I have these DVDs of the original He-Man cartoons that I’ve been meaning to watch. They were a big influence on me when I was young, and probably helped get me interested in fantasy. I figure blogging about them a little might help urge me on. Also, before going any further, check out Robert Parker’s essay on Masters of the Universe (this is required reading). Why might this be of interest to you, even if you have no He-Man nostalgia? I’ll just quote a bit from Robert’s post:
I’m talking about intergalactic vampire warlords invading your sword & sorcery world and installing Satanic Lich-Kings in a bid for colonial rule. Pterodactyl riders with laser guns in a dogfight with UFOs piloted by serpent men. Cleaving through hordes of cyborg beast-men as we leap from asteroid to asteroid towards that leering organic castle in space.
I’m not sure if this will become a semi-regular feature or not; I suppose it depends on how much I feel like I am getting out of watching the show and if watching it leads to interesting gaming ideas. I’m starting with MU004 because it was the first episode on the first disc. All the other episodes seem to be in order, so I think this one might have aired first or something like that.
|A glimpse at the world map|
I’m not going to try to put together a coherent plot summary or anything like that here; instead, I think I’ll just range about arbitrarily, like a crazy Eternian tour guide. What’s the diamond ray of disappearance? It’s probably more interesting to leave it to your imagination. The plots are nothing to write home about, as you might expect, but the setting ideas, ambiance, and some of the character ideas are pretty fantastic. Check out that world map above. One can almost identify the ghost of the Americas, but then there is that narrow continent that extends into the “Pacific” and that is covered by volcanoes or something in the middle. You probably don’t want to hexcrawl over there until you have some levels under your belt.
Above we can see a sample of Eternian architecture, a stronghold perched on a bluish stone outcropping. Pleasingly ambiguous, this fortress or town could easily be science fiction or cyclopean fantasy.
|Another strangely subdued vista|
And again, zoomed out. If you haven’t already looked at the Monster Brains post linked to in Robert’s post, it is definitely worth your time. The amazing thing about those paintings is that they actually look like the toys if you are familiar with them, but don’t look like toys otherwise.
|Note the colors: Dr. Seuss by way of H. P. Lovecraft?|
Giant purple spires of rock, swept slightly to the side as if blown by wind. Plains of dark green vegetation, thick like a woman’s hair, waving slightly in the breeze like seaweed underwater.
|This is where the good guys get their powers|
Here is Castle Grayskull, the home of The Sorceress and the source of He-Man’s power. Perhaps He-Man is a somewhat naive warlock, being used as a vessel to defend the lands of civilization? Magic item power sword idea: every time the transformation is invoked, a saving throw must be rolled to avoid rolling on a mutation table.
Color is such a powerful aesthetically unifying tool, but something that is often not consciously brought into tabletop RPG play, other than for use as an occasional descriptor (“the man with the red cloak”). I wonder how effective it would be to take a cinematographer’s approach to setting design and consciously attempt to apply different combinations of colors to various settings or setting areas? Jack over at TOTGAD likes to apply “taste, sound, image” to each of his area descriptions (example: What Ulverland is Like). Why not add a few colors, too? The putrescent swamp: pale green, dark purple, dark blue, and gray.
|Evil cotton candy vegetation|
Excellent. Recently I’ve been thinking just how inspirational MotU could be for gaming. Your point about colour is good; why not add the other senses too?
Totally; all the other senses are worthwhile too.
Between He-Man, Thundarr and the slightly older Herculoids, there was plenty of sci-fi/fantasy mashups going on in the early 80s. This is something that you really don’t see much of anymore. I have young kids and I really can’t think of any sort of adventure show like these that don’t involve superheroes. Certainly none that show all civilization on earth being destroyed like the intro to Thundarr.
I’ve heard the Clone Wars cartoon is surprisingly mature (and aimed at kids), though I have not seen it (and it is not a genre mash-up like He-Man). There are also shows like The Legend of Korra (haven’t seen it), and all the anime out there (quite a bit of that is pretty surreal and/or apocalyptic, and some of it is aimed at kids).
I’ve never seen Thundarr. Maybe when I finish the 100+ episodes of He-Man I’ll give it a shot. I had never even heard of it before my exposure to the OSR, actually.
Other shows that I would group with He-Man, though they might have come a bit later chronologically: ThunderCats and The Pirates of Dark Water.
Thanks for all the kind words, Brendan.
I’ve been watching snippets of He-Man again myself. There are certainly some good things to mine, but I find watching entire episodes to be a slog.
He Man was a solid staple of my young TV watching experience. Probably the runner up for sheer kid-hours was Thundercats.
Looking back on the cartoons that held my attention as a youth, I’m not sure I noticed before how many were predominated by post apocalyptic or slightly dark or bleak fantasy backdrops:
Thundercats – Takes place on Third Earth. Some ancient character mentions in one episode that how he remembers when it was still First Earth.
She-Ra – Didn’t see as many of these. But my impression was, despite the nominal appeal to a young female demographic, this series was pretty much just more of the same from He-Man on every level.
Ulysses 31 – Starship captain travels from world to world, cursed by the gods, and contesting against sorcerers, gods and titans at every step.
Darkstar – ‘nother world, ‘nother magic sword wielding badass.
Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea – Post-(some cataclysm). The eponymous character, et al, travel subterranean “strata” filled with worlds of weird stuff, trying to save one world’s dying sun.
Thundarr the Barbarian – Nuff said.
Dungeons & Dragons – Sure, it was just a rehash of the game we now all know and love-ish. But a bunch of kids, getting sucked into an unpredictable fantasy world with dubious hopes of getting home was intriguingly dark for a kid my age.
Though there’s been a tiny Renaissance in this sort of thing more recently with Samurai Jack, Clone Wars and Adventure Time, it seems more like an homage compared to the sheer outpouring of bizarro threats in odd and dismal worlds of the 1980s
Some of those are new to me. Ulysses 31 sounds promising.
I watched lots of She-Ra because Hordak was my favorite character as a kid. Seriously.