Monday, April 20, 2020

What we owe the Western

Note: This was written by me in 2017 and was formerly on another site.

I am far from the first person to note that role-playing games, especially fantasy RPGs, do not bear a strong resemblance to the literary sources most often referred to, Epic Fantasy. While fantasy games may be filled with dwarves, orcs, elves, and goblins during play the characters do not act as if they were on a long, selfless quest for a single goal. Instead they are interested in a great deal of action, motivated by much more immediate rewards of gold and powerful items, and far prefer a series of relatively short excursions.
The rather stark differences between the works of Tolkien, etc. and actual play of fantasy games is clearly, and humorously, demonstrated by the web comic DM of the Rings – ‘the “players” in a game based on the famous books dislike the overly-complicated back story, the nature of “non-player characters”, the relatively slow pace, and also complain bitterly about the paucity of ‘loot’.
What fantasy RPG players are looking for is a much more episodic experience (with the possibility of overarching plots and goals, of course) that have a variety of goals, provide a great amount of action and a diversity of foes, and a ‘payoff’ or frequent rewards. What they are looking for doesn’t resemble a fantasy epic but does look like a pulp Western.
The structure and formula of the classic pulp Western is fairly standard and has remained essential the same from the penny dreadfuls of the 1880s to modern film: a hero arrives; the hero is obviously much more competent than the locals; a villain and his mooks are identified; the hero overcomes the mooks; the hero faces the main villain; the hero receives his reward; the hero leaves. This simple, straightforward structure has helped the Western not only survive it helped the Western dominate popular literature, radio, TV, and film for decades.
Such a simple structure has the advantages that it is easy to add elements and complexity while staying ‘true’ to the core concept. Variants include the revenge story (the motive for the protagonist), the outcast story (the protagonist is wrongfully accused and is working to clear his name), and more. Fantasy RPGs most resemble the Western variation that Dr. Wright of Colorado State University calls ‘the Professional plot’. In the Professional plot there is a group of heroes rather than an individual and the group’s goals may be more focused on rewards than virtue. Examples of this variation include some of Louis L’Amour’s books in the Sackett series as well as the films The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven.
This simple, resilient structure also allowed the Western genre to go through a number of ‘phases’ that can also be seen within the development of fantasy RPGs. The origins of fantasy RPGs strongly resembles the ‘classic Western’: good and evil are clear and obvious; non-‘civilized’ foes (Indians in Westerns, monsters in RPGs) are a looming threat yet are rarely shown in any detail other than as combatants; stories are very episodic. The “second wave” of fantasy RPGs resemble the second wave of Westerns: good and evil are more ambiguous, Natives and humanoids are presented in more complexity, etc.. Story-focused RPGs look a lot like the ‘auteur Westerns’ of the ’60’s and ’70’s with a much stronger emphasis on character development and story, a reduction in violence, and conflict arising primarily from personality and outlook rather than about resources. ‘Hack and Slash’ RPGs and the violent spaghetti Westerns like Django are cut from the same cloth, too.
But these similarities aren’t coincidence. At the turn of the 19th Century the Western was the most popular genre and this had a tremendous impact on popular literature, especially in the growth of science fiction in the 1930’s.
While Verne, Wells and their fellow writers of scientific romance obviously flourished in the 19th Century the scientific romances themselves were not as popular as we might think. Dime novels were everywhere, but were largely westerns, about exploring Africa or the Orient, etc. with science fiction not as popular. Also, a fair amount of the scientific romances, especially from Wells and his fellows, were as much a form of social commentary as entertainment. Wells was certainly not primarily a writer of science fiction (he produced a large volume of non-fiction) and in the early 1900’s he was writing primarily contemporary novels (The History of Mr. Polly), social satire (Kipps), and non-fiction. Verne likewise primarily wrote adventure and exploration fiction with science fiction being less popular at the time. With a number of European authors producing original Westerns in French and German and also enjoying high sales, if no critical recognition, from the 1880s until well into the 1970’s the Western was king.
But the Western was changing.
In 1912 a man with no previous experience as a writer changed everything with the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, which was soon re-titled A Princess of Mars. With this book Edgar Rice Burroughs created the entire Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance genre and changed how we think of science fiction forever. The tales of an Earthman on Mars and his adventures among exotic alien races led to generations of imitators and still exerts a tremendous influence on science fiction and fantasy.
But A Princess of Mars is obviously and directly derived from the dime novel Westerns. In fact, A Princess of Mars begins with the protagonist prospecting in the Southwest and his first foes are Apaches! The conventions of classic Westerns don’t end there, either. Here is an exercise for you – when you read A Princess of Mars follow these steps:
