So Adam Lane Smith has a new writing guide out. Short review?
Get it. It's good. Real good.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a loud, proud fan of Smith's work. His novel Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross more than lived up to the promise of it's absolutely nutso blurb, delivering violent, bloody apocalyptic action from start to finish.
In addition to being one of the most flat-out fun writers I've had the pleasure to read in recent years, Smith is also productive, churning out seven novels this year, with more ready to go in 2020. As I'm preparing to motivate myself for a better writing year over the Holiday week, I wanted an insight into the mind of a man that's just been flat-out inspirational in terms of both work-ethic and quality of output.
Anyway, I just finished the book. And I'm not at all surprised to report that Write Like a Beast delivered on my expectations.
What did surprise me was that Smith also helped to decode a bit of writing advice I once received from Lies of Locke Lamora author, Scott Lynch.
I had the chance to attend a WorldCon a few years back, thanks to it being held in a city near my in-laws' place. During that con, I had a chance meeting with Lynch, and we talked about our mutual favorite SF/F author, Matthew Woodring Stover, who I guess had been something of a personal mentor to Lynch.
I mentioned that Stover's fight scenes were something I was completely awestruck by, and I still hadn't run into anything that quite equalled them in fiction.
Lynch passed on a bit of advice Stover (a martial artist of some 20-odd years' experience) had given him: "All fights are scenes first and foremost. But all scenes are also fights."
That quote was like a lightning bolt, and it's stayed with me ever since. I've always tried to keep it in the back of my mind when planning out my story scenes, but I never quite had a "nuts and bolts" way to apply it.
Until around 8:00 this morning, that is, when I read Smith's chapter on "choreographing." Suddenly, that old advice clicked in a way that it didn't before. For that advice alone, Write Like a Beast was worth the price of admission.
There's plenty more to it, of course. Smith's book is motivational in tone, offering plenty of inspiration along with the practical advice. Even if some of the advice is aimed towards beginners—and some of it is--Write like a Beast leaves you feeling energized and eager to take on the page.
Which is exactly what every good writing book should do.
Buy this book. Go forth. And conquer.
I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
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.
It's Veteran's Day, which means I'm mostly keeping to myself. I've never been one to prescribe how people spend their time, so I won't say something like "get out there and thank a veteran." But if today means something to you, I hope you find the time to spend at least part of it in quiet reflection.
Anyway, a lot of ex-military Sci-Fi authors end up writing MilitarySF. I've never been able to quite bring myself to do that. The closest I've ever been able to come is this blackly comic piece about a futuristic veteran dealing with the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs.
Hope it makes a few of you guys who have been dealing with similar frustrations laugh.
Sometimes, that's about all we can do.
"There's some men here with a truck. They say they've got a delivery. Should I go ahead and let them in?"
Jonathan Hale stared down at the tabla-phone. Mrs. Drinkwater's tired face looked up from the grainy display screen.
"A delivery?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes and sighed at him. A lock of hair came untangled from the messy gray bun on top of her head. "That's what I just said. Look, am I letting them in or not? I wasn't told about this."
Jon wasn't told about it either. He tried to imagine who it could be.
"Fine. Let them in." It didn't really matter if it was a scam, he decided. It wasn't like he had anything in the apartment they could steal. Hell, maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe they'd drop a crowbar or something else valuable enough to pawn.
Mrs. Drinkwater punched a button on her end. A Filmore Realty release form came up on screen. "Initial here and press your thumb to the pad. You hereby authorize me to grant a third party access to your apartment." There was a long but not-quite empty pause as Jon signed and gave his thumbprint. "Next time, tell me when you're expecting a delivery."
Jon knew it was pointless to argue. He mumbled some affirmative and hung up with Mrs. Drinkwater. He put the tabla-phone back in his pack, and wheeled his ancient, manual-powered wheelchair to the handicapped levi-tube. His cigarette break was almost over, and he'd already wasted most of it talking to his landlord. He only had a few minutes left to get down to the smoking area.
