Welcome back, Wastelanders!
For today's review, I'm dipping into one of the genre's greats: George Miller's 1979 proto-action epic, Mad Max.
While it's sometimes overshadowed by its sequels—especially the genre defining masterpiece The Road Warrior--Miller's original film is nonetheless an apocalyptic essential. Telling the focused, intimate story of a family man and police officer serving in the final days of a collapsing society, Miller manages to show us a different side of the apocalypse.
This isn't the rusted hulks and collapsed skyscrapers of the 'Pocky-clypse Past, Wastelanders. This is the impending doom of the 'Pocky-clypse Soon. And its every bit as harrowing as the aftermath.
The film opens hot, beginning "a few years from now," with the Australian Main Force Patrol in pursuit of a crazed cop killer calling himself the Nightrider. Vehicles crash, bones break, and glass shatters as the Nightrider outpaces the "Bronze," taunting them the entire way over the police band radio in his stolen V8 Interceptor.
He's set to get away, until Officer Max Rockatansky joins the action, intercepting him along a barren stretch of highway and driving straight for him. The Nightrider, at first cool and collected during the game of chicken, breaks first, swerving around Max in a panic.
Max spins his vehicle around to give pursuit, and a rattled Nightrider ends up plowing his nitro-charged vehicle into a stalled big rig, resulting in an explosion and fireball.
And that, folks, is how you open a fucking movie!
After this blistering, edge-of-the-seat nail biter, we're treated to a series of quieter moments between Max, his wife Jessie, and their toddler son Sprog. It's obvious Max doesn't completely relax at home, however. He's distant and detached as his loving wife tries to engage him.
The next morning, Max heads in to Main Force Patrol Headquarters, where his partner Jim Goose and the department's mechanic surprise him with a salvaged and rebuilt V8 Interceptor. "The last of the V8's" they call it. Max stares at it with genuine awe, displaying more interest and emotion than he did with his wife the night before.
It's here that we learn, via an upstairs conversation between Captain "Fifi" Macaffee and some department bean counter, that Max has been talking about leaving the force. The rebuilt Interceptor is apparently an expensive bid to keep Fifi's best officer on the job.
Later that night, at the bloody, twisted aftermath of yet another of Max's pursuits, Fifi pulls up to warn him about an ominous rumor. Nightrider apparently has friends, and they're out to get him. Max grins, saying he'll add it to his list of death threats.
He doesn't have long to wait. The next scene is the Toecutter's gang rolling into town to collect their friend's remains from the train station. While Toecutter sits silently by the coffin, the rest of the gang begins to have a little fun with the locals.
This being an apocalyptic biker movie, "fun" involves drinking, laughing, dragging a man to death behind a motorcycle, and running down and raping a young couple in a hot rod.
Some time later, Max and Goose are called to the scene. They find Johnny, one of Toecutter's men, alongside the brutalized girl. Johnny is whacked right out of his skull, and ranting and raving about the Nightrider. They bring him into custody, but the Main Force Officers are forced to release him on a technicality.
Johnny taunts Goose on the way out the station, and it quickly devolves into an all-out brawl in the parking lot, with other Main Force Officers having to pull Goose away. Johnny manages to get in a chilling last word.
"We remember the Nightrider, and we know who you are, Bronze."
True to their word, the bikers locate and tamper with Goose's motorcycle, causing the brakes to lock up and dump him on the side of the highway. He borrows a truck to scoop his bike off the road, and as he's driving back to civilization the bikers ambush him, throwing a rusted brake drum through his windshield and causing him to crash.
What follows is one of the film's most harrowing scenes.
Goose, trapped and covered in leaking gasoline, looks on helplessly as Johnny and Toecutter stride up. Toecutter instructs Johnny to light a match. Johnny hesitates, saying this isn't what he wanted. But Toecutter tells him this is a threshold moment, that the Bronze are keeping him from being proud. Johnny resists the Toecutter's increasingly frantic demands to throw the match until it physically burns him. He reflexively tosses it into the grass, causing the gas to ignite.
The scene then cuts away to Max arriving at the hospital. The other Main Force officers are gathered in the hall. Everyone tries to keep him out of the intensive care room, but Max goes in anyway. He sees the burned wreck of his partner and friend, and staggers out of the room, sick with shock. He can't accept it.
"That thing in there," he says. "That's not the Goose."
The next day, Max walks into Fifi's office and hands in his resignation. Fifi won't hear of it. He tells Max that he's top shelf. He's a winner. And he can't afford to lose him.
