This month’s RPG Carnival, which Campaign Mastery is delighted to host, poses the question:
What non-game media have most inspired your games and how?
A doozy of a topic, this. Sure, there are the obvious genre-related materials – you can’t talk about Fantasy in this context without mentioning The Lord Of The Rings, first the book, and then the movie, but beyond the obvious, it gets rather murkier.
‘Through Dungeons Deep” by Robert Plamondon
I’ve previously written of the friend who introduced me to RPGs as a player, Chris, in Player Peers and how he taught me the basics of how to GM when the time came in Gamemaster Mentors. I credit Through Dungeons Deep, and especially what it had to say on the personalities of AD&D Dragons, with starting me down the road to being a good GM. It taught me how to infuse depth into my games beyond the basic dungeon-bash and characterisation, how to bring rationality to the gears that were working below the surface.
I was persuaded, many years later, to lend someone my copy. I never saw it, or them, again. Unfortunately, it was out of print for a long time, but a couple of years ago, it was republished. I still havn’t gotten around to replacing the lost copy, but one of these days I’ll have enough coin of the realm to do so.
The Right Word At The Right Time
A friend gave me a copy of Right Word at the Right Time: A Guide to the English Language and How to Use it (Readers Digest) for Christmas many years back and it immediatly became an invaluable referance – not for spelling and grammar, the purposes for which it was ostensibly provided, but for the sections detailing the differences in writing styles of various usages of English – speeches vs newspaper reports vs articles vs… well, you get the idea.
Other ‘How To Write’ Books
…too many to list here. Writing rules systems is like writing a textbook, so any guide to the latter is useful referance for achieving clarity in the former. Writing adventures is a lot like writing a play, so any guide to doing that is useful referance for creating better scenarios. It’s also a bit like writing a novel or a screenplay. And of course, characterisation is common to all of them – I’ve recommended The Writer’s Guide To Character Traits by Dr Linda N Edelstein many times in these pages and will continue to do so at any and every opportunity.
Some of these are brilliant, some of them are not. None of them have been completely devoid of merit.
Much of my storytelling style has developed from massive exposure to comics in my youth.
The Silver Age DC Comics of Gardner Fox
These were pivotal. There was a reason for the way everything happened, and it was rooted in the physics and chemistry of the real world, no matter how stretched out of shape and distorted it might have been to accommodate super-powers. Most of these were presented in Australia in the form of cheap black-and-white reprints, years after the originals had been published in the US.
Silver Age Marvel Comics
These did for character behaviour what Fox’s writing did for the world around the characters. Everyone was different in personality, and their choices and actions stemmed from those characterisations. The DC characters with which I was acquanted were far more interchangeable in terms of personality; it was Marvel who taught me the basics of characterisation.
But they had one other element that has formed part of my storytelling makeup ever since, and that’s worth commenting on: They had a flow of narrative from one issue to the next. Individual plotlines would come and go, but there was a tapestry in the background of threads that spanned from one plot to the next. Foreshadowing, Subplots, Flashbacks – Continuity.
This not only provided a motivation to read the next issue, they helped make the world feel more real. Each issue was like a day of school – the main action was self-contained but outside of that there was an ongoing reality that lasted all week, and outside of those discrete time-intervals there were school terms and years. These are lessons and techniques that I have integrated into my GMing style ever since – not only in terms of deepening the verasimilitude of my campaigns, but of making the players want to come back for the next session.
Babylon 5 was remarkable for the way it translated these same elements into a television medium, but even more, it added a new layer of sophistication to my thinking on the subject. Look at just about any of the major characters (Dr Franklin being the notable exception) – each underwent massive change in the course of the series. Follow Garabaldi’s story through the five years – or Londo’s – or Vir’s – or Sheridan’s – or… well, the point is made.
Prior to B5, character development in my campaigns was achieved by asking ‘what can I do to make life interesting for character X’? There was no overall plan, no direction. As a result, sometimes these worked and sometimes they didn’t. The scenario sequencing technique that I now use, and which I blogged about in Structuring Campaign Flow was, in part, the end result of what I learned from B5.
The Amazing Spider-Man (Issue #97?)
I’m singling this out (and diverging from the subject at hand slightly) because I taught myself to read at the age of 2-and-a-half using a Spider-man comic! My Uncle had bought them shortly before shipping out to the Vietnam War, and they had been left behind at my Great-Grandmother’s unit. When I visited, there was no-one available to read them to me, so I started sounding out the syllables for myself, putting them together into words, putting the words together into sentences. I’m not sure now which issue it was, but I think it may have been issue #97 – it was a double-digit number, for certain, and John Romita did the artwork. There were a couple of others as well, but that’s the one that I remember.