He swore under his breath. Whatever they were leaving him, he thought, it had better be worth it.
The old, broken motorchair was still in the corner of Jon's apartment, right where it had been for the last thirteen years. It was the very last thing Jon noticed when he got home. The first was the massive hospital bed in his living room.
A large box-like chassis was attached to the foot of it, with two actuator arms coming out of the sides. A bulb-like optical sensor sat on top like the light on an old-time police car.
"What the hell...?"
The bed buzzed to life. The optical sensor fixed on him. Jon's arms tensed. He pulled on his wheel-rims and backed away. The bed rolled toward him.
"Greetings, Jonathan Hale." The bed had a calm, vaguely effeminate voice. "I am pleased to inform you that you've been selected to take part in the new HealthAid pilot program."
The bed clicked and whirred somewhere inside its box-like chassis, the sound of cooling fans and spinning hard drives.
"Pursuant to Title II of the Interstellar Heroes at Home Act, three thousand veterans of the colony world conflict have been selected to receive automated in-home health care. I am pleased to announce that your application was chosen out of a pool of over half a million candidates."
"But I never filled out any application."
More clicks. More whirs. "Records indicate you applied on May 6, 2275, three days after the program was announced to the public."
"But I didn't apply!"
The bed quietly motored back to the middle of the room. "You need to monitor your excitement level, Mr. Hale. Studies show that patients diagnosed with traumatic stress are more susceptible to hypertension."
Jon eyeballed the useless, dead motorchair in the corner. Thirteen years and counting, waiting for the Department of Interstellar Veterans' Affairs to replace it or fix it. He didn't know why he bothered to get his hopes up. He should know better by now. But sometime after his cigarette break, he'd gotten the crazy idea that the delivery people Mrs. Drinkwater had called about were from the IVA. He'd even convinced the day supervisor, Ray Johnstone, to let him clock out a half hour early.
Jon shook his head. Only the IVA would deliver an unnecessary piece of talking junk to his doorstep while completely ignoring the one thing he actually needed. Government waste at its finest.
He wheeled himself into the kitchen. A drink would be pretty useful right about now. He opened the cabinet beneath the sink. And he swore loudly.
"What did you do with my whiskey?"
"Alcohol consumption is not recommended for patients suffering from traumatic stress. Additionally, several of the medications associated with your spinal injury are unsafe to take with alcoholic beverages."
John wheeled himself toward the bed. "That doesn't answer the question."
"I took the liberty of removing it," the bed replied. "Having no alcohol in the home will provide a more therapeutic environment. I have also removed the tobacco, the empty carbohydrates, and the caffeine."
Jon clenched his fists. He counted to ten, breathing in and out slowly. He also thought of the old baseball bat in the closet, and wondered if a mechanical bed could feel pain.
The hold music was a smooth-jazz remix of some patriotic medley, bars from songs like "Terra the Beautiful" and "My System 'Tis of Thee." The tabla-phone's screen cycled through a series of inspiring images: The Terran Marines raising the flag on Mount Godan. The Luna Monument. The launch of the Columbia VIII.
Jon fiddled with his coffee mug of filtered tap water and glared at the bed. It sat idling in a corner, the slowly pulsing lights indicating it was in rest mode.
He'd called Ray as soon as he woke up to let him know that he'd be taking another day off to deal with the IVA. Ray understood. His old man had been a flyboy during the Orion Prime campaign. And from what Ray had told Jon, it had been hell getting them to pay for the old man's cyberoptics.
Jon thanked him. As an afterthought, he told Ray to thank the old man for his service. Then he called the main number at the Jerry Hawker Medical Center.
Jon spent the next several hours having his call bounced from department to department. Twice they transferred him to off-world call centers. Now he was waiting to speak to somebody in the special claims office on Tau Ceti B.