This exchange provides one of the series' most memorable lines:
"I'm scared Fifi. Do you know why? It's that rat circus out there. I'm beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there on that road and I'm one of them, you know? A Terminal Crazy. Only I've got a Bronze Badge to say I'm one of the good guys."
Fifi agrees to give him a few weeks off, saying if he still feels the same way when he gets back, he can resign. Max assures him he won't, but Fifi says Max is hooked and that deep down, he knows it.
The film slows down considerably here, as Max goes off and attempts to enjoy his vacation. Fortunately for the viewer, it doesn't last. Before long the bikers are back, the family dog is dead, and Max is out hunting the bikers with a shotgun while his terrified wife huddles in the farmhouse with the elderly landlady.
Unfortunately, this is just what the bikers wanted. With Max running around in the woods, the bikers swoop in and get their hands on Sprog, leading to a tense and terrifying confrontation. It's only the fortunate arrival of the landlady and her shotgun that keeps the worst from happening, but even that turns out to be nothing but a short-term delay.
As the two women make their escape, the car fails, forcing Jessie to take Sprog and run.
It ends about as well as you'd imagine.
It's at this point Max finally caves. He dons his leathers, steals the V8 Interceptor from the Halls of Justice and sets out on the highway. The rest of the movie is exactly what we signed on for: a practically non-stop rampage of balls-out, high-octane violence and revenge.
We're treated to spectacular set pieces of Max stalking the bikers, running them down with his nitro V8, and shotgunning his way out of the bikers' attempted trap. Soon the only survivors are Johnny and Toecutter, who opt to break and run in opposite directions. Max gives chase, opting to follow Toecutter.
What follows is another edge of the seat, nail-biting chase sequence, and one of the film's absolute highlights.
Max doggedly pursues him, catching up inch by inch. The Toecutter, panicked, keeps looking behind him. He doesn't see the oncoming semi truck until the very last second, just long enough to register a moment of terror. Then the truck crushes him, rolling over his broken body even as the driver tries to stop.
The following morning, Max finally catches up to Johnny at the scene of yet another vehicle wreck. He cuffs the pleading biker's leg to the wreck at gunpoint. He then lights Johnny's zippo lighter and places it beneath the leaking gas tank. Handing Johnny a hacksaw, he says it will take him ten minutes to hack through the chain on the handcuffs. But if he's lucky, he can cut through his ankle in five.
He then leaves the begging, screaming Johnny to his own devices and drives out into the wastes. The film closes on Max's dead, icy expression as the wreck explodes into a huge fireball behind him.
Violence - Mad Max delivers here. Arguably more than any other film in the series. The individual scenes may not be as elaborately staged as those in the later movies, and there certainly aren't as many of them. But the ones we have are brutally effective and powerful.
Special mention has to go to the standout opening chase scene, which—40 years later—is still one of the greatest ever put to film. Even in the three subsequent Mad Max films, George Miller himself never quite topped it. It may not have the flash or the scope of the chase scenes in The Road Warrior or Fury Road. But in terms of nail-biting tension, stakes, and raw grittiness, it remains the series' high point.
Other highlights include the gang savagely running down Jessie and Sprog, the horrifying ambush and immolation of Jim Goose, and Max's violent rampage for the last ten minutes of the movie, culminating in his poetically appropriate torching of Johnny.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - No ruins, but that's mainly because the world George Miller shows us in Mad Max isn't quite apocalyptic. Not yet. Rather, it's a world that's rapidly heading towards apocalypse, in the throes of economic depression, fuel shortages, and a general breakdown of order.
That said, the dilapidated Halls of Justice building, the general squalor of the city, and the occasional pile of wreckage alongside the highway do an admirable job of portraying a society going to rot.
Dystopian Survivor Society - In spades. Whatever body is governing the city is rapidly turning into a dictatorship, as they struggle to keep some stability and order in a world going to shit. There are distinctly Orwellian overtones to the radio dispatcher's messages throughout the movie. Furthermore, aside from some stand-up types like Goose, Fifi, and Max, the Main Force Patrol is made up of violent thugs no different from the gangs.
It's subtle by genre standards, but arguably all the more powerful for it.
Futuristic Bloodsports - None whatsoever. While the series would eventually go on to become synonymous with the most famous futuristic bloodsport this side of Rollerball, the first Mad Max is basically a near-future police drama.
And as cool as it would have been to see, a rousing game of Machete Rugby would have detracted from the story.
Barbarian Hordes - Scoot jockeys. Nomad trash. Whatever you want to call them, Toecutter's biker gang fits the bill. Right from the moment they ride into town they're seen raping, raiding, and looting everything in sight.
