I ended up talking about Westerns with some buddies of mine the other day. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time talking about Jack Schaefer's classic novel Shane, and the 1953 film of the same name.
If you've never read it or seen it, I highly encourage you to do so. It's a story that deals with themes of courage, manhood, the morality of killing, and the struggle against an untamed wilderness.
It's not just a classic tale of the American West. It's arguably the classic tale of the American West.
In fact, scholar and critic Will Wright made that same point in his landmark survey of the Western film, Six Guns and Society. Wright argued there were four basic plots to the Western: the Classical Plot, the Revenge Plot, the Transitional Plot, and the Professional Plot, each one differentiated by how "society" (usually represented by the frontier town) deals with the presence of the gunfighter.
And while he admits that Shane isn't the first story to use the Classical Plot, he convincingly argues that it's the definitive example of one. Simply put, Shane is nearly the Platonic ideal of everything the Classical Western should be.
Which is why it should definitely go on your viewing/reading list if you're planning a Dungeons and Dragons game.
Yes, I'm serious. Fact is, Westerns make up a big part of the missing DNA of D&D, at least the way most people play it today.
And sure, plenty of folks fancy themselves "Old School" players. Maybe they've even read a good chunk of Gary Gygax's Appendix N for inspiration. They can quote Vance's The Dying Earth chapter and verse. They've ripped off Leiber's Nehwon as a ready-made campaign world. They've even turned the people and places from Leigh Brackett's Mars stories into weird, exotic locales.
That's fine. But they should be probably be turning to Leigh Brackett's Rio Bravo, instead.
The missing bit of DNA I'm talking about is the Domain Game, the higher-level game where player characters clear a chunk of wilderness, build a fortress or tower, and set about running a a safe-haven against the forces of Chaos running rampant in the world.
Rules for that state of play were clearly baked into the oldest editions of D&D, with the ability to build castles and attract followers being treated as a level perk for 9th level and above in AD&D. OD&D didn't even have a rule stating the characters needed to be a certain level to begin. All they needed was a pile of gold, a plan, and ambition.
Of course, this state of play heavily implies a world with vast sections of untamed wilderness in need of settling, with all the attendant problems that creates: steady supplies, a struggle against nature, and keeping law & order against the violent hooligans.
In other words, it's implying a setting with the exact same problems, factions, and conflicts you'd find in any story set in the American West.
This is no accident.
Even a casual glance at Appendix N—or at the recommended reading lists in B/X and OD&D—reveals a heavy presence of Golden Age writers inspired by the Great Westward Expansion. That whole setting and era was very much a part of our American Myth at the time, and it was only natural to see parts of that Myth play out on the sands of Barsoom or the primeval forests of the Hyborean Age.
Of course, most modern players don't take their inspiration from American pulp writers like Burroughs and Howard. They follow the school of fantasy descended from Tolkien: extensive world-building, in minute detail, with plenty of lore about the cultures, races, and regions found on the map.
What they're missing is that in its earliest incarnations, D&D was a game about filling in that map. It was about adventurers exploring a hostile land, looking for gold, and eventually carving out a tiny slice of civilization there.
That's a Western, folks. No matter how many Tharks, Picts, or Orcs you try to cover it with.
If you want to create a truly unforgettable game for your players, don't bother trying to create a vibrant, overstuffed campaign world for them to explore. Give them an empty map on the edge of the world, a hostile wilderness full of ancient ruins and unimaginable treasures... but only for the daring.
Give them the opportunity to expand it.
And if you have no idea how you'd even run a game like that, I suggest you put down the SFF reading for a couple of weeks. Sit in for a movie-marathon of classic Westerns. Grab a stack of pulp Western paperbacks while you're at it.
Either way, I'd suggest starting with Shane.
Earlier this week, the topic of classes in Dungeons & Dragons popped up in my Twitter feed again. More specifically, the question of whether or not the classes successfully represented fantasy archetypes.
Now, maybe in current editions—particularly the overstuffed and bland 5th edition—you could argue those classes don't represent much of anything. But in classic editions like OD&D? They absolutely do represent archetypes.
