One of my old martial arts instructors—a man specializing in knife fighting—used to have what he called the "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
It's a useful thought experiment, but one that needs a little explaining.
Basically, the instructor took an imaginary student. The imaginary student had no prior knowledge of martial arts, no fighting experience, and a minimal amount of athletic ability. In this scenario, the student approaches the instructor in a panic, saying he has to be in a knife fight in 5 minutes. He can't avoid it.
What does the instructor teach him? What tool does he give the student in 5 minutes that gives him the best chance to succeed?
He settled on a simple defensive move, one that forced the enemy to come to the student. He showed the student how to stand, how to hold the knife, and how to retreat. "Just cut anything that comes in reach, and keep cutting."
That instructor's thought experiment is something I've circled back to more than once over the years. It's an incredibly useful way to identify crucial parts of a complex system, and put them at the forefront in a practical way.
Not to say that the entire system needs to be thrown out. You can—and often should—still practice the larger and more complex system. Especially when it comes to something as deadly serious as martial arts. But it does give you a good idea of which principles are most important, and which things you should be focusing on as you hone and perfect the larger system.
Anyway, I'm rambling a bit, and I still want to tie this point to the subject of today's post:
A discussion thread popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday. In it, the self-styled "Evil High Priestess" of the OSR cavegirl talked about how Alignment-as-written is is poorly fleshed out, usually leads to bad experiences, and most DMs cut it entirely.
You can read her entire thread by following this link. You can also just read the following screen caps of my buddy Cirsova's posts. They copy cavegirl's posts word-for-word, but they add photos of oiled-up bodybuilders and vintage Charles Atlas ads to the bottom of each one:
Admittedly, the Cirsova posts are a bit of a piss-take. Mostly because our mutual buddy Meffrius—who was unfairly dog-piled not too long ago over his "#EliteLevel powergaming" schitck—said the same thing about Alignments as cosmic factions months ago.
Incidentally, you should follow Meffridus on Twitter. You should also buy Cirsova.
But I digress.
Cavegirl is right, of course. Alignment should be a form of cosmic faction play. In fact, with Gary Gygax's inclusion of Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books on Appendix N, it's difficult to see how it was ever intended otherwise.
Anderson, in particular, gives a fantastic "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Alignment-as-cosmic faction play. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 3 of Three Hearts Three Lions.
But the fact is, not many of the responses below cavegirl's post indicate people are familiar with the reading material. As John McGlynn, co-host of Geek Gab points out, the concept of Alignment-as-personality-test is at least as old as Moldovay, making the Appendix N interpretation the exception rather than the rule.
Which honestly has me thinking. Not too many people have read Appendix N as deeply as Jeffro Johnson or Joseph Goodman. I'm a dabbler compared to those two, and there are plenty in the OSR scene who have read much deeper than me.
But I'd assumed more—if not most—people in the OSR were at least passingly familiar with the more famous works on Appendix N. At least the ones responsible for the quirkiest bits of D&D's ruleset.
For a long while, I'd been thinking about what I'd put on an "Abridged Appendix N," the three or four books I'd hand someone who wanted to give their D&D game an entirely different feel than the standard "D&D brand" setting and flavor. I'm still mulling that one over, because I think it will skew heavily to science fantasy.
But I think after reading cavegirl's post, I have what I'd call my "5-Minute Knife Fight" version of Appendix N: pre-supposing a brand new player—one who has no prior knowledge or experience of D&D, fantasy, or roleplaying games—what three books would I give him to teach him about D&D's underlying concepts to help him understand and run a game quickly?
Again, this is by no means exhaustive. I'd still urge people who are interested in D&D to read the other authors on Appendix N, or the other works by these authors. Lovecraft and Howard spring readily to mind, as to Burroughs and Brackett. Plus there's the rest of Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, the rest of Vance's work, and the rest of Anderson's.
Any or all of them would be worth reading on their own merits, and any of them would undoubtedly enrich and inspire your game. So would countless other fantasy writers.
But in terms of my old instructor's "5 Minute Knife Fight" concept, those three titles are probably the three most crucial books on Appendix N. Those books are the "standing, holding the knife, and retreating," of the world implied by D&D's basic ruleset.
Read those three books, and you have a basic grasp on Vancian Magic, Alignment, Thieves' Guilds, how humans and Demi-humans do (or don't) get along, magic items and artifacts, certain monsters, how to run a series of connected adventures (via Anderson and Leiber's examples), the politics of a big city, wilderness and sea travel, and some example ruins/NPCs you can liberally steal from.
