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Totally Eighties Inspirations

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.”

The Beastmaster

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.

Street Hawk

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

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?

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Totally Eighties Inspirations"

#1 Comment By Lychess On September 3, 2010 @ 9:41 am

I remember the 80s as a time of banning. Rules like “no multi-bladed weapons”, “swords can’t shoot”, and “NO effing Repeating Crossbows!” come to mind. The first time I cracked the 3.0 rulebook and saw the double ended weapons and repeating crossbow I wept. I really did.

My super 80s inspirations are “Conan the Destroyer”, “Excalibur”, and the king daddy of all gaming movies “Willow”. I can’t leave out “The Hobbit” 1977 or “Lord of the Rings” 1978 though. They weren’t made in the 80s but I sure watched the heck out of them in the 80s.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On September 3, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

Wot, no “Willow”? The movie had magic going wrong, morphing the hard way and a hidden troll with a neat trick for stalking.

A campaign I played in a few years ago wasn’t complete without nightly cries of “Stupid Dicheni!” or “Mad Morrigan! Heeeelp!”.

At least until the day I strode into what everyone else thought was suicidal single combat with an airy “Bet on heem if you liek!” and 13th Warrior stuff became de rigeur.

“Is there a cave?”
“Yes. It’s full of what look like AC20+ foes. Just a guess, but the GM has been smiling a lot.”
“Is there *another* cave?”

#3 Comment By mercutior On September 3, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

Krull–I loved that movie as a kid, and not a game night goes by without a Beastmaster reference from someone at the gaming table. Not a big Tom Cruise fan but Legend was a great D&D-esque, as was the strange muppet-filled) Labyrinth with David Bowie as the goblin king, and the I’m going to grow up to be a babe Jennifer Connelly as the protagonist. I can’t help but like anything a member of Monty Python (Terry Jones) helps out with. Also The Neverending Story had a good D&D type plot. How about a great 80’s cartoon for inspiration? G-Force. Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop, and Tiny flying the Pheonix around the universe, pure awesome! And the baddies had cool costumes too.

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 3, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

@Roxysteve – I can’t list them all, but Willow certainly is one of my favorite fantasy movies of the 80s!

“The Dark Crystal” was another one I should’ve mentioned. Lots of weirdness ended up getting adapted in our campaigns (the crab monsters gave me nightmares for a while).

#5 Comment By evil On September 3, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

Oddly enough, a movie with very little in the way of primary gaming material inspired several of my games: Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. It’s so terrible that it’s great. It’s full of red herrings, a mad businessman who sends hordes of baddies after the hero, and damsels in distress. Better yet, it’s about the search for self and the meaning of power.

#6 Comment By Lee Hanna On September 3, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

I was inspired by a recent post here on using one’s “regular” characters as re-skinned pregens for one-shots. I’ve been wanting to try Savage Worlds or Cortex on my D&D-only group for some time, as well as having nostalgia for my Twilight:2000 GMing days.

So, I have hatched a plan to cast our long-running Shackled City group as an A-Team style mercenary team, and setting the whole thing in something ’80s Caribbean– Miami Vice and James Bond, Predator and I’m not sure what else. Spells= big guns, melee weapons = small guns, and away we go. It may be our New Year’s Eve one-shot game, especially if I can set up a soundtrack CD.

As for inspiring media, “Miami Vice” and “A-Team” work for me. I just bought the DVD set for “Tales of the Gold Monkey,” which my wife remembers, but I do not.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 3, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

[1] – And it’s being remade, with Samuel Jackson as Sho Nuff.

Y’all covered ’em all, except Excalibur. What nerd of the 80s didn’t analyze the mechanics of sex in full plate?

#8 Comment By lyle.spade On September 3, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

Whoa there cowboy, you forgot an important one:

Dragonslayer…a very cool dragon, a great fantasy story, and a naked chick. To the 10 year-old boy, that’s a triumverate of perfection. I’ll still watch this one if it comes on, and one day I’ll show it to my kids (when they’re older).

…and a few guilty pleasures:
Yor: The Hunter from the Future!
Hell Comes to Frogtown!

Beat that!

#9 Comment By lyle.spade On September 3, 2010 @ 7:20 pm


Amen, my brutha, amen.

#10 Comment By Don Mappin On September 4, 2010 @ 1:28 am

I love this article! Bravo!

I must pimp the “Misfits of Science.” Hell, as a child of the 80s I was just happy to see an “Airwolf” and “Street Hawk” reference! 🙂

#11 Comment By Knight of Roses On September 4, 2010 @ 11:21 am

Hawk the Slayer, for all its low budget effects and wooden acting, remains one of my favorite fantasy movies of all time.

