Thursday, December 20, 2012

Influencing Dungeon Fantasy

"Who are your influences?"

"Animal in the Muppets."


- The Commitments

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy's influences are a mishmash of video games (Diablo 2, Rogue), old-school RPGs (D&D, AD&D, T&T, C&S, and more), and the circular influence of GURPS games run by the author(s). As is made clear in the designer's notes and here and here, too.

GURPS, straight out of the box, does serious, high-lethality fantasy very well. Everything from social standing to combat to mass combat is covered along the way, so it's fine for a wide-ranging sandbox. So much so it was the go-to fantasy game for me for decades before DF rolled along. DF turns it on its head and says, what if your guy starts out as an ass-kicker and we toss all the serious stuff about social engagement outside the dungeon aside and just concentrate on that? Throw in some deliberate goofiness sometimes and you get a beer-and-pretzels game. What Mike Mornard claims Gary Gygax said about his game - to paraphrase, it's just a stupid game.

This is partly why, for example, Dungeon Fantasy delvers are so powerful - it's a rare video game that forces you into what is now called a character funnel. Old ones like Wizardry did it, but from experience I can tell you it was grueling and not always much fun.

In any case, games like that influenced me in my writings for DF and in my GURPS games, "straight" fantasy and DF alike.

If I had to list my influences for my DF game, in no particular order, it's a mix of:

AD&D - especially my post-UA game
D&D (Basic set, merged with AD&D and Holmes and criticals from Arms Law)
Rolemaster, 2nd edition (the blue box)
GURPS (my own 1st and 3rd edition games, via recycled monsters and treasures)
Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks by that other Steve Jackson
Gritty fantasy fiction (Glen Cook, especially)
A myriad of video games (Diablo, D2, Wizardry, Bard's Tale, Wizard's Crown, Planescape: Torment, and more)
OD&D, in that I always look into the LBBs and their excellent supplements for crazy 40-year old craziness to just toss in.
My minis collection, since this is my chance to use all the monster minis I have.

Even some non-fantasy games have a strong influence on this game: a little of Jade Empire, the attitude of 1st and 2nd edition Gamma World, and my own brutally character-grinding GURPS version of the Yaquinto Pirates & Plunder starting adventure.

The summaries of the Dwimmermount campaign helped push me into going for a megadungeon instead of a series of smaller dungeons, too.

To some extent swords and sorcery and Vance influence me now, but their influence came fairly late - I got introduced to Moorcock, Vance, Leiber, and Howard through D&D, not the other way around. They inform my current game to varying degrees, though - my previous game showed a lot more Leiber and Vance and Moorcock than this one, but there is still a bit that shows through.

So, who are your influences? What is informing your decisions about what is cool and necessary in your game? What really shows up in your day to day play?


  1. May own influences on my GURPS camapign are AD&D combined with the gritty realism of Harn, plus Elisabeth Moon's depiction of a D&Dish world in the Deed of Paksenarrion with a heavy dose of worldbuilding via the Simarillion and the LoTR appendices.

    To be honest I was not paritcularly thrilled when DF 1 came out. I think Sean missed the point of what appealing about GURPS Fantasy and went overboard with the emulation angle. I think a similar product but with a focus on 150 pt GURPS Fantasy combined with D&D tropes (mainly the monsters and magic items, not the classes and magic system) would showcased GURPS strengths for fantasy campaign better.

    But now that water under the bridge as full DF line is pretty much a killer product line for running any time D&Dish GURPS fantasy whether it is 75 pt, 150pt, or 250pt.

    Now the only thing left on my wishlist are a decent D&Dish Monster Book for GURPS (although DF Fantasy Monster 1 is a great start) and and all in one powered by GURPS Fantasy RPG that combines the DF material and a selection of Core rules and Magic so that I can recommend one book tell GURPS novices to buy to get started.

  2. My experience with *D&D was much more with the low-level stuff - there was a general feeling among the people I first played with that PCs really ought not to start out above first level, even if they were coming into a party of higher-level characters! (Some would grudgingly allow you to bring in a new PC with level equal to the lowest-level one in the party.) The video game angle really never came into it for me; by the time the more powerful stuff was getting popular, I'd got away from the dungeon-bashing style of play anyway. If I were trying to replicate my early games with DF, I'd definitely be looking at the lower-power variants.

  3. Wah... I guess I have spent so much time playing games "straight" to see where they lead, that I just haven't done much of my "own thing."

