles of Colony One survive still.

The point of the above: I’m not revisiting specific atrocities, but I am still tying this setting to an underlying current of horror and turmoil. If you’re want the narrative of the frontier, you need to taste the blood in your mouth; you need to hear the crash of a war machine to which you are implicitly tied. Our demons follow us to new worlds without compromise.

So… does this work? Or is this another case of misery tourism, or erasing history, or worse?

ETA: Here’s the writeup I had, for more context.

It’s 2062, and it’s a wild mess out on the Martian frontier. The “Free Mars” crowd is raising a ruckus, while the scientists are tweakin’ the weather with a ferocity. (And the fate of Colony One? A subject you’d best avoid.) But this doesn’t concern a ‘slinger such as yourself: you just need to recover a shipment of H2O from some of the most unsavory warlords on Mars. Greed, revenge, redemption and death await on the red dunes.

4 thoughts on “thoughts on futuristic/alt-historical Westerns

  1. “So… does this work? Or is this another case of misery tourism, or erasing history, or worse?”

    So, you mention blood in your mouth and clash of war- what are they in your setting? I have no idea what the situation is, other than there’s some colonies. Who’s killing who? Who’s taking land? Who’s working the other to the bone?

    Context comes from the specific. You’ve already laid out you don’t want a twee space western. What’s the point of play? Do the players fight the suffering (My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard), endure it best as possible (Drifter’s Escape, Grey Ranks, It was a Mutual Decision), or what?

    Who are the groups and what roles do they play?

  2. I’ve editing the original post to increase my draft of the “pitch” for the game in question.

    The game in question is with Dust Devils or an analogous system. (Sorcerer could easily work.) A key theme is dealing with your dark side while making your way through a difficult world. And still, your will (and your dark side) give you the chance to push the world around a little bit and even right the scales, if you wish.

    So who’s who: in this situation, the oppressors are likely the various corporate sponsors and colonial authorities that need a free flow of goods to keep the fragile colonies viable, and those making their living on Mars are workers desperate enough to take on a radiation dose and hard work to trying to make it. Colony One’s land claims and autonomy perhaps interrupted the economic flow or riled up the workers in the mercantilist colonies.

    So, surviving colonists should feel that there is an undercurrent of violence that supports the viability of the colonies. But perhaps Colony One doesn’t need to be razed for that to be the case. And all I’m really getting at is transposing a form of those Western themes to a new setting.

    For the sake of integrity I should confess that sometimes I *do* want to enact a twee space western overall… I’m all over the place here. (But in that case, I’m basically importing the fashion in exclusion of all else, and not the themes.)

  3. (Let me clarify more on the twee western thing. My main game design now, Spacerpunk, has a splat that’s vaguely space-western but without Western themes or trying to recreate that feel. But, that’s probably another discussion.)

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