Interview with Gareth Skarka of “Far West”

In this interview, Gareth Skarka reveals the years-long pre-launch journey for “Far West,” describes the moment of inspiration for the world, and shares how his transmedia and collaborative vision for “Far West” influenced his worldbuilding approach.

 

 

Not only did you know “Far West” was going to be more than a role-playing-game (RPG), you had been working on the idea for years before launching it. Is it fair to say the world unfolded first, or did you have specific characters or stories driving the vision for the world (or was it a mix)?

The world definitely unfolded first. First the specifics of the genre mash-up, and then the setting that mash-up implied began to solidfy. Once that started happening, stories began to proliferate, along with setting-appropriate character archetypes, who then became individualized.

It was very much a fractal process, if that makes sense: the macro being reflected in the micro. Any decision made at the wider-detail setting level seemed to immediately speak to developments on the more personal, character-driven level, and vice-versa. The sense of details almost writing themselves was what reassured me that I was on the right track in crafting the world.

 

What were your inspirations for the setting of “Far West?”

The inspirations for “Far West” were, like many things, seemingly separate events which suddenly coalesced. In the introduction to the more recent printings of his Dark Tower series, Stephen King wrote something which really resonated for me:

“…I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone. It was called The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic, but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.”

That planted the seed. Fantasy, but instead of elves and dwarves in a mythic amalgam of Western European culture and history, one which was based upon the American myth — the West.

I’ve been an afficianado of the Chinese wuxia genre for quite some time, and I’ve always been struck by the similarities between it and the American western. Both are heroic genres, set in an mythologized idealization of a culture’s past. At the core of both genres, in fact, lies a similar theme – a theme once spelled out for me in a delightful drunken evening at a gaming convention bar by game designer and writer Kenneth Hite, who said that all of the best westerns can be summed up as follows:

Civilization must be protected from the Barbarians, and to do that, somebody has to pick up The Gun. However, if you pick up The Gun, you become a Barbarian. – Kenneth Hite

The same theme is echoed in the tales of the wuxia. The wandering heroes were outsiders, who do not follow the rules of conventional Chinese society because of their focus on individuality and the use of force to resolve conflict. Their wandering lifestyle, and rootless existence was seen as a rejection of family and traditional values, and yet the virtues that the wandering heroes espoused contained most of the values considered by the Chinese to be the signs of a superior person. So the heroes in wuxia are heroic, protecting civilization but outside of it.

From there it was a short leap to combining the two. Not only were the themes similar, but the trappings were also often repeated in both genres: the wandering hero, the frontier location, the evil landowner, the downtrodden peasants, etc. Once I saw the parallels, I couldn’t un-see them. Every time I thought of a western or a wuxia trope, I immediately thought of how that would appear in the other genre. Every time I watched a film, I thought of how it would work as a film of the other genre.

So the idea of the genre mash-up came first: the wuxia-western fantasy. Not something historical, or even alternate-historical, but a fantasy setting of archetypes that draw on those two traditions.

 

What resources (blogs, books, articles, etc.) did you reference while building out the world?

Initially, just my own extensive library of spaghetti westerns and wuxia films. My intention, initially, was to do this as a tabletop role-playing game — I’ve worked professionally in that sector since the mid-1990s, so that was my “comfort zone,” where I knew I had a pre-existing audience. As I continued, however, the idea continually struck me as far bigger — that it should be something more than contained within that shrinking market. I abandoned the idea of doing it as a game, and began working on it as a novel — which is when the story and character development began to increase.

Even while doing that, though, I was nagged by concerns that fiction would be too static; that the world was well-suited for “sandbox” exploration by others: something which is definitely achievable in a game context, so the idea of continuing as a game design was still kicking around.

This was also during the time of the real explosion in web series — The Guild and Doctor Horrible were making a splash, and I found myself intrigued by the idea of bringing “Far West” to an audience via that method (I’ve done some acting and worked as a fight choreographer, and so I’ve got some connections in that world which, it seemed to me, would make such an effort something worth considering).

