Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Old-School and The Spells of Sokurah

The gaming hobby has been around for over forty years and has steadily become a mainstream phenomenon.  Over this time, the genre has evolved its own conventions, separate and apart from its original inspirations.  This means that modern games are based on, you guessed it, other games!  Not so back in 1974, when inspiration came from a small pool of contemporary stuff.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, from 1958, would have been among these earliest influences.  In addition to being a great story, it features the wonderful stop-motion animation of Mr. Ray Harryhausen himself.  But rather than dwell on the story, we focus on its depictions of magic through its villain, the evil magician Sokurah, who provides a glimpse into old-school ideas about magic and sorcery and how it might work on adventures...

Those Harryhausen Sinbad movies
could teach us all a thing or two about magic...

Sokurah's first real act of magic is transforming a serving girl into a serpentine dancer (presaging the excellent Medusa that would come years later).  This feat involved pouring chemicals into a large urn, although the latter part may have been a creative flourish to entertain the Caliph.  The whole thing takes roughly under a minute to do, making it quite useful.

His second spell involves shrinking the princess to 1/10th her original size while she sleeps.  This appears to require firelight, whether candle or torch, although the effect is permanent until reversed (a driving force of the plot).  This spell might be cast on the sidelines while protected by others in a party, so again, a useful and effective bit of magic.

The third Spell of Sokurah is restoring the princess.  Here we see more components, and the girl is placed in what looks like a sarcophagus, making it more of a ritual.  Even so, the girl isn't really complaining - this is proper magic at work...

Finally, the sorcerer brings a skeleton to life to attack Sinbad, apparently using only his natural willpower.  This takes just under one minute to do, and the skeleton proves surprisingly able, rewarding viewers with some great special effects and combat as originally conceived in the hobby's infancy.

The film features some great monsters 
courtesy of Ray Harryhausen
that hold up well by today's standards - perhaps better!

Here we have magicians using some impressive spells, but with limited uses.  Sokurah isn't throwing lightning bolts at every turn, but this hardly matters considering how rare magic is, and the simple fact that no one else can do this.  Overpowered sorcerers have taken the wonder out of magic and made it just another weapon among many, which is too bad...

We also see material components and the ritual aspect of spell-casting in general.  In 1958, the biggest source of inspiration was historical ideas about magic and monsters, and potions were an important part of the narrative.  Obviously, this had a big impact on the first RPG designers as well - a great one!

Magic items also figure prominently.  To begin with, Sokurah commands the genie of the lamp to create a magical barrier between himself and the cyclops.  Later, he's seen using a crystal ball, tracking Sinbad's progress towards his lair which, by the way, is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, demonstrating the importance of minions to an evil magician (something great referees have known from the start, old-school or otherwise)...

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a great story and a special effects extravaganza, even by modern standards.  But it was also an important influence on the first generation of game designers and presents the old-school mindset in every way, where cleverness overrides dependence on special powers and magic is quite powerful, although rare and difficult to use.  A must-see movie!

1 comment:

  1. One of my favorite movies! I think that is one of the many reasons stories and movies with limited, but very powerful effects make magic seem, well, magical!