It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
Sorry for the lack of updates lately, folks. Fact is, with so much of the country having to deal with lockdowns, layoffs, and curfews as a result of COVID-19, I haven't been sure what to write about.
I did have a whole slate of 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews planned, but I get the feeling they'll go over like a lead balloon right about now. Something about a deadly disease dominating the news cycle 24/7 just makes reading about the end of the world a little less recreational for some people.
That said, if you are looking for a great post-apocalyptic read, I want to draw your attention to the work of Jon Mollison. I read his A Moon Full of Stars recently, with the intent of dedicating a full-length 'Pocky-clypse Now review to it soon. I do still plan on doing that. But I'm probably going to wait until after our daily news cycle looks a little less like the opening credits to the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake.
Anyway, Mollison's book is a fantastic, fast-paced story full of adventure, action, and capital-R Romance in the classic Burroughsian sense. It's well worth your time, especially if you want a post-apocalyptic tale that doesn't wallow in nihilism and misery. You can buy it here.
The other thing I haven't wanted to do is shill or give updates about my upcoming Fantasy Vietnam project. Money is tight for lots of folks right now, and it's not really much of a priority for me to put out a game that no one is going to have the disposable cash to buy for the foreseeable future. I'm still going to work on it. But at a slower pace.
So, what does that leave?
Well, Adam Lane Smith had some thoughts on that a couple of weeks ago, when discussing the possibility of his day job shutting down:
He's completely right about that. What will continue throughout this—and likely for a long while afterward—is a desire for cheap, good entertainment. Pure, fun escapism is what people want right now.
To that end, I've started work on something I hinted at about three weeks ago on twitter, in a joke exchange back and forth with Smith.
That's right. The bad guys would have gotten away with it, if not for those meddling kids. Only this time, two of those meddling kids are recently returned Vietnam Vets, one is the take-no-shit daughter of a Boston cop, and the other knows how to mix a bomb in the bathtub. They'd better hope the police get there first...
The other thing I'm doing with this project is test-driving Smith's outlining and writing process, as described in his writing book, Write like a Beast.
Longtime readers will remember the glowing praise I gave Smith's book a few months back, as well as the eagerness I expressed to try out some of his methods to see how they affect my own productivity.
My impressions so far? Smith's method is working for me.
I feel like I have a stronger outline than I've ever had in the past. I also feel like the characters are more fleshed out, with clearer goals and motivations. My total time, from planning the characters, to plotting the story, to choreographing the two most difficult scenes ahead of time with individual beat sheets, was about two days of solid writing.
While I'm not up to Smith's impressive speeds yet, this is already a vast improvement. Over my usual two weeks or more. I can already say this book was worth every penny. At least in my case.
Anyway, I'm planning to start drafting this week. Meddling kids, (sort of) talking dogs, and (almost) ghosts await. As do some vicious beat downs, explosions, and hellacious firefights.
Before I get into this week's rules changes, I want to talk about a planned scheduling shake-up, and call attention to a cool thing that arrived in the mail.
First, the cool thing:
Personally, I find that 70's rock and retro-70's rock inspires most of my D&D writing. Something about the aesthetic just gets me in the right headspace. Black Sabbath. Rainbow. The Sword. The Wizards. But as I've been writing this blog series, I've mostly been rocking out to Gygax.
If you're unfamiliar with them, try to imagine a hard rock band that combines the music of Thin Lizzy with lyrics directly inspired by Old School D&D. I've been a die hard fan since their first release, 2015's Critical Hits. If you're a metalhead or a rocker of any kind, I highly recommend checking out their Bandcamp page.
Anyway, Gygax released what is undoubtedly the coolest bit of band swag in the history of band swag—a limited edition Gygax Guild d20.
Needless to say, I've already used this bad boy to launch a massive goblin assault, one that slaughtered an unwary wizard PC and sent the surviving party members running for their lives.
Which leads me to the scheduling shake-up:
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I've been at work on an Appendix N inspired science fantasy series, one that envisions what D&D fiction might have looked like if it followed the wilder literary roots of the game, rather than filling in the map of TSR and WotC's pre-fab fantasy worlds.
And while I still plan on writing that, the fact is my recent thought experiments on what Fantasy Effing Vietnam would look like have gotten a bit more attention. To the point that I've gotten several messages in public and in private expressing interest in a published print version.
Rule number one in this writing gig, folks. Never disappoint your audience. Especially when they're actively asking you for something.
So, yes. A published print version of these rules is now in the works.
