Lessons from Land of the Lost
Campaign development tips from the folks who invented The Bugaloos
Not long ago, a friend gave me a copy of the Land of the Lost: Season 1 on DVD (thanks, Sheila!). I hadn’t seen the show in ages, but watching again sparked two light bulbs above my head: (1) the show’s writing is a blueprint for campaign development, and (2) The Land would make a kick-ass setting for adventurers to stomp about in.
So, for no other reason than to espouse its RPG virtues, Land of the Lost is this month’s theme. For those not familiar with this Saturday-morning TV show from the mid-seventies, there’s a decent overview on Wikipedia. But if you are familiar with the show, I think you’ll agree that The Land of the Lost is an imaginative setting with plenty of opportunity for adventure and a flavour all its own. Pretty much what every GM strives for in the campaign(s) he runs.
I submit that the same qualities that appeal to a viewer watching the show will appeal to a player if it were a campaign setting. This piece describes the lessons I picked up, but it isn’t about creating or running an actual LotL campaign. Instead, it’s about holding Land of the Lost up as an example we, as busy GMs, might use to create a kick-ass stomping ground of our own.
There’s a strong element of verisimilitude in LotL, in that it matches what most of us expect from the so-called “Lost World” setting. Like, for example, the show’s title, Land of the Lost, which strongly implies the so-called “Lost World” setting. And, sure enough, once we arrive, we get a jungle, dinosaurs, volcanoes, tar pits, ancient ruins, and a bit of mystery (exactly what isn’t known, but we know something weird and unusual is out there).
In every setting, some degree of familiarity is required so players can work off some common assumptions (e.g., dinosaurs are dangerous, the sun makes you hot and tired, water quenches your thirst). If the players find the setting so alien that they can’t rely on at least a minor set of expectations, they’ll eventually refuse to take action for fear of making some fatal mistake. While LotL is a strange place with lots of surprises, the characters are able to work out the basics well enough to survive, explore, and discover the other bits.
Add Supportable Deviations
While The Land of the Lost shares some qualities with Earth, other aspects are very different—there are odd and unpredictable weather patterns, a race of irritating little neanderthals, three moons, another race of scary hissing lizard-men, and carrots that grow eight feet long. These are each creative and unusual, but they fit in quite well and don’t detract very much (if at all) from the setting’s verisimilitude.
The reason is because they’re really just small additions to The Land’s familiar, “Lost World” foundation. Consider: harsh and tumultuous weather is a hallmark of tropical climes and one of the easiest ways to remind the characters that they’re “not in Kansas anymore.” The cavemen (Pakuni) aren’t a stretch for a Lost World environment, and the hissing lizard dudes (Sleestack) are pretty much just a reptile analogue of the cavemen (excepting intelligence, they’re not unlike the yaun-ti of D&D fame). Giant carrots are to be expected—there are dinosaurs, so big versions of normal things are well within acceptable boundaries. Three moons? Why not?
As its creators take little detours off the familiar path, The Land starts to assert its trademark qualities. As long as they’re minor deviations from the setting’s basic verisimilitude, these changes are easy for players to tolerate, and they help establish the setting as a new and different place.
Create Some Mystery
For all its familiar elements, The Land does have unique features that defy explanation: pylons and light crystals, a circular river, and dimensional portals, among other things. These bits are truly strange, and while they’re not specifically “Lost World” elements, they are mysteries that compel players to investigate. Not only do they keep players engaged, but they become icons of the setting—you can’t think of The Land without recalling the enigmatic skylons or the encounters with characters who accidentally arrived through some unlucky moment with a dimensional portal.
On the surface, these are quirky trappings of the setting—generally harmless if left alone, possibly dangerous if tampered with, but always exerting a background effect on how the setting “works.” From a storytelling perspective, they’re MacGuffins, whose primary purpose is to drive plots forward; though they’re rarely central to the day-to-day activities of the PCs, they will influence their actions and provide the occasional challenge (or solution) during an adventure. At the same time, they needn’t be explained in detail (if at all), and while they might be tantalisingly explicable, there’s virtually no possibility of controlling (or even understanding) them with absolute certainty.
Reveal the Setting in Measures
Right off the bat, three things come to mind about Land of the Lost: dinosaurs, sleestacks, and pylons. But instead of just cramming them all into the first show, the writers introduced these iconic elements incrementally. Episode 1 gave us dinosaurs, Chaka, and a scene with a pylon in it (though it was ignored, and none of the characters made an effort to question, investigate, or even acknowledge it). Episode 2 gave us sleestacks and the Lost City ruins they inhabit. Episode 4 gave us light crystals and a river that flowed in a circle.
The lesson here isn’t so much about what is revealed, but rather how it’s revealed. The secrets of The Land of the Lost were doled out in bits and pieces. Each episode peeled away another layer of the onion, which left viewers excited about what they just learned and eager to see what would be revealed next. This approach has some campaign development benefits:
First, it’s tantalising. Players are easily hooked on things they don’t understand, but grow notoriously bored with whatever they figure out. Feeding them clues piecemeal keeps them engaged and interested and thinking creatively. Second, it lets you “test the waters” a bit—toss out some incomplete details, and develop the ones that your players take an interest in. Third, it gives you time to shape your campaign’s growth. For example, sleestacks are introduced as angry and menacing and stupid (and scary—they definitely gave me the freak-out when I was little). As the series progresses, we learn that the sleestacks are devolved from decadent ancestors and that they have their own religion, life cycle, and history. As a campaign designer, you can’t deliver all that information in a single session, nor could your players digest it all in one sitting.
In short, don’t give away all your secrets at once. Your players will have more fun, and you’ll end up with better secrets.
Plan for Incongruity
In LotL, some pretty strange stuff happens, a goodly portion of which has little to do with its core “Lost World” theme. Yet it’s all viable, given The Land’s status as a closed universe accessible via dimensional portals.
This let the writers inject just about anything they wanted into The Land. In episode 4, the Marshalls meet a Confederate soldier who’s wasted on ‘shrooms and holds sleestacks at bay with a canon named Sarah. In episode 6, we’re introduced to Enik, a time-travelling Altrusian, who’s just as surprised as us to discover that his learned race is ancestor to the present-day sleestacks. In episode 8, we discover the skylons, which are capable of emitting colour sequences that, when replicated on the pylon matrix tables, seem to control weather patterns.
The Land’s backstory—filled with both the mundane and the mysterious—makes these disparate story elements work. It’s true that, in any campaign, you can attribute any incongruity to deep magic or highly advanced technology. But you can’t expect them to work well, or even fit, without a decent (and relatively simple) foundation. I stress that last bit because your players’ eyes will glaze over if you try giving them lengthy explanations for weird stuff that happens to their characters. If you can’t justify things with quick phrases like, “…through a dimensional portal,” or “…by using an Altrusian time-travelling device,” or “…because the three moons are aligned,” you need to simplify.
If the Welsh Piper gave out homework, your assignment would be to watch season 1 of Land of the Lost (affiliate link). It includes some well-written stories and, from an RPG perspective, there’s a good amount of campaign development tips to be gleaned (not to mention many ideas to crib). Give it a serious look if you can—it’s not just about sleestacks anymore!