What We Owe The Western

Thursday , 15, January 2015 4 Comments

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!

4 Comments
  • Jeffro says:

    Side note: Aaron Allston understood Car Wars to be a thinly veiled Western. Also, a lot of Traveller scenarios have “Western” written all over them.

    There was a whole lot that I didn’t understand until I finally sat down and watched “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

  • Daniel says:

    Had an entire D&D campaign that was an homage to Silverado. In another, Clint Eastwood in a poncho was a miniature representing one of the toughest bounty hunters in all of Midgard. Car Wars was Road Warrior, which was my favorite Western back in the day.

  • Morgan says:

    It is no coincidence that you had some western writers who wrote some historical if not barbarian fiction- Gordon D. Shirreffs, Todhunter Ballard, T. V. Olsen, Philip Ketchum. Conversely, writers we think of from the science fiction genre wrote westerns- Clifford Simak, James Blish, Murray Leinster, and even Robert Bloch. Leigh Brackett wrote a mountain man novel, FOLLOW THE FREE WIND.

  • Warren Abox says:

    For just one modern example look no further than Joe Abercrombie’s *Red Country*. It is a fantasy novel which features a long journey across the plains to a gold mining town, a reskinned battle for the county seat, even a High Noon showdown in the center of a small town street.

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