While they're a bit tame compared to some of the series' later villains, what really makes them effective is their audacity. They're not out there in the wastes preying on one another. They're riding up main street, preying on the film's stand-ins for the audience.
Lord Humungous might be the Warrior of the Wasteland, but Toecutter leads the barbarians at the gates. For a society trying to hold onto its last threads of civilization, that's far more terrifying.
Badass Warrior Women - Jessie spends a little too much time playing damsel in distress, but the film doesn't leave us hanging. I present the sweet, elderly landlady, May Swaisey.
May faces down over half a dozen bikers with nothing but a double barreled shotgun, showing all the grit of an Old West Marshal. After she fires off her warning shot, she knows damned well she's just got just one load of buckshot left before they can dog pile her. She still doesn't show the slightest bit of fear or hesitation. Rather, she menaces the bikers with her remaining shot, daring each of them to be the one that eats it as she corrals them into the barn.
I say this in all sincerity. Do NOT fuck with a grandma holding a shotgun. She's not playing games. Mess around, and she will end you.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - The Mad Max series has always been pretty lacking in this department, and Mad Max has the weakest showing of all. Not one mutant or abnormal creature shows up for the entire run time.
Its no accident that one of the very first shots in the film is the broken, run-down Hall of Justice. With just that one visual, Miller manages to convey a lot of background information to the viewer. We don't need a long narration over stock footage, or a silent title card explaining how the world got this way. That one shot tells us all we need to know, that we're in a world that's just barely holding on before the final slip into anarchy. It's elegantly simple, and one of the best examples of purely visual storytelling I can think of.
Likewise, the entire opening sequence does an incredible amount of heavy lifting, introducing not just the story world and several main characters, but effectively showing us who Max and Jim Goose are. Within minutes of the film's opening crawl, we know Goose is an easygoing joker, while Max is already teetering dangerously on the edge. And it manages to do this while simultaneously delivering a thrilling chase scene.
Arguably, that relationship between Goose and Max is the movie's most important one. Jim Goose has all the humanity and humor Max seems to be lacking. That said, he's not a one-note character. The most telling moment for Goose is his outburst in the Halls of Justice, as the Main Force patrol is forced to release Johnny.
The fact that no one showed for the hearing (not even Max) is what finally cracks Goose's cool, easygoing exterior. The Justice System is what he truly believes in, we realize. It's the one thing enabling him to put on that jolly, relaxed demeanor every day. Watching it collapse and fail before his very eyes is more than he can stand. The world—the real, failing world, the one out there in the Wastes—has suddenly become too real, too impossible to hide from. The mask slips, and for a brutally savage moment in the parking lot, Goose is no different than the bikers, pinning and beating Johnny until he's physically dragged away.
And it's Jim Goose's burning that provides Max's first and most important crisis moment. One that oddly mirrors that of another character in the film, biker and simpering Toecutter toady, Johnny.
Toecutter has a meaningful line in the previous scene, as the two bikers are standing over the helpless Goose. Toecutter tells Johnny he's at a threshold moment, and urges him to step through it by lighting the gasoline. Johnny, of course, hesitates, and it's unclear as to how willingly he tosses the match at the end.
Seeing Goose's burned body is Max's threshold moment. And like Johnny, he doesn't want to step through. He even tells Fifi he's going to quit the Main Force, over fear of becoming "one of them, a terminal crazy."
The main difference is that Max is partially successful in stepping away from that threshold. He still has some tiny bit of humanity left, something to hold onto. It's only after he loses his son and his wife is brutally injured that he crosses it, but when he does it's a much more deliberate and willing action than Johnny's.
This point is hammered home in the film's nihilistic final shot. Max simply drives out into the wasteland, not bothering to go back and check on his hospitalized wife. She, like the majority of humanity, will be dead soon.
And Max Rockatansky no longer cares.
The Rad Rating:
Mad Max can be forgiven for lacking some of the genre's Vitals. After all, the series is still in its embryonic stage at this point, and subsequent films will arguably go on to create or codify several of the items on the list. Nevertheless, where it lacks in one area it dramatically pays off in the others. The dearth of Mutants and Futuristic Bloodsports is more than balanced out by the Violence and the Dystopian Survivor Society.
The film's only real weaknesses occur in the sagging middle portion, where Max attempts to have a quiet vacation with Jessie. Several of the scenes here run overlong, and the plot sort of meanders a bit. There are also a few nonsensical character moments, the most jarring of which involves both Max and Jessie forgetting all about their son while the bikers are stalking them at the farmhouse.
