I ended up talking about Westerns with some buddies of mine the other day. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time talking about Jack Schaefer's classic novel Shane, and the 1953 film of the same name.
If you've never read it or seen it, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a story that deals with themes of courage, manhood, the morality of killing, and the struggle against an untamed wilderness.
It's not just a classic tale of the American West. It's arguably the classic tale of the American West.
In fact, scholar and critic Will Wright made that same point in his landmark survey of the Western film, Six Guns and Society. Wright argued there were four basic plots to the Western: the Classical Plot, the Revenge Plot, the Transitional Plot, and the Professional Plot, each one differentiated by how "society" (usually represented by the frontier town) deals with the presence of the gunfighter.
And while he admits that Shane isn't the first story to use the Classical Plot, he convincingly argues that it's the definitive example of one. Simply put, Shane is nearly the Platonic ideal of everything the Classical Western should be.
Which is why it should definitely go on your viewing/reading list if you're planning a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Yes, I'm serious. Fact is, Westerns make up a big part of the missing DNA of D&D, at least the way most people play it today.
And sure, plenty of folks fancy themselves "Old School" players. Maybe they've even read a good chunk of Gary Gygax's Appendix N for inspiration. They can quote Vance's The Dying Earth chapter and verse. They've ripped off Leiber's Nehwon as a ready-made campaign world. They've even turned the people and places from Leigh Brackett's Mars stories into weird, exotic locales.
That's fine. But they should be probably be turning to Leigh Brackett's Rio Bravo, instead.
The missing bit of DNA I'm talking about is the Domain Game, the higher-level game where player characters clear a chunk of wilderness, build a fortress or tower, and set about running a a safe-haven against the forces of Chaos running rampant in the world.
Rules for that state of play were clearly baked into the oldest editions of D&D, with the ability to build castles and attract followers being treated as a level perk for 9th level and above in AD&D. OD&D didn't even have a rule stating the characters needed to be a certain level to begin. All they needed was a pile of gold, a plan, and ambition.
Of course, this state of play heavily implies a world with vast sections of untamed wilderness in need of settling, with all the attendant problems that creates: steady supplies, a struggle against nature, and keeping law & order against the violent hooligans.
In other words, it's implying a setting with the exact same problems, factions, and conflicts you'd find in any story set in the American West.
This is no accident.
Even a casual glance at Appendix N—or at the recommended reading lists in B/X and OD&D—reveals a heavy presence of Golden Age writers inspired by the Great Westward Expansion. That whole setting and era was very much a part of our American Myth at the time, and it was only natural to see parts of that Myth play out on the sands of Barsoom or the primeval forests of the Hyborean Age.
Of course, most modern players don't take their inspiration from American pulp writers like Burroughs and Howard. They follow the school of fantasy descended from Tolkien: extensive world-building, in minute detail, with plenty of lore about the cultures, races, and regions found on the map.
What they're missing is that in its earliest incarnations, D&D was a game about filling in that map. It was about adventurers exploring a hostile land, looking for gold, and eventually carving out a tiny slice of civilization there.
That's a Western, folks. No matter how many Tharks, Picts, or Orcs you try to cover it with.
If you want to create a truly unforgettable game for your players, don't bother trying to create a vibrant, overstuffed campaign world for them to explore. Give them an empty map on the edge of the world, a hostile wilderness full of ancient ruins and unimaginable treasures... but only for the daring.
Give them the opportunity to expand it.
And if you have no idea how you'd even run a game like that, I suggest you put down the SFF reading for a couple of weeks. Sit in for a movie-marathon of classic Westerns. Grab a stack of pulp Western paperbacks while you're at it.
Either way, I'd suggest starting with Shane.
Last week's post on Mishima and his sword-meditations reminded me of this question, which popped across my Twitter feed about a month ago.
There were plenty of answers offered, most of which dealt with things like speculative tech and world-building.
My own answer is a little more pragmatic: because real life can occasionally justify them. Combat isn't a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and "gun" doesn't automatically beat "knife" (or "sword," in this hypothetical case). In a deadly encounter, there are plenty of factors that can skew the odds in favor of the guy with the blade.
One is distance. Or rather, lack of distance.
Studies have shown that at ranges under 21 feet, unless a defender has his gun already in hand, it's incredibly unlikely he's getting a shot off at a committed, knife-wielding attacker. This basic principle is behind the "21 Foot Rule," which has played a major part in both Law Enforcement and Defensive Firearms training for decades. This short excerpt from the police training film, Surviving Edged Weapons, gives an excellent crash course and overview. I also recommend tracking down and watching the entire film. It's an hour and a half well-spent for students of the subject.
