Sunday, June 29, 2008

Road Runners, Swamp LARPing & Hannah Barbarians: Influences

James Raggi, he of the lamentably long blog title, has challenged his readers to list their gaming influences. I'm late to the podium and all the good answers are already taken, so here are some of my own haphazard influences.

As with many others Howard, Lewis, Lovecraft and Vance are definitely influences, especially the latter two. I cut my teeth on Conan and the Pevensies, and reread The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Dying Earth and the Cugel tales every couple years. I could also write about latter-day Lovecraftian Thomas Ligotti, or Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, or Bradbury's October Country, or Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. Perhaps I should say a word or two about Gygax's Dungeonland modules, EX1 and EX2, two of my long-time favorites.

But in truth many of my influences are quite a bit less high-falutin'. I've described my ideal D&D setting as a hybrid of Thundarr and Barbarella, and my current passion for Encounter Critical and Mutant Future brings that sort of pop culture bricolage surging to the fore. Rather than discuss five influences separately I'm just going to ramble about a bunch of things in the context of the TV and books I loved as a lad.

Swords & Saturdays / Hannah Barbarians
The earliest role-playing I can remember doing is racing around the house on Saturday mornings, hopped up on Cocoa Puffs, running at top speed from the back den to the living room at the front of the house only to stop on a dime, say "Beep beep!" and tear off again. Such is the foundation of my sophisticated gaming tastes.

HerculoidsThroughout my childhood I spent many a Saturday watching TV off and on all day long, and even now I'm inspired not just by the heroic adventure and strange monsters of the Herculoids, Jonny Quest, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Thundarr, but also by the slapstick and surrealism of Pee Wee's Playhouse and Looney Toons. The day I figure out how to make the Freleng Door Gag work in a dungeon I'll be a very happy monkey.

If I could get away with it, many an afternoon would find me back in the den after lunch. The local stations had chopsocky movies, the Creature Feature on WXON-20 (which rocked the freak-out bit from Zepp's "Whole Lotta Love" during its bumper!) or the Chiller Thriller on WKBD-50. I soaked in everything from dubbed Shaw Brothers flicks to Hammer Films to Godzilla and a parade of other kaiju.

Dad's garage/The Salvation Army
Lest you think I spent all my free time sprawled in front of the idiot box or caroming off the walls, I should say that I've always been an avid reader as well*. Since so many of the pulp and fantasy legends who influence me have already been written about, let's talk about dime novels, trashy paperbacks, and hand-me-down books by hack writers.

I remember looking at the marvelous reading lists in Gygax's DMG and in Moldvay Basic, but I can't pretend they directed my reading much. In fact many of the books of my youth were fantasy, horror and sci-fi paperbacks I came by more or less randomly-- browsing yellowing books filed two deep on the shelves above my dad's tool cabinet in the garage, or the used books at the Salvation Army thrift shop or the paperback SF section at the library. I can't even tell you the authors or titles of most of these books. Probably just as well forgotten.

Nonetheless, for all the crummy cliched tales I read of lone American ninjas or post-apocalyptic soldiers, there were glints of gold among the dross. The swords and sorcery epic about a sea turtle cursed by an evil wizard into the body of a human warrior and questing to return to the ocean had a memorable high concept going for it if nothing else. Then there was the eerie yarn about a modern man who explores a series of tunnels connecting one tenement basement to another and ends up trapped in a cavernous svartalfheim beneath the earth. Or the one about a dystopian near future in which assassins compete in an annual international killing tournament that ends with a duel so absurd it's awesome: the last two standing square off in a frozen arena with battle axes and ice skates!**

Of special note is Steve Vance's (no relation to Jack) Planet of the Gawfs. I found this one at the SA thrift in a white label "generic" edition rather than the groovy cover shown here. The plot is as garish as the cover: a virus causes grotesque mutations in those it doesn't kill outright, and the surviving God AWful Freaks are exiled to a distant jungle planet, where Lord of the Flies shenanigans ensue. A few mutants manage to hijack a starship and return to earth to seek REVENGE! Was it a big steaming pile? Very possibly. But there's this: I haven't owned or read the book in 25 years and I can recall all of the above and a scene in which the starship's intercom is explained to a primitive mutant as "Magic talking box. Much ju ju." A work of art for the ages it ain't, but this kind of mutants and mayhem is just the gonzo ju ju I love in my games.

*And lest you think I never went outside at all, be it known that I spent many an afternoon slogging through the wooded marsh behind our house, wielding a stout hardwood cudgel, battling my way through rotten limbs and thickets in lieu of legions of orcs. Yes, I was a solo LARPer, this is my shocking true tale.

**If you can identify any of these books, please leave a comment!

SEE ALSO: The ORIGINAL Illustrated Catalog Of ACME Products

SEE ALSO: Monster Index at

MP3: Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble, Powerhouse (Out of Print - Used CD)
MP3: The Moog Cookbook, Whole Lotta Love (Compact Disc - Download)


Ewe Little Dickens said...

Oh, how I miss Jonny Quest....But, substituting Mr. Show for Thundarr, The Venture Bros. for the Herculoids, and weeknights at 2 a.m. for Saturday mornings, it's surprising how very little things change :-)

Anonymous said...

Dang it! I was going to ask you for the titles of the Sea-Turtle Warrior, Undergound Tunnels, and Death Match on Ice books- but lo I see from your foot note that you don't remember! ACK! If you figure it out let us know.

Max said...

The Death Match on Ice book is Robert Sheckley's Victim Prime, on the off chance anyone (else) is still wondering about it ten years later.