The Chaotic West
Westerns, Dungeons & Dragons, and the search for American values.
I’ve been trailing Westerns (pun!) for a few newsletters now, and it is about time I bit the bullet (hey!).
After my mysteries challenge concluded, I wanted to try a different genre. Not just a palate-cleanser, but an entirely new sort of cuisine. Westerns are definitely different.
In a broader sense, this is my quest for America. 🦅
We’re currently 80-odd (+/- unconstitutional attempts at delay) days out from one of the most important political moments of my lifetime. The electorate will be choosing, again, a set of values for America.
Our selection at the ballot box will capture what voters want as answers to some very big questions. What is America? What does it want to be? How do we want to get there?
‘Values’ means ‘a preferable conduct or end-state’.
These are all questions about American values.
First, a digression.
This is an excellent opportunity to talk about the closest thing modern Western culture has to a universally understood values-based framework: Dungeon & Dragons.
Dungeons & Dragons, as you all know (and don’t pretend you don’t, you big nerds) is the world’s most successful tabletop role-playing game. It has been around in various forms since the 1970s, encouraging adolescents (of all ages) to ‘role play’ as a mighty adventurer in a fantasy world.
‘Role play’ implies two different, simultaneous, requirements.
‘Play’ involves a system of rules that allows everyone to understand, numerically, how stuff happens. Each character, monster, bartender, wall, treasure, tree, whatever has a set of quantifiable metrics that explains exactly what it is, and what it does. You have numbers in front of you that explain how strong your character is - how much they can lift and carry, how much it hurts when they punch someone in the face. You have similar numbers that explain how fast your character is, how smart they are, how hardy, how charming; how good they are at math or forestry; how pointy their sword is; how many spells they know, etc.
The ‘role’ part is trickier. When you’re playing your character, you are expected to be your characters. That is, Orble the Barbarian should behave a certain way that is (hopefully) quite un-Jared-like. Orble, unlike Jared, can ride a horse, swing an axe, and bench-press six times his body weight. Similarly, Orble will have different life goals and ambitions. If Orble’s great life’s goal is ‘a bookshop in Lyme Regis’, why is he mucking about in the dungeons of Torech Ungol? Jared feels awkward leaving critical reviews on Amazon. Orble believes the path to greatness involves punching stuff. Orble and Jared have very different values.
Beyond Orble: every character, monster, bartender and tree needs their values as well. How else do we know what motivates them, or how they’ll behave? (Perhaps not the tree. The tree abides.) D&D needed a values framework that could include the entire universe - every sidekick, love interests villain, mercenary captain, henchman, high priestess, and passing bard.
More importantly, this framework need to be quick. D&D is a fast-paced game with a lot of characters and an infinite number of potential interactions. In order to function, it needed a reasonable number of actionable, immediate archetypes that could describe any character’s attitude and behaviour. This is a segmentation challenge!
Fortunately, the creator* of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, never saw a problem he couldn’t solve with a bit of plagiarism and a column of numbers. (He would’ve been a great planner.) His solution drew heavily on the fantasy literature of the era and created a two-axis solution: Law vs Chaos and Good vs Evil. ‘Neutral’ then sits in the middle, creating a simple nine box segmentation.
Any sentient creature could range from ‘law-abiding and altruistic’ (Lawful Good) to ‘individualistic with no respect for life’ (Chaotic Evil). In the dead centre sat ‘True Neutral’, which was reserved for those passionately committed to maintaining the cosmic balance (annoying druids) and those who truly DNGAF (badgers?).
Alignment is a shockingly simple way of helping everyone understand how they’re supposed to act. It has not only worked for a half-century of Dungeons & Dragons, but it became a very, very easy way of understanding other properties as well.
D&D alignment charts have become one of the internet’s most ubiquitous memes, used to segment everything and everyone from the Trolley Problem to the Jacksonville Jaguars to how people use toilet paper. It is a fun, Buzzfeed-friendly way of judging people, and it also represents an easily understood set of values.