However, these flaws are only occasionally glaring, and there are few enough of them on display to keep this film comfortably in the Four Rads category. Highly recommended.
Until next time, Wastelanders.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
As I mentioned last week, I have a certain set of criteria that I judge post apocalyptic stories by. Yeah, musing on complex themes is great. Having something to say about human nature is good, too.
But let's be real. Nobody watches a movie like Hell Comes to Frogtown for its insights into the human condition. We watch it to see "Rowdy" Roddy Piper kick amphibian ass from one end of the wasteland to the other.
That same principle holds true for undisputed genre greats like Mad Max: Fury Road and Planet of the Apes. Sure, we might walk away pondering the deeper questions, but that's incidental. We walked in the door looking for car chases and monkey society gone amuck.
In short, the post apocalyptic genre is its own thing. And even the bona fide classics have to be good apocalyptic stories before they can be anything else.
With that in mind, here's my list of vital genre elements, followed by my numerical "Rad Scale."
Violence - Being serious for a moment, violence is where the post apocalyptic genre gains most of its thematic power. After all, nothing says "woe to the the hubris of man" like two guys finding a reason to kill each other in the aftermath of an atomic war.
But even if the cause of the apocalypse is something else, like an alien invasion or a cosmic event, violence is an essential part of the genre. It harkens back to our early days as a species, when fighting and killing for limited resources was a part of everyday life.
Bottom line, even the talkiest, most drawn out bomb-shelter soap opera needs violence—or at least the implied threat of it—to have any kind of tension.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins - Haunting, lyrical descriptions of the world gone by. Beautiful, panoramic vistas of silent cities. Gratuitous destruction porn.
This is at least half of what brings the audience to the table. In movies, it's everything from scenes of wholesale nuclear annihilation to old junk cars on the side of the road. In books, it can be in the physical setting descriptions, a blocky info dump, or even just implied in the dialogue.
However it appears, it needs to adequately convey the fall of the old world. And it needs to be good.
Dystopian Survivor Society - Some groups survive the end times by tenaciously clinging to the last shreds of civilization and decency. This is the other kind of group, the one that becomes a savage mini-dictatorship or a totalitarian hell hole. If human rights exist, they're probably on the menu right alongside the human lefts and the charred horse flanks. Pretty much always the bad guys.
Futuristic Bloodsports - Maybe they're a stand-in for war. Maybe they're bread and circuses for the post apocalyptic masses. Maybe they're even a commentary on our contemporary addiction to violent entertainment.
Let's just call this one what it is: a thinly-veiled pretext for our hero to take part in a deadly game of skill and ruthlessness. Don't overthink it. Story elements this awesome don't need any justification.
Barbarian Hordes - Sometimes they're biker gangs. Sometimes they're feral subway dwellers. Other times they're horseback riding neo-Mongols, armed with compound bows and assault rifles. Whatever form they take, these are the people who dealt with the collapse by rejecting civilization and embracing their inner pack hunter. Often—but not always—the bad guys.
Badass Warrior Women - Imperator Furiosa. Kushanna from Hayayo Miyazaki's Nausicaä. Nurse Spangle from Hell Comes to Frogtown. A good apocalypse is an equal opportunity hell hole. Nothing conveys this faster than some women kicking cannibal ass alongside the men.
Watch Thou For the Mutant - Human beings survived the end. But that doesn't mean they survived alone. Or unchanged. Anything from monstrously mutated plants and animals to humans with extra limbs and psychic powers.
The Rad Scale:
One Rad - Those Lost During the Fall. These are the apocalyptic stories that commit the genre's cardinal sin: they actually bore reader or viewer. Many of them contain no action or plot. Expect most of the genre's "deconstructions" and "fresh meditations" to fall right here.
Two Rads - The Chattel of the Aftermath. Usually plagued by muddy execution, dragging plots, and too much filler. That said, these stories will sometimes contain moments or concepts that bring them just shy of cult classic status. Mediocre to solidly entertaining. Most of the genre's missed opportunities fall here.
Three Rads - The Wasteland Wanderers. These stories form the backbone of the genre. Most will have moments of genuine brilliance, but fall just short of greatness. Cult classics and genre stalwarts usually land here.
Four Rads - Warlords of the End Times. Most of these films and books are genre-defining classics. Any others are forgotten masterpieces that deserve to be classics. The best of the best.
Five Rads - A Legend of the Wastes. These stories represent post apocalyptic perfection. Practically flawless. Also as rare as unmutated livestock.
So there you have it, Wastelanders. My personal criteria for judging apocalyptic books and films. My next post will jump right into it.
