I've spent a lot of time over the last few months telling people about Alas Vegas, my recently Kickstarted RPG-and-novel project, set in a casino city in the desert, heavy on its mythic resonances and its game-mechanics powered by a form of Blackjack played with tarot cards. And the number one response I get back, straight off the block, has been, 'Is it based on Last Call by Tim Powers?'
No. No it fucking isn't.
Alas Vegas has its roots in the mid 90s—about four years after Last Call was published but well before I'd read it, and before Gilliam's adaption of Fear & Loathing, or before CSI was a thing—though back then it was called "Vague As Hell" and I thought it was a short novel. It turned out to be a couple of pages of notes in the Scrapped Ideas file and fifteen years of mostly writing fantasy novels and award-winning RPGs instead. And then I realised that the project should have been an interactive story all along and I started building some RPG rules for it and contemplating a Kickstarter. And then I finally read Last Call.
Fucking, fucking Tim Powers.
If I wasn't so annoyed by so many of the overlaps between his story and mine, I'd be disturbed by them. Last Call is the first part of a trilogy structured around the seasons. Alas Vegas is in four acts, each of them themed on a season. Last Call has a custom deck of tarot cards; Alas Vegas has commissioned WFA-winning artist John Coulthart to create the major arcana of a Vegas tarot deck. Vegas itself, the occult, the blood-soaked history of the place, the nature of sin, the ritual use of card-games, it's all... well, Alas Vegas isn't published yet and I don't want to give away its big secrets, though I will say that Powers' version of the city is based more firmly in reality than mine, which is more impressionistic. I liken it to "The Prisoner" directed by David Lynch, whereas Last Call is Last Call written by Tim Powers. But at one point my story had a whole Fisher King thing going on in the mid-section. That's gone now. It had to.
It's pretty obvious that if you're writing a mystic, mythic version of Vegas then some things are naturally going to crop up. Tarot cards and gambling games played with them, for example: you take what already exists in the real Vegas and shunt it sideways, and there's an obvious groove it's going to slip into. Powers uses poker, I use Blackjack because I'm designing a game and Blackjack serves my narrative purposes better: less bluff, more aiming for a target. But the other stuff, the other overlaps, I've spent a while thinking about.
The thing that makes Vegas such a perfect background and character for stories like this, hovering on the edge of unreality—and not just for fiction like Last Call and Alas Vegas, but also for stories like Matt Forbeck's Vegas Knights and even things like The Hangover, Fear and Loathing, and Casino – is that it isn't real. It's a projection of dreams onto a skeleton in a desert, and no two people's dreams are the same. Everyone wants something different from Vegas, and everyone finds something different when they finally arrive there. And it doesn't have a history as much as a mythology: gods like Sinatra and devils like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, sands soaked in blood, casinos named for their resonance with other, equally mystic parts of the world: the Luxor, the Sahara, the Riviera, Caesar's Palace.
Look at the typography of the original logos of the big golden-age Vegas casinos. Every one is designed to evoke somewhere that isn't Vegas – Arabia, the Old West, Imperial Rome: somewhere exotic and adventurous, where people weren't afraid to take chances, anywhere that isn't a freakish city in the middle of a desert where no city should naturally be. Modern Vegas doesn't have that problem: modern Vegas has become the destination that the early Vegas was trying to summon up: where the rules of normal life are not so much suspended as abandoned, or never were.
I used to believe that Las Vegas was the most unnecessary city on the planet: a place of greed and lust, where only the basest human desires have any currency and only currency is real. Now I'm not so sure. Vegas reflects us: we look into it and see only ourselves, and how you see yourself says more about you than it does about Vegas. If you reach in and find tales of the Fisher King, of lost tales of chivalry and hereditary rulers, of good blood and bad; or if you find parables of the seven deadly sins, of fame and desire, and of what transgression does to the soul, or something else, then—
—well, there are many reasons why I am not Tim Powers and that's probably the least of them. But there's room in Vegas for all of us. Come and play awhile.
James Wallis is one of the legends of the RPG world, the creator of many, many acclaimed and award-winning RPGs, including the sublime The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. You can learn more about Alas Vegas in an interview here and another one here, and snoop about the (fully-funded) Kickstarter here. It is coming out soon (but not soon enough, dammit). James can be found on Twitter as @jameswallis.