Saturday, June 28, 2008

Media Influences

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!
And with those words, the gauntlet was hurled down...

I'm going to go more or less chronologically; since my gaming interests are so diverse, I won't focus on any one genre of inspiration, but rather focus on the high points. Perhaps in a future post I'll address specific inspirations for specific genres.

Lone Wolf

No, not the manga, but rather that series of "choose your own adventure" game books. Yeah, I read CYOA, and the Endless Quest books, and even a book based on the Zork computer game, but Lone Wolf really captured my imagination in a way those other books hadn't.

I consider my first experience as a GM to be when, during recess and lunch breaks, I would sit with a friend and read aloud from a Lone Wolf book, letting him make the choices at the end of each section but taking care of the combats (which relied on closing your eyes and letting your pencil drop on a "Random Number Table"--I didn't know about d10s yet) myself.

I think what primarily drew me in was the rich setting and Joe Dever's use of language. To this day I find myself mirroring some of his phrasing whenever I'm describing a scene in-game. And I really feel that my interest in and emphasis on creating a feeling of a vibrant setting and on character interaction goes all the way back to reading those books.

A few years ago the entire Lone Wolf series began to be digitized and put up on the web. Whether you're an old fan or a neophyte, you should mosey over to Project Aon and spend an hour or two reading through the first few books. They're a great idea mine, at the very least.

(Incidentally, the Lone Wolf setting--Magnamund--is my own Holy Grail in terms of running a campaign with the "right" system. Going back to trying to adapt it to 2nd edition AD&D. Yes, I own the Mongoose version...and I've run it precisely once. It just didn't do anything for me. Current contenders for ideal system would be either Warhammer FRP or Burning Wheel, which both have that gritty, quasi-medieval feel that the setting requires.)

The Wargames West Catalog

I was ruined for all future game store experiences from the very beginning. I bought the Mentzer Basic Set at Wargames West, an Albuquerque game store that was also a major distributor and mail-order retailer back in the day. Part of my memory is, of course, affected by my age and inexperience, but my memory of Wargames West is of this amazing, labyrnthine Valhalla of gaming. I lived in Santa Fe, an hour away, but every time my dad would drive out to Albuquerque to visit friends I'd hitch a ride with him and wheedle out a stop at Wargames West.

When we moved to Los Angeles a couple years later I made sure I was on the Wargames West catalog mailing list. That catalog, printed with cheap newsprint paper and smudgy ink, was my own version of the Internet back before I'd even heard of such a thing outside the confines of Cyberpunk 2020. (In fact, I ordered my copy of CP through the Wargames West catalog!)

What made the catalog great was that about half or more of the products had little write-ups, either a description or a rave review if the game was a staff favorite. I used to pore through the product descriptions, familiarizing myself with all the different games out there, ogling the funny-looking dice, and coveting the miniatures (each of which had a picture, which is more than you can say for a lot of retail web sites these days--even if the pictures were often to blurry to really make out more than a vaguely humanoid-shaped mass).

I can safely say that my immersion in gaming as a hobby rather than simply as a past-time is traceable directly to the Wargames West catalog. Without it, I wouldn't be writing this blog today, that's for sure.

I continued to order from the catalog (I still remember the number: 1-800-SAY-GAME) for several years, but I gradually began patronizing my own LGS (I leave off the "friendly" because, well, they weren't) and then the Internet came along. (For those keeping track at home, my first online RPG-related purchase was the Planescape boxed set, acquired with an gift card my uncle gave me for Christmas.)

Meanwhile, Wargames West was atrophying. The storefront and the distributor-half became two separate entities. I think the last thing I ordered from the Catalog was some M:tG booster packs ("Ice Age," I think...). And then I stopped receiving the catalog all-together. I found out years later about the collapse of the distributor; the last time I visited the store as about 10 years ago on a visit back to New Mexico. They had revamped it and redecorated it. It looked a lot cleaner, but it also felt more generic. It wasn't the same store.

Last March I was back in New Mexico again for the first time in 10 years. I looked up Wargames West and found that it's no longer there. No matter--its glory days were long past anyway. I just wish I'd held on to one of the catalogs, just for old time's sake...

Roger E. Moore's Editorials

I came into Dragon Magazine during the tenure of Roger E. Moore as editor, and that's primarily how I know him. One of the real treats for me back in the day was reading Moore's editorials. He had a talent for telling you about his game, or his philosophies, or what have you, in a way that was both entertaining and inspirational. I can think of several editorials off the top of my head that I immediately incorporated into my own gaming: adventure ideas (like using Poe's "The Maelstrom" as inspiration for a scenario), incorporating PC-NPC romances, and just remembering to keep the "fun" in the game.

I've copied out three of my favorites and posted them. I should add some more.

The "Verix Dwarfstomper" article, in particular, had a huge impact on not just me but my whole group. My friend Alex practically based his gaming on that article's teachings from that point on and we still quote the line about "Sarth the Bastard:"
...a detailed account of the “Rumble on Luna,” in which Snowy Humber, his ape-friend Joe, and a few other luminaries killed the second-to-last avatar of the villainous Sarth the Bastard (those avatars were the pits, each one worse than the one before)...
To me that quote right there is just so evocative of everything that's great about gaming.

