Friday, October 16, 2009

Pilfering from modules and elsewhere

As James Raggi IV has written, “I challenge the role-playing blogosphere 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.”

Agreed.  I accept the challenge; my five top influences:

1.  D&D Modules, especially S1: Tomb of Horrors and B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.  The Keep is part of my earliest RPG’ing DNA: it is the first module I ever played or refereed.  I still use it obliquely to this day: along with certain other module maps (including S2: White Plume Mountain and “Trollstone Caverns” from the T&T Rules manual) I often appropriate the maps from The Keep on the Borderlands to use in a stock-it-myself fashion—especially the maps inside the book of the keep itself and the area around the Caves of Chaos.  Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors I utterly love and, should a group of characters ever become powerful enough, mark my words, I will send them there.  I have only ever run Tomb of Horrors once—and not to its full conclusion—yet I always await my chance, not because I am a “party killer” type but because I think this module is the ultimate test of a role-playing group’s inventiveness, skill, and gaming intelligence.  I therefore assume that Acererak’s Tomb exists in every campaign setting I ever run, that through the Demi-Lich’s malevolent power, the Tomb is theoretically present in multiple campaign dimensions simultaneously.  It is always out there waiting in the Swamp until some party is brave enough and prepared enough to go find it.

2.  James Bond films.  Epic, intricate plots with lots of secret doors, hidden rooms and huge underground/underwater lairs populated by megalomaniacal arch-villains and their minions and flunkies.  Hmm, sounds a lot like a D&D dungeon. . .   I watched the hell out of these movies when I was a kid and I still love them, up though the Brosnan era anyway.  The kind of larger-than-life quality of the Bond films is appealing to me as a referee.

3.  Tolkien, especially Moria and everything in The Hobbit.  Okay, there may also be a tiny bit of Minas Tirith’s DNA in Ara’s Free City of Kaladar (along with a healthy dose of the bazaar on Deva from Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series).  But I really think The Hobbit has been one of the most influential books on how I view heroic fantasy and how I referee.  When I picture a hobgoblin, it is The Hobbit’s hobgoblins I see.  Its motley (if well-pedigreed) group of self-righteous, thieving dwarves single-handedly taking on a killer dragon is a scenario ripe for D&D appropriation, not to mention The Battle of Five Armies, which no doubt led to my penchant for huge, epic land battles at the climax of my campaigns.  Of the three books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring has always been my favorite, and the Mines of Moria are pretty much the scariest and most inspiring fantasy adventure locale I have ever read about.

4.  Ray Harryhausen films:  While I LOVE the films of John Carpenter, I don’t know if they have had much direct influence on my game, except possibly The Fog.  But Harryhausen’s wonderful stop-motion animation work in such films as Jason and the Argonauts, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans absolutely inspired how I think about and visualize epic fantasy and my FRPG campaigns.  Not only do I love these Greek-myth-inspired tales for Harryhausen’s awesome animated creatures, but for their stories as well: there is as much battling of wits as physical combat, many puzzles to solve and lots of poetic justice.  Hurrah!

5.  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom Books, esp. The Gods of Mars.  Tars Tarkas rules!  I was very young when I read these books (seventh grade) so I cannot claim to remember much in the way of specific plot details, but these stories almost completely define “science fantasy” for me, a beautiful blending of sci-fi and fantasy elements.  Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber were a later influence for me along this line. 

And three influences I Hate to admit to:

1.  Star Wars.  It is entirely probable that my obsession with swamps ties back to Yoda’s creepy swamp planet, Dagobah.  Not to mention Mos Eisley Cantina, the standard against which all subsequent “wretched hives of scum and villainy” would be judged, and surely a prototype for the seedy, black-market, backwoods towns that abound in my campaign world(s). 

2.  The Fiend Folio: I love the Brits, and while I admit this may qualify as a weakness in the case of the Fiend Folio, I have always rather enjoyed this tome and particularly some of its illustrations—see the full-pager on p. 60, or the depiction of the skeleton warrior on p. 79, or the githyanki (a personal favorite monster) on the cover.  Granted, many of the monsters within are useless, and I would not actually use a great many of the monsters listed in the Folio myself, but nevertheless I really love and do use a select few, especially the firetoad, the hook horror, the needleman, the elemental princes of evil, the Githyanki, and the iron cobra.

3.  Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.  Here I particularly refer to the Black Knight fight scene, for the extreme volume and distance of the blood spurts once the Black Knight starts getting dismembered.  Combat results in my campaigns are always quite bloody and graphic, especially when a party foe is killed; blood and internal organs spurt intensely and far.  As one former player put it, my campaigns seem to take place in “high-pressure worlds” where everybody’s blood and internal organs are under a lot of pressure, so as to shoot out really far once pierced in combat. 

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