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.
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.