Monday, July 3, 2017

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

Little Big Man
Written by Thomas Berger
Published by The Dial Press
$17.00/$11.51 Amazon

One of the reasons I enjoy reading outside the 'fantasy ghetto' is that you never know what you'll stumble upon. I can't remember where I first read that Little Big Man was a classic of the Western Genre, indeed, of American literature itself, but I'm glad I dug into it.

After finishing the book, I was informed of the movie featuring Dustin Hoffman. He does a great job in a solid movie but man, if anyone from HBO or Showtime is listening, Little Big Man could use a truer to book edition in a season or limited edition format.

So what does Little Big Man bring that makes it worth reading for gamers?

First off, Thomas Berger is a great writer. If you're looking for one liners or other bits to throw into your game, Thomas has more than his share of them.

"However, I believe that when Wild Bill Hickok faced a man he looked at his opponent's eye as if it was a cork." (pg. 305)

Alien  Cultures

Jack Crabb spends a lot of time among the Indian Cheyenne tribe. During that time, he enjoys boiled dog as well as having four wives. He returns to the tribe several times and it contrasts the ways of the Cheyenne, who call themselves 'Human Beings' to the 'White Man'.

In terms of other nationalities, we get a brief taste of them. For example, while on a raid, Jack is ambushed and almost scalped when the ambusher realizes that he's actually a white man. That particular tribe is fond of the whites so lets Jack live. Jack promptly repays him with three arrows in the back.

When adding different cultures, much less different races,  think about why they are different, to begin with. If the only difference between humans and elves turns out to be the lifespan, might as well just get rid of one or the other.

Think about how the children are raised. Are they raised by the clan?

What roles do men and women play?

What foods are eaten? Even in the modern day world people in the United States tend to look in horror at southern China's holiday where they eat dog. Now never mind that the Cow is a sacred animal to millions of Indians...

How is history kept? How is the passage of time measured? The author gives us an event driven history that doesn't rely on days or dates but on seasons and events.

Are there common sayings?

'My son," says Old Lodge Skins, "if it cannot, then the sun will shine upon a good day to die." (pg. 220).

Culture can be a thousand things and none of them are easy to digest in one sitting. Don't hit the players over the head with things until they stop playing but feed into the differences a bit per session until the players can recognize weird words and phrases both in character in the real world.

Character Behavior

Behavior and motivation are separate things. Behavior depends on a series of actions that are necessary for a profession that may be technical or may be encouraged by other's behavior.

'This is a good example of the suspiciousness which warps the minds of gunfighters. I had fell into it right quick, just being in Wild Bill's proximity. You feel like your whole body is one live nerve. At that moment one of them cardplayers having just won a pot, let out a holler of triumpth, and both Hickok and myself come out of our chairs, going for our iron..." (pg. 285).

'Of course I could see he was a fanatic. You had to be, to get so absorbed in talk of holsters and cartridge loads and barrel length and filing down the seat to make a hair trigger and the technique of tying back the trigger and arming the hammer to fire, etc., etc...

"Now then, about that S & W you carry. It is a handsome weapon, but the shells have a bad habit of erupting and jamming the chambers. I'd lay the piece aside and get me something else: a Colt's with the Thuer conversion..." (pg 286-287)

Here, the profession of the Gun Fighter shows its professional side. It's the difference between a mercenary who picks up a weapon and is surprised when it jams and the professional who can disassemble and reassemble it. 

Character Motivation

'Course, he says, there's where the personality come in; whether fast or slow, there was one perfect shot for each occasion, and you killed or died according to how close you come to achieving it. Once arriving at your decision to fire upon a man, your mind becomes a blank, and your will, your body, and your pistol merged into one instrument with a single job.' (pg. 305)

One of the easiest motivations for adventurers in any genre is to find that moment. While Dragon Ball Z's main hero Goku is nearly silly in his desire to be the strongest there is and to fight great opponents, he's always earnest in his desire. Gunslingers have been portrayed as seeking to be the best, the same is true of swordsmen. 


Jack Crabb comes from an interesting family and makes more along the way. His father a bit of an insane preacher. His sister a strong woman out of her time. His brother? A dealer of poisons.

But then there's his 'cousin' Amelia. Only turns out, Amelia, a former lady of the night, isn't actually his cousin and Jack knew that from the start. Rather, it's that Jack 'adopts' her into his family and their both okay with it.

The family you make as opposed to the one you're born with.

Jack is also the father to a son not his own. He also loses his wife Olga and son to an Indian attack and finds them long after they would recognize him as both they and he have undergone many changes. The transitional nature of family and the roots one sets are made in numerous contrasts.


