View Full Version : Creating a Wild West feel in D&D

2011-01-07, 11:45 PM

So, I've noticed an odd trend. Every time I see a Western, I come out of it thinking, "Now I want to run a Wild West style D&D campaign." It happened just the other day when I saw the new True Grit, it happened when I finally caught an episode of Firefly, and it's probably going to happen again when Rango comes out (especially since that one features bizarre creatures- who says you can't have rampaging orcs in a Western?).

So, partly to scratch that itch, and partly as a thought experiment, what elements would need to be in place to make a fantasy campaign setting feel and play like the Old West?

What I've come up with so far:

1. Keep towns small-scale. Ideally, for this kind of game most towns should feel like they've just gotten the basic amenities built- the blacksmith, the sheriff's office, the all-important saloon and so forth. My thinking is that a map of any given place should probably be able to show every single building there is, and still fit on one page- a good western has the feeling that "civilization" is a recent arrival to the landscape, and a pretty precarious one at that.

2. Accordingly, a small cast of characters. If ever there was a genre that required the "everybody in town knows everybody else", it's the Western. That doesn't mean everybody likes everybody- old feuds and bad blood can be just as common as old friendships- but the PCs should meet most of the important people in town within the first few sessions. (On this note, I really like the archetype where you need medical attention, and find out that the guy at the general store is also the town's only surgeon, the town schoolmaster is also the town preacher, etc. A few of these, if well thought out, reinforce the feeling that the town is just big enough to scrape by.)

3. The PCs are outsiders. Dropping a group of total strangers into the middle of town raises all sorts of fun roleplaying hooks. There's not enough room in town for freeloaders, and the PCs start off just trying to find where they fit in the town. Of course, before long, trouble rears its ugly head and the PCs save the day, but one way or another, they've got to earn their keep. If they're in the hero business, people expect heroics- which means once the PCs have a reputation, they need to work to maintain it. And of course, dropping four or five heavily armed strangers into this place is going to shake up the establishment.

4. Less "convenience magic". This is about the only one that's a real change to the rules, but I think it's relatively necessary. The stagecoach is the only reliable way to get supplies to and from the next county, so there should be some reason why they can't just cast a portal instead. Food's hard to come by in the wild, and you need to forage: if any group can bring a mage along and have an instant vending machine, it kind of kills the mood. Basically, life's tough.


2011-01-07, 11:53 PM
Play a different game where a single gunshot will kill you.

2011-01-08, 12:15 AM
Defense bonus (http://www.d20srd.org/srd/variant/adventuring/defenseBonus.htm), vitality and wounds (http://www.d20srd.org/srd/variant/adventuring/vitalityAndWoundPoints.htm) and maybe an alternate massive damage threshold (http://www.d20srd.org/srd/variant/adventuring/massaveDamageThresholdsAndResults.htm).
Should be enough.

2011-01-08, 12:36 AM
I would recommend playing E6, a low-level version of D&D...


2011-01-08, 01:17 AM

Go onto some websites (I recommend TvTropes for this sort of thing) and look at the different tropes associated with the western genre. Another thing you can do is add some thematic elements like having the soundtrack to a western going in the background (it doesn't need to be really loud, just enough to quietly establish a mood).

But having studied westerns as a cinematic genre I'll throw what I consider to be the single most important aspect of the entire genre. Have the players have to work outside civilization in the pursuit of saving civilization. Really look at John Wayne's character (and his actions) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (one of the greatest Westerns ever produced).

Akal Saris
2011-01-08, 03:34 AM
Yeah, I saw True Grit today, and as soon as the characters hit the trail it started to feel like a D&D game with random encounters.

Spoiler joke:
DM: You hear the sound of a gunshot in the distance!
PC: Aha, the signal! We wait for our pursuer.
DM: After a while, a man rides up on a horse. He's a huge, bearded man wearing a bear as a skin, with the bear's head grinning lopsidedly from atop his head. He smiles at you, grimy teeth glistening strangely. "I'm a doctor!" he says by way of explanation.
PC: You're...not...LaBoeuf...