Influences on my Game

I see that Trollsmyth has posted his response to the question on the blog “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” about literary influences on your gaming. So I thought I’d give it a shot as well.  I’m not going to limit it to books, but just list my main influences – book, movie, game, etc.

Early Influences

I actually started with science fiction gaming. As a youngster I read a huge amount of SF and fantasy, but mostly SF. It’s actually hard to break down those literary influences because I read so much – I read fast and could easily do a full novel in a day (especially on a summer day or weekend), and so read pretty much everything in the SF section of our local library – and it’s not a small library.  So in one sense it’s fair to say “1970s and 1980s scifi” in general.  I would say that the most important, however, was:

Books (SF): Isaac Asimov, specifically the Robot (you know, the Three Laws of Robotics) short stories and novels – I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, et al. These led me to take joy in stories that flow from the “rules of the world.” Most of the tension and cleverness in the Robot stories were directly from how the Three Laws were applied to specific situations. I think this may be where my strong simulationist streak comes from. To this day I think that a set of rules creating a realistic world usually aids, and very seldom detracts from, a story.

Books (Fantasy): Fantasy novel wise, no surprise, The Hobbit.  I never got all the way through Lord of the Rings until college; I’d always get halfway through the Two Towers and give up, with the split plotlines and 20 people with similar names.  But The Hobbit was the favorite of gifted and talented classes – I read it in the fourth grade, sixth grade, and ninth grade if I recall (none of the schools coordinated with each other I reckon).  Mainly this set my default worldview of dwarves, gnomes, elves, etc. and the value of a ‘deep’ setting that seems very organic and real.  Also shout-outs to Katherin Kurtz’s Camber of Culdi series and Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (well, the first 3-4 anyway).

Computer Games: I also played computer games from an early age – got a Commodore 64 when it came out and used it all the way into college! The most prominent influence from this was Ultima IV, the excellent CRPG. Good call on this one Trollsmyth! I spend an entire summer playing this game from dawn till dusk. It taught me to value the personal, moral quest. Other “Bard’s Tale” etc. games didn’t really capture me so much, with the quest to advance for advancement’s sake. But to really master the eight virtues – that was bad ass and something few games have captured as elegantly since.  “Choose mean or nice dialogue to wear black or white clothing” doesn’t count (you know who you are.)

Movies (Fantasy): Conan the Barbarian was the best fantasy movie of several decades – I could tolerate Willow and some others, but most of the “Yor,” “Beastmaster,” etc. crap that was the state of the art in fantasy movies just sucked.  But Conan was awesome.  From the core “king by his own hand” concept I got a good sense of the bad-assness of heroes.  Many of the older modules treated you as gofer bitches whether you were first level or fifteenth.  I remember the start of Against the Giants, where by the book “some guards from the local town round you up and tell you to go kill some giants or else.”  Real heroes, good or not, would generally respond poorly to that, and we tended to have a lot of Neutral parties – that town would be lucky to get away with one stone standing on another after that crap.  So in my games, heroes are on their OWN life’s quest, and once they hit about level 10 (remember “name level?”) they were either famous or notorious, but certainly not to be trifled with. Actually, Escape from New York impressed this upon me as well.

Movies (Science Fiction): There was some good stuff here in my youth!  Star Wars, of course… Aliens…  These taught me that combat, especially starship combat, should be exciting.  Sad to say, most starship combat I’ve participated in from SF RPGs is even more boring than personal combat, and that’s saying a lot.

Comic Books:  I started reading young, by the age of 3 1/2, and my family moved to Holland for three years then.  The only reliable new stuff I could get to read in English were comic books from a bookstore in Belgium, and so I had literally trash bags full of comics.  DC and Marvel, but Marvel preferred, especially Spiderman and the X-Men.  Spiderman seemed to me to always have the attitude of a true hero, even when heavily outmatched, and his attitude comes to many of my characters.  And the X-Men (and related groups – Alpha Flight, the New Mutants) with all their squabbling made me value realistic intra-character interaction, even within PC parties.  “Intra-party conflict is harmful” is the most retarded bit of game advice that people continue to propagate to this day.  What would have the X-Men, the Avengers, the Defenders, etc. been without that conflict?  As lame as DC, that’s what.  (Sorry guys, call ‘em as I see ‘em.  I did like Batman though, and Green Arrow/Black Canary seemed cool.)

Life Events (The Boy Scouts).  Being a Scout, I went camping a lot, often in situations barely distinguishable from Lord of the Flies.  (Ah, the joys of carrying your best friend who’s unconscious and bleeding from an ear-to-ear scalp wound a mile through the woods to get help…)  Anyway, the outdoors are treacherous and diverse, not the flat battle mat that some games try to pass off for them.  Go anywhere in some real woods and you’ll think “Oh my God running through here with armor on would be a royal pain in the ass.”  Still today I try to figure out how to best reproduce the wondrous variations of nature in games.

Life Events (Fencing).  I fenced in high school and college and that provided me with a lot of sense for the flow of combat and how to depict it in-game.

