Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday Tangent: Thundarr the Barbarian

While this site is intended to be about Star Wars, and Star Wars gaming, I have (on occasion) strayed from that mandate. In an effort to legitimize my failings, I am instigating something new: The Tuesday Tangent, where I can (without guilt or lame attempts at trying to string things back to Star Wars), talk about any subject I want.

In this inaugural edition of this new feature, I will be discussing something very near and dear to my heart: Thundarr the Barbarian.

Though it only ran for two seasons on Saturday morning (from 1980 to 1982), this cartoon made a huge impression on me. It took various things that I was already interested in and lumped them all into one huge, imaginative ball of action.

First you had the whole 'fantasy barbarian' thing going- referencing things like Conan and other sword and sorcery films of the era. Then you had the sci-fi aspects like the ‘Sun Sword’ and Ookla the Mok- referencing Lightsabers and Wookiees (respectively) from Star Wars. And if this wasn’t enough, you had the whole post apocalyptic setting thing to really push things over the edge.

Looking back on it, I’m surprised a show like this got onto TV, especially in the 80’s, where ‘action’ cartoons didn’t allow much in the way of violence. And here we have a show with swords and monsters set in a world where our own civilization DIED thousands of years ago. Its rather dark when you think about it, and maybe that’s why it appealed to me: it was different than all the other brightly-colored shows of the same time. And by ‘dark’ I mean in setting, not tone. I mean, Thundarr and his crew were champions of justice and freedom who always seemed to win. I LIKED that aspect of the show. To me, this heroism was made even more pronounce by the bleakness of the setting.

Another huge draw for me was the combination of familiar technology (stuff we have today) with the fantastic. One memorable episode had a band of pirates utilizing an aircraft carrier as their primary mobile base- festooned with crude log ‘pontoon’ stabilizers and even sails, but also featuring big cannons, some of which seemed to be crudely taken from other vessels. Another episode featured a still functional train being run by a group of lizard mutants. It was all just so interesting- and seemed to make anything possible.

I will be the first to admit that the story-lines and characters of the show were shallow. But this was one of those things I didn’t really mind/notice until I got older- and even then, it doesn’t ruin the show for me. Yes, the dialogue was cheesy, but it was actually quite a bit better than most other shows of this type at the time. So much so that it was always at the back of my mind that I would LOVE to play a game that was like Thundarr the Barbarian.

There were a couple different options for this through the years. Gamma World was the most obvious choice- but truth be told, the setting seemed too ‘gonzo’ for me- even moreso than Thundarr itself (which was pretty gonzo). One of the things I liked about Thundarr was the presence of ‘modern’ technology. Gamma World focused on ‘futuristic’ tech and even the ‘ruins’ you would explore were ‘futuristic’- automated factories and the like. Gamma World’s ‘apocalypse’ happened in some future time, not in ‘the modern day’ and that just didn’t appeal to me as much as Thundarr’s setting.

Likewise, the game Rifts followed this same pattern- the apocalypse happened in the ‘future’- in a time where the world was already markedly different than the one I would recognize. However, rifts did offer a lot more explanation as to how the ‘fantastical’ elements of that world came to be. It didn’t rely upon ‘radiation’ to explain how everything had changed. Rather, Rifts introduced the idea of a multi-dimensional apocalypse- where energies and creatures from other realms of existence came to our world and changed it forever. As interesting as this may be, the extremely dark tone of Rifts (not to mention its very lethal system) just didn’t appeal to me in the same way Thundarr did.

Adding to this dilemma was the increasing realization that there was no ‘real’ way that a world like Thundarr’s could exist. In the opening narration of the Cartoon, we’re told that it is 2,000 years since the cataclysm that destroyed the world. There is no realistic way that the trappings of our modern world could survive in the numbers and conditions shown in the cartoon. The cities would largely have been obliterated and covered up within 100 years- rotted and collapsing in on themselves due to exposure to the elements. So to imagine that things like cars or clothing or other short-lived artifacts from the pre-apocalyptic days would survive was just too far-fetched to believe- at least as it was presented in the series.

