Last week, I mentioned the idea of running a "fantasy Vietnam" campaign: treating the adventurers as mostly unwilling draftees, gathered up from disparate villages across the kingdom, and trundling them off to hot-spots on the borderland to serve in a rapidly-escalating war agains orcs, goblins, and other inhuman creatures. A dungeon-crawling dirty war, conducted with fire magic and bloody steel.
As a brief side note, a fellow gamer on the OSR Facebook group politely informed me the proper term for the trope is actually "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam." And that the first use of the term might actually be on this Dragonsfoot board from 2005.
He also shared a ton of useful links that I'm still pursuing, which means this idle little thought experiment of mine might expand in scope as I keep working on it.
Anyway, there isn't really a "perfect" edition of D&D to do this with, which means I'll be kitbashing one together, stealing rules from various editions and other OSR systems as I go.
That said, there is a method to the madness, something I'm hoping will become clearer in this post.
As I previously mentioned, one of the guiding principles I'm exploring in this blog series is that the game's rules should imply something about the setting. As such, all of the tweaks and twists I'm making should create a specific effect, either evoking the tropes found in Vietnam war movies, striving to re-create something found on the historical battlefield, or some mixture of both.
One quick admin note before I roll onward. Up until now, I've been working with various B/X retro clones. Some of them are fantastic, particularly James Raggi IV's Lamentations of the Flame Princess. I've talked about how much I love that system before, and I'll stand by that statement. In fact, expect to see more than a few of his ideas of make an appearance in this kitbash.
But from here on out, I'll be using the D&D Rules Cyclopedia as my base document. I just ordered a POD copy from DrivethruRPG. In my not-so-humble opinion, the Rules Cyclopedia is the best edition of D&D ever produced, and arguably the single best product TSR ever made. If you want to follow along, but don't feel like buying a copy, Dark Dungeons is a available as a free, "close-as-you-can-get-it" retro clone.
MASH on the Borderland
It's been three weeks, and four missions down in the tunnels. That smiling little swordsman from Dragonfall was the first to die. A rusty gobbo spear through the gut, then swarmed and hacked to death by a dozen of the little devils. He died crying for his momma.
Bastards didn't even leave enough of him to box up and send back to her.
You still haven't written home. You aren't sure what you can say. The borderland isn't anything like your old militia service back home. Twice-yearly pike drills in the village square didn't do anything to prepare you for this.
How could it?
Last mission, you ended up separated from the party. A gobbo caught you and tried to pin you with one of those poison-tipped knives. You wrestled with him, staring into those hateful red eyes, smelling that rank breath. You only lived because you became more animal than he was. You sank your teeth into his neck, biting until you tasted his black, oily blood.
"Dear Mom" your unfinished letter reads. You haven't gotten any farther.
Easing yourself out of the bed in the adventurers' barracks, you decide to go down to the infirmary. Stitches pull tight beneath blood-crusted bandages, bringing a wince of pain. Some of the newer wounds rip open again. The older ones hold tight, thank the gods.
Three of you made it out of that last tunnel. The healers took good care of you, as always. They even found a bed for Kruppa, the party thief.
Kruppa... He was in bad shape when you got back. Almost didn't make it. The healers managed to stabilize him, but that was about it. Rumors said he stopped breathing last night, and one of the Sisters of Mercy had to perform their sacred "Kiss of Life" to revive him.
Fact was, Kruppa probably didn't have much time. And while forming attachments wasn't smart on the borderland—your first trip into the tunnels taught you that—you found yourself liking him.
You see the gathered crowd from halfway across the courtyard. Off duty kingsmen, civilians, tradesmen... everyone not otherwise engaged in their duties is crowded outside the infirmary building.
You spy Bregan the dwarf, standing on a barrel and cursing to himself, trying to see over the crush. You approach and ask what gives.
"They brought in one of the healing Clerics," the dwarf says.
A healing Cleric? Gods...
You've heard them. Holy beings, so the stories go. Mortals so touched with the divine they could call on miraculous healing powers.
You only half believed they were real.
You only half believed they'd be here, in this gods-forsaken hellhole.
All at once, a ghostly hush goes over the crowd. Something's happening. You try catch a glimpse through the infirmary's stone archway.
What you see is something that looks so out of place you still aren't sure your mind didn't make it up. The woman is saintly-looking, with platinum hair and perfect features. There isn't a speck of dirt on her. For the briefest second, she locks eyes with you. They're the deepest blue you've ever seen. Like the sky itself...
She lays a hand on Kruppa's forehead. She whispers something you can't hear. Then there's a flash. A white light like nothing you've ever seen. It will be weeks before you can even describe the feeling of warmth and love you feel in that moment. For a time, the memory of it almost makes the Hell of the borderlands seem tolerable.
"Kruppa's going to be okay," Bregan says. The crowd's beginning to break up now. You hardly even noticed.
The dwarf nudges you. "Come on," he says. "Patrol's headed north in an hour. Some FNG's out of Hooktooth. Told them we'd tag along. Should be an easy day's work. Earn earn enough for a bed and another meal."
A bed. Another meal. Gods. You remember when life meant more.
"An hour," you say absently. Your voice sounds hollow to your own ears.
You're tired. Your wounds ache. You know you need at least a week to recover. But you don't have it. Right now, you have about forty five minutes. And you need all of it to sharpen your knives, pack your kit, and tie everything down so it doesn't make a sound when you walk.
Because right now, you have to go down into the earth and collect goblin ears.
One of the things I believe a "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" campaign needs to do is portray the gradual degradation of the PCs from fresh-faced, raw recruits into haggard, bone-weary short-timers. But BECMI simply isn't built that way. Like all editions of D&D, it's built around the idea that your PCs will start out as weak 1st level characters, and get progressively stronger and more powerful through their adventures.
So the first change I'd make is to the way starting Hit Points are generated. The method is one I'm cribbing from Goblinoid Games' awesome Mutant Future, by Daniel Proctor and Ryan Denison.
After rolling 3d6 in order to determine stats—no cheating here—use the player's CON score to determine the number of hit dice the player rolls. Fighters and Dwarves use a d6. All others use a d4.
So for example, a Fighter with with a 13 CON rolls 13d6, coming up with 46 HP. An Elf with with a 15 CON rolls 15d4, coming up with 38 HP. A Thief with 10 CON rolls 10d4 coming up with 27 HP, etc.
Those hit points are all the hit points the character will ever have. Or rather, they're the character's permanent max. No more hit points are gained from leveling up.
It's also important to note that when rolling, you shouldn't apply ability score adjustments for high or low CON scores to the die rolls. Those bonuses and penalties will come into play later, but not at character generation, and not for determining total hit points.
Other benefits to leveling up, such as THAC0 (or Base Attack Bonus if you're kitbashing with a different system), spells, skills, and saving throws, are all still in play. But in Fantasy Fucking Vietnam, characters start with all the HP they'll ever be able to accrue.
The next major change I'd make is that I'd remove Clerics as a player character option. In fact, I'd remove healing magic from the field altogether, except for at rear-echelon, MASH-type units. It would only be available in limited supply, and reserved for the gravest extreme. Most of the time, PCs would simply have to do without.
This gets back to a point I made in the introduction, about how rules—and rules changes—should imply something about the setting. By striking Clerics from the list of available classes, I'm not just removing a bunch of player options. I'm saying something about the way the world around the PCs works.
Clerics themselves could be rare individuals, to the point where no one would ever risk sending them out into the field on a combat operation. There may only be a few dozen of them in the theater of operations, and twice that in the entire world. They'd be highly protected, with 24 hour security details wherever they went. The death just of one would be a crippling blow to the war effort. If one ever fell into enemy hands, a rescue mission would be the area commander's top priority.
And if a long range recon mission happened to learn of the existence of Druids—another class I would disallow for the players—it would have far-reaching consequences. More healing magic, and potentially limitless ability to strike at he goblins on their own turf? Area commanders would undoubtedly hire the PCs to escort them deep into Druid territory, in an effort to negotiate an alliance with the Neutral Druids, hoping to gain a powerful ally in the war against the Chaotic goblins.
Of course, the Druids might not be too happy to see the intrusive humans from the borderland keep, with their unchecked logging and hunting practices. The Druids may see them no differently than they do the goblins.
So what does this mean for healing, then, if magic is effectively cut out of the equation?
The way I see it, they have two options. The first is the Healing skill, detailed on page 83 of the Rules Cyclopedia. In short, a trained character can render first aid and heal 1d3 points of damage on one set of wounds, usually defined as Hit Points lost in one combat situation or encounter.
