The 90s Syndicate

It was 1987, and I was super excited in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. This was not uncommon in childhood, of course – it just took an awesome prize in a box of sugar goodness – but I was a teenager in ’87 and the excitement was due to an ad for something called Star Trek: The Next Generation on the back of a cereal box. This was my introduction to the show, and I remember telling my dad – the source of my Star Trek love – about how cool it looked, with a new ship, new crew … and that there was going to be a klingon on the Enterprise!

Back in the 80’s, syndicated TV was mostly the domain of game shows like Wheel of Fortune until Star Trek: The Next Generation showed up. I remember that it was a big story when The Next Generation managed to beat Wheel of Fortune’s ratings. Fast forward 30+ years, and though I’m sorry to say the show doesn’t do much for me these days, I am thankful for the syndicated TV goodness it helped spawn.

The syndicated shows of the 90’s almost never had as much budget as they needed, but they were all cool and creative. Because of the time in which they were made, they have a distinct look that I suspect really triggers good vibes for many Gen-X’ers.

Here are a few of my favorites – check them out if they’re new to you, or renew an old friendship if you remember them from way back when:

The Flash (1990-1991)

Not syndicated, but I sorta wish it had been after it was cancelled. We’ve been watching these lately, having scored a super cheap DVD set of the complete series at Zia Records, and I must say I’m enjoying them. The show was far from perfect, but it had some great moments and I genuinely like the people in it. The sad thing about Flash is that it only made it to TV because of the success of 1989’s Batman, and as a result ended up with a Danny Elfwood score and an awkward aesthetic borrowed from Batman and Dick Tracy. The style just seems out of place to me, and though it doesn’t ruin the shows, it doesn’t help them either. On the other hand, it’s full of absolutely beautiful mid-century cars, so that’s pretty cool. The Flash costume was a little jarring as well, but c’est la vie.

We were watching some of the new Flash episodes, but gradually got out of them when they did the stupid time travel bit for the umpteenth time. I really loved see Shipp reprise his role in the series, though.

Oh – and who doesn’t love Amanda Pays? So smart and cool – on Flash as well as Max Headroom. She did a fun guest appearance on Psych as a date for Corbin Bernsen’s character on the series, which is another family favorite.

I think my favorite Flash episode is “Beat the Clock”, which has a pre-What’s Love Got to Do With It Angela Bassett, and good performances by Ken Foree and Thomas Mikal Ford.

Highlander: The Series (1992-1997)

In my normal backwards way, I discovered this show way before I saw the movie … and if I’m honest, when I finally saw the movie I preferred Adrian Paul to Christopher Lambert as the immortal. I think it was that darn overcoat they had him wearing in the movie – looked like it belonged on Harpo Marx. I did enjoy introducing my daughter to the Kurgan, though, and then revealing he was the voice of Mr. Krabs.

Being a history-buff, I loved all the past lives of Duncan McLeod. I think I enjoyed the stuff set in the past more than that set in the modern day. I remember being super-jazzed to see Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals and Roger Daltry in some episodes. Highlander really had some legs, but I didn’t stick with it all the way to the end … by 1997 I was married and about a year away from having a kid, so life sort of got in the way. Still, the awesome opening will always stick with me. God bless Freddie Mercury!

Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)

Okay – this series sort of screws up my premise that Next Generation led the way with cool syndicated shows, since it was also first-run syndication and showed up at about the same time. Oh well – it’s my story and I’m sticking to it, facts or no facts!

I don’t have a long-term relationship with the horror genre. I was never into the Friday the 13th movies, or really any contemporary horror movies in my youth. I didn’t grow up with that stuff, so all the blood and guts and shock horror really freaked me out. Classic Universal horror movies I could do … but Leatherface, Jason, Freddie, Michael Myers, flesh-eating zombies, etc. – no sir. Not my cup of tea.

That’s why I don’t know how I ended up watching Friday the 13th: The Series. It has almost nothing to do with the movies – I might remember there being some tiny thread connecting them, but I’m not sure. The premise – which would work beautifully for a horror RPG campaign, is as follows:

Lewis Vendredi made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques. But he broke the pact, and it cost him his soul. Now, his niece Micki, and her cousin Ryan have inherited the store… and with it, the curse. Now they must get everything back, and the real terror begins.

It now occurs to me why I started watching it – Louise Robey as Micki. She was pretty darn cute. Still, it was the show’s concept that got me to stick with the show. Each week, a new evil artifact was introduced and off the two leads went, trying to bring it back to the shop to end the curse. It was much more in the vein of Outer Limits than gory 80’s horror movies. I remember it fondly, and should really check back into it.