Just to underscore the point, long before I ever saw Surviving Edged Weapons, an old cop in my hometown told he'd rather face a gun than a knife at arm's length. His reasoning was that with the gun, all you had to do was control the direction of the muzzle. The gun, he said, is only dangerous from one angle. But the knife—especially one in the hands of a violently struggling suspect—can come at you from any angle. And it's deadly from all of them.
Bottom line, combat is a messy, chaotic affair. Even in the age of firearms, it can end up at the eye-gouging, hair-pulling, throat-ripping range. Once there, a blade can be a more ideal weapon than a gun.
Don't believe me? Just ask the US troops who were hacked down after emptying their revolvers into barong-armed Moros in the Philippines. Ask the 40 bandits who tried to fight the lone Gurkha on a train a few years back. Or ask the men who tried to shoot and kill Jim Bowie during the famous Sandbar Fight.
And sure, those incidents are rare* and extraordinary exceptions in a world where the gun usually dominates. But remember, we're talking about fiction, and justifications for bladed weapons in a Science Fictional setting.
Rare and extraordinary exceptions are what those kinds stories—what stories in general—are about.
Nobody remembers Shane because he was the most average gunfighter in the West. Nobody still reads Conan of Cimmeria because he made himself a Local Alderman by his own hand. And we certainly don't thrill to stories of John Carter of Mars more than one hundred years later because Burroughs made him the most adequate swordsman on two worlds.
We love them because they're the best of the best. The one in a million.
Sure, your fictional universe may have tech that makes a melee fight unlikely. But real-world tech doesn't work 100% of the time, and combat is always going to be a brutal and chaotic affair as long as humans are involved in it.
So go ahead and keep your swords and knives. I can promise you, the fighting men of the future certainly will.
* The Moro incidents actually weren't rare at all. Thanks to repeated battlefield reports of poor stopping power, the US stopped issuing the .38 Long Colt M1892 revolvers, and replaced them with a heavier .45. Once they did, incidents of the amok tribesmen reaching US lines with their fanatical charges began to drop off.
For about a year now, I've been studying Kali/Arnis, the Filipino art of stick and blade fighting. I had some brief exposure to it a bunch of years ago, thanks to my travels in the Marine Corps and some guest instructors in my hometown dojo, but this is the first time I've ever been able to really study the art in depth. It's been a wonderful experience, and I am more than grateful for my instructors and their dedication.
I've also been slowly rehabbing my injured knees, both of which were abused hard in the military. Success is coming by inches, but it's coming. Whereas nine months ago I couldn't even do one squat with no additional weight, through long hours of careful rehab, I've worked my way up to doing two sets of 20 squats with a light resistance band on the weight bar.
It's a slow improvement, but a dramatic one.
The bottom line is I'm at the age where I have to start taking my my own fitness a lot more seriously. I can't rely on youth and good genetics to keep me healthy anymore. That means working out much more regularly—and with much more careful focus—than I ever used to.
To that end, I recently read Sun and Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Something of an infamous figure, Mishima was a hard-right Japanese nationalist who orchestrated an unarmed takeover of a Japanese Self Defense Forces facility back in the 1970s. His stated goal was to inspire the soldiers to rise up and overthrow the Prime Minister, and install the Emperor as the new and rightful ruler of Japan. Failing in his ultimate goal, Mishima committed ritual Seppuku the old fashioned way, with a knife straight to the guts.
Sun and Steel is Mishima's meditation on weightlifting, martial arts, and physical culture. Fans of the book describe it as Mishima's odyssey in search of new and more extreme experiences. And while while the book is justifiably famous in certain weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for its inside look into an iron-willed mindset, it's Mishima's thoughts on the martial arts—the sword arts in particular—that have stayed with me.
Some of the book's most striking passages talk about seeking the deeper, truer reality beyond the flash of the fist, or beyond the the tip of the sword. But he's not just rehashing the idea of the Void or the Nothingness from Miyomoto Musashi.
Quoting Mishima: "There, above all, lay the essence of action and of power. That reality, in popular parlance, was referred to quite simply as the opponent."
The empty space beyond the sword isn't a Void. According to Mishima, it's alive, vital, and powerful.
