I managed to track down a copy of Prisoners of the Lost Universe the other day. I’ve only seen it once and I’m certain it’s cheesily bad, but I remember it being a weird mixture of fantasy and science fiction that involved Richard Hatch (the original Apollo, not the naked fisherman) as a tradesman (electrician?) facing off against local warlord John Saxon.
This got me thinking about old 80s movies and television shows that inspired me as a GM. Even Prisoners of the Lost Universe has it’s place, as it’s the proverbial “fish out of water” setting of modern PCs being sucked into a parallel universe. So in no particular order, here are a few of my Totally 80s inspirations. Maybe you’ll find a spark in these as well.
Hawk the Slayer
This movie was required viewing if you were a gamer in the early 80s. In spite of non-CGI limitations (the “giant” and the “dwarf” were really just “tall guy” and “short guy”), this movie really felt like someone ran a one-shot D&D adventure on a Saturday night and filmed it.
The highlights include a rapid-firing Vulcan-esque elven archer (with bad f/x; it looks like he jumps off a log three times in one scene), a repeating crossbow (used again in Van Helsing), a magic sword, and the always fun Jack Palance. Oh, and the plot is recycled from The Seven Samurai, which is always a good “stock plot” to keep in reserve.
Conan the Destroyer
Yes, I realize that this is a sequel to a generally-considered superior film, but the truth is I found more inspiration from this one, probably due to it’s more D&D-esque approach. You have the barbarian, thief, sorceror, acrobatic warrior, and fighter escorting a princess to complete a mission. There’s even intra-party conflict that results in a “PC death.” And no movie has inspired the amount of official and unofficial “barbarian” classes as the Conan movies did.
The highlights include a puzzle-conflict with a man-ape sorceror, the hot Kryptonian dominatrix as the evil queen, and a dark god that turns into a Cthulhoid monster, with a barbarian variation on “the only way to defeat it is to perform a certain ritual.”
This film does for druid variants what the Conan movies did for barbarians. Long considered amongst the cream of the crop in my gaming circles, the Beastmaster had a new type of PC, a sufficiently bad-ass Hun-like horde, and a group of killer pteradactyl men. There’s lots to mine for a PC with “animal friendship” powers.
Are you kidding me? This is the original cyberspace movie, where computer programs are reimagined as a living, breathing world. Of course, it also shows the limitations of cyberpunk gaming, namely that something that takes seconds in the real world requires an hour plus to play out.
For me, the highlight was the cyberworld itself. Throughout my Cyberpunk/Shadowrun phase this became the default look of cyberspace for my hacker PCs. And, hey, it’s getting a makeover soon!
A cyborg, a techie (with droid), a ninja, and a Han Solo-clone try to stop a mad scientist from traveling through time to become a world dictator. This movie can only have been produced in the mid-80s (it’s practically a 1980s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). And then, just to up the ante a bit, the main villain wears a battlesuit for the final fight.
Believe it or not my few experiences with Heroes Unlimited often ended up with a randomly generated group of PCs similar to the Eliminators. In the days before Hero Machine and similar programs, the best way to differentiate your PC was to use easily visualized concepts such as “she’s a ninja, he’s a cyborg, she wears her aerobics leotard over her steel skin.”
During the Anime and Playstation booms of the mid-90s , I began to see a lot of “sci-fi flavored” fantasy, where warriors with big swords wore armor that made them look like mecha. Krull had the same concept back in 1983.
Basically, Krull boils down to “space aliens invade a fantasy world” where everybody is a fantasy trope with a sci-fi desktop theme. Knights have futuristic-looking armor, the creepy, Alien-esque baddies have lances that shoot laser beams (and they turn into slugs when they die), and Cyclopses come from another planet. Magic still exists though.
This movie was responsible for my buddies getting a polearm confused with a giant shuriken. There are lots of fun scenes that are easily adaptable to roleplaying, and if you want to do a creepy invasion campaign the Slayers and the Beast are good models. The Glaive certainly ended up getting statted for one of my campaigns (as did the three-bladed sword from the Sword and the Sorceror).
War of the Worlds
No, I’m not talking about the 1950s movie. This was the TV series sequel that straddled the end of the 1980s. It was effectively two series, as the original “look for the aliens using corpses to get around in the present” theme was dropped for a grimdark “twenty minutes from now” future for the 2nd season.
At the time, I preferred the first season, but it was the second season that stuck with me gaming-wise. I dug the bio-organic technology of the new aliens and blatantly ripped it off for a number of campaigns, both in fantasy and modern settings. The near-future setting was similar to the later Dark Angel, with the USA suffering from a new Depression (hmm, maybe it isn’t twenty minutes into the future after all), and I’ve used the visual imagery and elements in my own “near future” adventures and campaigns.
While Knight Rider and Airwolf were superior versions of the “crimefighter with a high-tech vehicle” genre, Street Hawk was more playable in terms of a superhero as part of a team. Essentially, it’s about a police officer that goes around fighting crime as a vigilante on a high-tech motorcycle with machine-guns and a particle beam cannon amongst its abilities (a pumped-up version of this premise came out in 1990’s Super Force, where the hero got a matching battlesuit to go along with the souped-up bike).
The A-Team gets a special mention here because I’ve recycled its basic plot structure numerous times in many settings. A team of PCs contacts a group that needs help. The PCs fight off the Big Bad’s minions but end up suffering a setback. They then use their wits and abilities to take the fight to the Big Bad and win. I love it when a plan comes together.
So those are a few of the 80s tales that inspired me as a budding GM (it’d take a massive article to catch them all). I hope the grognards among you enjoyed the trip down memory lane and maybe some of you young ‘uns will Netflix one or two of these and get inspired.
So how about you? What 1980s films or TV series inspired you for one or more of your adventures?