Led Zeppelin
I've never smoked a joint in my life, but for about 3-4 years during my adolescence I listened to more Zeppelin than even the most ardent and devoted stoner. There are several Zep songs ("Gallows Pole," "Battle of Evermore," "Ramble On," "Immigrant Song") that have a direct fantasy/medieval connection, and have no doubt inspired many gamers in the past. But because my Zep mania coincided with the period where my group was playing the fuck out of D&D, almost all the songs tended to inspire my gaming, at least indirectly. Nowadays I look back and think, "How did I ever manage to associate 'Down by the Seaside' or 'In My Time of Dying' with D&D?" But there you go. It was an influence once, and it resonates still, if only with somewhat less of the adolescent ardor it once did.

John Carpenter's 1980s ouvre
This has been mentioned already in a couple other of these posts, including the original, but I feel it bears mentioning again here, if for no other reason than I think Carpenter's 80s movies are the quintessential gamer movies and yet seem to go largely unacknowledged. Perhaps it's just taken as a given?

In particular, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live continue to enjoy repeated viewings around my apartment, the former because it is an RPG writ large on the silver screen, the latter because I think everyone should pattern a character after Rowdy Roddy Piper at some point in their lives. And that fist-fight in the alley strikes me as what a combat based on hit points would end up looking like in real life.

The Sword
I've really been getting into the whole "70s hard rock revival" sound that's been goin' down these last couple years, and The Sword is by far my favorite discovery. Lots of music has indirectly influenced my gaming over the years (see above), but The Sword is the first band to directly speak to my FRPG yearnings. I mean, literally. Check it out:

I mean, that shit just makes me want to go out and play some old fashioned, pulp-fantasy D&D, you know? Like, dust off my Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set and just go to it. They take a lot of inspiration from the Song of Ice and Fire series, but you just gotta love a band that puts out a song called "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians".

Edit: well, I was trying to keep it succinct, but I keep thinking of a few more, so I'll throw in an "honorable mentions" section:

  • R. E. Howard: I came into RPGs before I read any fantasy or sci-fi literature (outside of The Hobbit, that is. Howard's Conan stories, which I found in paperback at the library I used to pass on my way home from school and would occassionally stop to use the bathroom of, were my first exposure to fantasy lit, and it blew me away. I know I share that sentiment with a lot of gamers out there, so I'll leave it at that.
  • Excalibur: I first saw this film in its editied-for-TV version when I was about 9 and it rocked my world. Stuff like this movie, more than fantasy literature, is what inspired me to check out D&D (well, that and the D&D cartoon series...). Unlike the D&D cartoon series, Excalibur continues to influence me today (see my Pendragon post for evidence). Funny story: a couple years later I saw the movie at a video rental store and had my folks rent it for me. I guess they didn't think a movie about King Arthur could be rated R...and I didn't realize the version I'd already seen had been, uh, edited for content. Yeah... Awkward...
  • Larry Elmore: I've posted about my Elmore fetish before, but it just bears repeating here: this guy is such an inluence on my gaming, I have based characters off of his paintings.

...and what doesn't do it for me...
H. P. Lovecraft
I love Lovecraft. And Call of Cthulhu has provided countless hours of gaming goodness. But I can't really say that Lovecraft has been much of an influence on my gaming. My favorite periods for CoC are Gaslight and Dark Ages, hardly canonical stuff. And the adventures I do run tend to downplay cosmic horror in favor of personal horror. I'm actually trying to incorporate more of his Dunsany-inspired fantasy into my FRPG campaigns, but that is a recent development.

Computer RPGs
Unlike Lovecraft, I have no appreciation of computer RPGs, much less claiming them as an influence. I've never been into them. The payoff, for me, was never worth the hours of investment required, especially after I got into table-top RPGing. To me, when faced with the choice between using your own creativity to come up with a story, or passively participating in someone else's creative vision, it's a no-brainer. I don't care how good the graphics are.

My dislike of CRPGs has only increased in recent years, as I have found myself in the minority among my gaming friends, who were enthusiastic fans of CRPGs going all the way back to the likes of Phantasy Star and Castlevania and who all eagerly bought into MMORPGs to the point of largely marginializing table-top gaming.

Like Lovecraft, anime is something that I've enjoyed on its own merits (and in fairly limited doses, mostly centering on the work of Hiyao Miyazaki) but that's not really influenced my gaming. And like Lovecraft, that's something I've toyed with chaging, but that hasn't really gotten off the ground yet. That's part of the reason I'm pursuing my Uresia/D&D hack so enthusiastically.

Speaking of which, between my ambivalence over anime and my outright dislike of CRPGs, Uresia would seem to be an unlikely choice for me. But that's one of the reasons I like it; it's fresh (for me) and it lets me play around with the conventions of the two genres in a format that I'm comfortable with. Because, I'll be honest, some of the sillier tropes of CRPGs actually appeal to me.

The Evil Dead Trilogy
My friend Alex turned me on to the works of Sam Raimi back when he was still relatively obscure. I turned him on to the Cohen Brothers. I call it even. At any rate, I love me the Evil Dead movies; they each stand firmly in their own little niches (horror, comedy-horror, comedy, respectively) yet are connected by an overarching story arc. Much like a campaign that starts out one way and evolves into something else. Yet I can't really identify any overt influences on my gaming that come from these movies.

I mention them here in particular, since if Alex had a blog they would be at the top of his influences (right before that "Verix Dwarfstomper" essay). You know how some people always play a ninja or a cleric or dual-sword-wielding badass, no matter what the game and genre? I think basically every character he's played in the last 10 years has been some variation on Ash. Now that's a media influence!
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