Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Gauntlet Taken Up: Media Influences

The noble, but apparently also darkly sinister, James Edward Raggi IV has tossed down a gauntlet to the RPG blogging community:

So... I challenge the role-playing blogosphere (and I know you are reading... :P) to name the primary influences in your personal game, so we get a flavor not of what set of rules you decide to use, but what kind of game people can expect to play with you! Minimum five. No maximum. Plus include what people might assume influences you that you actually reject. Bonus points for detail and explanation!

I could hardly say no to that, right? So, here we are, with the strongest influences on my fantasy gaming. (I’m limiting myself to fantasy for now in order to keep this at a reasonable length. I’ll probably still fail, but at least I tried, right?)

Sir Toby Jingle’s Beastly Journey
Say what?!? This is a children’s book, written and illustrated by Wallace Tripp. An elderly knight rides out one last time to confront the enemies he has spent a lifetime confounding. The look and feel has a hint of whimsy, but stays rooted in the realistic enough that I can still totally believe that the Goblin Well is out there, somewhere, if I just look in the right forest. The book introduced me to the griffon, and because of this book, gryphons (my much cooler spellink from old) in my campaigns are sentient. The story is a duel of wits, with lots of examples of lateral thinking. I’ve loved this book since I was three or four years old, and it’s had a profound influence on what I think when I talk about “fantasy”.

Harryhausen Flicks
When I was a wee lad, one of the joys of visiting relatives in New Jersey was getting to watch channel 11 out of New York (PIX, I think). They were always showing old movies, especially of the action/adventure genre. If I was really lucky, I might catch an old Zoro movie, or a pirate flick. But my favorites were the ones with monsters and magic in them.

As I got older, my parents took my brother and me out to the drive-in movie theater twice. The first time, we saw “Jason and the Argonauts”. The second time was to see “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger”.

The thing I love about Harryhausen monsters is that they always fit into their environment. Sometimes, they’re conjured by the powers of sorcery to thwart or aid the heroes. Sometimes, they’re part of the local ecology, with their own lives and goals before those pesky heroes show up. But they’re never just sitting around in a cave, inert until someone shows up to interact with them.

Choose Your Own Adventure Books
I started reading these in first grade, and was quickly hooked. I also loved TSR’s Endless Quest books as well. Yeah, I read the Fighting Fantasy and Wizards, Warriors, and You books as well, but I didn’t like those as much. The use of dice and coin-flipping to adjudicate conflict felt like a cop-out to me. I much preferred using my wits to figure out how to overcome adversity. That said, I also loved the Sorcery! quartet, and certain aspects of mood and setting have leaked from those (especially KharĂ©: Cityport of Traps) into my campaigns.

The Old Testament
Ok, forget for a moment that it’s a religious text. It’s actually easier to do than you might think. There’s a reason Cecil B. Demille went back to that well again and again for his movies. There’s action, romance, the clashings of great armies, the rise and fall of powerful dynasties and civilizations, the more personal tales of promises not kept, of dreams chased and painful betrayal. Sure, I could mention C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, Glen Cook’s Black Company books, the Arthurian myths and ancient history, but they are all seen through the prism of the stories I grew up with in the Old Testament. Like most Episcopalians, I know the Bible better than I think I do, and it’s not unusual for me to look back at a plot element or character and think, “Oh yeah, that’s just like what happened in Judges…”

When my games dip into multi-generational plots and politics, when slavegirls use their wiles and influence to topple kingdoms, when armies set to march with all the pomp and panoply of war, when the fates of thousands are decided by the chance decisions of ordinary folk, I’m almost certainly, whether I know it or not, dipping into the Old Testament.

Norse Mythology
I wish I could remember the name or author of the book on Norse myth that I read in elementary school. I loved those stories, and when your PCs find themselves facing challenges in the hall of frost giant king, or getting dragged into a blood feud between warring clans, or when you realize that the old man you chatted with last night might have been, no, must have been a god, then you can thank the Norse and their myths. Because of these stories, the gods in my campaigns are not omnipotent, nor omniscient. They get drunk, they screw up, and they fall in love and they sometimes fail at their aims. But they’re still far more powerful than your puny, mortal PC. Which, I think, makes them a lot scarier.

