Once upon a time in the West . . . .

I mentioned early this year that I was running a Scion game set on the American frontier. Well, it recently occurred to me that the players have gotten far enough into the story, and uncovered enough of the metaplot, that I can now divulge publicly what the game’s about.

To follow this, you need to know three things:

1) Scion is a game about playing the half-mortal children of gods in the modern world, starting out as “heroes” and ascending in power and fame to become demigods and (if you survive) eventually gods in their own right.

2) The underlying enemies in this scenario are the Titans, the parents of the gods themselves. They’re truly impersonal, elemental powers: the “body” of the Greater Titan of Fire, for example, is more or less equivalent to the D&D Elemental Plane of Fire. However, Greater Titans can manifest more concretely as avatars, which are god-like beings reflecting a particular aspect of their concept. Prometheus, for example, is an avatar of the Greater Titan of Fire; so is Kagu-tsuchi, but they embody different things. The Titans aren’t precisely evil, but they’re not friendly to the world, and their influence usually isn’t a good thing.

3) One of the Scion books included material for how you could do a WWII-era game. In this, they proposed that Columbia (of the U.S.), Britannia (of the U.K.), and Marianne (of France) were all sisters, daughters of Athena sent out as an experiment in governance. It also proposed a Yankee pantheon, made up largely of tall-tale figures (Paul Bunyan, John Henry, etc), headed by Columbia and Uncle Sam.

So here’s what I did with those three things . . . .

The core of the idea is this: that Columbia and Uncle Sam were corrupted by an avatar of the Greater Titan of Hunger, which came to be known as Manifest Destiny.

Backing up a bit: at some point in Ye Olden Mythic Times, a group of Scions of native North American gods battled and imprisoned an avatar of Hunger. (The books generally provide each pantheon with a Titan that is their particular enemy, though the avatars are drawn from throughout world mythology. Hunger was my invention, as North America isn’t among the areas covered by game materials.) This avatar was all about conquering and assimilating one’s neighbors, so good riddance, eh?

Fast-forward to the sixteenth century or so, and the history kniedzw and I started working out before I got this idea. Athena has a daughter who becomes Britannia (ascending to demigoddess-hood during the course of the English Civil War, before veering off from democracy to become a goddess of empire a little later). She then has a daughter who becomes Columbia, and Marianne is the youngest. Britannia leaves the Greek pantheon to take over what’s left of the native English gods, with her mother’s blessing, but Columbia’s more fractious; she rebels against her older sister’s control and starts a revolution. With the help of Marianne and a Scion of Britannia — a fellow by the name of George Washington — she makes it stick, and creates the United States of America. During the course of that, she also somehow breaks her ties to Athena, and ascends to become the first deity of a new pantheon.

As part of a deal with Marianne, the U.S. gets the Louisiana Purchase, and send out the Lewis and Clark expedition from the Mississippi River Valley. (They soon acquire a young Shoshone Scion to help them, a woman named Sacagawea.) The progress of this expedition creates a disturbance in the river valley, and Columbia and George Washington realize there’s something of great power buried down there. They want to find out what it is, because Britannia’s still pissed, and there’s still a strong chance the U.S. and/or its gods won’t manage to survive. In 1811 and 1812 they make a series of four attempts to retrieve that source of power, causing powerful earthquakes, and finally free it —

Only to discover, too late, that what they have freed is the avatar of Hunger.

It corrupts the two of them, feeding the colonial aspirations of the United States until, in time, that drive becomes all-consuming. The War of 1812 starts almost immediately afterward, which sparks George Washington to ascend as Uncle Sam, and in its aftermath westward expansion gets properly underway. During the 1840s, the nascent American pantheon acquires something very dangerous: a chac mool that allows them to draw power from any soldier who dies in the name of the United States of America. This comes in very handy when the Civil War begins — driven, on the Southern side, by a pair of demigods known as Dixie and Johnny Reb.

Columbia and Uncle Sam strike a deal with various Scions of the Loa, led by John Henry, to capture the Southern demigods, promising membership in the American pantheon in exchange. But they renege on that promise not long after the end of the war, sacrificing John Henry at Promontory Summit, so that the Trans-Continental Railroad becomes a mystical binding holding the United States together. (He basically is the Golden Spike.)

So it’s 1875 and American colonialism is charging full steam ahead, to the detriment of pretty much all marginalized groups. The big event of the game’s first act was a summit meeting at the Seven Cities of Gold, drawing together representatives from those groups — Indian, Mexican, black, etc — to discuss possible alliances against the threat. (Under the leadership of Sacagawea herself. Thank you to whoever it was that told me about the legend of her surviving until 1884.)

There are so many other things chucked in here, too. The Great Chicago Fire, the Peshtigo Fire, the Port Huron Fire, and the Great Michigan Fire were caused by the American Eagle battling and killing Gaasyendietha. The rise of “hoodlums” — anti-Chinese gangs in San Francisco — was driven partly by a behind-the-scenes attempt to prevent the Celestial Bureaucracy from getting a foothold on American soil. Ulysses S. Grant’s difficult presidency, his attempt to pass something like a Civil Rights Act and the resultant backlash from Congress, has partly to do with the opposition of Columbia and Uncle Sam to the plan. I’m running on an “as above, so below” principle: events are both historical and mythic, such that the corruption among the gods influences mortal doings, but mortal doings also feed back into the Overworld.

