History and roleplaying go hand and hand with roleplayers holding a deep interest in history, whether it’s an accurate depiction, fictional derivative, or pure fantasy. Most roleplaying games have detailed histories with their setting, but others require their own research. Settings based on a real historical period are easier to research thanks to modern conveniences. I’ve found history podcasts a great resource. One of my favorite podcasts and the best one on the American Western Expansion of the 19th century is “The Old West with Dr. History” Podcast.
The show covers material from the early 19th century with early pioneers, trappers, and mountain men to more familiar western stories of cowboys, Indians, outlaws, and lawmen. You’ll find all your favorite western subjects: stagecoaches, bank robberies, Native Peoples and practices, period foods, cattle drives, the klondike, miners and their gold, diseases, healthcare, and more. The majority of information derives from carefully researched sources. Our host Dr. Ken Turner or Dr. History, as he’s known, pulls his information from books, personal journals, and of-the-period news clippings. The best way to know what life was like is to hear it from the people who lived it. The podcast has over 300+ episodes at the time of this article, and more are added each week.
The podcast’s first episode dates back to November 11, 2013, with its inaugural show “Indian Athletics—Broken Bones and Death,” which featured various Native American athletic sports and has kept a regular schedule ever since. The quality of those early episodes is atrocious, but the content is stellar. The show’s sound quality fluctuates throughout the series but improves over time.
“The Old West with Dr. History” is actually a weekly segment of a southern Idaho radio program. Each Tuesday morning, Zeb Bell, host of “Zeb At The Ranch,” invites Dr. Ken Turner, M.D., a retired chiropractor, into his studio to tell tales of the old west. With a deep interest in American Western History and local Idaho history, Dr. History recites a thoroughly researched tale covering a person, place, or event of that era. The segment has proven so popular that it was made into a podcast. Some episodes contain commercials: more recent episodes have ads at the beginning and end. A few episodes are Dr. History alone in his own home studio without Zeb. Other times Dr. History literally phones in,
; calling into the station to do his segment.
Dr. History keeps the quality of the material high. He does this by reading excerpts from personal diaries,
; reliving history in their own words. It’s a fascinating deep dive into history from the perspective of those who lived it. Occasionally, Dr. History makes substitutions for more colorful phrases or occupations; it’s a family radio show. With each episode, Dr. History strives to provide the most accurate depiction of the west. He often highlights a story or person that most people have never heard of before. He does cover well-known personalities glorified by Hollywood and dime-store novels, but what makes this podcast special are the other untold stories and persons of lesser note. These events and people are the perfect details to add to your roleplaying game without making players feel secondary to the setting.
The “Old West with Dr. History” Podcast has a lot of historical knowledge to absorb. It’s the perfect podcast to use for researching western-themed roleplaying games. Not only will your list of NPCs increase, but your insight into the living conditions for the era will too. Each episode is only 20 minutes, which is great for the gamemaster with little time for research. They are jam-packed with information to use right away. The show’s episodes are self-contained and do not follow a historical timeline. Listeners can start with the latest episode without feeling like they missed something by not starting at the beginning of the show’s career.
If you are inclined, “The Old West with Dr. History” can be heard every Tuesday at 10:08 am (Mountain Time) at ZebBell.com or if you live in southern Idaho on AM Radio 1230. A full list of episodes is kept at Dr. History’s website, or you can find the podcast on your favorite podcast streaming platform. Please give it a listen. If you like it, write Dr. History and let him know. I bet he covers a person or event you’ve never heard of and will want to incorporate into your own story.
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