To that end, I've been running some live play tests with two separate groups. Once that's done and all the obvious bugs are worked out, I've got two other groups tentatively lined up as my beta testers.
If all goes well, I'm hoping to have these rules pretty well ironed out in the next few weeks. Then it's going to be a matter of formatting, getting some art, and making it available on DriveThruRPG.
Hopefully, that won't take too long.
In the meantime, I plan to keep these blog posts coming. They're a helpful way to "think out loud" about what I'm doing, as well as offer some insight into the ideas behind the rules choices I'm making. As I said way back in part one of this series, there is a guiding principle behind this project.
Fact is, I don't believe D&D's ruleset was ever intended as an all-purpose, generic fantasy adventure simulator. Each edition has been geared towards a specific, implied setting, and every subsequent edition and rules modification has made different assumptions about the world it aims to simulate.
And as we'll see in this week's post, "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" makes some very specific assumptions about the nature of combat.
You Better Run Through The Jungle
You've been watching the way Kruppa the Thief walks, the way he rolls his feet slowly from the outside to the inside with each step. The way he smoothly transitions his weight from one leg to the other. The way he seems to feel each twig and before he steps on it, and adjusts his foot to the left or right.
You do your best to imitate him when on patrol, and you're starting to get good. Even Bregan the Dwarf grudgingly commented on it.
At this rate, you just might survive.
The forest stands around you, silent as always. Kruppa leads the way, sliding from shadow to shadow like a ghost. Bregan brings up the rear. You're in the middle, eyes and ears alert for the tell-tale signs of a goblin ambush: freshly disturbed earth, out-of-place bird calls, and bits of animal carcasses strung in the trees.
The sun glints off something in the undergrowth, and you freeze in place, heart racing.
Metal or glass. Has to be.
You flash a hand signal to Bregan, halting him in place. It's several tense seconds before Kruppa looks back and sees you, catches the hand signal, and halts as well. Several seconds in which you're waiting for hell on earth to explode from the underbrush.
Now that you have both Kruppa and Bregan paying attention, you point in the direction of the strange glint. As they're watching, the sun catches it again.
Kruppa waves you all forward, angling the patrol to move in a wide circle around the strange glint. You'll check it out—could be an enemy observer, could be the remains of those missing settlers from a few weeks back. But you'll approach indirectly.
It's almost a half hour before you approach the small depression where you spotted the flash. Slow, careful movement, with plenty of doubling back, double-and-triple checking for signs of ambush.
At last, you arrive. It's the settlers, all right. Three families, all splayed out in the underbrush. Throats cut, valuables stolen. All except the silver mirror. The silver mirror is carefully strung up in the trees, to catch the sunlight just so...
"Shit!" Kruppa says.
Then the hillocks to the north and south are alive with activity. All at once, crossbow bolts are cutting through the underbrush. You feel the sting as one slices your upper arm, and another as it buries itself in the meat of your thigh.
You hug the dirt, knowing damn well running is impossible. You glance to Kruppa, wondering what the plan is.
And you realize he won't be telling you. Not anytime soon. A goblin crossbow bolt buried itself in his throat. He's gasping for air around the barbed tip, drowning in bright red blood. Off to your left, Bregan swears, shouting that he's hit. It's poison. He needs antidote.
Somewhere above you, a crossbow bolt shatters the silver mirror.
It Takes a Thief to Muck Up a Perfectly Simple System
One thing I've never liked about the Thief class is that it has a different resolution mechanic for what should be a common task. For example, Climbing a sheer surface is something every PC is going to attempt at some point. But in giving the Thief a unique die roll to determine it—a percentile—the rules basically force the DM to tell any non-Thief players they either can't make the attempt, or force them to come up with a different roll for the same action.
Neither option really works for me.
For what it's worth, BECMI goes with the second option, which is definitely the lesser of two evils.
On page 85 of the Rules Cyclopedia, under Other Character Skills, the Stealth Skill allows any PC to learn something similar to the Thief's Move Silently ability, with the caveat that it has to be terrain specific for each skill slot spent.
The way Skills work in BECMI is that they're rolled on a d20 against the relevant attribute. But unlike an attack roll, a LOW result is preferred here, and a 1 is always considered a success. For Stealth, the relevant attribute is Dexterity.
So let's say I have a group of four first level adventurers. Fakk the Fighter took Forest Stealth as a Skill. Takk the Thief didn't, relying instead on his class ability. Wakk the Wizard and Dakk the Dwarf didn't take it either, because they had other things to focus on.
Now say they all want to sneak up on some goblins. As it's written in BECMI, I have to roll a percentile for Takk, a d20 against DEX for Fakk, and just make something up for the others.
