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Monday, January 23, 2017

The Weird & Wonderful Things that Influence a D&D Game

My experience with Dungeons & Dragons begins in the early 1980's, by my nearest estimation around the late part of 1981. I think it's safe to say that popular culture during that time was flourishing. We were coming out of the strange and Turbulent 60's and 70's and the counterculture movement into what felt like a more modern era, and TV and Films of the time were reflective of the change.  We (my friends and I) devoured it.  From Star Wars to Alf, we were consuming more media than our parents could imagine.  It wasn't uncommon for my mom or dad to turn off a show in mid-play and tell me to 'go play outside and get some fresh air', because the TV was going to 'rot my brain and make me go blind.'

Like many kids of that era, I had pretty limited access.  Movies were only starting to become available for home viewing on VCRs.  Most of my movie-watching was actually done at the movies, but I also loved watching old movies on TV.  Saturday, after the morning's cartoons ended (for the younger readers, you may not know that a block of time was allotted each Saturday morning by the big three networks for cartoon programming for kids) I was likely to turn the channel (yup, by turning an actual physical knob on the TV) to the UHF channel 48 for their Creature Double Feature, a presentation of two classic monster movies from decades past.  Much of this behavior influenced my Dungeons & Dragons game, but so did something else, something not so readily available or mainstream.

My friends and I were always avidly and actively seeking underground media.  We loved finding those books, movies, magazines and comics that were not popular, not readily available, and probably were not written by or for twelve-year-old boys.  It wasn't easy to find these things.  Usually it was the older brother or cousin who had access, an influencer, and he or she would point us towards something dark and wonderful that we had previously not known existed.  Many of these things had an even greater impact on 'game time', especially when I was the DM.  What appears below is a short list of things that I discovered as a youth and that helped shape how I imagined my fantasy worlds and the people, monsters, and magic that populated them.  If you look deeply enough at these things, and you've played in my games, you can quite clearly pick out the bits and pieces that floated from them, to my minds-eye, and out the other side spilling over into my game in the 1980's and early 1990's.

Heavy Metal (The Magazine, and the Movie)


This is likely the most influential art-based magazine in my young life.  I had been exposed to Mad Magazine a few years before, and science magazine OMNI came to my house every month thanks to my dad (also thanking him for Playboy and Penthouse, which also were delivered), but it was Heavy Metal's strange and wonderful art and stories that were so engrossing and intellectually stimulating.  They pulled no punches with sex or violence, strange and beautiful and horrible landscapes and creatures.  It changed the way I thought about fantasy and science fiction, shifting my inner-vision from the more mainstream Tolkeinesque view to something out of the ordinary. Watching it come to life as an animated feature film with the added bonus of an all-star voice and musical track was immensely powerful.

Ralph Bakshi's Wizards (and anything else Bakshi ever did)

It started with Vaughn Bode's Cheech Wizard, but nothing grabbed my imagination in the same way as Ralph Bakshi's animated masterpiece, Wizards.  It was my gateway Bakshi Film.  I had long been a fan of animation of all kinds, growing up with Filmation superhero strangeness and more mainstream Saturday morning offerings, but Wizards turned me on to a completely new way to tell a story, an adult allegory.

National Lampoon & High Times Magazine

Nothing yelled 'anti-establishment' as loudly as these two periodicals, and at a time when Ronald Reagan was 'making America great again', I found that free thought, comedy, and imagination were alive in well in the pages of these magazines.  Lampoon I could grab at the bookstore, but High Times was something filtered to me via the (very) older brother of a close friend.

Underground Comic Books (Starring The Fabulous Freak Brothers, Poison Elves, and Peter Bagge's Hate)


Most of this content came from somewhere strange, and starting out it was only infrequently that we got a hold of one of the Freak Bros. comics.  Later on, when I was mobile enough (could ride the train and had a drivers license) I could take myself into the city to visit urban comic dispensaries that usually had that one, lone shelf of indie comics.  Sure, I was a big Marvel and DC fan, though even in those great houses I often gravitated to the stories and characters of lesser renown.  I cut my indie teeth reading Son of Satan, Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange (and yes, I loved Spider-man and Batman as well), but once I found the indie comics my hard-earned dollars usually ended up there.

The Essays & Fiction of Harlan Ellison

That Stylish 80's Hair...

I've made reference before to all of the reading I did as a kid.  Lots of reading.  Tons.  Yes, I dug deeply into Appendix N and enjoyed much of it, and yes it helped to form and formulate the way I would approach, play, and run Dungeons & Dragons games.  In my early teens I discovered the short works of Harlan Ellison.  If you have not read anything by this man, you should stop reading and head to your local bookstore, library, or download on your reading device something, ANYTHING by Mr. Ellison right now.  His style and content influenced many things in my media 'galaxy'including but not limited to movies, TV,  books, and comics.

Prog Rock


I would be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to progressive rock and the influence it had on me as a young person.  Sure, I might occasionally hear some Genesis, Yes or Rush on the 'regular' radio (which was the only radio we had kiddies), but these arena-grade rock icons opened the door to a much wider musical realm.  Raised in a house that commonly heard tunes from Neil Diamond, Gene Pitney, Johnny Mathis and the Bee Gee's (all great BTW), discovering popular prog rock and then seeking out lesser known acts (such as Camel or Mike Oldfield) heavily influenced the soundtrack of my life, and thus the sounds that I associated with D&D.

I could go on, but I won't.  Suffice it to say that we all have these things, these influences that somehow found their way into our lives and exerted pressure in strange, sometimes soft ways, opening doors of thought and perception that ultimately shaped who we are as people.

Playing TTRPGs for me is a culmination of much of this, a hobby and pastime that brings together all of these things and allows me to experience a certain creative freedom, as well as a shared social experience with people who have their own personal library of underground media to share and add during game-time.  How many strange floating cities did I first see in Heavy Metal?  Where did I get the image of fairies and their potent magics?  Why are so many of my game worlds inhabited by hippie wizards and deadly, melancholy elves?

What makes up the miasma in your mind that becomes your game?

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