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The Internet used to be compared to the American Wild West, where just about anything went and the only restrictions on what you could get away with was your own conscience, or lack of it. Slowly, the regulators and vested interests have whittled away at the cowboy attitudes and for the most part, the internet is a much safer place for it.

AD&D

Any reference to taming the Western Frontiers always reminds me of AD&D and something that has been lost to the game in later iterations of the rules system. The ultimate goal of a PC used to be to gather enough wealth and influence to carve out their own nation in the wilderness, to tame and claim a portion of the Frontier that was beyond the edge of civilization and make it your own. I often wondered why that concept went away, and have slowly realized what I think is the answer. I think the “PC’s Stronghold” has been sacrificed on the altars of realism and political correctness.

As players and GMs became more knowledgeable and as Verisimilitude became more important, a number of frivolities were quietly dropped from the game. Political structures became more realistic, and settings more credible. People started thinking about the economic and social ramifications of adventuring, and found that the existing model simply didn’t hold water.

Furthermore, the concept of expanding your society through conquest of “unclaimed lands” was political incorrectness of the highest order, because The Wilds weren’t really empty; they couldn’t be, or there would be no adventure potential. Instead, they were usually inhabited by less-civilized societies – Orcs and Goblins and what-have-you – who were themselves being transformed by the forces of credibility into more vibrant cultures that simply didn’t fit the Imperialist/Monarchic pattern of the fundamental game setting.

So the writers junked the notion.

An opportunity lost

This was an opportunity lost, in my opinion. The concept could, and perhaps should, have been revised and updated. Fighters could still have engaged in conquest by violence – but with a realistic depiction of the consequences, based on history, and problems that could only be solved by negotiating fair treaties and sticking to them. Clerics could still have built temples and brought in religious settlers – but with the need to come to terms with the belief structures of the existing populations, which would be just as valid as those of the Cleric, perhaps leading to a situation in which both theologies grew as a result. Druids could have built groves, and Wizards towers, and so on.

Instead, the concept simply vanished from the sourcebooks. Why?

I think there were several reasons.

  • It didn’t take long for “Political Correctness” to become a joke and an annoyance, because it was carried to ridiculous extremes. It stopped being a passive demonstration of respect and acknowledgement of past mistakes and became an active reform movement, especially in the hands of hypersensitive zealots to the cause of feminism.
  • Research is hard, especially when dealing with native populations who prefer privacy over exploitation.
  • The Sourcebooks were already going to be large and expensive; this would have added another chapter or more to each of them.
  • The line between using a given native population as a source of inspiration – whether we’re talking about the tribes of central Europe, the tribes of Africa, the tribes of South America, or the tribes of the Western United States – and being offensive (with potential legal ramifications) – would have been razor thin, even non-existent in places.
  • The objective was to revitalize the system. Baggage that wasn’t contributing to that was an easy target.
  • A lot of “the wilderness” of several popular game settings had been pretty fully explored, anyway.

It was easier – and safer`- to simply ignore the idea and let it go away.

Personally, I would still contend that its possible to have a really interesting campaign phase which places the PCs on the front lines of one population which needs to expand – even though there is someone already living in the neighboring territories. The goal is to find a way to satisfy everyone involved, without turning your new domain into a colony in Revolt or triggering a native uprising. Outcomes like those of Northern Ireland (at the time), or the Middle East, or the transition to self-governance of India, or even the Reservations model of the United States constitute failures – can you find a road to success? How will the existing regional politics be transformed by this intervention, and what will the PCs do about it? If a GM can’t make an interesting series of adventures around a group of settlers/invaders who a numerically poor but superior in any one-on-one engagement colonizing an unexplored region with its own myths and legends, some of them true, and with its own delicately-balanced political stability – an applecart that gets upset by virtue of your very presence – he should be ashamed of himself.

And, if the notion of promoting the “conquest” of a native population still seems to strongly involved, send the PCs in as permanent peacemakers and sheriffs, assigned to take the “lawless outlands” – after the worst has happened – and forge a lasting peace between the hostile elements in place. This more smoothly integrates the more realistic social and political models, in which it doesn’t matter how good you may be as an adventurer, you still aren’t going to be made a nobleman for it; that comes as the reward at the end of the campaign phase, for services rendered.

Superheros In Space

In the late 60s and early 70s, Comics essentially had only a few models for Aliens to draw upon. You had the Imperialist Model (“we have come to conquer”), based on the European Imperial template and exemplified by The War Of The Worlds, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon; you had the Conflict Between Empires model, based on World Wars I & II, and exemplified by the Kree-Skrull war; and you had the American Wild West model, in which Earthmen go to the stars and conquer. Even the supposedly futuristic Legion of Superheroes were essentially an Imperial Model, albeit a slightly more enlightened one in which color and racial differences were not only welcomed, but essential to eligibility for membership.

