Kung-fu gunslingers are looking for action in Far West

Far West: a world of dust and legends; of gunslingers and martial arts masters; of Imperial power and frontier wisdom. Blending the spaghetti western with the tropes of Chinese wuxia and a dash of steampunk, the shared world of Far West will include short story collections, a web series and a pen and paper RPG.

Creator Gareth-Michael Skarka told io9 about the origins of Far West, and the plans he has for this world where a sheriff needs to know the art of Nan Quan (Southern Fist) as well as he needs to know how to use a six gun.

io9: On the Far West blog, you talk about the inspiration for this world as Stephen King's introduction to The Dark Tower, where he describes an epic fantasy set in the American West. You added Chinese wuxia to the mix, a genre about wandering outsider heroes that bears remarkable similarity to the tales of the Old West. What are the key elements that give Far West its character and resonance for you?

Gareth-Michael Skarka: What really drives those moments for me are the overall themes of freedom vs. civilization, and the positive and negative aspects of both. With freedom, you can get either Liberty or Chaos. With civilization, you can get stability and enlightenment or oppression and stagnation. The best westerns and the best wuxia tales deal in those themes, and both use the same elements to communicate those themes: wandering heroes, outside of society, frontier locations, the hero that defends the people but can never truly be a part of the people.

Kung-fu gunslingers are looking for action in Far West

You've mentioned wanting to give more (and better) representation than usual to races and genders not usually seen front and center in fantasy/adventure fiction and RPGs. How does that egalitarian approach affect overall world design?

It hasn't affected world design as such — we are dealing with a fantasy world here, after all, so there's no "adjustment" that needs to be made to somehow justify a wider racial and gender mix. We just take it as a given, in the same way that other fantasy worlds take the presence of elves and dwarves as a given. It's a bit of a sad commentary on the state of geek culture where something like this is considered unusual, or even worth remarking on. In our own very small way, that's something we're looking to change.

The main effect it has had is that we give Rick Hershey, our art director, more free hand in his illustrations. When we were trying out artists initially, the original instructions we sent out read, in part: "Mix up the presentation. We want Far West to be a break from the usual homogenous presentation of geek properties. At the same time, we don't want to stick with Europeans and Chinese just because those are the sources of our main thematic inspirations — so include characters who are black, white, Asian, Latin, etc. Explore your palette. If you think the image would be more interesting with a female character instead of a male one, go with that. Avoid ‘fan service' cheesecake where possible. We want women who are as kick-ass as their male counterparts — not pin-ups."

The female hero seems much more common in Asian cinema than in Hollywood action movies. Why do you think that is?

For wuxia films specifically, it stems from the idea that the protagonists are outside of society. The idea that civilization often doesn't guarantee justice leads to outlaw heroes (like Robin Hood in the European tradition), defending society from outside of it. Given that the protagonists are going to be portrayed as individuals who are rejecting the rigid traditional societal roles, like social status, you see the presence of women who do not adhere to the traditional roles of wife and mother.

How are you handling the shared world aspect, with multiple authors contributing a variety of different stories?

Kung-fu gunslingers are looking for action in Far West

The first book in our fiction line, Tales of the Far West, is an anthology featuring authors ranging from Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora) to Dave Gross (former editor of Amazing Stories). The writers are provided with our setting bible, and I'm editing the book in my role as the creator of the property. Everything will be run through by me and my co-developer, T.S. Luikart, for continuity.

We are also doing a bit of the "shared world" thing with regards to the wider property as well — not just the fiction. We'll soon be launching the Far West Society, which is a membership group of fans of the setting, who will be able to contribute directly to Far West and shape its direction. The material produced by the Far West Society will be canon for the setting, in addition to the material produced by the Core Development Team.

Far West is designed from the outset as a transmedia setting: a world with many different products based on it, all designed to allow you to choose your point of entry into the setting. Each product (RPG, fiction, future efforts like the web series and more) stand on their own, but if you choose to participate in any of the other products, the whole will be a richer experience as a result. For example, it allows us to set up something in one platform, and pay it off in another — consumers of each platform will see it as setting flavor, but consumers of both platforms will get the pay-off, and it will resonate specifically for them. This allows us to do things like introduce characters in fiction who later appear in the RPG, or locations from the RPG which later factor into the web series.

What do you have planned for the web series, and how does that tie in to the cinematic qualities of Far West?

We've begun development on a web series which will be comprised of 10 short episodes which will be available via streaming online, and then collected into a 90-100 minute feature available for purchase as a download or on DVD/BluRay. The series will be as much of a mash-up in format as the genre itself: a mix of live-action, animation, different film techniques, jumping from style to style, telling the story of the crew of a run-down airship eking out a living in the Far West, and the trouble that they suddenly find themselves in. We'll have more information on it as development on it kicks into high-gear in 2012.

Let's talk RPG mechanics — the game is based on a modified core of D20, with a few other systems blended in as well. Kung-fu gunslingers are looking for action in Far WestHow quickly will someone who's spent a lot of time playing a D20 system be able to pick this up?

Think of it like a hot-rod. If you just want to tear around and have fun, you can easily do that. But if you're a gearhead, you can pop the hood and tinker and customize to your heart's content. Gamers who have spent a lot of time playing a d20 system will be able to "see our math," so to speak, and will be able to not only pick up the game quickly, but will be able to tinker as well. It forms the 'engine' that we built into our hot-rod.

Take a look at what Green Ronin did with Mutants & Masterminds — that's basically the sort of thing we're talking about here, using the d20 System as the core engine, but not what you'd really think of as a "d20 Game" in its final form.

How will the mechanics simulate some of the intricacies of martial arts combat, which seems to be lot more specific than, "I hit it with my sword"?

If I can use the Mutants & Masterminds analogy again, the Kung-Fu styles in Far West are similar to powers in a superhero game. They're not just about delivering damage. They have additional affects (both positive and negative) which make combat more intricate than, "I hit it." We present a bunch of pre-generated styles to choose from, but also include a system for designing original styles from scratch, so your Kung-Fu can be as unique as your character.

In what other ways to the RPG's mechanics capture the essence of the Far West world?

We're proud of our iteration of the Aspect system, which gamers will be familiar with from FATE system games like The Dresden Files, Spirit of the Century, Legends of Anglerre and more. Aspects are descriptors that add unique flavor to each character. They can be tagged by players for bonuses to rolls, but conversely can also be used by the GM to compel actions. For example, if you give your character the Aspect of "The Fastest Gun in the Far West", you might be able to tag that Aspect for a bonus on your initiative in combat — but the GM may decide to use the same Aspect to have your character constantly challenged to duels by gunslingers looking to make a name for themselves.

Far West will be published by Adamant Entertainment. There's also a Far West blog that has tons of information about the elements that inspired it, plus short fiction and other behind-the-scenes material. Finally, you can access limited edition books and exclusive adventures by contributing to the Far West Kickstarter campaign.