Steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction

I’m running a d20 Modern campaign. For those not well versed in geek lingo, it’s basically like Dungeons and Dragons except with a rule set for modern times. So every week, a group of us get together, sit around, eat snacks, roll dice, and make up stories based on set dice. It’s loads of fun.

This time around, I am running the story as the Game Master (GM); basically, I run all of the background characters, devise the world, and interpret the dice results into narrative fiction. I’ve done this for a while now, since I was roughly 19 years old, so I wanted to do something I had never done before, especially since my group was all Mormon.

I weaved a world based on my religion.

Well, sort of. The world that my friends delve into every week is steampunk alternative Mormon history. Basically, I ran with the idea of “What if Joseph Smith had successfully fled to the West instead of being martyred in Carthage Jail?” Suddenly, it’s the year 1899, and the Northern American continent has split into three basic political entities — the Federal Union, the Confederacy, and the Mormon Territories (during the Second War of Independence). Joseph Smith is still the prophet, operating out of Deseret, the capital established next to the Great Salt Lake, while Brigham Young is the governor of New Nauvoo, west of the Mississippi (the ruins of old Nauvoo lie just across the river). The two major Mormon cities are connected by a network of dirigibles, called the Mormon Line. Also, there’s magic, swashbuckling adventure, and sweet steampunk goggles and gears and stuff.

I’m planning on running strong themes of order versus nature, freedom versus security, justice versus mercy, the law versus the Spirit. In the background are the two gleaming diamonds of Mormondom — the alabaster, orderly, cosmopolitan city of Nauvoo and the dusty, rough-and-tumble, frontier city of Deseret. Two political leaders, the charismatic Joseph and the managerial Brigham, will butt heads as they both grapple with problems both mundane and fantastical and wonder what to do. In the midst, our plucky hero-adventurers will make decisions that will alter the course of alternate Mormon history forever.

When I ran this idea excitedly past my wife, she seemed reluctant. “Your friends are pretty liberal when it comes to Mormonism, and they’re pretty used to your blasphemy by now,” she warned with a wink, “But this might be crossing the line.”

“There’s a line?” I replied. Of course, I knew there was a line. This unsaid line runs deep through Mormon culture, separating the wheat from the chaff, the wholesome media from the seditious, libelous, faith-breaking, irreverent material deemed unfit for goodly Saints’ eyes and ears. A conservative, faith-promoting portrayal of Joseph Smith in Gerald Lund’s series, The Work and the Glory is appropriate. But a gun-toting, charismatic-but-too-trusting, Wild West Joseph Smith who wears steampunk goggles and swoops about in a steam-driven mini-glider shooting down invading Danite dirigibles? That’s too, well, irreverent.

But why is that? There’s a pretty fine line between parody and homage. One is lampooning, and the other is sincere respect. Sure, there can be elements of both in either, but I had considered this fantastical world I cooked up an homage to Mormon history, of which I have a deep appreciation for. And in every audience, in every niche, the fans’ parody-homage meter is finely tuned; we can’t explain it, but we can tell when someone is laughing at us, or smiling with us. Somehow, however, our parody-homage meter in Mormon culture tends to be hyper-tuned towards parody. If it doesn’t read like a Sunday School manual, you’re making fun. Or hurting the Church. At the very least, you could destroy someone’s testimony. Harsh consequences abound for any writer who decides to take liberties with Church history.

It could be because we’re still young, and we still take ourselves way too seriously. It could be because we’re still somewhat ashamed and confused about our own history and self-identity. It could be that we’re still too insecure about ourselves as a culture, afraid to appear fractured or to appear less than perfect. Maybe we just need time to mature, to mellow out, to realize that it doesn’t matter what the world says because the world will never like us anyway so we might as well have some fun at the expense of ourselves because we’re not really that perfect either.

Whatever the reason (and I believe it’s a complicated ball of cultural neuroses that would be fun to dissect but would turn this blog post into a dissertation), I ran the game, and afterwards, despite the skeptical looks, everyone had fun and look forward to see where the story goes. So far, nobody wants to burn me at the stake for heresy (talk about an awkward end to a get together). And I’m 85% confident than when I die and go to the Spirit World, Joseph Smith will come up to me, dice bag in hand, and say, “You know Brother Ted, I’d like to play in that steampunk alternate Mormon history game you ran several decades back. Pull out your campaign notes.” And I would, because we would both understand that we’re smiling together.

20 Comments

Filed under life stories, religion, wordsmithing

20 responses to “Steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction

  1. Th.

    .

    I hate to turn my first discovery of your blog into a driveby advertisement, but you have to know that in the upcoming Mormons & Monsters anthology we have a sweet bit of comics that takes place in a world very much like your own.

    I hope your world grows and grows and it finds a way into greater Mormon culture at some point. Because it sounds very very cool.

  2. dteeps

    I want to play!! Just one problem I notice — you say it’s set in 1899 – that would make Joseph Smith 94 years old. How much swash can he buckle at 94? Unless there’s some divine immortality involved?