The Fighting-Man, the Magic-user and the Thief all have direct literary antecedents in the fiction that inspired the game. The Fighting-Man is none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs' Virginia fighting-man, John Carter. He's also Conan. He's also Eric John Stark. The Magic-User? Take your pick. He could be any of the magic-users from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Or Harold Shea from The Compleat Enchanter. He could be Elric. Or Corwin. Thieves? Gary Gygax's Appendix N is lousy them, most notably the two best thieves in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber's legendary Fafhrd and Gray Mouser.
The classes—the core classes at least—most certainly do represent archetypes. They're the archetypes of classic pulp fantasy.
What's more, those three archetypes—broadly speaking, the Strong Guy, the Mystic Guy, and the Sneaky Guy—represent just about every possible solution to a problem you could run into.
The only one missing is the Cleric.
Surely, the Cleric's design is just a function of pure game mechanics—a need to have a "healer" class to go delving with. It's not really archetypal at all, right?
Hold your horses.
The basic problem with assigning the Cleric a fantasy archetype like the other three is in looking to the same sources for its inspiration. But the Cleric doesn't have pulp fantasy roots. I'd argue his archetype is actually something much older and more primal than that.
In his wonderful video on dungeon theory-crafting, Dungeon Design and You, Mr. Wargaming outlined and explained some of the metaphysical and spiritual ideas surrounding the concept of "the Underworld," and how they apply to gaming.
Mr. Wargaming was, by his own admission, drawing on the work of other great gamers and thinkers on the subject, notably Jason Cone and his famous segment on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" from Philotomy's Musings. But Mr. Wargaming's video is a much more succinct, accessible, and thorough discussion on the topic than anyone else has given to date, and if you haven't watched it yet, I'd highly encourage you to do so.
In brief, what Mr. Wargaming describes as "the Dungeon" or "the Underworld" isn't just a cave filled with kobold bandits. It's a place where the rules of reality itself are suspended the deeper you go, because you're getting farther from the light (sun) and the source of goodness, closer to the sources of Evil and Chaos.
The parallels with Hell and pandemonium are in no way coincidental.
So what does all this have to do with the Cleric?
Simply that if you think of the game in terms of the Mythic Underworld, Hell, and Chaos, the Cleric archetype is—quite literally—the opposite of all that. If Chaos, Hell, and a march toward Entropy are what define the Underworld, then Humanity, building greater creations, and adherence to the gods' Laws are what define the surface world. If that's so, then the Cleric as an archetype isn't just Humanity, it's a Humanity perfectly in touch with the Divine.
What's more, it's Humanity taking its faith in the Divine down into the dark places for a reckoning. It is the good, the holy, and the natural going down into the earth to cleanse the evil, the unholy, and unnatural. Parallels with Dante obviously spring to mind here. So does Jesus' harrowing of Hell. Not to mention much older things like the myth of Ishtar, descending from the world of natural laws, into the foreboding Underworld realm of her sister goddess Ereshkigal.
For those unfamiliar with the Ishtar myth, Ishtar passes through seven gates, each time removing an item of her regalia, in the end becoming naked and powerless, and having to trust the power of her own name as a goddess to guard her against her sister. It ends up being a mistake, but the point stands.
What can I say? Sometimes, you TPK or get captured...
The point is, this is a far older and far stronger archetype than anything in Sword & Sorcery fiction. We're talking the stuff of myth, legend, and religion here. We're talking about archetypes as old as the recorded word itself, if not as old as humanity.
The Cleric's Archetype is the Divine—and our faith in it—against the deep, dark Underworld, when all the other weapons we have are useless.
Though I don't entirely agree with everything the man wrote, there's a damn good reason that almost half of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand faces describes a pattern in which the hero descends into an underworld. It's because these symbols are powerful, and hold powerful meanings around the world and across cultures. They're as close to hardwired into the human mind as anything can be.
Admittedly, all this is heavy stuff for a game of make-believe about Elves and Goblins. You may wonder why it's worth even adding this stuff in. But what guys like Jason Cone, Mr. Wargaming, and I are pointing out is that you're not really adding it in. This stuff has been there all along, just beneath the surface. You just need to know where to look.
