Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fantasy F*ckin' Vietnam

Fantasy fuckin' Vietnam.

Some of you may remember the above phrase. A couple years back it took on a life of its own in classic D&D circles, hanging around just long enough to spawn a killer dungeon-style adventure and a great deal of vitriol about its ostensible offensiveness.

As used it was supposed to signify the dead-at-any-moment life of old school dungeoneering. The kind of play where you inched along the corridor, 10-foot pole in hand probing every foot of the floor, walls, and ceiling for traps. The kind of play where losing a limb prying open the lid of a chest was as quick as a death by an arrow from your flank. It was the gaming mirror of then still-fresh cultural memory of the stress, paranoia, and grittiness of the Vietnam War.

For me the phrase had a deeper resonance, transporting back 30-something years to my childhood. The war permeated that life. Not the actual war, the US-backed puppet regime had collapsed at the barrel end of North Vietnamese tanks a few years before, but its aftermath.

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul--he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he'd send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point--several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn't wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we'd jog back to the car jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother's bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Groking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother's PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil set them on fire and loosened them into the massed ranks of his opponents (a sardonic nod of my head to him in that tongue-in-the-cheek post).

There wasn't a trap in the place he didn't find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games—especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety--aren't always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

They brought me closer to him through the language of a game I loved—and they taught me how to be one mean mother when I was at the table. Thanks Dad. 


  1. Wow. That's a great story. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I grew up playing with people like that who had never been to Vietnam.

    I was one of them.

  3. If I had lived in Texas I might be one of Alexis' compatriots.

    Same here, lean, mean dungeon clearing machines. We rarely missed a trp or secret door and literally cleaned out dungeons of every copper sometimes.

    My dad was the same era. Excellent post.

  4. Now that brings back a memory ... of reading The Park Is Mine, a Rambo-like action novel of a crazed (like a fox) vet who turns Central Park into a killing zone. I used the punji sticks and Malayan gates from that write-up as traps in my 11th grade dungeon.

    OMG, it was a TV movie with Tommy Lee Jones .. how did I miss that?


  5. Many thanks for posting this. Great story!

  6. Awesome story! Sounds like a great dad too.

  7. I love these kind of personal D&D history stories. Well done and thank you for sharing!

  8. Yeah, this is a great post.

  9. Thanks all for the kinds words.

    I am actually pretty close to my father, and it was he that reminded me of our games that summer when I told him about the blog.

    1. Well deserved praise my friend! Excellent story and all the better because of the bond you have with your dad.

  10. Great post. It reminded me of SF author David Drake's writing--not his fiction, but in his comments about his novels and short stories, Drake often discuss how Vietnam affected him and how he dealt with that when he returned.

  11. I double-plus all the previous "great story" comments. Wow. I was really close to a crazy Vietnam vet growing up. He was my much older sister's boyfriend for about 10 years and he introduced me to Heavy Metal magazine when I was 10 and lots of awesome pulp sci-fi. He hated the war and would never talk about it.

    Unfortunately I never got a chance to game with him as they moved away about the time I really got into rpgs in 78. He shot himself in the early 90s...a late casualty of that stupid war.

  12. > When that stopped working he doused the dogs with oil set them on fire and loosened them into the massed ranks of his opponents

    Kurtz had a quote for that... Fantasy F*ckin' Vietnam, indeed.

    +thx for sharing, Chris.

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  14. Beautiful post. I grew up hearing my gramp's stories of how he walked back from Stalingrad after the Soviet counteroffensive, where the Italian contingent sent there routed horribly under the Red Army blows. He died before i could actually comprehend and appreciate what he did, and that's a huge shame. The war left him so scarred that even 50 years later his mind would often wander, leaving him crying, saying that war is a horrible horrible thing.
    Anyway, I play like your dad. Not as sharp as him, but that's definitely OSR style propah. :)

  15. I play like my dad too...and talk, tease, laugh, and grit my teeth when I am doing something intense like him too.

    Good story, Tsojcanth, my grandfather (dad's dad), the greatest storyteller in our family, only told the funny or interesting stories about WW2.

    He never told the stories about combat and death though he trucked through the entire Pacific Theater--from Pearl Harbor to Okinawa. I grew up hearing stories of Army life in pre-war Hawaii, but almost nothing about the actual war.

    The silence was telling.

  16. Wow, that is gaming through the eyes of a very different perspective. Kind of the opposite of what I though this would be about when I saw the title. Vietnam has come around to be a niche campaign setting either without fantasy elements (like Palladium's Recon) or with (Pinnacle's Tour of Darkness).

  17. Caught this on the back side. Inspirational. Thanks.

  18. That pic, if I recall correctly, came from the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi that I read in '88 for a presentation in my 10th grade English class. My buddy's father was a tunnel rat and led me to this book. As a kid who loved D&D, the book had tremendous appeal. Your post is a great write up of how your dad played--very cool and informative. The book is available here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Tunnels-Cu-Chi-Vietnam/dp/B00410TBL4/ref=pd_sim_14_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=140BGWX47MKKPTVKGYZR

  19. actually that thread is original thing that got me blogging and running my version of long stairs

  20. I gamed with a Vietnam vet for years. He usually kept it light, but once in a while the curtain would be drawn back. As a much younger civilian, I often felt inadequate at refereeing him. He knew things I could only imagine.

  21. This is among my favorite posts from all the blogs, ever.