As I mentioned a few months back, I've been running an OSR-hacked Curse of Strahd game with my regular D&D group. And this past weekend, I realized I'm probably DMing the most creative bunch of murderhobos to ever set torch and pitchfork to the gods-forsaken land of Barovia.
I also realized they just might be the villains.
For those of you unfamiliar with the adventure and its basic set-up, Curse of Strahd is a 5e remake of the classic AD&D module, I6: Ravenloft. The adventure finds the PCs trapped in the mist-shrouded valley of Barovia, which is ruled by the vampire count Strahd von Zarovich. Strahd will only allow the PCs to escape if they surrender his intended bride, an innocent peasant girl named Tatyana.
Unless the PCs find a way to defeat Strahd, while simultaneously keeping Tatyana from falling into his clutches, they'll be trapped in Barovia forever.
This set-up was pretty railroad-y by 1e standards, but the mix of Gothic horror tropes with high adventure struck a chord with players. Ravenloft was one of the most popular D&D adventures of its era, and has seen some form of remake or reinvention for every subsequent edition of the game, including a full campaign setting in 2e.
Anyway, the details are a bit convoluted to go into here, but the bottom line is that in this run-through, Strahd's intended bride Tatyana ended up dead.
Normally, this is bad news for the PC's.
But rather than just try to conceal this fact as long as possible, and launch a surprise assault on the castle—which is what I expected—my merry band of murderhobos decided they now had a unique weapon in their hands. So they proceeded to hatch the most twisted "get Strahd" plan I've seen in all my years of DMing the Ravenloft setting:
The next evening, they loaded the Zombie Tatyana up into a carriage and rode for the castle. When they arrived in the courtyard, Strahd came out to greet them. He was dressed in finery himself, and flanked by skeleton warriors in polished dress armor. The PCs dismounted, and gave a speech humbly apologizing for being so unreasonable before. The also expressed their hopes that Strahd would honor his earlier promise to help them escape the valley, in exchange for Tatyana.
Strahd replied that he is an honorable man, and would keep his agreements. He also invited the PCs to stay for the wedding: "I always prepare an excellent feast."
With that, the PC's opened the carriage. The Zombie Tatyana walked towards Strahd. As soon as she got within range, the Magic Mouth spell went off, causing her to whisper her line. Strahd gathered her in his arms.
Then the PCs sprung one of the most beautiful and sadistic traps I've ever seen.
It's important to note that the PCs were 100% aware that this wouldn't kill Strahd. In fact, they knew damned well that he'd be strong enough to break out of this. The entire goal was psychological warfare. They wanted to horrify him with the sight his beloved's corpse erupting with vines, vomiting holy water, and then exploding in a bloody mess.
Like I said. These guys might just be the villains, all things considered...
Anyway, the PCs pressed the momentary advantage they got from exploding the innocent village girl's corpse all over the vampire. As the skeleton warriors moved to attack, the spell casters immobilized them. The Cleric used the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind to completely immobilize Strahd, so the warriors could move in and begin pummeling the bejeezus out of him.
The "battle" was so one-sided it wasn't even funny. They finished him off by forcing a Bag of Holding full of Holy Water down his throat. I didn't even bother to roll for damage. I described the vampire's body beginning to bubble, boil, and burn...
Honestly, watching them plan and execute such a crazy curb-stomp of a battle was so damn satisfying, I almost felt bad that I was about to pull the rug out from under them.
That said, I also started running Ravenloft games back in the 90's. And I know damned well that the one thing that makes Strahd a memorable villain is that he's not an idiot.
As the PC's were watching the vampire's face melt, I had one of them notice the illusion spell fail, revealing that the "Strahd" they'd just killed was a decoy: a lesser vampire spawn he put in place so he could quietly observe them from a distance.
From above, the PC's heard an amplified voice boom over the courtyard: "I was going to be honorable. But you allowed my bride to die. Worse, you desecrated her. For that crime, you will all pay."
A fireball then dropped into the center of the PCs formation. It delivered massive damage all around, thanks to a bunch of blown saving throws. Behind them, the gates of the castle slammed shut. And above them, the amplified voice issued a final, cold proclamation: "None of you will leave this place alive."
We ended the session right there, with the PC's trapped and without any ideas where to go from here.
