About three or four sessions into my current campaign, I noticed that my players didn't really like the abstract nature of D&D combat. No matter how much narration and dramatizing I did, combat just felt too passive to them. Specifically, they wanted to do something besides stand there and take it while the enemy rolled against their AC.
Now, one thing I'll say in favor of D&D combat RAW. It's streamlined. And if the players are happy enough to fill in the blanks by imagining feints, dodges, and other maneuvers happening in between declared actions and combat rolls, then it's fine.
On the other hand, way back when I was a wee player, I had the same reaction. I kept trying to declare dodge or parry on the enemy's turn, and it took a little while for me to get comfortable with everyone rolling against a static number to simulate combat.
Which is probably why I gravitated to Kevin Siembieda's Palladium System games so strongly. Divisive as hell within the RPG community, absurdly crunchy, and badly imbalanced even by early 80's game design standards, the Palladium games nonetheless had a gonzo weirdness to them that I loved. Even though I could never get my early groups to accept a sci-fi/fantasy mashup like Rifts, I bought sourcebooks for everything under the Palladium sun, mining some of the stranger fantasy elements for my own D&D games.
As I was also getting heavily into anime at the time, I had a special fondness for the Robotech line. At one time I owned every single sourcebook Palladium published for it, despite my regular group having even less interest in it than Rifts.
Anyway, my old group's strict definitions of what fantasy was and wasn't—and their almost fanatical opposition to genre mixing of any kind—is a subject for another time.
But if there's one thing I always thought Palladium games got 100% right, it was the opposed roll combat mechanic. Yeah, it kind of broke when scaled up to higher levels. Tracking multiple character actions, plus massive amounts of Armor SDC, Character SDC, and Hit Points got to be a pain in the ass. Especially after level five or so.
But the basic idea of the defender being allowed to dodge by beating the attacker's d20 roll was—and is—gold. And even though I was never able to convince my players to pick up a full Palladium game, a variation on that opposed d20 roll has been a longtime house rule of mine when running D&D.
For one thing, it keeps the players from feeling like combat is just an abstract game of roshambo. Every time I've introduced it at one of my tables, the players get much more involved in the battles. They suddenly feel like they're playing for stakes.
I also feel it does a better job of simulating the "grit" of combat. Armor as damage reduction just feels more intuitive than armor making someone harder to hit. It also means armor wears out over time. It's an expendable resource that has to be managed, like water, food, and torches. Not to mention the need to find an armor smith in between battles. Suddenly, long journeys into unknown territory become a much more dangerous affair.
So without further ado, here's my house-ruled Active Combat System. It's basically a stripped-down, bare bones version of Palladium's more intricate combat mechanics. If you're already familiar with those, then you won't find much new here.
Once the DM has a handle on it, this system is actually much simpler than it looks. Doing the opposed rolls simultaneously doesn't really take any longer to resolve than rolling against a character's AC. It adds a layer of player participation to the combat round, without adding much more bookkeeping.
It also affects combat in some interesting ways. With each character only getting one chance to defend in a round (or two, if they forego an attack), mobs of low level enemies like goblins suddenly become a deadly threat to even the highest level characters. Sure, the first twenty or thirty hits will get eaten up by that nice, expensive suit of chainmail. But remember, once it's rendered useless, any undefended roll of 5 or greater is a success. It won't take long for those little bastards to make hamburger out of the toughest warrior under those circumstances.
It hasn't happened in my current group yet, but as armor gets torn to shreds and healing spells run out, a fighting retreat often becomes the smartest course of action. I've seen the tanks form a barrier, using both actions to defend just so they can buy time for the other PCs to escape.
In short, these rules force the PCs to be much more careful about their tactical situation. It won't be a good fit for everyone's table. Hell, it hasn't even been a good fit for all of my tables. But if your players are starting to see combat as a repetitive slog, then it might be just what your group needs.
Below is a photo from our last D&D session. Yes, that's a giant frog on the table. The hair elastic around its neck is a lasso, and the miniature on its back represents one of the PC's riding her newly tamed gargantuan monster.
On a related note, now I'm questioning all of my life choices as a DM...
Joking aside, that picture represents something any DM who wants to keep his or her players engaged needs to consider: what type of fantasy stories have your players been consuming prior to sitting down at your table?
Case in point: I'm a big fan of the pulpy, Weird Tales type fantasy that makes up most of Gary Gygax's famous Appendix N. As such, my campaign's cosmology is ripped straight from Michael Moorcock. My game's elves owe more to his doomed Melnibonéans than to Tolkien's ethereal forest dwellers. I like Vancian Magic. One of my players is currently under a curse inspired by an unfinished Robert E. Howard fragment.