COMING UP NEXT:
George Miller's original 1979 classic, Mad Max.
Confession time: I love post apocalyptic stories.
I always have. Something about the genre's tropes and trappings just gets my blood pumping. Give me bombed-out cities, atomic mutants, and barbaric biker gangs, and you'll keep my ass glued to the seat until the credits roll.
Funny thing is, as long as I've had it, I've never given my apocalyptic obsession much thought. If anything, I chalked it up to watching Thundarr the Barbarian as an impressionable kid.
Say what you want about the state of Corporate Entertainment back then. But telling your core audience they'll all be dead before they're in high school? That's a ballsy move.
Anyway, this tweet randomly came across my feed a few months back. And I haven't really stopped thinking about it:
Folks, that right there is what we call a truth bomb.
It might be hard for kids raised after the fall of the Soviet Union to grasp, but the threat of nuclear annihilation used to be so ubiquitous that songs about it repeatedly cracked the weekly Top 40. That's a level of cultural saturation not many disasters—looming or otherwise—have ever achieved.
Sure, you could argue the Baby Boomers had it worse when it comes to nuclear fears. After all, my mom's generation were the ones who did "duck and cover" drills at school, the teachers calmly directing them to crouch beneath their desks while they waited for the incoming blast wave.
But here's the thing. Baby Boomers never had those nuclear fears baked into their entertainment. At least not quite the same way Generation X did. Most of the "atomic scare" movies of the 50's and 60's revolved around things like giant irradiated bugs. A city or two would be terrorized, the army would roll in, and a muscular display of American Firepower would put the threat to rest. The implied message, of course, was that the bomb was scary, but everything would be all right as long as we trusted our leaders.
By the time Gen X became the primary consumers of media, that attitude shifted. Films depicting nuclear war tended to show total destruction, the collapse of society, and an almost complete return to barbarism among the survivors. The primary message here was radically different: the bomb was inevitable, nothing would be fine, and our leaders were all maniacs.
According to these movies, the end of all civilization wasn't a question of "if." It was a question of "when."
Again, it might be tough for younger generations to grasp, but movies like Mad Max were written for audiences that fully expected a nuclear war—one they were powerless to prevent—within their lifetimes. That kind of cultural fatalism can't help but affect those consuming it, especially at such a young age.
Which is another way of saying I ate that shit up with sugar sprinkled on top, and begged for seconds.
The apocalypse was my jam, folks.
Taking cues from Thundarr, I used to pretend my He-Man figures were the barbaric survivors of a devastated Earth. After watching the Mad Max films with my uncles on cable TV, most of my G. I. Joe games centered around Cobra successfully destroying the world, and the surviving Joes battling across it.
When all the kids in the neighborhood discovered Robotech, I was the only one who preferred the post apocalyptic partisans of The New Generation to the slick jet jockeys of The Macross Saga.
In my teen years, I devoured men's adventure paperbacks like William W. Johnstone's Ashes series. I watched The Road Warrior so many times that I wore out two different VHS copies of it. I stayed up late on weekends to catch Joe Bob Briggs' Monster Vision or Gilbert Gottfried's Up All Night, both of which regularly featured apocalypse-schlock classics.
I discovered anime around the same time, immediately obsessing over Fist of the North Star and Vampire Hunter D. I borrowed a muddy, third-generation, untranslated bootleg of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that captivated me. When I found a copy of my own, a clean fansub sourced from the Japanese laserdisc, it became one of my prized possessions.
Hell, my own first attempts at writing fiction were nothing but violent, edge-lord apocalyptic fantasies.
The fact is, a huge amount of the stories that have influenced me over the years—from books, to anime and manga, to movies—have dealt with the apocalypse in some way. In fact, it's a big enough part of my storytelling DNA that I think it's time to dedicate a regular column on this blog to it.
So what can you expect from future installments?
Reviews, mostly. I'll be looking at apocalyptic books and movies, including some old favorites mentioned above. I might occasionally dip into games, too. And since I'm a longtime devotee of the Joe Bob Briggs school of criticism, I plan to rate them based on the factors that really matter, what I regard as the essentials of the genre. Things like violence, bloodshed, mutants, monsters, action, and gratuitous destruction porn.
I'll also occasionally drop some general musings on the genre: What makes it tick, how its evolved, why certain tropes seem to work, etc.
So stay tuned, wastelanders. The End Times are here. And if you ask me, they've never looked better.
After sharing my house rules to make D&D combat a bit more interesting last week, I got a request for a written play example. I also got a few questions about things that weren't addressed or clear in the original post. I'll address those first, and then move on to a short play example.