I’m also bending my usual rule for historical fiction, which is that I don’t want to take history away from the real, ordinary people who made it happen. Scions, even at hero-level, are movers and shakers; that means I’m saying a lot of major figures were actually half-divine. Emperor Norton is a son of Britannia, who claimed the title in an attempt to win his mother’s approval. Allan Pinkerton, of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, is a Scion of Forseti, and was helping Columbia and Uncle Sam gack “undesirables” until the PCs explained to him that his bosses might be Titan-corrupted. Zorro is a Scion of Huitzilopochtli, and a major enemy for one of the PCs.

But the fun thing about that is, I get to dig up fascinating people from American history, and figure out how to mythologize them. Given that the general tenor of the game is “subaltern populations against the hegemony,” I’m especially learning a lot about minority figures: Chinese in San Francisco, Hispanics in the Southwest, blacks in the South and elsewhere. (Harriet Tubman as a daughter of Papa Legba was a fun connection to make.) Most especially I’m learning about Native American topics, because I’ve been strict about requiring myself to be specific. Ely Parker isn’t just “an Indian Scion;” he’s a Seneca and a son of Ayenwatha. I kind of understand why Scion‘s writers didn’t attempt to address native North America — it’s complex, unevenly documented, and politically/culturally sensitive — but I can’t tell a mythic story about American colonialism without including that aspect, so I’m doing my best, and learning boatloads in the process.

(For the curious, I took as my jumping-off point a fan-created document for Native American gods, under the name of “the Manitou.” As suggested there, I’m treating different culture areas — the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, etc — as semi-distinct pantheons, but saying that necessity has led to a degree of alliance and connection between them. The major effect of this is there’s just one pantheon-specific Purview to worry about, which I took from the fan document; also, there’s a base set of Virtues, which gets modified for the different regions. I’m mostly doing my own work to stat Purviews and such for individual gods, though.)

Yeah, I know, I’m a masochist for doing this. (Surprise!) Even if I limit myself mostly to Wikipedia-level research, it’s still a lot of work, especially since the game is ranging all over the U.S.; the NPCs are kind of getting out of control. (Someday I will run a game that stays in one place and one time period. Someday. And it will be glorious.) But there’s a deep pleasure in figuring out how to render real history through a mythic lens, especially since I’m learning so much in doing it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to figuring out how Zorro can make problems for my husband’s PC. 🙂

0 Responses to “Once upon a time in the West . . . .”

  1. diatryma

    This? This right here? This is why I continue to be horribly disappointed in the boy’s D&D game. Your game sounds incredible.

    • Marie Brennan

      Aww, shucks. 🙂

      I keep on coming up with Excessively Complicated game concepts. But I’m not sure I’m capable of any other kind, so then I have no choice but to step up and try to make them work.

  2. shadowkindrd

    Sooo…you’re either going to start writing for White Wolf or branch out on your own and make this into a Scion-inspired series? Right? Because this? This is AWESOME. Worldbuilding at its finest. I want to hear your stories. 😀

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. Unfortunately, it’s too closely linked to game concepts for me to rework it as its own thing. (Unlike Memento, where it was easy to file off the RPG-specific serial numbers for Midnight Never Come.) And sadly, writing it as a game tie-in — even presuming White Wolf cares about publishing Scion novels — almost certainly wouldn’t pay enough to be worth my time.

      But I’m glad you think it would make a good book!

  3. gollumgollum

    I’m laaaaaaughing at you. In that awe-struck way. You’re amazing and i miss you.

    (And wish i was still working the hours that would allow for 3am phone calls about this stuff. Although now that i think about it, i’m driving to work at 3am *your* time…)

    • Marie Brennan

      Heh. has been playing the role of for this game; I’ve been relying heavily on her knowledge of American history (especially where the Civil War is concerned), as my own is sadly lacking.

      I very much deserve to be laughed at for this, and I know it. 🙂

  4. Anonymous

    The Golden Spike as the mystical tie holding America together? I love this. I love this so hard.

    It seems like you’re mostly in the late 19th century, which makes me immediately think of the mythical significance of Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and especially the messianic Ghost Dance movement.

    • Marie Brennan

      I should perhaps mention that Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall have all shown up as NPCs . . . as has Wovoka, although the Ghost Dance doesn’t actually get going until 1890.

  5. jennifergale

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to figuring out how Zorro can make problems for my husband’s PC.

    I now have an image of a big Z slashed into the side of a computer tower. And sparks. Lots of sparks.

  6. beccastareyes

    I am seriously jealous of your Storytelling skills. (It also makes me want to start up GMing again.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Thanks! I only run games rarely, because I only come up with ideas for them rarely, but I do get invested in the ideas when they happen.