In other words, I sit down to the DMs chair with some pre-loaded assumptions and preferences about the flavor of fantasy I want to imitate in-game.
What most newbie DMs forget is that the players sit down with a similar set of assumptions and preferences. They're looking to experience a certain flavor of fantasy, too. And the success of the game depends heavily on whether or not those flavors are compatible.
For example, one of my campaigns was loosely based around the Crusades, set in a world where most of the Arthurian Myth cycle was historically verified fact. It was a great fit, because I had players that had been reading Ivanhoe and Le Mort de Arthur playing alongside devoted fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon series.
Another group I ran enjoyed Dante's Inferno, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Steven Brust's brilliant novel To Reign in Hell. I crafted a game where the PCs had all died on the Prime Material Plane and had to adventure through the Nine Hells, which I populated with snarky, sarcastic demons and modern pop-culture references.
So, what about my current game? How closely do my assumptions match up with theirs?
Short answer: not at all. I'm not just the only one who's been reading Howard, Moorcock, and Vance recently. I'm the only one who's read them at all.
So, what have my players been consuming that I haven't? And more importantly, how did I work that into the game to keep them satisfied and engaged?
First up is my wife, Vanessa. While not much of a fiction reader, she absolutely loves visual works of fantasy. She's an avid fan of artists like Brian Froud and Daniel Merriam. Two of her all-time favorite movies are The Princess Bride and Labyrinth. In short, she prefers a light, whimsical take on the fantasy genre, and when our friends proposed a D&D group, her first question was "Can I play a fairy?"
I did some research, looking for a homebrew race that would be somewhat B/X compatible. I ended up using a variation of the half-pixie Phaerim, detailed in R. Kevin Smoot's New Races: A Basic Fantasy Supplement. Since B/X uses race-as-class, I decided to run her as a winged Halfling, for purposes of level advancement and saving throws.
The other two players in the group are another married couple, Leah and Aaron. While they've both read the standard genre classics like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, a huge part of their recent fantasy intake has been in anime and manga form. In particular, they're both fans of isekai shows like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime and Overlord.
That anime influence was obvious less than halfway through the first session, with the sheer number of called shots and crazy maneuvers both of them attempted in each combat encounter. The problem is that B/X D&D doesn't really support that style of combat, at least not when using Rules as Written. On one hand, the players' options tend to be more open, since not much is spelled out in the rules. The flip side is that the players' power level is pretty low.
The likeliest result? Lots of dead PCs, and a table full of players who take fewer risks with their newly-rolled replacement characters. And while that gels perfectly with my gritty, Appendix N-flavored sword and sorcery style, it's not really what the players sat down wanting to experience.
In other words, I had to do some adjusting.
One of the first things I did was bump the characters' power level. I introduced the optional Cantrips list from The Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, so Leah's Elf could cast more than one spell per day. I also introduced some optional combat maneuvers for Aaron's fighter, like a once per combat Shield Bash that does no damage, but knocks a human sized opponent prone on a successful strike.
I also entirely re-vamped the game's combat mechanic, which I'll detail in an upcoming post.
The last thing I did was more of a situational call:
When the PCs were crossing a marshland via an ancient causeway, I had them encounter a pair of giant frogs. But instead of my little plastic pogs marking the monsters' position, someone grabbed that stuffed frog off the shelf and dropped it on the mat.
I quickly changed the encounter to one gargantuan frog, which (based on the stuffed animal's cuteness) my wife's character immediately decided that the party needed to tame. Everyone else was instantly on board with the idea.
I could do one of two things at that point: run it as a standard combat encounter, forcing the players into a fight they didn't really want. Or find a way for them to try it their way.
Looking over Leah's spell list, I quietly scribbled out the word "person" next to her first level Charm spell.
"This is now an all-purpose Charm," I said. "It still doesn't work on undead or magical creatures. But anything in nature is susceptible. Including giant animals."
If you could only have seen the smiles around that table, folks.
What followed was a zany, over-the-top combat encounter, in which the PC's weakened the frog enough to lasso it, rode along as it dove into the water and tried to swim away, and then climbed up onto its head in order to look it in the eye and cast Charm.
In other words, it was pretty much the polar opposite of the gritty, sword and sorcery-inspired combat encounter I'd had in mind. My players couldn't have been happier.
As their DM, neither could I.
Sword an sorcery is a genre that's devilishly hard to define. Ask ten people to lay out their personal guidelines for what is and isn't S&S, and you're likely to get twelve different answers.
Examples are easier to come up with, if somewhat less helpful. And like definitions, you're rarely going to get many people that agree. Sure, some examples are more-or less a given. Robert E. Howard's Conan. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. Michael Moorcock's Elric. But disagreement tends to crop up when people throw up examples outside that established core.