Anne McCaffery
My mother love Ms. McCaffery’s Pern stories, and I was intrigued by the Whelan covers. People have derisively suggested that three-quarters of any McCaffery story is people sitting around in kitchens, chugging bottomless mugs of coffee-substitute, and talking. While my games aren’t quite that bad, if you’re not into talking your way out of problems, or hashing out deals and plans with NPCs, then there’s a good chance you’ll find my campaigns frustrating.

Ed Greenwood
Issue #74 was the first Dragon I ever read, and it rocked my world. In these days, the Forgotten Realms were only Mr. Greenwood’s personal home campaign. But the little peek we got to see from his article titled simply “Seven Swords” fascinated me. Every sword had a detailed history, rife with heroes and wars and politics and treachery. It utterly transformed the way I played the game, launching me from generic dungeon crawls where players might find a simple sword +1 to multi-generational epic campaigns where even simple coins might have a story to tell. I never bought any of the FR box sets or books, because what I really wanted were those tiny crumbs of inspiration Mr. Greenwood scattered about. They were perfect nucleation points for my imagination.

Ultima IV and V
Yep, the computer games by Richard “Lord British” Garriott. I loved the way he wove philosophy into his worldbuilding on these games. I loved the way you could approach many of the puzzles from different directions. I loved the way, especially in V, the world felt alive and real, and that things happened even when the PCs were not in the area. As much as my campaigns take place in living, breathing worlds, Mr. Garriott provided much of the inspiration.

D3 – Vault of the Drow
You cannot fight your way through this adventure. Don’t even try it. You’ll be slaughtered. And I will laugh at you. Seriously, this isn’t a dungeon to be hacked through. It’s a culture to be encountered and explored. If you must swing swords and shed blood at least once per hour, or, heck, even at least once per gaming session, my campaigns are not for you. If you enjoy authors like Martha Wells, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, Jacqueline Carey, Carla Speed McNeil, Desmond Morris, Joel Rosenberg, and Neil Gaimon, if, in other words, you think you might enjoy a genre laughingly described as “anthropology porn”, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy my campaigns.

Vlad Taltos
Not so much the assassin character as the way Stephen Brust creates a world that works on D&D-like principles and makes it feel real. Your characters will almost certainly get dragged into the fights of obscenely more powerful beings, and they will be too busy defending themselves to watch out for you. Trying to live through the experience will be a bitch, but if you do, someone with a lot of clout or raw power will owe you a favor. Spend it wisely.

Camille Paglia
Especially Sexual Personae. Her descriptions of how art arises from a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian influences a lot of how cultures and societies work in my games. It provides the groundwork for how Law and Chaos work as well, and when I use those terms, I’m thinking about Paglia even more than Moorcock. When I dip into the works of Poe, Coleridge, Tennyson, the Brownings, One Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare, Byron, etcetera, Ms. Paglia is always on my shoulder, whispering in my ear.

Also, my games usually swerve into R-rated territory. When they do, it’s usually with a bit of Paglia’s influence. Unless I got there by way of…

Dark Crusade
My favorite work by Karl Edward Wagner. This book unabashedly wallows in the brutal horrors of a world untouched by the gentler philosophies of such cults as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etcetera. No other story I’ve read better conveys the sensual and savage brutality of a world in which the strong unapologetically rend what they will from the weak. Where Howard’s Conan stories draw a curtain, or Moorcock’s Elric turns away in brooding boredom, and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” flees in horror, Wagner lingers. There’s a touch of Lovecraft here as well, but the horror of incomprehensible, alien gods pales beside the all too understandably human evil that saturates this book. My games can get dark, because there are evil people in my worlds, and the do horrible things. Some of that evil is so common in these worlds that most people hardly feel it worthwhile to comment on. Whether or not the PCs join in, struggle against it, or fall victim to it, I leave largely up to the players.

Goddess Mythology
I suppose being a fan of both ancient myth and Paglia, I’d run into this eventually, though it was actually by way of Joseph Campbell that I discovered Goddess myth. There is usually some faction whose philosophy encompasses the embrace of opposites, who celebrate life and see all things as divine and good, no matter how unpleasant, and who venerate the generative principles in my campaigns. They don’t always make pleasant neighbors. This is about as close to dealing with real world religions as I usually tread in a fantasy game, but I’m also not above blatantly using, say, the Roman Catholic Church in Shadowrun or Hinduism in my space opera. If this sort of thing disturbs you, best stay away.

