Friday, June 27, 2008

A Challenge

My namesake over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess has issued a challenge 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!" I think this is a really excellent idea. One of the problems with many gaming blogs nowadays, this one included, is that they're too theoretical. There's not enough discussion of playing these games we all love so much. Don't get me wrong: I think theory is very important and I think (obviously) the history of the hobby is even more important. At the same time, we are talking about entertainments here and philosophizing about games without actually playing them is about as pointlessly decadent as I can imagine. No wonder Howard thought civilization made us soft and weak.

So, without further ado, here's a listing of the media that have had the most influence on the games I run.

1. Jack Vance's The Dying Earth series: I'd say that Vance is probably the single biggest influence on me nowadays, particular the original book and The Eyes of the Overworld (I wasn't very fond of the Rhialto the Marvelous). There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the books are very much in the pulp fantasy tradition. However, Vance ably modified the tradition, giving us wizards who did more than just brood in crumbling towers but who were roguish adventurers seeking gold and glory as well as knowledge. At the same time, these stories don't shy away from the notion that magic -- and knowledge generally -- comes with a cost, often a high one and it's this dark interpretation of wizardry that I find very appealing. Secondly, Vance is a terrific wordsmith, with a remarkable talent for creating a sense of the eldritch and otherworldly, mixed in with wry humor. I try very hard to create a similar atmosphere and humor is an important part of my campaigns.

2. Robert E. Howard: I'm a big fan of Howard's writings and especially of his Hyborian Age, which I have come to see as the perfect gaming setting and a model for anyone hoping to create their own swords & sorcery world. Put simply, Howard knew how to spin a good yarn. His supporting characters and antagonists are not always very well fleshed out (though they often are), but the central plots of his stories are almost uniformly engaging. Like the Hyborian Age, they're good models for how to spin dross into gold. It's that talent that I've tried to learn and employ in my own games.

3. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are about as proto-typical a pair of "adventurers" as any in fantasy literature. Believably drawn and personally attractive, these rogues are exactly what I think of when I think of player characters. Like Howard, Leiber could spin a good yarn but his stories have a psychological complexity often lacking in Howard
and they share with Vance a sardonic and sometimes bawdy humor that is a necessary leaven for the general darkness of his setting. I'm actually fairly uncomfortable with bawdiness, so such things rarely appear in my games, but I have to admit that I wish it were otherwise, not because I want to appeal to my inner 15 year-old, but because I think it's an integral part of pulp fantasy. I look to Leiber for inspiration in this regard, even though I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate this genre element into my own games in a way that feels suitable as my element rather than someone else's.

4. Clark Ashton Smith: Smith is one of my favorite authors. I am very fond of his Averoigne and Zothique cycles, both of which combine romanticism, melancholy, and dark humor to amazing effect. As I get older, I find my love for Smith grows more and more and, though subtle, many of his themes, particularly laments for the past, have started to find their way into my games.

5. Westerns: The Western is the quintessential American myth, so it's little wonder that it has had an influence over the development of fantasy roleplaying. The idea of a party of rootless wanderers who defend civilization despite the fact -- or perhaps because -- they cannot be a part of it is a powerful one. The "necessary barbarian" embodied in the gunslinger archetype is the default for many campaigns and it's certainly one to which I turn again and again. Conan, of course, was such a character and Howard's "Beyond the Black River" is a Western in everything but name.

6. H.P. Lovecraft: I'm a huge Lovecraft geek and I've been known to say that I think he'd have met with more success as a writer if he'd have used his Cthulhu Mythos as the basis for pulp fantasies than for modern day weird tales. I know very well why Lovecraft didn't do this, but I can't shake the feeling that the combination of sword & sorcery and eldritch horror is a winning one. So, while I call Lovecraft an influence, most of what I take from him is his skill at creating ancient terrors and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. I'm not sure anything I've ever done in my games is truly Lovecraftian in an academic sense, but he was often in the back of my mind and I must acknowledge that debt.

7. Gary Gygax: I would be remiss if I didn't list the Dungeon Master himself as an influence on my games. There's really no way to judge how large Gary looms in my imagination and almost all of the influences I've already listed are things I discovered because of him and the glorious Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. My games are full of Gygaxian flourishes, from names to quasi-historical pedantry to gleeful theft of any idea adaptable to fantasy no matter what its origin. And of course Gygax taught me how to have fun with RPGs, a lesson I hope everyone of my games has taken to heart.

I'll have the first of several posts about art later.

14 comments:

  1. These authors were all strong influences on my own approach to RPGs as well. Personally I would feel compelled to add Tolkien to the list (near the top). Clearly he wrote in an entirely different fantasy tradition than the pulp guys, and the two styles are incompatible in many ways, but I don't think the seminal nature of LotR (in particular) can be overstated.

    I know it's fashionable in some circles to leave Tolkien out of these kinds of "influence" lists, especially since Gygax himself downplayed (if not outright disowned), but EGG was almost certainly in the minority among the founders on FRPGs in that respect. Tolkien by his own admission, was a fan of REH and there is some similarity in their world-building approaches.

    I'm by no means claiming that you should feel compelled to list Tolkien, just wondering what role his work played in your own development, and/or where you think he fits into the tradition of RPGs.

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  2. I thought the whole Tolkien being a fan of Howard was an urban legend. I'd be tickled if it turned out to be true, though.

