Frontier Scum is a fantasy “acid western” tabletop role-playing game by Karl Druid, published in 2022. The subtitle reads, “A Game About Outlaws Making Their Mark on a Lost Frontier”, a description you might find typical of any classic American Western work. For its part as a game manual, it’s totally serviceable. Character creation evokes the flavor of a weird Wild West, especially with the different tables for characters’ background and equipment; it’s pretty fun! The math is standard for a light-weight game, even if the rules use too many four-sided dice for my liking. There is a spread dedicated to hunting and foraging on the frontier, which I adore since I like having minigames on the table. The layout is stunning, looking like an old-fashioned catalog (update: mistakenly attributed it to Johan Nohr!). All in all, it’s nice. What was I going to write about?
Oh yeah! In my first super duper serious blog post, “Towards Better Critiques of Games”, I said the following :
All sorts of liberal-minded people in this scene can readily accept that the fantasies modeled in games are representations of meta-game fantasies, whether racism or sex or imperialism or whatever else. However, this sort of analysis is always accompanied with the moral obligation to select socially appropriate fantasies, or fantasies which are adequately censored and confined according to the scene’s expectations. For example, the old school dungeon campaign is taken to be an example of racist and colonialist aspirations, and the solution often proposed is to substitute inhuman monsters for rich people who deserve to be burgled or killed.
This analysis is not interesting to me for the following reasons: first, it is a moral analysis which is satisfied with a critique of games only insofar as they deviate from acceptable mores; second, it is a content-wise analysis which is blind to the structures of the games’ fantasy, and so it is satisfied to replace the explicit content without considering its symbolic structure. It is satisfied with the substitution of dungeon crawls with mansion crawls, despite the underlying petit bourgeois fantasy of thriving outside the system. It is satisfied with an uncolonized America composed of indigenous republics and empires, reproducing the same modern fantasy as an eternally pseudo-medieval Europe with the birthmarks of an idealized Wild West.
I have a particular interest in texts which, despite making conscious and unsubtle efforts to avoid certain conclusions, still end up reproducing the presuppositions they’re trying to run away from. This is often because they oppose things on an aesthetic basis, but their underlying patterns of thought and belief align with what they think they oppose. In particular, some texts posture themselves as anti-capitalist or anti-colonialist or anti-this or anti-that, but a superficial understanding of what constitutes those things results in works that are yet stamped by capitalism and Eurocentrism and so on. I find certain aspects of Frontier Scum to fall victim to its own presuppositions about capitalism, turning the Wild West into a monopoly-busting fantasy that puts cowboys back in the protagonistic spotlight.
The Wild Wild West!
The goal of Frontier Scum’s setting, according to co-author Brian Yaksha, is to depict the social circumstances which ran rampant in the Wild West, without depicting the atrocities to which those circumstances led . After all, it would be a downer to adapt Blood Meridian to tabletop theater, or otherwise to depict the genocide against American Indian peoples by American settlers in general. Does Frontier Scum accurately depict the circumstances or motives which might have led to a slaughter of indigenous people if there were any in the setting? Or, to speak more generally, does it offer an alternative weird Western setting which is faithful to the historical reality of the Wild West without being morbid? Does it accurately analogize the Wild West?
The city swells, bloated by the teeming and exploited masses living and dying by the whims of the Incorporation.
This foul profiteer collective leers over the Lost Frontier, avaricious as a buzzard above a field of ripe corpses. Not a single soot-blackened coin is spent in Covett City that they do not profit from. They rule the Incorporation, and the Incorporation rules the modern world. Every building in the city, all industries, all ideas any dare to dream are theirs to lease and to plunder.
All manner of earthly, artificial delights are crafted in their haven of hedonism and endless consumption. This city, Covett City, this factory capital of the world is subjected to countless, untold atrocities and experimentations, both industrial and technological, that ensure the Incorporation’s monopoly and supremacy. Everything can be made here, no tradition is safe from facsimile or counterfeit, and anything not found in stores can be ordered bespoke from an indentured artisan and delivered by debt-shackled courier.