Yikes! I was supposed to list at least five. That’s thirteen. So what might folks be surprised isn’t a profound influence on my gaming? That’s actually a much harder question to answer. I’ll tentatively say…

I love anime. I have in the past written reviews for American audiences and own a few complete series and individual movies. That said, there’s little in anime I bring to my fantasy gaming. The arcade-like blasts of Technicolor power, the giantly oversized weaponry, the blatant anachronisms all turn me off when I get to the gaming table, as much as I enjoy them on the screen. “Record of Lodoss War” is about as close to my gaming as anime tends to come, but as that’s blatantly influenced by D&D, the similarities have more to do with diverging from a common source than anything else. (Sci-fi, however, is another matter entirely…)

Tom Moldvay
Yeah, ok, so he wrote the rulebook that got me started in gaming, and so he’s certainly had an influence there. But I cannot stand most of his adventures. Castle Amber feels like a madhouse of random elements just sort of shoved in, willy-nilly, unless you’re familiar with the stories, and even then, you have to wonder how all of this is supposed to hang together when the PCs are not around. I appreciate the ideas in The Lost City, but I can’t run it without seriously reworking a lot of the premises and many of the encounters. I can handle a bit of anachronism, even mix some sci-fi with my fantasy. But I love my verisimilitude, and Moldvay generally can’t be bothered with anything so pedestrian.


noisms said...

Great list! I'm not familiar with some of them; I'll definitely be checking out Sir Toby Jingle's Beastly Journey.

James Maliszewski said...

Moldvay was the Man. Next thing you know and you'll be dissing The Isle of Dread. Sheesh.


trollsmyth said...

Thanks! STJBJ is a lot of fun, but I suspect a lot of my enjoyment of the book is due to having first experienced it at such a tender age.

Clearly,sir, this matter can only be settled one way. I offer you your choice of weapons: pistols at dawn, swords at sunset, or, my personal favorite, hand grenades after cocktails. ;)

- Brian

Heather said...

I love anime too. I was explaining D&D to a friend recently and compared it to a really cool Choose Your Own Adventure book that everyone is reading together. I was an english major so I didn't start reading any good fantasy until late in my studies because I was choking down the classics instead.

trollsmyth said...

Back in college, before the Trollwife became my wife, I sold the idea of playing D&D to her by describing it as an Infocom text-adventure without the annoying, "I don't see one of those here" responses.

I've loved fantasy for the longest time. After STJBJ, it became my favorite genre. My father encouraged me to read by writing stories over his lunch break about Lady Gwen and Sir Kay's battles against the wicked Black Knight, in which both sides would lay nasty traps for each other that would rust the armour of their enemy so they couldn't move. So there were lots of buckets of salt water placed over doors, saltwater balloons, and the like. Things only got worse when he bought me the nine-book Narnia box set.

That said, I didn't start reading the classics until high school and college. I disdained the "muscle-bound oafs" like Conan, and didn't have much patience for short stories until college made me appreciate getting my fiction fix in small bites rather than marathon sessions. The university library gave me Fritz Lieber, Robert Howard, and more Moorcock and Lovecraft (try reading his "Dreamquest" while under the influence of a fever) than I'd been able to find at the bookstore.

If you'd like some suggestions, or have a few you think I'd like, based on the above, just let me know.

And best of luck on the move!

- Brian

David Larkins said...

I'll be posting about my influences soon, but I just gotta say that I never expected to see Camille Paglia on a list of RPG influences--and what a pleasant surprise it is! :)

Kavonde said...

Awesome post! Thanks for putting this up...writing out my (much shorter) list gave me some good insight into my brain, which is always fun.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! I've done mine - good calls on Ultima IV and the Vlad Taltos stuff. I hope some of the game designers out there do this too!

trollsmyth said...


Thanks! And you gotta support the local guys. That includes Brust now, I think, as I've heard he's moved to Texas. I wonder if we'll see him at ArmadilloCon?

- Brian