Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Media Influences: 8 Months Late

About eight months ago, Lamentations of the Flame Princess issued a challenge to list the primary, secondary, or just any influences on one's home game and gaming style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Old School Community's response, though varied to be sure, generally seemed to draw from the same genres at least, or from the same general area. James over at Grognardia seemed to be rather emblematic of the general mood and response.

Before people pull out their ropes, torches and pitchforks, let me state unequivocally that I'm not in any way denigrating this, merely commenting on it as a curiosity since, from my perspective, most of the authors that are cited are simply not influential to me at all. Whether this is because of age (I'm definately too young to have caught the first wave of D&D and, despite their presence in the DMG Appendix N, have only just now started to investigate those strange books that Mr. Gygax put down as suggested reading) or simply the focus on a different vein of Fantasy, I just never caught the Pulp Fiction Fever. To me, Conan always was, and mostly likely always will be, an Austrian bodybuilder with a thick accent.

Going through it all, it's pretty clear that, though closer to the Old School than the New, my generation of gamers really doesn't fit there either. We're still the new kids who, if we promise to behave, get to sit at the table and play the cleric NPC and cast healing spells when told to.* We grew up with Tolkien as the core of the fantasy genre rather than Leiber or Howard, though they were still interesting enough to grab from the dime store if we saw them (I, for some odd reason, never did). We didn't have Hammer Films. As a matter of fact, most people I knew at the time considered such films hokey and silly. Instead, we got loaded with films like "Lady Hawk" and "DragonSlayer": both of which I watched so often I about wore the VHS tapes out. Not only that, I grew up a second generation Trekkie, who thought that the original series was plainly inferior than Jean Luc Picard's sofistication and obvious competence right up until I was 16 and learned exactly what made Kirk so damnably cool. I never even heard of HP Lovecraft until I was 20.

All together, it seemed strange to me that people repeated again and again that D&D had little to do with Tolkien and would I please put away such childish notions. Clearly they were out of their minds. It had halflings and ents and dwarves and elves and practically shouted out Middle Earth in a hundred different ways! I'm sure there are any number of gamers today who can say the same thing.

Where is this all going, except on some twisted journey through the dark and cobwebby corridors of my brain? Well, World of Thool seemed to pick this up and take it that one extra step and use the same idea of listing influences, but applying them to a speciric campaign. The literary influences of a campaign world, the germinating kernels that would grow up into the deliberately wierd world of Thool. That's an excellent place to start.

So I present unto you, the faintly interested and most likely bored by now, the inspirational kernels of what will grow into the World of Thylia:

1. Goerge Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire: I have an almost indecent appreciation for these books. In so many ways, Martin's Westeros embodies almost everything that I love about fantasy and jettisons from it so much that has become stereotypical that I practically gush over at least the first book Game of Thrones. Intricate, but not absurdly complicated plots. A focus on the gritty and realistic point of view that has little of the "Dark Lord on his Dark Throne in the Land of Shadows wherefrom the Legions of Evil issue forth . . ." that gets repeated over and over again by people trying to imitate Tolkien. Real characters rather than token symbolic characters. I would love it if my NPC's could even approach this level. Most of all, Martin appears to be the undisputed master of what I call "Normal Fantasy." The wierd, strange, and mystifying is there, but it feels normal or it creeps in at the edges of the book's conciousness. By the time that the fantastic begins to show up, it never really feels fantastic, which is to me a great acheivment. Assimov's greatest statement concerned the writing of Science Fiction. He said that a good author only asks his audience to believe one unbelievable thing, and that the rest had better be rooted in the familiar and comfortable bounds of life.

2. Tolkien: Of course The Professor is on this list, and for obvious reasons. The man didn't just write an engaging and fascinating story that, apparantly, has outsold the Bible, he wrote a mythology for his modern age. A trite statement by now, I'm sure, but no less pertinent. One of my clearest memories today, and one that makes me chuckle again and again, is thinking at the tender age of 10 or 12 that "Tolkien got it right!" when I read The Hobbit and came to the passages concerning Smaug. Tolkien got it right because, of course, because his dragon guarded a great horde of stolen riches and, according to the illustrated version I was reading at the time, had red scales. Obviously this man had read D&D!

3. HP Lovecraft and other Wierd Tales: Though I will always push toward a "Normal Fantasy" setting, I will always adore the idea of unknowable and likely malign strangeness gnawing at the edges and roots of the world. Somewhere in the dark, the forests, the mountains, or locked deep within the ice, Things that predate this world and reality lurk still, just waiting for the brave and foolhardy to come looking for them.

4. Pulp Fiction: I will state flat out that I am not a fan of the likes of Moorcock (always felt that he was trying too hard to be "not Tolkien" to me), Leiber, and their crowd. They're just not my thing, I suppose. However, I do love the thought behind some of them, especially the innate curiosity that drives them and the characters in them to go out and explore, loot, and pillage the world around them. The original inception of the restless and adventursome individuals who are never satisfied with living in West Podunk in the Great Kingdom as a blacksmith or carpenter. The one's just looking for the excuse to pack up and move on to the next interesting thing. D&D adventurers exactly.