To ensure the endless material hunger metastasizes throughout the Lost Frontier, roiling trains shriek through Cathedral Station like knives in a swine.
Frontier Scum, p. 4.
I don’t think so. Frontier Scum presents a very different social context than can be said of the Wild West. Rather than settler colonists conquering and expanding into a ravaged frontier, the setting lays blame at the feet of an industrial monopoly called the Incorporation. The description of the company city run by the Incorporation, unsubtly, evokes the image of cyberpunk dystopia with a frontier veneer. The narrator snidely comments on the city’s (“earthly”, “artificial”, “hedonistic”, “endless”, “facsimile”, “counterfeit”, “material”) consumerism (p. 4). Although the American South might not be a stranger to industrial projects—see the classic folk song “Sixteen Tons” from which Yaksha likely drew inspiration—mass production is a stranger to the agrarian Wild West as a literary genre and a historical period. Even more anachronistic is mass consumption, especially when historically it has been predicated on a base of consumer-workers with enough revenue and a desire to purchase mass-produced goods. Who is buying “all manner of earthly, artificial delights being crafted in their haven of hedonism and endless consumption”? Likely not “the teeming and exploited masses living and dying by the whim of the Incorporation” ! It’s hard for there to be modern capitalism in one city, when it depends not just on a division between the city and the countryside but also between imperialist and periphery markets (to mix up the language of Lenin and Wallerstein).
Even accounting for these differences in specific historical circumstance, what is described is not an adequate analogy for the social circumstances of the Wild West. Most famously, the Wild West was not all driven by industrial monopolies who sought consciously profit over people, but by families and individuals who settled the land to establish homesteads or otherwise create a living for themselves (often escaping the more dire economic situations on the East Coast and in Europe, i.e. to avoid becoming proletarians). Again, without there being mass production, these people were not really employed by industry or slaves to consumerism. They worked their own land—which they dispossessed from American Indians—or became small shop owners or opportunistic gold diggers or bounty hunters or itinerant ranchers. To me, substituting these situations for one ruled by industrial monopoly ignores that the Wild West is a perfect example of how capitalism operates outside of (or prior to) mass industry, instead being composed of self-employers and self-sustainers. A reality where the unconscious dynamics of capitalism are driven by competitive (and unwitting) individuals is replaced by an intentionally evil big bad corporation. Moreover, whereas cowboys are typically the representatives of the American West in all its colonial expansionism, here they are primed to oppose what is supposed to be analogous to the colonial expansionist force. The metaphor seems mixed up, to me, and more importantly it’s just not representative.
The Moral, Moral West
I think this speaks to an unwillingness to view capitalist dynamics beyond some moral code. A moral stance against some notion of capitalism—specifically a notion which is already predetermined to be ‘bad’—is not only often fine with capitalism as such , but it is informed by bourgeois moral systems which developed precisely to rationalize and maintain bourgeois relations in society. This is apparent in the snide denigration against the Incorporation for being greedy. Greed is not an economic category, but a moral one which entails stepping over certain social boundaries for one’s own gratification. To charge the monopolists with greed is not to critique anything specific or inherent to capitalism, but to express disapproval at someone or some firm doing it wrong (morally, socially, etc.). Many real-life robber barons indeed took it upon themselves to be big-shot philanthropists to avoid repercussions for their treatment of workers. President Roosevelt’s monopoly-busting policy, likewise, was specifically to avoid anti-capitalist revolts on the part of workers, indicating perhaps that monopolies are destructive of capitalism in general even if they are profitable to themselves. The narrator’s emphasis on the company’s greed and the city’s hedonism, then, is not really a critique of the Wild West or of capitalism in general at all. Yet, perhaps fittingly, it aligns well with a traditional cowboy’s view of an ostensibly decadent modern world, his rationale to go out into the frontier to seek his own fortune.
