Django Unchained: An Epic RPG

Image Copyright: Columbia Pictures

Although Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained didn’t walk away with the Academy Award for Best Picture last year, the film did carry with it elements that to my Gaming eyes seemed to have all the hallmarks of a valid and engaging cinematic version of an Epic role-playing game.

But when I point this out to most people I find my understanding of the film usually fails to be greeted by anything short of complete and utter incredulity. So I thought I would take the chance this week to go about explaining just how it is that a movie set in the Antebellum South about a freed slave and his German accomplice so closely mirrors the structure of a typical gaming session and is in fact possibly one of the best examples out there of how a typical role-playing game unfolds.

First off it would help to establish a few things about the basic ideas upon which your typical role-playing game is built. Most RPGs take place in a setting of High Fantasy. From a genre standpoint High Fantasy settings are worlds that are radically if not entirely different from the real and historical one we all exist in, worlds like Dungeon & Dragon’s Faerun, Dragonlance’s Krynn, or Mistborn’s Scadrial. These worlds have timelines all of their own, filled with mystical bygone ages of make-believe kingdoms and rulers. They also have elements within them that are inconsistent with the traditional way we perceive reality, the most obvious of these inconsistencies are things like magic, but also include much more mundane differences like other humanoid races who exist alongside mankind like trolls or elves or uruk hai.

The quintessential novel of High Fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Set in the fantastic world of Middle-earth where beings of elves, dwarves, hobbits and the like use magic Tolkien’s novels set forth a universal formula upon which all role-playing games take their lead. In these works the familiar tropes of what makes a role-playing game were fleshed out in full; a group of heroes battling against the forces of evil by going on a quest, against a backdrop of fantasy elements and otherworldly beings who along the way utilized a variety of skills, swordplay and sorcery.

And while with elements like this Tolkien revolutionized the High Fantasy genre, he most certainly did not invent it. In fact the history of literature itself can be traced to a work of High Fantasy every bit as detailed as The Hobbit.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia and one of the earliest surviving works of literature known to man a powerful almost semi-divine King of Ancient Uruk (Notice the name of the City? Tolkien sure did!) battles evil forces as he goes on a series of challenging adventures. He is aided on these quests by his wild man companion Enkidu. The two of these mythical heroes encounter many supernatural and dangerous scenarios before Enkidu is ultimately cursed by a goddess and slain,  prompting Gilgamesh to journey to a fantastic underworld in search of immortality.

And so in both the Epic of Gilgamesh and Tolkien’s Middle-earth series there are unfolding themes that clearly seem to unite beneath the banner of not only what constitutes High Fantasy, but also what people have ultimately agreed as to what constitutes acceptable role-playing concepts . At their core, these stories were about companionship set against a rewarding adventure out to battle the unsettling forces of their respective worlds. And its this core concept that can be seen operating throughout the entirety of the film Django.

For starters, the film character of Django is on a quest.  Two in fact. The first concerns capturing a group of outlaws, the Brittle Brothers while the second is a more personal quest; freeing his wife Broom Hilda from slavery. Like Gilgamesh, Django is aided on these quests by a companion, in his case, the German Dentist/Bounty-hunter Doctor King Schultz. It’s Schultz who during the course of the film literally describes their undertaking as a Germanic Quest for Django’s wife. Though bearing little semblance to the actual mythology of the German Siegfried and his Brynhildr, Schultz never-the-less paints their pending journey as that of an adventure against a dragon-spired mountaintop within which lies the prize to any good fantasy-tale; a beautiful bride. 

Tarantino’s script thus reveals quite explicitly that Django Unchained is in fact an Epic Tale. What’s more, like Gilgamesh, Django’s side-kick and arguably his ‘civilizing’ companion Schultz ultimately dies during the course of the quest they are on. And just like any Epic its this relationship between adventurers that forms the core of any good role-playing session.

From a story perspective, the fact that they are battling the forces of unmitigated evil only glorifies this point even more. In any good RPG, like it’s High Fantasy genre counterpart, the bad-guys need to be completely and irredeemably bad. I can think of no worse villain’s in any Module or Campaign I’ve been in that didn’t share the characteristics of the villains in Django; slave-owning, murderous, wantonly cruel- clearly folks of the Lawful Evil alignment.  I’ve personally seen my share of gamers unquestionably put down such types for crimes far less nefarious. Who hasn’t? (I’m looking at you Dwarf fighter with the blood of a half dozen orcs on your warhammer.)

The parallels to role-playing only get deeper the more you look at Django. In the very first scene, Schultz kills one of Django’s captives, a Speck brother, and then Django himself proceeds to take not only the dead man’s coat, but also his horse. WOOT! Another instance of any good role-playing game on full display; the concept of gaining rewards or treasure during the course of play and specifically here in perfect synchronicity with what goes on during a typical session-looting the bodies! Your party kills a dragon, they get his hoard. This is the universally acknowledged course of action among Gamers as the proper way to end a combat scene- wanton corpse theft with gold and magic items proving its acceptability. Even the very profession of the Epic heroes in Django, that of bounty hunting, and its dubious moral Code of killing bad people for a reward ties into this image as that of adventurous opportunists, especially when it comes to dead bodies.