The second option is recovering hit points through rest. Swiping a bit from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the characters recover 1d3 HP per full day of rest. But to put a house-ruled spin on it, this rest applies only when not in field conditions. Characters must be in a relatively sanitary and safe location, with the ability to keep their wounds clean and protected.
This is also where the bonus ability score adjustment for high or low CON score comes into play. Apply this modifier to each d3 roll as the PCs are recovering, but only when resting in the rear.
For example, let's say you have a thief who lost a total of 22 HP on his last mission. First aid in the field helped him recover 3, so now he's only down 19. Back at the infirmary, the Healers clean and bind his wounds more throughly and put him on bed rest, aka "three hots and a cot." On his first day, he rolls a 2 on his 1d3. But his CON score of 14 gives him a +1 bonus, bringing that up to a 3. So by the end of day one, he's only down 16 HP.
On the other end of things, the thief's wizard companion lost a total of 12 HP. Back at the Infirmary, the Healers again do their best, binding and cleaning his wounds and putting him on bed rest. But the wizard's CON score of 5 applies a -2 penalty to all rest and recovery rolls. Rolling a 1d3 for his first night, the player comes up with a 1. Applying the -2 penalty, the result is that the wizard's wound festers, and he actually takes an additional point of damage overnight.
Taking all of these rules changes together—high HP at character generation, rare or nonexistent healing magic, and slow natural recovery times—what happens is that a very different sort of play style emerges.
You have PC's who gradually get better at fighting, even as they're being physically ground down by the grueling operational tempo. To help maintain the effect, I'd be careful not to allow too many R&R days in between missions. The idea is after that first mission into the tunnels, at least half of the adventuring party would begin every dungeon crawl as "walking wounded," sometimes missing as much as 10 HP or more.
The other idea is that for a grievously wounded character—one who's been denied magical healing—it can take up to a month to fully recover from injuries. And characters with a low CON score may just fester and die in the hospital altogether.
Admittedly, the changes made in this segment of my kitbash experiment are big ones, but that's because they're intended to produce big effects. The PC's in a Fantasy Fucking Vietnam campaign shouldn't be eager adventurers looking for increased fame and fortune. They should be wary survivors facing mounting exhaustion and eroding ideals.
I still have more rules changes to talk about in the coming weeks, most of them smaller and far less dramatic than this one. I have some thoughts on using simplified crit tables in conjunction with exploding damage die, for example. And I'm still noodling around with how to mess with skills and proficiencies.
Anyway, I think you've all earned some R&R. Go ahead and kick back, drink a cold beer, and blast some Hendrix tapes. Do your best to forget the world outside the wire.
Also, be careful who you let into your hooch tonight. Scuttlebutt says the gobbos caught and tortured an illusionist last week. Patrol found his body just north of the Ogre's Fist. What was left of it, anyway.
But they didn't find his spell book. Consider yourselves forewarned.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week's review is one I've been looking forward to. Not only is it the first book review to join the 'Pocky-clypse Now lineup, it's a title I've been eagerly awaiting since the author announced it several months ago.
I'm talking about Adam Lane Smith's heavy metal, post apocalyptic, Christian knights versus devils pulp-stravaganza, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
In the interest of full disclosure, I donated to Smith's Kickstarter for this project. And as a backer, I received an early copy prior to general release. Other than that, I don't know Smith. This is an honest review, with no favoritism given or expected.
If you're a first time reader of this column, a word of caution before proceeding. My reviews always include a detailed summary, followed by a breakdown of the story's essential genre elements, overall critical analysis, and a numerical "Rad Score" based on my personal rating criteria.
In other words, this review will be spoiler-filled.
Normally, I'd follow that format here. But since Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross won't be available to the general reading public until October 4th, I'm going to change up the format for this one. I'm going to put the spoiler-free Rad Rating first, followed by the somewhat spoiler-y Vitals.
I'll also put one, final spoiler warning before the summary. After that, Wastelanders, you're on your own. The rest of the review is going to be a spoilerific Thunderdome.
So, what did I think of Adam Lane Smith's blood-soaked demon-slaying adventure epic?
The Rad Rating:
Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross has all the makings of an instant cult classic. Over-the-top violence and blisteringly paced action meld perfectly with gruesome horror imagery, nightmarish monsters, and deep theological themes. The result is something truly unique and memorable. It's a roller coaster ride from start to finish, a high-tech Crusade through the blasted wastelands.
That said, it's not all blood and thunder. There are genuinely human moments in the story, moments of brotherhood, tenderness, and kindness that remind Gideon of the grace humanity is fighting for.
All in all, Adam Lane Smith has crafted a vastly entertaining book, a solid first entry into what promises to be a cult hit series. Highly recommended.
Wastelanders, of all the areas where Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross shines, this might be where it shines the brightest.
Simply put, Adam Lane Smith has a fantastic gift for writing violence.
His knack for pacing a fight sequence is exquisite, and the way he weaves the horrific details of the demon-infested world into the action helps to create something that feels fresh and unique with each scene.
One of the best examples of this is from Chapter 12, when Gideon battles a demon in what can only be described as a Cathedral of Bones:
With a huge foot, Zagoroth kicked Gideon in the chest. The knight's battered breastplate and the hit hurled Gideon through yet another bone pillar. His armor was so compromised that one of the sharp human spines stabbed into his lower back. Gideon slammed into the ground and skidded to a crashing halt with his back against another pillar. His HUD shrieked at him about a serious penetration, and when he looked down, the bloody tip of a bleached spine stuck out from his belly.
Because of details like this, the battle scenes never feel repetitive. Each one is genuinely edge-of-the-seat exciting, with stakes that matter, villains you want to see dead, and heroes you want to root for.
What more could an apocalyptic fiction fan ask for?
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Mostly simple and straightforward, with brief but effective descriptions of ruined cities, abandoned highways, and villages made from salvaged parts. Smith prefers to keep the story moving, without bogging his prose down.
That said, he manages some nice, clever touches here, brining his post apocalyptic world to life in ways that reflect the characters and their outlook. For example, Gideon muses about the words UNLEADED and DIESEL, reasoning that they must have been sacred to the Ancients, since they wrote them everywhere. To the wandering knight, only something of religious significance could be so common and so widespread. No other explanation makes sense.
One wonders what he'd make of the real explanation if someone gave it to him. Especially when the fuel source his Order uses to power their hovercraft is revealed later in the book.
Of all the passages describing society's destruction, though, the real show stoppers are the ones describing the ruined city in in chapters 17 and 18. With its enormous pyramid of packed, piled scrap in the center, this nameless ruin is an awe-inspiring monument to death and carnage, a cultists' and demons' hive built in the hollow corpse of the ravaged world.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
For a bunch of demon-worshiping cultists, the Ba'al cult displays a surprising level of sophistication. There's a clear hierarchy among the demons, the fallen angels, and their human followers, including lines of succession and chains of command. During a pre-mission briefing near the book's climax, mention is made of the vast amount of territory they control to the north.
In other words, this isn't some unruly rabble. This is a thriving civilization, one that's coming dangerously close to ruling the mortal realm.
That said, the legions of hell are prone to jealousy, backstabbing, and infighting, and the power vacuums created by the knights' Crusading can lead to bloody power struggles.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None in evidence yet, although the series is just getting started. I wouldn't be surprised to see depraved gladiator games and contests to the death between the cultists in future installments. I also wouldn't be surprised to see something a bit more civilized, like some kind of futuristic jousting or tournaments taking place among the knights.
Barbarian Hordes -
The highway bandits from Chapter 6 represent the only truly lawless faction in this world, the only reavers and raiders that owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves. That said, their quick and brutal end shows what a stupid choice that is.
Smith's post apocalypse is one where demons and fallen angels walk the ravaged Earth. Powerful necromancers and witches stalk the ruins, along with legions of demon cultists. Opposed to them are the anointed warriors of God, using salvaged weapons of the Ancestors to hold the darkness at bay.
In other words, this is a world built on faith in—and faith to—something greater than oneself, be it God or devils.
Red Hat and company are the only ones foolish enough to try holding themselves apart from that. In doing so, they've tacitly declared themselves as powerful as those major players, as the demons and devils stalking the world.
Of course, Gideon Ira makes laughably short work of them, and in doing so, reinforces to the reader that this is not a world of human conflicts. Rather, this is a world of supernatural and metaphysical conflicts.
And men like Gideon are merely its foot soldiers.
