Welcome back, Wastelanders!
Since I've picked up a few new followers in recent weeks, a brief word of introduction: this is a regular column on the blog, where I do in-depth reviews of post apocalyptic films and books. Here's a quick link back to my general mission statement, and another one for my overall rating criteria.
Now for my regular readers, a fair bit of warning. Today's entry is a bit on the trippy side. We're not dealing with Road Warriors, Rampaging Wrestlers, or Rodents of Unusual Scientific Acumen. We're not even dealing with the late, great Rutger Hauer.
Today, we're taking an electric slide into the animated side of the apocalypse. And we're doing it with a healthy side of funky guitars, WWII stock footage, and rotoscope.
I'm talking about Ralph Bakshi's 1977 cult science-fantasy phantasmagoria, Wizards.
The film opens with a live-action shot of a large leather-bound book. The camera slowly pans down the title page, as the feminine narrator's soft, soothing voice croons out the words for us.
Then, to make sure we don't get bored with all the fancy book learnin', we're immediately treated to a shot of the entire goddamn world exploding!
It's at this point, Wastelanders, that snark and humor completely fail me. What follows is one of the most exquisite and beautifully realized opening sequences in the entire apocalyptic genre. Combining pen and ink artwork by Mike Ploog with live-action background effects like smoke and lava, the narrator delivers the history of the post-holocaust earth.
According to the story, five terrorists set off a nuclear blast that plunges the earth into a worldwide atomic war. For over 2 million years, radioactive clouds keep the world in darkness, driving nearly all human life to extinction, and turning most survivors into hideous mutants. In these scorched and poisoned lands, radiation causes each birth to be a new disaster in a never-ending chain of mutation.
But in the good lands, fairies, elves, and dwarves awaken from their long sleep, and begin bringing life back to the planet.
Millions of years later, Queen Delia of the fairies gives birth to twin wizards, one good and one evil. Avatar, the good wizard, spends his childhood around his bedridden mother, trying to keep her entertained. Blackwolf, the mutant wizard, never visits, and spends his time torturing other creatures. When the Queen eventually weakens and dies, the two brothers fight for control of the fairy lands, but Avatar wins and Blackwolf goes into exile.
But before he leaves, Blackwolf throws out an ominous warning. "The day will come, my brother, when I will return and make this a planet where mutants rule."
I should point out this "history" sequence clocks in at around three and a half minutes. It's a testament to Bakshi and his crew that it never quite feels that long. In fact, the only reason Bakshi and company manage to get away with this kind of gratuitous info-dump opening is that they paired it with some truly stunning visuals.
At any rate, the story begins 3000 years later in the irradiated wasteland of Scorch, with Blackwolf issuing orders to his assassins to begin destroying the leaders of the free states. We're then treated to a succession of merciless killings across the hauntingly psychedelic landscape, as the action follows one assassin in particular, the stoic and brutally effective robot, Necron 99.
The action then cuts to the deep forest, and a pair of mounted elven scouts. They're taking a short rest and allowing their animals to graze, but the lead elf—Weehawk—says they need to push on. Avatar must be warned of what they've seen.
Just then, Necron 99 ambushes them, killing Weehawk's partner. Weehawk attempts to escape, but it's no use. At last, he's forced to throw himself at Necron in a desperate, kamikaze-like fury, launching them both over a cliffside and into the river below.
Meanwhile, back in Montagar, a sort of war council is going on. Avatar, the President, and the President's half-fairy daughter, Elinore, are all waiting for the elf scouts to report in. The President wants to arm the free states against the growing threat of Blackwolf, but Avatar urges against it, pointing out that science and technology were both outlawed millions of years ago.
Avatar tells the President and Elinore that he spent years searching out his twin brother, trying to learn what ever became of him. He knows that Blackwolf has been trying unsuccessfully to mold the mutated creatures of Scorch into an army. Balkwolf's frustrations have been driving him to dig deeper and deeper into the past, searching for the secrets of warfare among the ancient, pre-holocaust ruins.
Tales have reached Avatar of new war machines being built in Scorch, and of a great and ancient power that will enable Blackwolf to control his armies.
"What do you know about war?" Avatar asks them. "About bombs that could turn a planet molten and liquid? To think it could start again, ten million years after the last one..."
Just then, a burst of gunfire takes the President in the chest. Necron 99 has arrived, unseen by everyone. Avatar reacts, frying the robotic assassin with a blast of magic. At the same time, Weehawk bursts in through the door, sword drawn and ready to fight. But it's too little, and far too late. The President of Montagar is dead, and Elinore's cries fill the night.
Meanwhile, in Scorch, Blackwolf steps out onto the castle balcony to address his soldiers, calling them the "leaders of tomorrow's master race." He tells them the time has come to share the ancient secret of war, the key to creating hysteria and fear.
He then uncovers the secret relic he's found: an ancient movie projector, which he uses to play an old, Nazi-era propaganda film against the sky. German army marching music swells. Swastika flags flap in the breeze.
Below the balcony, the mutants stare, awestruck. The new uniforms they're wearing, Blackwolf's new war machines. The new weapons. All of it looks like the strange old images in the sky.
The movie whips the mutants into a frenzy. Battle footage from WWII joins the propaganda reel. Explosions. Gunfire. Artillery. Soon the mutants are screaming and chanting "seig heil," and clamoring to get to the front.
In East Elfland, an army is already manning the trenches, preparing for Blackwolf's invasion. We get a short exchange between an older elf and young recruit, the standard war movie trope of the scared private confiding in the old veteran. The old veteran reassures him that the last time Blackwolf invaded, the evil wizard lost over a million men. He says the goblins and mutants look mean, but they're cowardly, they always run when met with resistance. This time will be no different.
Blackwolf's armies approach, and the elves prepare to meet them. But just as they get into range, the wizard activates the projector. As soon the propaganda film begins playing, the elves stop and stare at the sky, frozen in abject horror at what they're seeing. The mutant army steamrolls into them, pouring into the trenches and slaughtering the defenseless elves in droves.
Back in Montagar, Avatar reads Necron 99's thoughts, learning of the existence of Blackwolf's movie projector. He says that it must be destroyed, and that the robot assassin—who he renames Peace—can lead them to it.
"I'll reason with him when he wakes up," Avatar says. He urges the others to go and prepare for the trip.
Weehawk spends the night saying goodbye to his tribe, and instructs them to name a new chief if he does not return. Elinore holds a funeral for her father. Then she promises the fairies that she will avenge his death, and that when she returns it will be as a full-fledged fairy, one ready to take her place as the Queen of Montagar.