    As to Tolkien himself, I would say he's been a huge influence on me personally. I actually find that my own worldview matches up with Tolkien's in quite a number of places, which is no surprise to anyone who knows me. In gaming, though, I'm not much influenced by him. I don't think Middle Earth is a very gameable setting and I shy away from Tokienian interpretations of many fantasy elements in my own campaigns.

    All of this is to say that I respect and admire Tokien as a man and as a writer, just as I recognize the debt all fantasy gaming owes to his idea. However, I don't look to him as an influence in my games, except perhaps subconsciously.

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  3. IIRC the reference to Tolkien having read Howard and enjoying his work is in the Lin Carter paperback appreciation of the LotR "trilogy". The quote from the good professor is something along the lines of, "I quite enjoy the Conan stories." I'll try to find the exact citation, if you're interested. Definitely not an urban legend, though.

    I agree that Middle-earth is not that "gamable" in the sense of an RPG campaign setting. I was thinking more of his depiction of mythical creatures like halflings, elves, etc. and how that got translated over into D&D. Halflings will always be "hobbits" to me (and look, act, accordingly, which is why I hate 3e halflings), all D&D elves will always seem like fairy-like, less grand shadows of JRRT's elves, etc..

    Ironically, my own worldview couldn't be further from Tolkien's along every possible axis, yet The Hobbit was literally the first fantasy novel I read, so remains my first love/influence.

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  4. Re: Tolkien and Howard

    If I recall correctly, Lin Carter's book references L. Sprague De Camp as saying that Tolkien read and liked Conan. There is, so far as I know, no direct evidence of this, just De Camp's word, which, I've been lead to believe, is unreliable. I remember that someone found the pulp fantasy anthology that De Camp gave to Tolkien when they met in the late 60s. The volume contained a Conan story, but, based on marginal notes, Tolkien only seems to have read -- and disliked -- a Lord Dunsany story contained therein. I'm inclined to think that, if there were incontrovertible evidence that Tolkien liked and approved of Howard's writings, we'd see a quote or two plastered on every Howard collection ever published.

    Or it could in fact be try, but I am deeply skeptical.

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  5. With respect to the original post, I have this to say: "Yup. Same."

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  6. If I recall correctly, Lin Carter's book references L. Sprague De Camp as saying that Tolkien read and liked Conan. There is, so far as I know, no direct evidence of this, just De Camp's word, which, I've been lead to believe, is unreliable. I remember that someone found the pulp fantasy anthology that De Camp gave to Tolkien when they met in the late 60s.

    Ah, just so. I had forgotten that the info was second hand through de Camp. While I have no specific reason to believe it isn't true, both Carter and de Camp would have had a vested interest in tying the two together, considering all of the Howard pastiches and "posthumous collaborations" with REH they were doing back then and the contemporary Tolkien mania.

    de Camp doesn't seem like the most reliable dude, I'll agree. I've read de Camp "biography" of HPL, and while truly entertaining it is so condescending (and at points, even downright contemptuous) to the gentleman from Providence that one wonders about LSDC's agenda.

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  7. Wow, I am a huge Robert E Howard fan. I didn't get into his work until the last year or so when I started reading pulp stuff. His work is my favorite fantasy world.
    Ofcourse, I loved "The Dying Earth" original book. Vance is a fantastic writer, and I look forward to reading more of his work. I think Vance gotten a very unfair bad rap from all the haters of so called "Vancian Magic", from people I guarantee have never read his work and think his only purpose in life was nerfing mages.
    I read nearly all of the most famous Lovecraft work recently and I can understand his influence, but I wasn't that impressed. Different strokes for different folks.
    I've read one CAS story and want to read more.

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  8. Re: De Camp

    I don't know a great deal about him as a man or even as a writer. He's probably (along with Merritt) the author I've read least of those listed in Appendix N. From what I have gathered, he had a very high opinion of himself and frequently tried to puff himself up at the expense of others, including such writers as Lovecraft, as you mentioned.

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  9. Here is an interesting thread on the subject of the (virtually non existant) relationship between Howard and Tolkien:

    http://www.conan.com/invboard/index.php?showtopic=4374

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  10. "There's not enough discussion of playing these games we all love so much. Don't get me wrong: I think theory is very important and I think (obviously) the history of the hobby is even more important. At the same time, we are talking about entertainments here and philosophizing about games without actually playing them is about as pointlessly decadent as I can imagine."

    This is now up on blog, right under the title.

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  11. Interesting. I would have a similar list, although probably with Leigh Brackett instead of Howard (who is an influence, but more in imagery than tone) and maybe either Wizardry VII.: Crusaders of the Dark Savant or Jeffrey Stone's Quest for the Nightstone (a Hungarian fantasy novel) instead of Lovecraft - both for mixing science and technology, and the latter also for a good realisation of the small gods concept. Finally, gamingwise, Bob Bledsaw narrowly beating out Gygax.

    I guess two out of five is not much, but the general direction is there.

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  12. If anyone is interested, there is a list of the books Tolkien enjoyed here:

    http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=5631

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  13. If anyone is still interested in this, here is an essay by Michael Moorcock of Elric fame http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953. It's called Epic Pooh and goes into how much High Fantasy is conservative sentimental and related to nursery rhymes.

    I'd have to say I agree. Tolkiens work, for me anyway, is best used as a base to begin from and then turn inside out.

    Hmm...I guess I'd rather read about Saruman as a main character. That's probably why I like Clark Ashton Smith so much.

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  14. CAS is my favorite pulp author, bar none.

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