Badass Warrior Women -
Sister Heather, of the The Iron Doves. She's a stealthy, brutally efficient killing machine, and the Chapter 17 infiltration showing off her skills is one of the book's absolute highlights.
In the interest of keeping this section relatively spoiler-lite, I will say no more.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
Swap out "demons" for "mutants" in this case. I'm not going to make any semantic quibbles. Bottom line, the monsters in this book are memorable and awesome.
As with violence, Smith has a gift for creating unique and vile creatures. From the feathered Pride demon in the opening chapter—described as hulking and ape-like, with reptilian jaws and insect-like chitin covering its body—to the fallen Angels with their profane, stained glass wings and molten silver eyes.
What's more, Smith doesn't shy away from showing us these demons are evil. Casual atrocities like the slaughter of a village's adult population are just the prelude to the organized, large-scale sacrifice of that same village's children. Screaming girls have their entrails ripped out on altars. Temple floors are gore-soaked charnel houses, with the demons promising momentary power and respite to those that would serve them.
These aren't a bunch of misunderstood muties, Wastelanders. These are unholy abominations in need of a good purging.
And Gideon Ira is just the man for the job.
FINAL WARNING: DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD!
The book opens in a warren deep below the earth, where power armored knight Gideon Ira is locked in a death struggle against a feathered demon.
Ira battles the creature tooth and nail, and the reader gets a glimpse of the power-armor's capabilities. Ira deploys revolver, sword, and enhanced strength to little effect, but the creature does not fall. It's only when Ira wraps his rosary beads around his fist, literally beating the demon monster down with his own faith, that the creature begins to show signs of defeat.
Now, with the creature weakened, Ira is able to activate his sword's hidden plasma cutting edge. He finishes the monster, removes its head, and rides back to the nearby town of Blackbriar.
And with that, Wastelanders, Adam Lane Smith earns my implicit trust as a reader. He isn't here to waste my time. He's here to deliver on the promise he made when he announced this project months ago: Knights in power armor battling demons across an atomic wasteland.
And deliver he damned well does.
In Blackbriar, Gideon stops at the church to deliver the demon's severed head, and to give his report to the village priest, Father Harris. The priest then takes Gideon's confession, and just as the knight is preparing to leave the church, a blinding light and a booming voice from the heavens stops him in his tracks.
The radiant being has eyes of molten silver, and wings like stained glass windows, depicting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Far from being overawed, though, Gideon is unimpressed. The being is Azaria, an angel who's been standing by his side through his many battles, and who has appeared and spoken to him dozens of times in the past.
After his initial, dramatic entrance, Azaria takes a more human aspect, and the angel and the knight settle onto one of the pews to talk like old friends.
Azaria wants to know why Gideon appears so sullen and upset. The battle against the demon was far from the worst he'd faced. Gideon admits that he's frustrated at how long it took to track the monster. Months of battling through underlings, slaying cultists, and hunting for clues, when Azaria simply could have revealed the demon's location to him.
The angel reassures him that there was a purpose to the seemingly aimless running around. Many evils were removed from the world as he fought his way to the demon, including a powerful necromancer.
But the angel promises that his next task will be simpler, and more straightforward. All he must do is go to the tavern, and the location of the next target will reveal itself.
Gideon, still frustrated, asks if Azaria will just tell him directly. The angel's response isn't exactly what he wants to hear.
Another roundabout purpose, I'm afraid. Giving you a list of exact tasks does nothing to build your faith. My job is not to interfere in your life. I'm to guide you on your path, help you make sense of your experiences, and assist you with the choices you make. I cannot make your choices for you, and I will not rob you of your chance to experience a life of discovery which builds your faith.
With no path open to him except the angel's vague hints, Gideon heads next door to the tavern. After a short meal from the grateful proprietor, Gideon overhears news that cultists have massacred the adults in the village of Juniper, about a week northwest of Blackbriar, and taken the children away to use as human sacrifices.
Without saying a word, Gideon leaves the tavern and heads for the road. His first few days' travel are uneventful, but he eventually has a run in with a pack of bandits, led by one he mentally tags as Red Hat. He warns them off, seeking to avoid a fight and urging them to go to Blackbriar and confess their crimes. He says that they are not yet beyond redemption.
The bandits leap to attack, and Gideon makes short work of them. In the end, the only bandit left standing is Red Hat. The knight urges him to surrender, offering to take him along on his quest, to give him a chance to atone for what he's done.
But when Red hat learns that Gideon is bound for the territory of the Ba'al cultists, he takes a desperate last shot at the knight. But Gideon's power-armor enhanced reflexes are quicker, and he kills the bandit leader with a single, well placed shot.
Before Red Hat expires, Gideon again attempts to get him to repent, pleading with him to accept Christ in his final moments and be saved. But the bandit leader dies without uttering another word.
Another day's travel brings him to the corpse-strewn ruins of Juniper. True to the rumors, he finds no children among the bodies, and signs of a caravan headed northward.
Before he can begin his pursuit, though, he encounters another knight in power-armor. A quick ID between them reveals the man beneath the helmet is his old friend and academy classmate, Sir Caleb Davis.
Caleb has been on the trail of the same cultists that kidnapped the children, and he is visibly shaken by the carnage. He admits that the evil in this world sometimes makes him feel like giving up hope. The things he has seen battling against the demons and their human servants haunt him, and he sometimes believes that the darkness is winning.
Gideon does his best to reassure his friend, and urges him to give confession and ease his spirit. Caleb refuses, saying they must press on and finish the job first.
Gideon and Caleb follow the wagon tracks into the ruins of a nearby city, one from before the apocalypse that destroyed the civilization of the Ancients. The sign near the outskirts identifies it as Minneapolis.
They silently make their way through the ruins, eliminating sentries with brutal efficiency until Gideon gets spotted. The sentry manages to squeeze off a burst of machine gun fire just as Gideon impales him, and the rest of the infiltration into the cultists' hideout is a running firefight through the streets.
In the middle of the chaos, Gideon notices Caleb executing wounded enemies. He confronts his brother knight, saying it is not their way. Caleb counters that killing the enemies of the faith, and making sure they can't return to prey on the innocent, is the only way, and believing otherwise is naive.
Before they can settle the argument, the firefight resumes, and they're forced to fight and maneuver their way to the massive, bored out tunnel that serves as the cult's lair. Gideon, having seen this before, surmises that the cult is led by a demon.
Clearing the entrance, Gideon and Caleb work their way inside. They manage to locate and free the children of Juniper, but they cannot risk letting the cult leaders escape. Placing the oldest child in charge—a thirteen year old girl named Mary O'Rourke—the two knights work their way deeper into the tunnel.
At last, they find the grand central chamber, where they interrupt the end of a sacrificial ritual in progress. Gideon and Caleb make short, bloody work of the cultists, before they enter the final corridor and the heaped earthen throne room of the demon Zagoroth.
Zagoroth taunts the knights, saying their quests and their suffering have been meaningless, and offering them a chance at true power. Gideon resists, but Caleb, whose faith has already been shaken, succumbs to the temptation.
Demonic power flows into and transforms Caleb, and Gideon is forced to fight his old friend while the demon watches. It's an emotionally powerful, gut wrenching duel, and Gideon narrowly prevails, striking a death blow with his plasma sword.
Zagorath then traps Gideon in the plane of demons, and the already weakened knight is forced to fight for his life and soul against the demon in a cathedral made entirely of human bones. The demon spends most of the battle toying with the knight, as Gideon's armor gets weaker and weaker. At last, Gideon defeats the demon, but not before he is gravely injured.
Barely clinging to consciousness, and with only the thoughts of the freed children and prayers to the Lord for the strength to see them to safety driving him onward, Gideon crawls his way out of the tunnel and activates his distress beacon before darkness finally overtakes him.
When Gideon finally regains consciousness, he's on an air transport back to Belltower, the human stronghold and headquarters of the knightly Orders. Seated across from him is Sir Andrew Stone, another old friend and companion from his academy days. Andrew tells him they found the children, and all of them are safe and accounted for. They also found the remains of Caleb.
Gideon spends a day in recovery at Belltower, while his power-armor is undergoing repairs. He enjoys a day of quiet reflection and an evening Mass. Then Andrew picks him up for a major operations briefing. Something big is happening up north.
High Paladin Tharson, the regional commander of the knights, announces that they've identified an advisor to the Ba'al cult's regional high priest. If they capture the advisor, they can learn the identity and location of the high priest. And if they can kill the high priest, they can break the hold of the Ba'al cult in the region, potentially freeing hundreds of square miles of territory from their demonic influence.