As I mentioned last week, this is basically a simplified version of the Palladium/Rifts combat system. While it won't fit everyone's play style, the overall effect has been to make combat a little grittier without adding much more book keeping. My current players love it, and I'll probably end up using some variation of it for the foreseeable future.
First, the miscellanea:
1. Damage causing spells like magic missile completely bypass armor and affect hit points. This makes wizards much more dangerous at low levels. The tactical effect is that they become priority targets for any intelligent enemy with a ranged attack. When fighting smart opponents, it's a fairly even trade off.
2. Spell casters are not expressly forbidden from wearing heavy armor, but it does restrict their movement and affect casting. I allow for casters to wear leather type armor with no effect. Chain and heavier armor reduces casting to once every other round.
3. Defense rolls are just a d20 plus Dex bonus, and attack rolls are made with d20 plus STR plus Base Attack Bonus (or proficiency, if used). As the characters level, the attack roll totals will gradually supersede the defense roll totals. This is a feature, not a bug. The best defense is a strong and aggressive offense. Experienced characters (especially warriors) know and have internalized this.
4. Combats featuring singular monsters versus PCs with gangs of henchmen generally favor the PCs and henchmen. Again, this is by design. In a world with dragons, giants, and ogres, a human settlement's only possible defense is to find these monsters and attack in force. Think of the villagers with torches and pitchforks storming Dracula's castle in the old movies. Smart monsters have to use the same tactics humans do in order to survive: defensible lairs in difficult-to-access places, traps, and escape routes. If the PCs manage to surprise a giant in the middle of a field, and surround him with twenty henchmen, then they've either executed a brilliant ambush or found an incredibly stupid giant.
5. Most monsters don't have DEX ratings, so I assign a Defense modifier based on their Hit Dice, just like I do for attacks. A good rule of thumb is that the Defense bonus shouldn't exceed +3 for most "normal" creatures, since that's about the top range possible for the PCs. Certain "elite" monsters and supernatural creatures, like vampires, demons, or dragons, can have higher defense bonuses, but it's rare.
6. Creatures with claw/claw/bite get three total actions per round, rather than getting a seperate attack and defense action for each. This has the effect of nerfing them slightly, but they still get one more possible combat action per round than a PC does. Again, this enforces the "strength in numbers, fight smart or die" ethos of the system. A sabretooth tiger versus a single mid-level warrior is probably going to kill him. That same sabretooth tiger versus a gang of six zero-level villagers, on the other hand, had better run away.
7. Defense rolls are only possible on attacks from the front, or attacks the character is otherwise aware of. Furthermore, any attack that occurs from behind gets an additional +4 to hit, which also translates to a greater chance to bypass armor. Short version, a surrounded character or monster is probably going to die unless they can find some way to escape.
8. Henchmen and mooks. To reduce my own book keeping for peon characters, I usually just bump up a mook monster's hit points if they're wearing armor. Instead of tracking the extra 30 Armor Points for a goblin, I just rule that it's a ratty old thing that only offers partial protection and give him 15 extra HP. I also use a natural 20/critical hit rule. Against "elite" or boss monsters it's an extra damage die, but against mooks I rule that it's an instant kill. The flip side, of course, is that any natural 20 I roll can insta-kill a PCs henchman.
9. Spell casters can still only cast one spell per round. They're still entitled to use their second action as either defense or as an attack, but they cannot cast a second spell with it.
So with all that in mind, plus the basics detailed in my last post, here's a brief skirmish using these house-rules.
Example of D&D Active Combat:
Brogar the Barbarian and Mingol the Mage have been hired to destroy a werewolf pack that's been terrorizing the area. With the aid of four experienced wolf hunters, they've located the werewolf den in a small hillside cave. The original plan, which involved building a fire in the cave's mouth to smoke them out and killing them with silver weapons, can't be followed anymore because of fears that a missing village girl is inside the den.
With the girl's safety becoming the character's primary concern, the players settle on a hard, fast frontal assault as the best remaining option. Brogar takes point, directing two wolf hunters to get on each side of him, forming a wedge. Mingol hangs back, protected by the wedge and ready to give ranged support.
Partway into the den, the characters hear a savage snarl. Two of the werewolf cubs come bounding up out of the darkness. The DM instructs everyone to roll a d6 for initiative.
Brogar rolls a 4. His DEX bonus of +2 brings it up to a 6.
The four wolf hunters (henchmen characters) get a 3.
The two werewolf cubs (mook monsters, but tough ones) roll a 5.
An adult female werewolf (waiting around the bend in the tunnel and unseen at the moment) rolls a 4
Mingol rolls a natural 6.