I've been thinking an awful lot about that quote since I first read it. I've been pondering what Mishima really means here, and how it links to the rest of the book as a whole. And after a few hard sparring sessions—including one with training knives that left me sore for about four days—I think I've finally got it.
Human beings have deeply buried instincts, survivals of older memories from our ancestors. How do you know to be afraid of a bear or a lion the first time you ever seen one? How do you know what it's after—what it's even capable of—as it's stalking towards you? How do you know to fight of flee rather than offer it a hug?
Answer: you automatically know the big predator is going to eat you because in the distant past, big predators tried to eat your ancestors. Fear of them became an ingrained survival trait.
Taking the idea a step further:
Every single person alive today is only here because some ancestor of theirs won a fight over a watering hole or a piece of food. I don't care how peaceful you are personally. Someone in your family tree caved in the skull of another human being with a rock and took their stuff. Or ripped open their guts with a flint knife and squatted on their territory.
More likely, it was several someones.
Just like every human has a deeply-buried instinct telling him to fear a predator, every human has a deeply-buried instinct urging them to fight, conquer, and kill for survival.
Blade and stick arts—perhaps more than any other martial arts—drive us back into contact with that primal mindset. Practicing overhand blows to the head with a stick, or practicing straight thrusts to the stomach with a knife while your opponent tries his damndest to stop you... There's something about it that drops you into a mentality stretching back to the dawn of time.
That extreme reality beyond the tip of the sword, that level of vital experience Mishima kept chasing with his hours of dedicated practice? What he was chasing was a connection with the primal reality of our distant past.
What Mishima was looking for wasn't a new experience. He was looking for an old experience. One of the very oldest possible.
It's a shame he didn't find it until the very end.
Sun and Steel is published by Medina University Press. Copies are available from Rogue Scholar Books.
"Some day, there will be a legend like this. Some day from steamy Venus or arid Mars, the shaking, awe-struck words will come whispering back to us, building the picture of a glory so great that our throats will choke with pride—the pride in the men of Terra!"
That's the introduction Leigh Brackett wrote for Keith Bennett's "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears," a short she personally selected for inclusion in The Best of Planet Stories #1. The latter was a reprint paperback anthology she edited in 1975 for Random House, paying tribute to the all-stars of the magazine that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Space Opera." Under Brackett's editorial eye, Bennett's tale joined stories by such Golden Age heavy hitters as Poul Anderson, Frederick Brown and a young Ray Bradbury, not to mention Brackett herself.
I'd first heard of Bennett's story thanks to a glowing review from Morgan Holmes over at the Castalia House blog, when he did a write up on the Planet Stories anthology. So glowing, in fact, that I shelled out $25 for a used copy just so I could read it myself.
As usual, Morgan didn't steer me wrong.
Folks, this novella is one of the very best MilSF tales ever written, and thanks to the fine folks over at Project Gutenberg, it's finally available in a free e-book edition. If you're even a casual fan of the genre, you owe it to yourselves to experience this wonderful, mostly forgotten classic.
I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this story. No less an authority than David Drake has expressed his admiration for this obscure tale, as outlined in this brilliant essay at Tor.com. Fair warning, Drake's essay does have a few spoilers. I'd recommend reading the story first, both so you can experience it "cold," and so you'll have a greater appreciation for Drake's insights. And make no mistake, Drake's observations about Bennett and what he successfully manages to convey in his classic short are well worth a read. Among other things, Drake makes some razor sharp points about the gallows humor of the combat soldier.
As for the story itself, it's an amazingly simple one, about a platoon of marooned Rocketeers who must fight their way back to a friendly base through hostile territory on a savage Venus. It's basically an SF-nal take on Xenophon's Anabasis, right down to the main action being relayed through the eyes of a junior officer.
For that reason, fans of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Legionnaire--the first book in the wonderful Galaxy's Edge series—will arguably find the most to enjoy here. It's a Golden Age SF take on the same themes they explored, with surprisingly little ground lost in the 67 years between each story's publication. "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" is the olive drab fatigues and steel pot to Legionnaire's Marpat and Kevlar. Sure, there's some differences in terminology and tech. But it's still recognizably a grunt's eye view of war in the future, told by someone who knows what that hell looks like right now.
And like Legionnaire, it isn't sugar-coated.
You can read and download "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" from project Gutenberg.
Earlier this week, the topic of classes in Dungeons & Dragons popped up in my Twitter feed again. More specifically, the question of whether or not the classes successfully represented fantasy archetypes.