From a mechanical standpoint, Django also holds up to close inspection. Role-playing games are essentially a collection of individual characters who each have unique builds including things like skills, hit-points, armor class, experience points, et. cetera that revolve around systems well defined in advance. In this respect we have Django who clearly has traits that embody these qualities, with Dexterity arguably the most obvious stat, evidenced by Django’s skill  with fire arms (Ranged Weapons), his Stealthing prowess and his superb Riding  finesse- clearly an optimized Stat. Living in the wild, a Skill that requires Survivability or perhaps a Nature Check, practicing his Deadly Aim, and even learning how to talk his way out of a chain-gang, clearly a Diplomacy Crit! also demonstrate various character assets familiar to any RPG fan.

As for the nature of the world of Django, this is generally where my argument losses its bluster. In order for the film to be of a role-playing-esque sensibility the consensus seems to be that it has to take place in a High Fantasy setting. Indeed I myself even spelled that out above as one of the requirements for a successful game. However there are some points that can turn this perception around. 

G. R. R. Martin’s highly successful Game Of Thrones series is a fantasy epic set in a world of what is known as Low Fantasy. Contrasted with High Fantasy, its a genre that falls within the Fantasy umbrella but bases its drama on more mundane and grittier human interests with a splash of the fantastic added for good measure. These types of works of Low Fantasy are based on our own history with a mix of supernatural elements; think of a world where vampires, ghosts and alien abductors were to actually exist. And as a setting for a role-playing game this concept has already produced a huge amount of gaming material that draws upon this very idea.

Games like World of Darkness, Wizards Modern D20, Chaosium’s Cthulhu or Cataylst’s Game Labs Shadowrun all depict worlds similar to our own but within the context of Low Fantasy and all of them are systems fully and quintessentially fantasy. What Tarantino presents in Django is likewise a world very much like our own, but clearly set in an alternate one with a differing version of historical events, hence a Low Fantasy Setting, which is entirely within the realm of what constitutes an acceptable setting for an Rrole-playing game.

Unconvinced? Let’s take a look at some of the things that set the world of Django into such a secondary and Low Fantasy setting.

The film has been pointed out as including a number of historical inaccuracies both major and minor comparable to actual historic record. Most notable to critics is the inclusion of Mandigo fighting, that being the pitting of slaves against one another in gladiator like matches to the amusement of their owners. Tarantino himself gave only vague indications as to their historical goings-on but their inclusion gives the film a wavering view of history as we know it. The appearance of white-hooded Klansmen in the film also stir up cries of faulty research. Drawing their presence backwards through time by about ten years to a point when they were known as the Regulators Tarantino takes certain liberties with the timing of events to add a flair for not only cinematic but also poetic license. Likewise as pointed out to me by a gaming buddy of mine, Tarantinos inclusion of dynamite in the pre-civil war period when it was actually invented post-wartime also port the film into a world of make-believe.

This isn’t the first time that Tarantino created such a film, his Inglorious Basterds was a similar attempt at alternative history, one where the great villain of World War II died in a horrific execution style shoot out that never in fact happened in real life. And it’s clear in both films that Tarantino deliberately went for an alternate version of the past with its own internal timeline of events.

Aside from the historical differences between the film and the actual past, there are also structural differences in the way things work in Tarantino’s Django compared to our own world. The most obvious display of this and one that seemed to irk some viewers of the film concerned a scene at the end of the movie when Django shoots the plantation owners sister and rather than tumbling backward, she flies sideways into another room. This may seem like a deliberate and Tarantino-esque fluke of excessive violence but it’s actually rather in keeping with other elements of incredulity within the world of Django. For one, the shooting skill of Django himself is entirely beyond the bounds of anything a normal human being could be said to be capable of especially given the state of firearms of the time. While these may be brushed aside as simply elements of a movie, its clear that the intent was to create a world of fantastic happenings, that runs counter to normal perceptions of what human beings are capable of thus creating a setting that is different but similar enough to our own world to be called Low Fantasy.

And just like G.R.R. Martin, Tarantino creates a Low Fantasy world within which mythical heroes embark on a transformative journey. For Django this is the metamorphosis from being that of slave into that of a smooth talking Epic figure complete with seemingly mystical, if brutally effective, powers. Clearly, a story about a character who Levels, both in terms of skills, and damage output, another quintessential quality of role-playing. And he developed them on a quest with his companion, fighting evil to get to his long lost love in a world different from our own, with its own rational center of physics.

A Low Fantasy Epic.

And a perfect setting for a Role-playing Game.

All the elements are there, and leave it to a progressive thinker like Tarantino to twist them all together.