What I find particularly worrisome in political circles is an inability to not recognize capitalist dynamics unless they are most obviously in the context of mass industry. The Wild West was, of course, a product of an emerging capitalist world order. Euro-Americans settled westward and brought with them a modern ideal of self-sufficiency and homestead economics; they also conquered land and resources from American Indians in order to do this, which might be considered some form of primitive accumulation. How well does this setting map onto a modern industrial one? Let’s be more specific: do the moralist criticisms against unquenchable greed and monopolized power make sense when applied to the American West? Not really. Who’s the centralized, organized power calling the shots? Was anyone at that point in time, in that part of the world, really motivated by “number go up”? Where’s the big corporations and where’s the number-crunching stockholders? How many people in these isolated settlements were engaged in industrial wage labor ? We are getting further away from the point but I hope it is clear that there is little similarity between the Wild West and modern capitalism, with respect to anything resembling mass production or mass consumption which constitute the latter. Instead, we’re making up fictional evil monopolies to make unsubtle, snide remarks at, as if they were real criticisms made against real historical actors. There is no connection I see, or at least not one where the stated moral concern against one reasonably applies to the other .
There is not much useful about a moral critique anyway. There is no analysis of how capitalism works or how it came to be, often because the perspective of the critique is not by anyone who has anything to gain for themselves from challenging the situation (and articulates it as such), but from someone who sees themselves as above it all. This seems especially like a lost opportunity when developing a setting inspired by the Wild West, which is a transitory period between pre-capitalist indigenous societies (and some pre-industrial colonial societies) and modern capitalist society. Rather than delving into the social factors which specifically made up the American West, Frontier Scum obscures them in a state of eternal industrialism which is deemed immoral by nature . Why not focus the setting instead, for example, on self-motivated gold diggers who manage to wreck the area for their own gain without any organized efforts among themselves? It’s very simplistic, but the ‘unconscious’ mechanisms of a pre-industrial (and non-monopoly) capitalism are at least in play. Players can then observe, participate in, or try to overcome the social dynamics that are bigger than any one individual or firm.
Literary or Political Critique?
A lot of the above sounds more like a political critique of the text, which might as well be in-universe or diegetic, rather than a critique of the literary technique employed in writing it. It is not a fair assumption to make that the text is reflective of any actual political sentiment, any more than it would be fair to say Star Wars is fascist because it has stormtroopers. My goal instead is to show that the text does not meet its own aims, by being inconsistent with its external expectations or with its own internal logic. We have seen the former in discussing how the setting presented does not map very well to the Wild West, lacking any of the specific social (economic, political) factors which distinguish it from other time periods. Why does it matter, then, that after establishing this mass industrial setting, the text reproaches it for greed and hedonism?
The text postures itself as a political-via-moral commentary on the setting; that is, the text makes subjective statements about the world it describes, with the aim to condemn whatever it is creating. This is, on one hand, Yaksha’s stated intent with developing the setting: to try to depict what he views as the worst tendencies of the Wild West without directly depicting its worst atrocities (though I do not think the setting succeeds at this, as discussed). Yet it is also apparent from the text itself, which cannot help but describe the Incorporation as “foul” and “avaricious”, it being a “haven of hedonism and endless consumption”, it having “untold atrocities and experimentations”, it producing “facsimile and counterfeit” goods (p. 4). It uses such redundant language as if to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea. Seeing that the text emphatically denounces its subject, and knowing that we are working with a pseudo-Western setting that is apologetic for being so, we can extrapolate that the text is setting up an antagonist for the reader to dislike, expecting to find common ground against corporate greed and mass consumption.
So, once again: are corporate greed and mass consumption typical associations of the Wild West? Not in particular. However, let’s consider the implications of the attempted association. Both the Wild West and mass industry (including both production and consumption), whatever those things are, are bad. They both exhibit violence and expansionism, whether of settled land or of money. They share capitalism in common, whatever capitalism is—and this is the anchoring point if you were attempting to analogize one thing as the other, since you would need to decide what makes sense to carry over from one form to the other. My hunch is that the common ground, capitalism, was defined in terms of those moral categories (greed and hedonism) and it was on this ground that an analogy between the Wild West and mass industry seemed appropriate. This elides any specific dynamics of the Wild West which distinguish it as a historical period, and also obfuscates the historical development of capitalism between then and the period of mass industry (where, by capitalism, see ). This elision causes Frontier Scum to falter as a Western or as a meta-commentary on the Wild West, as genre or time period. Instead, it attempts to be a meta-commentary on mass industry, at which it also falters for the reasons mentioned.