She-Wolf of London / Love & Curses (1990-1991)

Originally titled She Wolf of London, I caught one or two of the later episodes when it was renamed Love & Curses , and always wanted to see more. A bunch of them are posted on YouTube (how do they not get fined a billion bucks a year for aiding and abetting copyright violations?), but I’m happy to say I picked up the entire series on DVD last week for $12 – sweet price, even I end up not liking them much.

In this series, a woman named Randi Wallace (played by Kate Hodge) who travels to England to study the occult is attacked by a werewolf on the moors and becomes a lycanthrope. Her companion, Professor Ian Matheson (played by Neil Dickson), helps her deal with her curse while they run around encountering all sorts of supernatural evils and stuff. I love good, old fashioned episodic TV with fun characters.

Love & Curses could be a good set-up for a campaign as well, with one PC having a werewolf curse (or something similar) and the others having to survive dangerous adventures AND their dangerous friend.

And yeah, I had a thing for Kate Hodge as well …

So what 80’s/90’s syndicated stuff do you remember loving? Let me know in the comments – remember, sharing is caring!

Dragon by Dragon – April 1982 (60)

I don’t know about the rest of you, but things have sure been stressful lately. I’ve been working hard and praying for peace, and trying to relax with old TV shows, old movies and some podcasts about fun things. I will readily admit that my interests tend towards the old – movies from the 30’s and 40’s, TV from the 60’s through 80’s, “bronze age” comics, old games, etc. There’s something about the design and awkward charm that really get me, not to mention nostalgia for places and people I’ll never see again.

To that end, before I present the wonders of Dragon Magazine #60, I must say goodbye to an old family friend. When I went over to my dad’s house to help work on his patio this week, he let me know that the old Panasonic microwave had finally radiated its last cup of tea.

We bought the microwave back in 1980 (two years before this particular Dragon magazine was published), and I still remember where the shop was, though it’s long since been replaced. It was my parents’ first and only microwave oven. I don’t have any deep emotional attachment to the item, really, but I was rooting for it to stay operational forever. Still, 40 years is pretty damn good for an appliance.

So, farewell Panasonic – I learned to cook hot dogs in you, enjoyed chocolate candy my mother made in you, consumed waaay to many Tony’s microwave pizzas heated by you in my formative years (as in “forming a husky body”) and found about 20,000 cups of water placed in you for heating and subsequently forgotten by my dad. Salute!

Now – to Dragon Magazine. This baby was published in 1982 – so it is still prior to me discovering D&D, which would have been 1984. I don’t remember ever checking this one out from the library, so the contents are new to me – and as always, this is less a review than a “here’s what I dug about this issue”.

We start with an ad for a video game called Temple of Apshai. No memory of this one, but I do agree with their sentiment about slaying monsters. It came with a 56-page “book of lore”, which reminds me of the old Ultima and Might & Magic games that I had. Ultima had a cool cloth map (a tapestry, you know), and M&M had a book with all the spells and stuff in it. A little perusal of the interwebs reveals it was part of a trilogy, and that there are many places to download/play it, including the good old Internet Archive.

Nerd alert:

Dear editor:

There are a couple of problems with Robert Barrow’s article, “Aiming for Realism in Archery,” in issue #58 of DRAGON™ Magazine. From my standpoint, it seems that the good author spends too much time with modern archery and has read nothing of medieval history dealing with the subject.

I mean, the writer of that missive is probably correct … but jeez – can’t I just roll 1d20, maybe do some damage, and move on with my life. I’m not sure there’s any real value to re-creating an historical battle, but I’m positive that re-enacting a fictional fight with some orcs is positively goofy, to quote Jan Brady.

The first big piece in this issue is “All About Elves”. You get Roger E. Moore’s “The Elven Point of View”, with super cool Erol Otus art – the ultimate elven fighter/mage. I really dig the idea that only elves can be fighter/mages. There are, of course, lots of cool ideas in the article – Roger E. Moore is one of my favorites. Roger and Georgia Moore then present the Elven Gods – these are the additions to the pantheon beyond Corellon Larethian in Deities & Demigods. These days, I’m more apt to make up my own, but as a kid, articles like this were eye-openers to me. Notions I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

Speaking of elves – here’s a question from Sage Advice:

Why are elven thieves always children?

Anyone who has a relatively recent edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide will probably think this question doesn’t make sense. The latest edition of the DMG lists 100+5d6 as the starting age for player-character elven thieves (page 12). This puts them into the “young adult” range according to the Age Categories chart (page 13) for high elves — the only kind of elves who can be player characters. However, it wasn’t always so. Earlier editions of the DMG gave 50+5d6 as the starting age, which would indeed mean that all elven thieves would start their adventuring lives as “adolescents” of 55 to 80 years old. Fortunately, this inaccuracy was spotted and corrected in later editions; anyone with an old book can simply make the appropriate change in the text.

