Shootout at the D&D Corral

Dungeons & Dragons has many influences, including European and American authors. Of the American influences, one genre is sometimes overlooked but just as critical: the Western. [h=3]D&D and the Wild West[/h]One of TSR's earliest founders was co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax's good friend Don Kaye. In addition to helping fund TSR in its early days, Kaye was one of the first players of D&D, even hosting Gygax's sand table in his garage. In the second round of playtesting, Murlynd would debut, a magic-user who was fond of Westerns.

Kaye's fondness for Westerns seeped into D&D itself; Gygax allowed an exception for Murlynd to use his six-shooters in Greyhawk, a world where gunpowder doesn't work. Kaye had plans to create a Wild West RPG, aspirations that were tragically cut short, as retold by Gygax in an interview with Scott Lynch:

As D&D was "blowing out the door" at the rate of over 100 a month by summer, Don began to look forward eagerly to doing a Wild West RPG. He planned to draft rules as soon as he could quit his job to work for TSR. We projected that would be possible in about a year or so. Don was very happy. Then, in January of 1975, he had a massive and fatal heart attack. He was only 36 years old when that happened. How ironic, I thought, as I became the first paid employee of the company in June of 1976, Don's birthday month, he being exactly one month older than I. Don was then and still is sorely missed by me. Brian Blume and I went on to create the Boot Hill RPG in Don's memory. He would likely have done it better.

Gygax never forgot Kaye's contributions. There's a section in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide that provided conversion rules:

D&D’s earliest GMs were encouraged to bring guns into their fantasy worlds in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, which included a short section called “Sixguns & Sorcery.” This provided not only rules for converting between AD&D and Boot Hill (TSR’s Wild West roleplaying game, first published in 1975), but it also statted up several different guns. Derringers did 1d4 damage, while other handguns did 1d8 damage. Dynamite did a whopping 4d6 damage—or 6d6 if the DM allowed a saving throw!​
[h=3]The Weird West[/h]We know that Gygax was a fan of Westerns, but what's sometimes overlooked is how the themes of the genre carried over into D&D. Blog of Holding points out how Gygax's sources of inspiration had Wild West elements to them:

Re-reading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars recently, I was struck with how explicitly it’s a Western. John Carter fights savages on dead sea bottoms, gropes through caverns looking for treasure, and fights weird monsters. And that’s all before he goes to Mars. The first episode of the novel is a shoot-em-up Arizona adventure which encapsulates all the rest of the book. Mars is Arizona writ large, with bigger and drier deserts, more savage natives, more accurate guns, faster horses, and more faithful dogs. In structure, the book is a lot like the Wizard of Oz movie: a reasonably plausible day, followed by a fantasy dream sequence version of the same events. The second of Gygax’s sources, Howard’s Conan, is similar. Howard was a Texan who wrote Westerns along with his fantasy stories, cowboys-in-the-Middle East stories, and boxing stories. It’s frequently argued that Conan is a Western hero. His martial skills allow him to triumph over the lawless savages and over the decadent “civilized” folk of his wild land. That’s what cowboys do.

For more parallels, a Hungarian author named Melan provides some much needed perspective:

Let us examine the world of the Western. What we see is wilderness. You can find a few settlements (mainly small towns) here and there, but the main stage for the action is the almost entirely uninhabited land. This is a rather important trope, as spotlights one of the main qualities of „adventurers”: the perform their acts not due to the social motivation or compulsion, but because of their own inner conviction. In the West – and in Hyboria or many parts of Greyhawk – the individual is alone. He cannot expect the Law to stand by or against him. The city guard (the sheriffs) are busy with the survival of their own little community and do not represent a serious obstacle for a sufficiently armed and dedicated guy. He has to create justice by himself, and his only reliable tool for that is armed violence.

This may be why recent Star Wars installments feel like RPG sessions, because they're both drawing on Western tropes:

It also follows from this logic that society cannot keep sufficiently high-level adventurers in check. In a world like this, social position is much less important than a strong arm or a sharp blade. This world is completely at oppositon to the High Middle Ages, and is much more similar to the world of tales where the youngest son of the poor farmer can become a king, he just has to defeat the giants first. This doesn’t mean that this sort of fantasy world cannot have oppressed masses, but it’s certain that it won’t be emphatic in the sphere where player characters move. A game can have adventurers be individuals located outside the normal world of bulls and feudal lords, or it can have the idealised American world hide behind the chainmail, the peasantry and the longsword. Here, the individual can pick up a sword or a gun as he wishes, and set off into the big nothing to make his desires come true. And when he retires and buys the inn in Dodge City, nobody will ask him if he got his first five levels from looting tombs and massacring orcs (bandits? indians? peaceful villagers?). What is certain is that whatever he achieved, he achieved it with his own strength.​

D&D is a mix of many influences, but its tone and style of play -- adventurers on their own making a name for themselves -- seems like it was influenced as much by high fantasy epics as it was by gritty showdowns in the Wild West.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Hussar

Legend
The Roman Empire at its maximum extent is about the size of the United States, the Empire of the Mongols was bigger than the Soviet Union.

