Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Under the Influences

The prime reason for the last minute switch of campaign worlds was my own changing tastes. The world of R’Nis has been part of my D&D lexicon for most of my years playing this game—perhaps not quite as realized or textured as it’s become, but the germ of the world was always present. As such, much of the creative bedrock upon which the world is founded was formed during my adolescent years. I was not quite as well-versed in genre literature at that time, nor had I had a chance to experience other role-playing games not produced by TSR. And while I was later able to bolt more mature elements and influences on to the campaign, I did find that I was limited by some preconceived notions and world history. The result was a patchwork quilt that didn’t always please me.

If boiled down to its essence, R’Nis drew much of its influence from Tolkien (both the books and the various animated features based on his work), the King Arthur cycle of tales, the first two Dragonlance trilogies, with a dash of Gygax’s first two Gord novels. It was a world biased towards high fantasy. My teenage years saw me using the Forgotten Realms as a campaign world, which also hews close to the high fantasy tradition so there wasn’t much happening to expand my tastes in genre.

It was only during my college years that I got the opportunity to sample from a much broader array of fantasy literature. For some unknown reason that I’m extremely grateful for, my college library had the entire Gray Mouser and Fafhrd books in its collection. Prior to this I only knew of the twain from my dog-chewed copy of Deities & Demigods (although that was more than enough to stoke my interest in learning more). Remember that this was still a time when the Internet was a strange new thing and Leiber’s work was hard to find in print, so uncovering the complete series in an academic library was something of a minor miracle. I sat down and promptly devoured the books.

The result of this bibliomantic feast was that I completely changed my attitude about what I thought D&D should be about. Being a young man at the time, I was already predisposed towards a fantasy atmosphere that was a bit darker, a bit grittier, and a lot less highfalutin than I’d been using for years—I just didn’t know how to invoke it. Leiber started me down that path and remains one of my top five influences on the game.

After Leiber came Lovecraft. Again my college had a sizeable Lovecraft collection, mostly stemming from the fact that Robert Waugh, a Lovecraftian research of some renown, was (and remains) a member of the college’s English department. I had the pleasure of taking a poetry course taught by Professor Waugh during my undergraduate career and his occasional Lovecraft aside reintroduced me to Howard Philips.

Moorcock follow Lovecraft, and a second-hand copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ second Martian Trilogy showed me that he could do more than Tarzan, but it would be several more years before I experienced pure, unadulterated Two-Gun Bob. I never read the Lancer/Ace editions of Howard’s and other’s Conan tales when I was younger, experiencing the barbaric tales of the Cimmerian through Marvel’s Conan comic book and later The Savage Sword of Conan. I witnessed the Schwarzenegger film once it reached cable (having to wait until everyone was asleep before viewing such verboten video), but never experienced undiluted Howard until the recent Del Ray editions. Damn near criminal of me, I know.

I never heard much about Jack Vance other than he had some influence on the D&D magic system, so when I purchased Tales from the Dying Earth omnibus in 2000, I was again both pleasantly surprised and furious with myself for missing out on Vance’s prose for so long.

But the ultimate influence still remained to be discovered and the route to it was a roundabout one. In 2001, I walked into a used bookstore in Long Beach, CA. On a dusty shelf at the dim rear of the store, I chanced upon a copy of Shadows Bend by David Barbo. The novel is pure fiction, postulating what might have occurred if the Cthulhu Mythos were real and Lovecraft and Howard teamed up to battle them. I was acquainted with Lovecraft and Howard at this point so the novel was entertaining in that aspect. As the events in the novel unfurl, the two writers find need of further wisdom and seek out the Bard of Auburn, Clark Ashton Smith, for assistance.

At the time that I purchased the book, I had just returned to L.A. after spending nine weeks in Auburn, CA. Due to my unfamiliarity with Smith, I didn’t know the significance of that town until after I read Shadows Bend. Of the three writers in the book, it is Smith that is portrayed as the most level-headed and well-adjusted of the Weird Tales Trio. With Howard’s mother issues and Lovecraft’s numerous peculiarities as a counterpoint, Smith ends up displaying all the qualities one would normally associate with the hero of the tale, even to the extent of bedding the love interest that Howard is too insecure to woo and Lovecraft too disinterested. This portrayal of Smith, which I later learned to be an accurate one, piqued my curiosity and I wanted to learn more about an author I had previously only associated with Castle Amber.

It would take until 2008 before I finally got my hands on The End of the Story, the first volume of his collected works. I was absolutely stunned by Smith’s imagination and wordsmanship. My only disappointment was that, despite living the longest of the Howard-Lovecraft-Smith trio, Smith only wrote fantastic fiction for such a brief period. I wish the well of his fantasies was a much, much deeper one to draw from. Smith is the second-biggest influence on my believes as to what a fantasy campaign could and perhaps should be, and only misses out on being number one because I’ve not yet had the chance to fully digest his tales and assimilate them into my own imagination.

Influence-wise, I’ve gone from Tolkien, White, Weis & Hickman, and Gygax to Leiber, Moorcock, Vance, Burroughs, Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith—the two groups are almost polar opposites. With this in mind, you’ll have a better understanding of why I took the dramatic step of throwing away the entire world I had previously used to game with. It just wasn’t going to support the style of play and the imaginative elements that I wanted to experience this time around.

I’ll be following this post up with an overview of the campaign world. In it, you’ll see that I’m not at all ashamed to blatantly steal from my fantasy heroes, especially since it ends up building a world that excites me so much that the energy I’m radiating hopefully becomes contagious to the players. Such are the signs of an excellent campaign and the everpresent hope of the referee.

1 comment:

Cameron said...

[Overlong Metaphor Alert at "*":]

You absolutely made the correct choice. The point of playing is to have fun, period. Publishing is something else - that's where you need to cater to entertainment and/or practicality needs that may (and usually do) differ from your own, such as when fashioning an adventure. [*]Your own play time, however, is a beast that feeds from a different menu. And if ain't gonna be what you're in the mood for once you see it on the plate, it ain't gonna be worth eatin, especially when you're not getting paid to gobble it down however nicely prepared that rack o' ribs may be.[/*]

I know this from my experiences as a professional musician - I've had many opportunities to go that route full time, and every time I've remembered the gigs I've done that we're about as musically exciting as digging a ditch. And even when I love the music, I bore easily if I have to play or sing the same thing too often. I "do" music solely as a vocation these days, and as a result I enjoy music infinitely more than I used to.

Play time should always be fun time, or else what's the point. Building a market is what the 'Net is for; tabletops are for other things.