As an added bonus, most modern fantasy fans haven't read them, so they'll think you're being original.
It's also important to note that each of these books clocks in at around a hundred fifty pages or so. All together, they equal approximately one Harry Potter book. I'm a naturally slow reader. But I'd guess most people can probably read all three in about a week and a half of their spare time.
Add to that the time needed to figure out the chosen ruleset—not long, if you picked a 0e or B/X retro clone—and you're probably looking at about two weeks from complete novice to Dungeon Master.
So, there you have it. D&D's very own "5-Minute Knife Fighting Lesson."
Take it, build a foundation, and keep the crucial parts in mind as you hone and perfect your game.
This blog is the third in a series, in which I'm examining the relationship between rules and setting in D&D. The chosen setting? Fantasy Fucking Vietnam: a hellhole region on the borderlands, in which humanity is locked in a bitter, dirty war against goblins, orcs, and other creatures of Chaos.
If you're just joining in, here's a quick link to Part 1, and another link to part 2.
Before I jump into this week's topic, though, I wanted to say a brief word about the "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" trope, and exactly why I'm approaching it this way.
Over on the OSR Reddit board, user charlesedwardumland pointed out that the trope was never originally intended as a 1:1 analogy of the Vietnam War. It was more an observation about a certain style of play, one that combined the high lethality of old school dungeon crawling with "combat as war."
Specifically, he felt that starting Level 1 characters off with a lot of Hit Points—as outlined in Part 2 of this series—ran counter to that play style.
Here's his comment in full:
It's an excellent counterpoint, and I want to thank him for bringing it up.
The main reason I'm aiming for a 1:1 analogy here—or as close to one as I can get—is that Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics already did a high lethality game with a bunch of low HP, press-ganged noobs. And as far as I'm concerned, they knocked it out of the damn park.
Bottom line, there was no reason for me to retread that same territory. If I was going to write anything on the subject at all, I wanted to try and bring something new to the table.
So started thinking about the idea of a Fantasy Fucking Vietnam in more literal terms, to see if I could come up with something a little more interesting. I started approaching it from the other side—the survivors, rather than the KIAs—to see if that would yield some more interesting results. That got me thinking about things like long term exhaustion, and battle fatigue.
And then then I started to think of Jimi Hendrix, Huey Cobras, and weird shit.
Which brings me to today's post:
Purple Haze All in My Brain
For once, you drew the short straw. The other adventurers—normally prone to ribbing you and giving you a hard time when you pull a shit job on missions—won't even look you in the eye.
Not this time.
The other short straw goes to Bregan. The gruff dwarf doesn't say much. But then, he never does.
There isn't much to do except sit and wait at the ambush site while the others hike the three miles to the tunnel's main entrance. If all goes according to plan, in a few hours' time, they'll be flushing the gobbos out to you—and to your "allies" in the trees.
You settle in, keeping eyes on the gobbos' burrow. Your companions slip though the underbrush, silent as ghosts.
"You see Kruppa?" Bregan asks.
"Yeah," you respond. "Bastard didn't even shake. First time I've seen him eager to go back underground."
The dwarf almost laughs. "You blame him?"
You risk a glimpse up. You think you see a winged shape, flitting between the high branches. You suppress a shudder.
Bregan leans close. "I tell you this, boy. I don't trust those tree-toppers. They're worse than the Chaos-damned elves. You hear me? Worse."
In the months you've known Bregan, the only thing you've ever heard him call worse than an elf was a goblin. And even then, he said the distinction was small.
You press him for reasons.
"Their magic is different," he says a last. "It gets inside your mind, boy. It'll drive you mad."
Hours pass. You take shifts watching the burrow for any signs of life. You even manage to get a little sleep.
You're on watch when you hear the sounds. They're faint at first. Distant. Hollow. A clash of steel. A shout. A flash and boom. Then, closer and louder, the noise of scurrying feet and the gibbering, croaking sound of the gobbos' language. You're up on your knees and drawing your knives before you're even conscious of the thought.
In the next second, the burrow is alive with activity. Dozens of goblins burst forth, crawling over each other like ants in their mad dash to escape. In seconds they're scurrying and running through the underbrush, scattering in so many directions you can't even begin to track them all.
It's a tactic, of course. One they use to overwhelm and confuse inexperienced hunters.