As far as Avatar's reasoning with Peace, whatever he said must have been successful. Come morning, the ex-robot assassin has agreed to help lead them to Blackwolf's projector. But before the group sets off, Avatar offers Peace a final word of warning:
"You let me down, you hurt my friends—especially the broad—I got stuff planned for you that will take 20 years to kill you. And you'll be screaming for mercy in the first five seconds."
This is our first real hint that Avatar is more than the simple, kindly bumbler we've seen since the end of the "history" portion. There are some fangs beneath that bushy red beard, Wastelanders. Sharp ones.
For their part, Weehawk and Elinore aren't quite ready to trust their former enemy, either. Weehawk even goes as far as reassuring Elinore that he plans kill Peace the second the ex-assassin shows them the projector.
Preparations complete, our four heroes mount up, and they're off.
Meanwhile, back at Scorch, Blackwolf is attending his pregnant mistress. He's asking if the birth will be soon. She says it will. He says she is young to be queen—a statement which draws a look of shock from the girl—but if she delivers him a son, she will help to rule the planet.
The mistress tells him she doesn't want to rule the planet, that just their kingdom is enough. But this seemingly innocent statement sends Blackwolf into a rage.
"Enough! Enough for mutants to stay in their place, huh? Live with radiation so our bodies crawl with hell? We will live in the good lands! My son will grow where there isn't death in the very waters we drink, and the air we breathe!"
He then asks the wise men whether his son will be born mutant or human, to which the wise men reply "mutant." Blackwolf turns away in disgust.
"The next one won't be," he says coldly.
As he stalks off to attend to the business of his war, the mistress runs after him, crying and begging him not to have their child killed.
Back on the trail, Weehawk warns the others that Peace is taking them through the mountain fairies' domain. He urges them to go around. But Avatar and Elinore overrule him. They can't afford to lose time, Avatar says, and the fairies may have useful information. But according to Weehawk, the fairies and the elves are bad-blood cousins.
True to his warning, this direct route gets the group in trouble. This misadventure sees Elinore captured by the mountain fairies, as well as seeing the rest of the group separated, lost, half frozen, and—in Weehawk's case—nearly eaten by a monstrous spider.
However, the group successfully reunites after this ordeal, and resumes their journey toward Scorch. But unexpectedly, they run into an elf patrol armed with guns like the ones Blackwolf's army carries.
Back at the elves' camp, they learn the patrol is a part of a larger army, under the command of General Abdul. Abdul—an old friend of Avatar's—tells them the guns are captured Scorch weapons. Now, with weapons to match Blackwolf's, Abdul plans to sail across the sea and attack Scorch directly.
Avatar, still hoping to avoid all-out war, tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail. General Abdul is convinced the only way for elvenkind to survive is to take the fight back to Blackwolf's doorstep. And the warriors following him agree.
Late that night, a demon attacks the camp, attempting to take over Peace's mind. Avatar successfully fights the creature off, but it almost appears to be a decoy, as a tank comes speeding at them along the beach.
As Peace raises his rifle to protect the others, Elinore stabs him in the back with her sword, killing him. She then jumps into the tank, which immediately speeds away. Avatar chases after it, calling her name, but the tank disappears into the distance without so much as firing a shot.
In pre-dawn darkness, General Abdul's ships begin crossing the sea for the attack on Scorch. Avatar stands alone on the deck, lost in a depression and muttering to himself. Weehawk stands away, speaking to General Abdul. He says that Elinore's betrayal has broken the old wizard's heart.
Weehawk takes charge of the mission, practically forcing Avatar along the rest of the way, dragging the old wizard to shore ahead of the rest of the fleet. He still intends to sneak inside the castle, find the projector, and destroy it before Blackwolf can use it again.
The two sneak their way into the lower city of Scorch. There, the mutants have wholly adopted Blackwolf's propaganda film, as we see mutant officers in full Nazi regalia. We hear audio recordings of Hitler's speeches being broadcast over loudspeakers, and captive fairies being forced to sing songs in German. The mutants have even begun referring to Blackwolf as "the furher."
Avatar, still in a deep depression, finally snaps. He attempts to beautify some of the lower city with his magic, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the war. This draws the attention of some mutant officers, and forces Weehawk to take action. In a lightning fast, three-on-one battle, the elf warrior kills the mutants, before being blindsided and knocked down by one of Blackwolf's little toadies. The toady then claims victory, and scurries off to claim rewards and praise from Blackwolf.
Avatar, looking on the bloody aftermath of the fight, comes partly to his senses again. He at last realizes what kind of bloodshed the world is looking at if the two of them don't finish the job, however distasteful it's going to be.
Following the trail of Blackwolf's scurrying little toady, Weehawk and Avatar make their way into the castle. As they walk, Avatar commends the elf warrior.
"You know, the world owes you much, kid. Even if we don't take another step."
Meanwhile, General Abdul's fleet pulls to shore. The alarms goes up, and Blackwolf's army takes the field to meet them. Another set-piece battle begins, but with the heavily-armed elves on the offensive this time, it's an even match.
Then the ancient film projector begins rolling. Once again, the sight of the ancient propaganda film horrifies and paralyzes the elves, leading to a shift in the battle, and Blackwolf's forces begin to gain the upper hand.
Back in the castle, Avatar and Weehawk find Blackwolf in the throne room. They agree to split up, with Avatar confronting Blackwolf, and the elf warrior seeking out the projector.
On his way through the castle, Weehawk finds Elinore. In a rage, he leaps to kill her for betraying them, but he's stopped at the last moment by Blackwolf's mistress. Grieving her mutant son's death, the mistress says there has been too much bloodshed, and begs him to stop and think before he swings his sword.
In that moment, Elinore explains that Blackwolf took over her mind and possessed her when they were on the beach. He made her attack and kill Peace. She had no choice. Weehawk realizes he must run back to the throne room and tell Avatar, before the old wizard throws his life away.
Meanwhile, Blackwolf urges Avatar to give up. "Brother, there is no need for me to destroy you. Surrender. Surrender your world."
But Avatar, snarky as ever, only gives his twin brother a round of applause. He then begins loosening his sleeves in the classic "nothing-up-here" motion typical of performing stage magicians.
"I ain't practiced much magic in a long time. But I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren't around. To use on special occasions like this."
He then produces a 9mm Luger pistol from one of his sleeves, and shoots Blackwolf in the chest.