The operation is going to be a small, surgical strike, with a team of just three knights. The priority is to get the target out alive without being noticed.
Andrew is named team leader, with Gideon selected as his number two. Also attached to the mission is Sister Heather of the Iron Doves, an order of covert intelligence specialists.
What follows is the single most thrilling action sequence in the book, an extended and harrowing infiltration and exfiltration filled with grotesque horror imagery, edge-of-the-seat action, and Smith's trademark, over-the-top violence.
These two chapters are worth the price of admission alone, Wastelanders.
By the end of it, the advisor is in the custody of the Belltower's interrogators, and Sister Heather predicts he'll reveal the identity of the High Priest in a matter of hours. The knights get a little downtime, but not much. It turns out Heather's prediction is right. The prisoner talks early, and soon the High Paladin is calling for another mission briefing.
Tharson identifies the target city, another Ancestor ruin to the north, and instructs the knights that they'll be riding out at first light. This is a search and destroy mission. The goal is to hit the city, and to slaughter every cultist they find, with the high priest being the raid's primary target.
The knight's have one last evening of quiet reflection and camaraderie, and Gideon and Andrew choose to spend it sharing a beer and reminiscing about old, departed comrades. The war against the demons has caught up with too many of them, it seems.
The knights depart the next day, and from here on out the book is non-stop action. The column of knights is attacked by flying demons en-route, forcing them to push on instead of resting. After a hard ride, they finally come to a ruin dominated by a huge, obsidian dome. Arrayed before it is an army of demons, necromancers, risen corpses.
With a battle cry, the knights charge the host. The fighting is fierce, bloody, and chaotic, and the knights gradually begin losing ground. Then last-minute salvation arrives, in the form of a Belltower gunship. The gunship manages to clear a path through the demonic host, and Gideon, Andrew, and three other knights manage to make it as far as the Obsidian Dome. High Paladin Tharson orders them to locate and kill the high priest.
Gideon and the others find him, but killing him turns out to be difficult. The priest—a demonic sorcerer called Snapdragon—has the ability to command a sort of living fog, whirling and shaping it into the shape of a vicious dragon. The priest more than holds his own against the gathered knights, and he even manages to kill one of them. It's only through some impressive teamwork, tactics, and faith that the other knights pull off their final victory.
The rest of the knights finally breach the dome, gathering their wounded and their dead, and planting a nuclear warhead to ensure the Ba'al cult will never use the site again. And as the transport ships speed back towards Belltower, Gideon Ira, Knight of the Blood Cross, watches the mushroom cloud form on the horizon.
I'll put this as bluntly as possible. Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross fucking rocks. It's a rollicking roller-coaster ride of righteous violence from start to finish. Fans of post apocalyptic action and military SF will find lots to love here. For some reason, the hive-like pyramid of the Ba'al cultists, in Chapters 17 and 18, reminded me of the Ant Nests in John Steakley's Armor.
That said, I think it's the quieter moments that truly define this book. Gideon's sense of brotherhood with his fellow knights, his tenderness towards the rescued orphans, and his simple, quiet faith when he's alone in the church are what make him a compelling character.
Sure, I may be following Gideon's adventures because he's a futuristic knight in badass power armor. But I want him to win because of the gentle kindness he shows to Sister Mary Brigid, and the easygoing humor he shares with William the armor smith.
Speaking of relationships, a special mention needs to be made of Gideon's relationship with the angel Azaria. It feels organic and real, with all the one-sided gravity a relationship between a mortal and an immortal should have. Azaria genuinely loves Gideon, and he's doing his best to guide him and nurture his faith. And we get the sense he finds it painful to see his friend go through these tribulations. But like Gideon, he's just a servant. He has a role to play in this grand design, whether he understands it or not.
This being the first book in the series, Adam Lane Smith lays plenty of groundwork for future installments. There are mysteries hinted at in Gideon's past, as well as a startling reveal involving Sister Heather of the Iron Doves. We're also introduced to a fallen angel who makes some menacing appearances, but otherwise doesn't do much in the course of the narrative. I'm expecting that all these strands will be developed in the next books.
Honestly, if there's any criticism to be had here, it's that Smith places the most emotionally powerful and complex fight scene too early in the story.
The battle against Caleb is the fight where the personal stakes are at their absolute highest for Gideon. A lifelong friend and brother has just succumbed to darkness. Gideon has no choice but to fight him, not just out of self defense or self preservation, but to honor everything Caleb once stood for and believed in. Only by standing true and refusing to give quarter can Gideon honor himself, his God, and the lost soul of his one-time brother.
The problem is, none of the battles that come after it have quite the same sense of gravity. After we've seen him forced to kill a comrade in arms, the personal stakes just don't feel as high when Gideon is battling the cultists and the demons. This is an admittedly minor quibble, one born more of my writer brain speaking up when my reader brain just wanted it to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn story.
The simple fact is, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross kept me glued to my seat from start to finish. It's a wildly fun and entertaining story with a compelling hero, a vividly imagined world, and kick-ass action. And when I reached the last page, I sure as hell wasn't second guessing Smith's placement of that one fight scene. I was far too busy thinking about Gideon Ira and his next adventure.
Wastelanders, I suspect you will be, too.
Until next time.
We're coming up on three weeks since I've written anything, and I wanted to put up a brief post explaining why. Personal reasons, mostly. The majority of them health related. But I've also been hard at work on an upcoming fiction project, and I wanted to share a little news about that, as well.
Incidentally, if that upcoming release is all you want to know about, skip to the bottom, below the boldface header. I promise I won't be offended.
First off, the good personal stuff:
I got to take a road trip two weeks ago to visit an old buddy from my Marine Corps days. He finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming a municipal police officer, after years of slaving away in private security and DoD Police jobs. He's more cut out to be a cop than anyone I know, and it was a privilege to be there celebrating his academy graduation. I'm keeping his name out of print by request, because he's always been a humble guy who doesn't seek attention.
That said, this is my digital space, and I get use it to tell the world how fucking proud I am of my blood brother.
And to that brother, I just want to say this: Semper Fi, man. It's been a long time coming. Wear that badge as proudly as you wore the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.
Of course, I managed to pick up some new and interesting germs on said road trip, and I've been sick as a bastard since getting back. I'm mostly over it now, but I spent a solid week hacking up phlegm and alternating between medicine hangovers and NyQuil-induced comas. Incidentally, my mother-in-law is a saint for making me her famous, fresh chicken soup while I felt like crap. I tell you, that stuff is the nectar of the gods.
I've also been having my usual round-and-round with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been about as much fun as an enema of live fire ants.
Bottom line, I've been running on fumes when it comes to mental energy these days. And what little I have been able to muster has been going into the new fiction project.
New Fiction Project
In recent weeks, I mentioned D&D's fiction line and Pink Slime fantasy. The latter was one of the two most popular posts this blog has ever had, with something in the neighborhood of four thousand unique hits.
Those two subjects aren't entirely unrelated in my mind. The rise of D&D's fiction publishing arm was one of the major driving forces in the overall homogenization of the fantasy genre, and the defining of what "vanilla" or "typical" fantasy looked like.
By contrast, the D&D game itself looked markedly different in the earliest days, when it was cobbled together from such odd literary influences as Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and Margaret St. Clair's The Shadow People.
As a result, I've lately found myself wondering what D&D fiction would have looked like if it actually drew from those Appendix N sources, instead of leading that homogenization trend. What if—instead of generating more vanilla fantasy "lore" for TSR's branded settings—it was allowed to get as weird and pulpy as the suggested setting in the AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide?
In that spirit, I'm currently working on a post apocalyptic, science fantasy dungeon crawler; something equal parts Sign of the Labrys and Swords Against Death, with some hefty helpings of Poul Anderson and Jack Vance in the mix.
Call it OSR fiction, for lack of a better term. Watch this space for more updates. Or, if you want to be notified as soon as it's available for pre-order, you can click here to sign up for my mailing list.
As for the immediate future of the blog, I'm planning to put up some more gaming related content, including some more deep-dive stuff into the old AD&D rules.
I also plan to continue my ongoing series of post apocalyptic reviews, which has earned itself at least a few die hard readers. And I'm finally adding books to the review series, starting with Adam Lane Smith's upcoming release Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
So stick around, folks. There's plenty more to come.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week, we're taking our first dive into the venerable (and batshit-bonkers) pastapocalypse genre.