If the stated goal was to emulate the social circumstances of the Wild West, I think the setting is off-base with respect to both intent and product. It is possible to depict the social circumstances of the Wild West without portraying atrocities or having to play as a settler. The attempt in this book just seems misguided by an unimaginative, moralist perspective of what constitutes capitalism in different forms throughout history. Must all critique of capitalism be reducible to cyberpunk stereotypes of big corporations, mass production, and ‘hedonistic’ consumerism? Aren’t there more relevant tropes at hand to deconstruct the Western ?
Frontier Scum’s setting tries to have its cake and eat it too, by presenting the dynamics of the Wild West as antagonistic while yet locating its protagonists in the figures of individualist, anti-system cowboys. It gives the impression that rather than critiquing the Wild West as a genre or as a time period, it is trying to find a way to afford the enjoyable parts of the Wild West genre without being ‘problematic’. I imagine that few people will want to spend time playing cowboy in the big cyberpunk city, so it might just not factor all that much into play, but it’s a decision that undermines both generic expectations of the Western and any internal critiques thereof.
I wrote this a very long time ago, maybe one or two weeks after Frontier Scum was published. I did not post it then because I did not want to start negative discourse surrounding its release. None of this is intended to attack (or “call out”) the politics or character of the author. Seeing how texts such as these attempt to emulate, model, or echo history is simply an interest of mine. I think it says a lot about how history is viewed or, even, produced if we take history not as the past itself but as a narrative about the past. In fact, I have a positive review down the line about a historically inspired zine that (in my opinion) better reproduces the social dynamics of its period, or at least puts the players in a better position to explore those dynamics.
Still, as I have said before, these sorts of texts are not really politically impactful anyway. Analyzing them feels like playing with dolls (or whatever you prefer). Maybe it serves as practice to acquaint yourself with thinking critically in general, but I am not writing this for practice—I am writing this for enjoyment. It feels creative and enriching. Isn’t that reason enough? Who knows.
 B., Marcia. 2021-05-26. “Critique 1: Towards Better Critiques of Games”, Traverse Fantasy.
 Yaksha, Brian. 2022-07-19. “This is also not the real world; this is not some ‘weird west’ where a lot of really bad takes and appropriations are taking place. This is another world which has reached this grim, vicious, brutal period of technology, exploitation, and desire for dominion over the earth.” Twitter thread.
 A relevant passage by Debord on the topic of industrial versus post-industrial (consumerist) societies:
Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively. In the least industrialized places, its reign is already attested by a few star commodities and by the imperialist domination imposed by regions which are ahead in the development of productivity. In the advanced regions, social space is invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. At this point in the “second industrial revolution,” alienated consumption becomes for the masses a duty supplementary to alienated production.
Society of the Spectacle, p. 42.
 A working definition: a society in which commodity production predominates over other social relations in the spheres of production and distribution. I know it's annoying to specify, but it can be just as annoying to get the wrong idea across.
 The main analogy I can think of is the First Transcontinental Railroad, commissioned by the United States government and carried out by three railroad companies. However, it was precisely this big project which began the modernization of the American West, bringing with it immigrant wage laborers and manufactured goods from the East Coast. It led directly to the end of the cowboy “industry” since cattle began to be transported by rail instead, and they were no longer kept on open ranges. The end of the frontier is not unknown to the Western genre, and yet it is not really referenced in Frontier Scum.
 Yet what I find very interesting is that the narrator doesn’t seem to find these outcomes specifically even to the big bad evil monopoly, but he ascribes them to humanity in general. When discussing the Scree Knives:
But humanity’s infinite hubris still seeks to claim dominion wherever it treads. Many religious sects come here seeking Providence and freedom to practice their heresies while gazing contemptuously down upon creation.
