The Alexandrian

Go to Part 1

Lava River Cave AZ by Volkan Yuksel


Large chamber, shaped like two ovals laid in a cross. The walls are scorched from a massive explosion; jagged bits of metal have actually been driven into the walls at frequent intervals. A skeleton in tattered robes lies nearby.

MILLSTONE: In the center of the chamber a large, beruned millstone grinds a deep channel into a floating moebius strip of stone.

  • Madness of the Millstone: 1d8+2 rounds after entering this chamber, characters must make a Will save (DC 15) or suffer 1d3 points of Wisdom damage. As Wisdom damage is suffered, the runes on the millstone will begin to glow faintly blue and the millstone itself speeds up.
  • The save is repeated every (10 rounds – 1 per 5 points of total Wisdom damage the millstone has inflicted).

DAMAGED TELEPORTALS: A blue teleportal and red teleportal have both been cracked and damaged by the explosion. Attempting to use them causes 6d6 damage (Fort save DC 22 for half damage) and the character is returned to the same location.

GREEN TELEPORTALS: These have not been damaged (lying at opposite ends of one of the crossing ovals).

DIRE ETHEREAL MARAUDERS: 3 dire ethereal marauders were drawn here by the explosion (or perhaps caused it). They have been transformed into hulking monstrosities by the burning of the Ethereal Plane.

ETHEREAL PLANE: The ethereal plane around this room burns as a result of the arcane explosion. Anyone traveling on the ethereal plane suffers 1d6 points of fire damage each round.

DIRE ETHEREAL MARAUDER (CR 5) – Large Magical Beast (Extraplanar)
DETECTION – darkvision 60 ft., Listen +8, Spot +6; Init +5; Languages
DEFENSESAC 18 (+1 Dex, +7 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 17; hp 43 (5d10+15)
ACTIONSSpd 50 ft.; Melee Bite +13 (1d6+9); Ranged +6; Base Atk +5; Grapple +9
SQ darkvision 60 ft., ethereal jaunt
STR 26, DEX 12, CON 16, INT 7, WIS 12, CHA 10
FORT +13, REF +11, WILL +6
FEATS: Alertness, Improved Initiative, Weapon Focus (Bite)
SKILLS: Listen +8, Move Silently +6, Spot +6

Ethereal Jaunt (Su): Shift from Ethereal Plane to Material Plane as free action; shift back as move action (per ethereal jaunt, caster level 15th).

*Skills: +2 racial bonus on Listen, Move Silently, and Spot checks.


Six niches in the wall have hand-shaped depressions next to them. Three of the niches are occupied by large ogres — apparently unconscious — with a silver band across each of their chests holding them upright.

In the center of the chamber there is a large, glass ovoid filled with a viscous green fluid. Floating within the fluid is a spongy-skinned, humanoid creature glistening a gelatinous blue. Strange apparati surround the ovoid.

NICHES: The silver bands induce unconsciousness on anyone in the niche when they extend (Fortitude DC 30 negates). Putting a hand to the hand-shaped depressions causes the bands to retract or extend.

OVOID: The creature within the ovoid was formerly an ogre. He has been transformed into a painshrieker by the demon lairing in Laboratory #11.

  • The creature will thrash and appear to be asking for release. Some blood will ooze from its mouth into the fluid surrounding it.
  • Alchemy / Arcana (DC 11): Most of the mechanisms around the ovoid are based around carefully maintaining the balance of alchemical admixtures.
  • Alchemy / Arcana (DC 21): To identify the cellular-destabilizing compounds being used.

PAINSHRIEKER (CR 8) – 89 hp (11d8+40), AC 20, handscythes +14/+14 (2d8+4), Save +11, Ability DC 18
Str 12, Dex 15, Con 16, Int 14, Wis 10, Cha 8
Skills: Hide +16, Listen +14, Move Silently +16, Search +16, Spot +14
Blindsight 30 ft. (high-frequency shrieks)
DR 10/silver
Painshriek (Su): 60 ft. cone once every 1d4 rounds. 2d6 first round; 4d6 second round; 6d6 third round.