I ended up deciding to develop the world for potential expression across all of these platforms — and I started looking into methods which would help drive audience consumption from one platform to another. Nancy Baym‘s work on the behaviors of online fandom was incredibly useful in this regard, shedding light on the psychology behind the things that draw fans, and how the internet enables and encourages a lot of those behaviors. I started to think along the lines of specifically catering to those behaviors.

And some advice specifically to developing worlds designed as shared story worlds: let go.

Also of great use was Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives,” which led me to their other works: “First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game” and “Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media.”

The funny thing is, when I began all of this, I wasn’t aware of the term “transmedia” at all. I was trying to explain to folks what I was doing, but I couldn’t come up with anything better than “vast narrative” or “enhanced web series.” It was only after asking friends how they would describe what I was attempting that I was pointed in the direction of tranmedia. Once that happened, it clicked for me. I started devouring everything I could find on the topic. Henry Jenkins, Jeff Gomez, Robert Pratten, etc. I started seeing how not only the setting but the stories that I wanted to tell could be spread across multiple platforms…and, from my beginnings in tabletop role-playing games, how the audience could be invited to tell their stories as well.

 

Are there any examples of worlds you knew you did not want to emulate?

Within the tabletop gaming sector there was already a very successful Western property called “Deadlands,” created by Shane Hensley at Pinnacle Entertainment Group, which had spawned role-playing games, miniatures games, card games, novels and comic books. I knew we were likely to be compared to them simply by virtue of playing in the Western archetypes, so I made a world-design call for “Far West” fairly early on that our setting would not feature magic and the supernatural.

Deadlands is basically Spaghetti Westerns plus Magic, and so I felt that rather than stake out territory that’s been already occupied, it would be better for us to steer clear of it. Plus, I had the benefit that wuxia tales come in a variety of styles — pure fantasy, with ghosts and monsters and magic, but also a more “realistic” style, where the supernatural is limited to physics-defying kung fu. So we concentrated on the latter.

That “grounding” of the setting also makes the participation of the audience a lot easier to handle, as they don’t have access to effects which could drastically impact the entire world. Keeping things on the comparatively “realistic” end of the scale (albeit with secret kung fu styles and the like) keeps the effect of audience-driven narratives on a more personal level.

 

Are there worlds you feel were really well designed for supporting multiple stories and mediums?

Any world of sufficiently large scale, whether the star-spanning settings of Star Wars and Star Trek or the entirety of space and time in Doctor Who, can work well for supporting multiple stories and media.

Personally, I think Star Trek is perhaps the best example, if only because there’s more of a natural space for additional stories to develop. In Star Wars, the galaxy is large, but you’re very much left with the sense that the heroes and events of the film are the most important in that setting. That makes any exploration of other stories or characters lesser by definition. Doctor Who has all of time and space, but you’re largely limited to stories surrounding a single character (that of the Doctor — although recent efforts have been made to spin off tales of supporting characters, with varying degrees of success).

We crafted the “Far West” map with a lot of “Here be Dragons” space…

With Star Trek, though — you’re explicitly told that the heroes we know are part of a larger organization, whose very job is to “seek out new life and new civilizations,” etc. — and so it’s quite easy to conceive of the idea that there are plenty of other crews on other ships whose adventures are just as exciting. This is that crucial “negative space” that Geoffrey Long discusses (see the question below).

What I find most interesting is that in each of these very strong cases, the suitability for supporting multiple stories and mediums developed organically, rather than being a design consideration from the outset. Certainly, the material which is done for those properties now has that sort of narrative spread in mind, but they arrived that way through literally decades of fits and starts.

 

How did the geography of “Far West” interact with the rest of the world?

The geographical world was specifically designed with three factors in mind:

1) It was a fantasy world, not a version of our own — which would allow us to design to our needs, rather than adapt an existing geography. One of the main reasons I did this was to echo the feel of the spaghetti westerns, which were being made by filmmakers with little geographic or historical knowledge of the actual American West, and so often took place in this geographically-indistinct archetypal West, which made the stories take on a more legendary quality.

2) I wanted a spread of geographical features so that the traditional environments you’d find in wuxia stories could be found, as well as those found in Westerns: not just deserts and plains, but mountains, deep forests, etc.

