5 Lessons from a Survivalist

Last weeks post, This is not just a +1 Sword, this is a M&S +1 Sword was inspired because I was reading several of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series of books. These pulp, action hero, post-apocalypse books were a favourite of mine in my teens and twenties. Many years on they are so bad they are funny and yet they still provide inspiration for my gaming table.

1. Its a cliche, so what?

John Rouke is an surgeon, an ex-CIA operative, firearms expert, pilot, survivalist and as American as apple pie and failed foreign wars. He has a chiseled jaw, a strong moral code, loves his family and is not afraid of solving problms with a gun. To describe John Rourke as a one dimensional stereotype is being flattering to the character.

But so what? The books never set out to be literature. They are fast paced adventure stories much loved by teenagers and others with limited critical faculties. He is the right character for that audience and he drives the books forward. So GMs, never be afraid to revert to stereotypes and cliches if they fit your game. Conan and many other great adventure books have relied on them.

2. Don’t let facts get in the way of a good story

The plot holes in the Survivalist series are large enough to drive, well just about anything through. John Rourke himself is no older than his mid-thirties and yet has found time to become an expert surgeon, qualified on various military aircraft, an expert in weapons and has built by himself, from scratch, a massive, luxury survival retreat. Anyone one of those takes a ten plus years of work. But it doesn’t matter. If the story moves fast enough, if it doesn’t allow the reader (or the player) to stop and think too hard about things, then just about anything will be accepted at face value.

3. No loose ends

One of Ahern’s better literary devices is his use of minor characters. Anyone given a name will have their own story wrapped up. Generally this involves dying in some honourable or heroic way, unless they are bad guys in which case they almost always get killed by Rourke. This is exactly the same technique that Shakespeare used and Ahern does it better in places than the Bard (see the end of A Winter’s Tale if you don’t believe me). Though Shakespeare tended to marry some of his characters off rather than kill them all.

The reason for this technique is that it allows the audience (or your players) to go home knowing that everything is finished. On the gaming table you may want loose ends as plot threads for future adventures but that is fine. As long as you know that such-an-such an NPC is a loose end and will reappear. If they won’t, make sure the party sees or learns about the NPCs fate.

4. Brand names and signature moves

Whenever a character is mentioned, their branded equipment is also mentioned. Rouke is always drawing one or both of his twin stainless steel Detonics pistols or his Python or his 2″ Law Master or his CAR-15 with 3x telescopic scope and so on. He never just has a pistol. The more major a character, the more branded their equipment. Everyone with a name in the books has a piece of equipment or fighting move or personality trait that makes them unique. As a GM you can use this technique. Just make sure all your NPCs have something distinctive about them and make sure you keep mentioning them to the players.

5. We all like heroes

Rourke and his party are heroes – they save the good guys and kill the bad guys. There are no moral dilemmas – no one becomes an old and embittered drunk because of being put in a wheelchair during a gun fight. You either win (quickly recovering from your wounds) or you are dead. There is nothing wrong with games that are gritty and realistic but heroic adventures from Conan to Star Wars are the bread and butter of dramatic fiction. So let your players be heroes.

Bad Books, Good Ideas

From a literary point of view these books are bad. Bad writing, bad characterisation, some extremely dodgy politics, in fact there is nothing going for them. Except they are great fun to read when you are a certain age. Even reading them now, 20 years on, I still get some of the old excitement from them because they are simple and direct. As a gamer, my taste have I’ve matured a lot since I last read these books but these books have left me itching to get back to the old school, simple, heroic adventures.