This is D&D storytelling in a nutshell, folks. These crazy, unplanned moments that the players—and the DM—will still be discussing years from now. This is where the real magic of the game has always been: in watching the players come up with some crazy, over-the-top scheme, and try their damndest to execute it.
Real D&D storytelling has nothing to do with the DM, his campaign notes or (Gygax help us) "plot arcs." It can only happen organically. It's also entirely player driven. The DM can't force it, and the more he tries, the more he gets in the way.
If you truly want to create great stories in your D&D games, the only thing you need to do as a DM is put great obstacles in the players' way. Let them use their own ingenuity. Because when they come up with a plan, you get to do the best part.
You get to sit back and watch.
The DM isn't the story's architect in a D&D game. If anything, he's the set designer. But if he does a good enough job, he also gets to be the front row audience.
That's worth its weight in gold, folks.
I'm going to blame today's post on Alexandru Constantin, who motivated the hell out of me with his resolutions and goals post the other day over on Barbarian Book Club.
Constantin, Jon Mollison, and other writers in the PulpRev movement have been talking about a re-commitment to blogs over social media spaces in 2020. So consider this post my first step in solidarity with them.
Not that I plan to abandon the Beast that Tweets, mind you. It's been a remarkably good thing for me this past year. Among other things, it's introduced me to guys like Constantin and Mollison. And it was Mollison who helped inspire one of the biggest things I've got on the table for 2020.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, here.
Before I get into the things I have on the burner for 2020, I want to take a brief look back at what I learned from the wreckage of 2019's writing year.
Longtime readers of the blog will remember that I wrote a similar "looking forward" post a year ago. I took myself to task for my failure to accomplish the previous year's writing goals, and I laid out my goals for the upcoming year.
Of the four upcoming projects listed there, only one of them came to pass: more blogging, including the guest post over at DMR Books' blog.
Blogging is about the only thing I'm going to put down as a win for 2019. I got barely any fiction written in 2019, and none published. But I did keep a fairly consistent blogging schedule. And that turned out to be a much bigger deal than I expected.
Doing that forced me to create some regular columns, like my 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews and my Kitbashing D&D series. Both of those proved to be popular, and have managed to get me some regular readers.
Several posts of mine got shared in regular PulpRev and OSR gaming blog roundups, like Castalia House Sensor Sweep, The DMRtian Chronicles, and Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog. Each time that happened, I've reached a wider audience and gained new readers.
One of those posts--in which I discuss D&D's baked-in, apocalyptic assumptions—flat-out exploded in popularity, generating 10,000 unique page views, a 300+ comment debate on Facebook, and a comment on my site from Luke Gygax.
All of which is small potatoes in Internet terms, I know. But considering that I'm a Twitter nobody with less than 200 followers, it's pretty damn impressive.
Bottom line, I'm thankful to all the PulpRev and OSR writers I've linked up with through my blogging in 2019. The most important lesson learned this year is to keep it up, and to keep it consistent. To that end, I'm going to have more of what worked in 2019: More 'Pocky-clypse Now reviews, and more D&D and gaming related posts.
As to the rest of the projects I mentioned in that "2019 and Looking Forward" post:
The project I didn't want to talk about never got the official traction, meaning it's more than likely dead in the water. That could change, but I'm not optimistic. In all likelihood, the IP holder has lost interest and moved on.
On the plus side, the other creators I was working with behind the scenes are all talented people, and we've stayed in touch. If nothing else, it will eventually lead to a pooling of resources on other projects.
The lesson here—if there is one—is to always be open to possibility, but never be reliant on outcomes. If the IP holder emails me tomorrow, I'm still more than happy to drop everything and get to work for them.
But until then, I'm afraid it's just going to remain stuck in creative limbo. C'est la vie.
The ambitious self-publishing project I mentioned was an attempt to try writing a Japanese Isekai-style light novel series. I was attracted to the idea of slightly-longer-than novella length stories, cranked out at high volume. And I've always like the idea of second-world fantasy.
But the damned thing kept falling apart on me. I hated my protagonist. I couldn't make myself root for him, which meant I couldn't make myself write him. The story became a slog.
I eventually set the thing aside in frustration, deciding that it was just a genre I wasn't equipped to write. It was months later, when I ran across this little bit of writing advice from Misha Burnett, that the reason I hated my protagonist clicked.
Bottom line, I was breaking Burnett's rule #1.
