Thursday, June 26, 2008

Media Influences

So much has been said about the literary influences of D&D.

Now that's all great for the theorists, historians, pundits, and commentators.

But what about the influences of the individual campaign?

You know, when referees sit down to design their campaigns and adventures, I really don't think they are wondering if they're staying true to the influences of the game. Obviously someone well-versed in those influences is going to internalize them and they'll show through to some degree no matter what, but I think a referee's choices can make it perfectly clear what's influencing them, what drives them to create and go through the bother to run a game for other people in the first place.

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!


Dario Argento This guy's work is awesome. Even when he's bad, he's evocative, and when he's good, he's great. His films combine dreamy fairy tales, brutal and explicit violence, murder mysteries, and often odd sexual situations. I mean, what kind of sick freak writes and directs a scene with his daughter getting violently raped? ay ay ay. But the sense of wonder in films like Suspiria and Phenomena, the complete mind-freak of Inferno, and the classic whodunit? of Tenebrae and Deep Red... And I'll be honest, when I imagine the set-pieces that I set up, I imagine them in the rich colors and sweeping tracking shots that are an Argento trademark.

Edgar Allan Poe The master, above all others, ever. Description and atmosphere galore. Fall of the House of Usher. Ligeia. Masque of the Red Death. Murders in the Rue Morgue. Just, everything. Everything, even his journalistic essay about furniture, causes the brain to blossom and expand in ways that modern writing just doesn't do. ahhhh, when I describe locations and try to impart atmosphere into an adventure for my players, I am attempting (and badly failing, I might add) to channel Poe. And his poem Alone, awesomely turned into music by Arcturus, could have been written about me.

HP Lovecraft Of course. Isn't it too obvious to say this? Dark and dreaming and uncaring gods beyond the understanding of mortal man. It's important that adventurers in D&D never feel at home in the lightless, foreboding places they explore, or else the essence and atmosphere of the setting is lost. The dark gods are the dark gods. They have no stats, no motivation, no physical presence. They just inspire insane cultists to perform sadistic and blasphemous deeds in their name. And their places of worship will drive you insane. It doesn't matter if you're first level or thirtieth, when you are on the turf of the gods, all you are is a pesky little mortal. Did that shadow in the corner just move? Oh sh--

Jules Verne and HG Wells Maybe this is cheating by naming them both as one choice, but 19th century science fiction is just the best. Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Journey to the Center of the Earth? How about Wells' Invisible Man? Island of Dr. Moreau? Time Machine? War of the Worlds? Lots of strange things, wondrous locations, and bizarre happenings in these stories. I also like how a lot of what happens is beyond the control of the protagonists in the story, and their victories have nothing to do with their power over the antagonists. I'd love to get away with a War of the Worlds-style adventure... where the PCs can do nothing but run, the enemies go away on their own, and the meat of the thing is in their interactions with other survivors, and their own introspection. I have no idea how to pull that off in a way that doesn't come across as "haha, wimps, see my awesome monsters overpower alla yous!"

Hammer Film Productions Now I'm not the most well-versed in this sort of thing, but I've seen a few (Captain Cronos: Vampire Hunter!), and they all largely had a very similar visual style, and they unanimously treated their subjects dead serious, as if these situations were actually happening to these people. But, and I don't know if it was a result of the time period's filming technology ( I'd suspect not because other films of the same time period didn't look or feel this way), but there was also an unreality that permeated everything. That juxtaposition of unreality and in-story seriousness makes every one of these things classic... whether it's Hound of the Baskervilles or Rasputin the Mad Monk... films such as Blood on Satan's Claw and Witchfinder General, while not Hammer films, cover much of the same territory and have a similar style.

Bonus dude:

John Carpenter I hate to say this, because on a lot of levels he's a bit of a hack. But when he's on... fuckin' a. Assault on Precinct 13, imagine that turned into a D&D scenario. You're defending a fortified position, not hoping to win, but hoping to break the attacker's morale so they break off... for now. Not victory, but waiting for a relieving force on the way. The Fog is almost too obvious in its adventure applications (by the way, I'm talking about the originals, not the shit-ass remakes). Escape from New York is almost set up like a cliche D&D adventure, going from encounter to encounter with a major railroad. :P The Thing... come on. :) Isolate the PCs, and have a monster that takes you over without you knowing it, but the referee notes what the infected character does when he's on his own. It would be a cruel, perhaps campaign ending campaign (of course the PCs having magic would mitigate this... if they used it right), but damn... I can dream, right? Big Trouble in Little China is a good template for an action-adventure adventure, and Prince of Darkness could be great gaming.