Alignment is, of course, badly reductive. Even in the earliest editions of the game, alignment’s compact nine-box grid stands in stark contrast, to say, the long lists of weaponry. There are more pole-arms alone. Gygax figured - correctly - that his audience didn’t require, or want, a robust moral values.
[The first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide included the - now infamous - ‘Harlot Encounter Table’, for, uh, urban adventures of a particular sort. It has twelve categories. Pretty much explains D&D’s priorities in a nutshell.]
That’s not to say it isn’t problematic. All Orcs, for example, are Chaotic Evil. On one hand, that allows your group of players to hack a horde of Orcs to pieces without fretting over the moral consequences. On the other hand, that’s a pretty disturbing lesson in racial essentialism. Do Orcs not love their children? Do they not cooperate to achieve their goals? Could an Orc make great art? Etc. Given everything else in 2020, Dungeons & Dragons has officially stepped out of alignment, reframing it as an optional series of ‘suggestions’.
As sensible as this is, the alignment system has given us some genuinely fascinating explorations of values, in the way that only fantasy - as a sandbox for the impossible - allows. By systemitising values in this way, concepts like ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ became measurable, absolute qualities. For example, spells like detect evil allowed players to identify objectively bad people: creating an entirely new economy of trust.
The idea of alignment as a form of moral physics reached its zenith in the mid-1980s with - wait for it - Dragonlance. (You saw that coming, right?) The Dragonlance setting was moral absolutism at its most brutal. Characters that swayed from their ‘professed alignment’ faced physical penalties - culminating in physical sickness, death, or, worse, loss of experience points.
Imagine a world where your values were like gravity: absolute or unalterable truths. Where a moral compass has a literal true north. You believe in truth? A white lie gives you stomach cramps. Tell too many of them? You die of fantasy ebola.
The Dragonlance novels are what they are (if you’re curious, go for it), but the unusual moral physics makes for a surprisingly high-concept fantasy setting - and one that made the very most out of Dungeons & Dragons’ unique approach to values.
Like in Dragonlance, our values-based decisions in the real world have consequences. Unlike Dragonlance, our values aren’t absolute and binary. We aren’t consistently Good or Evil, Lawful or Chaotic. We not only have many, many more values to choose from, we aren’t consistent in how we make those choices.
When we buy a can of beans, we’re judging the taste of the product (pleasure), the price (logic), even the look of the can (cleanliness). Do they come wrapped in plastic? Are they Heinz or ‘own-brand’? Do the beans have political significance? These are values-based decisions. And this is for beans.
Now imagine making a hiring decision.
Picking ‘Best Novel’.
Choosing a school for your kid.
We don’t make any of these decisions - much less all of them - based around a single value. We juggle different, often conflicting, values based on the context. And we’re very rarely consistent between contexts. Hell, we’re very rarely consistent returning to the same context. My decision today might not the same tomorrow. Today, I am Lawful Recyclable. Tomorrow, I may be Chaotic Pretty Packaging.
However, the relativity of values doesn’t mean complete carnage. We prioritise our values when we make decisions. We tap into our holiday fund to buy our cat’s medicine. We use whole milk in our latte because it tastes better. We make vegan lasagna so our friends can eat it. We vote against our financial or social self-interest. It depends on what value is most important to us at the time.
Milton Rokeach believed he could measure the relativity of values - as they are relative to one another. In 1973, he structured his Values Survey as a set of priorities, and not absolutes, as he felt this better reflected the complexities of human behaviour.
Rokeach also divided values into terminal and instrumental, which captures the complex role that values play in our lives. Terminal values are about one’s desired (if potentially unobtainable) end-state. What do we want to achieve? What’s the ultimate goal? What is the vision?
Instrumental values are how we get there. What’s the desired behaviour for enabling us to reach that end-state? One is an objective; the other a mode of behaviour. In D&D terms, Good and Evil are terminal values. Lawful and Chaotic are instrumental. But whereas D&D has those four values, the Rokeach Values Survey has a total of 36. (Gygax would not approve.)
