Here men and women were confronted, in the very recent past, by conditions that had been forgotten east of the Mississippi for centuries. When men began to write of the West, it was to exploit its more lurid aspects for sensational purposes. Hence, rose the “cowboy” tradition, the “Wild West” tradition—an absolutely criminal distortion of the literary growth of the region and traditions that made a vulgar jest out of what should have been one of the most vital and inspiring pageants of American history. What the ignorant and blundering pens of sensational yellow-backed novel writers failed in doing, the pens of sophisticated arm-chair critics completed. Really good writers, with a few exceptions, shied away from the Western tale, lest they be branded with the yellow-backed dime novelist. It seems to me, from what I’ve read and heard, that most people who have never seen the West, are devided [sic] into classes—the class that believes the West swarms with movie-type cowboys and Indians where bullets whiz continually—and the class that lifts the lip in scorn and rejects all the tales of the West as mere drivel. The truth, as of course you realize, not belonging to either of the above mentioned classes, lies about half-way between. Men didnt [sic] go about with guns slung all over them, shooting at the drop of a hat, hanging rustlers to every tree, chasing Indians twenty-three hours of the day, but life was a fierce and hard grind, and murder and sudden death were common. Now thinking people all over America are beginning to realize the truths of the pioneer West, with the resultant boom in good Western literature—which I hope spells the doom of the Wild Bill dime-novel.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.152
Before the pulp magazine was the dime novel and the nickel weekly; and these early popular media were the crucibles for many of the tropes of pulp fiction: genrefication (western, detective, etc.), series characters (Nick Carter, Deadwood Dick, etc.), catchy titles, fan clubs, etc. It was mass entertainment, cheaply printed, incredibly popular—and spread the legend of the Wild West, which during Lovecraft’s lifetime transitioned into the Old West. The frontier was gone, but it lived on in stories of cowboys, rustling, gunfights, and constant war with Native Americans—and it flourished in the pulps, with hundreds of titles, and made the leap to theater, radio, and finally film. John Wayne’s first leading role was Big Trail (1930), released the same year that Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard began their correspondence.
In the pulp magazines, genre segregation could be strict, but there were exceptions. Occasionally writers would set fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories in a Southwestern setting; usually this wasn’t during frontier days but…there were exceptions. H. P. Lovecraft himself had stories set in the Southwest, almost an entire cycle’s worth: “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “The Electric Executioner” with Adolphe de Castro, and “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil” with Zealia Bishop. While these Southwestern tales would inspire further stories of “Yig Country,” and tales set in the American Southwest,these were not Western stories set in the frontier. The true Weird Western was pioneered by writers like Robert E. Howard in stories like “The Horror from the Mound” (Weird Tales May 1932) and “Old Garfield’s Heart” (WT Dec 1933).
The idea of the Weird Western spread slowly an unevenly; it was hybrid genre that didn’t always find a ready home in every market, for fiction, film, or comic books, though there are plenty of examples of all three. All of these sources, and the periodic resurgence of the Western film in popularity over the decades, from the Spaghetti Westerns, Acid Westerns like El Topo (1970) and Deadman (1996) to gritty Anti-Westerns like Unforgiven (1992), and fanciful weird westerns like Wild Wild West (1999), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and horror westerns like Bone Tomahawk (2015), have contributed to a rich and diverse array of media for fans and writers to mine for ideas…and for some folks, a sandbox to play in.
Western roleplaying games are a minority in the United States; the field tends to be dominated by fantasy-oriented RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and its various settings. Yet they exist. TSR, the creators of D&D, published Boot Hill in 1975, Kenzer Co. published Aces & Eights, GURPS published GURPS Old West and included various “Dixie” settings in their GURPS Alternate Earths books, Pinnacle published the weird western Deadlands in 1996 to some acclaim…and in fact published some of the first Cthulhu Mythos-related weird western game material with Adios A-Mi-Go (1998, long out-of-print but available as an affordable ebook.)