In an old SF Signal Mind Meld, several writers were asked to define what "sword and sorcery" meant to them. Answers were, predictably, all over the board, most of them boiling down to lists of common tropes. But the first answer came from Michael Moorcock himself, and it touched on something elemental:
Basically I see it as a good old-fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama with strong supernatural elements. Captain Blood meets Cthulhu.
Folks, that quote may be the closest thing this genre has to a Rosetta Stone. It explains why so many of the "borderline" examples people disagree about feel wrong to those well-read in the genre, even if they seem to contain most of the tropes.
First, re-read Moorcock's statement. Notice the order he puts the two components in. It's no accident that "old fashioned sword and sandal or cloak and dagger drama" gets precedent. The story has to function purely (or almost purely) in those terms, absent any fantastical element.
Conan sneaking into the Tower of the Elephant. Elric of Melniboné leading a pirate fleet against the impregnable port of Imrryr. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser running headlong through the labyrinthine halls of the Thieves' House, one step ahead of their murderous pursuers.
Any of those moments could be dropped into a historical adventure story, while retaining 100% of its excitement and impact. They speak to something primal in the reader, something that exists independent of the story's magical elements: Courage in the face of certain death. Wit and steel against overwhelming odds. The chase. The hunt.
Next, notice Moorcock's carefully chosen word, supernatural. There's a reason he didn't say "cloak and dagger fiction with magic." Or "sword and sandal drama with elves and dwarves."
Supernatural implies the weird, the unknown, and the dangerous. Supernatural is the fantastic. But it is the unfamiliar fantastic.
In sword and sorcery, magic is rare and terrifying. Monsters are a violation of the natural order. Dwarves and elves, if present, aren't simply another culture in a fantasy melting-pot world. They're a freak survival of some ancient and forgotten age, like Howard's stooped, serpent-like "Worms of the Earth." Or Moorcock's vaguely etherial, Chaos-bound Melnibonéans.
What I like about Moorcock's definition is that it's not just descriptive. At the risk of paraphrasing Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moorcock's definition doesn't just describe what a sword and sorcery story is. If it did, it wouldn't be much more than a genre dowsing rod.
Rather, Moorcock's definition describes what a sword and sorcery story needs. It can be a map for building one from the ground up.
Sword and sorcery 101. Start with historical adventure. Add the supernatural. It's as simple (and as complex) as that.
"I don't know what 19-year-old me would think if he could see me today. But he'd probably be happy that I still read David Gemmell and listen to Angel Witch." - Me, circa 2015
All in all, that offhanded Facebook comment from a couple of years ago sums up how I feel about the turning of the New Year. While a lot of my fellow writers are posting long lists of their accomplishments, publications, and kudos earned in 2018, I'm not going to do that.
The fact is, I'm not happy with what I accomplished this year. I had a long list of things I set out to achieve, both professionally and personally, and I failed at pretty much all of it.
Not looking for pity here. Just stating it plainly. My list of goals didn't get a lot of check-marks this year, and pretending otherwise would be dishonest.
But I am happy that I'm still me.
And after a year filled with self-doubts, mental health issues, and maddening, Kafka-esque administrative fuck-ups at the Department of Veteran's Affairs adding fuel to both...
Well, shit. That's actually something, guys.
The fact is, sometimes the best effort we can muster is to hold on for all we're worth. And I managed to do that in 2018, if nothing else. I did it no thanks to the worthless fuck-wits in the VA, and all the thanks to my wife, my fellow vets, and some good friends.
Not to mention a pair of spoiled-rotten dogs. It's amazing how even in the middle of the shittiest of shitty days, a dog curled in your lap can suddenly be the brightest spot in the whole universe.
Which leads me to 2019.
For the year ahead, I do have a handful of irons in the proverbial fire.
Watch this space for more. I'll have some updates on all of the above coming soon.
As for me, I have some work to do. Right after I listen to some Angel Witch.
I have a long history with The Thing.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 1951 Howard Hawks version with my mom and dad. I was about three or four years old, curled up on the couch in between them, with the blankets pulled up to my chin. I can still vividly remember my horror as I watched the shadow of Will Arness' Thing out in the blizzard, casually slaughtering the team's sled dogs. To this day, that scene of the arctic scientists trying to determine the shape of the magnetic anomaly in the ice—cheesy music sting and all—holds an eerie power for me.
Catching the 1982 John Carpenter version on cable was one of my formative pre-teen experiences. I was already a horror film junkie by that point, well versed in everything from Hellraiser, to Evil Dead, to Alien. I considered myself quite the jaded little gore connoisseur. And if you had told me I was about to watch a movie that would blow me out of the water, one that would genuinely scare me, I would have laughed right in your face.
