The Western embraces values held highly by many U.S. citizens, although recent westerns have explored complex topics such as women’s, Native Americans’, Chinese immigrants’, and blacks’ rights and roles in the West, or environmental exploitation and depredation. Because the western’s values involve individualism and freedom, any plot that threatens or questions those values is fair game for an Old West adventure.
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In a western, the Hero’s Journey is usually a conflict designed to resolve a complex political and/or moral issue. Typically the protagonists fight to protect their family, their land, their freedom, or their gold. They might fight to stop pioneers, a cattle baron, or a railroad baron from encroaching on their lands. They might protect their homestead from Native Americans or their native lands from homesteaders. They might deal with issues of slavery or prostitution. In some cases, the protagonists might be good-hearted bad guys, gamblers or train robbers stealing from the big banks or wealthy villains.
In a western, dangers are usually physical, but there is also a strong undercurrent of moral danger—the threat of selling out or giving in to corruption, of losing one’s freedom, of turning a blind eye to justice. There’s a strong streak of machismo in westerns, but also a sense of honor and gallantry. Traditionally, a western addresses clear-cut themes of good and evil. More contemporary westerns may muddy the waters with moral ambiguity, pitting the morals of the present day against the values of the Old West and tarnishing the hitherto larger-than-life western hero. The hero must struggle to change, or to remain the same, in the face of a moral threat.
Western heroes are usually bonded together by friendship and a common past. Their tools for accomplishing their quest are guns and horses, but also loyalty and moral righteousness. In some westerns, the tools may be tainted—for example, the protagonist may be reluctant to pick up a gun again, for fear of becoming a murderer or descending back into a dark past. Alternatively, the protagonists may be scoundrels, using questionable tools and strategies to achieve their goal.
The setting is the North American Old West, around the first half of the 1800s, often but not always west of the Mississippi. Tombstone, Arizona; Dodge, Kansas; Deadwood, South Dakota; Durango, Colorado; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Cottonwood, California … the names have their own desolate beauty, conjuring up images of dusty streets, weathered wood, sweating horses and the smell of cowhide and gun oil. Often westerns “cross the border” to include Mexico or Mexican-owned states. Less often they cross the border into Canada and French-owned territories.
Western themes include duty, freedom, law versus chaos, the individual versus the large corporation, and honor versus efficiency. Some common western characters are sheriffs, drunkards, gamblers, card sharks, mysterious strangers, rustlers, horse thieves, native peoples, prostitutes (with or without hearts of gold), gunslingers, mountain men, gold miners, doctors, school teachers, saloon keepers, piano players, and children. Some common events are:
Fights (brawls or gunfights) in a
• gambling hall
• top of a stagecoach
• top of a train
• desert, while on horseback
Gathering up or opposing a
• lynching party
• massacre (e.g., of or by Native Americans)
• new cattle ranch
• new railroad
Escape from a
• Native American tribe
• Texas Ranger
• lynching party
• Set the game in an alternate Earth or another world entirely
• Use standard fantasy races to replace ethnic groups traditionally found in a Western.
• Replace guns with hand-held bows or knives and/or magic
• Consider replacing cattle or railroad barons with evil mages or dark priests
• Create fantastic versions of typical western events, such as a bar standoff between two inimical mages or a poker game in which magic is being used to cheat.
• Set the game during the Civil War or some other major political situation
• Create NPCs who are spies, conspirators, and femmes fatale — perhaps saloon owners, gold miners, and prostitutes.
• Make sure the protagonists stumble into a political web they never expected
• Reply on typically detective/spy devices, such as murder, theft of important documents, rivalry between two political parties, etc.
• Take the showdown to the governor’s or mayor’s or cattle baron’s mansion, to gold mine shafts, or on top of a train.
• Bring in settings such as a remote town, abandoned ruin, or cemetery
• Mention curses, dead misers, witchy women, dour undertakers, towns where everyone up and disappeared one night, folk tales, and other mysterious events and build on them to create monsters or spooky events. Werewolves work well in the Old West.
• Bring in evil beings that regular bullets can’t kill; but silver bullets might.
• Emphasize the moral dilemmas and make the local pastor, chaplain, shaman or priest a major NPC, either for good or for evil.
• Set a final scene in the spooky marsh, the haunted mansion, the old cemetery or burial ground, around the gallows, in the town church, and so forth.
• Think of “Wild, Wild West” or “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” — use clockwork gadgets, time travel, and other science fiction motifs.
• Involve the nation’s government, perhaps making one or more of the characters secret agents for the government, or the Texas Rangers, the Pinkertons, etc.
• Emphasize the use of steam or clockwork technology to accomplish things modern technology can already do … or things we hope to achieve in the future (steam-operated computers, etc.)
• Work in steampunk ideas, scooting the timeline over from the Victorian period to the Old West.