These informed my first spate of gaming – from junior high through high school, mostly AD&D, Red Box D&D, Top Secret, and Star Frontiers.  (Strangely, I was averse then and am still averse now to mixing fantasy and science fiction – it usually strikes me as a lazy way to “pack more kewl” into something.  And also strangely I never took to supers gaming until much, much later.)

The Golden Years

I picked up gaming again several years post-college (Rice didn’t leave a huge amount of spare time, and that time I spent in other pursuits.  Mmm, other pursuits.)

Anyway, the biggest new things that worked into my gaming were:

Books (Horror): Especially the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.  I had never been into horror before, so I went through the genre pretty heavily.  His sense of weirder/cosmic horror suited me well – I had read some Stephen King in the early years and thought “whatever.”

Books (History): I started reading a lot more non-fiction at this point.  Though my major was EE, I took a lot of history and whatnot for fun, especially medieval and ancient history.  More and more fodder for game worlds.

Movies (Anime): Trollsmyth notes that he didn’t like to incorporate stuff from these, as anything more “uber” than Record of Lodoss War got too unrealistic.  There were more realistic approaches in SF anime for the most part (excluding the giant robot genre).  But I started to appreciate a more dramatist approach to gaming – not necessarily in the same games that were very realistic/simulationist, but as a fun alternate approach.  Slayers, Bastard, Zeiram, Ghost In The Shell, Akira…  And  the indescribable Neon Genesis Evangelion, a breakthrough in storytelling – the End of Evangelion left me in a strange state of being soul-sick for two weeks afterwards.

Movies (HK Action): Taught me that the modern era might be good for high-action roleplaying as well.  I’d done some Top Secret back in the day but largely stuck to fantasy and sci-fi, but movies like Hard Boiled excited me about role-playing in that kind of a less ‘realistic’ setting.

Games (Call of Cthulhu): Taught me about implementing horror in games (and how not to do it – predictably; many CoC conference one-shots suffered from this.)

Games (Feng Shui): A huge influence.  I watched the anime and HK action movies but wasn’t sure how to do that in the role-playing world, and Feng Shui showed me how.  An excellent game that really took its genre and ran with it – there have been other since but it was the first and best in my book.  Genre rules are the “rules of physics” in those alternate universes, and the ability to play true bad-asses was liberating to me and my players, who could concentrate on how to do things with flair and coolness rather than scrape for that next bit of XP or gold.

Games (Everything): I became quite a collector and have thousands of separate RPG products, collected over two decades.  Many have inspired me in some way… Deadlands with how the rules gelled with the genre so well.  Fading Suns for the first scifi/fantasy mix I could tolerate.  Mutants and Masterminds for showing me supers RP could be fun and doesn’t have to be an exercise in higher math.

Life Events (Christianity):  I came to a strong faith in God in college, and though I quickly came into conflict with the more…  Let’s coin a phrase and say the “retardo-fanatic” elements  that haunt the woods of modern evangelical Christianity, working through my own faith and learning about its history gave me a deep appreciation for how religion affects people’s motivation.  In many games of D&D being a cleric of a god is just some kind of superhero logo on  your chest, and the characters themselves don’t act “really” religious besides a desire to smite heretics and yell “Yay Nature/War/Death/Paladins/Whatever My God’s Portfolio Is!”   Bah. But lots of RPGs are written by people without any particular faith, so it’s unsurprising these areas are lacking (it’s like comparing science fiction written by real scientists like Asimov to that written by non-scientists – it just lacks some core understanding of the topic that makes it more shallow).

And that’s a quick cross-section!  I like this, and look forward to reading others’ influences.

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5 responses to “Influences on my Game

  1. Wow! So much to comment on. And I see a lot of similarities to my list and experiences. So I’ll try to tackle these in order:

    Sci-fi
    I purposefully ignored sci-fi in my list. I played some Star Frontiers and one of the late ’80’s versions of Traveller, as well as a tiny spate of FASA’s Dr. Who game, but my game of choice until Shadowrun came out was D&D. While there is some overlap, of course, between my sci-fi and fantasy influences, I really went for different feels in both sorts of genres, so that really would be an entirely different list, one that would include a LOT of anime influences.

    Deryni Novels
    I loved Kurtz’s novels, though I read a later series than you, the Chronicles of the Deryni trilogy and the following Histories of King Kelson. Great stuff, though I can’t say how much it’s influenced my own gaming. I should probably pick up those St. Camber novels, and I see she’s added a new trilogy between the Heirs and Chronicles trilogies.

    Lately, my fantasy gaming has tended to be more Iron Age than Medieval, though I think my next campaign may change that. Perhaps a good time to get into these books again.

    ’80s Fantasy Movies
    If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, I’d highly recommend “Ladyhawke”. It didn’t influence my gaming much, beyond supplying some cool quotes, but it truly is a gamer’s movie. Surprisingly, “Krull” (Not “Kull the Conqueror”) holds up well, years later. Great cinema it ain’t, but it’s much better than the usual b-movie fantasy flicks of those days.