Yup. Thing is, most of the states in those empires were, for the most part, autonomous, and there were STILL vast areas that were pretty much wilderness for most intents and purposes.

But, in any case, my point is, it's not really needed to have these enormous, sprawling settings.
 

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Whan that aprill with his shoures soote 1
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote, 2
And bathed every veyne in swich licour 3
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; 4
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth 5
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth 6
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hmmm The Canterbury Tales has people traveling. And all those pillgrams to the holy lands.

London to Canterbury is only about 60 miles. You could just about walk it in a day (with the roads as they are today - not sure how long it would take a thousand years ago).
 

Derren

Hero
London to Canterbury is only about 60 miles. You could just about walk it in a day (with the roads as they are today - not sure how long it would take a thousand years ago).

60 miles a day is a bit much.
Even 20 miles a day is pushing it (pace of Roman legions). Normal travellers would be even slower.
 

Hussar

Legend
60 miles a day is a bit much.
Even 20 miles a day is pushing it (pace of Roman legions). Normal travellers would be even slower.

But, I think that's the point. 60 miles is hardly a huge distance, yet, the Canterbury Tales makes that an epic.

Like I said earlier, the tendency of RPG settings to be massively huge is a mistake IMO. I'd MUCH prefer settings that were much much smaller geographically but a lot more detailed. Instead of getting a paragraph or three that covers three thousand square kilometers, how about a paragraph or three that covers a single Sherwood forest?

I mean, if we can have an entire Robin Hood series that takes place in Sherwood, do we really need a Sword Coast that is about half the size of the US?
 

Thomas Bowman

First Post
You need vast wildernesses as places for monsters to hide. Historical Europe didn't really have monsters, it only had people. One could play D&D as a historical role playing game without magic. You would have fighters, rogues, commoners, experts, and aristocrats as character classes if you are using 3rd edition. In a realistic role playing game, characters would not gain hit points as they advanced a level, they would gain skills and feats perhaps, but they would still have a "glass jaw" if an opponent got in a lucky shot, so a realistic character would tend to rely heavily on henchmen as he advanced in level. Those henchmen would be hired to protect a high level character and they would also do most of the fighting for him as well. In the middle ages, most activities were local.
 

Thomas Bowman

First Post
But, I think that's the point. 60 miles is hardly a huge distance, yet, the Canterbury Tales makes that an epic.

Like I said earlier, the tendency of RPG settings to be massively huge is a mistake IMO. I'd MUCH prefer settings that were much much smaller geographically but a lot more detailed. Instead of getting a paragraph or three that covers three thousand square kilometers, how about a paragraph or three that covers a single Sherwood forest?

I mean, if we can have an entire Robin Hood series that takes place in Sherwood, do we really need a Sword Coast that is about half the size of the US?

Robin Hood is historical role playing with fictional characters. Robin Hood had no wizards in his band of merry men, and Friar Tuck couldn't heal people.
 

Aldarc

Legend
You need vast wildernesses as places for monsters to hide. Historical Europe didn't really have monsters, it only had people.
True, but the sad fact is that "monsters" frequently serve in the role of both "lesser people" and "dangerous beasts" in how they are perceived on the margins by "civilized society."

But one could also simply create a Faerie Realm (e.g., Feywild) where most monstrous denizens actually dwell.

Robin Hood is historical role playing with fictional characters. Robin Hood had no wizards in his band of merry men, and Friar Tuck couldn't heal people.
This doesn't render his point moot.
 

Derren

Hero
But, I think that's the point. 60 miles is hardly a huge distance, yet, the Canterbury Tales makes that an epic.

Like I said earlier, the tendency of RPG settings to be massively huge is a mistake IMO. I'd MUCH prefer settings that were much much smaller geographically but a lot more detailed. Instead of getting a paragraph or three that covers three thousand square kilometers, how about a paragraph or three that covers a single Sherwood forest?

I mean, if we can have an entire Robin Hood series that takes place in Sherwood, do we really need a Sword Coast that is about half the size of the US?