In case you've never heard the term, pastapocalypse films were low-budget Italian b-movies, specifically aimed to cash in on the runaway international success of Mad Max. Studios churned them out by the dozen, often mixing in elements of other popular genre films. Sometimes the results were surprisingly good, as with Enzo G. Castellari's Escape From the Bronx or the half-genuinely-awesome Raiders of Atlantis.
Today's entry is not one of those films.
Wastelanders, I owe you all a preliminary apology for this one.
Welcome to Bruno Mattei's 1984 scholck-stravaganza, Rats: Night of Terror. Spoilers ahead.
The movie opens with a text crawl and voice over, along with grainy stock footage of a desert. And right away we're off to a bang-up start, as the movie manages to turn less than a minute of exposition into a painful slog. I'm quoting it here in its entirety, gratuitous ellipses and all:
"In the Christian Year, 2015, the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs devastate all five continents...
Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground...
From that moment begins an era that will come to be called "After the bomb," the period of the second human race...
A century later several men, dissatisfied with the system imposed on them by the new humanity, choose to revolt and live on the surface of the Earth as their ancestors did...
So, yet another race begins, that of the new primitives...
The two communities have no contact for a long period. The people still living below ground are sophisticated and despise the primitives, regarding them as savages...
This story begins on the surface of the Earth in the Year 225 A.B. (After the bomb)..."
Leaving aside the fact that two whole continents appear to have been obliterated before the 2015 atomic war, the stage is now set. We can jump right into a rip-roaring, nail-biting, edge of the seat--
Umm, credit sequence?
An upbeat synth-rock score kicks in as our heroes, a gang of truck and motorcycle-mounted "new primitives," casually joyride across the wasteland. Scary, jagged-edged letters flash across the screen, offering the only reassurance this isn't a movie about a team of plucky, down-on-their-luck dune racers.
The music winds down just as our heroes come to an abandoned village. They cut the engines, dismount, and select a random building to explore.
That building turns out to be a bar, one containing a nest of rats and a large store of food. As the bikers are celebrating their discovery, one of the women wanders to a nearby bed. The large, human-shaped lump underneath cover—which no one else apparently noticed at all—is moving.
She pulls back the covers to reveal a swarm of rats chewing on a bloody corpse. She then proceeds to respond exactly the way a tough, hardened survivor of the post atomic wasteland would respond.
Her scream brings the others over. The women naturally join in on the screaming, and the men stand there looking like the director forgot to give them any guidance whatsoever.
After a good twenty seconds of uninterrupted screaming—I'm not exaggerating, I went back and fucking timed it—their leader, Kurt, yells at everyone to stop it. Assessing the corpse, he comes to the conclusion that someone came here before the bikers, fought for control of the supplies, and was murdered. A genius observation undercut only by the massive pile of untouched supplies less than ten feet away.
The bikers then decide to explore the rest of the building, finding more rats, a few more corpses, and a basement grow house with a functioning water purifier. They also find what appears to be a master control panel and computer, although they don't know what it is or what it's for. The gang's resident "genius," Video, manages to turn it on mostly by accident. Causing the words TOTAL ELIMINATION GROUP to flash on screen.
Rather than taking this an an ominous warning, the bikers decide it's just referring to the dead bodies they already found. After all, what further danger could there possibly be in a corpse-strewn hideout loaded with suspiciously untouched supplies?
Hauling the bodes outside, Kurt torches them with a flamethrower. The bikers then settle in for a night in the communal sleeping area. Everyone has a bed except Lucifer and Lilith, who are loudly and passionately sharing a sleeping bag. Kurt eventually gets annoyed enough to send them out to the building's disused kitchen.
Once there, Lucifer and Lilith finish their tryst, but Lucifer storms off angrily when Lilith refuses him a second go-round. While Lucifer drinks in the bar, Lilith zips herself back up in the sleeping bag.
At the same time, another of the bikers, Noah, is studying the grow room in the basement. He realizes the rats are getting into the water purifier. He tries to get them out before they can infect the clean water. Just then, a literal rain of rats drops onto him from above. He screams his head off, but either nobody hears him or nobody cares.
Meanwhile, Lucifer ends up drunk and stumbling around in the street. He falls part-way through an open manhole cover while chasing his dropped liquor bottle, but manages to catch himself against the ladder.
But before he can climb out, a literal rain of rats hits Lucifer in the stomach, pouring off of what I presume must be the second floor of the nearest building. No indication is given for how they leaped all the way to the middle of the street, mind you, but fuck it. Rain of rats it is. Lucifer falls the rest of the way down into the manhole, and gets eaten.
Back inside, a sole, solitary rat chews its way into the sleeping bag alongside Lilith. She feels the teeth chewing on her, and frantically tries to escape the confines of the bag. But the zipper is stuck.
Yes, Wastelanders. You read that right. "Trapped in an already ripped sleeping bag" is actually a plot point in this movie.
Springing from their beds at the sound of Lilith's screams—because fuck Noah, apparently—the bikers grab their weapons and dash to the next room. But by the time they get there, it's too late. Lilith is dead, and that single rat from her sleeping bag is now crawling out of her open mouth.
Sadly, the shock barely has time to register over the sounds of the women-bikers' screams. Noah stumbles out of the darkness, covered in rats and bleeding profusely. Kurt responds by blasting him with the flamethrower.
Why? Because sometimes, leadership means torching an injured and terrified friend in front of all his buddies, damn it!
In short order, the surviving gang members realize the tires on their motorcycles have been chewed through, trapping them in the village. Kurt then decides the best thing is to go back into the building where two of their number have already been killed.
At this point Duke, another of the bikers, challenges Kurt's leadership. No one agrees to follow him, which is a shame, since he's the only one with the sense to realize that barricading themselves inside the rat infested building is a stupid idea.
Turns out it doesn't matter, though, since the bikers actually forget to barricade a fucking window. And as you might guess, a literal rain of rats spills through it to swarm over one of the women. The rest of the bikers manage to get them off her and escape into the sleeping room, but she's covered in bites. They realize they'll need to clean them or she'll get infected.
Kurt decides they need to get to the water reservoir in the basement. He also decides to leave Duke—the only member of the gang who's openly challenged his authority—to guard the women while the rest try to retrieve the water.
This goes about as well as you can imagine. Long story short, the water is polluted and useless, the rats swarm the bikers and take one of them down, and the survivors are forced to run for their lives. Naturally, Duke betrays them, refusing to open the locked door, and they're only saved by the quick thinking of Chocolate, one of the women that stayed behind with Duke. She actually manages to weaponize another female biker's reflexive, hysterical screaming by yelling "Look out, Myrna! A rat!"
I swear, folks. I've seen snuff films that hate women less than this movie does.
Anyway, Myrna's hysterical flailing and panicked screams manage to knock Duke out of the way, and Chocolate unlocks the door to save everyone. Myrna pleads with Kurt to spare Duke's life, which he does, despite the fact that Duke just attempted to murder half of the gang.
A short while after this bad decision, they hear a man's scream. They think it's Taurus, the man who didn't make it back from the failed water expedition. Kurt and the others go out in search of him, but find the adjacent room filled wall to wall with rats. They also see no sign of Taurus. Kurt begins to wonder if the rats are smart enough to try and trick them out into the open.
They decide to walk into the trap anyway, leaving Diana—the injured, feverish biker woman— behind. Kurt says she'll be safer alone, a statement in no way backed up by their experiences so far.
The rats let them get out to the main bar area, where the bikers find Taurus standing with his back facing them. Kurt spins him around, exposing Taurus' dead, bloody face. The women (of course) scream. Taurus falls over, and his body begins to bulge and swell. Then rats literally explode out of him, flying at the bikers through the air.
At this point, Myrna and Duke make a break for it, running for one of the trucks, which everyone suddenly remembers they have. At the sound of the engine cranking, the rest of the bikers give chase. A brief shootout erupts, and then a standoff, in which Duke holds Myrna and the truck hostage with a live grenade. It ends when the rats show up, causing Duke to drop the grenade, destroying the truck and blowing them both to pieces.
The survivors make their way back to the control room from earlier in the movie. On the way, they discover Diana, the girl who'd been rendered delirious by the rat bites. She'd regained enough of her lucidity to slit her own wrists. They don't have time to mourn her, though, because a literal rain of rats pours down the chimney.
Inside the control room, the bikers find Lilith's body, still wrapped up in her sleeping bag. The rats apparently dragged her in there, in a bid at psychological warfare. Note that this also suggests the room is neither secure nor safe, but that fact doesn't seem to occur to any of the surviving bikers.
