In addition to old-school roleplaying games, I enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction stories. Unfortunately, there is a lot of garbage out there, so finding the good stuff can be hard.
Luckily, there are some authors out there writing great fantasy and science fiction. One of the authors bringing us good fiction is Kit Sun Cheah.
When I saw that he was doing a Kickstarter for a trilogy of novels that had an OSR influence, I asked him for an interview about the novels. Without further ado, here is the interview:
Who or what was your introduction into the OSR?
You were, actually.
In 2017, I saw the term OSR floating around the PulpRev community and the Castalia House blog. I started investigating the term, and found a number of blogs discussing OSR. Including yours. That was my first introduction to OSR, and the mindset and aesthetic stuck with me since.
What about the OSR inspires you, over more modern approaches to D&D?
Modern D&D rules cheapen death and violence.
My first exposure to D&D was the Forgotten Realms Gold Box. It’s a compilation of games based on Advanced D&D’s ruleset, bestiary and lore. I didn’t finish them, but I regularly devoured the lore books. Among the things that stood out to me were the mechanics for death and combat. A character who fell to 0 HP is out of the fight, and at negative health a character is unconscious must pass a saving throw every turn or lose health. At -10, he dies. To prevent this, other PCs can heal him. There was a resurrection spell, but it was restricted to high-level magic users, and it imposed a permanent cost of 2 Constitution points with every successful use.
In 5E D&D, characters must make at least three death saving throws. A player must roll a 10 or higher on a d20, and rolling a 20 restores 1 HP. A resurrection spell imposes −4 penalty to all attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks, but this is reduced by 1 with every long rest.
What we see here is a trend towards reducing the penalty of combat gone wrong. And even when the worst happens, you can bring the dead party member back without (too much) penalty.
In addition, 5E combat rules allow the player to stack the odds in their favour through abilities and maneuvers, such as Bonus Actions, moving between attacks, and so on. I find that these are meant to aid the player in winning a fight instead of mechanically reflecting the chaos of a true battle. It makes the player feel powerful by granting an artificial advantage over the monsters, instead of having the characters earn their victories.
These rulesets allows players to experience a long narrative, and to preserve their characters with their backstories and attendant emotional investment. But I feel this also insulates players from the consequences of bad decisions (not to mention carries some disturbing worldbuilding implications if resurrection spells can be flung around without permanent penalty).
In contrast, OSR games tend towards very lethal combat, in a nod to D&D’s wargaming roots. A decision to do battle has true impact and emotional weight, and becomes a genuine risk-reward calculus. Preparation for battle — as opposed to using special abilities in combat — is critical to success, and avoiding combat is a valid option. At the same time, if a character dies, well, you roll a new one and carry on. I find this to be a better reflection of how combat — especially large-scale combat — is fought.
If it won’t spoil anything in the novels, is there a particular OSR concept or module that inspired you when writing Dungeon Samurai?
OSR’s deadly combat, lasting consequences of death, and lack of special PC abilities to turn the tide in their favour.
I wanted death and injuries to have lasting consequences. This in turn meant lethal combat. Humans can use healing prayers to recover from wounds, but these prayers are limited to clerics and have a sharply limited stock. Once exhausted, the clerics need 24 hours to replenish their stocks. Further, the more severe the wound, the more powerful a healing spell is needed — and the greater the drain on a cleric’s mental stamina. In addition, there are no resurrection prayers. When someone dies, he’s done.
That said, the demon occasionally rips into our world to abduct humans from across time periods. This is the functional equivalent of rolling a batch of new characters.
The highly lethal nature of combat here translates into a very methodical approach to clearing the dungeon. Nothing is left to chance, you cannot count on a prayer or skill to save you all the time, and sending in inexperienced and untrained rookies into the dungeon will lead to a bloodbath.
The humans here do have special abilities, granted by a benevolent power, like modern D&D’s feats and class features. But these abilities don’t make them overpowered, and the most powerful ones come with great cost. The protagonist, Yamada Yuuki, has the special skill of Kamikaze. When activated, he becomes a berserker — but using it leaves him exhausted, and overuse can kill him. These abililities must be saved for special occasions.
Other skills have lower costs, but more subtle and low-key effects. There are characters who can carry heavy loads and walk long distances without fatigue, but it doesn’t necessarily make them better fighters. Other characters can grant passive buffs, but they are not instant win conditions. Sharpshooters are extremely deadly with ranged weapons, but if they are surprised, terrified, or don’t know what to aim at, their skill is negated.
Lastly, traps are everywhere in the dungeon, all of them deadly. You cannot simply tough out a trap and carry on. When venturing into unknown space, characters must tap the walls, floor and ceiling, and must sweep the space in front of them for tripwires. They must pay attention to their safety lamps, or they will suffocate in a cloud of poison gas. If they don’t have the right gear to handle a trap, or they run out, they must turn back and resupply — the dungeon is just too dangerous to risk it.
On the Kickstarter page, you mention “isekai”, a popular genre from Japan where people from the real world find themselves in a fantasy world. In such a crowded genre, how will this series distinguish itself?
