In the past few weeks, through little planned intention, I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns. AMC has been running a crop of Clint Eastwood films and I’ve caught A Fist Full of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and about half of Hang ‘Em High. Unforgiven ran on another channel late one night and I saw The Magnificent Seven on AMC a few nights later. Spurred on by this feast, I took out copies of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Pale Rider from my local library.
While watching these or any other films of the Western genre, it’s hard not see the similarities between the themes and characters of these films and those of D&D. This reflection is hardly surprising since D&D is, at heart, a game that was created by Americans and there is nothing more American (and I mean American as in “North American”* rather than “United States of”) than the Old West.
We’re a young continent when looked at through the lens of recorded history. As such, we don’t have quite the rich cultural and mythological heritage that our counterparts in the other areas of the world possess. We have no King Arthur, no Nibelung, no Achilles or Herakles, and no oni or kappa to lay a claim to. At best, we can summon up the shades of Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed, but even these are both young and steeped in the only mythos that we can call our own: the Wild West.
While many of the themes of the Western are universal (the lone righter-of-wrongs, the evil land owner, the populace in need of salvation) there is one theme that resonates more deeply in the American psyche, which is the taming of the frontier. Being the youthful nations that we are, the idea and challenge of pushing back the frontier and bringing order to the wilderness is a goal that hasn’t been faded by the mists of elapsed time. There’s still an enticing draw to this, even when the wilderness of America has largely vanished outside of protected parks and other established boundaries. I know that it calls to me, despite the fact that I live in one of the oldest settled areas of the United States and have had little direct exposure to the American West outside of books and short visits to the southwestern states.
I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that the “end game” of OD&D – the establishment of a stronghold in the wilderness – was a result of our cultural heritage of the American West. Despite Gygax’s and Arneson’s knowledge and love for European history, they are American by birth and steeped in that same cultural heritage. The idea of taming the frontier would be a natural goal for high level characters to pursue. The fact that these characters could also acquire followers and henchmen, which would allow them to engage in protracted wars with their neighbors and conquer established lands, thus being more akin to European and Asian history, is a secondary goal. The prime motivation is the clearing of a hex of land to call one’s own and to build a permanent structure within it.
I can’t help but speculate that, had D&D been the product of the minds of two European or Asian war gamers, the high level end game might have been very different indeed. Perhaps rather than the taming of the frontier, it might one that focused more on the establishment of a dynasty through the conquest of settled lands or through the elaborate networks of alliances and treaties. It might even be more Tolkien-esque, requiring the confrontation and defeat of a larger evil to maintain or restore order to previously established lands. I doubt the emphasis on clearing the frontier would have been as pronounced.
I know this blog gets visitors from around the world and I’d be interested in hearing their thoughts on this matter. Does the old school end game have the same allure to you as it does with Americans and do you think the end game might be different if D&D had been created outside of the United State? North Americans are welcome to share their thoughts as well.
* I’m aware of the parallels to the North American West that occurred in South America – the gaucho, the chalan, and the huaso, as well as the similarities in clearing the frontier for settlement but I’m limiting my scope to the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for the purposes of this post.