Exorcising the Demons Haunting the West

Darker Hue Studios, helmed by Chris Spivey, made their mark with the original version of the Harlem Unbound supplement, a meticulously researched guide to Harlem in the 1920s for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu which was so well-received that Chaosium picked it up to give it a lavish 2nd edition. Now Darker Hue have upped their ambition and put out Haunted West, their first standalone RPG, its production funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.

The underlying concept of Haunted West is to provide a “weird West”-style RPG that makes a concerted attempt to tease out the stories of people who were decidedly present in the Old West, but who more traditional Westerns have glossed over. As well as providing a sympathetic and nuanced depiction of indigenous peoples (making a point of calling indigenous groups by their own names for themselves, rather than names coined by settlers for them), this entails making sure that women, LGBT+ folk, and people of a diverse range of racial backgrounds all get featured – for they were all riding those dusty trails back in the day, but the mythmaking of early Western writers and Hollywood depictions would variously whitewash them away, demonise them, or reduce them to caricature.

This is a laudable goal, supported by impressive research; Spivey and his crew both provide ample real-world historical detail and, for those who prefer to game in settings a little more distant from actual history, the Haunted West: Reconstruction setting. This is an alternate history where, as the name implies, the process of Reconstruction after the Civil War ends up working out better for the emancipated black population than it did in real life; whereas the old powers of white supremacy reasserted themselves through “Jim Crow” laws and the concerted removal of voting rights from black citizens in our own timeline, here various events mean that doesn’t happen – and makes the Old West a melting pot of peoples that is still an interesting setting for Western adventure, but is somewhat less driven by the logic of white supremacy and manifest destiny than the real one was.

Maybe some would quibble that “Reconstruction works” is perhaps over-hopeful and unrealistic – but then again, “Confederacy survives” looks like a similar long shot, and “Confederacy survives and abolishes slavery off its own bat” is utter nonsense. If you’re willing to suspend disbelief in one direction but not the other, it might be worth pondering why that is. As it stands, one of the barriers to gaming in a historical setting can be the conflict between the desire for a setting which acknowledges the history (after all, if you don’t find the history interesting, you wouldn’t be using the setting) and a desire for escapism – a hopeful alternate history like this helps square that circle.

It also has to be said that there’s a surplus of alternate histories which go the opposite direction – and black gamers might legitimately be very, very tired of so many alternate histories which work on a premise of “what if all the existing oppression of black people in history, only worse?” or “how can we get the Confederacy off the hook?” or similar. The most prominent Wild West RPGs I can think of are Deadlands, Aces & Eights, and Far West, though Far West is more of a punchline than an actual game you can actually put down money to buy. Of the two that are not vapourware, both of them involve (or involved at some point) alternate histories with the Confederacy still extant at the time of the game.

In Aces & Eights there is at least no attempt to sanitise the Confederacy, which is something, but Deadlands made the regrettable decision to have the Confederacy voluntarily end slavery, which makes a nonsense of history as well as creating the unfortunate implication that the Civil War really was, from their perspective, all about “states’ rights” and not “states’ rights to hold other human beings as chattel in a manner completely abhorrent to any functional moral framework”. To give them their due, the Deadlands creators did eventually retcon that, but only after publishing the Confederacy-intact version of the setting for a couple of decades or so.

Haunted West‘s alternate history as a counterbalance to those ones is therefore a legit endeavour, and Spivey and his crew’s extensively researched details from real-world history also add flavour, fine: what are the rules like? Well, unfortunately, I have to say they’re nothing to write home about, not least because Darker Hue seem to have attempted to hedge their bets. They’ve thrown in a very traditional (if a little clunky) default system, and then also put in guidelines for ignoring most of the system details and go with a much more narrative, system-light approach, and then also added in further rules for using miniatures, and then tossed in an appendix giving a Powered By the Apocalypse hack for the game for good measure.

On the one hand, this means you aren’t hurting for options when it comes to using this material. On the other hand, it doesn’t speak to Darker Hue having a particularly strong vision for what system to use with the game. To an extent this may have been the point – the idea may be to make the material accessible by providing multiple options for how you engage with it. However, this is a chunky old book, and a good proportion of that chunk is derived from a very dense character creation section. A rules-lighter approach applied to character gen as well as to the actual process of in-game resolution might have been helpful here: the more pinned-down the character generation system is, after all, the harder it is to represent a type of character who may have been overlooked.

Another aspect of the game which struck me as hedging bets is the fairly broad take on the whole “Weird West” thing it offers, attempting as it does to cover a range of supernatural things from traditional horrors from folklore to zombies to 1950s-style flying saucers. On the one hand, this does make sense if the intent behind the game is to be a counterpoint to Deadlands, which went similarly broad – on the other hand, I didn’t like it when Deadlands went very broad either. For my personal preference, I prefer my Weird Wests to be a bit more tightly defined in the flavour of weirdness offered, in part because it means that other aspects of the setting can be suitably crafted to thematically support the particular flavour of weirdness you have selected. The effort taken to support these many flavours of weird also contributes to the book’s chunky page count, which I suspect would further contribute to making it seem daunting and difficult to approach.

On balance, I do appreciate the work that has gone into Haunted West, but I find the research more interesting than the game design here. Luckily, it would be simplicity itself to use Haunted West as a handy compiled set of research on overlooked and sidelined figures of the Old West, which means it can still be a great resource for any Western RPG from Boot Hill to modern offerings. I think it would work especially well in conjunction with Down Darker Trails, the Wild West supplement for Call of Cthulhu – not only does Haunted West offer some pointers on Mythos horror in the Old West, but Down Darker Trails already made some effort to present a less whitewashed version of the West, which means that adding Haunted West‘s research can be done much more smoothly and easily than it might be in settings based on more uncritical depictions of the era.

The heavily mythologised, unrevised, hero-worship-inclined view of the Old West found in old Hollywood depictions and the like might have exerted a powerful hold over the popular imagination in its time, but by ignoring great wads of historical information and the true diversity of the era it ends up as flat and two-dimensional as the propped-up flat-panel sets of those old movies. Haunted West makes a bona fide attempt to put the third dimension back into the genre. It’s a noteworthy goal which, in terms of the research presented here, it does well at – but I think the slightly clunky handling of system and the imposing size of the book means that only highly motivated groups will tackle the game.

That said, I don’t want to yuck people’s yum too much on this – there are doubtless those for whom Haunted West is the treatment of the genre which they have been hoping to see for years on end, and if you are very enthusiastic about the sort of radical rediscovery of overlooked history it is based on, you will likely dig it a lot. Go for it if you find the concept appeals to you intensely, or if you want a deep reservoir of research you can draw on for other games.

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