Combining Worlds: See You Space Cowboy…

We had an urge to play some space cowboys. But what does “space cowboys” even mean to us? There was one way to find out: play In This World and chew on our preconceptions.

Our plan was to play In This World to prototype some worlds, and then pick one to use for another game we were going to run. Rather than trying to define “space cowboys” as a concept at the start, we used the ‘combine two things’ technique and inserted space into slot 1 and cowboys into slot 2, just to make sure we were really starting from the ground floor.

And it totally worked! We made four tasty worlds. Well, universes really, because: space. All very good, all very distinct takes on what it meant to be a space cowboy. But which one to use for our game??

Spoiler: we used all of them.

Yep that’s right. After a bit of pondering we realized that all four ideas we created could interlock together, perfectly.

World 1 was a planet where a colony ship crashed long ago, leaving survivors to spread out and settle the barren world. Security androids from the ship had been repurposed into law enforcement, creating relentless robot sheriffs prowling the badlands. A totally cowboy vibe, but on a distant world.

World 2 was a lot more sci fi, with “cowboys” as frontier mech jockeys, on the very edge of the expanding universe, fighting to claim infinitely valuable star-seeds from the emerging cosmic proto-matter before anyone else. They are the legendary adventurer-heroes every child dreams of becoming, their names written among the stars.

What, no hackers yet? World 3 has you covered. Cowboys roam the data nets, infiltrating and stealing. But this is an interplanetary internet, the data connecting a thousand worlds and a myriad of races in a great galactic civilization. Humanity are small fries, a tiny unimportant race, except for one distinction: for reasons unknown, they are the only species who can project their minds into the net. They are the only cowboys, so the other civilizations have to hire them to do their dirty work. Essential but eternally outsiders.

And then World 4 takes us back to a more classic cowboy vibe. The entire galaxy is united and civilized, but one world has been kept wild as a haven for people who don’t want to follow society’s rules. Anyone can reject civilization and go live on the badlands planet, where there is no law but what you make… And once you go, you can’t return.

Four very different worlds, but I think you can already see how they click together. Worlds 1 and 4 are the same place, a world where a colony ship crashed long ago and has now been set aside by the interworld-government as a free haven, an outlet for those who can’t adapt to the galactic utopia. And that galactic civilization is world 3, where humans have a rare niche as hackers, but are otherwise unimportant… with that unimportance perhaps fueling the desire to escape, one way or another. And then world 2, with the larger than life mech-cowboys on the edge of the expanding universe are just the outer fringes of that same civilization, another place where heroic individualism can still survive.

Normally you can merge ideas with a little adjustment, but this was exceptional because we didn’t have to change a single thing. They just clicked. Was that a side-effect of creating them all with In This World? That even though we knew they were independent worlds, our brains were already primed with similar ideas or subconsciously making things that worked together? Who knows? It’s not something I’ve seen in other In This World sessions.

Either way, our combined setting gave us three distinct kinds of space cowboys in this one universe:

  • galactic mech fortune hunters on the edge of existence
  • second-class citizen hackers, the underclass of an otherwise utopian alien civilization
  • pioneers who have rejected civilization and “gone west” to make their own way on the badlands planet

Which actually brought us right back to our initial question: what kind of space cowboys did we want to play? If you guessed dusters, speeder bikes, and robot-sheriffs prowling the wastelands, you would be right. But now we knew so much more about the civilization outside our world, the wardens of our tiny preserve.

We knew what we had turned our backs on.

    Ben Robbins | June 11th, 2023 | , | show 3 comments