A thick, tiered cleft. Magical lights clinging to the ceiling seem to cast daylight down onto the thick pleats of overgrowth choking the miniature vale.

TELEPORTALS: Green teleportal is at one end of the grotto. Red teleportal at the other end.

SPINDERS (x8): Roam through the overgrowth. Spinders are demonic vermin: Vaguely insectoid in appearance — but with a spongy skin rather than any sort of carapace — their broad, flat backs and upper portions of their crouched limbs are covered in thin, razor-sharp spines.

STATUE OF LIGHT: In the middle of the grotto sits a squat statue of clay clasping a bowl which seems lit from within.

  • Liquid Light: The bowl is filled with liquid light. Anyone touching the liquid will cause it to flow up over their hand (or hands). From that point forward, their hands will glow white — producing the effects of a daylight spell.

ALCHEMY (DC 25): Recognizes that most of the plants growing here are actually valuable alchemical ingredients. Six hours of harvesting could yield 5,000 gp worth of raw ingredients.

SPINDER (CR 4) – LE Medium Outsider
DETECTION – Listen +7, Spot -1; Init +7; Languages telepathy
DEFENSESAC 17 (+3 Dex, +4 natural), touch 13, flat-footed 14; hp 32 (5d8+10); Immune fire, poison; Resist acid 10, cold 10
ACTIONSSpd 40 ft.; Melee bite +6 (2d6+1) and 2 claws +1 (1d4); Ranged +8; Base Atk +4; Grapple +6; Atk Options impregnating bite; SA summon
SQ telepathy
STR 13, DEX 16, CON 14, INT 6, WIS 8, CHA 6
FORT +6, REF +7, WILL +3
FEATS: Dodge, Improved Initiative
SKILLS: Hide +6, Listen +7, Move Silently +6, Search +6, Spot +7

Pounce (Ex): Make a full attack in first round, even it has already taken a move action.

Improved Grab (Ex): Start grapple as free action if both claw attacks hit, no attack of opportunity.

Impregnating Bite (Ex): Bitten creature must make a Fort save (DC 15) or become impregnated with a spinder egg. Eggs attach to heart, whereupon larvel spinders hatch and begin feeding. After 1 hour, victim suffers a -5 penalty to all ability scores. After 90 minutes, victim suffers -10 penalty to all ability scores. After 2 hours, larval spinders eat through the wall of the heart (resulting in death). After 1 day, 2d6 spinders eat their way out of the body. Spinder eggs/larva can be treated with a remove disease spell.


 An expansive room filled with thick pistons of glowing red crystal running between floor and ceiling.

TELEPORTALS: All located in the center of the chamber.

  • Spot (DC 15): To notice that they’re glowing more brightly than similar teleportals in other chambers.

DEMON: A glabrezu lairs here. It possesses a GREEN KEY.

CRYSTALLINE PISTONS: The pistons are creating massive magical energy through a churning of the Ethereal Plane. The room has an overwhelming magical aura.

  • Breaking Pistons: If twelve pistons are broken, the teleportal network destabilizes and shuts down. None of the teleportals will work, but this also means that the teleport redirect effect in Tethe laboratories shuts down.


The two green teleportal rings are on either end of a long hall with a dozen pedestals to either side. One top of each pedestal stands a bottle.


  • 8 have been broken.
  • 1 contains a RED KEY.
  • 1 is an efreeti bottle.
  • 6 are empty.
  • 2 contain haunting winds. (Use stats for greater shadows, but they take the form of a spectral, skeletal fog.)
  • 1 acts as a greater pipes of haunting. (Those within 30 feet who hear the tune must succeed at a Will save (DC 18) or become frightened for 4 rounds. Those with less than 6 HD are panicked. Can be used twice per day.)
  • 1 contains the sounds from an ancient field of battle: Clashing swords. Cries of pain. (Those succeeding at a Listen check (DC 20) can also pick out the faint sound of weeping behind all of it.)
  • 4 contain whispering wind messages trapped from long ago (see below).