Let’s get back to Westerns.
My explorations of Westerns is based on two broad (and possibly unfounded) assumptions.
The first is that Westerns are metaphoric representations of America.
This is not a particularly controversial assumption. Of course, many of the great Westerns weren’t written by Americans (even more true when it comes to film). But that only reinforces my point: they’re treating the American West as a mythic setting, presenting what the writer or film-maker sees as quintessentially American.
My second assumption is that, since Westerns are representations of America, the values explored in Westerns are therefore representative of American values. Perceived or otherwise, the values expressed in Westerns reflect the values that their creators saw (or desired to see) in America.
Westerns are particularly useful for a discussion of values because they are set in an unmoderated space. The ‘Wild West’ is a space where there are no social norms. Individuals are therefore completely free to act according to their own values.
The Wild West is also a harsh space. Every decision has to take into account meaningful, and potentially deadly, consequences. Does our hero accept a duel at the risk of his life? Or does he stay at the table instead? Does he obey the crooked Sheriff or free a wrongly-convicted prisoner? Does he marry the woman of his dreams or go in search of his fortune? Does he join a collective of ranchers or stay independent? These choices, and ones like them, are significant and difficult: they often provide the ‘conflict’ at the heart of a Western’s story.
Westerns are therefore books where values are central: to the character, to the conflict, and to the books’ central theme or message. For example, a few of the books I’ve read recently:
Buffalo Wagons (1957), our hero pushes across the border in search of hides. This is illegal, dangerous, and utterly irrational, but he’s driven by a compulsive need to see the wilderness again (Rokeach calls this particular terminal value ‘A World of Beauty’).
On Swift Horses (2019), a man steals from his family, risks the wrath of the mob, and takes to a life of crime - all in the hope of finding the one man who gave him a sense of belonging (‘Inner Harmony’).
My Brother John (1966), our exasperated narrator willingly joins a range war - on the losing side - to keep his brother safe (‘Family Security’).
For every Western I read - each a winner of the Spur Award for the Year’s Best Western Novel - I’ve given what I think is the book’s highest-priority value a ‘3’. I’ve also tagged lesser, but still present, values a ‘1’.
If you’re interested in following along, I’ve got a ‘live’ spreadsheet here.
What this could mean is that we’ll be able to look at the changes in Western (American) values over time. Or… it may be a giant worthless muddle. Trying to boil a book down to a single, prioritised value is the sort of shoddy analysis that deeply offends both literature majors and social scientists alike. So who knows? At least it’ll give us something to talk about.
See you on the other side. Be Good.
Additional reading on related topics (some repeats, but c’est la vie):
“It’s a symbol that by its presence tries to enforce a certain sense of what it means to be American.” - Does wearing a flag shirt make you a patriot?
“Historical analogies can also be invaluable and enlightening, as long as we remain wary of those using them, and of their reasons.” - How to interpret historical analogies.
Is belief in God necessary to be moral? A global survey.
Also from Pew: Where Americans find meaning in life.
You can be nostalgic for an imaginary (or mythical) past - with all the good and bad that might entail.
“The ideal instruments for processing anxieties in real time.” - another, different pop cultural American pantheon. Not to count chickens, but this may be an interesting genre after I’m done with Westerns…
Finally, a stirring article on values as ‘informal rules’ and why they’re so important to American democracy:
We depend a great deal on informal rules to constrain the presidency, both because of the powerful nature of the office and because it’s difficult to find agreement about the kinds of formal rules that would limit presidential power. Much of the time when we’re talking about norm violations, we don’t so much mean a departure from standard practice as a breach in democratic principles. The ability to adopt informal rules has sometimes saved Americans from hard conversations about power and the tradeoffs that democracy requires. Those are exactly the kinds of hard conversations we might need to have now.