As Blackwolf dies, castle begins to crack and crumble around them. Avatar tosses the pistol away, ready to just be buried along with his twin. Right then, Weehawk runs in with Elinore, screaming that she's no traitor, that she was possessed. The three of them run for their lives, barely escaping as the castle falls behind them.
With the projector destroyed, the mutant army collapses into a disorganized rabble. Most scatter and run. The elves mop up the few resistors. There is some brief celebrating, but mostly the elves are eager to return home.
Outside, Weehawk asks Avatar and Elinore if they are ready to ride for Montagar with the others. But Elinore says tells Weehawk he will ride home alone, and rule as king. She plans to start a new kingdom somewhere else with Avatar.
A word of caution, Wastelanders. If you grew up on a diet of anime and newer, post-90's western animation, don't look for lavishly detailed or choreographed fight scenes. The battles in Wizards are stylized. But they're done in a style that really has no other equivalent, except maybe in Bakshi's other fantasy works.
Even then, I'd venture to say Wizards stands completely apart.
Bakshi combines live action newsreel footage with rotoscoped and hand-drawn animation, the latter using creatures with a distinct "head shop" aesthetic.
The collage-like result is a bunch of elves and mutants swinging swords at each other while Adolf Hitler screams in the background, artillery explodes, Messerschmitt fighters soar through the air, and rotoscoped warriors from movies like Zulu and El Cid stalk through the battlefield like otherworldly wraiths.
In sum, it's not really a depiction of a battle. It's more like a weird, psychedelic hallucination of one.
It's also a wonderfully effective and ballsy move on Bakshi's part. The Battle of Helm's Deep it ain't. But damn if it also doesn't capture the confusion and disorientation of the modern battlefield better than it has any right to.
Fact is, as unconventional as they are, the battle scenes in Wizards are a genuine artistic achievement, and the movie would be worth the price of admission for them alone.
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Hardly any, but Wizards earns a free pass here for plot and world building reasons. Millions of years have passed since the apocalypse, so it's unlikely there'd be any standing ruins left from modern-day society. If anything, the opposite is true. Scorch aside, the world has grown into an exotic and lush place in the wake of its destruction.
The one notable exception is in the short and somewhat heavy-handed "religion" sequence. The inside of the temple is filled with kitschy remnants of 20th century American culture: cola signs, pinball machines, juke boxes, and an old Oscar statue.
Naturally, none of it offers any salvation when Blackwolf's troops come calling, which is precisely the point. Neither do the two goofball priests, who would much rather spend their time engaged in hours' long ceremonies than in helping the needy prisoners right outside the temple's doors.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
I mean, sure, it's basically just Mordor with the serial numbers filed off. But so what? If you're going to go with an expansionist dictatorship ruled by an insane magician at the heart of a blasted wasteland, it's best to wear your inspiration on your sleeve. Bakshi—who went on to animate a Lord of the Rings adaptation a year later—does so here with pride, and the movie doesn't suffer one iota for it.
If anything, Bakshi leans into Tolkien's anti-industrial metaphors even harder.
If Montagar and East Elfland have returned to a state of pastoral, almost tranquil wilderness, Scorch has bypassed the early industrial revolution entirely, to become a full-on, mid-20th century industrial power, with 1940's-style assembly lines turning out planes and tanks for Blackwolf's coming blitzkrieg.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
Nada. Granted, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine the mutants of Scorch would have some among their decadent pastimes, but the story never suggests or hints at it.
Barbarian Hordes -
The mutants of Scorch definitely qualify. In fact, one of the film's biggest plot points is that they're such a barbarian horde, they're utterly incapable of fighting as a cohesive unit until Blackwolf rediscovers the secret of 20th century propaganda.
And frankly, it's the fact that Wizards takes this "war for the mind" approach to building the enemy horde that makes it stand out from most of the genre.
Where so many films made in the wake of the gasoline crisis of the '70s focus on things like physical shortages and civil unrest to create the wasteland hordes, Wizards really feels more like a belated product of the 60's.
Hell, there's barely a wasteland here, let alone a wasteland horde. The world of Wizards is a hodgepodge of hippie counterculture, Cold War paranoia, and environmentalism, filtered through a weatherbeaten old copy of Lord of the Rings.
This isn't the Lord Humungous promising his followers gasoline and human chattel, folks. This is Mordor meets MK-ULTRA. This is about what the people in charge can make you think. What they can make you believe. And by extension, what they can make you do.
Heady stuff. And sadly, never more relevant.
Badass Warrior Women -
The Half-Fairy Queen, Elinore.
The half-fairy queen, Elinore. And no, I'm not being snarky.
While she doesn't do much in the way of actual fighting, Elinore shows plenty of grit in swearing to avenge her father's murder, and in undertaking a dangerous quest into an irradiated hellhole to dismantle the enemy's doomsday weapon. When she believes she's cornered by assassins on a frozen mountaintop, she's more than willing to face the them head on with her sword drawn and a battle cry on her lips.
Does she get quite as many chances to prove herself as The Blood of Heroes' scrappy, tough-as-nails underdog, Kidda?
No. But let's be real. If I start judging every Badass Warrior Woman in the genre by that criteria, this category will probably have to go away altogether.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
This being an animated feature, we can expect Wizards to deliver the goods when it comes to mutants. And it does, with the caveat that most of them conform to the "head shop" aesthetic mentioned in the Violence entry. It works just fine, provided you don't mind your slavering, inhuman beasts bent on murder and conquest to look like they'd rather be chilling somewhere with a bag of 'shrooms.
While most of the mutants in Wizards serve as the film's off-brand orcs, special attention should be called to the subplot involving the Blackwolf and his young mistress.
Blackwolf—himself a mutant—has gotten his mistress pregnant, and apparently not for the first time. He's hoping for a pure-blooded child, and he consults the wise men for an augury. They inform him the child will be born a mutant, and the mother immediately begins pleading in vain for its life. But Blackwolf has already written the child off as worthless, and is already telling himself that "the next one won't be."
Which means for all his bluster and rhetoric about seeing the mutants as "tomorrow's master race," Blackwolf clearly holds mutant life—even his own, one suspects—more cheaply than he does pure human life.
It's an interesting dichotomy. One that adds a bit of dimension to Blackwolf.
Right out of the gate, Wizards won me over by using one of my all-time favorite storytelling tropes: the return of magic in the wake of an apocalyptic event.
It's a trope that's largely fallen out of favor in the last forty years, thanks to the gradual segmenting and separation between science fiction and fantasy. I groused a little about this subject a couple of months back, when I talked about the awesome, science fantasy weirdness found in earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons.