WHISPERING WIND #1 – ELDERLY MAN: “Beware the Brotherhood of the Blue Hand. They may have obtained a red key. If they can breach the laboratories, they may reach the sanctums.”

WHISPERING WIND #2 – YOUNG WOMAN: “Love me forever, Isidora, and I shall lay before thee the windswept thrones of kingdoms, the jewels of Cassara, and your heart’s desire.”

WHISPERING WIND #3 – GUTTURAL VOICE: “Take the branding irons from beneath the silver serpent. They must not fall into the hands of Posserak.”

WHISPERING WIND #4 – RASPY VOICE: “The wyrm Cassandra has betrayed us. Sargas stole the blue key from her, but those chambers are lost to us. Use not the blue keys.”


The teleportal from Laboratory #5 is on a high ledge above a roiling lava flow. Above the lava flow is suspended a brass orb.

The teleportal from Laboratory #14 goes inside the brass orb. Mechanisms within the orb allow one to lower it down towards the lava and extract a hot lava core into a containment cylinder.


A rosette-shaped chamber. There’s a large apparatus in the middle of the room, roughly shaped like a curved starfish. In the center of this apparatus is a cylindrical depression about 5 feet deep. Four glass coffins are attached to the apparatus and extend away from it. One wall of the room bulges out into a semi-oval with white walls covered in blackened runes.

CYLINDRICAL DEPRESSION: A lava core from Laboratory #13 can be slid into it. If this happens, the apparatus powers up for 1d6 hours.

GLASS COFFINS – SEARCH (DC 20): A large black opal worth 500 gp is concealed within the mechanisms surrounding the head of one of the glass coffins. Twin diamonds worth 750 gp each are concealed in two others. The fourth coffin has a hollow, but no gemstone.

  • Black Opal Coffin: If someone is placed within it and the coffin closed, it acts as a magic jar spell (capturing the soul in the black opal). If the coffin is opened and then closed, the soul will transfer back to the body in the coffin (even if it isn’t the original body). If the black opal is removed, the person in the coffin must make a Fortitude save (DC 22) or suffer 10d6 points of damage as the soul is ripped from their body and then reflected back.
  • Diamond Coffins: If people are in both coffins and the lids are closed, there is a 50% chance of a permanent shield other connection being forged (determine the direction of the damage shift randomly) and a 50% chance that both characters will suffer the full damage suffered by either.
  • No Gemstone Coffin: Malfunctioning from age. If activated (person in coffin; lid closed) an instant crystalline growth will fetter and crust over the coffin. Crystal had adamantine hardness. 15 minutes of air inside. Break DC 26; hardness 20; 320 hp.

BLACKENED RUNES – ARCANA/SPELLCRAFT (DC 22): To identify the rudimentary efforts of someone attempting to perfect the magic jar spell. It appears to be depending on some sort of technomantic loop, however.

GM Background: This was a high-powered laboratory (using the lava cores from Laboratory #13) that would often shift functions. It just happened to be investigating soul-binding at the time the complex was abandoned. This is, in fact, where the earliest instances of the magic jar spell were developed.

Go to Part 5: Laboratories #15+

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Go to Part 1


Lost Laboratories of Arn - Teleportal Network

The laboratories of the Arn are connected using a teleportal network, as shown on the relational map above.

TELEPORT REDIRECT: The teleportal network has engrained the local astral space. The result is that anyone attempting to teleport into or out of the Lost Laboratories ends up in Laboratory 1.