Mingol, having won the initiative roll, has the option to go first. Instead, he declares that he's holding action.
Brogar goes next. He swings his axe at one of the incoming cubs, using one of his combat actions. He rolls a 10, but his +2 Strength bonus and his +4 Base Attack Bonus bring the total to 16.
At the same instant, the werewolf cub rolls a defense. Even at 3 HD, a +1 bonus to his roll seems fair. The cub rolls a 7, which barely totals half of Brogar's attack roll after adding the +1. Brogar's attack is successful. He rolls a 7 for damage.
The adult female werewolf holds her action, choosing to remain hidden.
The werewolf cubs go next. The first one to strike is the injured one, and it attacks Brogar. It rolls a 12, which becomes a 13 once the +1 attack bonus is added.
At the same time, Brogar makes a defensive roll, burning up his remaining combat action for the round. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 12 when his +2 DEX bonus is added. The werewolf cub's attack is successful, but not good enough to bypass Brogar's armor class of 14. The werewolf's claws rake down his leather armor for 8 points of armor damage.
The second werewolf attacks the wolf hunter immediately to Brogar's right.. The wolf hunter burns one action to defend, but the werewolf cub rolls a natural 20. The cub pounces on the hunter, riding him to the ground and sinking his fangs into the man's throat, killing him instantly.
Mingol states that he would like to use his action now. He casts magic missile, sending two projectiles directly at the werewolf that's down on top of the dead hunter. They total eleven points of damage to the monster's HP.
The three remaining wolf hunters go now. The one to the right of his dead comrade turns and stabs at the injured werewolf cub's unprotected back. He only rolls a 4, but with the +4 bonus he gets from attacking from behind, he scores an 8. His sword deals 6 damage, reducing the cub's already depleted HP to 0 and killing it.
The two hunters to the left of Brogar move to encircle the cub to his front. Having burned both of its actions already, the cub gets no defensive actions against the hunters. Both hunters roll above a 5, and their combined attacks deal a total of 10 damage.
Since the cub has used all his actions for the round, and the hunters each have unexpended actions, both opt to spend their second action on another attack rather than defending. They both roll again. The first hunter rolls a 2, missing entirely. The second rolls a 12, delivering the fatal blow with 6 points of damage.
No sooner does the werewolf cub fall than a booming roar fills the tunnel. The enraged female werewolf charges from her hiding place at the nearest wolf hunter, rolling a 13. As a 6 HD monster, she gets an additional +6 to hit, bringing her total to 19.
Having expended both combat actions to finish the cub, the wolf hunter gets no attempt to protect himself. The werewolf rolls 1d8+2 for damage, totaling 9 as her claws rip into the startled hunter. The werewolf burns her second action delivering another claw strike to the hunter, again delivering 9 points of damage. This reduces the hunter's HP to 0, killing him.
The adult werewolf, as a monster traditionally assigned a bite/bite/claw attack, gets a third action. She spends it by launching herself at Brogar. She rolls a 16 for her bite attack, totaling 22 with her +6 to hit. Brogar, also having expended his available actions for the round, gets no defense beyond his armor. The 22 easily beats his armor class of 14, and the werewolf sinks its fangs into the upper flesh of his arm for four points of damage. Borgar successfully saves vs poison, avoiding being infected by lycanthropy.
The round is now over, and round two begins with Mingol's action.
Mingol chooses not to hold his action this round. He casts a protection spell on Brogar, granting him a +2 bonus to his AC, his saving throws, and his defensive rolls.
Brogar goes next. He spends one action attacking the werewolf. He rolls a 16, which his +2 STR bonus and his +4 Attack Bonus bring up to a 20.
The werewolf spends one of her actions defending, rolling at the same time. She rolls a 7, which her +3 Defense bonus only brings up to a 10. Brogar buries his silver axe in her hide for 6 damage.
The werewolf—who rolled a 4 back when initiative was called--goes next. She rolls a 9, which her attack bonus brings up to a 15.
Brogar expends his remaining action rolling a defense. He rolls a 10, which becomes a 14 when his DEX bonus and extra bonus for the protection spell are added. The werewolf's attack succeeds, but since the protection spell also grants him a +2 to AC, her claws only strike his armor, dealing 8 points of armor damage.
The two remaining hunters go next. They roll a morale check. One fails and flees back toward the tunnel entrance. The other succeeds and moves to attack the werewolf. He rolls a 17.