Who else likes the idea that only elven teenagers become professional thieves? Sometimes, the “mistakes” are more fun and more inspirational than the corrections.

We also get the “Half-Elven Point of View” by Roger E. Moore to round things out.

Gygax’s “From the Sorcerer’s Scroll” is a big load of cantrips. AD&D cantrips were 0-level spells before later editions pumped them up and made them more useful. I think it would be cool to make these available to non-magic-users on scrolls. Most of these cantrips require the player to really use their imagination and creativity to make them useful in a dungeon adventure – so naturally, I love them.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely love the illustrations some companies used to illustrate the miniatures they produced. They always look cooler than the actual miniatures, and I just think they’re little works of art.

Ed Greenwood has an article on firearms for D&D which is aptly named “Firearms”. A semi-controversial subject, since Gygax went the direction of “gunpowder doesn’t work in a fantasy world” and many adopted that idea. As with so many articles in these days, it’s pretty thorough, and looks to me like it would blend nicely into the game. Handguns, for example, do 2d3 damage, firing every other round, with a max range of 50 – so they aren’t going to dominate the game. It might be a cool idea to use orcs in the way Tolkien did, as harbingers of the soulless machine age, and arm them with gunpowder weapons, while the heroes use the “elegant weapons of a more civilized age.”

I often include the first paragraph of short stories in Dragon, so here’s a sample of “Wear Wolf” by an unknown author:

The head of the Cheetah seemed to smile mockingly at me. You’ve forgotten something, I could almost hear it say. I resisted the urge to answer back, But I always forget something when I’m late. There are enough aFnimate objects to talk to; talking to inanimate ones is a waste of time.

Dragon #60 includes a complete game – Flight of the Boodles – by Chuck Stoll of Louisville, KY. It recreates the epic journey of the boodles through the “Grumjug-infested passes of the Snagrock Mountains”. The art makes it look like a fun game to me. The map and counters are included – with a little work you could probably recreate them in a cleaner format and print them out to play the game. Each player takes the side of the Boodles or Grumjugs, purchases the pieces they are going to use in their force, and then goes at it, the Boodles trying to break through the mountains and the Grumjugs trying to stop them. Basically – a fun little wargame.

This is an April issue, so April Fools Day jokes was a requirement. In this issue we get one pseudo-joke – the Jester NPC class by Roger E. Moore – who had some thief abilities – climb walls, pick pockets, catch objects – and some jester spells (levels 1 to 8). The spell list is not extensive, but the spells are pretty darn good. I think you could do a great campaign where a hidden evil threatens a kingdom, and the evil in question is a high level jester who wants to sieze the throne for his own, or maybe who is trying to spread chaos for the chaos gods.

Roger Moore also does “Midgets in the Earth” – a comical version of the usual Giants in the Earth articles presenting D&D stats for literary characters. This one gives you the likes of Eubeen Hadd, 20th level halfling thief, and Morc the Orc, 12th level snaga orc idiot. The Dragon’s Bestiary follows up with monster stats for Donald Duck by Tom Moldvay (which could work well in RuneQuest-inspired games) or any game where you’d like your PC’s to get whooped by an angry duck, the Tasmanian Devil by Steven Sullivan, the Jolly Green Giant by Michael Nystul (name sounds familiar), Marvin the Martian by David Cook (which one could use as the basis for a whole planet of martians in a cosmic adventure), Baseball Bugbears by Karl Kesel and Tom Richmond (probably a reference to the Bad News Bears) and the Werebeaver by Jeff Goetz (which looks suspiciously like Jerry Mathers). They’re all joke monsters, but all usable as well.

To follow up on the April levity, you get an in-depth article on the Pooka by Michael Fountain. I’ve seen many takes on this monster, which would take some real skill to make work in a game, as there’s such a big emphasis on illusion.

You also get some background stuff for agents in Top Secret, some variant scenarios for Trojan War and a big article on Alignment (since it’s the 80’s and there were many articles on alignment).

“Wormy” by Dave Trampier presents the secret handshake of trolls … which, of course, I cannot show in all good conscience.

“What’s New with Phil and Dixie” by Phil Foglio looks at minigames, including one called “Escape from Cthulhu” that just includes a short incantation …

And a tall order!

Fare well, lads and lasses, and find some love and happiness amid all the troubles of the world. Better yet – be the love and happiness in a troubled world!