TELEPORTAL RINGS: The teleportal network is made up of individual teleportal rings. When activated, everyone standing within the ring (or entering the ring within the next 30 seconds) is teleported to the destination portal. Teleportals give off a telltale sound when used (listed in parentheses): Most teleportals are linked to another, providing two way travel (wushhh) and arriving on the corresponding ring. Some work in only one direction (kishhh), with travelers arriving at random (but safe) locations at their destination. Some rings are malfunctioning and randomly send travelers to the wrong room (chance listed on the map; lisss for the most likely path, shaak otherwise), although the location is always the same for each activation (people teleporting together arrive at the same destination).

SILVER TELEPORTAL RING: A glowing ring of silver energy. In the center of these rings is a small circle of silver with a gem-like device similarly of silver affixed to them. Turning the gem-like device activates the teleportal ring.

BLUE / RED / GREEN TELEPORTALS: Identical to the silver teleportals, except that the circles are of amethyst, ruby, and emeraldy and have a hexagonal, pentagonal, or octagonal hollow instead of a device.

TELEPORTAL KEYS: Small, gem-like devices. They are inserted into the hollows and turned to activate the corresponding ring. (The key teleports with the person using it.)

This section of the adventure is based on Escape from the Lost Laboratoriesby Wordman. The teleportal network map is Wordman’s. The big shift is that I’ve redesigned all of the individual laboratories — swapping out most of them and radically expanding each into a small, mini-dungeon.


Sacrifices offered by the sahuagin appear here. The result is a massive charnel pit.

SAHUAGIN GHOULS: 8 sahuagin ghouls feast on the charnel pit. (Use normal ghoul stats, but they also gain a lesser form of sahuagin bloodfrenzy: +2 to attacks, -2 AC, +1d6 damage.)

TELEPORTALS: Two silver teleportals are on opposite sides of the room, each on the floor before twin statues of draconic ogres.


Glassware and copper instruments have been smashed into the smallest pieces.

CORPSE: A corpse lies near one wall. Above the corpse are carved the words “NO HOPE”.

  • Knowledge (DC 14): The corpse is dressed in fashions popular in Arathia over a century ago.

TELEPORTALS: Three silver teleportals, arranged in a triangular pattern.


Magitech clockworks slowly, but methodically, assemble and then disassemble a chaosomaton scorpion, chaosomaton boar, and chaosomaton chimera.

  • 1 in 6 chance on arrival (and per hour thereafter) that each creature is currently in a state of completion. If so, it will attack anyone who doesn’t bear a Sorcerous Brand of Arn.
  • Craft (Chaotic Magitech) (DC 24): Ascertain the control circuits that are currently attached to the mechanisms of the scorpion and bull. These can be removed and surgically grafted — Magitech Surgery (DC 32) — allowing telepathic control of the clockworks.
  • Craft (Chaotic Magietch) (DC 32): Modify one of the control circuits to allow control of the chimera instead.

EMERALD KEYWORKS: Another clockwork contraption contains the GREEN KEY. (If the key is removed, the clockwork mechanism will begin working on another green key, which will be ready in 1d6 days.)

TELEPORTALS: Silver teleportal in the center of the room. (The teleportals from both Lab #2 and Lab #5 arrive there.)


A floating, rectangular island in a huge sphere of smooth stone. Massive flying buttresses of a blackened granite are literally flying — forming the ghostly half-semblance of a cathedral.

TELEPORTALS: Silver teleportal in the middle of the island. Two green teleportals at one end, opposite the altar on the other.

ALTAR: Plain block of stone, but with a large, curling serpent of silver inlaid. (The serpent is rearing.)

  • Search (DC 16): The top of the altar slides back, revealing an everburning brazier and two branding irons — one of gold and one of silver.
  • Brazier: The brazier is not hot to the touch, but will heat the two branding irons. If the irons are both laid over the same spot, they’ll form the Sorcerous Brand of Arn. (If done with the heat from the brazier, then when the name “Arn” is spoken, the brand will glow brightly as per a light spell for 1d6 rounds.)

GM Background: Those to be indoctrinated into the order of Arn were brought here and branded.


BAD AIR: The air here cannot be breathed (having been consumed by the opalettes).