For some strange reason that eludes my towering intellect, superhero games took their cues from the comics. Even my own campaigns employed these basic patterns. Earth was under threat, if not invaded outright, by all sides (for one reason or another), and the brave heroes had to fight for Earth’s Independence – with the odds stacked against them. It’s heroic, it’s adventurous; what more could you want?

Over the last couple of phases of the Campaign, that has begun to change just a little. Earth has beaten back the invaders, and has gone through the phase of demonizing their enemies with willfully slanted propaganda, and has started to see these as individual populations – many of whom have something to offer the people of Earth, either technologically, socially, or in terms of resources. By preserving their independence in the face of overwhelming odds, they are beginning to find themselves in the position of arbitrator, peacemaker, and King-maker. The future is one in which Earth forms the nexus of a loose confederation of interstellar powers, in effect bringing a Common Law to the Galactic Arm. And who do you think will get saddled with the task of enforcing this law? The Heroes, of course! Who else?

Does that mean that the old problems and models have gone away? Not on your Nellie! A larger border simply means that there’s more of the front – there will still be “people” who think the confederation is a soft target, and who will try to carve out an Empire for themselves; and it will be up to the PCs to stop them. There will be people within the boundaries who resent giving up total independence, and who will plot the downfall of the confederation at every step. The existing hatreds and antipathies – some of them millennia old – haven’t gone away, and ultra-zealots will still attempt a radical agenda of striking at “the enemy”. It will be glorious, and lots of fun! (NB: Most of these events will follow the existing campaign, which still has 8-10 years to run – but the time to start planting the seeds of it within the game world is now, in the course of the present campaign.

(Nor, by the way, will all the old problems – supervillains and nutsy robots and extra-dimensional menaces – have gone away. It will still be a superhero campaign – it will simply have a wider scope, that’s all).

Bringing The Law

I can’t think of a single genre* which can’t be characterized as “Bringing The Law” to those populations who don’t have it. Even things like Call of Cthulhu can be viewed as enforcing a “hands off our world” law – one that was written a long time ago by whoever tossed the old ones out on their heinies. Hey, whoever locked Yog-Soggoth & Co. out (most of the time) didn’t wipe them out, did they? Okay, maybe they couldn’t, even if they wanted to. Nevertheless, Call Of Cthulhu in general can broadly be viewed as analogous to WWII Britain during the Blitz, with subversive agents continually trying to slip across the border between worlds – for purposes of espionage, sedition, sabotage, and the recruitment of a fifth column.

*TOON, maybe…

The Intrusion Of Permissiveness

Which brings me back to the Internet. I have always viewed one of the internet as a social revolution in the sense that you are able to go anywhere in the virtual sense, and the regulations that govern what you can do on a particular site are always those of your destination. The Internet brings the law down to its lowest common denominators. In some ways, that is a good thing; tyrants and zealots may be able to slow the penetration of progressive social attitudes into their countries by way of the net, but they can’t be stopped without making the nation completely uncompetitive. China has had to embrace at least some social reform, however grudgingly, and so has Cuba. Have they gone as far as people outside of those nations would have liked? Probably not – but progress has been made. Similarly, the Middle East is slowly and painfully beginning to demand social reform. The genie is out of the bottle.

The internet, from the perspective of a repressive regime, is like Call Of Cthulhu – it’s subversive, it encourages independent thinking, and it lets people from other nations be seen as people.

Things aren’t completely rosy in a more democratic society, either. The internet was and is an open invitation to cowboy entrepreneurs. It provides an almost unstoppable channel for Vice. Shonky operators who can’t do what they want in the country of their residence but who want to stay legal will simply set up shop in a more permissive location, just like the Pirate Radio stations of the 1960s in Britain, or the BBC during the Second World War. The Germans could make it illegal to listen to it – but they couldn’t stop people from doing so. Attempts to do so are like trying to stop water from running downhill – temporary at best.

One of the areas of greatest trouble in this respect was the explosion of internet gambling sites. While some are authentic, honest, and reliable, others are more dubious, if not outright criminal.

Well, if you can’t stop people going to risky sites, legally or otherwise, the only thing to do is to find ways of informing people as to a sites’ policies, behavior, and regulation.

Setting A Standard

It may surprise a number of readers that there are organizations out there that regulate and audit casino and online gambling sites with a view to chasing out the untrustworthy operators – in other words, to taming the wild west. One example is London-based eCOGRA, eCommerce Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance; there are others.