Its long, not necessarily epic. Especially in prosperous regions most land was farmed. So while it took days from city to city you were never far from a town or otherwise stuck in the middle of wilderness. There were no bandits hiding everywhere in lawless expanses between cities. It was just a long walk along roads.
People back then regularly travelled much greater distances. Not for enjoyment, but it was their job. Trade moved everywhere, pilgrims of several religions crossed whole Europe and the middle east regularly and some people went to India and even China and back.
If you want a medieval or renaissance world with enough space to hide lots of monsters then you need something large.
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
so much so that the first Conan the Barbarian movie is centered on such a pilgrimage to a cult center :eek:

I've also wanted to do a campaign set amidst Mansa Musas pilgrimage across africa

Both good examples. Mansa Musa's hajj would be a super cool campaign setting, I agree. Silk Road action would also be good.
 

Its long, not necessarily epic. Especially in prosperous regions most land was farmed. So while it took days from city to city you were never far from a town or otherwise stuck in the middle of wilderness. There were no bandits hiding everywhere in lawless expanses between cities. It was just a long walk along roads.

I don't think the highwaymen got that memo!
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
People back then regularly travelled much greater distances. Not for enjoyment, but it was their job. Trade moved everywhere, pilgrims of several religions crossed whole Europe and the middle east regularly and some people went to India and even China and back.

Yeah, I was going to point this out. There was a lot more travel in the Ancient World and Middle Ages than I think a lot of folks credit. Was it hard? Yes. Was it slow? Indeed. But there were pilgrim's trails, travel on the Silk Road, lots of ship trade in the Baltic, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean all the way to what is now Indonesia. Vikings traveled up and down the rivers that run from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The expanse of the Vikings went from being unemployed in Greenland all the way down to being very gainfully employed in Constantinople and even points east.

Joe Peasant wasn't traveling all that much but the kinds of people that represent PCs often traveled quite a bit. If you want a great example, Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway who was defeated by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge, who was then subsequently defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, had spent nearly two decades as a mercenary in Kievan Rus and in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople.
 
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Derren

Hero
Joe Peasant wasn't traveling all that much but the kinds of people that represent PCs often traveled quite a bit. If you want a great example, Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway who was defeated by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge, who was then subsequently defeated by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, had spent nearly two decades as a mercenary in Kievan Rus and in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople.

Thats actually not that surprising. The Varangian Guard was specifically made up out of Vikings.
You just have to look at the masses of pilgrims visiting the holy places. And it wasn't only about the big ones like Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela or Mecca. There were also a lot of lesser pilgrimage destinations which received a steady stream of visitors.
Then there was also trade routes which spanned all of Europe and beyond.
 
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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
You need vast wildernesses as places for monsters to hide. Historical Europe didn't really have monsters, it only had people. One could play D&D as a historical role playing game without magic. You would have fighters, rogues, commoners, experts, and aristocrats as character classes if you are using 3rd edition. In a realistic role playing game, characters would not gain hit points as they advanced a level, they would gain skills and feats perhaps, but they would still have a "glass jaw" if an opponent got in a lucky shot, so a realistic character would tend to rely heavily on henchmen as he advanced in level. Those henchmen would be hired to protect a high level character and they would also do most of the fighting for him as well. In the middle ages, most activities were local.

And yet Britain has a fair few Monsters lurking across its Moors, Hills and Fens. SO even in populated small areas such creatures can be found without them destroying the surrounding populace (one of the anomalies of RPGs is of course that monsters are far more aggressive than normal creatures)

So in Britain The Loch Ness Monster and Grindylow are confined to water, Spectral Dogs and various Ghosts can be confined to time and circumstance, as can Hags and Spriggans and other fey. Giant Cats and Hairy-men (like the Big Grey Man of the Cairngorms) tend to avoid direct confrontation and thus survive by being scarce.

Its only big dragony threats like the Lamton Worm that really call out heroes to slay them - an interesting point about dragons though is found in the story of the Sockburn Worm of Northumbria, a 'fiery serpent', finally slain by John Conyers, which some speculate was based on Conyers defeating attacks from Viking Longships, although wyverns flying in from Norway isnt out of the question...
 
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Hussar

Legend
I guess I missed those stories where King Arthur traveled to China. Or Beowulf traveled to Africa.

Let's not forget that the population densities back then would be a fraction of what they are now. England in the Middle ages had a population (depending on who you ask) of about 2-3 million. It's currently about 60 million. We're looking at 95% of the current population of just England not existing at the time. That leaves a LOT of empty space. And it's not like anywhere else was much different.