With inconsistent shit like this popping up in play, it's easy to see why some old grognards swear the game started going downhill the second the Thief class was introduced way back in the Greyhawk supplement.
That said, house-ruled fixes for this issue have been around as long as the class itself, and some of the newer retro-clones have done an admirable job of fixing this particular hiccup.
As an example, I once again have to point to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Raggi's decision to standardize all skill checks into a few broad categories—each of them resolved with a roll of a single d6—was a simple, elegant move. Furthermore, the customizable Specialist class is one of that system's best innovations, as I've previously written here. Honestly, my biggest gripe with it is that I don't think the d6 "pips" offer enough customization or variation in the dice rolls.
That's where Ruinations: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying by Brent Ault comes in.
Currently available for free in an unfinished state on Google Drive, Ruinations began life as a post apocalyptic re-skin of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with some of Ault's own unique tweaks and rules changes. It's a fantastic game in its own right, and absolutely worth your time if you're a fan of the apocalyptic genre. One of the coolest design choices Ault made was to keep Raggi's standardized skill categories, but to convert them over to a percentile based system.
So instead of all characters beginning with a 1 in 6 chance to succeed in each category, like in LotFP, Ault made it so every character begins with a 20% chance. Then, rather than individual "pips" or points on a d6 to spend at each level, the Adept Class—Ault's version of the Specialist—gets 30 percentile points.
The end result is an even more customizable class than Raggi's Specialist. But more importantly, it still uses the same skill resolution roll as all the other classes for common tasks like climbing, tinkering, and stealth.
Which brings me to the larger point behind this week's rules change. Remember up above, where I said every change and tweak should say something about the setting?
One of the things any "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" setting absolutely needs to simulate is the style of fighting common to Vietnam and mid-20th century warfare. That means a heavy focus on stealth, ambush, and counter-ambush tactics.
To that end, one of the base assumptions I'm going to make every time my players "leave the wire" is that they're all doing their level best to Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Hear Noises. Meaning every single PC gets access to those three Thief skills, at a minimum.
Now, of course the Thieves, the home-brewed Fairy class, and the Elves will be better at it. I'm giving racial bonuses to the Elves and the Fairies, and I'm running the Thieves like Ault's Adepts, with a pool of discretionary points for the player to spend as he sees fit.
Every patrol to and from the Keep should be a tense cat and mouse game, as the PCs watch out for goblin ambushes, senses alert for any sound or sign that the enemy is near. Meanwhile, they're trying to move like ghosts through the underbrush, staying to the darkest shadows they can find. Every snapped twig or dropped water skin should cause their little hearts to race, wondering if they've just given themselves away.
On the other side of things, the exact same mechanic is used for the goblins. Instead of a simple roll for random encounters, I'm rolling opposed percentiles every time groups of goblins and PCs are near each other on the map. Chance to Hear Noise vs chance to Move Silently. If one PC is scouting ahead, it's the same thing: Hide in Shadows and Move Silently vs. Hear Noise.
Basically, instead of a standard "roll for surprise" I'm rolling to see if the PC's successfully sneak up on the goblins, or if the goblins successfully ambush the PCs.
To further keep with the Vietnam, "ambush versus counter-ambush" feel, I've also been sticking with group initiative as outlined in OD&D/Whitebox. I've been finding it's especially useful when the PCs are moving as a group.
My method so far has been to roll for ambush, with the winning side getting initiative. They act in order of Missile Fire > Spells > Movement > Melee, with all actions receiving a +4 surprise bonus. Then the losing side goes in the same action order of Missile Fire > Spells > Movement > Melee, with all actions receiving a —4 surprise penalty.
Bonuses and penalties vanish at the top of next round, and combat continues to proceed in order until resolved. So far, it's been quick, brutal, and bloody.
I've got some more stuff coming up soon, with Critical Hits, long-term injuries, and magic. Plus some thoughts on running the goblin side of things.
Stay tuned. And stay quiet out there. The goblins can hear better than you.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
Since I've picked up a few new followers in recent weeks, a brief word of introduction: this is a regular column on the blog, where I do in-depth reviews of post apocalyptic films and books. Here's a quick link back to my general mission statement, and another one for my overall rating criteria.
Now for my regular readers, a fair bit of warning. Today's entry is a bit on the trippy side. We're not dealing with Road Warriors, Rampaging Wrestlers, or Rodents of Unusual Scientific Acumen. We're not even dealing with the late, great Rutger Hauer.