What about the short lived humorous CBS TV fantasy series: Wizards and Warriors? It tried but still had its moments.

And for Cyberpunk inspiration:

Blade Runner, nothing defined the look of cyberpunk like this movie.

Max Headroom (and you people keep using the shows’s tagline “20 minutes into the future” above!).

#12 Comment By Clawfoot On September 4, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

Oh, I can’t forget Ladyhawk — the music was so terrible it was awesome, and Mouse was so cute and it included a dastardly villain and a tragic lover’s curse… I loved that film. 🙂

#13 Comment By Silveressa On September 4, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

Big Trouble In Little China ( [3] )is a great classic from the 1980’s and really felt like someones one shot adventure after watching way too many martial arts flicks. It had just about everything you could want in a straight forward adventure, the reluctant hero, barely understood mystics, a gal in distress and memorable sidekicks along with a few traps and final show down with the big bad.

Of course Red Sonya ( [4] )was another great film that helped inspire more back story to the groups fighter classes then “they’re good with a sword and they thought it would be fun to go adventuring.” It also was the first movie I remember seeing with a sword wielding female lead rather then the typical archer or helpless damsel. Surprisingly it’s up for a remake version to hit the theatres in 2011 as well.

#14 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 4, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

@Knight of Roses – I didn’t appreciate Blade Runner until the 1990s. It’s a great film that has influenced me though.

Re: Max Headroom, I never really watched that either, but I absorbed the “20 minutes into the future” tagline.

@Clawfoot – I know a DM (they only played D&D) that played the Ladyhawke soundtrack non-stop during sessions.

#15 Comment By Silveressa On September 4, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

Oh and I almost forgot forgot the classic Princess Bride ( [5] ) from the fire swamp and resurrection of the main hero to the bumbling minor villains and saving the princess, the movie feels lifted out of a first time D&D gms sessions, and helped show us gamers everywhere that romance could be a fun subplot/motivation for our chars. (As well as seeking revenge on a mysterious man with some sort of memorable physical deformity.

For the Sci fi genre I’d have to go with Aliens ( [6]) being the most memorable inspiration for the classic “bug hunt” and how to portray space marines in games for years to come. Really though, is there any scifi fan that hasn’t seen this (and the rest of the series) at least once?

#16 Comment By dizman On September 6, 2010 @ 9:11 am

To list i woulr d like to add (although its cartoon series in 1991) “The Pirates of Dark Water”

The series followed a group of adventurers on a quest to collect the Thirteen Treasures of Rule, which possessed the combined power to stop an evil substance known as “Dark Water” from consuming the alien world of Mer.

also has dnd setting with pince(paladin), rogue(monkey bird race), warrior, and sorrceres(more like druid)

#17 Comment By kevinrichey On September 6, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

I’ve always wanted to play a game based on Galaxy Rangers or Thunderbirds 2086 – two of my favourite animated sci-fi shows (along side G-Force).

#18 Comment By healermoon On September 7, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

Most of these are standard fair for weekends at my house. 🙂 I will have to say a couple of them I hadn’t heard of before but thanks to NetFlix, they will be coming to my house soon! Thanks for the great thoughts on this topic.

#19 Comment By Peter K. On September 8, 2010 @ 10:54 am

[7] – Metalstorm! I didn’t think anyone else had ever heard of that film, let alone watched it.

Metalstorm might have been the height of mediocrity, but my friend and I always used to half-joke that if we ever became established film-makers we’d buy the rights (they have to be cheap) and make Metalstorm 2.

I completely agree with your assessment of Dragonslayer. That movie has pathos (in a good way). Actually a pretty nicely crafted film that doesn’t get much play.

My guilty pleasure is Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (starring, among others, a really young Molly Ringwald).

These days though I think the 80s sci-fi film I take the most inspiration from never really existed. It’s the video for Muse’s Knight’s of Cydonia. How can you not want to play a sci-fi/kungfu/western this well imagined:


#20 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 8, 2010 @ 11:38 am

Speaking of 80s films, and their long-awaited sequels…


#21 Comment By black campbell On January 11, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

My current Serenity /Firefly campaign is heavily tinged with A-Team (well, probably more Burn Notice) flavor — people who didn’t commit a crime on the run and disavowed by the Alliance, doing favors for people to make a living and stay hidden.

I’ve wanted to do a “cop show” game with heavy Miami Vice influences.