    When I develop my own scenarios from scratch... I just look at how everything has played out so far and then and there are often enough loose ends that it's pretty obvious where things should go. The tempo and techniques of serial fiction inform my narrative logic-- particularly Lost, the new Doctor Who series, Downton Abbey, and especially anything by Charles Dickens.

    With the narrative in place, I need an environment for it to play out in. Infocom's text adventures are by far the most influential thing for me when it comes to this.

  4. I suppose that I am most attracted to gritty, but heroic, fantasy. Things like Leiber influence me more than Moorcock. Let me see, maybe I can be more specific:

    Fafhrd and the Mouser, of course
    Song of Ice and Fire (which I am currently reading, so perhaps it weighs a little out of proportion right now)
    C.J. Cherryh's "Arafel" cycle (well, two books, ultimately released as a single volume)
    Lord of the Rings
    Irish and Scottish (and Welsh/British) myth and legend
    an obscure two-issue comic called The Spiral Path
    Magic Realm (the Avalon Hill game)
    movies like Dragonslayer and the 1981 Conan the Barbarian. The Warrior and the Sorceress. Ladyhawke. The Princess Bride. Apocalypse Now. Hawk the Slayer. Princess Mononoke.
    the Taarna sequence from Heavy Metal
    Howard's Conan stories
    Thieves' World
    Captain Blood (movie and book)
    H.P. Lovecraft
    William Shakespeare
    The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour

    I think what's interesting (to me, at any rate) is what I am leaving out here. There's no John Carter, Tanith Lee's Tales of the Flat Earth, Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, and so on. I mean, those are things I love and may have some influence, but I think that my intentions are more directed toward the ones I am listing here. Also, I have no current idea why some of these are ones that I include, while others are not (why Taarna, but not Tales of the Flat Earth? Why Conan, but not John Carter? I have no idea).

    It's pretty apparent, I think, that I am very interested in portraying aristocratic/dynastic politics in my gaming. Ever since my very first character in my first game of AD&D (a magic user who spent all of his money hiring mercenaries), I've been fascinated by the power of minions, and that leads pretty easily into the machinations and intrigue of feudal or semi-feudal politics. Of course, there are only a few games published which can handle that in a robust fashion: GURPS, Pendragon, ACKS, D&D Cyclopedia (or BECMI, or Dark Dungeons), C&S (1st and 2nd editions), Flashing Blades, Reign, a few others.

    Wow, I can sure babble, can't I?

    1. Interesting that list the Arafel books. The books had a nice appendix of celtic-type place and person names and roots (not sure how authentic they were, but Cherryh is usually good for that) and I used that as a handy source for a forested, fae-haunted region north of my main dungeon setting.

      This gave me Hordag Loi, a themed "dark fae" dungeon set under the roots of a giant tree, and later an entertaining love affair between a vampire who lived there and one of the PCs.

      Back to GURPS, I found one thing that GURPS dungeoning gave me that D&D didn't was the disadvantages and quirks helped encourage me to automatically flesh out NPCs and also helped the players do more roleplaying themselves. This led to more interaction with the monsters.

      One vampire in particular who haunted the dungeon had Pacifism: Self Defense Only. She was also a master of the greatsword, which with ST 24 and skill 20 is not to be sneezed at, and prone to turning into fog and retreating if outmatched. She also had a sharp tongue and, despite appearing a beautiful 20-something, a nasty-old-granny type personality ("what are you foolish children doing in this part of the dungeon, disturbing my sleep? I'd kill you myself if you weren't likely to trip over your own swords. Get out of my lair!"). Multiple parties attacked her and met some degree of doom, until it finally dawned on them that she never initiated a fight...

    2. On influences:

      My dungeon experience was influenced directly by my hybrid OD&D games. The main literary influence that affected by later GURPS dungeon games was, oddly enough, the Borderland series of elfpunk urban fantasy books.

      These did not influence the dungeon per se, but rather affected the character of the nearby city and the dungeon adventurers, which included feuding teenage gangs of elves, half elves, orcs, and the like eager to earn some extra cash by both providing an origin for a couple of the PCs (like pyromaniac half-elf gang leader turned dungeon adventurer Torch), some action outside the dungeon, and a ready source of cheap hirelings.

      They also created a different vibe for the city, with the traditional taverns being replaced with rival music clubs, high-fashion elves slumming among the humans, and so on.

    3. Cherryh's "Celtic" (actually Scots Gaelic) words were largely correct, though the pronunciations she gave were marginal. As far as I can tell, her Welsh and Old English ones were also good, but I'm less confident with those languages.

    4. My influences are wider than what's above - but my list above pretty much describes the direct influences on what I am playing right now. I wouldn't have time to list all of the influences that affected all of my past gaming!