Expanding on that post slightly, 1977 can be seen as something of a watershed moment when it comes to viewing science fiction and fantasy as two separate genres. Not only was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons published, bringing an already popular game to an even wider audience, but Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara also appeared, proving the economic viability of the Tolkien clone. The explosive, runaway success of both products can almost be seen as a "twin Big Bang" event, one that largely drove "pure" fantasy to form its own separate publishing category.
Ironic, considering that both Shannara and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are almost certainly post-apocalyptic science fantasies.
All this is to say that Wizards, being released in 1977, managed to hit the market just before this kind of wild genre-mixing went out of style. And man, does it ever show.
We've got wizards shooting lightning, orcs flying fighter planes, and lizard-imps working computer consoles. We have mutant armies with machine guns and tanks battling elf armies with bows and arrows, while giant pterodactyl-birds screech through the sky.
It's a glorious, post-apocalyptic fantasy kitchen sink, rendered in funkadelic 70's color with every animation technique Bakshi and company could find the time or budget for. Simply put, this movie is a feast for the eyes, folks. One I heartily recommend to all fans of animated storytelling.
That said, the film isn't entirely without flaws.
There's a certain disjointedness to the narrative. Some pieces of the film never quite feel like they come together to serve the coherent whole. The scenes in the mountains are unevenly paced, and the later "betrayal" and reveal about Elinore come a little too close together to have any real emotional impact. Likewise with the separation and reunion of the traveling party. Both are obviously attempts to ratchet up the tension as we near the film's climax, but both end up falling a little flat.
Speaking of the climax, Avatar's willingness to use a gun against Blackwolf was undoubtedly one of the film's biggest and most satisfying payoffs. Bakshi shows us that for all Avatar's ideals about magic versus technology, and his genuine desire for peaceful solutions, the old wizard understands that sometimes there are no easy or clean answers. Sometimes a violent solution is necessary to stop a truly evil threat.
Avatar tosses the gun away at the end, clearly feeling like he's irrevocably dirtied himself by using one of the ancients' death machines. It's a very human reaction, and one the audience immediately empathizes with.
Admittedly, the idea of an apocalyptic fairyland is one that's stuck with me ever since first seeing this film, probably because it's just so damned weird. But looking at my outline for my current work in progress—and at the few chapters I've already drafted—I'm just now seeing how deeply that idea took root.
I'm seeing my post-holocaust world with its re-born magic. I'm seeing my gun-toting elves and my illusion-casting fairy. I'm seeing my warlord obsessed with digging into the technological secrets of the past. I'm seeing my killer robot with the--
Hmmm... A few surprises should be left on the table, I think.
The thing is, Wizards has long been a favorite of mine. I've always been a fan of the amazing visuals, the science-fantasy genre mixing, and the wide range of animation styles Bakshi plays with to tell his story. But I've never realized until now what an influential film Wizards is to me.
And for that, Mr. Bakshi and company have my deepest and heartiest thanks.
The Rad Rating:
While part of me feels like I should give Wizards a lower score for not having a tighter and more carefully structured plot, the other part of me feels like doing so would be missing half the point. Wizards is at least as much a purely visual experience as it is a traditional animated movie.
If you don't believe me, go back and watch that opening "histories" segment again. But do it with the sound on mute. See how much of the story you manage to pick up just from Mike Ploog's wonderful pen and ink illustrations, and the carefully selected background effects.
Bottom line: although it sports some undeniable some flaws, Wizards is a genre-defining classic, one that arguably represents the high-water mark of apocalyptic animation in the West. It's a criminally underrated film, one that's never quite gotten the wider recognition or the audience it deserves.
Until next time, Wastelanders!
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.
So against all odds, my regular D&D group will apparently be meeting up for a session this weekend.
On an entirely unrelated note: at this time, I will not be answering any questions regarding my whereabouts during the recent Blood Moon. Nor will I discuss the fiendish and ululant cries heard from the ancient monoliths in the shunned circle by the Old Whatley farm.
Jokes aside, adult life just has a way of making it difficult to keep up with a game sometimes. Responsibilities and obligations come up, couples travel, people get sick, and sometimes it all happens at once.
Bottom line, we haven't had the chance to sit around the table and throw some dice together in about four months, and I'm looking forward to it. We've been running through a heavily house-ruled version of Curse of Strahd, and we're within spitting distance of the endgame.
That said, one side effect of all that down-time in between sessions is that I've been wondering what I'd do next time I had the chance to run a game. As much as I've been enjoying running Curse of Strahd, part of me just wants to dial it back to something simpler.
In particular, a couple comments on Twitter got me thinking about what my "perfect" D&D would look like:
As I mentioned in this post a couple of months back, I've always played the game by cobbling rules together from various editions. But I'm going to give Demilich Jim a big hat-tip here for borrowing the perfect term for it from the model-building community.
Demilich Jim also wrote an awesome thread about a month ago, one that's well worth a read for anyone with plans to do some D&D kitbashing. The meat of Jim's argument is that the rules of the game imply a great deal about the setting, whether you're using a published setting or not. I made a similar point around the same time, when I argued the implied setting of the AD&D core rulebooks was inherently post apocalyptic.
So with Jon Mollison's "Fantasy Vietnam" as an implied setting, and the B/X ruleset a jumping off point, lets get bashing!
WELCOME TO HELL
My first assumption about a "Fantasy Vietnam" would be that it's just going to be stupidly lethal.
I'm imagining groups of player characters gathered from their home villages by the local king, each selected on the basis of "general fitness for service to the forces of Law."
While not inducted into the army per se, each adventurer would be given a signed warrant, authorizing them to use force against orcs, goblins, and other creatures of Chaos. Then they'd be gathered into groups of four or five, tossed into the back of a wagon, and unceremoniously trundled off to some far off keep on the borderlands, where the local authorities would proceed to treat them like FNG combat replacements.
Of course, as the new guys, they'd be given the shittiest details and the worst assignments. The crusty old sergeant in charge of the local garrison would be some guy missing fingers, with one dead eye. He'd offer up only one bit of smirking advice to the new arrivals: the gobbos can see yer body heat down there in the dark. Best to slather up with grease paint before goin' down in the earth. Messes with their vision.
The only other thing he'd say before kicking the PCs out of his office would be that one pair of goblin ears per day buys a warm bed in the adventurers' barracks. Another pair of goblin ears gets them a hot meal at morning reveille. Any others they collect, he'll pay a three copper bounty for.