In following the Isekai "earth loser gets reincarnated to a world of adventure," I realized I was opening an action adventure story like a frat-bro comedy. I was introducing the earthbound "hero" in a way that showcased him as a self-centered loser, and then trying to build him up through gradual change to a selfless, mature adult.
That change works great in a Seth Rogen comedy, where the goal is to get the audience to laugh.
But it works like absolute dogshit in an action adventure.
The lesson here? Embrace the mantra of the PulpRev. Regress harder. Traditional storytelling tropes work, traditional heroes work, and Man Plots are not ironic. And while I'm probably not going to circle back to that Isekai project anytime soon, I definitely won't be afraid to give my main characters some balls in 2020.
The second self publishing project I had planned for 2019 was dependent on the other two succeeding, so I can't really say much about it without spilling the beans on that first one. What I can say is that it was supposed to be a tabletop RPG.
Which is a nice segue into what's on the burner for 2020.
A couple of months back, one of Jon Mollison's offhanded comments about "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" got my mental wheels spinning. It was an older term I hadn't heard before, but that's mainly because I spent next to zero time online when the term apparently popped up in the mid-2000's. That first blog led to a few more, where I imagined what house rules and tweaks I'd use to mimic a hypothetical "Fantasy 'Nam"-type setting, in which the adventurers were unwilling, under-prepared draftees, and the goblins were a ruthless, brutally-competent guerrilla force.
Anyway, at the request of some readers, what started as a series of time-killing blog posts has now morphed into a full-blown, OSR-compatible RPG supplement.
My plan is to have it play-tested, formatted, and edited for release in the early part of 2020. More blog posts will be coming in the next few weeks, detailing some more of the features, rules, and the thoughts behind them.
I also plan to have another go at self-publishing novels this year. Adam Lane Smith's Write Like a Beast--reviewed in depth here—has made me seriously re-think my own outlining and drafting process. I plan to give his method a try, to see if it works for me. At the very least, a new avenue of approach should bust some of the rust off of my own methods, even if I do eventually go back to them.
I'm also armed with some new knowledge of the things I was doing wrong, courtesy of writers like Smith and Burnett.
Lastly, I have another guest blog at DMR Books coming up this month. Once again, Deuce Richardson and Dave Ritzlin are doing me the honor of inviting me to participate in DMR Books' New Year's Guest Bloggerama. Just six days in, and they've already had some fantastic writers covering some amazing subjects. I was humbled to be a part of it last year, and I'm equally humbled to be part of it again this year.
Bottom line, 2020 is going to be a full and interesting year. And I plan on grabbing it by the Man Plots.
Before I get into this week's rules changes, I want to talk about a planned scheduling shake-up, and call attention to a cool thing that arrived in the mail.
First, the cool thing:
Personally, I find that 70's rock and retro-70's rock inspires most of my D&D writing. Something about the aesthetic just gets me in the right headspace. Black Sabbath. Rainbow. The Sword. The Wizards. But as I've been writing this blog series, I've mostly been rocking out to Gygax.
If you're unfamiliar with them, try to imagine a hard rock band that combines the music of Thin Lizzy with lyrics directly inspired by Old School D&D. I've been a die hard fan since their first release, 2015's Critical Hits. If you're a metalhead or a rocker of any kind, I highly recommend checking out their Bandcamp page.
Anyway, Gygax released what is undoubtedly the coolest bit of band swag in the history of band swag—a limited edition Gygax Guild d20.
Needless to say, I've already used this bad boy to launch a massive goblin assault, one that slaughtered an unwary wizard PC and sent the surviving party members running for their lives.
Which leads me to the scheduling shake-up:
As I mentioned a few weeks back, I've been at work on an Appendix N inspired science fantasy series, one that envisions what D&D fiction might have looked like if it followed the wilder literary roots of the game, rather than filling in the map of TSR and WotC's pre-fab fantasy worlds.
And while I still plan on writing that, the fact is my recent thought experiments on what Fantasy Effing Vietnam would look like have gotten a bit more attention. To the point that I've gotten several messages in public and in private expressing interest in a published print version.
Rule number one in this writing gig, folks. Never disappoint your audience. Especially when they're actively asking you for something.
So, yes. A published print version of these rules is now in the works.
To that end, I've been running some live play tests with two separate groups. Once that's done and all the obvious bugs are worked out, I've got two other groups tentatively lined up as my beta testers.