Today, we're taking an electric slide into the animated side of the apocalypse. And we're doing it with a healthy side of funky guitars, WWII stock footage, and rotoscope.
I'm talking about Ralph Bakshi's 1977 cult science-fantasy phantasmagoria, Wizards.
The film opens with a live-action shot of a large leather-bound book. The camera slowly pans down the title page, as the feminine narrator's soft, soothing voice croons out the words for us.
Then, to make sure we don't get bored with all the fancy book learnin', we're immediately treated to a shot of the entire goddamn world exploding!
It's at this point, Wastelanders, that snark and humor completely fail me. What follows is one of the most exquisite and beautifully realized opening sequences in the entire apocalyptic genre. Combining pen and ink artwork by Mike Ploog with live-action background effects like smoke and lava, the narrator delivers the history of the post-holocaust earth.
According to the story, five terrorists set off a nuclear blast that plunges the earth into a worldwide atomic war. For over 2 million years, radioactive clouds keep the world in darkness, driving nearly all human life to extinction, and turning most survivors into hideous mutants. In these scorched and poisoned lands, radiation causes each birth to be a new disaster in a never-ending chain of mutation.
But in the good lands, fairies, elves, and dwarves awaken from their long sleep, and begin bringing life back to the planet.
Millions of years later, Queen Delia of the fairies gives birth to twin wizards, one good and one evil. Avatar, the good wizard, spends his childhood around his bedridden mother, trying to keep her entertained. Blackwolf, the mutant wizard, never visits, and spends his time torturing other creatures. When the Queen eventually weakens and dies, the two brothers fight for control of the fairy lands, but Avatar wins and Blackwolf goes into exile.
But before he leaves, Blackwolf throws out an ominous warning. "The day will come, my brother, when I will return and make this a planet where mutants rule."
I should point out this "history" sequence clocks in at around three and a half minutes. It's a testament to Bakshi and his crew that it never quite feels that long. In fact, the only reason Bakshi and company manage to get away with this kind of gratuitous info-dump opening is that they paired it with some truly stunning visuals.
At any rate, the story begins 3000 years later in the irradiated wasteland of Scorch, with Blackwolf issuing orders to his assassins to begin destroying the leaders of the free states. We're then treated to a succession of merciless killings across the hauntingly psychedelic landscape, as the action follows one assassin in particular, the stoic and brutally effective robot, Necron 99.
The action then cuts to the deep forest, and a pair of mounted elven scouts. They're taking a short rest and allowing their animals to graze, but the lead elf—Weehawk—says they need to push on. Avatar must be warned of what they've seen.
Just then, Necron 99 ambushes them, killing Weehawk's partner. Weehawk attempts to escape, but it's no use. At last, he's forced to throw himself at Necron in a desperate, kamikaze-like fury, launching them both over a cliffside and into the river below.
Meanwhile, back in Montagar, a sort of war council is going on. Avatar, the President, and the President's half-fairy daughter, Elinore, are all waiting for the elf scouts to report in. The President wants to arm the free states against the growing threat of Blackwolf, but Avatar urges against it, pointing out that science and technology were both outlawed millions of years ago.
Avatar tells the President and Elinore that he spent years searching out his twin brother, trying to learn what ever became of him. He knows that Blackwolf has been trying unsuccessfully to mold the mutated creatures of Scorch into an army. Balkwolf's frustrations have been driving him to dig deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the secrets of warfare among the ancient, pre-holocaust ruins.
Tales have reached Avatar of new war machines being built in Scorch, and of a great and ancient power that will enable Blackwolf to control his armies.
"What do you know about war?" Avatar asks them. "About bombs that could turn a planet molten and liquid? To think it could start again, ten million years after the last one..."
Just then, a burst of gunfire takes the President in the chest. Necron 99 has arrived, unseen by everyone. Avatar reacts, frying the robotic assassin with a blast of magic. At the same time, Weehawk bursts in through the door, sword drawn and ready to fight. But it's too little, and far too late. The President of Montagar is dead, and Elinore's cries fill the night.
Meanwhile, in Scorch, Blackwolf steps out onto the castle balcony to address his soldiers, calling them the "leaders of tomorrow's master race." He tells them the time has come to share the ancient secret of war, the key to creating hysteria and fear.
He then uncovers the secret relic he's found: an ancient movie projector, which he uses to play an old, Nazi-era propaganda film against the sky. German army marching music swells. Swastika flags flap in the breeze.
Below the balcony, the mutants stare, awestruck. The new uniforms they're wearing, Blackwolf's new war machines. The new weapons. All of it looks like the strange old images in the sky.