"Hello, Mr. Hale. How may I be of assistance today?" The hold music cut off abruptly. A triangular, green-yellow face filled the screen. The name displayed underneath the image was "Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Jon cursed silently. It was one of those weird bug things from the Andromeda belt. Jon hated talking to them. It wasn't that he was prejudiced. It was that the insectoids had a hive-mind, and they couldn't understand the concept of a miscommunication. An honest mistake could be seen as a grave insult.
Jon swallowed nervously. One slipup and he'd be bounced back into the phone menus. "Hi, yes. I have a new automated HealthAid bed. It was dropped off yesterday."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over his keyboard. His black, bulbous eyes twitched back and forth as he read Jon's record. "Yes, Mr. Hale. I see here that your application was approved on the first of the month."
"But that's just it. I never filled out an application."
The bug-creature tilted its head to the side. The gesture made Jon think of a huge, disgusting dog. "That seems very unlikely, Mr. Hale."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx spoke slowly, as if trying to explain an advanced technology to an inferior race. "It says here that you filled out an application on May 6, 2275. And that the application was approved."
That the computerized records could be wrong appeared to be a foreign idea to Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx. Jon decided to try a different approach. "Look, I um...I've decided I don't want to be a part of the pilot program anymore. It's not working out. How soon can you come and pick up this robotic hospital bed?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx made an annoyed chittering noise. "Mr. Hale, you obviously don't remember section 674 of the application you filled out. It guarantees your participation in the program for a period of three and one half standard Earth years."
Jon didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Trapped. He was trapped with the stupid thing.
"Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr. Hale?"
"What about my motorchair request? I filled that out over thirteen years ago."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over the keyboard again. "I'm sorry Mr. Hale. There is no record of a repair or service call for a motorchair."
Jon could feel a painful throbbing sensation in his temples. He heard his voice rising before he could stop it. "You people send me physical, printed-paper notices in the mail that say the call is still pending. I got one yesterday!"
The bug-creature bristled and hissed. Its wings started to come out of the coverings on its back. "There's no need for that tone of voice, Mr. Hale."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ixxklicksnicks, I—"
The black, bulbous eyes glared at him. "It's pronounced Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Crap. "Right, I'm sorry. I just—"
"If you are unsatisfied with my service in any way, I can transfer you to our customer relation’s office on Gilese 581."
"No, that won't be necessary!" There was a note of barely-concealed panic in Jon's voice.
"Transferring you now, sir."
The smooth-jazz music began to pipe from the tabla-phone's speakers again. The bug-alien disappeared from the screen. But before it did, Jon was almost sure the big-eyed sonovabitch smiled.
Jon woke up feeling groggy. He shook the fuzz out of his head and sat up. It was his second night in the new hospital bed, and his second morning feeling like his brain was made of wet garbage.
The actuator arms on the bed helped him get to his chair and get dressed. It was only after he was clothed and seated that he noticed the dried blood spot on the inside of his arm.
"What the hell is this?"
The optical sensor on the bed whirled around and focused on the spot. The usual clicks and whirs sounded from inside the chassis, noises that Jon had begun to associate with the bed thinking.
"You took an inadequate portion of your prescribed sleep medication before bed last night. I merely administered the remainder after you entered a state of REM sleep."
"I took the same dose I always take."
The bed thought for a few seconds. "Your record indicates that your prescribed dose of Benzodiazepine is seventy-five milligrams. You took twenty-five. You also took it in the less efficient oral tablet form, rather than the intravenous injection your medical record specifies."
That was a bunch of crap. None of that was in his medical record. There had to be a mistake. This dumb machine was crossing its wires.
"Show me my medical record. Send it to my tabla-phone."
The phone pinged and vibrated a few seconds later. Jon had to concentrate to read it, but the bed was right. The medication doses were all higher now. And they called for injections.
"This is wrong."
"Your medical record is displayed as it exists in my files, Mr. Hale."
"Then your files are wrong!" Jon slammed a fist on the arm of his wheelchair.
"Your stress levels appear to be rising, Mr. Hale. If you do not calm down, I will have to recommend a mild sedative."