Welcome to Hell. Don't worry. Most of you won't be staying long.
BUT D.I.D. HE DIE?
With the setting briefly sketched out, it's time to think about the rules I'd use to help bring it to life. I have a few in mind I'm planning to detail in the coming weeks, things like critical hit tables, trap result dice, and a setting-specific redesign of skills checks (and the Thief class).
Most of it is going to be geared towards making this setting much more lethal, or at least giving the damage results a little more flavor. But what I wanted to talk about today is one of the most important parts of a "fantasy Vietnam" campaign, or of any game dealing heavily with war and warriors: the all-important near miss.
To that end, I have a house rule I plan on using for this hypothetical game: the Divine Intervention Die, aka the Final Death Save.
So... real talk for a minute. I'm a veteran. I served a few tours in Iraq.
I generally don't spend a lot of time talking about my military experiences, unless I'm around other guys that were there to share them with me. It's nothing personal. It's just the way it is. What I've noticed about guys that have actually "been there" is that most of them tend not to talk about it. This is especially true of most of the Vietnam guys I've met.
But wars produce war stories, and a significant number of those stories are bullshit. Vietnam, in particular, seemed to turn stolen valor into a fucking cottage industry for a time. Iraq and Afghanistan would have been on track to follow suit, but social media and the internet have made it easier to call out fakers.
Anyway, a huge number of war stories—both real and bullshit—center around some last-minute, million-to-one escape from certain death. The aforementioned near miss. I'm sure you've all heard the old one about the soldier who got shot in the chest, but survived because the Bible he was carrying in his front pocket stopped the bullet. Or maybe you've heard that same story, but with a flask of whiskey in place of the Bible.
Personally, I believe both of them are one hundred percent true, and I believe they've both happened more than once. I've personally seen a man survive being shot because the bullet got caught in one of the grenades he was carrying in his web gear.
You see that kind of shit, folks, and you start believing anything is possible.
Bottom line, I wanted a mechanic to simulate those tiny, last minute turns of fate. After all, when everything else is gone—hit points, spells, and saving throws—what's left but sheer chance and divine intervention?
In game, the mechanic is simple: When the PC is reduced to 0 HP, or when they've failed a death save, the player rolls a d20. They MUST roll a natural 20. No modifiers apply.
If a 20 is rolled, the character survives, and the DM narrates how, doing his best to make it something worthy of a good war story at the local tavern.
If the result is anything else, the result is failure, and the character is dead.
Of course you can use any d20. But for my own table, I picked up these 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired HAL d20.01s, from Gio Lasar Design. They cost me around $9.00, plus shipping. Honestly, I like the idea of a character's final fate resting on a die covered in mostly blank and meaningless faces.
Seems a perfect metaphor for Mollison's fantasy Vietnam.
Anyway, I'll have some more on this in the coming weeks. In the mean time, go out and draft a bunch of Fifth Edition players, crank "Fortunate Son" on the boombox, and force them to roll 3d6 in order.
When they say they want to play an Tiefling Hexblade Sorcerer, tell them they only rolled good enough to play a Fighter or a Dwarf. And tell them they'd better decide quick.
The goblins upriver are getting restless. And the next patrol is starting in an hour.
Welcome back, Wastelanders!
This week's review is one I've been looking forward to. Not only is it the first book review to join the 'Pocky-clypse Now lineup, it's a title I've been eagerly awaiting since the author announced it several months ago.
I'm talking about Adam Lane Smith's heavy metal, post apocalyptic, Christian knights versus devils pulp-stravaganza, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
In the interest of full disclosure, I donated to Smith's Kickstarter for this project. And as a backer, I received an early copy prior to general release. Other than that, I don't know Smith. This is an honest review, with no favoritism given or expected.
If you're a first time reader of this column, a word of caution before proceeding. My reviews always include a detailed summary, followed by a breakdown of the story's essential genre elements, overall critical analysis, and a numerical "Rad Score" based on my personal rating criteria.
In other words, this review will be spoiler-filled.
Normally, I'd follow that format here. But since Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross won't be available to the general reading public until October 4th, I'm going to change up the format for this one. I'm going to put the spoiler-free Rad Rating first, followed by the somewhat spoiler-y Vitals.
I'll also put one, final spoiler warning before the summary. After that, Wastelanders, you're on your own. The rest of the review is going to be a spoilerific Thunderdome.
So, what did I think of Adam Lane Smith's blood-soaked demon-slaying adventure epic?
The Rad Rating:
Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross has all the makings of an instant cult classic. Over-the-top violence and blisteringly paced action meld perfectly with gruesome horror imagery, nightmarish monsters, and deep theological themes. The result is something truly unique and memorable. It's a roller coaster ride from start to finish, a high-tech Crusade through the blasted wastelands.
That said, it's not all blood and thunder. There are genuinely human moments in the story, moments of brotherhood, tenderness, and kindness that remind Gideon of the grace humanity is fighting for.
All in all, Adam Lane Smith has crafted a vastly entertaining book, a solid first entry into what promises to be a cult hit series. Highly recommended.
Wastelanders, of all the areas where Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross shines, this might be where it shines the brightest.
Simply put, Adam Lane Smith has a fantastic gift for writing violence.
His knack for pacing a fight sequence is exquisite, and the way he weaves the horrific details of the demon-infested world into the action helps to create something that feels fresh and unique with each scene.
One of the best examples of this is from Chapter 12, when Gideon battles a demon in what can only be described as a Cathedral of Bones:
With a huge foot, Zagoroth kicked Gideon in the chest. The knight's battered breastplate and the hit hurled Gideon through yet another bone pillar. His armor was so compromised that one of the sharp human spines stabbed into his lower back. Gideon slammed into the ground and skidded to a crashing halt with his back against another pillar. His HUD shrieked at him about a serious penetration, and when he looked down, the bloody tip of a bleached spine stuck out from his belly.
Because of details like this, the battle scenes never feel repetitive. Each one is genuinely edge-of-the-seat exciting, with stakes that matter, villains you want to see dead, and heroes you want to root for.
What more could an apocalyptic fiction fan ask for?
Man's Civilization Cast in Ruins -
Mostly simple and straightforward, with brief but effective descriptions of ruined cities, abandoned highways, and villages made from salvaged parts. Smith prefers to keep the story moving, without bogging his prose down.
That said, he manages some nice, clever touches here, brining his post apocalyptic world to life in ways that reflect the characters and their outlook. For example, Gideon muses about the words UNLEADED and DIESEL, reasoning that they must have been sacred to the Ancients, since they wrote them everywhere. To the wandering knight, only something of religious significance could be so common and so widespread. No other explanation makes sense.