Start by playing a Cleric.
It will all unfold naturally from there.
Last week, I took some random Twitter dumbass to task for mocking the idea conservatives have a culture. That post wasn't just meant as a "point and laugh" moment, however. I also wanted to highlight and call attention to some conservative works in my own little neck of the arts, SF and Fantasy. To that end, I included a list of writers and publishers who adhere to a couple of basic principles, ones that conservative readers I've talked to tend to value highly:
Admittedly, that last one is likely due to a heavy dose of selection bias, as I tend to run in Pulp circles these days. On the other hand, what else are all these "subversive" takes in mainstream entertainment attacking, if not those first two points?
Anyway, I don't plan to rehash that post here. I'm putting my money where my mouth is in regards to highlighting conservative works in the genre, so this is the first in a series of reviews. First up is Singaporean author and Hugo and Dragon-Award nominee, Kit Sun Cheah, with the first volume of his Dungeon Samurai trilogy, Kamikaze.
Kamikaze begins in a dojo in modern-day Japan, where 19 year old Yamada, his best friend Hiroshi, and their fellow students are studying traditional sword arts. Cheah doesn't wait to kick the story off, as by the end of the chapter, a demonic entity has whisked the entire class off to another world, a place resembling a small island.
The demon, Yamada learns, has summoned people from various times and places in history for its own entertainment, and it's been doing so for some time. The demon's terms are simple: it is waiting at the bottom level of a dungeon. As soon as the people get there and kill him, they are free to go.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been an easy task. At the humans' Roman Army-like encampment, Yamada learns the operation to clear and take territory in the dungeon has been a years' long process, and they aren't even close to the bottom yet. Hundreds have died, and each time the numbers dwindled, the demon has gleefully offered to summon more "replacements" from Earth, the latest batch of which includes Yamada and Hiroshi.
After being appraised of the situation, Yamada and the rest of the new arrivals are also hit with the harsh truth: food supplies on the island are limited, and no one in the camp eats unless they pitch in and help with their assigned tasks, be it support, medicine, or fighting. In other words, they're all being drafted into the war against the demon. As the title suggests, Yamada and Hiroshi are selected for service as dungeon delvers, their martial arts experience being the single most valuable thing either brings to the community.
All this is really just the first few chapters' worth of set up, which Cheah gets out of the way skillfully and efficiently, so the reader can enjoy the main show. The bulk of the book is a richly-detailed military fantasy, albeit one that takes place in an RPG-inspired world. It's a blend that works wonderfully. Instead of the usual gaming tropes of adventurer's guilds and grinding for XP, we get a host of tropes swiped from MilSF, like a realistic boot camp sequence, war as boredom-punctuated-by-terror, and the importance of espirit de corps and morale in a combat zone.
Cheah has called Dungeon Samurai the "Anti-LitRPG," and it's easy to see why. Contrary to most of the genre, his heroes don't begin with super powers, and never get overpowered at all. This is dungeon-delving from the grunt's eye view, not from the video game super hero's.
In that sense, it reflects a traditional, old-school value set the rest of the LitRPG subgenre seems to lack. Yamada and his classmates aren't video game addicted shut-ins, suddenly given a chance to play out some power fantasy. They're hard-working athletes, boys who know the value of sweat-equity, discipline and teamwork. Moreover, the situation they're caught in reinforces the need for these values as a survival trait. Their new community is depending on these boys to quickly become strong men, and Yamada and Hiroshi are eager to prove themselves up to the task.
Religion is also an important part of Dungeon Samurai, and not just in the standard "Cleric-class as healers" trope found in most game-inspired fiction. Cheah's characters are men and women ripped from their daily lives, and dropped into unimaginable hardship. Add to that the very real and tangible evil of the demon--something the modern characters like Yamada thought of as imaginary before the story opened--and their faith is all they really have to keep them going.