As they drag Lilith's corpse out of the room and lock the door, Chocolate finds a recording device they didn't see last time. They get it to play, and listen to the last recording of a scientist engaged in something called "Operation Return to Light.
According to the scientist, the entire expedition is dead, wiped out by the rats. He says the rats were once underground dwellers, pushed to the surface as men migrated underground to escape the nuclear war. The rats survived on the Earth's surface, mutating, growing stronger and more intelligent, eventually taking mankind's place.
The scientist warns anyone who finds the recording that their only hope is to stay in the control room, and wait for the rescue team from someplace called Delta 2. The bikers realize there are still other people like them under the Earth, and that there just might be some hope left.
Just then, the rats begin to break through. Kurt tells Chocolate and Video to barricade themselves behind the computer console. He and Deus, the other surviving biker, will try and hold the door.
At the same time, a group of silent, mysterious men in yellow contamination suits emerge from the sewer tunnels. They begin methodically sweeping the streets and spraying poison gas.
Back at the control room, the door finally gives way. A literal rain of rats falls on Deus and Kurt, and as Chocolate and Video watch, both men are devoured. Chocolate begs Video to kill her. Before he can do it, the rats begin to leave. Video realizes there is gas coming in through the door. He quickly puts two and two together, realizing the men from Delta 2 must have arrived to rescue the dead scientists.
They make their way to the street, passing out from the fumes, but rapidly coming to with the men in the contamination suits surrounding them. As Video and Chocolate are thanking them, the one in the lead removes his mask, revealing the face of a giant, mutated rat.
It's an Italian horror film. Even money says they spent more of the budget on gore effects than they did on things like "safety rigging" and "standby medical personnel" for the stunt sequences.
Plenty of rat-chewed corpses get graphic close-ups, and there are two sequences involving rats ripping their way out of dead bodies—once with explosive results.
On that note, a special call-out has to be made here. While nothing as graphic as Cannibal Holocaust's infamous "tortoise scene" occurs here, some of the shots will leave animal lovers unsettled. Mattei wasn't shy about throwing live rats at his screaming, thrashing actors, or keeping them near his flaming stuntmen.
I didn't pick out any obvious injuries or deaths among the film's furry costars. But consider yourselves forewarned.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
For a micro-budget pastapocalypse movie, Rats: Night of Terror actually makes a respectable showing here. Yeah, the abandoned village is in suspiciously good shape. But it's suitably moody and atmospheric. Mattei manages to make it feel abandoned.
Credit where it's due. In a movie that does so much wrong, the set design stands out as something it manages to get right.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
None in evidence. In fact, the recording from the dead Delta 2 scientist is the only evidence of any kind of society, dystopian or otherwise.
Of the film's many weaknesses, this might be the biggest. Without any rival groups of humans to fight, there's frustratingly little for our mostly interchangeable bikers to struggle against. The movie is trapped into trying to paint the rats as a formidable and fearsome threat.
Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of making the bikers look like complete idiots.
I suppose some drama could have been milked from showcasing their struggle to find supplies, but that ship sails in the second or third sequence, when they find a giant stash of food, a functioning greenhouse, and a nearly-endless supply of purified water.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None, but I can't really say the film suffers for it. It's a simple survival tale, with a tight focus on a single gang of rovers. Sports, bloody or otherwise, would have made the story meander worse than it already does.
On the other hand, maybe a little athletic activity would have helped these guys, considering one of them died of "not being able to open a sleeping bag."
Barbarian Hordes -
The main characters, at least according to the lore the film shovels onto us in the opening crawl.
If so, then good news! The apocalypse of Rats: Night of Terror must not be so bad. Any atomic wasteland these guys could survive has to be pretty much devoid of any real dangers.
Kurt's biker gang is the sorriest bunch of barbarians to ever pillage a wasteland. Their juvenile banter and vapid characterization makes them come across more like a roving band of detention hall middle schoolers than a group of hardened survivors. They display all the survival instincts of a Hell-bound snowball, splitting up and wandering off alone at regular intervals, leaving their transportation and weapons out in the street, and not bothering to post any sentries while the rest of them sleep.
Also, they manage to get outwitted and overpowered by a pack of semi-intelligent rats.
Badass Warrior Women -
You'd think a movie featuring four punked-out post apocalyptic nomad women would have at least one tough enough to earn a nod here.
Wastelanders, you'd be wrong.
All of the women in this movie spend their time screaming at the sight of the rats, freezing in panic, and waiting for the barely-competent men to save them. It might not be so jarring if I didn't just watch The Blood of Heroes. But man... Kidda and Big Cimber would break these girls in half.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
The "regular" rats are the example with the most screen time, being the product of nuclear radiation. But the prize here goes the ridiculous, giant human/rat-things from the ending scene. I don't normally like to repeat myself with screencaps, but seriously...
Just look at this fuckin' thing:
What can I even say about this movie? It almost feels like a cheat to say Rats: Night of Terror defies analysis, but damn if I'm not tempted.
George A. Romero is as obvious an influence here as George Miller. Rats could almost be seen as Mad Max meets Night of the Living Dead, featuring the least intimidating bikers culled from Dawn of the Dead's b-roll footage.
As far as antagonists go, the rats just aren't intimidating. This is doubly true of the Mutant Rat Man at the end. Rather than a snarling, terrifying monster, it looks like the lovable host of a PBS children's show. When your big monster reveal would be more at home on Reading Time With Randy Rat than in an atomic wasteland, you messed up big.
On that note, the "twist" ending makes no sense.
Moments before the big reveal, Video asks the Mutant Rat Men if they're from Delta 2. The lead Mutant Rat Man nods his head. The implication is that the scientist on the recording was also a Mutant Rat Man.
That more or less squares up with the opening crawl, which indicates there are two races of man, now. And the Mutant Rat Man scientists being attacked and devoured by the "regular" rats also makes sense, given the movie goes through great pains to remind us over and over again how territorial rats are. Repeated hints are dropped that rats can smell when an "outsider" rat enters their territory, and the scientist on the recording mentions the rats only started attacking them when they removed their environmental protection suits.
But if that's the case, who the hell came in and poisoned the Mutant Rat Man scientists? The last lines on the recording are clearly "They're here! Their poison! Ah..."
So were the scientists on the recording supposed to be humans, then? Was the Mutant Rat Man just being an asshole when he indicated they came from Delta 2?
Whatever the intention, I'm pretty sure I'm giving this more thought than the writer or director did.
The Rad Rating:
Rats: Night of Terror just barely avoids the lowest possible rating. Some creepy atmosphere and set design are the film's only major saving graces. The action always moves, which is probably another point in its corner, all things considered. But the action is nonsensical at best, and highlights just how incompetent and useless the "heroes" are.
As such, stakes and tension are nonexistent. The only real tension you can milk out of this one is wondering if any of the rats were injured or killed in real life. And that's frankly the kind of "thrill" most viewers can do without. Myself included.
Bottom line, if you're in the mood for Italian b-movie awesomeness, there are plenty of other pastapocalypse films out there. Nearly all of them are more deserving of your time and attention than Rats: Night of Terror.
Give this one a miss, Wastelanders.
Until next time.
Welcome back, Wastelanders.
With the recent passing of legendary actor Rutger Hauer, I thought it only fitting to revisit his single greatest contribution to the post apocalyptic genre.
I'm talking about the largely forgotten 1989 cult classic, The Blood of Heroes, aka Salute of the Jugger.
The film opens on a desert vista, with a rough-looking group of wanderers approaching a small town. These wanderers are Juggers, players of a savage sport known only as The Game. At their head is veteran player Sallow (Hauer).
Excitement in the village mounts at the strangers' arrival. The local team of Juggers quickly assembles, prepared to play off against the newcomers. The rest of the villagers gather to watch. Among the observers is Kidda (Joan Chen), a talented and eager young player who apparently serves as part of her home team's second string.
The preparations for The Game commence. The players suit up, putting on armor and setting out the dog's skull that serves as the game's "ball." The locals set the goal stakes in the ground. They gather piles of counting stones to keep time with.
Once The Game begins, it's raw and brutal. Pretty soon one of the local players is broken and out of commission, and a player on Sallow's team named Dog Boy is playing with a badly injured leg.
Also in the exchange, Sallow's headgear is knocked off, exposing the tattoo on his face. The crowd is stunned. Sallow is (or was) a member of The League, the elite of the elite, the Juggers that play in the Nine Cities. What brought him out to the sparsely populated Dog Towns, they can only speculate.
