Well, thanks to the outage yesterday and a flurry of getting writing samples done, I have not created new content for this blog nearly as quickly as I would like. So here’s a previous piece from another page, something that still seems relevant to me.
Somewhere along the way of turning a misspent youth into a misspent adulthood, you may notice that there’s a certain…something about the way we tend to play. It’s something that came into focus once when I realized that one of the cardinal differences between an American fantasy like D&D and a European fantasy like Warhammer is that, well, American roleplaying game characters act a lot more like cowboys. Even a casual glance at the origins of how D&D tends to play out Stateside reveals lots of emphasis on frontiers, scattered settlements, huge amounts of space. The current 4e system of “points of light” reflects that frontier mentality, which is itself a callback to back in the days of the Keep on the Borderlands and huge hex-maps of undiscovered terrain. Westerns tend to be easy to cut-and-paste into D&D plots, usually substituting orcs and whatnot for the usual bandits or Amerind nations… with a touch of unfortunate subtext there. (This also means we have a spiritual brother in the form of the samurai epic, of course, but I shouldn’t stray too far down that sakura-strewn path lest my writing become any more unfocused.)
When I put a little more thought to it, though, I realized that the Western really is kind of the forerunner of so much of our gaming. A very, very common theme is the idea of taking the law into your own hands, be it altered into the modern form of the maverick cop (and hey, look, “maverick” is a term with its roots in the West) or playing at comic-book heroes like Batman. The basic conceit of the Western is that it’s a place where either the law has failed, or if it hasn’t, the protagonists are shining lawmen. The geography defines freedom — wide open plains, huge skies, riding across the border — and that romanticizing of the settler places value on the thought of carving something your own out of the land, with few people to tell you otherwise.
The tropes are everywhere. Our superhero battles have their roots in god-making and mythology, yes, but they also absorb key elements from the Western. Superman gets a hefty dose of Hercules, but he abandons the moral failings in favor of another graft from the Lone Ranger. Fights between hero and villain take the form of showdowns. Similarly, in the World of Darkness, martial law prevails. Just as the government can’t really reach out and control all of the frontier, it can’t reach into the world of the supernatural. A vampire prince draws heavily from the same well as the corrupt sheriff or outlaw who controls a town with an iron fist. And player characters act like protagonists in a Western as well, often shouting defiance and spraying (silver) bullets everywhere even if it’s not the optimal course of action.
It’s neat. I find it really interesting that this uniquely American philosophy informs our gaming. It certainly explains why you find the occasional D&D gamer who goes into apoplectic fits that so many D&D games are not at all reflective of What Medieval Culture Was Like, utterly missing the point that we’re telling frontier stories with longswords instead of six-shooters. The presence of castles and knights is a visual motif, not a treatise — it’s really about being cowboys and rangers and grifters. When players decide they’d rather risk it all than spend another night bowing and scraping to Prince Poncipanz, they’re tapping into that romance of the lawless. Robert E. Howard did the same thing, and he was a hell of an influence on those first gamers.
I’m not going to praise the American Western influence entirely, of course. I think the rest of the world is well aware by now just how those Texan cowboys and their yee-haw attitude can be a royal pain for everyone involved when they take that American attitude too seriously. But honestly, the world is well-served by having a variety of Westerns to choose from, and I honestly think some measure of accepting the frontier romance is well and truly justifiable. I wouldn’t enjoy gaming quite so much if all my games had to be Unforgiven. I like the ambiguity (of things other than morals, mind) of Pale Rider for my WoD gaming, usually with a dose of the also-very-American Ray Bradbury for taste. I love D&D that hangs around The Magnificent Seven level of romance, and nobody can tell me otherwise.
Of course, this being gaming, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that there is also no small amount of Young Guns that creeps into the actual play. I’m lucky enough to attract good players whenever I set up camp at the end of my table, but we’re gamers. You know what it’s like. You’re partway through a complicated story of bad men doing bad things for what they might call good reasons, and hard folks in the saddle riding to dish out the closest thing to justice you can manage, and blam… “Hey, dog. Dog. Did you see the size of that chicken?”
(Truth be told, I’d felt I’d be kind of disappointed to find out I was the only person who ever thought that a perfect quote to drop into the middle of a Werewolf session would be “We’re in the spirit world, asshole, they can’t see us!” As I was delighted to find out, I’m not.)