Deadlands tends to be emblematic with the problem of bringing the Wild West as a roleplaying setting. The exact dates vary, but most folks consider the “Old West” to be post-the American Civil War (after 1865) and the dawn of the 20th century. This was a period of tremendous historical racism in the United States, encompassing the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, and the end of Reconstruction. Native American tribes had been forced onto reservations through military force, and kept there with force and laws, their children sent away to schools. Mexicans and other Hispanics peoples were routinely subject to persecution and stereotypes, as were immigrants of all stripes, especially Chinese and other Asian immigrants on the West coast.
Roleplaying games like Deadlands, written mostly by white people for a mostly white audience, and having often absorbed many misconceptions about the Lost Cause and racial stereotypes, were notoriously bad in their presentation of the Confederacy as sympathetic, paid little to no heed to how people of color would feel playing the game, were rife with racial stereotypes (especially with regards to Native Americans, who were often reduced to funny animal names and Dime Novel broken English), and gave little to no thought to the racial tensions and social realities of the turbulent period they were, at least nominally, attempting to depict.
Which, to be fair, is a tall order. Historical racism is a difficult subject to address in any context, when you’ve got a group of people gathered around a table or in an online chatroom, trying to work out a cooperative storytelling experience with dice, not everyone involved is going to even be aware of all the issues at play. Popular media depictions of Native Americans in Western media have strongly colored most expectations about how they “should” be portrayed, much as films like Gone With the Wind (1939) have influenced ideas of what upperclass Southern plantation life was like antebellum.
Mix in the Cthulhu Mythos, and the job might be a little tougher. It’s one thing to make an attempt to produce a setting that directly addresses the challenge of including (and even spotlighting) the diverse array of races, ethnicities, and cultures in the Wild West, and something else to do that while working in concepts and materials that date back to the 1930s. H. P. Lovecraft sketched out a few ideas towards a Southwestern Mythos, but he had no direct firsthand knowledge of the region or cultures, and his depictions of Native Americans and Hispanic characters in particular tend to be rife with dime western stereotypes.
[“]You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this.”
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”
Which has to be understood to appreciate that Haunted West (2021) by Darker Hue Studios got it right.
Haunted West is a standalone Weird West roleplaying game by Darker Hue Studios, the producers of Harlem Unbound. The game uses the Ouroboros System, which is strongly derived from the Basic Roleplaying System used by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game and its many variants, spin-offs, and equivalents. The game itself draws strongly but not exclusively on the Cthulhu Mythos for the “weird” aspect of the game, and while there are enough mechanical differences that you cannot quite drop a Valusian with a shotgun into your Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition or World War Cthulhu campaign, the actual work to convert the stats is minimal and intuitive. Most of the changes in the Ouroboros System are the kind of advancements that should have been made to CoC about five editions ago, offering greater granularity to the percentile rolls, options and abilities to make characters more effective, and different levels of roleplaying granularity (from breaking out the miniatures for combat to a rules lite experience that focuses less on dice and more on narrative roleplaying). I wouldn’t quite call Ouroboros the CoC-equivalent of a heartbreaker, nor is it a perfect system, but it’s definitely trying to address some of the inherent mechanical flaws of Basic Roleplaying.
Front and center in the game is the focus on who is playing, and the nature of the Old West as an incredibly diverse place—and how to roleplay that. While this technically isn’t the first game where you can be a Black cowboy and find that the Mi-Go are mutilating cattle, it’s the first game that focuses on the actual experience of a Black man or woman (or transgender character!) might work in such a setting, how you might bring together a Chinese immigrant, a Mexican vaquero, a Buffalo soldier and his Two-Spirits spouse, to deal with the mystery of stolen Innsmouth gold, a lone settlement that’s turned into a cult of Shub-Niggurath—or what happens if the Ku Klux Klan get ahold of a copy of the Necronomicon.
From a setting perspective, the historical research is excellent. The natural point of comparison would be Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails (2017), the CoC 7th ed. supplement for the Old West. That book is 256 pages, Haunted West is 800 pages—and it is interesting to compare the differences in approach. Both have large sections devoted to raw mechanics and the history of the setting; both also include ways to incorporate the Mythos into the setting and address issues like playing characters of a different race or ethnicity than your own. Down Darker Trails devotes half of page 11 to the question of ethnicity, noting:
As a player, your choice of ethnicity and gender are two factors that go in to making your character’s backstory. The game does not dictate any advantages or disadvantages to a particular ethnicity or gender, so the choice is entirely up to you.