I read one fan-site justification for the world of Thundarr that went something like this: during the cataclysm, the “runaway planet” that passed between the earth and the moon actually took with it (in its wake) a fair amount of the Earth’s Atmosphere (this is actually ‘shown’ in the intro to the cartoon as a cloud layer being peeled away). This leaves the Earth with a much thinner atmosphere, which supposedly translates into things on the surface being more ‘well preserved’. I am somewhat dubious as to the scientific plausibility of this- to say nothing of the fact that it doesn’t explain away erosion by plant-life (which is seen to be very thick in most areas of Thundarr’s world).

And so I have been ‘stuck’ without any satisfactory explanation for this fantastic world for years now. Not that it has been a great ‘pain’ or anything, its just something I would like to figure out on the off chance that some day I might actually run a game in the world of Thundarr and I’d like to have SOME explanation (however far fetched or fantastical) for the way things are the way they are- other than “just because.”

Just a few months ago, I came up with something.

It is (admittedly) largely stolen from the ideas put forth by the Rifts game, but with a significant twist that (to me) suits the world of Thundarr in particular. This idea is as follows:

As in the Cartoon, the man’s civilization on earth is “cast in ruin” by a runaway planet, “hurtling between the earth and moon”. This causes severe weather systems, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Now, borrowing from Rifts I posit that the psychic (or psionic) energy of so many people (billions) dieing all at once unleashes even MORE destruction in the form of various ‘rifts’ being opened and spilling out an unknown form of energy- we’ll call it ‘magical’ energy. Along with this energy comes some denizens from other dimensions. The energy ALSO mutates various species of animals (and even humans) across the globe, setting in motion the monstrous races and beasts that will evolve into the world of Thundarr that we know. These energies are also responsible for the rise of the Wizards- mutated or extra-dimensional beings who strive to dominate the world. They often ‘meld’ their magic with various technologies to create the ‘super-science’ of the era- fantastical creations powered by magic itself and far surpassing anything found before the Cataclysm.

But there are further side-effects from this burst of magical energy- most importantly that some of the ‘rifts’ that open are actually temporal in nature. Huge swathes of the world (or sometimes just individual objects) are literally torn out of time and strewn into its future. In most cases, only the non-living matter of these areas survives the trip, with living creatures being obliterated or otherwise killed in its energies. And so you have a world in ruins, with many great cities being overgrown by jungle and eroded by time and neglect. But at the same time, various parts of that world are continually re-emerging over the years, depositing landmarks and artifacts from the era of the cataclysm- many of which are then taken by survivors for use in the current world. Thus, wizards, warlords, primitive tribes and even adventurers would be constantly drawn to these sites as they are discovered, plundering what they can and sometimes claiming the area as their own.

Thus, you have a world in which the things we see in the cartoon are possible. And a campaign set in this world could even occur in a time period where these ‘temporal rifts’ are most active. It could be 2,000 years since the Cataclysm, but some ruins and artifacts are only decades or years or months or even DAYS old. For me, this strikes the right kind of balance and allows for huge variety in the ‘technology’ of surviving tribes. Some might be completely primitive, living in wooden huts and wielding spears, others might have just recovered some huge artifact that emerged from a rift (say they find a cruise ship, now beached in the middle of a jungle, and use it for their home), still others might have recovered functional weapons or vehicles from the cataclysm and finally some might live in the fantastical techno-magical citadels of wizards, typically as their slaves.

Does it work for you? It certainly does for me. And darnit, now I want to play some Thundarr. DEMON DOGS! Ookla, Ariel, RIIIDE!


  1. Sounds like a fun campaign. I think your explanation is actually pretty good and it would provide quite a few possible adventure hooks. One I can think of right off the top of my head that might be interesting is if the party has to traverse an area that is 'temporally unstable' and in constant flux. I like it.

  2. Very cool! Thundarr is awesome, lots to love there. The DVD is finally out by Warner Bros, as well as The Herculoids. I own both and am still amazed by how much inspiration they still generate.

    Oh, and Savage Afterworld's Sniderman has a ton of posts on Thundarr having converted many monsters, technology, and more to the Mutant Future ruleset. He even created a free source book! It's a great place to start if you're looking for easy stats you could convert.