The Thing, though, was some straight up next-level shit. Everything about it, from the Ennio Morricone score, to the perfect cinematography, to the still-unequaled practical creature effects, was a bar-raising landmark. Combine that with the tight pacing, the claustrophobic sets, the paranoid direction, and the virtuoso acting performances, and you have one of the most perfect horror films ever made.
Naturally, when I got around to reading the original novella that inspired both films—1938's Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell—I was already predisposed to liking it. And I did. No, it's not quite the timeless masterpiece of horror storytelling that Carpenter's film is. The ending isn't nearly as exciting. The sense of menace doesn't quite build the same way that it does in Lovecraft's better-written tales. Aside from McReady, the characterizations are thin to non-existent.
But as a pulp SF tale of the "men-with screwdrivers" school, it more than delivers. Campbell sets the claustrophobic tone in the story's first lines, describing the queer, mingled smells that choke the Antarctic camp's tunnels. When McReady comes on the scene—here as a meteorologist rather than a pilot—he is described in appropriately pulpy terms, a red-haired giant, a bronze demigod come to life. When the creature is at last revealed in the block of ice, Campbell gives us the almost superstitious reactions of the otherwise coldly rational scientists. The discord produces a fantastic effect.
All in all, the opening scene is a master class in establishing mood, setting, and tone while simultaneously kicking off the story with a bang. I'd even go as far as to say this opening is the one thing that Who Goes There? legitimately does better than either of the film versions, both of which take a little time to orient the viewer before introducing the horror.
Which is why despite my excitement, I have a few reservations about the upcoming release of Frozen Hell, from Wildside Press.
In case you haven't heard yet, writer Alec Nevala-Lee recently rediscovered the lost manuscript for the original, novel-length version of Who Goes There?. A Kickstarter campaign to cover publishing costs met its goal in less than twelve hours, meaning we'll all get to read it early next year.
Admittedly, my first reaction to this news was sheer, unbridled joy. And for part of me it still is. So why the reservations?
According to the project's Kickstarter page, Frozen Hell is apparently 45 pages longer than Who Goes There?, with most of the new material taking place before the novella's opening. In other words, that fantastic, moody first chapter will take place somewhere around page 30-35 or so.
Which brings me to an interesting thought about the novella, and half the reason for today's post.
One of the most common bits of advice trotted out to new writers is not to open a story with the dreaded "info-dump." You should hook your reader into the story first, giving them relatable characters and conflict, before giving them blocks of expository text or dialogue. Otherwise, the reader won't care.
There's plenty of truth to that advice, enough where it's a pretty reliable rule of thumb. But what always struck me about Who Goes There? is how much of that opening scene really is just info-dump. For several pages, we have McReady and the other scientists just standing around in a room, talking about this frozen creature.
What's more, in this same scene Campbell violates another piece of writing advice that's become akin to gospel over the years: having characters talk about things most of them already know, purely as an excuse to fill in the reader. Or "As you know, Bob," dialogue.
Campbell partially sidesteps it here, by having Commander Garry address the assembled men first:
You know the outline of the story back of that find of the Secondary Pole Expedition. I have been conferring with second-in-Command McReady, and Norris, as well as Blair and Dr. Copper. There is a difference of opinion, and because it involves the entire group, it is only just that the entire Expedition personnel act on it.
The rest of the opening consists largely of McReady and Blair explaining the events leading until now, events many of the assembled men were already present for. But because it's presented as a briefing intended to get the station's personnel all on the same page, it works.
Even so, it was a genuinely audacious storytelling choice, particularly in a format as dependent on fast-paced thrills as the pulps. The whole thing is carried by Campbell's moody description and the gradual reveal of the situation through dialogue, both of which give the scene its necessary suspense. More proof that you can break any writing convention, provided you do it with style.
Of course, the discovery of the Frozen Hell manuscript reveals that scene's original placement, which was roughly a quarter of the way into the story. That's much more in line with the standard "hook your reader, explain things later" advice. While I'm genuinely curious to see what hook Campbell uses, something tells me it won't be quite as innovative or memorable as an in-media-res, "as you know, Bob," info dump.
There's no question that I'm going to buy Frozen Hell the second it's available for general release. Maybe it's better than the novella. Maybe the scenes leading up to that tense, wonderful cold open will somehow make it more powerful. Maybe not.
In some ways, I feel like a kid who snuck a peek behind the curtain at a magic show. Now that I've seen all the mirrors and the hidden trap doors, I'm just sitting in the audience, hoping the Astounding Campbell can still wow me.
Here's hoping. Either way, I'll be the first in line.
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.