It's then that you risk another glance up. A stupid, stupid risk...
You just barely catch a glimpse in that half-second. The tree-topper has a slender, child-sized body. Its wings are large and colorful, like those of some exotic butterfly. And it seems to be scattering some kind of bright, purplish dust from its hands...
Bregan drags you to the ground, shouting in your ear. "Cover your eyes, damn you!"
You do as you're told. An instant later, you hear the goblins' agonized screams. You smell their burning flesh. You hear them frantically thrashing on the ground, trying to beat the flames out on their burning bodies.
It's several long seconds before you risk opening your eyes again. Bregan is already up and swearing oaths to his dwarven gods. You're inclined to join him, if only because you aren't sure yours are listening just now.
The entire hillside is littered with blackened goblin corpses. As if fire rained down from the heavens.
Only nothing else is burned. The trees and logs are still whole. The leaves are still green. In places where the morning sun hasn't reached, the grass is still damp and cool to the touch.
Gods... a phantom fire? One that only burns the flesh if you look at it?
Just what kind of "allies" did the King make in this war?
Up in the trees, you hear the sound of fluttering, butterfly-like wings.
The first thing I want to break down here is character alignment. If you're a player that came to the game anytime after AD&D 1e hit the shelves (read: after 1977), you're probably most familiar with the nine point alignment system. For better or worse, this has become the "classic" D&D alignment system, having survived through every subsequent edition of the game except 4th.
Rules Cyclopedia, however, is a compilation and refinement of the various BECMI boxed sets. Meaning it uses the simpler, single axis, Law vs. Chaos alignment system. While I have a lot of personal nostalgia for that nine point system, in practice I find this is the better of the two. That said, I still think it can use some tweaking, and for that we're going to once again return to the indie OSR movement, and their interpretations of the rules.
Page 10 of the Rules Cyclopedia defines alignment as a "code of behavior which guides the actions and thoughts of a character or monster." It gets into specific examples, but generally reduces alignment to nothing more than a simple moral code, with very little to distinguish it from the average person's definition of good and evil.
Compare that to James Raggi's definition of alignment on page 8 of Lamentations of the Flame Princess:
"Alignment is a character's orientation on a cosmic scale. It has nothing to do with a character's allegiances, personality, morality, or actions. Alignment is mostly used to determine how a character is affected by certain magical elements in the game."
That last sentence is important, and we're going to come back to it. But first I want to jump to Dungeon Crawl Classics, and its take on Law vs. Chaos.
Dungeon Crawl Classics breaks down the three alignments on page 24 of the rulebook, and it combines "moral outlook" approach of Rules Cyclopedia with the "cosmic orientation" of LotFP. While I'm planning to disregard the "moral outlook" part, I do want to call attention to this snippet from their example of a Lawfully aligned character:
"Fundamentally, Lawful characters choose the path of mankind over the path of supernatural dominance."
This sentence serves as a good, succinct breakdown of the entire war on the borderlands, which in my mind is an updated, nastier version of the one in Poul Anderson's Appendix N classic, Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Quoting from page 25 of my Doubleday hardcover edition:
Holger got the idea that a perpetual struggle went on between primeval forces of Law and Chaos. No, not forces exactly. Modes of existence? A terrestrial reflection of the spiritual conflict between heaven and hell? In any case, humans were the chief agents on earth of Law, though most of them were only so unconsciously and some, like witches and warlocks and evildoers, had sold out to Chaos. A few nonhuman beings also stood for Law. Ranged against them was almost the whole of Middle World, which seemed to include realms like Faerie, Trollheim, and the Giants—an actual creation of Chaos.
In this setting, goblins and orcs aren't Chaotically aligned because of how they see the world. They're actual creations of Chaos, whose warring and raiding against human settlements ultimately serves the purpose of universal Entropy. No expense must be spared in the fight against them.
At least, that's going to be the King's justification for it.
But to a bunch of conscript adventurers, none of it will much matter. Their primary concern will be outsmarting and outlasting those goblins long enough to go home. As such, the majority of player characters in Fantasy Fucking Vietnam will probably be Neutral.
There are two class exceptions, though. Both Magic-Users and Elves must be Chaotically aligned.
This has to do with the second part of James Raggi's alignment definition, above, and with Poul Anderson's explanation of the war between Chaos and Law.