The movie whips the mutants into a frenzy. Battle footage from WWII joins the propaganda reel. Explosions. Gunfire. Artillery. Soon the mutants are screaming and chanting "seig heil," and clamoring to get to the front.
In East Elfland, an army is already manning the trenches, preparing for Blackwolf's invasion. We get a short exchange between an older elf and young recruit, the standard war movie trope of the scared private confiding in the old veteran. The old veteran reassures him that the last time Blackwolf invaded, the evil wizard lost over a million men. He says the goblins and mutants look mean, but they're cowardly, they always run when met with resistance. This time will be no different.
Blackwolf's armies approach, and the elves prepare to meet them. But just as they get into range, the wizard activates the projector. As soon the propaganda film begins playing, the elves stop and stare at the sky, frozen in abject horror at what they're seeing. The mutant army steamrolls into them, pouring into the trenches and slaughtering the defenseless elves in droves.
Back in Montagar, Avatar reads Necron 99's thoughts, learning of the existence of Blackwolf's movie projector. He says that it must be destroyed, and that the robot assassin—who he renames Peace—can lead them to it.
"I'll reason with him when he wakes up," Avatar says. He urges the others to go and prepare for the trip.
Weehawk spends the night saying goodbye to his tribe, and instructs them to name a new chief if he does not return. Elinore holds a funeral for her father. Then she promises the fairies that she will avenge his death, and that when she returns it will be as a full-fledged fairy, one ready to take her place as the Queen of Montagar.
As far as Avatar's reasoning with Peace, whatever he said must have been successful. Come morning, the ex-robot assassin has agreed to help lead them to Blackwolf's projector. But before the group sets off, Avatar offers Peace a final word of warning:
"You let me down, you hurt my friends—especially the broad—I got stuff planned for you that will take 20 years to kill you. And you'll be screaming for mercy in the first five seconds."
This is our first real hint that Avatar is more than the simple, kindly bumbler we've seen since the end of the "history" portion. There are some fangs beneath that bushy red beard, Wastelanders. Sharp ones.
For their part, Weehawk and Elinore aren't quite ready to trust their former enemy, either. Weehawk even goes as far as reassuring Elinore that he plans kill Peace the second the ex-assassin shows them the projector.
Preparations complete, our four heroes mount up, and they're off.
Meanwhile, back at Scorch, Blackwolf is attending his pregnant mistress. He's asking if the birth will be soon. She says it will. He says she is young to be queen—a statement which draws a look of shock from the girl—but if she delivers him a son, she will help to rule the planet.
The mistress tells him she doesn't want to rule the planet, that just their kingdom is enough. But this seemingly innocent statement sends Blackwolf into a rage.
"Enough! Enough for mutants to stay in their place, huh? Live with radiation so our bodies crawl with hell? We will live in the good lands! My son will grow where there isn't death in the very waters we drink, and the air we breathe!"
He then asks the wise men whether his son will be born mutant or human, to which the wise men reply "mutant." Blackwolf turns away in disgust.
"The next one won't be," he says coldly.
As he stalks off to attend to the business of his war, the mistress runs after him, crying and begging him not to have their child killed.
Back on the trail, Weehawk warns the others that Peace is taking them through the mountain fairies' domain. He urges them to go around. But Avatar and Elinore overrule him. They can't afford to lose time, Avatar says, and the fairies may have useful information. But according to Weehawk, the fairies and the elves are bad-blood cousins.
True to his warning, this direct route gets the group in trouble. This misadventure sees Elinore captured by the mountain fairies, as well as seeing the rest of the group separated, lost, half frozen, and—in Weehawk's case—nearly eaten by a monstrous spider.
However, the group successfully reunites after this ordeal, and resumes their journey toward Scorch. But unexpectedly, they run into an elf patrol armed with guns like the ones Blackwolf's army carries.
Back at the elves' camp, they learn the patrol is a part of a larger army, under the command of General Abdul. Abdul—an old friend of Avatar's—tells them the guns are captured Scorch weapons. Now, with weapons to match Blackwolf's, Abdul plans to sail across the sea and attack Scorch directly.
Avatar, still hoping to avoid all-out war, tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail. General Abdul is convinced the only way for elvenkind to survive is to take the fight back to Blackwolf's doorstep. And the warriors following him agree.
Late that night, a demon attacks the camp, attempting to take over Peace's mind. Avatar successfully fights the creature off, but it almost appears to be a decoy, as a tank comes speeding at them along the beach.