• Create “men in black hats,” secret societies, forbidden research, and so forth—illicit tests in old gold mines, chemical drugging of the resevoir, etc.
• Create a major villain and overarching villainous plot to be defeated, preferably one that will buy up land, turn proud individualists into craven wage slaves, and otherwise trample on the Great American Dream.
• The superheroes need not run around in masks, although handkerchiefs over the face, war paint, and so forth could be used to good effect.
• Make sure guns aren’t deadly; lots of bullets can fly back and forth during those showdowns in the street, but superheroes should only be nicked at best, and NPCs only wounded or killed when dramatically appropriate.
• This is your chance to throw people through windows a lot, have them trampled by stampedes, and so forth. Don’t forget natural disasters, either, like flash floods or tornadoes.
• Make sure the villain’s plot is overblown and outrageous; for this genre you may want to mix in elements or horror or science fiction, as well.
• Emphasize darkness, rain, fog, and mist. Smoke from wildfires or trains is also appropriate. Snow may even be used to good effect. Grey autumn and winter seasons are best for this genre.
• Create characters such as the corrupt mayor or sheriff, the sheriff or deputy on the take, the prostitute who’ll do anything to get ahead, and the hardboiled but moral gunslinger
• Emphasize corruption and double-crosses, and use slang-filled, cynical, snappy dialog. Land takeovers for cattle ranching or railroad building are good bets; or you could try a “Chinatown”-like plot based around water rights in the West.
• Rely on low-impact plots, like murder, theft, graft, blackmail, and so forth. In these kinds of Western, the moral question takes precedence—how can the protagonists succeed without becoming as dirty as those they oppose?
• Alternatively, emphasize the moral ambiguity inherent in a Western of stealing and settling somebody else’s lands, killing natives, stripping away indigeneous people’s cultures, etc. What dark and shameful secret might the heroes uncover?
• Emphasize investigation and confine combat to ambushes and the final confronation. Fisticuffs should be emphasized, with guns used only as a last, deadly argument.
• Break expectations with characters who bend or shatter the stereotypes in a positive and good-natured way.
• Take Western cliches and give them a twist, such as the showdown where neither opponent is brave enough to shoot (but unwilling to admit it) or the poker game where every side is cheating outrageously and the table is filled with dozens of aces.
• Emphasize slapstick and/or verbal humor and incongruous events. Westerns particularly lend themselves well to horseback or barfight pratfalls and silliness.
• Keeping throwing setbacks at the characters, but never in a way that will make the characters despair or that will turn the comedy into a tragedy.
• End on an upbeat note, with everything falling in place in the end and everybody getting their “just deserts.” In Westerns, making the protagonists sheriffs or ending with a wedding are classic ways to close the adventure.
• The Western lends itself well, unfortunately, to tragedy: land theft, killings, lynchings, the mistreatment of various ethnic groups, the mistreatment of women, Donner-Party style cannibalism, etc.
• Emphasize catastrophic events, such as storms, droughts, massacres, illnesses, racial tensions; these should be metaphors for the moral problems facing the small Western community.
• Create characters with both good and bad sides; no matter how good the individual, s/he must have a tragic flaw that will lead to his or her downfall. In a Western, which usually emphasizes morality anyway, this is especially appropriate.
• Emphasize a spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the physical struggle. If possible, have the player characters break the “Code of the West” or their duty to an employer, friend, loved one, or family.
• Force the PCs and NPCs to face the consequences of their actions; in a Western, have the stray bullets hit innocents and make sure the characters are around for the funerals. Don’t let them turn their faces away from lynchings, massacres, beatings, and other inhumanities.
• Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, the struggle to understand ethics and morals, and unhappy endings in which people die, are imprisoned, go mad, or fail to succeed at some goal. Note that tragedy should NOT be used often in RPGs!
• Emphasize settings that throw the two together—make them work for a common goal or flee from a common enemy (or natural disaster). Show that they both share the Western ideals of freedom and individualism, even if they interpret them differently.
• Create a romantic interest who is good-hearted and good-natured, proactive, ethical, courageous, treats romantic interests with respect, and doesn’t fold under pressure. In a Western, the romantic interest is probably a rugged individualist who has to come to realize that they need others.
• Emphasize a Code of the West in which the good guys (and maybe even the bad) may shoot each other at the drop of a hat but will call women “ma’am,” doff their hats, stand up when they enter a room, apologize if they cuss in front of them, and otherwise act rough but respectful.
• Have fun with romantic rivals, but gently steer the campaign away from the rivalry ending in a shoot-out (or else your romantic Western will turn into a tragic Western); fistfights, however, are fine, as is some other kind of rivalry (making the most money, building the nicest house, etc.)
• Emphasize positive values, the healing power of love, and the growth that two people can help each other achieve. Both members of the couple should be equally strong and vulnerable, with neither always becoming the victim to be rescued.
Originally written September 22, 2000
Image Source: Geschichte des Kostüms, 1905