What are not influences:

Dungeons and Dragons Is this heresy? I don't look to the rules to tell me what the game is about, and I don't pull inspiration from adventure modules. OK, maybe Tomb of Horror. Deconstruction or playing with tropes is just... no! Don't do it! I don't want to recreate the past, I don't want to pay tribute to what used to be. D&D, the traditional stuff, is merely the language I use to express my ideas through gaming. I'm fluent enough in D&D that I can play and make art with the language and not just speak in literal phrases. That it and I share literary tastes make pre-2e D&D quite compatible with James Edward Raggi 4e.

Lord of the Rings I love Lord of the Rings. Love it. The book version, not the movies. It's awful for my gaming preferences though. The overarching history, involvement of Great Powers in the here and now, wise old elves, a distinct lack of... civilization, and... I dunno. I don't want to be Middle-Earth.

... and who knows what's not entering my mind at this moment that I could write about.


  1. Alright, I'll bite. Lately I've been drawing a lot of inspiration from exploration themes, so here are a couple candidates.

    Blue Planet - The RPG, not the TV program. This beautiful game line debuted in the late 90s and won some awards at both Origins and GenCon the year it came out. I've had the great pleasure of knowing Jeff Barber, Blue Planet's creator, when we both lived in Missouri for a brief period of time. The game's setting is one of deep, abiding mystery, which is a bit incongruous considering it's also one of the most exhaustively detailed sci-fi settings I've ever read. But still: If you're looking for pointers on how to inject a little exploration and mystery into your games, BP is a treasure trove.

    Another fave is the Warhammer 40,000 universe (can you sense the sci-fi theme here?). I played the tabletop game for a period of years, and it has its strengths and weaknesses. But the setting itself is glorious: a dark future where mankind has reached the stars and fallen into ruin, where millenia-old technology is lost and found again, where alien races stalk xenophobic humans across a universe wrought with equal parts ignorance and religious zeal. It's a rich setting to play in, and nearly all those themes can be ported directly into fantasy.

  2. I can list five-ish. But eventually I'll probably work the bonus-point/extra-description into a full blog post to save space (linking back to yours, naturally).

    My most confusing dreams
    Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Turgenev
    The Kalevala
    L. Frank Baum
    For art it’s a toss up between Theodor Kittelsen and Sidney Sime

  3. I am always influenced somewhat by whatever I am reading (or watching currently) in my current AD&D campaign so far I have been inspired by (to pick six):

    The Jeeves and Wooster tv series, Jane Austen, Philip Jose Farmer, Jack Vance, Jean Auel and Les Clay pool.

    What I think is interesting is how choices in your campaign based on a transient interest can take on their own life and evolve into something far different than their origins.

  4. You know...

    There is one thing I always take from Tolkien.

    Dwarves and their culture as I extrapolate from the Moria sequence. I always think I want to write a megadungeon based on a dwarven hold like that.

    But then I wonder if it's really Tolkien I'm riffing off of, or Warhammer (which admittedly took everything wholesale...).

    Actually... Warhammer (the RPG, not the wargame) and its world should probably have been on my list because I play a more Renaissancey type of setting in my game, and while WHFRPG didn't start that for me, it certainly made a lot of sense and I took a lot of inspiration from it.

  5. John Carpenter is one of my favorite filmmakers. I know he prefers a low budget, but some of his stories are just fantastic.

    And yeah, I've done Assault on Precinct 13 in a D&D campaign, or at least something close to it. We called it The Battle of Bright Tower Keep. Take six 2nd-level PCs, put them in a small keep with two dozen soldiers and a couple of higher level NPCs, then surround them with 150 orcs and half a dozen ogres. That was one hell of a battle. The players were truly in fear for their PCs' lives, right up until the reinforcements (which they had no idea were coming) arrived.

  6. Great idea! I'll definitely post about my influences when I get a chance to ponder them a bit more.

    But I just have to say that I totally agree on the Carpenter influence. I've often said that his movies are what would happen if people made their campaigns into films.

  7. Here's my short-list...
    See my blog, for the explanations!

    1. H.P. Lovecraft
    2. Ray Harryhausen
    3. He-Man
    4. Thomas Malory
    5. Planescape/Ravenloft