As Peace raises his rifle to protect the others, Elinore stabs him in the back with her sword, killing him. She then jumps into the tank, which immediately speeds away. Avatar chases after it, calling her name, but the tank disappears into the distance without so much as firing a shot.
In pre-dawn darkness, General Abdul's ships begin crossing the sea for the attack on Scorch. Avatar stands alone on the deck, lost in a depression and muttering to himself. Weehawk stands away, speaking to General Abdul. He says that Elinore's betrayal has broken the old wizard's heart.
Weehawk takes charge of the mission, practically forcing Avatar along the rest of the way, dragging the old wizard to shore ahead of the rest of the fleet. He still intends to sneak inside the castle, find the projector, and destroy it before Blackwolf can use it again.
The two sneak their way into the lower city of Scorch. There, the mutants have wholly adopted Blackwolf's propaganda film, as we see mutant officers in full Nazi regalia. We hear audio recordings of Hitler's speeches being broadcast over loudspeakers, and captive fairies being forced to sing songs in German. The mutants have even begun referring to Blackwolf as "the furher."
Avatar, still in a deep depression, finally snaps. He attempts to beautify some of the lower city with his magic, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the war. This draws the attention of some mutant officers, and forces Weehawk to take action. In a lightning fast, three-on-one battle, the elf warrior kills the mutants, before being blindsided and knocked down by one of Blackwolf's little toadies. The toady then claims victory, and scurries off to claim rewards and praise from Blackwolf.
Avatar, looking on the bloody aftermath of the fight, comes partly to his senses again. He at last realizes what kind of bloodshed the world is looking at if the two of them don't finish the job, however distasteful it's going to be.
Following the trail of Blackwolf's scurrying little toady, Weehawk and Avatar make their way into the castle. As they walk, Avatar commends the elf warrior.
"You know, the world owes you much, kid. Even if we don't take another step."
Meanwhile, General Abdul's fleet pulls to shore. The alarms goes up, and Blackwolf's army takes the field to meet them. Another set-piece battle begins, but with the heavily-armed elves on the offensive this time, it's an even match.
Then the ancient film projector begins rolling. Once again, the sight of the ancient propaganda film horrifies and paralyzes the elves, leading to a shift in the battle, and Blackwolf's forces begin to gain the upper hand.
Back in the castle, Avatar and Weehawk find Blackwolf in the throne room. They agree to split up, with Avatar confronting Blackwolf, and the elf warrior seeking out the projector.
On his way through the castle, Weehawk finds Elinore. In a rage, he leaps to kill her for betraying them, but he's stopped at the last moment by Blackwolf's mistress. Grieving her mutant son's death, the mistress says there has been too much bloodshed, and begs him to stop and think before he swings his sword.
In that moment, Elinore explains that Blackwolf took over her mind and possessed her when they were on the beach. He made her attack and kill Peace. She had no choice. Weehawk realizes he must run back to the throne room and tell Avatar, before the old wizard throws his life away.
Meanwhile, Blackwolf urges Avatar to give up. "Brother, there is no need for me to destroy you. Surrender. Surrender your world."
But Avatar, snarky as ever, only gives his twin brother a round of applause. He then begins loosening his sleeves in the classic "nothing-up-here" motion typical of performing stage magicians.
"I ain't practiced much magic in a long time. But I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren't around. To use on special occasions like this."
He then produces a 9mm Luger pistol from one of his sleeves, and shoots Blackwolf in the chest.
As Blackwolf dies, castle begins to crack and crumble around them. Avatar tosses the pistol away, ready to just be buried along with his twin. Right then, Weehawk runs in with Elinore, screaming that she's no traitor, that she was possessed. The three of them run for their lives, barely escaping as the castle falls behind them.
With the projector destroyed, the mutant army collapses into a disorganized rabble. Most scatter and run. The elves mop up the few resistors. There is some brief celebrating, but mostly the elves are eager to return home.
Outside, Weehawk asks Avatar and Elinore if they are ready to ride for Montagar with the others. But Elinore says tells Weehawk he will ride home alone, and rule as king. She plans to start a new kingdom somewhere else with Avatar.
A word of caution, Wastelanders. If you grew up on a diet of anime and newer, post-90's western animation, don't look for lavishly detailed or choreographed fight scenes. The battles in Wizards are stylized. But they're done in a style that really has no other equivalent, except maybe in Bakshi's other fantasy works.
Even then, I'd venture to say Wizards stands completely apart.
Bakshi combines live action newsreel footage with rotoscoped and hand-drawn animation, the latter using creatures with a distinct "head shop" aesthetic.
