Tumbleweeds rolling across a buckboard-lined street. The wide open prairies baking under a hot sun. A shot of whiskey at a rowdy bar. Cowboys riding across the range on beautiful horses. Gunfights at high noon.
The Wild West frontier, as we know it from legend and Hollywood, is the backdrop of a brand new project by Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective. It’s called 1878: Welcome to Salvation and it’s a four-day larp experience set in a fictitious town outside of Austin, Texas. For one weekend in November, guests will descend on the J. Lorraine Ghost Town under the hot Texas sun and play the citizens and visitors to Salvation, a town on the edge of the ever-shrinking western frontier. And I’ve had the pleasure of being the project lead for this immersive historic-ish event.
Taking on a project like 1878: Welcome to Salvation has been a monumental experience so far. Though I’ve been running larps for quite some time, the scope of a blockbuster larp like this has been a learning experience every step of the way. Backed by the phenomenal people in Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective, I’ve been supported so I can take the reins and take this event from the original concept phase to the eventual staging in November. It’s honestly been my humble pleasure to be given the space to create as widely as I have been, especially in a space as dynamic, complicated, and exciting as the Wild West. And in this post, I want to talk a little bit about the process going into the creation of 1878: Welcome to Salvation and some of those choices.
How The West Was (Not Really) Won
It’s no secret that the Wild West setting comes fraught with a lot of problematic content. The history of western expansion is laden with horrific historical events, such as the genocide of the First Nation people of the North American continent, the discrimination against people of color, and the exploitation of the less fortunate by wealthy expansionists. Many of those events were later white-washed away in the media representations of the Wild West, out to create a thrilling backdrop for cowboy-and-Indian stories made popular in propaganda stories as early as the push west in the 1800’s and continuing down to modern day Hollywood representations. Television shows of the mid-twentieth century showcased heroic cowboys and lawmen rescuing damsels from marauding ‘savages’ and desperados, all the while brandishing their guns to protect the good folks of the west from danger. Even as media evolved and stories about the dark side of the west began to leak into more progressive television shows or movies, there was still a glamorous sheen on the Wild West ignoring the most difficult events for the most part in favor of adventure.
And that is the fiction of the Wild West, just like much of the history of the United States is full of its own fictions. The War of Independence. The story of Pocahontas and the early settlement of the Puritans and the first Thanksgiving. The legend of Alexander Hamilton made popular in the Broadway play. The heroic grandeur of the greatest generation in World War II. Each well-known story has created the majestic tapestry of American history when, in fact, most of these stories have been mistold, the darker truths massaged away to create more palatable tales to make up the American identity.
History is complicated and full of dark spots. So when tackling a larp like Salvation, it was important to look at the history of the Wild West and recognize just what we were trying to accomplish in our design. Was Salvation going to be a game tackling the darker parts of the Western experience head on? Was it a game about post-slavery bigotry in a Western town, or the tensions between Texans and Mexicans over territory and culture? Was it about the First Nation genocide and loss of land?
These issues loomed large over the design, dictating we question just how we were going to design everything from the town of Salvation to the backstory of the area around to the characters players could take up for the weekend. It would be too easy to handwave the harder parts of the history of the Wild West in favor of the cleaner Hollywood version. Yet we as a team wanted to create something different, a play space between the Hollywood adventure and the reality of the historic Wild West.
What we’ve come up with is what we’re calling a historic-ish representation of a fictional Wild West town, complete with space for all kinds of iconic western characters and adventures. We’ve acknowledged the game space is not equipped and not supposed to be a place where the complex history of the Wild West will be interrogated as core thematics, though they’ll serve as part of the backdrop and influence for the development of our fictional town.
We also made a conscious effort to look at the way certain groups – women, queer people, immigrants, people of color, people of different religions, the disabled and more – were treated in the 1800’s. Our goal was to find a way to design a way for players to not only play whatever they’d like within the town, but to have in and out of character issues of race, gender, sexuality, origin, and ability to hold back the in-game adventures. We certainly couldn’t go back in time to fix the bigotries of the past, but we didn’t have to allow them to plague our setting or our out of character space.
The design of this game presented some serious challenges, and a catch-22 many designers face when setting their game in time periods beset by horrific inequality and dark historical events. On the one hand, a game can focus on these events and make them a part of the game design. Yet often that means derailing more light-hearted adventures as the more intense thematics take center stage. This was certainly not the intent of Salvation, as we were aiming for a more thrilling, Hollywood Westworld influenced day-in-the-life adventure game.
Yet there is no way to ‘sanitize’ away the darker parts of the history without being unfair to the groups whose suffering were endemic to those time periods. Go one way, and you’re white-washing. Go another, and you can create a setting where dark content can drive away players due to triggering material. That material can end up forcing people whose backgrounds include ancestry related to the historical events to be pigeon-holed into characters they might not wish to play. If a woman comes to a game and wishes to play something outside the gender norm for the time period, there needs to be a place for that in the game, even though it breaks from historical precedent.
And so, a delicate balance has to be struck between history and fictional ‘adjustment’ for the sake of play.
In the end, the design and writing team tread that delicate balance and ended up with the setting we’ve created for 1878: Welcome to Salvation. With a backdrop of historical events and a town created to be a more tolerant and open location than other places during that time period, I believe we’ve found a fun and respectful middle ground that will make Salvation a weekend players won’t forget.
Wild West Adventures For All
So what does this mean for Salvation? With the work we’ve done, we’ve weaved a little Wild West town bringing together card sharps and law dogs, sex workers and desperados, undertakers and homesteaders, all centered around their proud little piece of the frontier and out to survive in an ever-evolving and shrinking West. For one weekend in November, players from around the world will don the spurs and hats (black and white) to bring Salvation to life. And as I said before, it’s been my honor to work for Dziobak and Imagine Nation to bring Salvation to all of you.
The next few months will be full of character creation and player communication, larp practicality planning and finally my first trip to Texas for the main event. And I really hope to see some of you there as we bring the town of Salvation to life.
[[All graphics and photos are courtesy of Dziobak Studios and Imagine Nation Collective.]]