One wonders what he'd make of the real explanation if someone gave it to him. Especially when the fuel source his Order uses to power their hovercraft is revealed later in the book.
Of all the passages describing society's destruction, though, the real show stoppers are the ones describing the ruined city in in chapters 17 and 18. With its enormous pyramid of packed, piled scrap in the center, this nameless ruin is an awe-inspiring monument to death and carnage, a cultists' and demons' hive built in the hollow corpse of the ravaged world.
Dystopian Survivor Society -
For a bunch of demon-worshiping cultists, the Ba'al cult displays a surprising level of sophistication. There's a clear hierarchy among the demons, the fallen angels, and their human followers, including lines of succession and chains of command. During a pre-mission briefing near the book's climax, mention is made of the vast amount of territory they control to the north.
In other words, this isn't some unruly rabble. This is a thriving civilization, one that's coming dangerously close to ruling the mortal realm.
That said, the legions of hell are prone to jealousy, backstabbing, and infighting, and the power vacuums created by the knights' Crusading can lead to bloody power struggles.
Futuristic Bloodsports -
None in evidence yet, although the series is just getting started. I wouldn't be surprised to see depraved gladiator games and contests to the death between the cultists in future installments. I also wouldn't be surprised to see something a bit more civilized, like some kind of futuristic jousting or tournaments taking place among the knights.
Barbarian Hordes -
The highway bandits from Chapter 6 represent the only truly lawless faction in this world, the only reavers and raiders that owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves. That said, their quick and brutal end shows what a stupid choice that is.
Smith's post apocalypse is one where demons and fallen angels walk the ravaged Earth. Powerful necromancers and witches stalk the ruins, along with legions of demon cultists. Opposed to them are the anointed warriors of God, using salvaged weapons of the Ancestors to hold the darkness at bay.
In other words, this is a world built on faith in—and faith to—something greater than oneself, be it God or devils.
Red Hat and company are the only ones foolish enough to try holding themselves apart from that. In doing so, they've tacitly declared themselves as powerful as those major players, as the demons and devils stalking the world.
Of course, Gideon Ira makes laughably short work of them, and in doing so, reinforces to the reader that this is not a world of human conflicts. Rather, this is a world of supernatural and metaphysical conflicts.
And men like Gideon are merely its foot soldiers.
Badass Warrior Women -
Sister Heather, of the The Iron Doves. She's a stealthy, brutally efficient killing machine, and the Chapter 17 infiltration showing off her skills is one of the book's absolute highlights.
In the interest of keeping this section relatively spoiler-lite, I will say no more.
Watch Thou For the Mutant -
Swap out "demons" for "mutants" in this case. I'm not going to make any semantic quibbles. Bottom line, the monsters in this book are memorable and awesome.
As with violence, Smith has a gift for creating unique and vile creatures. From the feathered Pride demon in the opening chapter—described as hulking and ape-like, with reptilian jaws and insect-like chitin covering its body—to the fallen Angels with their profane, stained glass wings and molten silver eyes.
What's more, Smith doesn't shy away from showing us these demons are evil. Casual atrocities like the slaughter of a village's adult population are just the prelude to the organized, large-scale sacrifice of that same village's children. Screaming girls have their entrails ripped out on altars. Temple floors are gore-soaked charnel houses, with the demons promising momentary power and respite to those that would serve them.
These aren't a bunch of misunderstood muties, Wastelanders. These are unholy abominations in need of a good purging.
And Gideon Ira is just the man for the job.
FINAL WARNING: DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD!
The book opens in a warren deep below the earth, where power armored knight Gideon Ira is locked in a death struggle against a feathered demon.
Ira battles the creature tooth and nail, and the reader gets a glimpse of the power-armor's capabilities. Ira deploys revolver, sword, and enhanced strength to little effect, but the creature does not fall. It's only when Ira wraps his rosary beads around his fist, literally beating the demon monster down with his own faith, that the creature begins to show signs of defeat.
Now, with the creature weakened, Ira is able to activate his sword's hidden plasma cutting edge. He finishes the monster, removes its head, and rides back to the nearby town of Blackbriar.
And with that, Wastelanders, Adam Lane Smith earns my implicit trust as a reader. He isn't here to waste my time. He's here to deliver on the promise he made when he announced this project months ago: Knights in power armor battling demons across an atomic wasteland.
And deliver he damned well does.
In Blackbriar, Gideon stops at the church to deliver the demon's severed head, and to give his report to the village priest, Father Harris. The priest then takes Gideon's confession, and just as the knight is preparing to leave the church, a blinding light and a booming voice from the heavens stops him in his tracks.
The radiant being has eyes of molten silver, and wings like stained glass windows, depicting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Far from being overawed, though, Gideon is unimpressed. The being is Azaria, an angel who's been standing by his side through his many battles, and who has appeared and spoken to him dozens of times in the past.
After his initial, dramatic entrance, Azaria takes a more human aspect, and the angel and the knight settle onto one of the pews to talk like old friends.
Azaria wants to know why Gideon appears so sullen and upset. The battle against the demon was far from the worst he'd faced. Gideon admits that he's frustrated at how long it took to track the monster. Months of battling through underlings, slaying cultists, and hunting for clues, when Azaria simply could have revealed the demon's location to him.
The angel reassures him that there was a purpose to the seemingly aimless running around. Many evils were removed from the world as he fought his way to the demon, including a powerful necromancer.
But the angel promises that his next task will be simpler, and more straightforward. All he must do is go to the tavern, and the location of the next target will reveal itself.
Gideon, still frustrated, asks if Azaria will just tell him directly. The angel's response isn't exactly what he wants to hear.
Another roundabout purpose, I'm afraid. Giving you a list of exact tasks does nothing to build your faith. My job is not to interfere in your life. I'm to guide you on your path, help you make sense of your experiences, and assist you with the choices you make. I cannot make your choices for you, and I will not rob you of your chance to experience a life of discovery which builds your faith.
With no path open to him except the angel's vague hints, Gideon heads next door to the tavern. After a short meal from the grateful proprietor, Gideon overhears news that cultists have massacred the adults in the village of Juniper, about a week northwest of Blackbriar, and taken the children away to use as human sacrifices.
Without saying a word, Gideon leaves the tavern and heads for the road. His first few days' travel are uneventful, but he eventually has a run in with a pack of bandits, led by one he mentally tags as Red Hat. He warns them off, seeking to avoid a fight and urging them to go to Blackbriar and confess their crimes. He says that they are not yet beyond redemption.