What I want to call special attention to is the realistic and subtle way Cheah handles it. The struggle to take the dungeon is a slog, like any long military campaign, and Cheah uses the quiet moments in between operations to explore how each of his characters acclimates to his new situation. Primarily, we experience the island through our viewpoint protagonist Yamada and his Shinto faith. But we also get hints about Christian Hiroshi, whose faith makes him sort of an odd-man-out during downtime sequences. He spends religious services with the Westerners in camp, and Hiroshi sees less and less of him when they're not on missions. That said, neither man ever treats the other as anything less than a blood brother. It's a realistic depiction of how clashing faiths, but close relationships, play out in a combat zone.
The other important relationship in Yamada's life is his blossoming friendship--and possibly romance--with young shrine maiden, Katsura. She represents something of a break from the regimented, militaristic life Yamada has found himself in, a small breath of normality in a truly abnormal world. Their relationship is sweet, chaste, and courtly--genuinely not the kind of thing you see much of in mainstream fiction these days.
The battle scenes are well-drawn and exciting, and Cheah's vision of what military life would be like in a game-inspired universe is worth the price of admission alone. It's LitRPG with a layer of trail mud, blisters, and the sore and aching soldiers only an infantryman could appreciate. He's also made it much tougher for me to take the rest of the genre seriously, even as light entertainment. I keep imagining how the average isekai or LitRPG protagonist would fare dropped into the FOB of Cheah's dungeon, with a squad running patrol Ops in the harsh, unforgiving dark. The answer isn't usually good.
Bottom line, Cheah has written a book that's sure to appeal to gamers of all stripes, be it Old School D&D players, console-era players, or modern MMORPG fans. What's more, he's brought back a sense of tactical and strategic thinking to dungeon delving, and married it to his knowledge of real-life martial arts and combat. The result is the single most refreshingly original isekai or LitRPG published in the genre in years, and I'm mad I slept on it for over a year before reading it.
Kamikaze is available in e-book and paperback from Amazon. It has two sequels, Kama no Kishi and Seisen. If you're last-minute shopping for the gamer in your life, there's still time to get the entire trilogy in hardcopy before Christmas.
Take my word for it. They'll be happy you did.
Erik Jensen launched his Lumberlands 'zine Kickstarter just shy of two weeks ago. In case you've never heard of it, here's the elevator pitch in Jensen's own words.
"A micro-setting featuring lumberjacks vs sasquatches, for classic and light tabletop RPGs."
And if for some reason you needed any more selling than "big, bearded lumberjacks swinging their axes at bloodthirsty skunk-apes," there's also a hidden city of intelligent squirrels.
The Lumberlands is a part of Jensen's larger Wampus Country setting, which he blogs about here. Jensen describes it as D&D seen through the lens of North American folklore, a blending of of Tall Tales, fairy tales, and old tales of the wilderness from the 1700s to the early 1900s.
When he calls it a different flavor of adventure, I'm inclined to agree. There's nothing else like Jensen's Wampus Country out there, folks. This is exactly the kind of creativity that the indie OSR excels at.
The project is fully funded as of this writing, but there's still plenty of time to make a pledge and secure a copy. $5 or more gets you the PDF. $10 or more gets you the physical copy and the PDF together.
You can click on the image above to go to the Kickstarter page. I've already got mine.
Now excuse me while I go and blast Jackyl while impatiently waiting for the delivery date.
One of my old martial arts instructors—a man specializing in knife fighting—used to have what he called the "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
It's a useful thought experiment, but one that needs a little explaining.
Basically, the instructor took an imaginary student. The imaginary student had no prior knowledge of martial arts, no fighting experience, and a minimal amount of athletic ability. In this scenario, the student approaches the instructor in a panic, saying he has to be in a knife fight in 5 minutes. He can't avoid it.
What does the instructor teach him? What tool does he give the student in 5 minutes that gives him the best chance to succeed?
He settled on a simple defensive move, one that forced the enemy to come to the student. He showed the student how to stand, how to hold the knife, and how to retreat. "Just cut anything that comes in reach, and keep cutting."
That instructor's thought experiment is something I've circled back to more than once over the years. It's an incredibly useful way to identify crucial parts of a complex system, and put them at the forefront in a practical way.