"That still leaves the matter of the meat, and you can't escape the fact that there was awful waste in that area, whereas Indians generally consumed in one form or another every inch of a buffalo from his ears to the hoofs, including even the male part, from which they boiled up a glue." (pg 325).

Sometimes the world moves in a direction and no matter what some due, they can't stop the movement of the world. In this case, Jack is assuring future readers that in many instances, the slaughter of the buffalo wasn't done to intentionally harm the natives, but rather, simply to make money.

If you look at the environment in 2017 and see how laws have been enacted and repealed and worked for and against, the pursuit of profit against the manner in which humans live, like dumping coal ash into rivers, is still debated.

Elves may love their forests, but people need the wood for fuel, they need it for constructing weapons and buildings. They need the space cleared for crops and grazing. Sorry elves, nothing personal, but you got to go.

Dwarves? Dwarves in a gold-rich environment? I can't imagine the slaughter that would take place in any fantasy campaign that wanted to throw historical accuracy at it unless the dwarves were able to completely fight off the attackers. Problem is that doesn't count say the numerous horrors for the beneath the earth that the dwarves are usually dealing with.

Plot Seeds

Unappreciated Treasures

Towards the end of the novel, Custer and his cavalry, are on the move. To ensure that the Calvary stays focused on the mission, Custer hasn't paid the men. Instead, the money is kept separately from them. When Custer and his people are slaughtered, the money blows away in the wind.

Sometimes the opponents a group faces, don't have the same values as those they fight. While some of the Indians may have found a use for the money, most were happy to take other sorts of grisly trophies of their victory against Custer.

In a fantasy campaign, if dealing with an insect people that have no appreciation of gold, jewelry or man-made weapons and armor, because they craft everything they need from the corpses of their dead using hard chitin weapons and armor, perhaps the players stumble upon a huge treasure that the enemy may not appreciate, but appreciate the presence of the player's even less.

Range Dependent Magics

'I was born there, on the Rosebud Creek. Indeed, my medicine works only half-strength when I come below the Shell River." (pg. 220)

Games like Rifts use Ley Lines or 'Dragon Blood' or some manner indicating that a certain part of the earth is rich with magic. Are there specific parts of a campaign setting that are known to be that like? Does victory depend on getting the enemy away from such a land?

In the Forgotten Realms for example, after the age old Avatar Crisis, there were wild magic and dead magic zones. Mages wouldn't be caught dead in a dead magic zone if they could help it. 

Use variances in power level based on location and see how the players can turn it against their opposition.


'Wild Bill Hickok was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him. When I say he was responsible for a ton of crap, I don't mean he ever spoke a word in his own behalf. He never said he put a head on Tom Custer, nor wiped out the McCanles gang, nor would he ever mention them ten shots inside the O. But others would be doing it incessantly, and blowing up the statistics and lengthening the yardage and diminishing the target." (pg. 284)

In a game where there are 'wild lands' or sparsely populated areas, 'badlands', a player's reputation can take him far. What's he known for? What's he been seen doing?

A bounty hunter that uses a particular weapon in a particular way may have a greater reputation than another bounty hunter that uses the same weapon ever other hunter uses.

A character that gets lucky in a big brawl or arrives at just the right time may find themselves with a great reputation.

The only problem? Wild Bill Hickok had to defend that reputation and in this book at least, his actions come back to haunt him the one time he doesn't sit with his back to the wall. Being known for something, especially something that involves violence, means that there will always be others out there trying to make their own reputation. 

Reputation can be public and private. 'Even as a remnant, the Seventh Cavalry lived up to its glorious traditions, linking arms in public while privately slandering one another.' (pg 438)

An organization may be known for its professionalism and its tactic, but those who know the 'real' organization may have different things to say about it. You often see this with people with terrible secrets. "Oh, Fred? I would never have suspected that he was a cannibal."


'But as we come closer, the marble-white was not clear, but streaked and sometimes drowned in red which the heat turned brown, and the smell was starting up too, attended by millions of flies, and the birds rose in great circles at our approach and coyotes scampered off to a safe range.' (pg. 424)

Berger puts the most obvious sense, sight to good use. But then he goes into smell. And then, the byproducts that often accompany death, the scavengers. If the players come across a slaughtered caravan, do you describe how ripe the smell is? Do you tell them that the ground is sticky with blood? Do you talk about the insect life making it's home in the corpses? The egg laying? The eye feasting? 

Weird Stuff

'And then, the summer of '74 billions of grasshoppers descended on the plains in a great blanket stretching from Arkansas to Canada...a Union Pacific train was stalled at Kearney, Nebraska, by a three-foot drift of them insects.' (pg. 338)

Sometimes something weird happens. Throw it in the campaign.

Little Big Man is an excellent book for both players and game masters of any genre. Character motivations and adventue seeds aplenty, NPCs and settings call to those who heed this book.