    The movie I didn’t mention, and probably should have, was “Labyrinth” if just for David Bowie’s performance as the Goblin King. Characters based off that performance, and Brian Froud’s wonderful character designs, creep into my gaming every now and then, especially when fantasy begins to leak into other genres.

    Star Wars
    That movie took a hold of me when I saw it and simply wouldn’t let go. As far as I was concerned, “Star Wars” was the reason God invented movie theaters. Its influences are probably embedded so deep in me I can’t even see them anymore.

    Boy Scouts
    Another influence I should probably have mentioned. I was lucky enough to join a troop that went camping every month, though I don’t have any stories quite as exciting as yours to share, I think.

    Anime
    Anime becomes a huge influence for me as I move towards sci-fi gaming, especially “Sol Bianca” and “Legend of Galactic Heroes”. “Tenchi Muyo” is a surprisingly strong influence, primarily because it taught me that high-tech doesn’t need to look all shining chrome and wires everywhere. These days, I expect the future to look a lot more like “Tenchi” and a lot less like “Star Trek”.

    I’m still playing with all the wonderful threads in “Escaflowne”. But the end of NGE mostly just pissed me off. ;)

    – Brian

  2. Cool! Yeah, I meant most of her Deryni stuff, I lose track of how many of the trilogies I read. We actually watched Ladyhawke in our college medieval culture class. And I was unsure whether to list Krull under the good or suck column so I strategically left it off :-)

    I remember being very young but standing in a line wrapping around the block at our hometown movie theater – a kind of line it had never seen before or since – for Star Wars.

  3. What a great post – and I completely agree with you on most of it. Of course, now I have a list of more things I need to explore. Thanks so much!

  4. Wow never really seen some one put this down on paper. Definitely never seen someone say Christianity. As a Christian I always found it simply absurd the number of ways you could bash a glorified retelling of a story, but then again maybe as a Christian it did take away some of my hw should we say credentials as being a Christian. I thought yours was an enlightened view of Clerics, and quite frankly never thought of them that way.

    I think you are leaving out some life events that influence your game. Your friends, however you view them and regardless of what they think of themselves the people youplay with effect your experiences in a game. I know you have droves of books but what makes it a good game or not is the friends with which you play. Regardless of the rules if they like it you like it. If they dont then you probably dont either. Nothing is ever globally cool and most people can deal with not being cool as long as the group or a portion of the group thinks so. Effects your mindset about the whole thing. It is interesting that I only learned of this fact after watching my boys.

    Things that personally influenced me.
    Lou Zocchi. While I wouldnt ever call him a big roleplayer. I learned from him that rules to model a situation are sometimes more important than the game as a whole. Also he provided a shop Friday nights in which to play games and be introduced to new games, be it board, war, roleplaying whatever. I think my friends were a bigger influence at the time and still do.. but you cant plant a seed on hard ground and providing a place went a long way towrds opening up my imagination.

    The US ARMY. And while I was in the boy scouts as well the ARMY really openied my eyes up to things. Never once being stationed in the states, and stepping foot on five continents in a three year period. Opened me up to how different the world is actually. And let me say whatever your viewpoint wherever you are. is never wrong but the reality of being there is totally different. Just having a weapon in your hand changes how you are viewed and how you should be viewed and regardless of your own personal viewpoint you represent the collective will of a people who probably dont understand the situation completely. Being in Combat arms, and as a forward observer for Artillery I completely understand the words morale and elan. I also understand the timely effects of maximum firepower and firpower with out precision is a dangerous thing to fling around. The adage if you are going to kill someone dig two graves does not exclude the Army. I learned that if you are going to point a weapon at someone. I mean if you are going all the way to that you better be sure you are going to pull the trigger as well. On the Christian level someone said to me its not hell but you can see it from here. When all the oil wells were set on fire.. Was not only false but way false. Hell is hell and it is far uglier than anything man can do. I also came to have deeper viewpoint of those little markers on war game maps. I sometimes think as I take the marker off the map.. There are one hundred letters being written to one hundred different families. Beginning “We regret to inform you….” Most importantly the army taught me the definition of Second class citizen.
    Veteran of Just Cause, Last US Border mission in FRG/DDR and Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Having been recalled to participate in the latter.

    Author David Drake and while he is a Cav guy… Writes some excellent military fiction now the technology might not be there but its more important to understand the people than the technology.

  5. @Russell – Great list. I totally agree, I shouldn’t have left friends off – my friends and gaming groups have had a fundamental influence on me. I’ve got three special shout-outs there – one, my childhood friends, who shared in the “old school” D&D experience (and always made me DM!). Two, the Night Below crew – for five years, we ran the most deep-in-character campaign I’ve ever seen and it was a transformative experience. And three, the “Memphis Guys” – the gaming was fun, but also these were the guys that stuck around to help me when real-world problems came my way.

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