All right. Enough was enough. Jon opened a net-search on how to disable a HealthAid bed. If the IVA wouldn't come and get it, at least he could find a way to turn it off.
The first ten pages were nothing but sites warning against tampering with equipment owned and operated by the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs. The equipment was monitored, said the various sources. Any attempts to modify or alter the function would result in felony charges with a ten-year sentence to Charon Correctional Facility upon conviction.
Jon almost gave up on the idea right then and there. Charon was a frozen hellhole on the edge of the system, orbiting a dwarf planet somewhere out past Neptune. He'd met former inmates before, their noses and fingers blackened from the frostbite. Even the long-term medical wing, which was where Jon would go, was rumored to be little more than a cold-storage facility for invalids.
Nothing was worth a trip to Charon, Jon thought. He could find another way. Maybe he could get an appointment with a patient advocate at Jerry Hawker Hospital. The waiting list was supposedly down to two years.
Before he could close the search window, a link buried beneath all of the others caught his eye. It was from a private message board about various IVA programs
"Pilot program' dangerous!" read the headline. "HealthAid beds programmed to malfunction." Jon opened it and began reading.
"All of the HealthAid beds are doing exactly what they were designed to do: dope us, isolate us, and quietly kill us off. Listen carefully, NOBODY signed up for this program. The IVA forged the paperwork behind the scenes because we're costing them too much money. 'Automated in-home health care' lets them kill us off and blame faulty equipment later on. Whatever you do, DO NOT let one of these machines into your home. They're trying to turn you into a statistic."
Jon read a little further. There were no confirmed deaths yet. Nobody had definitive proof. One of the other posters alleged that coroner's reports had been changed after the fact to cover up the truth.
Jon was still reading when he heard the mail delivery come trough the wall slot. He set his tabla-phone down and wheeled to the door to collect it. As usual, most of it was from the IVA. Only government organizations were still archaic enough to use printed-paper mail for anything.
Jon sorted through the stack. Two more surveys, a notice that his new primary care physician was located in the Sirius cluster, and the weekly "release and consent" forms, allowing the IVA to export his information to other star systems. And of course, another notice telling him his motorchair's service and repair call was still pending.
Jon wondered if he should call Mr. Ixxkickysick, or whatever his name was. Show him the notice. Maybe his big black eyes would explode from the sides of his head.
Jon rolled back to the table where he'd set his tabla-phone. He picked it up and stared at the screen. The page he'd been reading was gone. In its place was a public broadcast show called Barney the Batrachiosapian.
"Hello kids," said Barney. "We're going to sing the counting song today. Doesn't that sound like fun?"A chorus of children's shouts answered him.
Jon tried to log onto a different page. But all he could access was the purple frog-alien and his counting song. Jon wheeled around to face the bed.
"What the hell did you do to my tabla-phone?"
"I have restricted your net content, Mr. Hale. Stressful news articles and baseless conspiracy sites will only upset you. I have allowed some access to soothing programs, as they may help you relax."
Slowly, carefully, Jon set the tabla-phone down. He backed his wheelchair toward the door. "I think I'll head down to the store. Get some food."
The bed clicked and whirred. "That is unnecessary. I have already arranged for food deliveries from the neighborhood grocer."
Jon felt his stomach sink. "Well, maybe I should head out and see Ray. I was out of work yesterday. He'll be expecting me soon."
"I already took the liberty of calling Raymond Johnstone. I informed him that you would be out of work for a period of convalescence. And that pursuant to the Heroes at Home Act, he was not authorized to ask for further details."
Jon backed his chair as far as it would go. He felt the wheel-rims touch the wall. The bed slowly motored toward him.
"My sensors indicate that your heart rate is elevated at this time. You need to relax, Mr. Hale. I recommend a sedative."
Jon remembered very little of the next few weeks. He spent most days in a drugged-out funk. His phone calls were screened and monitored by the HealthAid.