I see the arrival of these institutions as analogous to the rise of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1955, which legitimized and enabled the growth of Las Vegas by cleaning up a reputation that was more than a little scandalous. While some initial downturn resulted as regulations bit into shadier business practices and notorious characters, the booming gambling center became world famous through the later 1950s and 60s as a result. Some such regulation was inevitable, and intervention at a Federal level had only narrowly been prevented just a few years earlier. I contend that without this cleaning up of its reputation, Las Vegas as we know it today would never have come into existence; the “explosive growth” of the 1970s would not have occurred. As a result of the cleanup, gamblers were assured that the Casinos could be trusted to “play fair” and pay up if someone won. These days, no-one gives such questions a second thought in Las Vegas.

Self-regulation lacks the same degree of trustworthiness in the perceptions of many, so this alone is not enough.

Independent Reviews

What’s needed are independent review sites, forums where the legitimacy of self-regulatory outcomes can be reported, and multiple independent self-regulators and auditors cross-checking each other. What’s more, the regulators are only concerned with the legitimacy, fairness, and reliability of the technology and policies of the gaming sites; practices can be both legal and marginally unethical at the same time.

Independent Review sites such as LegitimateCasino.com both monitor the reputation and reliability of the self-regulators and auditors and provide an essential service by warning of such practices. They can also deal with issues that the Self-regulating bodies don’t, like the look-and-feel of gaming sites, and function as a vital dispensary for need-to-know advice and information – check out their pages on Las Vegas history, their history/review of US laws relating to online gambling, or their collection of useful referance websites if you need to be convinced.

The combination of such sites and serious accreditation programs form a more robust environment for the long-term growth of legitimate and trustworthy sites; as these acquire more market share as a result of developing reputations, the less reputable operators are forced to either up their game and “get with the program” or get driven out.

Legalities & The Internet

There have been a host of other regulations and laws aimed at protecting both the internet user and existing businesses over the past thirty years. As with most laws, some are controversial and perceived as preserving the rights or control of one of these groups over another, such as the file-sharing controversies. Others are more universally accepted.

In a mirror of the growth of Las Vegas following the licensing and regulation of the Casinos of the Strip, each of these legal restrictions has produced an explosive and ongoing boom in the capacity for users to access legitimate services of all sorts. Every year, online shopping becomes more ubiquitous and more accepted; compare the awkwardness of the online shopping experience portrayed in the opening scenes of The Net from 1995 with the way that eCommerce has become routine and so widespread that many bricks-and-mortar businesses are either under threat or have folded in recent years.

As always, the first refuge of those whose business models are under threat is an attempt to secure the future through legislation that stifles the advantages that their competitors and rivals enjoy. Sometimes, these battles are won by the incumbents (Napster), sometimes they are won by the newcomers, and in some cases the battle is ongoing.

Like the settlements in the original Wild West, the internet – and the commercial realities that it carries – are here to stay, and will only tend to prosper into the future – unless it is permitted to fragment, enabling bias in the delivery of content from content-providers who have paid for the privilege, restriction of access from content providers, and opening the door to corruption. That is one highly-possible outcome from recent decisions regarding the enforceability of the FCCs Open Internet Order, which remains a hotly-debated subject – refer to the “recent developments” section of this page at Wikipedia and the page or so that precedes it.

Taming The New Frontier

Regulation is the key to taming any frontier. Bringing Law to the lawless, and making it stick. As always, whenever there is change, there are some winners and some losers. In terms of the internet, most of us are naturally biased – we want the users to win, because we number ourselves amongst them. Like the Borg, we demand that the rest of the world adapt to service us whether it wants to or not – and if they won’t, we will take our money to someone who will. And regulation requires enforcement, and a guard against corruption and manipulation.

Any serious confrontation can be used as a template for a great many others in real life, or as the basis of a great adventure or a great campaign. Roleplaying games are still well-described by using the taming of the Wild West as a metaphor – whether its superheros striving to enforce the law and reform it to bring justice to the system, or adventurous first-level D&D characters setting out to carve a niche for themselves in a strange and often hostile world, or the last line of defense standing between our world and the world of Things Man Was Not Meant To Know.

The connections to the past run deeper and stronger than the inclusion or not of the establishment of strongholds; and that’s both comforting and inspiring. Like PCs in a game, customers in the real world may not win every battle; the trick is to know that, and use that knowledge to be sure that we win the right ones, and eventually, the war. And hopefully, to have a lot of fun along the way.

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