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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Go West,Young Alien, With Extra Sauce



True Grit is a straight-up Western...and the New Coen-Brothers Remake (Trailer up above) looks good, at least from the trailer.  The premise is perfect for handling the introduction of an NPC who once a legend, but now is reaching the end of the trail.  It's also far less grim than John Wayne's excellent The Shootist, which features a gun fighter dying of cancer who is trying to go out with some dignity after a lifetime of violence and bloodshed.  Just substitute a party of low-level adventurers for the perky Mattie Ross, and you're in business.  All you need is a Johnny Cash song for the soundtrack and even The Duke will be kindly disposed.  If'n you're lucky.  Sure, it's been done before, but have you ever run into a stalwart barbarian who once was a chieftain, a king and a notorious pirate back in the day, but who is now an addict of the forbidden nectar distilled from the scarlet lotus?  Or what about the one-handed old werewolf duellist who's gotten a bit long in the tooth, and who's now more of a target for the young pups than the walking nightmare she once was...though the old black fire is still there in her belly, if'n you're stupid enough to reawaken her rage.  Or how about the seemingly decrepit old sorcerer who appears more skin and bones than any sort of legendary power upon the land, even if his three eyes burn with a lambent light not of this plane and there's no clear-cut answer to just how many arms the old man has, or why his shadows are always locked in a bitter life-and-death struggle even as he stands there completely silent and still like the sky right before bad weather arrives.  Taking a cue from The Lord of the Green Dragons and Robert McKee *, if you sort out the Desires and Motivations of these NPCs first, the rest of the trappings, dressing and details will fall into place as they are a function of the character's context, both in terms of the player's and the setting.  Nine-tenths of RPGs are storytelling, either in terms of players improvising in the face of random table results, or in cooperatively exploring the make-believe realm that they are co-creating with the DM/GM/Referee. Screw the Narrativist rail-road schpiel, if you address the characters Desires and Motivations up-front, the game pratically drives itself.  Throw in some decent Worldbuilding, and it can really go into overdrive, despite the sound of the clomping feet of nerdism. 
*McKee has another really good interview here, from which I quote:
"Storytelling is the primary civilizing instrument in culture," he said. He then quoted Aristotle: "‘When the storytelling goes bad in society, the result is decadence.’ The way out," he continued, "is through great storytelling. It sensitizes society to the humanity in other people. Writers of the 21st Century will have to work harder. They can’t sell out. And if they don’t sell out, they'll have the potential to do something of beauty and value."
Starting a group of adventurers with a higher-level patron or protector, a mentor or guide, some sort of teacher or casual tormenter who helps them out from time to time is a classic approach.  But you don't want this NPC being held in reserve like a nuclear weapon or a Get Out of Jail Free Card either, not without incurring a serious bit of consequences, turmoil, difficulty and expense--of one sort or another--and not just in terms of gold pieces either.  A down and out constantly inebriated one-eyed law man with a broken heart, a bad attitude and a whole lot of enemies is one incredible walking plot-hook generator in and of themself.  Add in a perky spitfire young lady who's hellbent for vengeance, and you have the makings of greatness, especially if you work from the character's Desires & Motivations, and don't get caught-up in the stereotypes, archetypes and mode of dress--which is way too easy to have happen, and is one major reason most RPG writing is so weak, lame, and amateurish that it hurts.  Substance is often overlooked and style is over-done, and that will kill any form of storytelling, even a genre as hoary, cliche-addled and rife with stereotype as a Western.  Perhaps it would be even more instructive to examine Soap Operas, another genre rife with all the hallmarks of crap and nonsense, but a genre that is rooted right at the very base of human interaction and the axis of Desires & Motivations, in fact most characters are a summary of emotional traits, needs, wants and history--with some sort of physicality draped across the writhing mess of human-ness, usually whatever is handy.  As long as they are attractive, no one much cares for how the characters look, so much as what the characters feel, in a Soap Opera.  This emphasis upon the core Desires and inner Motivations have kept this genre perculating along for decades.  Westerns partake of a great deal of this same fuel mixture, but with the added quality of being set in a simpler, more primitive, more idealized fantasy-image of the noble past.  Westerns are only one step removed from Medieval fantasy or Renaissance fantasy, or even Futuristic fantasies such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, or the Sword & Planet fantasie sof Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Kuttner, Moore, etc.  That one step?  A setting that evokes a sort of familiarity bordering upon nostalgia, one that exudes the comforting vibes of cherished notions of How Things Ought To Have Been, and the lurid allure of a fantasy of what generations of audience members and readers wished life haad been like, could have been like for them, or might have been like if they had only been born back then...yep...wish fulfillment.  Westerns are mythic, just like Seigfried, Beowulf and the Icelandic Epics.  C. L. Moore knew this, which is why her protagonist Northwest Smith (the seed-kernel for Han Solo) was a Space Cowboy, and the raw, red towns of Mars were direct evocations of the American Old West.

Westerns are a fun source of timeless plots and cherished stereotypes, which makes them useful for knocking together RPG scenarios, but there's no need to approach the conventions and rich layers of accumulated imaginal detritus that have slowly gathered and compressed to form a fertile soil where previously there had onlyt been the barest rocks of inspiration and the faint shimmering haze of impending visualization as though they were holy writ.  Far from being immutable truths, the inherited corpus of all that has gone before us is much more akin to Moorcock's nebulous Kaneloon; an ever shifting, constantly evolving region of the half-formed and the forgotten that we can boldly stride into and establish new kingdoms by sheer dint of our courage to make the assay and the strength of our own imagination as bolstered by our skill in writing more than swinging a rune-carved sword. Or how fast on the draw we might be. Yippy kay yay...

Speaking of Westerns, there is a new OSR-Compatible set of  Spaghetti Western rules for Old School games by David Baymiller.  This looks like fun, and I've always liked Sixguns & Sorcery, as a sub-set of Space Westerns, so bringing the West into the mix works fine for me.  Ever see The Valley of Gwangi?  The trailer is even more fun in German.  (Note: There is a supplement for the Castle Falkenstein RPG titled Six-Guns & Sorcery, which I might have to check out now that it may be reviving.  And of course there is the always awesome Deadlands...which has returned from the dead as a part of the Savage Worlds empire.  That's another system I've been meaning to try-out...)

But why settle for just Cowboys & Orcs?  Terminal Space is likewise OSR-Compatible, and by bringing those rules into the mix you get all the basic SciFi elements (plus HPL-derived ickiness to boot), giving you a real, down-home set of home-rule-ready Old School Space Western goodness that'll take the chrome off of a bumper just like cookies' coffee.  Wait a minnit--that ain't coffee, it's a shoggoth in the pot...tarnation...and now there's fancy-pants aliens rustling our women and raping our cattle...gimme my gun--these fellas ain't from around these parts, else they'd know better than to interrupt my morning coffee...

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