With one of her home team's players out of The Game, it's Kidda's turn to shine. She suits up, taking her position as the team's "Quik." Her direct opposite is the injured Dog Boy. She begins taunting him before the round begins, saying she's going to break that leg.
The gong sounds, and immediately Kidda and Dog Boy are in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the skull. Kidda prevails, making good on her promise to break his leg. Then she takes the dog skull and makes a run for the goal stake. She nearly makes it, only getting stopped when Gar (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Sallow team up on her. Dog Boy gathers the skull, and drags himself to the home team's goal stake to win the game.
A night of drunken celebration later, and the Juggers are on the move again. Except now they have a follower.
Kidda, having tasted greatness against the traveling Juggers, decides she wants to be as good as the League Players. She follows at a distance, only approaching when they pause to let the limping Dog Boy catch up.
Kidda offers to take his place on the team, saying she's fast, she'll make a good Quik. Sallow rejects her at first. He says that Dog Boy will heal up soon enough, and tries to send her home. But she's still following a day later when Dog Boy admits he can't stand up anymore. The Juggers offer to bring him along, anyway, but he has too much pride to accept.
"No one carries the Dog Boy," he tells them. Respecting his wish, they leave him propped against a tree in the desert, with only his share of the food and water.
The next thing we see is an extended practice/tryout session, as Kidda works to earn her place. She gets knocked down. But she keeps getting up and trying harder. Sallow, deciding she's good enough to stay on, teams her up with the chain-wielding Gar, the team's "Giffer."
Soon the wandering Juggers enter another Dog Town, a village bigger than Kidda's. The ritual from before repeats as both teams square up and gear up. Then The Game begins, and Kidda has a chance to prove she's been paying attention.
Locked in another knock-down, drag-out brawl with the opposing team's Quik, Kidda is getting the worst of it, until she manages to climb onto her opponents back. She bites his ear off, forcing him to drop the dog skull. She scoops it up and makes a run for the goal stake. The team swoops in to protect her, and Kidda scores a victory.
Later, as the night's drunken celebration wears on, the team's surgeon Ghandi attends to Kidda's injuries. As he does, she asks about Sallow. How does a League Player end up out in the Dog Towns?
Ghandi begins to tell her the story: Sallow was apparently a rising star in the League, but young and foolish. He openly flaunted an illicit love affair with a lord's woman, which earned him an expulsion from the League and an exile from the Red City.
The story is interrupted by a drunk Sallow, who offers Kidda backhanded comments, criticizing her play style and saying she needs more practice, before he stumbles out into the night with a woman on each arm. This incenses Kidda, but Ghandi points out that he was actually complimenting her.
"He thinks you're very good," Ghandi says.
"That's not what he said," Kidda replies.
"That's what he meant."
Their talk then turns to the League, the Nine Cities, and the luxuries found there. Kidda's imagination—and her ambition—are stirred.
The film follows this with a montage of Dog Towns, matches, and drunken nights. The team wins every game they play, but the victories are always hard fought. Through all of it, Kidda is getting closer to the team, and especially to Gar, who she takes as a lover.
One night, talking to Sallow after a Game, Kidda observes that the boys in the Dog Town don't look like they've eaten in six weeks. He remarks that they probably haven't.
"We live good, compared to most," he says.
Kidda, though, uses this talk of hunger to pry for details about the League, and the Cities. She asks if they're really as good as everyone says, and if the stories about the luxuries Ghandi told her about are true. He says they are.
The Juggers continue to move further north, and they continue to play and win. But the matches get tougher the farther they go, and eventually Sallow gets blinded in one eye. As Ghandi patches him up, the surgeon remarks that maybe its time for them to turn south again, to head back to the smaller Dog Towns.
The following day, as they're walking to their next destination, Kidda asks why they don't just head for the Red City. She's been talking with the others. She knows now that any team can issue a challenge to the League. That's how Sallow got noticed and accepted.
Sallow refuses, saying they wouldn't accept anyway. But that night in camp, he sits awake, thinking. Kidda's hunger and drive for glory remind him of who he used to be, and what he used to stand for.
Come morning, he's making his way to the Red City. After some debate, the rest of the team follows.
A while later, the Juggers join a procession of refugees and travelers outside a lonely, isolated elevator shaft. They're all waiting to be allowed entrance down into the city. While they wait, Gar asks Sallow if it's true that no League team has ever lost a Challenge. He asks sallow if he thinks they can do it.
"Win," Gar repeats. "Or at least go 100 stones three times. That would be just as good, 300 stones. Tie."
Sallow says nothing, and Gar asks how many stones Sallow went back when he made his Challenge.
Sallow tells him they only went 26.
Gar is shocked. He asks how Sallow could possibly have been allowed into the League after a game like that. Sallow flashes a haunted smile.
"We were the only ones to ever last that long," he says. "Two of us were still standing. It was a good Game. We played very well."
Eventually, the elevator shaft opens, and the Juggers are permitted to take the long ride down into the underground City. Once there, the team goes to get food from a street vendor, while Sallow and Kidda go to watch one of the League Games.
At the sight of it, though, Kidda begins to have second thoughts. The Game is faster, more intense, and more brutal here than she ever imagined.
After the Game, Sallow and Kidda watch the winning players leave the field. The city's lords and ladies stand by the exit ramp, greeting and fawning over the victorious Juggers. While they do, Sallow's gaze drifts to one lord in particular. From there, it rests longingly on the lady by his side. They're obviously the ones from Ghandi's story, the object of Sallow's illicit affair and the lord behind his subsequent exile.
Kidda notices, but she makes no comment, allowing him his private memories.
Then Sallow spots an old colleague of his, a League Jugger named Gonzo. He approaches Gonzo at the end of the ramp, far from the city's elites. He asks about a Challenge match. But Gonzo says the League will never accept. At least not with Sallow on the team.
As they're leaving, Kidda tells Sallow she doesn't want to go through with the Challenge anymore. He asks if she's scared. She says yes. She says she doesn't want the League's attention anymore.
Sallow tells her he wants it.
In the very next scene, the Juggers appear before the League officials. For consideration, they present all the dog skulls they've collected as trophies in their wanderings. While they wait for the officials to give word, Sallow tries to stand near the back, unobtrusively. But the same lord from earlier, the one behind his exile, recognizes him. He wanders from official to official, whispering in their ears.
At last, the chairman announces they will deliberate before making a decision.
At a dining hall, the team sits around, dejected. They suspect that in not being accepted right away, they've been turned down. They saw how the officials looked at Sallow. They know if they're denied, it's his fault, an opinion Gar states out loud.
Both Sallow and Kidda leave to wander the city, eventually winding up in the Red City's ghetto. As Sallow offers to pay for two beds in a flop house, Kidda tells him to just pay for one.
As Kidda and Sallow spend the night together, the action cuts to Gonzo. The League Jugger is dressed in silk finery, enjoying a dinner party thrown by the city's elite. There, he's approached by the same lord seen whispering to the League officials earlier, Lord Vile.
Vile tells Gonzo that at his personal insistence, the challenge from Sallow's team has been accepted. Also at his request, Gonzo will be playing against them. He then instructs Gonzo to put out Sallow's good eye and break his legs when The Game commences.
Gonzo is practically dumbstruck. "You want me to damage him on purpose?"
Vile gives him a cold look. "I insist."
The next day is the day of the Challenge. In the audience stands above the arena, Lord Vile arrives with his lover in tow. Without telling her, he's brought her here to watch as Sallow is broken and humiliated.
On the arena floor, Kidda eyes the opposing Juggers. She talks to Sallow about her fears. She says she was never afraid in any of the other games, because before now, she never imagined it was possible to lose. She always expected to win.
"Then win," Sallow tells her.
On the opposing side, Gonzo tells one of his teammates to pin Sallow and hold him for the remainder of the round. Despite Vile's instructions, he intends to protect his old friend by any means possible.
The Game begins. In short order, Sallow is pinned. One of his other team members, Big Cimber, is down and badly injured.
But Kidda manages to keep the opposing team's Quik from making a goal, running out all 100 counting stones in the first round. It's an unprecedented achievement, and news of it spreads around the Red City as spectators flock to the arena.
During the intermission, team surgeon Ghandi is forced to take Big Cimber's place. The Red City's team gets fresh replacements. Lord Vile berates Gonzo for failing to carry out his instructions.
The second round begins. Sallow takes Gonzo head on. Kidda battles her rival tooth and nail. It's all-in for the entire team, and soon Sallow gains the upper hand on his old friend. He pummels the League Jugger into submission, then he slowly removes his helmet and locks eyes with Lord Vile.