1) Imagine John Carter as a half-breed trying to find his place in the world.
2) Imagine the Green Men as various tribes of American Indians.
3) Imagine the Red Men as White settlers where Dejah Thoris is the daughter of one prominent rancher and Sab Than is the son of a rival family.
If you do you will quickly see that the parallels between Planetary Romance and Westerns didn’t end when John Carter traveled to Barsoom. The many authors imitating Burroughs followed suit, with Leigh Brackett and Lin Carter standing out as excellent examples of Planetary Romance as ‘Westerns in Space’.
The dead sea beds and abandoned cities of Barsoom echoed the deserts and ghost towns of the West, placing John Carter in territory familiar not just to the Western genre but to Burroughs, who had served in the cavalry in the Southwest. These stark landscapes placed in an otherworldly context and against the backdrop of ancient races were certainly an influence on the development of the Dying Earth genre and echoes of Barsoom can be found decades later in Vance’s Dying Earth stories.
The generation that followed A Princess of Mars contained a number of writers critically important to popular literature in general and to the development of RPGs in particular. Among them, Robert E. Howard stands out in importance.
Howard is famous for effectively inventing the sword and sorcery genre. He did this by taking the historical adventure (whether in a real or pseudo-historical setting) and combining it with supernatural elements like the undead, lost races, etc. The first of these stories,“The Phoenix on the Sword”, introduced us to this type of story and also to the character Conan of Cimmeria. This seminal story was published in December of 1932 and the impact of this mash-up is hard to over-state; Conan is as important a pop culture icon as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or James Bond and the tales of Conan are arguably the main literary source for how fantasy RPGs are played.
But the Conan stories are plotted very similarly to Westerns. Conan arrives, he is obviously more competent than the locals, a villain is identified, etc. The other classic elements of the Western, such as the tension between the individual and society, the importance of civilization contrasted with the weakness of the civilized, the special status of women, etc. are also critical to Conan stories. This is most obvious in the story “Beyond the Black River”, which concerns Conan saving a bunch of settlers on the frontier from raids by “savages”. With just a handful of minor edits “Beyond the Black River” makes an excellent Weird West story.
But the amazing thing was Howard had already created another genre in that same year!
Howard had previously written the story “The Horror from the Mound”, a Western story concerning a cowboy fighting a vampire. This tale incorporates a mix of European folktales, Conquistador legends, Native American imagery, and Western characters, showing that Howard had already succeeded in mixing horror with another genre a full seven months before “The Phoenix on the Sword” was published. “The Horror from the Mound” is considered the first Western Horror story and is the birth of the Weird West genre. The time lines are hard to pin down, but it appears that Howard had completed “The Horror from the Mound” immediately before he began transforming an older story into the first Conan tale.
Howard was also an accomplished writer of Westerns with his tales of Breckenridge Elkins, the mighty powerful but mighty dim boy from Bear Creek, standing out as not just great stories but very funny ones, too. Written at about the same time as the Conan tales the stories of Breckenridge seem to contain a few elements of self-parody with Breckenridge’s appearance and physical abilities oddly similar to a certain barbarian while his actions are aimless, destructive, and self-defeating, causing endless torment to those around him. The slapstick tales of Breckenridge are also similar in tone to the tales of Cugel the Clever from Vance’s Dying Earth, although Breckenridge is more clueless than amoral.
The Western peaked in popularity between about 1960 and 1975 when Louis L’Amour and Luke Short were at their most popular (L’Amour sold a total of over 200 million books!) but the genre has been in decline ever since. Many bookstores no longer have a section for Westerns and most, if not all, of the magazines devoted to them are gone. But during its heyday the Western brought us Planetary Romance, Swords and Sorcery, the Dying Earth, and the Weird West. Westerns have inspired writers like Burroughs, Howard, Carter, Vance, and Brackett, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Appendix N.
I urge fans of Burroughs, Carter, Vance, and the rest, people who play RPGs, and writers to open up a Western and see just why they were so popular. I recommend you start with the Robert E. Howard short stories which can easily be found as ebooks or in omnibus editions. I find that the best Westerns are fine examples of good, clear writing and plotting and they are also sources for adventures and characters for RPGs.
Happy trails!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

If Your Torches Burn for only One Hour your NPCs will be More Important

  In the Seaward campaign the PCs formed an adventuring company, got a charter from the King, bought an old inn as a home base and, most recently, built their own level in my superdungeon.
  None of them are above 7th level and most of this activity began when they were 3rd/4th level.
  The Company is about 10 PCs but they have about 45 henchmen, as well as about 100 hirelings, mercenaries, etc.