The bandits leap to attack, and Gideon makes short work of them. In the end, the only bandit left standing is Red Hat. The knight urges him to surrender, offering to take him along on his quest, to give him a chance to atone for what he's done.
But when Red hat learns that Gideon is bound for the territory of the Ba'al cultists, he takes a desperate last shot at the knight. But Gideon's power-armor enhanced reflexes are quicker, and he kills the bandit leader with a single, well placed shot.
Before Red Hat expires, Gideon again attempts to get him to repent, pleading with him to accept Christ in his final moments and be saved. But the bandit leader dies without uttering another word.
Another day's travel brings him to the corpse-strewn ruins of Juniper. True to the rumors, he finds no children among the bodies, and signs of a caravan headed northward.
Before he can begin his pursuit, though, he encounters another knight in power-armor. A quick ID between them reveals the man beneath the helmet is his old friend and academy classmate, Sir Caleb Davis.
Caleb has been on the trail of the same cultists that kidnapped the children, and he is visibly shaken by the carnage. He admits that the evil in this world sometimes makes him feel like giving up hope. The things he has seen battling against the demons and their human servants haunt him, and he sometimes believes that the darkness is winning.
Gideon does his best to reassure his friend, and urges him to give confession and ease his spirit. Caleb refuses, saying they must press on and finish the job first.
Gideon and Caleb follow the wagon tracks into the ruins of a nearby city, one from before the apocalypse that destroyed the civilization of the Ancients. The sign near the outskirts identifies it as Minneapolis.
They silently make their way through the ruins, eliminating sentries with brutal efficiency until Gideon gets spotted. The sentry manages to squeeze off a burst of machine gun fire just as Gideon impales him, and the rest of the infiltration into the cultists' hideout is a running firefight through the streets.
In the middle of the chaos, Gideon notices Caleb executing wounded enemies. He confronts his brother knight, saying it is not their way. Caleb counters that killing the enemies of the faith, and making sure they can't return to prey on the innocent, is the only way, and believing otherwise is naive.
Before they can settle the argument, the firefight resumes, and they're forced to fight and maneuver their way to the massive, bored out tunnel that serves as the cult's lair. Gideon, having seen this before, surmises that the cult is led by a demon.
Clearing the entrance, Gideon and Caleb work their way inside. They manage to locate and free the children of Juniper, but they cannot risk letting the cult leaders escape. Placing the oldest child in charge—a thirteen year old girl named Mary O'Rourke—the two knights work their way deeper into the tunnel.
At last, they find the grand central chamber, where they interrupt the end of a sacrificial ritual in progress. Gideon and Caleb make short, bloody work of the cultists, before they enter the final corridor and the heaped earthen throne room of the demon Zagoroth.
Zagoroth taunts the knights, saying their quests and their suffering have been meaningless, and offering them a chance at true power. Gideon resists, but Caleb, whose faith has already been shaken, succumbs to the temptation.
Demonic power flows into and transforms Caleb, and Gideon is forced to fight his old friend while the demon watches. It's an emotionally powerful, gut wrenching duel, and Gideon narrowly prevails, striking a death blow with his plasma sword.
Zagorath then traps Gideon in the plane of demons, and the already weakened knight is forced to fight for his life and soul against the demon in a cathedral made entirely of human bones. The demon spends most of the battle toying with the knight, as Gideon's armor gets weaker and weaker. At last, Gideon defeats the demon, but not before he is gravely injured.
Barely clinging to consciousness, and with only the thoughts of the freed children and prayers to the Lord for the strength to see them to safety driving him onward, Gideon crawls his way out of the tunnel and activates his distress beacon before darkness finally overtakes him.
When Gideon finally regains consciousness, he's on an air transport back to Belltower, the human stronghold and headquarters of the knightly Orders. Seated across from him is Sir Andrew Stone, another old friend and companion from his academy days. Andrew tells him they found the children, and all of them are safe and accounted for. They also found the remains of Caleb.
Gideon spends a day in recovery at Belltower, while his power-armor is undergoing repairs. He enjoys a day of quiet reflection and an evening Mass. Then Andrew picks him up for a major operations briefing. Something big is happening up north.
High Paladin Tharson, the regional commander of the knights, announces that they've identified an advisor to the Ba'al cult's regional high priest. If they capture the advisor, they can learn the identity and location of the high priest. And if they can kill the high priest, they can break the hold of the Ba'al cult in the region, potentially freeing hundreds of square miles of territory from their demonic influence.
The operation is going to be a small, surgical strike, with a team of just three knights. The priority is to get the target out alive without being noticed.
Andrew is named team leader, with Gideon selected as his number two. Also attached to the mission is Sister Heather of the Iron Doves, an order of covert intelligence specialists.
What follows is the single most thrilling action sequence in the book, an extended and harrowing infiltration and exfiltration filled with grotesque horror imagery, edge-of-the-seat action, and Smith's trademark, over-the-top violence.
These two chapters are worth the price of admission alone, Wastelanders.
By the end of it, the advisor is in the custody of the Belltower's interrogators, and Sister Heather predicts he'll reveal the identity of the High Priest in a matter of hours. The knights get a little downtime, but not much. It turns out Heather's prediction is right. The prisoner talks early, and soon the High Paladin is calling for another mission briefing.
Tharson identifies the target city, another Ancestor ruin to the north, and instructs the knights that they'll be riding out at first light. This is a search and destroy mission. The goal is to hit the city, and to slaughter every cultist they find, with the high priest being the raid's primary target.
The knight's have one last evening of quiet reflection and camaraderie, and Gideon and Andrew choose to spend it sharing a beer and reminiscing about old, departed comrades. The war against the demons has caught up with too many of them, it seems.
The knights depart the next day, and from here on out the book is non-stop action. The column of knights is attacked by flying demons en-route, forcing them to push on instead of resting. After a hard ride, they finally come to a ruin dominated by a huge, obsidian dome. Arrayed before it is an army of demons, necromancers, risen corpses.
With a battle cry, the knights charge the host. The fighting is fierce, bloody, and chaotic, and the knights gradually begin losing ground. Then last-minute salvation arrives, in the form of a Belltower gunship. The gunship manages to clear a path through the demonic host, and Gideon, Andrew, and three other knights manage to make it as far as the Obsidian Dome. High Paladin Tharson orders them to locate and kill the high priest.