    • Ted

      Oh man, so true. Perhaps my complete lack of mathematical skills will bring about some fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants creative thinking. I mean, President Hinckley was pretty spry for his age. Maybe not swashbuckling spry, but still? Hmm.

  3. I don’t think its going to bother too many “conservative” Mormons, as I think it sounds pretty cool. The most problematic would be Joseph Smith vs. Brigham Young, but it depends on where it goes from the general idea. Its not like an alternative Joseph Smith and America was never done before. Famous author Orson Scott Card wrote the “Red Prophet” series with a twisting of history in mind. Of course, he never specifically used Joseph Smith or Mormonism directly.

    • Ted

      And that is where the danger lies in a lot of peoples’ minds. Just the very idea of writing about “What if Joseph Smith wasn’t martyred” adds a whole element of trying to “guess” the plans of God, so to speak. That’s where people start to get nervous.

      As for Joseph Smith vs. Brigham Young, I am not planning on some kind of brawl or schism because of it. I wanted to instead highlight the two different personalities that make up our dual-identity of the Church — very managerial and bureaucratic (Brigham Young), but also very charismatic and spiritual (Joseph Smith). Not to say that both didn’t have either traits, but it’s what they’re known for.

  4. The thought about the year occurred to me as well. I think it would be more likely to see an 1869 setting, with Joseph at 64. Here’s my question, what happened to Emma in this world? What happened with Polygamy? What happened with Joseph’s children? And what kind of bizarre steampunk tech have you dreamed up or incorporated into this fantasy land?

    By the way– I was serious when I said I want to do this over the internet via videochat. We’d totally need headsets, though.

    • dteeps

      I’m with Myke on this one, we need to figure out some way of running this campaign online so that us long distance folk can participate! I’m in!

      • Ted

        Since posting this, I’ve had several people from Utah express interest. If you would like, I could write up my notes and present them as a formal campaign setting, or I could try and wrangle some kind of long distance campaign as well. The problem is that I don’t have constant internet access, but I actually have been trying to devise a system to play via email, so we may give that a try!

    • Ted

      Yeah, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with the age thing yet, but I wanted to go with the 1899 thing because it’s the turn of the century but whatever. I will see what works out best for the story. My group is definitely experimental (the poor guys).

      At the moment, polygamy is not in, Emma is still with Joseph, and all of his kids are just hanging out Deseret. I haven’t planned too far into the world yet, but I’m fleshing it out aswe go and also in my spare time. I’ve been toying around with maybe using one RLDS historian couple’s theory about the origins of polygamy in the LDS Church, but it’s pretty controversial.

  5. Pingback: NaNoWriMo 2011: A preview « Catchy Title Goes Here

  6. Kris

    Your game sounds totally fascinating to me. I was wondering if you still have any of your notes on the campaign. I was actually thinking about writing a Steampunk Mormon story set around 1845-1846 in the Indian Territories. I was thinking that it would be a story about the building of the Nation of Zion and it relationship with Native Americans. I see the nation as stretching from Mexico City north to the Canadian border and from the Mississippi river west to the Pacific. But, now that I’ve seen this I’m thinking it might make a good D-20 campaign, with dirigibles flying from Salt Lake to Mexico City. A steampunk search for actual Nephite cities and their hidden treasures.

  7. Sean G.

    “Polygamy is not in…I’ve been toying around with maybe using one RLDS historian couple’s theory about the origins of polygamy in the LDS Church, but it’s pretty controversial.”

    So then this is an ALTERNATE alternate history, one in which Joseph didn’t begin practicing plural marriage in the 1830s?

  8. Here are some character sketches for Joseph’s potential muses. XD

    http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/

    By the way, Emma fought polygamy tooth and nail and always proclaimed it wasn’t true doctrine, that’s what got her kicked out of the position of Relief Society President (so apparently what she said was blasphemy). You have be pay some sort of homage to these women. They rarely have a voice in any mention of mormon history.

  9. Erin

    I’m not Mormon, but I love religion, history, and steampunk, and this sounds like a whole lot of fun! :)

  10. Very cool.

    I’ve written a four-part gonzo action steampunk novel called City of the Saints, set in the Kingdom of Deseret in the year 1859, in which agents of the U.S. Army (Sam Clemens, in his amphibious steam-truck the Jim Smiley), the clandestine confederate leadership (Edgar Allan Poe, in disguise as a traveling exhibitor of Egyptian antiquities), and the Queen (Richard Burton) battle each other, the counterintelligence agents of the Kingdom (including counterfeiter, poisoner, and seductress Eliza R. Snow), and the leaders of a Danite coup to get control of the Madman Orson Pratt’s fleet of phlogiston gun-mounted air-ships on the eve of the Civil War.

    Part the first is Liahona. Here’s the Amazon link, but email me, Ted, and I’ll shoot you a code for a free copy on Smashwords.

  11. This sounds like so much fun. Thanks for sharing. Wish we could be a part of it.

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