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.