At the same time, Kidda wrests the dog skull from the opposing team's Quik, beating him into unconsciousness. But Sallow stops her from running to the goal stake. He gestures around the arena. To a man, their team has the Red City Juggers down, pinned and defeated.
There's no one left to oppose her.
"Walk," Sallow tells her. "Slowly."
To the sounds of the roaring crowd, Kidda triumphantly strides up to the stake, placing the skull on it. For the first time in the history of The Game, a challenger has beaten a League team.
Plenty of it, and hallelujah to the b-movie gods for that!
While the bloodshed is entirely confined to the playing fields of The Game, a significant amount of the film's runtime is dedicated to it. We get bone-crunching, eye-gouging, skin-ripping action every time the Juggers take the field.
When it comes to violence, The Blood of Heroes lives up to its title.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Probably one of the most restrained cases in the entire genre. Arguably, it's also one of the best.
A lesser film would have labored to show the Juggers wandering past the blasted out remains of a city. But The Blood of Heroes doesn't go for such an easy or extraneous shot. Instead, it hints at the ruined state of things by carefully selecting the pieces of the old world the wandering Juggers carry with them.
Ghandi lugs around an old dresser full of his medical supplies, wearing it like an oversized backpack. The Juggers' armor is piecemeal, with most of it being made of old tires or chains.
But the single most striking example is the chess set made of sockets. It's a wonderfully understated piece of world-building, one almost bordering on genius: the competitive, tactically-minded Juggers finding a use they understand for an old-world artifact they don't comprehend the original purpose of.
Is it as spectacular or visually stunning as a shattered Statue of Liberty?
But it brings the world of the film to life in a way that no amount of crumbling landmarks in the background ever could.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
The Red City is an underground hellhole where the aristocracy lives in luxury, the poor live in squalor, and the Juggers fight to entertain the masses.
Sure, it's a fairly standard set-up. But with the story's tight focus on the Juggers themselves—and especially on the parallel character arcs of Kidda and Sallow—the film really doesn't need to stretch here.
Less is sometimes more, and The Blood of Heroes gives us just enough to keep things moving.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
With apologies to Tina Turner and her Thunderdome, The Game featured in The Blood of Heroes is the greatest example of this trope in the entire genre.
It's basically a heavily armed variant of football, where the goal is to put a dog's skull on the opposing team's spike. Time is divided into three rounds, and kept by throwing piles of 100 stones at a metal gong. When the pile runs out, the round ends. One goal is all it takes to win.
Simple enough. But there's a hidden complexity beneath the surface. Each of the five named player positions has a fairly a defined role. Only the Quik gets to handle the dog skull. The chain-wielding Griffer acts as the Quik's blocker and backup. The Slash appears to be the offensive line, with the Back-Charge, and the Drive serving as the defense.
Once the game is on, anything goes, with biting, gouging, and leg-breaking all deemed acceptable moves. Sallow ends up blind in one eye. Dog Boy ends up crippled and left for dead.
But despite the game's brutality, there's a sense of honor and fair-play surrounding it. Gonzo says it best, when defying Lord Vile's instructions to intentionally injure Sallow on the field.
"I've broken Juggers in half, smashed their bones, and left the ground behind me wet with their brains. I'd do anything to win. But I'd never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog's skull on a stake. And I never will."
Barbarian Hordes -
None, surprisingly enough. That said, The Blood of Heroes is the rare example of an apocalyptic movie that doesn't need them.
Aside from the Juggers themselves, nothing in the film's world building hints at any intertribal or inter-village rivalries. We see no war-bands, no weapons, and no guards or sentries of any kind, other than those at the Red City. Warfare is never even mentioned outside the pre-title card.
The assumption we're left with is that by some unspoken tradition, all war and conflict have been replaced by The Game.
It's a conceit that 100% works in the context of the story. One the movie pulls off by presenting it matter-of-factly, along with the rest of its premise.
Badass Warrior Women -
While Anna Katarina's battle scarred, boisterous, and fearless Big Cimber certainly deserves a nod, The Blood of Heroes' Badass Warrior Woman MVP is undoubtedly Kidda.
From the first frame she appears in, Kidda has the eye of the tiger. She makes good on her threat to break Dog Boy's leg in her initial game. In her first match as a member of Sallow's team, she bites the opposing Quik's ear off. She battles tooth and nail to help drive her team to victory after victory, culminating in the climactic Challenge match in the Red City.
Sure, Kidda might be small. But she's as tough as they come, and the movie forces her to prove it time and again.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
None to speak of. Gonzo is probably the closest we get, but that's stretching the definition past its useful limits.
In fact, I'm only bringing him up here because of what he represents in the story.
While most apocalyptic films use the grotesque and the freakish as shorthand for the forces trying to tear down civilization, The Blood of Heroes does the reverse. Gonzo is actually this civilization's representative: an abnormally large Jugger with an exposed steel plate in his head. He's what Sallow could have been if he'd remained in the Red City, and an illustration of the "good life" Sallow was exiled from.
It's an interesting visual choice, especially when coupled with the almost Dantean elevator ride down into the Red City.
For one thing, it underscores that Sallow's exile may not have been an entirely bad thing. We see the Red City, the aristocracy, and the League, and we come away with the conclusion he was better off in the Dog Towns.
Sallow descends into a metaphorical hell in search of his redemption. Keeping with the Dantean metaphor, the Red City is Inferno rather than Paradiso. And Gonzo is one of its bloated, grinning devils.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about The Blood of Heroes is how flat-out brilliant the concept is. It's a post-apocalyptic sports movie, equal parts Rocky and The Road Warrior. And while the set-up has the potential to be gimmicky, Writer/Director David Webb Peoples uses it to break new ground in the genre.
Where most apocalyptic stories feature characters focused on survival, The Blood of Heroes instead gives us characters primarily concerned with honor. That's a fresh enough take to be noteworthy on its own. But what's truly fascinating about that choice is what it implies about the movie's setting.
The Mad Max films and their imitators mostly portray a world falling into savagery. Bands of lawless nomads rape, murder, and pillage their way across the wastes in an endless struggle for limited resources. But The Blood of Heroes shows a world where the pendulum is just beginning to swing the other way, a world taking its very first steps away from barbarism. The celebrity status of the Juggers, the reverence everyone holds for The Game, and the unspoken but pointed absence of any other kind of violence all hint at a new and emerging order, an infant civilization crawling out of the ruins of the old.
It's the kind of story that rarely—if ever—gets told in this genre.
The second thing that needs to be said about The Blood of Heroes is that in terms of pure story, it's flawlessly constructed.
By maintaining a tight focus on the unknown but ambitious Kidda and the disgraced veteran Sallow, it seamlessly blends two opposite—but not opposed—character arcs, creating a larger and more powerful story in the process.
The film's biggest strength is the way it leverages the main characters' motivations. Kidda's hunger for glory is played perfectly against Sallow's desire for redemption. Most importantly, it avoids the easy trap of dropping them into a traditional Mentor/Pupil relationship, opting for a more nuanced approach.
While Kidda learns the ropes of The Game from Sallow, the aging Jugger sees a reflection of his own lost, youthful enthusiasm in her. It sparks a deep desire to go back and right a wrong committed against his pride.
By act three, both characters have a powerful, consuming need to play in the Red City. The Challenge match is more than just another Game to either of them. It's everything. Win or lose, they'll go down swinging.
And damn if we're not on the edges of our seats the entire time.
Ultimately, The Blood of Heroes is a film is about hope and heroism in a brutal, unforgiving world. Victories are short and fleeting, and they only happen when you make them happen.
But when they do, they're stuff of legends.
The Rad Rating:
The Blood of Heroes comes within reaching distance of the coveted Five Rad rating, but it falls just short of apocalyptic perfection.
The pace never flags for an instant. The action moves along smoothly without feeling rushed. The characters have ample time to grow and breathe. The film knows which moments are important to show us in full, and which ones can safely be summarized in an action montage.
Above all, The Blood of Heroes doesn't engage in hand-holding. It presents its characters and its world matter-of-factly. It trusts its audience enough not to pause and point out the obvious, allowing us to gather everything from the subtext, the dialogue, and the art direction.
Honestly, the film's only real flaws are the relatively wooden performances from the supporting cast, and its somewhat uninspired cinematography. Neither are grievous sins. But they're just glaring enough to prevent me from awarding a full Five Rads.
That said, The Blood of Heroes is a criminally underrated masterpiece of post apocalyptica. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Mad Max and The Road Warrior when discussing the genre's all-time classics.
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.