Gideon and the others find him, but killing him turns out to be difficult. The priest—a demonic sorcerer called Snapdragon—has the ability to command a sort of living fog, whirling and shaping it into the shape of a vicious dragon. The priest more than holds his own against the gathered knights, and he even manages to kill one of them. It's only through some impressive teamwork, tactics, and faith that the other knights pull off their final victory.
The rest of the knights finally breach the dome, gathering their wounded and their dead, and planting a nuclear warhead to ensure the Ba'al cult will never use the site again. And as the transport ships speed back towards Belltower, Gideon Ira, Knight of the Blood Cross, watches the mushroom cloud form on the horizon.
I'll put this as bluntly as possible. Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross fucking rocks. It's a rollicking roller-coaster ride of righteous violence from start to finish. Fans of post apocalyptic action and military SF will find lots to love here. For some reason, the hive-like pyramid of the Ba'al cultists, in Chapters 17 and 18, reminded me of the Ant Nests in John Steakley's Armor.
That said, I think it's the quieter moments that truly define this book. Gideon's sense of brotherhood with his fellow knights, his tenderness towards the rescued orphans, and his simple, quiet faith when he's alone in the church are what make him a compelling character.
Sure, I may be following Gideon's adventures because he's a futuristic knight in badass power armor. But I want him to win because of the gentle kindness he shows to Sister Mary Brigid, and the easygoing humor he shares with William the armor smith.
Speaking of relationships, a special mention needs to be made of Gideon's relationship with the angel Azaria. It feels organic and real, with all the one-sided gravity a relationship between a mortal and an immortal should have. Azaria genuinely loves Gideon, and he's doing his best to guide him and nurture his faith. And we get the sense he finds it painful to see his friend go through these tribulations. But like Gideon, he's just a servant. He has a role to play in this grand design, whether he understands it or not.
This being the first book in the series, Adam Lane Smith lays plenty of groundwork for future installments. There are mysteries hinted at in Gideon's past, as well as a startling reveal involving Sister Heather of the Iron Doves. We're also introduced to a fallen angel who makes some menacing appearances, but otherwise doesn't do much in the course of the narrative. I'm expecting that all these strands will be developed in the next books.
Honestly, if there's any criticism to be had here, it's that Smith places the most emotionally powerful and complex fight scene too early in the story.
The battle against Caleb is the fight where the personal stakes are at their absolute highest for Gideon. A lifelong friend and brother has just succumbed to darkness. Gideon has no choice but to fight him, not just out of self defense or self preservation, but to honor everything Caleb once stood for and believed in. Only by standing true and refusing to give quarter can Gideon honor himself, his God, and the lost soul of his one-time brother.
The problem is, none of the battles that come after it have quite the same sense of gravity. After we've seen him forced to kill a comrade in arms, the personal stakes just don't feel as high when Gideon is battling the cultists and the demons. This is an admittedly minor quibble, one born more of my writer brain speaking up when my reader brain just wanted it to shut the hell up and enjoy the damn story.
The simple fact is, Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross kept me glued to my seat from start to finish. It's a wildly fun and entertaining story with a compelling hero, a vividly imagined world, and kick-ass action. And when I reached the last page, I sure as hell wasn't second guessing Smith's placement of that one fight scene. I was far too busy thinking about Gideon Ira and his next adventure.
Wastelanders, I suspect you will be, too.
Until next time.
We're coming up on three weeks since I've written anything, and I wanted to put up a brief post explaining why. Personal reasons, mostly. The majority of them health related. But I've also been hard at work on an upcoming fiction project, and I wanted to share a little news about that, as well.
Incidentally, if that upcoming release is all you want to know about, skip to the bottom, below the boldface header. I promise I won't be offended.
First off, the good personal stuff:
I got to take a road trip two weeks ago to visit an old buddy from my Marine Corps days. He finally fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming a municipal police officer, after years of slaving away in private security and DoD Police jobs. He's more cut out to be a cop than anyone I know, and it was a privilege to be there celebrating his academy graduation. I'm keeping his name out of print by request, because he's always been a humble guy who doesn't seek attention.
That said, this is my digital space, and I get use it to tell the world how fucking proud I am of my blood brother.
And to that brother, I just want to say this: Semper Fi, man. It's been a long time coming. Wear that badge as proudly as you wore the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.
Of course, I managed to pick up some new and interesting germs on said road trip, and I've been sick as a bastard since getting back. I'm mostly over it now, but I spent a solid week hacking up phlegm and alternating between medicine hangovers and NyQuil-induced comas. Incidentally, my mother-in-law is a saint for making me her famous, fresh chicken soup while I felt like crap. I tell you, that stuff is the nectar of the gods.
I've also been having my usual round-and-round with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been about as much fun as an enema of live fire ants.
Bottom line, I've been running on fumes when it comes to mental energy these days. And what little I have been able to muster has been going into the new fiction project.
New Fiction Project
In recent weeks, I mentioned D&D's fiction line and Pink Slime fantasy. The latter was one of the two most popular posts this blog has ever had, with something in the neighborhood of four thousand unique hits.
Those two subjects aren't entirely unrelated in my mind. The rise of D&D's fiction publishing arm was one of the major driving forces in the overall homogenization of the fantasy genre, and the defining of what "vanilla" or "typical" fantasy looked like.
By contrast, the D&D game itself looked markedly different in the earliest days, when it was cobbled together from such odd literary influences as Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and Margaret St. Clair's The Shadow People.
As a result, I've lately found myself wondering what D&D fiction would have looked like if it actually drew from those Appendix N sources, instead of leading that homogenization trend. What if—instead of generating more vanilla fantasy "lore" for TSR's branded settings—it was allowed to get as weird and pulpy as the suggested setting in the AD&D Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide?
In that spirit, I'm currently working on a post apocalyptic, science fantasy dungeon crawler; something equal parts Sign of the Labrys and Swords Against Death, with some hefty helpings of Poul Anderson and Jack Vance in the mix.
Call it OSR fiction, for lack of a better term. Watch this space for more updates. Or, if you want to be notified as soon as it's available for pre-order, you can click here to sign up for my mailing list.
As for the immediate future of the blog, I'm planning to put up some more gaming related content, including some more deep-dive stuff into the old AD&D rules.
I also plan to continue my ongoing series of post apocalyptic reviews, which has earned itself at least a few die hard readers. And I'm finally adding books to the review series, starting with Adam Lane Smith's upcoming release Gideon Ira: Knight of the Blood Cross.
So stick around, folks. There's plenty more to come.
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.