The collage-like result is a bunch of elves and mutants swinging swords at each other while Adolf Hitler screams in the background, artillery explodes, Messerschmitt fighters soar through the air, and rotoscoped warriors from movies like Zulu and El Cid stalk through the battlefield like otherworldly wraiths.
In sum, it's not really a depiction of a battle. It's more like a weird, psychedelic hallucination of one.
It's also a wonderfully effective and ballsy move on Bakshi's part. The Battle of Helm's Deep it ain't. But damn if it also doesn't capture the confusion and disorientation of the modern battlefield better than it has any right to.
Fact is, as unconventional as they are, the battle scenes in Wizards are a genuine artistic achievement, and the movie would be worth the price of admission for them alone.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Hardly any, but Wizards earns a free pass here for plot and world building reasons. Millions of years have passed since the apocalypse, so it's unlikely there'd be any standing ruins left from modern-day society. If anything, the opposite is true. Scorch aside, the world has grown into an exotic and lush place in the wake of its destruction.
The one notable exception is in the short and somewhat heavy-handed "religion" sequence. The inside of the temple is filled with kitschy remnants of 20th century American culture: cola signs, pinball machines, juke boxes, and an old Oscar statue.
Naturally, none of it offers any salvation when Blackwolf's troops come calling, which is precisely the point. Neither do the two goofball priests, who would much rather spend their time engaged in hours' long ceremonies than in helping the needy prisoners right outside the temple's doors.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
I mean, sure, it's basically just Mordor with the serial numbers filed off. But so what? If you're going to go with an expansionist dictatorship ruled by an insane magician at the heart of a blasted wasteland, it's best to wear your inspiration on your sleeve. Bakshi—who went on to animate a Lord of the Rings adaptation a year later—does so here with pride, and the movie doesn't suffer one iota for it.
If anything, Bakshi leans into Tolkien's anti-industrial metaphors even harder.
If Montagar and East Elfland have returned to a state of pastoral, almost tranquil wilderness, Scorch has bypassed the early industrial revolution entirely, to become a full-on, mid-20th century industrial power, with 1940's-style assembly lines turning out planes and tanks for Blackwolf's coming blitzkrieg.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
Nada. Granted, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine the mutants of Scorch would have some among their decadent pastimes, but the story never suggests or hints at it.
Barbarian Hordes -
The mutants of Scorch definitely qualify. In fact, one of the film's biggest plot points is that they're such a barbarian horde, they're utterly incapable of fighting as a cohesive unit until Blackwolf rediscovers the secret of 20th century propaganda.
And frankly, it's the fact that Wizards takes this "war for the mind" approach to building the enemy horde that makes it stand out from most of the genre.
Where so many films made in the wake of the gasoline crisis of the '70s focus on things like physical shortages and civil unrest to create the wasteland hordes, Wizards really feels more like a belated product of the 60's.
Hell, there's barely a wasteland here, let alone a wasteland horde. The world of Wizards is a hodgepodge of hippie counterculture, Cold War paranoia, and environmentalism, filtered through a weatherbeaten old copy of Lord of the Rings.
This isn't the Lord Humungous promising his followers gasoline and human chattel, folks. This is Mordor meets MK-ULTRA. This is about what the people in charge can make you think. What they can make you believe. And by extension, what they can make you do.
Heady stuff. And sadly, never more relevant.
Badass Warrior Women -
The Half-Fairy Queen, Elinore.
The half-fairy queen, Elinore. And no, I'm not being snarky.
While she doesn't do much in the way of actual fighting, Elinore shows plenty of grit in swearing to avenge her father's murder, and in undertaking a dangerous quest into an irradiated hellhole to dismantle the enemy's doomsday weapon. When she believes she's cornered by assassins on a frozen mountaintop, she's more than willing to face the them head on with her sword drawn and a battle cry on her lips.
Does she get quite as many chances to prove herself as The Blood of Heroes' scrappy, tough-as-nails underdog, Kidda?
No. But let's be real. If I start judging every Badass Warrior Woman in the genre by that criteria, this category will probably have to go away altogether.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
This being an animated feature, we can expect Wizards to deliver the goods when it comes to mutants. And it does, with the caveat that most of them conform to the "head shop" aesthetic mentioned in the Violence entry. It works just fine, provided you don't mind your slavering, inhuman beasts bent on murder and conquest to look like they'd rather be chilling somewhere with a bag of 'shrooms.
While most of the mutants in Wizards serve as the film's off-brand orcs, special attention should be called to the subplot involving the Blackwolf and his young mistress.