Want more proof? Take a look at the following character build, a simple enough Pathfinder mock-up based off of the Gunslinger Character Class, an obvious acknowledgement by a Role-playing Publisher that agrees that Gun-men have every bit of a place alongside the likes of wizards and warriors in a role-playing game… although in this case I used a Low Fantasy Point Buy of 10…

“I count two guns, friend.”

Male human gunslinger (mysterious stranger) 17
CG Medium humanoid (human)
Init + 9; Senses normal; Perception + 11
AC 22, 17 touch, 15 flat-footed
(+5 armor,+6 Dex,+1 dodge)
hp 117 (17d10+11)
Fort +10, Ref + 17, Will +9;
Speed 30 ft.
Melee unarmed +0 (1d4/x2)
Ranged revolver +17/+12/+7/+2 (1d8/x4)
Str 10, Dex 24, Con 10, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 16
Base Atk +17/+12/+7/+2; CMB +17; CMD 34
Feats Dodge, Extra Grit, Gunsmithing, 
Improved Initiative, 
Improved Precise Shot, Iron Will, Mobility, 
Pinpoint Targeting, 
Point-Blank Shot, Precise Shot, Quick Draw, 
Rapid Shot, Shot On the Run, 
Weapon Focus (Revolver)

Skills Bluff +23, Diplomacy +9 (+11 vs. slavers), 
Handle Animal +11, Intimidate +16 (+18 vs. slavers), 
Knowledge (Engineering) +8, Knowledge (Local) +6, 
Perception +11, Ride +23, Sleight of Hand +16, 
Survival +15; Armor Check 0

Traits Enemy of Slavers, Freed Slave

Languages English

SQ deeds (bleeding wound, clipping shot, deadeye, 
dead shot, expert loading, evasive, focused aim, 
gunslinger dodge, gunslinger initiative, 
lighting reload, menacing shot, pistol-whip, 
slinger’s luck, startling shot, targeting, 
utility shot), grit [char](5), gunsmith, lucky, 
stranger’s fortune

Combat Gear alchemist’s fire (4), 
amulet of bullet protection, 
belt of incredible dexterity + 4, 
far-reaching sight; 
Other Gear +5 leather, 
revolver (2) with 4 cartridges, 
hat, scarf, smoked goggles, tobacco (4), 
travelers outfit, gunsmiths’ kit, 
wanted poster bill, waterskin, 
light riding horse, 200 dollars

But of course, like Gilgamesh, Django didn’t quest alone…

“My good sir, perhaps we got off on the wrong boot.”

Male human bard 2, gunslinger 9
CG Medium humanoid (human)
Init + 8; Senses normal; Perception + 7
AC 22, 17 touch, 15 flat-footed 
(+4 armor, +6 Dex, +1 dodge)
hp 57 (9d10+2d8+8)
Fort +8, Ref + 18, Will +10; 
(+4 vs. against bardic performance,
sonic, and language-dependent effects)
Speed 30 ft.
Melee unarmed -1 (1d4-1/x2)
Ranged revolver +10/+4 (1d8/x4)
Bard Spells Prepared 1st – Adoration,
Anticipate Peril, Charm Person, 
Undetectable Alignment
0 (at will) – daze, flare, know direction,
mending, prestidigitation
Str 8, Dex 23, Con 8, Int 15, Wis 9, Cha 14
Base Atk +10/+4; CMB +10; CMD 25

Feats Deceitful, Far Shot, Gunsmithing, 
Improved Initiative, Iron Will, 
Point-Blank Shot, Precise Shot, 
Rapid Shot, Quick Draw, Weapon Focus (Revolver)

Skills Bluff +20, Diplomacy +16(*calculated bribe),
Disguise +15, Handle Animal +11, Heal +6, 
Intimidate +9, Knowledge (Engineering) +11, 
Knowledge (History) +11,  Knowledge (Nobility) +8, 
Perception +7(+8 vs. surprise), 
Perform (Oratory) +9, Ride +16, 
Sense Motive(*Performance) +9, Sleight of Hand +18, 
Survival +11(+12 vs. tracks); Armor Check 0

Traits Calculated Bribe, Bounty Hunter

Languages English, French, German

SQ bardic knowledge, bardic performance, cantrips, 
countersong, deeds (deadeye, dead shot, 
gunslinger dodge, gunslinger initiative, clear, 
pistol-whip, startling shot, targeting, utility shot), 
distraction, fascinate, grit (5), gunsmith, 
gun training, inspire courage, nimble +2, 
versatile performance, well-versed

Combat Gear alchemist’s fire (4), 
belt of incredible dexterity + 4, 
far-reaching sight; 
Other Gear +3 quilted cloth, 
coat pistol with (6) fire arm bullets,
revolver (2) with 4 cartridges, 
rifle with 2 cartridges, hat, pipe, tobacco (4),
travelers outfit, gunsmiths’ kit, waterskin,
light riding horse, 12,000 dollars

Game Forth!

Any other builds for the Epic Hero Django and Dr. King Shultz from other systems you might have a suggestion for?


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