If all goes well, I'm hoping to have these rules pretty well ironed out in the next few weeks. Then it's going to be a matter of formatting, getting some art, and making it available on DriveThruRPG.
Hopefully, that won't take too long.
In the meantime, I plan to keep these blog posts coming. They're a helpful way to "think out loud" about what I'm doing, as well as offer some insight into the ideas behind the rules choices I'm making. As I said way back in part one of this series, there is a guiding principle behind this project.
Fact is, I don't believe D&D's ruleset was ever intended as an all-purpose, generic fantasy adventure simulator. Each edition has been geared towards a specific, implied setting, and every subsequent edition and rules modification has made different assumptions about the world it aims to simulate.
And as we'll see in this week's post, "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" makes some very specific assumptions about the nature of combat.
You Better Run Through The Jungle
You've been watching the way Kruppa the Thief walks, the way he rolls his feet slowly from the outside to the inside with each step. The way he smoothly transitions his weight from one leg to the other. The way he seems to feel each twig and before he steps on it, and adjusts his foot to the left or right.
You do your best to imitate him when on patrol, and you're starting to get good. Even Bregan the Dwarf grudgingly commented on it.
At this rate, you just might survive.
The forest stands around you, silent as always. Kruppa leads the way, sliding from shadow to shadow like a ghost. Bregan brings up the rear. You're in the middle, eyes and ears alert for the tell-tale signs of a goblin ambush: freshly disturbed earth, out-of-place bird calls, and bits of animal carcasses strung in the trees.
The sun glints off something in the undergrowth, and you freeze in place, heart racing.
Metal or glass. Has to be.
You flash a hand signal to Bregan, halting him in place. It's several tense seconds before Kruppa looks back and sees you, catches the hand signal, and halts as well. Several seconds in which you're waiting for hell on earth to explode from the underbrush.
Now that you have both Kruppa and Bregan paying attention, you point in the direction of the strange glint. As they're watching, the sun catches it again.
Kruppa waves you all forward, angling the patrol to move in a wide circle around the strange glint. You'll check it out—could be an enemy observer, could be the remains of those missing settlers from a few weeks back. But you'll approach indirectly.
It's almost a half hour before you approach the small depression where you spotted the flash. Slow, careful movement, with plenty of doubling back, double-and-triple checking for signs of ambush.
At last, you arrive. It's the settlers, all right. Three families, all splayed out in the underbrush. Throats cut, valuables stolen. All except the silver mirror. The silver mirror is carefully strung up in the trees, to catch the sunlight just so...
"Shit!" Kruppa says.
Then the hillocks to the north and south are alive with activity. All at once, crossbow bolts are cutting through the underbrush. You feel the sting as one slices your upper arm, and another as it buries itself in the meat of your thigh.
You hug the dirt, knowing damn well running is impossible. You glance to Kruppa, wondering what the plan is.
And you realize he won't be telling you. Not anytime soon. A goblin crossbow bolt buried itself in his throat. He's gasping for air around the barbed tip, drowning in bright red blood. Off to your left, Bregan swears, shouting that he's hit. It's poison. He needs antidote.
Somewhere above you, a crossbow bolt shatters the silver mirror.
It Takes a Thief to Muck Up a Perfectly Simple System
One thing I've never liked about the Thief class is that it has a different resolution mechanic for what should be a common task. For example, Climbing a sheer surface is something every PC is going to attempt at some point. But in giving the Thief a unique die roll to determine it—a percentile—the rules basically force the DM to tell any non-Thief players they either can't make the attempt, or force them to come up with a different roll for the same action.
Neither option really works for me.
For what it's worth, BECMI goes with the second option, which is definitely the lesser of two evils.
On page 85 of the Rules Cyclopedia, under Other Character Skills, the Stealth Skill allows any PC to learn something similar to the Thief's Move Silently ability, with the caveat that it has to be terrain specific for each skill slot spent.
The way Skills work in BECMI is that they're rolled on a d20 against the relevant attribute. But unlike an attack roll, a LOW result is preferred here, and a 1 is always considered a success. For Stealth, the relevant attribute is Dexterity.
So let's say I have a group of four first level adventurers. Fakk the Fighter took Forest Stealth as a Skill. Takk the Thief didn't, relying instead on his class ability. Wakk the Wizard and Dakk the Dwarf didn't take it either, because they had other things to focus on.