Now, maybe in current editions—particularly the overstuffed and bland 5th edition—you could argue those classes don't represent much of anything. But in classic editions like OD&D? They absolutely do represent archetypes.
The Fighting-Man, the Magic-user and the Thief all have direct literary antecedents in the fiction that inspired the game. The Fighting-Man is none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Virginia fighting-man, John Carter. He's also Conan. He's also Eric John Stark. The Magic-User? Take your pick. He could be any of the magic-users from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Or Harold Shea from The Compleat Enchanter. He could be Elric. Or Corwin. Thieves? Gary Gygax's Appendix N is lousy them, most notably the two best thieves in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber's legendary Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
The classes—the core classes at least—most certainly do represent archetypes. They're the archetypes of classic pulp fantasy.
What's more, those three archetypes—broadly speaking, the Strong Guy, the Mystic Guy, and the Sneaky Guy—represent just about every possible solution to a problem you could run into.
The only one missing is the Cleric.
Surely, the Cleric's design is just a function of pure game mechanics—a need to have a "healer" class to go delving with. It's not really archetypal at all, right?
Hold your horses.
The basic problem with assigning the Cleric a fantasy archetype like the other three is in looking to the same sources for its inspiration. But the Cleric doesn't have pulp fantasy roots. I'd argue his archetype is actually something much older and more primal than that.
In his wonderful video on dungeon theory-crafting, Dungeon Design and You, Mr. Wargaming outlined and explained some of the metaphysical and spiritual ideas surrounding the concept of "the Underworld," and how they apply to gaming.
Mr. Wargaming was, by his own admission, drawing on the work of other great gamers and thinkers on the subject, notably Jason Cone and his famous segment on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" from Philotomy's Musings. But Mr. Wargaming's video is a much more succinct, accessible, and thorough discussion on the topic than anyone else has given to date, and if you haven't watched it yet, I'd highly encourage you to do so.
In brief, what Mr. Wargaming describes as "the Dungeon" or "the Underworld" isn't just a cave filled with kobold bandits. It's a place where the rules of reality itself are suspended the deeper you go, because you're getting farther from the light (sun) and the source of goodness, closer to the sources of Evil and Chaos.
The parallels with Hell and pandemonium are in no way coincidental.
So what does all this have to do with the Cleric?
Simply that if you think of the game in terms of the Mythic Underworld, Hell, and Chaos, the Cleric archetype is—quite literally—the opposite of all that. If Chaos, Hell, and a march toward Entropy are what define the Underworld, then Humanity, building greater creations, and adherence to the gods' Laws are what define the surface world. If that's so, then the Cleric as an archetype isn't just Humanity, it's a Humanity perfectly in touch with the Divine.
What's more, it's Humanity taking its faith in the Divine down into the dark places for a reckoning. It is the good, the holy, and the natural going down into the earth to cleanse the evil, the unholy, and unnatural. Parallels with Dante obviously spring to mind here. So does Jesus' harrowing of Hell. Not to mention much older things like the myth of Ishtar, descending from the world of natural laws, into the foreboding Underworld realm of her sister goddess Ereshkigal.
For those unfamiliar with the Ishtar myth, Ishtar passes through seven gates, each time removing an item of her regalia, in the end becoming naked and powerless, and having to trust the power of her own name as a goddess to guard her against her sister. It ends up being a mistake, but the point stands.
What can I say? Sometimes, you TPK or get captured...
The point is, this is a far older and far stronger archetype than anything in Sword & Sorcery fiction. We're talking the stuff of myth, legend, and religion here. We're talking about archetypes as old as the recorded word itself, if not as old as humanity.
The Cleric's Archetype is the Divine—and our faith in it—against the deep, dark Underworld, when all the other weapons we have are useless.
Though I don't entirely agree with everything the man wrote, there's a damn good reason that almost half of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand faces describes a pattern in which the hero descends into an underworld. It's because these symbols are powerful, and hold powerful meanings around the world and across cultures. They're as close to hardwired into the human mind as anything can be.
Admittedly, all this is heavy stuff for a game of make-believe about Elves and Goblins. You may wonder why it's worth even adding this stuff in. But what guys like Jason Cone, Mr. Wargaming, and I are pointing out is that you're not really adding it in. This stuff has been there all along, just beneath the surface. You just need to know where to look.
Start by playing a Cleric.
It will all unfold naturally from there.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.