Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Six-Guns & Sorcery

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.


Alex Schroeder said...

It is true that settling the wilderness is not something we see in The Black Eye, explicitly. The thought that this was due to an American background is new to me. Then again, how much was Gygax influenced by the Swiss ancestry?

Michael Curtis said...

I wouldn't be able to prove conclusively that the settling of the wilderness is a theme in D&D because of the American mindset when it comes to such matters but I believe that it is a logical conclusion. I'm not stating that this is soley an American phenomenon but since the period of time between the modern age and the taming of an unknown frontier is so much shorter in the Americas than it is abroad, it's a more recent cultural memory and I believe has more of an impact on the American population. One has only to look at the works of Robert E. Howard - Two-Gun Bob himself - and see that American West influences our take on even the most fantastic of settings.

As for the influence of Gygax's Swiss heritage I can only speculate based on my own experiences, but I've found these are similiar to many other Americans. My own ancestors consist of both recent immigrants to the United States as well as some who've lived here for several generations. I do have certain attitudes and traditions that are influenced by my more recently arrived ancestors. My maternal grandmother came to the United States from Norway as a young girl, so there are aspects of my upbringing that have been influenced by Norwegian traditions and they were a big part of determining who I am today. While I'm very proud of that ancestry, it's not a predominent part of who I am and how I think. I'm much more a product of the collective American culture, which is only natural. While it stands to reason that the amount of American cultural impact varies from person to person here depending on many different factors, I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate the same might be true in Gary's case. But again, I can't prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Kevin Mac said...

I love those westerns too (I think Good,Bad, n' Ugly is my favorite movie of all time), but somehow when I think of running a western game, combining it with Call of Cthulhu comes more to mind than anything else.

I remember loving the idea of Deadlands, but didn't like it as much the more I read about it. I want a truely supernatural western setting, that does not include "Ghost Rock."

TyBannerman said...

I certainly like the idea of pushing back a "wilderness", but certain aspects of it are problematic for me.

Interestingly enough, this may only bolster your theory of OD&D's relation to the myth of the frontier. After all, the US frontier was *not* an unsettled wilderness, but rather home to a people of a vastly different culture who, according to the precepts of Manifest Destiny, had to be disposed of.

Similarly, the Wildlands of OD&D aren't empty either, but home to humanoids that the players must deal with in one way or another (and I think we all know the "one way" most campaigns fall back on) if they are to carve out their homestead.

It's interesting, isn't it? And the more I think about it, the more firm those parallels are.

TyBannerman said...

I was just discussing something similar to this with my wife. It's a facet of the "implied setting" of early D&D that interests me very much.

Michael Curtis said...

I remember loving the idea of Deadlands, but didn't like it as much the more I read about it. I want a truely supernatural western setting, that does not include "Ghost Rock."

I think you can work the supernatural element into any Old West setting without the need to turn it into a supernatural world. Just look at High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider. Both of those movies featured a supernatural element without the need to change the rules of the Western. Of course, there all schools of thought that say there was no supernatural element in those films, but the movies are vague enough to support both schools of thought.

I'm also reminded of an editorial in Dragon that proposed the mashup of various modules and movies with radically different rule sets. One example given was to run Tomb of Horrors in a Boot Hill game by making the Tomb into a lost Aztec construction that housed the remains of a priest and let it play out from there.

Michael Curtis said...

I certainly like the idea of pushing back a "wilderness", but certain aspects of it are problematic for me.

I had no doubt that the "problematic" nature of discussing the Old West would come up. As you mentioned, it's only the unsettled frontier when looked at through the eyes of white settlers. Unfortunately, history is often rife with such assumptions based on the outlook of the "winners." I make not attempt to justify that outlook but only mention it in as it was seen (and taught) in America for so many years.

What you say is true. The frontier in OD&D is also not the wilderness to its inhabitents, but the game in focused on the attitudes and mores of the human and demi-human races and thus suffers from the similiar narrow perceptions.

Anonymous said...

The 1980s RPG `Dragon Warriors` (Dave Morris & Oliver Johnson) has just been revised (thanks Mongoose, even if my copy is taking more than 60 days to arrive) and it's widely held up by those who know it as OD&D as done by the British. Brooding dark moors, scheming knight lords; sort of an alternate middle ages, with arabs and elves. Any dungeons have their history and setting clearly in a cultural context, too. If anyone else has read it, I'd be interested if they have picked up the same idea.