Frontier Scum, p. 9.
Was this written in-character? Aren’t we talking specifically about opportunistic adventurers going to a frontier full of “untold treasures ripe for the plunder”? Was it humanity’s hubris that killed the buffalo? Is the Incorporation also an expression of intrinsic human nature? What does this mean?
 Keep in mind that mass industry itself is also a product of specific social and historical factors, and that criticisms of certain monopolies for greed came just as often from fellow competitors just as they did from workers and consumers. One of the big instabilities of modern capitalism is between the drive to generate more value and the necessity for free competition lest the economy fucks up (and workers start getting mad). This is one reason why the American government was so invested in union-busting during the early twentieth century, as I have mentioned above.
 I recommend reading this blog post (link) on Blog of Holding about how OD&D excels as a western game with its frontier politics, early modern economy, and ostensibly ‘monstrous’ inhabitants. Of course, OD&D relies upon having fictionalized ‘monsters’ against which to exert colonial violence, so it does not meet the requirement of not depicting real-life atrocities or analogs to them; however, the other parallels do more of the heavy lifting anyway.
There is also the Anti-Western literary genre, from which we get books like Cormac McCarthy’s aforementioned Blood Meridian. These books are often written from the perspective of the violent and chauvinistic cowboys (or wannabes), in an attempt to show where such attitudes really come from and where they bring people. However, this is done by exploring the extent and effects of such colonial or fascistic violence, which is not pleasant. Though I wonder if there’s an unwillingness on some people’s part to give up the cowboy as a virtuous or fun figure, such that they will try to find a way to make the cowboy the good guy again instead of taking seriously their own predisposition for the cowboy figure.
Interesting that the HBO series Deadwood pushes a similar grand narrative -- resource baron Hearst rides in and threatens corporate control of the freewheeling settlement.ReplyDelete
that is interesting! it makes sense for the western genre to pivot to anti-corporate stories in general, since the typical heroes and villains of the genre aren't really savory now haha! but i think the question to ask then is, what's staying the same if that's changing?Delete
I think a useful distinction can be made here between the book and the series. It's also worth noting that both are very much Anti-Westerns. The series leaves you feeling some sense of meaning or hope I guess, the book does not.Delete
The book is also far better (and the producer of the series claims he didn't read it - which one can almost believe). Deadwood the book is not a triumphant tale of plucky not quite bad guys and flawed good guys fighting Hearst. Swearengen can never be perceived as an anti-hero, and Bullock is not a good guy, nor is Charlie Utter, despite being a decent fellow, because heroism is impossible in Deadwood - it's cursed land.
The novel presents a far less facile anti-Western then the series (which is also quite good) in that it doesn't suggest redemption is possible for the wildcat settlers of the Black Hills (Historically really not sympathetic... ) as they resist the greater evil that loom back East. The town of Deadwood, and the Western more generally are an expression of that same thing. In a good anti-Western (even perhaps the old bad ones) this void at the core is a key aspect -- the fundamental sordid nature of the violence, the emptiness of ideological posturing in the face of capital's implacable crushing advance and the obdurate cruelty of the wilderness.
Adventures without heroes. Also, yeah it's melodramatic and rather indulgent to the protagonist, but I'll take poisonous sympathy with the Kid in Blood Meridian or the horrific evil revenant in High Plains Drifter over some sort of "punch the rich guy and watch coins fall out" style pablum.
Of course I don't really know how to apply this all to RPGs, but this ain't it pards.
Interesting analysis. I have not read or played the game, but at least on-face this makes a lot of sense. I appreciate that you make a point to try not to spread negative discourse around the product or the creator while still critiquing it "harshly but fairly".ReplyDelete
thank you max! :) for sure, i was seriously worried about it so i held onto it for a long time, but still felt like it was worth taking seriously what the setting implies about the western as well as modern society.Delete