Leaving the Deadlands

NOTE: This is a pure geek post. It has nothing to do with the topic of the blog. You may skip it, and it will not count against your claim to be a regular UF reader.

Wil Wheaton mentioned the roleplaying setting Deadlands. That reminded me of the system, which sent me scurrying back to the corebook, which reminded me of why I don’t like the setting.

For those who haven’t heard of it, Deadlands is a roleplaying games set in the weird west. That’s a sub-genre that fuses cowboy stories with a bit of the supernatural, some steampunk and maybe a few aliens. Deadlands is broadly alt-history, with the point of divergence happening in 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg. One of the results is that the Civil War is still going on at the time of the setting, 1876-1879.

You can probably see where this is going. If you set a game in WWII, you’re going to have to deal with the Holocaust. Set a game in the Civil War, and you’re going to have to deal with slavery. But they don’t.

The game designers are honest about it. They explain that slavery is just not fun, so they handwave it away. Slavery has been ended in the south, racism is a thing of the past, whites and blacks joining together to kick the snot out of the other whites and blacks. I guess if you can swallow that you won’t have any problems with demon-possessed zombie cowboys fighting haunted steampunk mad scientists.

Three problems.

First, as Fred Clark likes to point out in his reviews of the Left Behind series, writers can get away with changing physics but they can’t get away with changing people. Narratives are about people, and we have to be able to relate to those people for the story to work.

How do you understand a people who would say that slavery was the cornerstone of their society in 1861, then say “eh, nevermind” a decade later? How do you narrate a society that would give up $4 Billion in revenue producing capital? How does such a society continue? How does such an economy continue? These are problems left for the GM.

Of course, the GM will likely ignore them and focus on killing zombies with six-shooters. Fair enough. But the second problem is that now slavery is the elephant in the room. Say “civil war” and half of America will respond with “slavery.” But slavery doesn’t exist anymore, so don’t think about it. Got that? Don’t think about slavery. Good luck.

Which leads to the third, and largest, problem. Since slavery is not to be mentioned, African-Americans disappear as a cultural force. We don’t bring up ex-slaves, slave culture, slave folk traditions like hoodoo, and so on. While the Sioux Indians, Chinese immigrants and Mexicans all form cultural factions – hell, there are even Vikings in Minnesota – African-Americans dissolve into the Northern and Southern white factions.

So General Grant, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (sorta) are still around, but Frederick Douglass is nowhere to be seen. You’ve got famous generals like Sherman and Lee, plus a host others who show up, but no one like William Henry Singleton. You’ve got Calamity Jane and “Wild Bill” Hickock, but where’s the Loop Garoo Kid? Sure he’s fictional, but he’s still the only cowboy who could really handle the weird west.

So let the GM add in what he wants. But that brings us back to problem one: how do you fit anti-slavery forces together with a south that will suddenly turn away from slavery and forget about racism? The whole thing feels like a massive missed opportunity.

As an aside, it’s interesting that the game designers are willing to leave in mentions of the Native American genocide, which ought to be at least as “not fun” as slavery. But even one of the main villains is an Indian who is motivated by the death of his family at the hands of white settlers. That’s not a knock on the designers, it’s just interesting what atrocities our culture decides are too hot to handle and which are safe.

  • Voidhawk

    Surely it wouldn’t take much narrative drive to have a different cause of the civil war? perhaps a debate whether zombies could be legally killed or cured? (The North, with fewer wild zombies can practically cure them with magic/ tech whereas in the South they terrorise the citizens who don’t have the infrastructure to deal with them?) or whether magic use is allowed? (The North’s Puritans object to magic whilst the South relies on it for their economy?) Alien settlement (The South agrees to aliens taking some land in exchange for advanced alien tech, the North demands either the states in the South share their tech or else stop giving away sovereign US territory?)

  • Artor

    I see why they did it. The slave-owning South would make an obvious evil faction for the game, but they’d lose a quarter of the US as a market if they made it that way. So instead they made a logically incoherent premise, which can work if everyone suspends their disbelief. I wish they’d stuck to their guns and made the historically more accurate version though. Whitewashing racism never helps anyone but the racists.

  • John M

    It reminds me of a recent book I noticed” It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway ” by Davidl Satter on the Russian terror in the 1930s. Stalin and game designers rewrite history!

  • Neal Hyde

    The Deadlands fiction has an interesting take on this. In one “dime novel” there are rebels taunting a black man who bravely stands up to them, and in another a primary character is an educated black man who is a “mad scientist” type with steampunk technology. The authors are different people and there are clearly some different approaches toward the issue, with one resonating a more realistic post-slavery west and another with an almost too-good-to-be-true vibe. I suppose it depends on your personal take, but my understanding was that the actual west was a much more polychromatic affair than Hollywood shows (in almost any era) and my personal games show it.