This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is hosted over at Campaign Mastery, and the topic is “What non-game media have most influenced your games and how?”
Well, loads of things, obviously. I read a lot, I watch a lot of TV, and I watch a lot of movies, and I often find myself thinking “how can I do this in a game?” I pick up loads of things, some little, some big, and I’m probably not even aware of most of them. However, there are a couple of really big ones that stand out to me.
The five-season science fiction series that changed everything. I saw it in its entirety on its first run on the Finnish telly, in the mid-90’s, when I was still young and impressionable. Every episode I watched, sometimes going to absurd lengths. There was one fourth-season episode that I watched from a black and white travel TV with an LCD screen the size of a matchbox during an overnight train journey, somewhere along the western coast of Finland. I’ve since acquired the DVD boxes, which are a far more pleasant way to experience the series, and am currently in the middle of the third season on my umpteenth rewatching.
The influence of Babylon 5 is notable in how I construct longer plotlines (well, usually). When they started shooting the first episode, they already had a rough outline of the entire series, from start to finish. It didn’t go exactly as planned, but no plan survives contact with the enemy. However, knowing the end of the story, knowing where everything is going, having a direction, is crucial to a plot-driven campaign. Babylon 5 taught me this. It doesn’t apply as directly to roleplaying games as it does to TV series, since the characters are unpredictable and if your players are worth anything, it’s impossible to be prepared for everything they’ll think up next, but I find it is easier to adjust on the fly when I know where things stand. Incidentally, this also ties with something Matthew over at SquareMans wrote way back about villain plans. One of the important things to know is what the villains are doing and what they will do if the PCs do not stop them. When you know this, it’s easier to figure out what they will do in a given situation when the PCs are introduced into the carefully laid plans and every scheme goes pear-shaped.
Quite possibly one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. I’ve read most of his stuff, re-read a good portion of it, and read huge amounts of stuff directly and indirectly inspired by it. It’s practically impossible for me to run fantasy or horror without a Lovecraft influence of some sort, whether it’s obvious or not. Lovecraft is everywhere, if you know what to look for. His are the degenerate and inbred villagers in the rural regions, far from the civilisation and sanity of proper cities. His are the ancient and unknowable Elder Gods from beyond the stars that drive even the gods of men into gibbering madness. His are the fish folk that come to shore to pass on their polluted seed to willing cultists. His are the intrepid professors who pore over ancient tomes and scrolls to collate seemingly unrelated facts to reveal dark and terrifying new vistas of existence.
While Lovecraft’s stuff is rather vulnerable to parody and it’s fairly easy to take the piss out of it, his work is a gold mine of tropes that he either popularised or created, and judicious use of these story elements works well in any genre. Actual Lovecraftian horror is a bit harder to pull off, like horror tends to be, but also doable. My top stories for game inspiration are The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, At the Mountains of Madness, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Shadow over Innsmouth, “The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”, “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, “The Rats in the Walls”, and “The Tomb”. A lovely feature of old Howard, that. Most of his stuff is either in public domain or there’s no absolute certainty over the copyright holder, so it’s free game.
Too new to have been a significant longtime inspiration, but nevertheless, the Finnish movie Raja 1918 (“Border 1918”) is one I regard as exemplary work in worldbuilding. It’s about the establishment of a border between Finland and Soviet Union after Finland gained independence in 1917. Apart from being a splendid movie in other respects, the border village it’s mostly set in is ideal for a gaming setting. There’s a constant tension between the Finnish and Soviet armed forces staring at each other across the borderline and an influx of refugees and immigrants from the Soviet side of the border. There’s language politics, smuggling, Reds trying to hide from the authorities and prosecution, and the wounds of the civil war that’s barely a year in the past. The fighting was between the Whites and the Reds, but the only morality is grey. There are memorable characters, like the young, educated aristocrat captain on the Finnish side and his Soviet counterpart who’s seen it all and is trying to hide his own learning from the commissar lest he get executed as a member of the bourgeoisie. There are English spies, a German military attaché, the village idiot, a sociopathic young lieutenant, and the sergeant who’s just trying to live his life and raise a family. It’s a rich, compact milieu with enough plot hooks for an entire campaign.
The film is only three years old, and the Finnish DVD release has subtitles in English. It’s very bleak in tone and some nuance may be lost if one is not familiar in general terms with the Finnish Civil War, but I absolutely recommend it. It spawned a Greyhawk module last year, and Sampo Haarlaa mailed off a DVD to one of our American regional authors as thanks for a job well done.