3) Most importantly, I wanted the setting to be massive. Not only did this communicate the idea of the setting as an endless frontier and instantly underscore that this is a fantasy world and not our own, it also makes the distances involved large enough that there is space for participants to carve out their own little corner of the map to tell their stories, without worrying about how that might impact the “official” storylines that are occurring elsewhere. We crafted the “Far West” map with a lot of “Here be Dragons” space, in other words.

 

Have you developed other original properties, and, if so, how did the process for “Far West” compare to them?

All of the other original properties I’ve developed have been within the tabletop roleplaying sector, which is also how “Far West” began, so they were similar in that respect. They needed to stand up to audience interaction — the main difference, however, is that in those cases, the audience interaction would be private: What occurs at one gaming table does not usually have any impact on the official setting at all, or even much chance of being known outside of the participants at that particular table.

What I’ve set up with “Far West,” via our subscription-based Far West Society, though, is a method by which the fan base has input and influence over the direction of the setting — the outcome of major events, even the creation of specific characters and locations — which, as a result, is reflected as official setting canon.

That has required development not only of a method for doing that but also a world with enough internal consistency that the influence of the fan base will likely fall within a range of outcomes which will not “break” the world.

 

At the recent StoryWorld conference, Chuck Wendig (a writing collaborator for the “Far West” anthology) compared the relationship between stories and the worlds they inhabit, with the conclusion that the design considerations for each often overlap. How would you describe the relationship between stories and story worlds?

Any story requires a story world, even if that world is the “real world.” So I don’t think you can separate the design considerations of one from the other — even in a story set in our world, you need to develop the specific details from that world which directly impact (or are effected by) the events of the story itself.

In my experience (and Chuck’s as well, I suspect, since we both come from the tabletop roleplaying world), I often design the story world long before I ever start work on a particular story. That comes out of RPG design, where you were creating the setting and genre elements in order for it to be inhabited by characters created by the end-users, who would end up playing the game and creating their own stories from it. That’s bled over into how I think about any storytelling effort I work on — the world has to interest me first. Once the story world has its hooks in me, the ideas start coming for characters and plots.

 

Geoffrey Long has written about the “negative space” left by creatives and how fans often explore and fill in these spaces (or make connections between items not explicitly linked by the creative). He calls this process “negative capability,” and it’s something at the heart of most RPGs. Did you consciously leave negative space for others (either “Far West” collaborators or fans) to explore?

Oh yes, absolutely — the setting is large enough that there’s room for fan creations to inhabit it. I specifically set out to craft not only a setting that would support that, but a mechanism by which it can be done (the Far West Society). This was largely in response to a common failing of RPGs with any sort of official storyline — as the storyline develops, with only one-way communication from the creators to the fans, it inevitably narrows its audience by making changes which invalidate choices made by the fans in their individual games. Eventually, this pushes fans away — you’re less likely to purchase the latest expansion, if the game moved away from your particular group’s status-quo, two expansions ago.

So I wanted to create a method by which that communication is more two-way. There’s no way to completely get rid of the problem I’ve outlined here, but the increased communication, and the method of fan creation of official canon I’ve developed will hopefully slow it somewhat. We’ll still have the issue of “tyranny of the majority” (no system will make everyone happy with all canonical events), but at least the fans will have more of a direct say, which is uncommon for the form.

 

Having survived the initial design and launch of “Far West,” what advice would you give regarding worlds designed to support more than one story?

Don’t worry about the story at the beginning — strive to create an internally consistent world, and you’ll find the story ideas presenting themselves in an organic fashion, as you develop the world.

And some advice specifically to developing worlds designed as shared story worlds: let go.

Give up the idea of the auteur. Recognize that turning some of the world over to the fans means that it’s still being developed by people that love it just as much as you do (if not more, in fact).

It’s hard to do — we’re hard-wired as creators to be very invested in our works and view them as ours — our property — and sharing property isn’t an easy thing to do. But if you give up a bit of that control, you’ll find that the creative efforts of people who love this world can actually re-invigorate your own creative impulses as well.

 

Kind thanks to Gareth for sharing so much about how “Far West” came to be. Look for a follow-up interview with more details on how the shared part of “Far West” actually works and what’s to come!

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