  7. Anonymous

    I’d like to nominate two potential NPCs as corrupted-by-Hunger’s-Avatar candidates who can cause a lot of trouble, particularly for Zorro:

    A particularly evil, incompetent, and ruthless Chief Justice of the United States named Roger B. Taney (and that Wikipedia article doesn’t do his evil justice, if you’ll pardon the multiple levels of puns… and not just from Dred Scott)

    A well-meaning Associate Justice whose story (no, I won’t ask for pardon for that pun) was the epitome of “enablement” for American Imperialism: Joseph Story… and I mean “enablement” the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous does

  8. kurayami_hime

    subaltern populations against the hegemony

    An article I had to read last week discussed subaltern cosmopolitanism and used “normative” enough times to make the paper a dangerous drinking game. Thanks for that flashback.

    And if that weren’t bad enough, flashback-wise, Joseph Story, enabler that he may be, also laid the foundations for US comity and conflicts of laws principles which are negatively affected by Oklahoma’s outlawing of Sharia law. I gave a presentation on comity a month ago.

    I suppose that’s what I get for reading LJ instead of working on my powerpoint presentation regarding the Canadian approach to Internet lawsuits as such approach explores the cosmopolitan-parochial dichotomy in regards to substantive law and the simple-complex approaches to procedural jurisdictional issues. Sigh.

    Oh, and nice job with the history/gaming adventures. 😛

    • Marie Brennan

      Thanks for that flashback.

      I’m sorry?

    • Anonymous

      So, you’re saying that Story’s expositions on conflicts of law are more than just another stand-up comity routine? <gdr>

      I’m sure that we could have long, enlightening conversations about the historical development of conflicts of law, starting with de Groot and ending somewhere well after Brainerd Currie subversively undermined all of the theories. At least, they’d be enlightening to civil procedure geeks like the two of us (see, e.g., 953 F. Supp. 1370, 1376_78). 😉 However, I was thinking of Story’s jurisprudence on comity as part of what made him an “enabler” of American Imperialism, so I think we ultimately agree.

      And, for those who don’t know: “Enabler” is, in this context, a bad thing. In AA parlance, the enabler is the the one who enables an alcholic to continue with dysfunctional behavior and denial of the condition — the one who silently cleans up after a vomiting spree with never a word of criticism or concern; the one who silently keeps buying more booze for the liquor cabinet, never questioning where it went; the one who provides extra storage space for the addict’s booze “to keep it away from the kids”; the one who keeps ensuring that there’s an open bar at every social event that the addict is invited to attend; and so on.

  9. anghara

    I am in AWE. [grin]

  10. swords_and_pens

    First, I want to live near you so I can petition to play in this game. 🙂

    Second, I’m impressed on another level: there is no way I think I could run a RPG and write professionally. Too much use of the same mental/story muscles, and I tend to get too drawn into one too deeply to surrender enough spare brain to the other. And since running a game is *much* easier than writing, I know what I’d end up doing.

    I have people who constantly want to start up a game, and I’d dearly love to run me some Amber DRP or Fading Suns or Scion (or any other number of other games, including In Nomine, which is just evilly fun in it’s concept), but really, I know better, at least in my case. I’m happy and jealous that you can manage both. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, it isn’t easy. But honestly, I find writing the novels to be easier — if you can believe it — because I actually control the novels; I don’t have to plan out three different ways the protagonists could track down the villain, or try to figure out how to lure anybody into following up on a certain plot strand. I can just make those things happen.

  11. starlady38

    This is so fucking amazing, I ♥ it to pieces. (Context: I have at least two fully fleshed out schemas in my notebooks of alternate American history operating on the same general principle of up with subaltern! down with colonial hegemony!, but not quite like this.)

    You know what I just learned about the Louisiana Purchase? Totally a function of Napoleon bankrupting France trying to retake Haiti, otherwise he was going to use it to go after Spanish Florida and Mexico and build himself an empire on the continent! I kind of want to write something where he wasn’t a racist asshole just to see him take on New Spain, it’d be interesting (though that does then lead smack into the question of Josephine. Hmm).

    • Marie Brennan

      Question of Josephine? My awareness of that bit of history is pretty lacking; all I know is the naval side of the Napoleonic Wars, and that through O’Brian and Forester, so.

      • starlady38

        She was French Creole, as they called it then: born to a planter family in the Caribbean, Martinique iirc–not St. Domingue-that-became-Haiti, I don’t think. So yeah, there was no way she would have supported letting a bunch of ex-slaves stay free. And Napoleon himself was no paragon of radical egalitarian thought, as his legal code among many other things made clear.

        (A good book that takes a really diagonal look at the Napoleonic Wars is Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, it’s fascinating because the concerns of his narrative are so completely opposed to just about everything the Wars engendered and stood for on both sides, especially from an Age of Sail background.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Ah, I was trying to connect her to New Spain and failing. Yes, the racism would get in the way of any alt-hist where they don’t fight Haiti; you’d need to supply some really compelling alternative pressure.

  12. unforth

    Ah, so figuring out trouble with Zorro is the question, is it? I will ponder on the bus today…

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