Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Cauldron of Creativity, or the Early Days of RPGs: The Movies and Television

   The crew on my Discord have been asking me to talk about the culture of the early days of the RPG hobby. While I started relatively late (only began playing in '77 and didn't start DMing until '79) I am very much part of that First Wave and, as a Gen Xer, was definitely in the culture.

  This is going to be bounding around a little bit between TV, movies, movies on TV, the dawn of the VCR age, etc. but I will try to focus on '75 - '84.

  TV was rather different then and I find it hard to explain to my own children who grew up with cable and on-demand and are now in the age of streaming services. In general unless you had access to an independent station you got what everyone else got - I Love Lucy, Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Saturday morning cartoons, and so on. I was lucky enough to live within range of Channel 4 out of Indianapolis and had access to their indie shows like Science Fiction Theater, Horror Theater, and (of course) Sammy Terry! So before I got to RPGs I had seen all the classic Universal horror films, all the Godzilla movies of the day, and a ton of Hammer horror, to boot. This background stuff is more important than you think. For example, the description of a vampire's abilities obviously draws on Hammer horror films at least a little.

  The theater movies that were current or coming to TV at the time were certainly something that influenced the games I was part of or knew about. A memory that came to me as I was writing this was how I visualized the very first dungeon I went into as being like the ship in The Poseidon Adventure after it capsized; strange, threatening, and full of things that could kill you. The Omen and The Exorcist were certainly influential and I remember one of the first cleric PCs I saw, run by an adult, was named Father Karras.

  But the big names in the room of movies in that era were the blockbusters and the cult films. 1975 was the year Jaws came out, and that film is a horror film that taught a lot of young dungeon masters that less was more - keep that monster in the shadows, behind the trees, around that next corner, and let the players' own imaginations terrify them. 1975 was also The Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult film that starts as horror but turns out to be science fiction, shredding genre limits (and being goofy fun).1976 had King Kong, a big monster film and inspiration for at least one module, of course. But it also had In Search of Noah's Ark

  Yes, In Search of Noah's Ark. Never heard of it? It is based on a book theorizing about where Noah's Ark came to rest (no, really!) and, brace yourselves - It out earned The Missouri Breaks, Midway. Marathon Man, and Carrie. But stuff like that, Chariots of the Gods, films about Nostradamus, documentaries on Bigfoot, UFOs - they were all very popular so secret histories, conspiracy theories, alien invaders, and so on were certainly part of general culture and the bleed over into gaming was massive. 

    1977 was a big year with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind both being incredibly popular all over the world. But you also had Planet of the Dinosaurs, Damnation Alley, Island of Dr Moreau, The People that Time Forgot, and Wizards, all that same year! A ton of science fiction, and that really impacted gaming, especially since Traveller came out that year, too, perfectly timed to be the science fiction RPG of the old school. That was also the year of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, a great D&D movie if there ever was one.

  So you can see, just as the Monster Manual was hitting shelves and ushering in AD&D 1e the overall culture was neck-deep in science fiction, fantasy, and gonzo films and TV.  As AD&D was released slowly from 1977 through 1986 [yes - really] the initial RPG explosion that gave us everything from Traveller to Rolemaster to WEG Star Wars and so on we also had the VCR explosion that was essentially ubiquitous by 1982.

  Then the golden age of VCR films really began. Flash Gordon, Hawk the Slayer, the Archer, Dragon Slayer, Excalibur, Time Bandits, Ator the Fighting Eagle, Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, the Dark Crystal, and the Sword and the Sorceror, all top-shelf cheesy fantasy films, all part and parcel of the RPG mentality, were all released within 32 months of 1980 and 1982! The incredible volume of fantasy, science fiction, post-apocalyptic, and "what the Hell did I just watch?!" movies from 1977-1985 is probably beyond the ability of Man to count. and with VCRs all over and the glorious mom & pop video stores willing to put Italian Giallo movies on the shelf if soldiers, college kids, and band nerds were willing to rent them they were everywhere.

  The two movies I want to single out today will probably surprise you. Everyone who knows me know I am constantly promoting Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Deathstalker II as not just wonderfully entertaining but D&D adjacent, but! I think the best movies to illustrate the Old School RPG Attitude are - 

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Big Trouble in Little China. Both of them use genre as a descriptor, not a confinement. Both have a ton of details and throw information at the vuewer left and right.

  Look at the opening of Buckaroo Banzai: the movie cuts back and forth between a military test range and an operating room letting us know Buckaroo has been called in to assist as a neurosurgeon then (after recruiting a new member of his team) arrives to drive a rocket car. At about 8:30 into the movie it is casually mentioned that his jet car has broken the sound barrier and that's not the most interesting thing he does in the jet car before 10:30. 

  In BTiLC the motivations for the villain is casually mentioned in a bunch of fast-paced patter and the existence and powers of the Three Storms are just - there. Why are there rival martial arts gangs like a Shaw Brothers film and dueling wizards in contemporary San Francisco? The real question is "why not?" because they certainly never spell it out slowly for the viewer

  And let's pause to discuss the big fight in BTiLC: The leader (Wang Chi) and his pal Jack Burton get a wizard and a bunch of martial artists together then sneak through monster-haunted dungeons to break into the fortress of an evil wizard to save the prince-, uh, fiancĂ© and reporter. BTiLC is part western, part Wuxia, part heist film, and ALL Dungeons & Dragons. To old school RPGers the massive martial arts fight/wizard duel in a neon-lit room with an escalator was pure gold.

  As mentioned, both use genre as a reason to expand, not contract, and both let us know they have a solid, consistent internal logic that is shown on the screen not explained to the audience. They involve groups of people with various talents teaming up to defeat evil with a broad ensemble of skills and abilities.

  But most importantly both assume that the audience is intelligent. Each film is packed with references to the reality that exists within the cinematic universe of the particular film that imply a huge, sprawling world where you just know is full of other stories just as entertaining, fun, and excisting as the one you are watching.

  This attitude, where your AD&D 1e campaign could have a villain with a three-bladed rocket-propelled sword, you might run into a very odd mechanical monster deep under Mount Thunder, and everyone knew what a certain chant meant (bad news) was common in an explosively creative time for RPGs and unique, personal campaigns flourished. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't 'every campaign used everything from everywhere'! I firmly disallowed three-bladed swords, but did not have a problem with steam-powered 'muskets', for example. But the 'pop culture is a buffet for RPGs' was just an assumption for the majority of us. But, again, the most important element was that the RPGs also assumed that the gamemasters and players were intelligent - and creative. There was 'space' inside the best games for you to make it what you want, add and subtract what worked for your table.

  For as many times Gygax wrote 'there is ONE WAY to play AD&D!' in the DMG there are three things listed as 'optional, like six-guns, power armor, and dynamite. The artifacts and relics in the DMG include the computer from Altair IV, the steam organ of the Gods, and a giant mecha. This multi-genre, make it awesome but stay internally consistent ethos was the core of actual old school attitudes toward play.