Blackwolf—himself a mutant—has gotten his mistress pregnant, and apparently not for the first time. He's hoping for a pure-blooded child, and he consults the wise men for an augury. They inform him the child will be born a mutant, and the mother immediately begins pleading in vain for its life. But Blackwolf has already written the child off as worthless, and is already telling himself that "the next one won't be."
Which means for all his bluster and rhetoric about seeing the mutants as "tomorrow's master race," Blackwolf clearly holds mutant life—even his own, one suspects—more cheaply than he does pure human life.
It's an interesting dichotomy. One that adds a bit of dimension to Blackwolf.
Right out of the gate, Wizards won me over by using one of my all-time favorite storytelling tropes: the return of magic in the wake of an apocalyptic event.
It's a trope that's largely fallen out of favor in the last forty years, thanks to the gradual segmenting and separation between science fiction and fantasy. I groused a little about this subject a couple of months back, when I talked about the awesome, science fantasy weirdness found in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Expanding on that post slightly, 1977 can be seen as something of a watershed moment when it comes to viewing science fiction and fantasy as two separate genres. Not only was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published, bringing an already popular game to an even wider audience, but Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara also appeared, proving the economic viability of the Tolkien clone. The explosive, runaway success of both products can almost be seen as a "twin Big Bang" event, one that largely drove "pure" fantasy to form its own separate publishing category.
Ironic, considering that both Shannara and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are almost certainly post-apocalyptic science fantasies.
All this is to say that Wizards, being released in 1977, managed to hit the market just before this kind of wild genre-mixing went out of style. And man, does it ever show.
We've got wizards shooting lightning, orcs flying fighter planes, and lizard-imps working computer consoles. We have mutant armies with machine guns and tanks battling elf armies with bows and arrows, while giant pterodactyl-birds screech through the sky.
It's a glorious, post-apocalyptic fantasy kitchen sink, rendered in funkadelic 70's color with every animation technique Bakshi and company could find the time or budget for. Simply put, this movie is a feast for the eyes, folks. One I heartily recommend to all fans of animated storytelling.
That said, the film isn't entirely without flaws.
There's a certain disjointedness to the narrative. Some pieces of the film never quite feel like they come together to serve the coherent whole. The scenes in the mountains are unevenly paced, and the later "betrayal" and reveal about Elinore come a little too close together to have any real emotional impact. Likewise with the separation and reunion of the traveling party. Both are obviously attempts to ratchet up the tension as we near the film's climax, but both end up falling a little flat.
Speaking of the climax, Avatar's willingness to use a gun against Blackwolf was undoubtedly one of the film's biggest and most satisfying payoffs. Bakshi shows us that for all Avatar's ideals about magic versus technology, and his genuine desire for peaceful solutions, the old wizard understands that sometimes there are no easy or clean answers. Sometimes a violent solution is necessary to stop a truly evil threat.
Avatar tosses the gun away at the end, clearly feeling like he's irrevocably dirtied himself by using one of the ancients' death machines. It's a very human reaction, and one the audience immediately empathizes with.
Admittedly, the idea of an apocalyptic fairyland is one that's stuck with me ever since first seeing this film, probably because it's just so damned weird. But looking at my outline for my current work in progress—and at the few chapters I've already drafted—I'm just now seeing how deeply that idea took root.
I'm seeing my post-holocaust world with its re-born magic. I'm seeing my gun-toting elves and my illusion-casting fairy. I'm seeing my warlord obsessed with digging into the technological secrets of the past. I'm seeing my killer robot with the--
Hmmm... A few surprises should be left on the table, I think.
The thing is, Wizards has long been a favorite of mine. I've always been a fan of the amazing visuals, the science-fantasy genre mixing, and the wide range of animation styles Bakshi plays with to tell his story. But I've never realized until now what an influential film Wizards is to me.
And for that, Mr. Bakshi and company have my deepest and heartiest thanks.
The Rad Rating:
While part of me feels like I should give Wizards a lower score for not having a tighter and more carefully structured plot, the other part of me feels like doing so would be missing half the point. Wizards is at least as much a purely visual experience as it is a traditional animated movie.
If you don't believe me, go back and watch that opening "histories" segment again. But do it with the sound on mute. See how much of the story you manage to pick up just from Mike Ploog's wonderful pen and ink illustrations, and the carefully selected background effects.
Bottom line: although it sports some undeniable some flaws, Wizards is a genre-defining classic, one that arguably represents the high-water mark of apocalyptic animation in the West. It's a criminally underrated film, one that's never quite gotten the wider recognition or the audience it deserves.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
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.