Sure, there was trade. But, there's a trick to that. It was very, very rare for traders to do the whole route. Sure, Marco Polo went to China, but, most of that trade was done in stages. Mostly because most people don't leave home for 16 years. And, let's be honest, how many of those pilgrims died on the road? We're talking a tiny percentage of the population traveling more than a few days away from home.

Like I said, if we go by medieval population densities, suddenly we don't need these giant settings. A better comparison would be Lewis and Clarke or the Voyageurs in Canada. After all, North America had been settled for thousands of years before Europeans came. Yet, despite that, the population densities were close enough to 0/square mile that they could see it on a clear day.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I've hiked in parts of Spain where the population density is 2.5/square km. You can walk all day without seeing a single person between villages. Maybe a shepherd and his flock. I saw more eagles and mountain goats than people. The villages, churches and castles are still centuries old, though.

One problem with vast areas in fantasy settings is the sheer time it should take to get from one place to another. If you're on foot, or even travelling on horseback, a few dozen miles will take you days to cross. Even longer if you're travelling cross-country, not by road.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Hussar's preference here, particularly based on past discussions where he has alluded to similar issues, is one of greater setting depth and focus over breadth and wide scope. I definitely sympathize with this approach, in fact increasingly so with GMing experience.

I don't think that desiring for more settings to focus on a portion of their implied world requires denying that great travel happens either. You can imply a vastness of the greater setting by having a rare handful of "exotic" travelers, merchants, and such from far away but who are encountered within that frame. It's an approach that does not require turning the PCs into sightseeing tourists or post-undergrad backpackers through Europe.
 

Derren

Hero
I guess I missed those stories where King Arthur traveled to China. Or Beowulf traveled to Africa.

Let's not forget that the population densities back then would be a fraction of what they are now. England in the Middle ages had a population (depending on who you ask) of about 2-3 million. It's currently about 60 million. We're looking at 95% of the current population of just England not existing at the time. That leaves a LOT of empty space. And it's not like anywhere else was much different.

Sure, there was trade. But, there's a trick to that. It was very, very rare for traders to do the whole route. Sure, Marco Polo went to China, but, most of that trade was done in stages. Mostly because most people don't leave home for 16 years. And, let's be honest, how many of those pilgrims died on the road? We're talking a tiny percentage of the population traveling more than a few days away from home.

Like I said, if we go by medieval population densities, suddenly we don't need these giant settings. A better comparison would be Lewis and Clarke or the Voyageurs in Canada. After all, North America had been settled for thousands of years before Europeans came. Yet, despite that, the population densities were close enough to 0/square mile that they could see it on a clear day.

And on the other hand Odysseus and Hercules travelled the entire Mediterranean including visiting Egypt and Spain. Tang Sanzang went fron Chang'an to India and back.

Marco Polo also wasn't the first one to travel all the way to China. For example there were Byzantine monks in the 6th century which first went to India in search of silk, reported back to Constantinople that silk comes from China instead, went to China, stole silk worms and brought them back. There are also several other missionaries travelling as far as India to preach.

And you can bet that more than a "tiny percentage of Muslims" went to Mecca. And wars have been fought, or at least legitimized, with enabling pilgrims go to Jerusalem. There are also well established pilgrim routes going from Germany all the way to Spain.
And lets not forget the conquerors. Vikings raided the coast of northern Africa and the Mongol certainly didn't travel only a small part of the way and let some other nomadic host travel the rest. Neither had their slaves any real option not to go all the way to Mongolia. Alexander the Great and his army also didn't just stop after a few miles.
Mercenaries too travelled to where the war was which could take them through all of Europe and beyond.
 
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Hussar

Legend
For monsters you need a place for them to live which is not right next to the local village, so you need to put some distance between the civilized places and the uncivilized places.

Sure. But, when it takes a day to travel 10 miles, just how much distance do you actually need?
[MENTION=2518]Derren[/MENTION] mentions Odysseus. Yeah, that's kinda my point. He sailed the Med. You realize that's about half the size of the Sword Coast right? The entire Odyssey takes place in an space considerably smaller than the Sword Coast. And yup, Muslims travelled to Mecca. Doing the Hajj is a once in a lifetime event that many don't actually do AND we're talking people who lived in the area. It's not like they were traveling much more than a thousand miles and many would be far, far less.

Monks traveling to India. Ok. But, as you say, from Constantinople. While still very impressive, it's STILL a shorter distance than what is represented in the Sword Coast. And again, let's be honest here, we're talking a tiny, tiny fraction of the population.

No, travel was not common. And, my point being that you certainly don't need these massive, ginormous settings to run an RPG. Good grief, the Sword Coast is larger than EUROPE. And that's just a pretty small slice of the Forgotten Realms.
 

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