Thursday, May 21, 2009

Everything I need to know I learned from He-Man and Nintendo.

It's been all the rage lately for old-school D&D-related bloggers (God, I hate the sound of that word; sounds like digestion problems) to post about their personal gaming inspirations in the form of their very own take on Appendix N. This refers, of course, to the famous short section near the end of the Dungeon Master's Guide where Gary Gygax listed the fantastic literature that inspired him during the creation of D&D. Here you'll find cited titans like Howard, Lovecraft, Vance, Lieber, and Tolkien, as well as lesser-known offerings from the likes of Abraham Merritt and John Bellairs.

Well, my Appendix N doesn't have any of that. Missing is not just pulp swords & sorcery fiction, but any kind of fantasy literature, at least up until the last couple years. Heck, I didn't even play the classic modules.

I'll explain.

I got my start with D&D when I chanced upon a copy of Tom Moldvay's red cover Basic rulebook in a thrift store sometime circa 1990. Other than an occasional turn at some older acquaintances' 1E games, my play for the remainder of that formative decade was mostly with the Moldvay edition's successors, the Frank Mentzer D&D sets as compiled in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia.

In retrospect, I can trace my influences back to two primary sources which collectively form my Appendix N:

1. Saturday morning cartoons.

2. Video games.

Let's tackle these suckers:

Saturday Morning Cartoons

My generation was the first to be hooked on a whole new kind of children's cartoon: The glorified action figure commercial. He-Man, Thundercats, Silverhawks, you know the drill. They were, of course, vapid exercises in cynical marketing, but at least the characters and settings were cool-looking and, well, actioney in a way that cartoons previously weren't. These shows taught me quite a few things:

* There is no, I repeat no meaningful distinction between fantasy and sci-fi. If you want cat people from another planet to battle an undead sorcerer with the aid of an enchanted sword and whatever the hell this is, well, what's weird about that? I just took this for granted. It's no wonder that my high school years saw the PCs fighting off alien invaders in outer space and traveling through time to the campaign world's technologically advanced far future.

* It's more important to be evocative when world building than logical. If the Masters of the Universe writers wanted He-Man to wrestle a monster in a forest of giant purple mushrooms (or whatever), the planet of Eternia suddenly had one. If the Dungeon Master told the kids in the D&D cartoon that they needed to find a magic book in a gigantic enchanted lost city on a mountaintop, than the Realm of Dungeons & Dragons suddenly had one. It didn't matter how weird or unlikely it might be, if it was wonderous and an awesome place to set an adventure, it had a place in these very gonzo fantasy worlds. Needless to say, the whole "But what about the ecology?" fantasy worldbuilding fad of the 90s never failed to rub me the wrong way.

* Adventures are best undertaken by a good-sized group of diverse professionals, each with their own unique but complementary skillsets. Mainly this was the case in the cartoons because a whole stable of heroic action stars means more toy sales than a lone protagonist, but the unintended side-effect for me was to make the idea of the adventuring party the default in my mind well before I encountered Lord of the Rings or any RPG.

Video Games

Here I mean console ones, because my family was too poor growing up to give me much of a footing in the world of PC gaming. Especially important were games from the era when the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was dominant, roughly 1985-1993.

* The Legend of Zelda taught me that a game could focus on the exploration of a wide-open fantasy world. Before this, my experience was limited to games that took place either on a series of single screen boards like Pac-Man and most classic arcade games or on a fixed one-way scrolling path (think Super Mario Bros). Here, I was free to roam everywhere burning down trees, using explosives on cliffs and walls, pushing rocks, and checking under statues for secret passages leading to wealth and magical treasures.

* While Legend of Zelda was still fairly action-focused, other games were more focused on statistics and introduced the concept of turn-based combat. It's thanks to Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) and the original Final Fantasy that I came to understand how a game character could be represented by such things as hit points, strength scores, and classes and how concepts like initiative worked. These games also introduced me to the concept of character improvement. Suddenly characters could learn from their adventures, becoming stronger, faster, more accomplished magicians, etc.

* The Holy Trinity of Town/Wilderness/Dungeon was very clearly established in these games, just as it traditionally has been in D&D. Logistics wasn't always ignored in early console adventure games, either. Ultima Exodus made you pack food for your party on expeditions outside of town and every Dragon Warrior player dreaded the possibility of their torch burning out, leaving them to wander blindly through a pitch black cave until the monsters finished them off.

Ultimately, I think the relatively childish and simplistic presentation of these cartoons and games girded me against taking the whole enterprising of gaming too seriously, which is why I've never felt the need to leave the realm of swashbucking fantasy adventure for complicated amateur novelist story arcs or "mature" explorations of being a totally angsty vampire. Or any of that highfalutin' crap, really. So there you have it. That's how a Generation X kid with no background in fantasy lit came to love eclectic sandbox-style gaming in the classic (OD&D - AD&D) mold. Although in recent years I have come to love much of the pulp S&S fiction that inspired Gygax, I still have to admit that deep down, I still draw much of my inspiration from the disposable entertainment of my formative years. I suppose it's true what they say: There are many paths, but they all lead to the same mountaintop.


Never let it be said that there was a bandwagon I wouldn't jump on.