At first glance, classic 1980s Saturday morning cartoons like He-Man, She-Ra, Thundercats, and Thundarr the Barbarian are classic, over-the-top fantasies with tabletop RPG tropes like sword-wielding heroes battling evil necromancers and dark wizards. At the same time, however, these franchises are also full of sci-fi tropes such as cyborgs, laser guns, mutants, and spaceships. Tabletop gamers looking to recreate the heavy-metal sci-fi feel of these shows in their games should check out the following RPG systems. Some of them explicitly pay homage to the classic 1980s cartoons mentioned above, some are set in dynamic sci-fi worlds where science and magic collide, and some might even be part of that little- balanced lunch.
The line between fantasy and space opera sci-fi games, books, and shows is blurred, with iconic sci-fi tropes appearing in classic works of fantasy media and vice versa. the dying earth Jack Vance’s fantasy stories are set in a distant land where the sun fades and the world is haunted by ruins of magic, technology, and technology with the trappings of magic. A classic 1980’s adventure mod for Dungeons & Dragons, “Expedition To The Barrier Peaks”, let the player and his fantasy adventurer characters explore a crashed spaceship, fight malfunctioning robots and loot items such as blaster rifles and powered armor suits. Genre-blending fantasy tales like these played a big part in shaping the post-apocalyptic worlds of doomed sci-fi cartoon franchises like masters of the universe. That, plus 1980s pop culture and toy manufacturers’ desire to sell lots of action figures.
The emissions kitchen sink settings like Man and the Masters of the Universe, or Conan the Barbarian-sword-style warriors could fight alongside cyborg commandos, and evil necromantic overlords could team up with invading alien armies, let toymakers sell toys and action figures with skins and accessories extremely distinct; characters like Buzz-Off, King of the Bee People, and the three-faced cyborg called Man-E-Faces could only really co-exist on shows like He-Man. Despite all that merchandising, clumsy morality, and chronological inconsistencies, the over-the-top action and imagination old scrollsThe fantasy-style sci-fi world-building of these shows was a powerful influence on kids growing up in the 1980s, some of whom went on to create sci-fi tabletop RPGs like the following:
Gods Of Metal: Ragnarock invokes the 1980s heavy metal trappings of shows like He-Man
Metal Gods: Ragnarock is a fantasy RPG set in a world inspired by the concept art of heavy metal music albums, video games like brutal legend, and a line of He-Man and other similar 1980s cartoons. Player characters in Metal Gods: Ragnarock come from a gray, colorless, magicless version of the modern world called Mundania, are summoned to a primordial world of blades and magic called Ragnarock, and are gifted with awesome powers by the gods of metal, each personifying different aspects of heavy metal gigs. The game of Metal Gods: Ragnarock (recently funded on Kickstarter) is centered around the Avatar player characters kicking the ass of evil with heavy metal-themed abilities; a party of adventurers or party roll pools of 4-sided dice as they undertake challenges and can call upon several teamwork-themed abilities to help outwit rock and roll enemies.
For The Honor is directly inspired by She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
For honor, a diceless narrative tabletop role-playing anthology available on itch.io, takes pieces in a setting heavily inspired by the world of She-Ra: And the Princesses of Power; Rathael, a planet of magic, kingdoms, and mysterious ruins, has been overrun by a high-tech faction of alien colonizers called the Legion, and only Rathael’s princesses (“princess” referring to any RPG heroes , regardless of gender, sexuality, or orientation) can inspire grumpy realms to rise up and stand up to their would-be conquerors. Each of the 12 mini-games of For honor are designed to tell different episodes of the saga of the Princesses, such as the beginning of their heroic journey, crossing the path of a rival or a mentor, going to the aid of imprisoned friends, negotiating at a ball, falling in love , colliding with an enemy, falling in love with an enemy, etc.
Like Thundarr the Barbarian, magic and science collide in Titansgrave: The Ashes Of Valkana
Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana is an adventure setting for Green Ronin Publishing’s Fantasy AGE role-playing game system, based on an RPG campaign directed by Will Wheaton partially inspired by the post-apocalyptic 1980s sci-fi cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian. The world of Valkana has been ravaged by two different fantasy RPG apocalypses – a massive cataclysm that triggered the collapse of the mighty Saurian Empire, and a devastating global war between different factions to claim what was left. Player characters in a Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana campaign adventure through a land where fantasy RPG species such as elves and lizards coexist with cyborgs, robots, corporations are supported by magical and technological infrastructure, and the ruins of the ancient world are filled with wonders and of terrors.
In the world of Numenera, science and magic are indistinguishable
Numbering, an exploration and adventure-focused RPG created by veteran designer Monte Cook, resolves the conflict between science and magic seen in He-Man, She-Ra, Thundercats, and other science-fantasy tales invoking Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Science Fiction:”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The setting of Numbering, called the “Ninth World” by those who live there, is an Earth of the far future covered in the ruins of eight different civilizations, each of which disappeared after a massive apocalypse, exodus or transcendence and left behind many interesting relics.
Player characters in Numbering, whether it’s brutal Glaives, Nanos that manipulate ambient nanotechnology in the air, or skill-mastering Jacks, often earn their living by scavenging ancient technologies, trinkets, tools, and secrets from ruins of their predecessors, frequently encountering strange lifeforms, strange alternate dimensions, and mind-shattering horrors in the process. The rules-based, easy-to-hack “Cypher” role-playing game system used in Numbering allows players to create characters by inserting certain nouns, adjectives, and verbs into a descriptive sentence, and resolves difficult actions by having the player roll a twenty-sided die and expend limited resources to increase their chances of success.
These tabletop RPGs inspired by He-Man, She-Ra, and other 1980s Saturday morning cartoons should give everyone plenty of reason to celebrate childhood fantasies and the more nuanced fantasies they might become later on. For those looking for a twist on the usual RPG fare, these unique games could provide the spark to take a whole group of gamers on to something both thrilling and heartwarming.
Next: Tabletop RPG in the “Dungeonpunk” genre
Sources: Kickstarter – Gods Of Metal Ragnarock, Green Ronin Store – Titansgrave: Ashes of Valkana, Numenera
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