Now say they all want to sneak up on some goblins. As it's written in BECMI, I have to roll a percentile for Takk, a d20 against DEX for Fakk, and just make something up for the others.
With inconsistent shit like this popping up in play, it's easy to see why some old grognards swear the game started going downhill the second the Thief class was introduced way back in the Greyhawk supplement.
That said, house-ruled fixes for this issue have been around as long as the class itself, and some of the newer retro-clones have done an admirable job of fixing this particular hiccup.
As an example, I once again have to point to Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Raggi's decision to standardize all skill checks into a few broad categories—each of them resolved with a roll of a single d6—was a simple, elegant move. Furthermore, the customizable Specialist class is one of that system's best innovations, as I've previously written here. Honestly, my biggest gripe with it is that I don't think the d6 "pips" offer enough customization or variation in the dice rolls.
That's where Ruinations: Post-Apocalyptic Roleplaying by Brent Ault comes in.
Currently available for free in an unfinished state on Google Drive, Ruinations began life as a post apocalyptic re-skin of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with some of Ault's own unique tweaks and rules changes. It's a fantastic game in its own right, and absolutely worth your time if you're a fan of the apocalyptic genre. One of the coolest design choices Ault made was to keep Raggi's standardized skill categories, but to convert them over to a percentile based system.
So instead of all characters beginning with a 1 in 6 chance to succeed in each category, like in LotFP, Ault made it so every character begins with a 20% chance. Then, rather than individual "pips" or points on a d6 to spend at each level, the Adept Class—Ault's version of the Specialist—gets 30 percentile points.
The end result is an even more customizable class than Raggi's Specialist. But more importantly, it still uses the same skill resolution roll as all the other classes for common tasks like climbing, tinkering, and stealth.
Which brings me to the larger point behind this week's rules change. Remember up above, where I said every change and tweak should say something about the setting?
One of the things any "Fantasy Effing Vietnam" setting absolutely needs to simulate is the style of fighting common to Vietnam and mid-20th century warfare. That means a heavy focus on stealth, ambush, and counter-ambush tactics.
To that end, one of the base assumptions I'm going to make every time my players "leave the wire" is that they're all doing their level best to Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Hear Noises. Meaning every single PC gets access to those three Thief skills, at a minimum.
Now, of course the Thieves, the home-brewed Fairy class, and the Elves will be better at it. I'm giving racial bonuses to the Elves and the Fairies, and I'm running the Thieves like Ault's Adepts, with a pool of discretionary points for the player to spend as he sees fit.
Every patrol to and from the Keep should be a tense cat and mouse game, as the PCs watch out for goblin ambushes, senses alert for any sound or sign that the enemy is near. Meanwhile, they're trying to move like ghosts through the underbrush, staying to the darkest shadows they can find. Every snapped twig or dropped water skin should cause their little hearts to race, wondering if they've just given themselves away.
On the other side of things, the exact same mechanic is used for the goblins. Instead of a simple roll for random encounters, I'm rolling opposed percentiles every time groups of goblins and PCs are near each other on the map. Chance to Hear Noise vs chance to Move Silently. If one PC is scouting ahead, it's the same thing: Hide in Shadows and Move Silently vs. Hear Noise.
Basically, instead of a standard "roll for surprise" I'm rolling to see if the PC's successfully sneak up on the goblins, or if the goblins successfully ambush the PCs.
To further keep with the Vietnam, "ambush versus counter-ambush" feel, I've also been sticking with group initiative as outlined in OD&D/Whitebox. I've been finding it's especially useful when the PCs are moving as a group.
My method so far has been to roll for ambush, with the winning side getting initiative. They act in order of Missile Fire > Spells > Movement > Melee, with all actions receiving a +4 surprise bonus. Then the losing side goes in the same action order of Missile Fire > Spells > Movement > Melee, with all actions receiving a —4 surprise penalty.
Bonuses and penalties vanish at the top of next round, and combat continues to proceed in order until resolved. So far, it's been quick, brutal, and bloody.
I've got some more stuff coming up soon, with Critical Hits, long-term injuries, and magic. Plus some thoughts on running the goblin side of things.
Stay tuned. And stay quiet out there. The goblins can hear better than you.
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.
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.
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.