The basic idea here is that Arcane magic involves temporarily violating and reshaping reality. That's an inherently Chaotic act, no matter how you slice it. Anyone doing so is tapping into forces they don't fully comprehend, gradually speeding up the Entropy of the universe with each spell, whether they intend to or not.
And if we're treating alignment as cosmic orientation rather than moral outlook, then this fact is far more important than whether or not they believe in the actual cause of Law over Chaos.
But remember, rules (and rules changes) should imply something about setting. So let's apply that to this PC alignment restriction.
If magic involves messing with Chaos and Chaos energies, let's say the elves were the ones who invited it into the world eons ago. Maybe back when the elves still built and lived in cities, they did the whole "Pandora's Box" thing, unleashing a power they thought they could control. It completely destroyed High Elven civilization, scattering the survivors into small wooded enclaves. Now, as an act of atonement, the elves' descendants have agreed to help humans in the war against the Chaos they helped usher into the world.
Not that this promise has done much to earn the trust of the humans, dwarves, and other races fighting the Chaos hordes on the borderlands. I'm imagining Elves would be mostly shunned outsiders, likely having to work to overcome severe racism and hatred on the part of their adventuring companions.
Human Magic-Users, too, would be characters messing with forces they don't entirely understand. They'd be under great suspicion, and only a few would ever earn enough trust to become bonded kingsmen. The rest would probably be treated similarly to Elves, shunned if not outright hated, until they managed to prove their mettle under fire.
Fairies Wear Boots, and Ya Gotta Believe Me
The second thing I want to talk about this week is the character class I'd introduce as a replacement for Clerics: Tree-toppers, aka Fairies.
The fact is, if you're going to enhance the Fantasy Fucking Vietnam vibe, you need flyers of some kind. Vietnam was the first large scale "helicopter war," with helos serving in attack, transport, and medevac roles. It changed the entire nature of the battlefield, and you need to put that capability somewhat within the PC's reach, if only for the occasional "combined arms" missions with allies.
I also wanted something a bit hippie and trippy feeling, and last week's viewing of Ralph Bakshi's animated, post apocalyptic acid-trip Wizards certainly provided some inspiration here. If you've never seen it, my full review can give you a run-down, but I highly recommend seeking out this underrated gem of 70's animation yourself.
As to how I'd run a Fairy class, I'd probably start with the Halfling class and begin tweaking from there. I think keeping the rough physical characteristics and woodland abilities makes sense. Likewise with the combat bonuses against bigger creatures. I'd bump the average weight down from 60 pounds to about 30 or 40 at most, to account for flying ability and slender build.
Speaking of the wings and flying ability, I'd take them from the optional Phaelim race, from the Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game. An unencumbered Fairy can fly for 10 rounds, but must rest for the same amount of time afterward. A lightly encumbered Fairy can fly for five rounds, but must rest for twice that amount of time afterward.
As for prime requisites I'd keep Dexterity, but swap out Strength for Wisdom.
In order to give the PCs some more spell-casting options, I'd also use Fairies to re-introduce a subclass from AD&D 1e, one that I felt got the shaft in later editions: Illusionists. Back in 1e, Illusionists were highly differentiated from Magic Users, with a spell list that had very little overlap. I'd have my Fairies take their spells exclusively from this list, while following the XP and Spell Progression table of the Elf class.
I also wouldn't have them follow the Chaotic alignment restriction of the Elves and the Magic Users. Whereas Arcane magic is temporarily altering and reshaping reality, thereby breaking down the natural order, Illusion magic is simply altering the target's perception of it. Sure, a powerful enough illusion can convince the target he's falling off a cliff or burning alive. But the same forces aren't at play on a cosmic scale.
And besides, in practice it's mostly going to be smaller-scale stuff: causing the target to hallucinate things and hear noises that aren't there. You know, like this completely real chemical weapon that's been in U.S. stockpiles since 1955, and has allegedly been duplicated and used by several countries in years since.
Told you all I've been thinking about weird shit...
Anyway, that's about all I've got for this week. Next time I'll have some more thoughts on the Thief class, skills, and skill resolution. And maybe some stuff on the makeup and organization of the Chaos side of the war.
Until then, stay careful out there. Keep collecting the bounties. And for the love of Bahamut, if you hear fluttering wings in the trees, don't look up. The tree-toppers are on our side. But accidents happen. And we don't need anyone hallucinating three-headed purple tigers or some shit, and screaming off into the woods.
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.