5. Vance's Dying Earth: This I'm pulling out of number four for special attention. It's not so much the stories themselves. Like the other Pulp Fiction mainstays, I could just never get into them. The concept of the old and dying world, on the other hand, is deeply alluring. History throughout the world so old that it was forgotten by civilizations that were themselves forgotten ten thousand years ago.

6. Dragonslayer: Not so much for the story, but for the sets and filming locations. That, right there, is what Tylia looks like, except warmer. Just drop a glacier in the background and there you go. Dingy, cold, downright unpleasant at times, danger lurking just beyond the walls.

7. DragonLance: No matter how much I hate the fact, the DragonLance novels will always be an influence on me. I grew up with them and, for a time even, they were the yard stick against which even Tolkien was measured. For a long time, it was the embodiment of bog standard D&D in my eyes. Knights in shining armor riding around on dragons. Beautiful (obviously blonde and bouxom) elf women. Irrascible dwarves who most obviously spoke with a Scottish accent. Fighting the evil gods. And so on. As much as I'd love to just sever those books from the gaming hemisphere of my brain, it'll never happen.

8. Beowulf: Really all Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the Icelandic sagas, and for that matter most other epics, but Beowulf will always wear the crown here. The story of a hero, and so much of the untold story as well (such as the details of the Finn Fragments, and the story of the people who build the dragon's barrow) are evocative. Another that get's special mention is The Wyf's Lament, but that's for another post entirely. Norse, British, and Germanic legend as put down in these works will become a strong influence in Thylia.

There are more, of course, but for now, these are the basics.

*Yes, my very first experience in D&D was exactly that. It took me all of 1 hour to locate the spell descriptions for the claric in the PHB and six seconds later I declared defiantly that Bob the Cleric would be memorizing "Sanctuary" instead of "Cure Light Wounds" and if the party thief didn't like it, he could suck it.


  1. I think there are a lot of us "middle school gamers" out there. Stand proud!

  2. I'm guessing there are, but we're all busy watching Labrynth and The Dark Crystal repeatedly, wondering just how many hit dice a Skesis has.

  3. ...wondering just how many hit dice a Skesis has.

    9. If you ever get your hands on some old BECMI books, look up the nagpa.

    Nice list. I remember we all wanted that awesome double-barreled crossbow when it came out. :D

  4. I'm "World of Thool guy" (I really have to re-enable my profile at some point). I was just pointed towards this post.

    I'm a Moldvay kid. Unlike the first wave of RPGers, I played D&D before I'd read much of anything other than Tolkien and Narnia. I was more into horror movies and comics. I only discovered the other stuff *after* I got D&D and AD&D and started tracking down the inspirational reading.

    Tolkien may or may not have been a big influence on Gygax and Arneson, but he was obviously a huge influence on gamer culture and the development of D&D. (I personally suspect Gygax's high-handed dismissal of Tolkien as an influence was a product of hurt feelings over being called out for his sticky fingers. The Book of Grudges was thick in those days.)

    As a referee, I'm firmly in the "weird fantasy"/"pulp" camp, but I adore Tolkien, I eagerly await the next installment of Song of Fire and Ice, and I'm at least as influenced by 1980s horror fandom, S&S movies, and CRPGs as I am by the more venerated old school name-checks.

  5. Scott: I've followed your blogs (both the Wilderlands blog and Thool) for a while now. Yes, you are definately in the wierd camp in that world, which is definately cool. You're creating something unique and distant from the bog standard which is something that we need more of. At this point, though, I'm kind of sick of the bog standard fare of late as it all seems to feel the same to me. My goal, right now, is to work within the bog standard, but create something that feels different than Forgotten Realms, Points of Light (a truly excellent product), Greyhawk, or DragonLance or Pathfinder. Something more than just "It's like Greyhawk, but with . . ."

    Oh, and as for good horror movies, try "Atomic Age Vampire." Definately pre-80's, but definately worth a look.

  6. I think there's still a huge amount of room for creativity in traditional fantasy settings. Folklore and myth are deep veins.

    My personal feeling is that a lot of the homogeneity of "bog standard" D&D settings is that they're not building on the source literature, they're building on D&D. Instead of starting with the seed, they're starting about 50' up a tree someone else grew.

    If you take a dozen bright people and start them with the Forgotten Realms, their campaigns would probably look a lot alike. If you take that same dozen people and start them off with a few books about mythology and folklore, along with a simple base ruleset, I think the results would be a lot more personal, organic, and vital.

    That's just my impression, and where I'm at these days. I've had plenty of fun with canned settings.

  7. If you take a dozen bright people and start them with the Forgotten Realms, their campaigns would probably look a lot alike. If you take that same dozen people and start them off with a few books about mythology and folklore, along with a simple base ruleset, I think the results would be a lot more personal, organic, and vital.

    Exactly. I'm seeking to chop down the D&D tree so to speak, but keep the simple(ish) mechanics that I can use. It's a bit of a task, and one I'm not sure I could ever succeed at, but it's something I'm going to try.