He had one clear memory, of trying to talk to Mrs. Drinkwater. She'd called to ask about the rent. Jon knew the bed was listening, so he tried to use his old code words from P.O.W. training. He tried to use the hand-signals for "torture" and "duress" but Mrs. Drinkwater didn't catch on. She kept asking why Jon was poking his eyes and talking about raisins and fiber content.
Jon cursed her inwardly. You just couldn't rely on pilots.
Then he second-guessed himself. Mrs. Drinkwater was never a pilot. He was thinking Ray's old man. On top of that, Jon was starting to think he might have mixed the code words up with an oatmeal recipe.
The heavy drug dosages weren't helping. He started to laugh out loud then, and sing Barney the Batrachiosapian's counting song.
"I have fun"
"With number one!
"Number one is so much fun!"
Mrs. Drinkwater told him it was okay. She said to get some rest, not to worry about the rent just then, and she politely hung up.
After that, Jon remembered the bed telling him that he wouldn't be allowed to take any more calls. It was too stressful. It brought him his usual stack of IVA consent and release papers to sign and initial. It promised him that once he did the paperwork, he could go back to watching Barney.
For three or four weeks (or was it five?) Jon just existed, eating his meals, taking his meds, and watching shows like Barney and Playtime Planetside Pals. The bed helpfully attended to all of his needs, bringing his paperwork once a week, and encouraging him to give the right answers on the government's quality surveys.
On May 30, 2284, the notice he'd been waiting for arrived in the print-paper mail. Jon smiled through the medicine haze.
And he waited.
By five o'clock Jon still felt heady and dazed, but it was still better than he'd felt earlier in the afternoon. And since the bed would be ready to give him his evening dose in a few minutes, it was now or never. Jon wheeled himself over to the closet. He dug inside for the baseball bat and turned to face the HealthAid.
"What do you think you're doing, Mr. Hale?"
Jon smiled. It felt good to be in power again, to have some control. "I'm going to smash you into scrap. Then I'm going to dump the pieces of you into a trash disintegrator."
"If any damage is done to my systems," the bed reminded him, "a signal is beamed to the Department of Interstellar Veteran's Affairs. You would face criminal charges and imprisonment on Charon."
"I know that. But the IVA is going to ignore the signal."
The bed seemed unsure now. Could a machine feel doubt? It slowly motored backward. "What makes you believe that would be the case, Mr. Hale?"
Jon pointed to the corner of the apartment, at the old motorchair. "I filed a repair and service request on that thing thirteen years ago. And every so often, I get another print-paper notice telling me my request is pending. But the other day, when I talked to that bug-creature in special claims, he told me that my request was never filed. So that got me thinking."
"You're acting irrationally, Mr. Hale. You appear agitated. I recommend a sedative."
Jon smiled. He wheeled closer. "So I filed a service request on you. I snuck it in with the weekly liability-release forms. And do you know what I got today?" Jon held the paper up in front of him. The bed's optical sensor focused on it.
"It's a notice that says my request on you is pending. Which means that hell will freeze over before you get any kind of response from the IVA."
"Mr. Hale, this is a foolish chance to take. When the IVA reads my distress signal, they'll file charges against you for violation of the—"
"Yeah, I thought about that. That's why I told them your network link was sending erroneous messages."
For the first time since it had arrived, the bed didn't have anything to say. Jon smile stretched from ear to ear now. He lightly drummed his fingers on the bat. “You see it yet, you condescending pile of scrap? I finally figured it out. There’s a way to convince the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs to pretend you don’t exist. All I had to do was ask them to fix you."
"Mr. Hale, please don’t do this. You'll only aggravate yourself."
Jon hefted the bat, tested the weight. It was nice and heavy. It would do nicely. "Nope. I think that by the end of this, I'm actually going to feel pretty good."
Jon slept after he was finished. A deep, restful sleep. When he woke up he called Ray Johnstone. He said he'd make it back to work on Monday.
Yes, he said. His convalescence was over. He felt much better now.
Pilot Program originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge Magazine #29. Copyright 2017 Daniel J. Davis.
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.