    5. Oh, yeah. I listed the specific things that are going into the megadungeon-centered game that I am working on (but haven't run yet). There's a city full of thieves and mountebanks, there's aristocratic politicking, there's a megadungeon full of faery monsters… and other things, most of which can be inferred from the list I gave. There's a lot less science fantasy than I would have expected before, not so much of the decadent demons, none of the sentient areas I'd worked out (I should put that last on my blog, actually, so that someone else might get some use out of it).

  5. My first influence was Gygax's adventures. He sort of wove horror into his adventures with dark temples and crypts. The second in fluence was Call of Cthulhu. Another is Stormbringer and for the background feel I like Pendragon, GURPS historicals and Ars Magica. I like to use some real world myths because it adds variety. Elves and dwarves are only common in Mythic Europe because they were the creation of the Norse gods and other European gods. In India the humanoids there are the creation of the Indian gods. Humans are the only universal humanoid.

  6. My most immediate influence is blogs like this one. In fact, this blog influences my campaign more than most; I am running my own adaptation of "Keep on the Borderlands," as filtered through this blog, the excellent take on KotB at, and my own proclivities as a GM. Other blogs that I read specifically with an eye to stealing good ideas include,,,,, and many, many others that I am forgetting right now. I also read a few webcomics focused on fantasy gaming, including and Order of the Stick ( I want to reconnect with the feel of old school gaming (as I idealize it), but I think it is a little absurd not to take advantage of whatever modern experiences other people are writing about in that pursuit.

    I also wanted to infuse a little bit of Japanese culture and folklore into my campaign. The comic book Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai has been a huge help, fueling inspiration and the sensibility I try to instill in the NPCs in my campaign. By making them feel foreign, yet consistent, the PCs role as outsiders is more pronounced. Only the weirdos go looking for monsters in caves, after all! But the fact that they come back makes people treat them with cautious respect. Using Japanese folklore helps keep the few experienced players I have on their toes, since they have a lot of preconceived ideas about aboleths and owlbears*. A kappa is something more plastic for me, since I am not fighting upstream against player expectations when I make it my own.

    I am also influenced by old modules, fantasy novels, and fantasy movies. LotR is a big influence for me, and a useful source of archetypes for my players. With a common visual vocabulary, we are more likely to imagine the same thing and avoid "but I thought the dwarf city was all narrow tunnels" vs "no, dwarf cities are grand caverns with careful geometric architecture stretching into darkness." I also swipe ideas from Guy Gavriel Kay, from little details to big background events.

    In short, I embrace cliche, reference existing art wherever possible, read gaming short writing voraciously, and steal shamelessly (including from this site, frequently (I am even thinking about adding Red Raggi or perhaps Honus the Honus to my campaign)). What we are playing feels weirdly exotic, for all that, while also being familiar enough not to put anyone off so far.

    *Recently I threw an owlbear at my players. One the players was inspired to shout, "oh we gotta charge this thing, owlbears are like loot-piñatas!"

    1. I should probably clarify something... when I say, "embrace cliche," I am not saying that anyone I steal from is producing cliches. I am really talking about anything that recurs frequently as a genre convention, like dragons and orcs and whatever. I look for things that seem archetypal to include in my game, as well as subverted archetypes and exotic encounters that are set in more familiar environments.

      I should have said, "familiar tropes," probably.

    2. First off, thanks, and I'm glad my blog has helped inspire your game. It sounds very cool. I liked UY when I was a teenager, although I haven't read it in a while.

      I understand what you mean by cliches - I use them similarly. I like grabbing the common lingo of "what happens in fantasy dungeons" and using that to have a fun game.

      (By the way, "loot-pinatas" sounds like something Honus's player would say. And he'd be happy to hear that Honus the Honus live multiple lives in some Eternal Honus kind of way. Just give him a morningstar (The Flail of the Gales) and he'll be happy. :)

  7. For me the go-to influences are first old-school JRPGs like Dragon Quest 1-3 and computer dungeon RPGs like Castle of the Winds. This is followed by literature I've read...Narnia before Middle Earth because talking animals have a very strong appeal to me, a little Redwall here and a little Robin Hood there, scant half-remembered things about Japanese, Celtic, Norse, and Egyptian myth.

    I always considered "I was brought to this magical realm by a freak accident; I'm actually from the high-tech no-magic setting of 20th-century America (or, rarely, Britain)" a pretty stock character backstory and often wondered why GURPS Banestorm seems to be one of the only fantasy RPG settings I've found to touch on the subject.


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