The werewolf—who, again, is entitled to three actions as opposed to most characters' two—uses her remaining action to defend. She rolls a natural 20, neatly dodging and earning an attack of opportunity. She rolls an 18, which her bonuses bring to a 24. She also maxes the damage roll, delivering 10 points of damage to the hunter and reducing his HP by more than half.
The round is now over. Round three begins, with initiative once again passing to Mingol.
Again, this is actually far less complicated in play than it looks on paper. As long as the DM has a handle on it and can guide the players along, it runs pretty smoothly. Some players and DMs may feel like it's too crunchy or adds too much book keeping to combat, but that hasn't been my experience. For my table, it strikes a good balance between grit and abstract, hitting the sweet spot that all the players seem to appreciate. They're having, fun, they're engaged, and they're always looking forward to combat encounters now.
As a DM, what more could I ask for?
About three or four sessions into my current campaign, I noticed that my players didn't really like the abstract nature of D&D combat. No matter how much narration and dramatizing I did, combat just felt too passive to them. Specifically, they wanted to do something besides stand there and take it while the enemy rolled against their AC.
Now, one thing I'll say in favor of D&D combat RAW. It's streamlined. And if the players are happy enough to fill in the blanks by imagining feints, dodges, and other maneuvers happening in between declared actions and combat rolls, then it's fine.
On the other hand, way back when I was a wee player, I had the same reaction. I kept trying to declare dodge or parry on the enemy's turn, and it took a little while for me to get comfortable with everyone rolling against a static number to simulate combat.
Which is probably why I gravitated to Kevin Siembieda's Palladium System games so strongly. Divisive as hell within the RPG community, absurdly crunchy, and badly imbalanced even by early 80's game design standards, the Palladium games nonetheless had a gonzo weirdness to them that I loved. Even though I could never get my early groups to accept a sci-fi/fantasy mashup like Rifts, I bought sourcebooks for everything under the Palladium sun, mining some of the stranger fantasy elements for my own D&D games.
As I was also getting heavily into anime at the time, I had a special fondness for the Robotech line. At one time I owned every single sourcebook Palladium published for it, despite my regular group having even less interest in it than Rifts.
Anyway, my old group's strict definitions of what fantasy was and wasn't—and their almost fanatical opposition to genre mixing of any kind—is a subject for another time.
But if there's one thing I always thought Palladium games got 100% right, it was the opposed roll combat mechanic. Yeah, it kind of broke when scaled up to higher levels. Tracking multiple character actions, plus massive amounts of Armor SDC, Character SDC, and Hit Points got to be a pain in the ass. Especially after level five or so.
But the basic idea of the defender being allowed to dodge by beating the attacker's d20 roll was—and is—gold. And even though I was never able to convince my players to pick up a full Palladium game, a variation on that opposed d20 roll has been a longtime house rule of mine when running D&D.
For one thing, it keeps the players from feeling like combat is just an abstract game of roshambo. Every time I've introduced it at one of my tables, the players get much more involved in the battles. They suddenly feel like they're playing for stakes.
I also feel it does a better job of simulating the "grit" of combat. Armor as damage reduction just feels more intuitive than armor making someone harder to hit. It also means armor wears out over time. It's an expendable resource that has to be managed, like water, food, and torches. Not to mention the need to find an armor smith in between battles. Suddenly, long journeys into unknown territory become a much more dangerous affair.
So without further ado, here's my house-ruled Active Combat System. It's basically a stripped-down, bare bones version of Palladium's more intricate combat mechanics. If you're already familiar with those, then you won't find much new here.
Once the DM has a handle on it, this system is actually much simpler than it looks. Doing the opposed rolls simultaneously doesn't really take any longer to resolve than rolling against a character's AC. It adds a layer of player participation to the combat round, without adding much more bookkeeping.
It also affects combat in some interesting ways. With each character only getting one chance to defend in a round (or two, if they forego an attack), mobs of low level enemies like goblins suddenly become a deadly threat to even the highest level characters. Sure, the first twenty or thirty hits will get eaten up by that nice, expensive suit of chainmail. But remember, once it's rendered useless, any undefended roll of 5 or greater is a success. It won't take long for those little bastards to make hamburger out of the toughest warrior under those circumstances.
It hasn't happened in my current group yet, but as armor gets torn to shreds and healing spells run out, a fighting retreat often becomes the smartest course of action. I've seen the tanks form a barrier, using both actions to defend just so they can buy time for the other PCs to escape.
In short, these rules force the PCs to be much more careful about their tactical situation. It won't be a good fit for everyone's table. Hell, it hasn't even been a good fit for all of my tables. But if your players are starting to see combat as a repetitive slog, then it might be just what your group needs.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.