  When discussing my campaigns in blogs, forums (very rare), on my Discord, etc. a frequent question I get is 'how do you get your players so invested in the world? NPCs seem important, they use a lot of henchmen that develop their own personalities, and they start doing things we associate with being name-level very, very early. What's the secret?'.

  The really, really short answer is that in my campaigns torches burn for an hour and weigh 2 1/2 lbs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Sting of Death

A recent social media post triggered a cascade of ideas for me, all because of the partial description of one of the most horrifyingly dangerous monsters in AD&D 1e - the Intellect Devourer.

  These things are as hard as they come, a ferocious opponent that makes an anrgy dragon seem like a vacation.
  For those of you who don't know, the Death Spell is one of the most terrifying spells in AD&D.

That is one Hell of an opening description

  If you are within the HD/Level limit no save and you're dead and only a full Wish can bring you back!
  But an Intellect Devourer shrugs off a Death Spell 75% of the time.

  What doesn't this beastie ignore?
  Power Word Kill. It just slays it.

  The first implication is that Power Word Kill includes psionic power. But that isn't enough. You see, PWK is a Ninth Level Spell, on par with Wish. The real implication is that PWK is whatever it takes to kill you.
  Only vulnerable to acid? PWK is like that. Only harmed by silver? PWK is like that. Only killed by a blessed weapon wielded by a virgin brunette that got A's in Biology at Smith? PWK is like that. Enough like all those thing to kill whatever needs killing, at least.

  Spell descriptions - read them!

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Seaward - the Company of the Dark Moon

In the Seaward Campaign the majority of the PCs are in the Company of the Dark Moon with a royal charter from the king himself. They are up to things!

  Seeker, the fighter/thief head of sneak for the Company is busy.

In the Air- Using his broom he flew the hippogriff eggs they found to the grove of the Great Druid in the Briars and parkeyed with them, getting advice on how to destroy the evil elemental altars in Skull Mountain. The Druids warned him that if he did too much good in the Mountain the Guardian of the Monster Pit would awaken and unleash an army of foul monsters to destroy him 'as befell every other adventurer who attempted to purge the Mountain.' He thanked them rested the night, and flew on.
  At the mountaintop fortress of Heruhoth. Heruhoth agreed to raise and train one of the hippogriffs for the company with the second as payment. Heruhoth told him the location of the tower of the Mad Mage and the limits of the range of the Dragons of the Greywalls.
  Seeker rested, then flew on.
  After days of flight he arrived in the dwarven fortress- city of Khuzdhun. After a few days of negotiating a band of dwarven craftsmen set off for Skull Mountain!
  Seeker rested, then flew on.
  Arriving back at Skull Mountain he used several charges from a Stone of Earth Elementals to have an earth elemental carve out a rough level of his own in the Mountain. As it finished the dwarves arrived (escorted by the Company, using the Egress and the Secret Trail). The dwarves finished the level and returned home.

Not shown - the secret tunnels to the Cavern of Herds and the Egress

 Perched on a shoulder of the Mountain he has a secret ground-level entrance, access to the Deep (juuuust below the range of the turrets), a long tunnel to a secret entrance to the Pilgrim's Hall, and another that leads to both the Cavern of Herds and the Egress. 

  Leader of the Company, Clint was busy staffing the fortress the King tasked them with running for him. After hiring a number of troops, repairing and rebuilding parts of the fortress, repairing the motte and bailey at the ford, establishing patrol schedules, he decided to make a real mark.
  He hired craftsmen from Seaward to come in a full  inn and tavern complex halfway between the fortress and the ford and brought in an innkeeper as half-owner. He then sent people through the kingdom and the surrounding lands letting them know that any man that came to the area would get 30 acres and if the by then od of two years the land had a home and crops he would get 5 silvers.

  The senior mage of the party (7th level) has set off on his flying carpet for the University, that fables hall of arcane knowledge outside of Robias, the City of One Hundred Towers. He is seeking a sage that can tell him of the Mad Mage, the Wizard of the Tower, the Witch of the Fens, and the other powerful evil mages that bedevil the area.

The Dungeon Master
  I am spending Sunday updating maps and re-writing encounter charts!