And, by reading, I don’t mean at a kindergarten level – I skipped over that and went straight to a teenage level, because that’s the market for which the stories were pitched. Two years later, and I was reading at a High School level, and pushing myself further; I was the first person to borrow a non-fiction book from the new Munical Library when opened (a book on Nuclear Physics) and by 3rd Grade was tested as having college-level comprehension skills, so I certainly didn’t squander that early lead.
I relate these events not to big-note myself but because there is a clear line of development from that starting point through to today: simply put, I had time to read all sorts of things years before I was supposed to, and that in turn gave me the raw information that I drew apon to become a GM. Most good GMs have had years of experience as a player before they first get behind the screen; I’d had three or four sessions. The only reason I was able to achieve that transition so quickly and with any level of success was the wide range of books that I had read – and that was only possible because of the head start that Marvel had given me.
Understanding a world and communicating that understanding
If you don’t understand the way your world works, how can you explain it to your players?
The New Intelligent Man’s Guide To Science by Isaac Asimov
The obvious starting point for understanding how your game world works is by understanding the real world. And for that, I have never found a better referance than this massive volume by Asimov. The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science explains things in a clear and succinct and above all, readable style, building from one topic to the next. This volume has directly influanced my superhero campaign and its underlying game physics, and has indirectly influanced every other game universe that I have created.
The short stories of Robert Heinlein
Heinlein was a master at integrating background information into narrative flow without the need for huge blocks of exposition. I’ve never read anyone better at it than he was. While it’s impossible to completely avoid exposition in an RPG because the players need an understanding of the circumstances and surrounding world apon which to base their choices, Heinlein’s techniques – which I have yet to completely assimilate, I have to admit, despite years of trying – helps keep it to a minimum.
When I first started GMing, I was quite happy to let each player have whatever they wanted in the way of character class or – in a classless system – character niche. I felt it was my job to work around what the players wanted – and if that meant that there were four point-and-shoot types and no front-line fighters, that was the party’s bad luck.
The Avengers (Marvel Comics)
This structure was very directly influanced by one of my favorite comic books, The Avengers, which I had initially discovered in the midst of the Kree-Skrull War (this comic, together with the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, also developed a love for epic, sweeping dramas that have been part of my style ever since I started as a GM). The notion was that anyone was able to fill any position, however imperfectly, and it was not my job to hand-hold, manage, or coordinate the players – that was up to them to figure out.
It was the TV series UNSUB – an abbreviation of “unknown subject” – that started changing my thinking on the subject. This show, starring David Soul post-Starsky & Hutch lasted only a single season, and was shown late at night on Australian TV, but it was very much a forerunner for later successes, anticipating things like the CSI franchise by more than a decade. Alas, it’s never been released on DVD, but it was well-written, very entertaining, and is still fondly remembered. This was a team of specialist forensic investigators, each of whom brought a different skill-set to the problems; the combination was far more potent than any of them could possibly have been on their own. When I re-booted my superhero campaign, I very deliberately listed a number of specific character archetypes and permitted the players to choose one for their characters on a first-come-first-served basis. I also deliberately restricted the number of characters to one LESS than the total number of archetypes available, so that there would always be an area of vulnerability that the team would have to work around.
This approach worked so well that it was subsequently adopted in my D&D campaigns, though a little less rigorously enforced; the rule is that no character should step on another’s feet.
While I enjoyed the occasional cop show on TV like Ironside and Perry Mason, it wasn’t until much later that I came to appreciate the role that the law has in shaping the society around it (better late than never I suppose). The law regulates and controls who can do what, and what the consequences are for stepping outside those boundaries. It is also an imperfect reflection of the ideals and cultural values of the society that makes the laws – imperfect because at it’s heart it is a human enterprise and therefore vulnerable to all the frailties of the human condition – it can be swayed by wealth, political interest, or inherant corruption; and even when it gets it ‘right’, it requires a compromise between many differing opinions, very few of whom can be satisfied by compromise.
The inadequacies of law when it comes to dealing with the pace of technological and social development were aparrant to me long before issues such as Napster brought them to public attention, and the television programme that opened my eyes to all this was LA Law.
With LA Law, what always impressed me was the ability of both sides to articulate their arguement so convincingly. While I had a sense of morals prior to encountering the programme, it was only afterwards that I became socially and politically aware in any mature sense. More, it taught me to question my assumptions and think logically concerning social phenomena. Articles like the Distilled Cultural Essence series would have been quite impossible without exposure to this TV series. Courtroom Drama has been a favorite genre ever since.
I started with the TV series and then discovered the books. While the former has not dated all that well, and was only marginally interesting at the time, the books by Earle Stanley Gardner – which are increasingly difficult to find – are as fresh and interesting today as they were back when they were published. What I didn’t appreciate until I started reading them was that Gardner was very much the forerunner of forensics and the law, without which series such as UNSUB and CSI and Crossing Jordan and NCIS would have been impossible.
