This is part of a series of posts on Revisiting Firefly.
In the Western genre, beyond the tension between the West and East, you have the backdrop of the aftermath of the Civil War. A frequent Western trope is an embittered Confederate veteran who suffers as a consequence of the war, and seeks out the frontier.
Firefly, as a Space Western, aligns with this. We have an embittered veteran from a rural society who failed in resisting a conquering force, and resigns himself to the frontier and the nobility of self-governance.
But: is this what you want? If we’re supposed to (generally) root for motley rogues against the might of the Alliance, what does this mean for the players? If your Browncoats are nothing more than Confederate analogues, many players are going to have trouble with that. What can we do differently?
Problem: In The Shadow of Old Stories
Here’s the premise of the Unification War: the Core wanted to expand its civilized (and cumbersome) reach to the Rim Worlds, who resisted because they wanted to govern themselves without the meddling of a strong-willed government. One problem with that is this aligns to a narrative as old as the Civil War (sometimes called the “Lost Cause” lore), pitting it as a battle between a strong federal government against scattered states about the right to live a way of life.
This is, of course, not the only narrative or even the dominant one regarding the Civil War; economic, governance and human rights issues are more traditionally at the fore. If we follow the analogue: the lore of Firefly can awkwardly seem to enshrine one peculiar and ideological view point.
If we don’t want to replay old stories, we need to make new ones.
Solution 1: Questions of Power
Let’s revisit the premise of the Unification War, adding more causes (beyond the romantic vision that loyalists would tend towards). By doing so, we can do more present alternate metaphors, and establish that the Core/Rim conflict is not necessarily a rehash of an American Civil War.
Let’s use a more modern notion of war: instead of abstract causes, a political body will only fight if given concrete reasons. Let’s breaks down into two things:
- Resources (economic base / economic constraints)
- Control (extending influence / preventing chaos)
When depicting a world, think about which side they picked in the war, and show how a conflict over Resources and Control defines the Rim/Core relationship.
Example: The crew are visiting the settlement of Veldt Canyon. The Resources at stake here are a rare kind of berry that had a high rate of return elsewhere; they resisted Unification in order to resist trade liberalization and protect the monopoly at the heart of its economy. Their resource constraints are a lack of spacefaring infrastructure; they remain dependent on beneficial deals with spacers.
The Control at stake was preventing two older families – both with bloodlines dating back to the first arks – from continuing a bloody vendetta (fought through proxy warlords and mercenaries) which has dominated Veldt power dynamics. In the wake of Unification, the Amir family was installed as Lords and oversaw a trade agreement with Londinium; the Gao family was exiled. (Plot hooks: the crew seek to broker a trade relationship on behalf of the Trader’s Guild, but are competing with the newly returned Gao brothers.)
Solution 2: Many Histories
There is no shortage of revolutions and insurrections in history. Give the Browncoats them grounding in something else: the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War or the attempted coup in Moscow in the 1990s. Don’t create a pure analogue or proxy to a past example; but use the inspiration to create some alternate models that defy expectations.
If you broaden the Browncoat narrative, you can establish that this is not a mere proxy nor a historical analogue. Instead, each different Browncoat (and each different Alliance loyalist) is a new chance to ask the question: what is the definition of “liberty” or “order” that they seek, and what made them willing to kill for it?
Example: The redsash brigade are one of many Browncoat factions that joined from the Veldt Lowlands – each connoting their ideological bent with their faction’s sash over their standard dusters. The redsash in particular were tied to lowlands religious communes that were once a counterpoint to the larger enterprises in the canyon.
The redsash brigade was quickly decimated in an early encounter with the Alliance. (Some partisans allege that the Gao family of Veldt Canyon coordinated this to remove problematic elements from their joint forces.) What you don’t yet know is that your engineer, Lucille, was once betrothed to one of the doomed redsash fighters.
Alternative Solution: Dig Deeper
While I talked about breaking genre patterns, there’s also the idea of using the lore to dig deeper into the issues. (Credit to Jon Walton for the ideas/brainstorming.) Consider:
The Browncoats originated as a private security force on the frontier of the Verse, usually in the employ of the Lords or Mining Corps that ran the Rim worlds. At their best, they were known for a quick and effective kind of “frontier justice” that responded to problems, but in reality, they were known for a great deal of corruption and brutality in their ranks, enforcing a rule by a wealthy elite. You can quickly see how this escalated into misgovernance of the Rim worlds, and why the Alliance would have clashed with the Browncoats. You can also see how there are differing definitions of “freedom” at play, depending on who you ask.
You can make both sides of the conflict more complicated, and echo the fundamental issues that were at play. However, in any case where you’re setting up a metaphor, you need to consider the consequences of that metaphor, and what the meaning you’re creating.
P.S. Cool off with some music
Your uncles are buried and at peace, but the stories they told you won’t be so easily forgotten or forgiven. You’re on a boat out to the Rim, and you’re telling yourself that you should be here to start over. You don’t want any trouble, and you want find any trouble; that is what you’re telling yourself, and the boat begins to descend.
Emancipator – Old Devil
Wooden Sky – Wooden Sky
(Emancipator’s albums, and especially the Safe in Steep Cliffs album, are amazingly appropriate, and pretty great.)