Not to say that the entire system needs to be thrown out. You can—and often should—still practice the larger and more complex system. Especially when it comes to something as deadly serious as martial arts. But it does give you a good idea of which principles are most important, and which things you should be focusing on as you hone and perfect the larger system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit, and I still want to tie this point to the subject of today's post:
A discussion thread popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday. In it, the self-styled "Evil High Priestess" of the OSR cavegirl talked about how Alignment-as-written is is poorly fleshed out, usually leads to bad experiences, and most DMs cut it entirely.
You can read her entire thread by following this link. You can also just read the following screen caps of my buddy Cirsova's posts. They copy cavegirl's posts word-for-word, but they add photos of oiled-up bodybuilders and vintage Charles Atlas ads to the bottom of each one:
Admittedly, the Cirsova posts are a bit of a piss-take. Mostly because our mutual buddy Meffrius—who was unfairly dog-piled not too long ago over his "#EliteLevel powergaming" schitck—said the same thing about Alignments as cosmic factions months ago.
Incidentally, you should follow Meffridus on Twitter. You should also buy Cirsova.
But I digress.
Cavegirl is right, of course. Alignment should be a form of cosmic faction play. In fact, with Gary Gygax's inclusion of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books on Appendix N, it's difficult to see how it was ever intended otherwise.
Anderson, in particular, gives a fantastic "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Alignment-as-cosmic faction play. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 3 of Three Hearts Three Lions.
But the fact is, not many of the responses below cavegirl's post indicate people are familiar with the reading material. As John McGlynn, co-host of Geek Gab points out, the concept of Alignment-as-personality-test is at least as old as Moldovay, making the Appendix N interpretation the exception rather than the rule.
Which honestly has me thinking. Not too many people have read Appendix N as deeply as Jeffro Johnson or Joseph Goodman. I'm a dabbler compared to those two, and there are plenty in the OSR scene who have read much deeper than me.
But I'd assumed more—if not most—people in the OSR were at least passingly familiar with the more famous works on Appendix N. At least the ones responsible for the quirkiest bits of D&D's ruleset.
For a long while, I'd been thinking about what I'd put on an "Abridged Appendix N," the three or four books I'd hand someone who wanted to give their D&D game an entirely different feel than the standard "D&D brand" setting and flavor. I'm still mulling that one over, because I think it will skew heavily to science fantasy.
But I think after reading cavegirl's post, I have what I'd call my "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Appendix N: pre-supposing a brand new player—one who has no prior knowledge or experience of D&D, fantasy, or roleplaying games—what three books would I give him to teach him about D&D's underlying concepts to help him understand and run a game quickly?
Again, this is by no means exhaustive. I'd still urge people who are interested in D&D to read the other authors on Appendix N, or the other works by these authors. Lovecraft and Howard spring readily to mind, as to Burroughs and Brackett. Plus there's the rest of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, the rest of Vance's work, and the rest of Anderson's.
Any or all of them would be worth reading on their own merits, and any of them would undoubtedly enrich and inspire your game. So would countless other fantasy writers.
But in terms of my old instructor's "5 Minute Knife Fight" concept, those three titles are probably the three most crucial books on Appendix N. Those books are the "standing, holding the knife, and retreating," of the world implied by D&D's basic ruleset.
Read those three books, and you have a basic grasp on Vancian Magic, Alignment, Thieves' Guilds, how humans and Demi-humans do (or don't) get along, magic items and artifacts, certain monsters, how to run a series of connected adventures (via Anderson and Leiber's examples), the politics of a big city, wilderness and sea travel, and some example ruins/NPCs you can liberally steal from.
As an added bonus, most modern fantasy fans haven't read them, so they'll think you're being original.
It's also important to note that each of these books clocks in at around a hundred fifty pages or so. All together, they equal approximately one Harry Potter book. I'm a naturally slow reader. But I'd guess most people can probably read all three in about a week and a half of their spare time.
Add to that the time needed to figure out the chosen ruleset—not long, if you picked a 0e or B/X retro clone—and you're probably looking at about two weeks from complete novice to Dungeon Master.
So, there you have it. D&D's very own "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
Take it, build a foundation, and keep the crucial parts in mind as you hone and perfect your game.
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.