While this might sound like damning with faint praise, from a historical gaming standpoint (and perhaps especially an historical Call of Cthulhu gaming standpoint), this isn’t bad. While the game has never said “no, you can’t play a Black character,” various roleplaying games and supplements over the decades have given specific mechanical advantages or disadvantages based on a player character’s race or gender, and Call of Cthulhu itself has not always been great about encouraging or expressing diversity; game products like Secrets of Kenya (2007) made an effort to discuss the historical reality of racism, but doesn’t really do a good job of it, often falling back on stereotypes (one of the player professions is literally “Great White Hunter.”) Down Darker Trails doesn’t offer many roleplaying hints in that regard. It seems to be aware of the issues, but doesn’t have a good approach to how to actually approach and resolve those issues.
Haunted West faces the issue right off the bat on page 7:
Can I Play A Character of a Race Other Than My Own?
Yes, if done with respect and care. Will you fail? Likely, yes. We all do. But it’s so important to make the attempt and keep trying. Apologize if you hurt someone; you can’t expect them to accept your apology, but you can do your best to listen and make amends. If the community or group you’re in doesn’t understand or hold space for you to fail and try again, it’s probably time to move on.
There is a lot more detail offered for how to play a character in the game, a lot of history and setting information, but above all else this is a game where the designers consciously went into it with the idea of making it an inclusive experience, of not relying on old stereotypes and preconceptions about the Old West, and making it a game that everyone can enjoy while specifically catering to a diverse audience.
In a game set in the real world, history & geography occupy a weird space: all the detail you could want can be found in actual history books. Players can be pointed toward Wikipedia or other easily-accessible online sources, and there is more information there than can be squeezed into even an 800-page book. Haunted West strives to face this reality by offering perspective, as well as history: the usual narrative of the Old West is centered on the actions of European & American colonization, and this book makes a good effort to show that there were other narratives involved…free Black people, immigrants, indigenous peoples.
So where does that leave the Mythos? Well, the game is first and foremost a Weird West game first, with a heavy Mythos flavor.
Roleplaying games focused on historical periods focus on the history above all else; the point of such products is to provide the players will all the rules and setting material they need to build their characters and play their own game. Sometimes this means a few pre-fabricated towns to use as centers for campaigns, some pre-written scenarios and pre-generated characters, but mostly it involves a lot of history and mechanics dominating the book.
So the Mythos as a presence in the Old West in Haunted West can be a bit vague. There are cults, monsters, tomes, artifacts, weird phenomena, etc. but you don’t get a full “secret history” of the Old West from a Mythos perspective. You don’t get firm dates for when the first Innsmouth kin might have arrived from back East, and by association you don’t necessarily get key personalities and non-player characters. There’s room for tens of thousands of stories, but it isn’t the case where there’s only one copy of the Necronomicon in the territory of Nevada, or anything that specific.
A notable absence from the lore is any reference to the snake-god Yig. Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote almost nothing about the Mythos in the Southwest during the period of the Old West, so writers today almost have a blank slate to write to, and they do in stories like “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh. It is not like a sourcebook set around Innsmouth, Arkham, Dunwich or other popular “Lovecraft Country” settings where dozens of authors have set stories or made references from the 1930s through the present day and a really keen writer might have fun trying to incorporate as much as possible, making glosses where stories contradict each other, etc. One of the few things Lovecraft was specific about was Yig, so the absence of the snake-god is notable.
Probably this was a deliberate omission to avoid associating any particular aspect of Mythos-worship to a specific ethnicity or group of people, given the tremendous care given to the depiction of Indigenous peoples in this book, including the (very rare) predominant use of their given names for themselves rather than exonyms (Ndee rather than Apache), etc.
Overall production is excellent; desktop publishing has come a long way, and there are no issues with the formatting. Good use is made of historical photographs & public domain art, while the original art assets are a mixed bag; Kurt Komoda and and Alex Mayo’s work seems to stand out the best. I backed the kickstarter on Haunted West and got access to an early digital edition which is the basis for this review, but the digital and hardcopy editions are both coming out in 2021 and can be ordered at the Darker Hues Studios shop.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).