You can’t get interested in anything of much substance without getting involved in some aspect of government. If you’re a collector of fiction, copyright and publishing law becomes relevant. If you’re interested in the law, the manner in which those laws are created becomes of interest. If you’re interested in civil rights, government is a central concern. If you’re interested in Archeology, the governments of the eras of concern are vital subjects to understand. If you’re interested in particle physics, government patronage and grants become subjects of which you should at least have some understanding.
Government touches everything.
Applying that premise to an RPG is a very interesting exercise in the completeness of your understanding of your game world. Unless you can look at any given character class and describe how government impacts that specific class, with no preperation, your understanding is incomplete.
That’s not to say that this level of understanding is necessary; it’s not. But it does point out the importance of having clear understanding of both sides of political issues (regardless of your personal opinions) so that you can identify an analagous situation to any circumstance to which you might be confronted, in-game, enabling an extrapolation of that topical knowledge to the in-game situation sufficient to roleplay the adherants of each possible perspective convincingly.
The West Wing
As long-time readers of this blog know, I have a series of occasional articles underway describing the RPG lessons that I have learned from The West Wing (and yes, there’ll be another one sometime soon. I just needed to take a break after the first one turned into a five-part monster!) What’s interesting is that NONE of the planned posts in that series talk about Government or Politics other than indirectly!
The discussion of government above could almost be framed as a “Lesson From The West Wing”: If you don’t understand both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue, and can’t debate that issue intelligently; all you can do is recite or rephrase your position, dogmatically.
The West Wing remains one of the most influental series on my gaming, simply because it makes me think.
‘Yes, Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ (BBC TV Series)
I can’t talk about politics for any length of time – in character or in seriousness – without referancing these series, at least mentally. Outstanding dry british humour at its best. Yes Minister tells the story of a rather naive and idealistic Minister, Jim Hacker, and his confrontations and catastrophes as head of the Department Of Administrative Affairs.
The sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, tells the story of how Hacker fails upwards to become the Prime Minister of Britain. While it is utterly hilarious as a TV series, there is a lot of meat under the surface.
I can never do a bureaucrat without contemplating how much like Sir Humphry Appleby to make that character. Even if the goal is to make an efficient and functional administration, I always need to ask how this differs from the ‘administration’ in the YM/YPM series, and how it came to be that way.
Only two items really stand out in this area. The first is a book, and the second a TV series.
The Writer’s Guide To Everyday Life In The Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon
Subtitled “The British Isles from 500 to 1500″, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages is an invaluable referance for gamers tired of the “all eras into the melting pot” approach of D&D, or who simply want to capture a little more of a medieval flavour in their games.
We’re so used to thinking of past eras like “The Middle Ages” as all being the same, each year lumped together with all the others, a static and unchanging picture. That’s not the way it was at all; fashion still changed, year on year, and technology developed, and society evolved. History is a dynamic process; if this book does nothing more than get people thinking about their game settings as a snapshot of an evolving society (and one that’s not necessarily all that accurate), this book is worth having.
Time Team is a BBC-TV series that started in 1994 (!) and is still running. Although there have been a few “best of” collections and specials released on DVD, there has never been a season box set from the show, and the BBC evades any enquiries about the possible release of such – I know, I’ve tried!! Like the American knock-off series (“Time Team America”), the series basically takes a crack archeological team somewhere and performs an archeological dig, normally in three days. This is no made-for-TV psuedo-science, these are genuine professionals (with the exception of the host, who brings a layman’s perspective to each investigation).
You cannot watch this show for very long without gaining a new appreciation for the different societies and cultures apon which our game environments are based. While individual episodes have inspired a number of adventures in my campaigns, still more valuable are the general insights that the show engenders, from the architecture and lifestyles of different eras to the re-creations that are part of most episodes, this is a must-see for any GM if it’s available.
Earlier I made the point that crafting an adventure is not dissimilar to plotting a movie. But, in fact, whole rafts of information about TV and movie production are relevant to gaming; from the tricks that writers use to be able to deliver a new episode on a regular time-crunching back-breaking schedule to the nuances of costuming to the use of lighting to convey mood, to the structuring of story. I ALWAYS listen to any commentary track and watch any DVD-extras and have a genuine fondness for “making of” shows, because they are so darned useful to me as a GM.
The best craftsmen in the business are taking the time to tell you how they do their jobs, and whether the information is directly or indirectly relevant is moot. Take the time to listen and watch and keep a notepad handy; you will be astonished at how much you can glean.
Obviously, genre films/series are the most directly useful. D&D players and GMs should start with the 4-disk versions of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy; Superhero GMs should start with the mountain of extras on The Incredibles, Spiderman 1, 2 & 3, the X-men movies, and so on. But look beyond the genre and you will discover a wealth of tips and tricks to help your campaigns – I have!
Time Travel: A Special Case
I was going to include this discussion within this post, but it started growing and sprouting some unexpected branches. So I’ve excerpted it completely from this discussion; look for it to appear in a week or two as a seperate article. If it will fit in just one….