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Cowboys and Aliens shows the evolution of DnD

Did you all write about Cowboys and Aliens and I just missed it? I may have, I was awfully busy last August, but the only trace I can find in the archives is a casual mention on Roll for Initiative – and I find that strange, because for anyone who groks that DnD is really a western game, it’s just about the most DnD movie ever. More obviously it’s absolutely the most Weird West movie and just about the most Encounter Critical! and with a few tweaks it could be seriously Carcosa, too.


Here’s why you should watch it: it presents a kick-ass OSR adventure module, ready to be ripped off [edited to add: hwrnmnbsol informs me that this might actually be an old module – Legion of Gold for original Gamma World – worked into a film script. I’ve never played GW (alas) so I cannot confirm], with relatively few of the Standard Hollywood Tricks that would invalidate the whole setting for gaming purposes. It has a couple of monsters, a magic item which is only a bit McGuffiny, and a classic bait-and-switch NPC. And most amazingly for a movie, the situation it presents is pretty open-ended, at least up to about half way through Act 2. You could totally run it, pretty much straight off the reel.

It also works like a little history of DnD. Explaining that will involve spoilers, though, so this is your warning right now (plot synopsis for the weak/impatient).

The opening of the movie is pure Old School Golden Age. You wake up with no memory and a mysterious space-bracer. Our hero’s credentials are established in a fight with a low-level murderhobo gang: he is clearly at least a 5th level fighter (Jake, Chaotic Neutral). From there we go Boot Hill just long enough to introduce the rest of the party: a fish-out-of-water Normal Man/Scholar (“Doc,” LN), an undercover druid/MU (Ella, LG) and another high-level veteran, this time a Warlord (Dolarhyde, NN or CN). Then all hell breaks loose with the first attack and the adventure’s parameters are set: dependents are stolen and must be got back; the magic item works against the baddies; tracking a wounded alien is the obvious first task; getting back the fighter’s memory is the second. Best, most DnD feature of all – let’s imagine that like the average murderhobo you have no dependents, no compassion, no social ties of any kind – why would you pick a fight with these aliens? Because they’re after the exact same thing you’re after: gold. And they’ll steal it from you just like they steal dependents, so sociopaths can get on this plot train too.

Tracking leads to a set piece in an ingeniously imagined strange environment, then to information leading to the dungeon entrance, which presents a daunting challenge.

So far so OSR. And I’ll pause here for 2 digressions:

#1: No less than 3 DCC adventurer-funnels are introduced at various stages (Jake’s Gang – a Carcosan band under a 4th level fighter-tyrant if ever I saw one; the Injuns-who-must-be-convinced; and the abductees who must be unhooked from the BadGuyMachine). BTW, did you know Sandy Petersen invented the funnel? Obvious, really.

#2: my favourite moment in the story – the point where things are widest open, where I for one wasn’t exactly sure where we were headed – is this one shot where our murder-revenge-hobo posse rides into a gulch and they’re viewed from above, from what just might be the runaway alien’s perspective, and suddenly I’m reminded of the opening of A Princess of Mars only our “heroes” are the murdering Indians and the alien is the innocent prospector… But then the moment passes and the aliens are Giger’s creeps but less creepy and we’re back in good old Colonialist Adventure mode.

Anyway, back to the point of the post. It’s here, with the stakes set, that the movie heads in a Dragondance/Ravenlost direction and loses its dramatic premise and gamist focus of these are ordinary folks facing a crazy threat what will they do? Because it turns out that Ella’s another kind of alien (with Raise Dead on demand!) and Jake has amnesia-recovery insights and the Fate Of The World rests on their actions and most of all the aliens always attack right at that moment when Jake would otherwise have to face the roleplaying challenge of actually trying to convince people of anything and so now all choices are obvious and you gotta do what you gotta do and so it’s all dramatic scenes from here on out: stuff must happen in the nick of time, people must have the right backgrounds and secrets, all parts of the key must come together in the lock and it’s Hollywood’s Usual Business, which lead us down that whole Adventure Path Destiny Screenwriting 101 rabbit hole. And you can see how that’s crack to a certain kind of gamer/viewer, because when the scenery is set up just so you can get the light to fall where you want and it’s wow and ooh and aah and “surprise” and plucky orphan stabs the monster and boom at just the right moment for the hairsbreadth escape and every action has a Moral Meaning.


Also at some points it goes totally Feng Shui

Only the movie doesn’t quite give in to it, like Favreau’s a little ashamed of the formula or something (sure, you knew Craig and Wilde were going to have Romantic Tension but it’s not quite what you were thinking because she’s not that kind of sexy alien chick but this kind), and that’s what keeps it all applicable to OSR gaming. Remember the funnels? They’re really funnels. Extras cop it like they were Raiding Innsmouth. Most of all, although the elements are there for a Magic Key railroad, it doesn’t at all have to work like that if you’re a slightly creative DM – nobody has to make stupid decisions in order for the plot to work. So the bracer can be set to explode as well as fire? The PCs could learn that without needing aliengirl to tell them. Let them have 2 or 3 bracers: it won’t invalidate the challenge of taking on the aliens’ ship/base, although it may make the possible tactics more varied. So you have to get the exploding bracer into the powercore to make it all go boom? Show the core. If you’re feeling generous you could even let Jake remember it all well enough to draw a map, so you can run the dungeon as a proper heist (“they got their power from this glowing ball – I remember it swung out on an arm – I guess it’s kept high up in the tower”). In fact, dump the whole amnesia thing, say the fighter previously escaped but from a moving vehicle and that’s why he doesn’t know the way back to the base at the start. Same result, allows for more heistable background, less serendipitous recall.

Aliens: the fact that I can’t find a screenshot of these guys tells you that you should just use Giger’s original chitinhead instead, or whatever would fit your campaign. They’re pretty much reskinned blink dogs, but they have Powerful Jump instead of actual teleporting. 5 HD, AC 3, claw/claw/bite for 1d8/1d8/1d4. In their flying machines they totally show off Favreau’s lust for Gulf War news footage – they have exactly the quiet creepiness and sudden destructive power of A10s. AC goes down to 2, speed goes up to airplane but somehow a running horse can still keep up with them.

Bracer of Lightning Bolts:

seems to have unlimited charges, but maybe it’s really only 1d20 and we just don’t get to see it run out. Glows and beeps when aliens are near (unclear why, but there you are), destroying surprise for both sides.

Finally, Filmdrunk may have provided the title for Joesky’s fantasy heartbreaker: EXPLOSIONS & VELOCIRAPTORS & BOOBS.

  1. March 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Ha! Nicely done. I think you should start a series of film criticism/analysis from and OSR perspective.

    • March 6, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      That’s a start. 🙂

  1. March 12, 2012 at 1:24 pm

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