Many isekai stories are power fantasies and self-insert stories. These days, isekai stories follow a time-honoured process. Take an average Japanese male, send him to a fantasy world, grant him cheat skills and/or equipment, and have him explore the world. Bonus points if it’s a LitRPG setting based on modern D&D or JRPGs, complete with HP and MP and EXP. Our Hero, heavily reliant on his cheat skills and/or OP gear, breezes through combat and other difficult situations without lasting consequences. Combat is a spectacle designed to show off the characters’ skills by having them mow down tons of disposable mooks. If there’s romance, Our Hero is usually too dense to notice affection and acts like an idiot, but always somehow attracts the attention of beautiful women. If Our Hero is aware of his love interest(s), he is almost always too chicken to do anything more than scream in terror and run away.
Dungeon Samurai, in contrast, takes an ultra-realistic approach. The abductees aren’t bland nobodies; they have histories, skills, experience, all of which comes into play. They do have skills, but these aren’t overpowered, and aren’t necessarily always the right tools for the job. They don’t have any major advantages over the monsters. They must track their weapons, health, prayers, tools and other items all the time.
Combat is deadly, and hinges on being aggressive and seizing opportunities as they arise. A single mistake, or just plain bad luck, is fatal. The soldiers must rely on their training, their experience, and each other. They must be methodical in their preparations, paranoid in explorations, and aggressive in combat. Where isekai heroes fight as individual warriors who occasionally cooperate, here the samurai must fight in disciplined formations. They must learn from the monsters and adapt to them — but the monsters are also learning from them. Prolonged combat exacts a profound psychological toll on soldiers as well, and as the story progresses they must look after their own mental health.
There’s also a love story. Without a dense MC, or an MC too shy or stupid to act. And a feminine love interest who supports the hero instead of being snarky or abusive.
You have a background in martial arts. In your previous work, you have written some realistic fight scenes. How do you adapt real-world fighting techniques to fantasy monsters?
I was planning to write a blog post about that, but here are the highlights:
1. Understand the anatomy of the characters involved. Vital organs are primary targets; joints can be manipulated, locked or destroyed; sensory organs can be targeted to gain an advantage. These tell you what to target — and what the characters (monster and human) will strive to protect.
2. Make full use of a monster’s unique physiological traits. The mole men in Dungeon Samurai have long, powerful tentacles from their snouts, and will use them in close quarters to grapple with a soldier or break his neck. Huge monsters may try to crush someone under their bulk, while monsters with acid spit will attack characters at a distance. Each monster should have a distinct fighting style that allows them to make use of these advantages.
3. Understand and employ the signature techniques and concepts of the humans’ fighting styles. The hero of Dungeon Samurai uses Kukishin-Ryu, a classical Japanese martial art. One of its signature moves is a sudden drop to the knees and a powerful upward slash or thrust. This shows up when appropriate in combat. Speaking of koryu, the classical Japanese martial arts, in general, there tends to be an emphasis on lethality and efficiency. Grappling techniques are designed to lock a target and expose his vital organs for a stab, break a limb, spike his head against the ground, or all of the above. Footwork tends to be deceptively subtle, just enough to reposition yourself without appearing to have made a significant displacement. Older koryu schools also teach the use of weapons for grappling, above and beyond simply slashing, stabbing or striking the opponent. These distinct concepts should show up and be adapted where appropriate.
4. Armour, if present, should be a major factor. Armour influences how characters move and act in a scene. Samurai in armour are trained to move in specific ways to minimise exposure of the openings in their armour, while the techniques they use in armored combat are meant to break open the opponent’s guard and expose those openings. They may look awkward and rigid when moving (at least, when performing kata), but once they engage the enemy they usually stab or slash an opening, disrupt his balance, throw him down, or a combination thereof. In the same fashion, monsters will protect themselves using their armour. If anti-armour weapons aren’t present, then the characters in a fight scene must work their way around the armour.
5. Take full advantage of a weapon’s unique properties. The samurai rely on three main hand weapons. The jumonji yari, a spear fitted with a crossblade; a tanto, or dagger; and the sasumata, best described as a spear fork. In addition to slashing and stabbing, a jumonji yari’s crossblade can entangle an opponent or trip him (or cut his knee tendons from behind). A tanto is a last-ditch close quarters weapon — which, among other things, can be used to cut a mole’s tentacles off you before the monster breaks your neck. Sasumata usually fulfill the role of the iconic 10 foot pole; the samurai use them to sweep for traps and tripwires. However, the wide fork can be used to jam an enemy’s limb or pin him against a wall. A weapon’s form tells you what it can do, and you can adapt these to the threats appropriately.
6. Adapt the techniques to the monsters and environment. One of the reasons I chose samurai as the main characters is because koryu isn’t well-suited for the tight confines of a dungeon. For instance, when grappling with a monster, if you perform any kind of over-the-shoulder throw, you’re throwing the monster into your buddy behind you or to the side. Your buddy won’t appreciate it, and you’ve just opened a hole in your formation. Likewise, if you try to throw a monster onto his back, the monster behind him will prop it up. This forces the samurai to either pull the enemy down and into them, or to pin them against a wall and stab them. In addition, koryu is highly focused on individual combat, but survival in the dungeon demands fighting in tight formations, which negates all techniques that require fancy footwork or side steps. When monsters with armour or unusual physiology and abilities show up, the samurai must work to expose their weaknesses and prevent the enemy from using their advantages. The idea is to have the characters constantly think and adapt to whatever they face, which creates an immersive experience for the reader.
Is there anything else you would like to say to everyone reading this?
Thanks for reading the interview! If the idea of a hardcore dungeon crawl run like a military campaign appeals to you, be sure to check out my Kickstarter!
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have backed the Kickstarter. And you should too!