  • Reflex (DC 15) to hold breath for 2 rounds per point of Constitution, then Constitution checks (DC 10 + 1 per round) to continue. On failure, only hold breath for 1 round per 2 points of Constitution, followed by checks. Then unconscious (0 hp), dying (-1 hp), then suffocates (dead).

PEDESTAL: There is a stone pedestal in the center of the room. Six large, milky-white gemstones are arrayed on the top of the stone pedestal.

OPALETTES: The opalettes are currently in a comatose state. If brought into an oxygenated area, the “gemstones” will open their eyes, unfold faceted arms and legs, and begin crawling around like slow-motion puppies.

  • Arcana (DC 18): Opalettes feed on the vestigial auras of magical items. This doesn’t harm the magical items an can actually be beneficial in magical laboratories (where it prevents potential wild magic surges and the like).
  • Arcana (DC 25): Opalettes can be crushed, releasing the magical energy they’ve fed on and functioning as a one-use 1st level pearl of power (this kills the opalette).
  • If left in at least pairs, there is a 1 in 20 chance per week per opalette that it will give birth to a baby opalette.


Alcoves with exquisitely detailed statues of various members of the Arn. A multi-tiered marble fountain with fluted spouts of red jade stands dry and dusty in the center of the chamber — its curved pools swirling around five green teleportals.

FOUNTAIN: Any water poured into the fountain is purified and coalesces.

  • If 20 gallons of water are added, the fountain will begin working again. Any water drunk directly from the fountain acts as a potion of cure light wounds (usable 1/hour per character). (Water taken any distance from the fountain remains purified, but has no curative powers.)

BRONZE TABLET: Bronze Tablet #6 lies in one of the basins.


Level: Sorcerer/Wizard 2
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 round
Range: Personal
Target: You
Duration: 1 day/level
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

This subtle but useful spell allows the caster to safeguard important knowledge—even from himself. While casting this spell, you recite one piece of knowledge you possess (up to a maximum of 50 words). Upon completion of the spell’s casting, you transfer the knowledge from your mind to your skin in the form of an intricate, runic tattoo placed anywhere you choose on your body. The knowledge disappears utterly from your mind, and you might not realize you forgot something. The magic of the spell patches over gaps in your memory with recollections from the past. Until the spell’s duration ends, the knowledge is lost to you.

Many cyphermages commission nonmagical tattoos to disguise the effects of this spell. A detect magic spell or a Decipher Script check (DC 15 + your Int modifier) reveals an enchanted tattoo but not its contents. The effects of hidden knowledge can be dispelled normally, in which case the knowledge is completely lost.

Material Component: A drop of ink.


A twisted morass of glass piping filled with flowing fire.

THE ARTIFURNACE: Near the center of the twisted labyrinth of glass is the Artifurnace. Eight large valves run around its circumference. Bronze Tablet #2 lies on the floor nearby.

  • Valves: Opening the valves will release a blast of steam (10 ft. cone, 4d6 fire damage, Reflex DC 18 for half damage) and release the fire elementals trapped inside.
  • Cracking the Artifurnace: If all eight valves are released, the Artifurnace can be opened.
  • Helm of Fire Elemental Control: Suspended within the Artifurnace is a helm of fire elemental control (crafted from brass and gold). But it doesn’t work properly: One wearing the helm can summon a Large fire elemental, but anyone wearing the helm will instantly provoke rage from any fire elemental (including those summoned).

FIRE ELEMENTAL: If any of the glass tubing is broken or the valves on the Artifurnace are opened, the fire elementals trapped within the tubing will break free in a rage.

  • 1 Huge Fire Elemental
  • 2 Large Fire Elementals
  • 16 Small Fire Elementals

GM Background: The idea was to create a magical item through entirely sympathetic rituals (by controlling the fire elementals, imbue an item with the ability to control them). Instead, the item became imbued with the rage of the imprisoned fire elementals.

Go to Part 4: Laboratories #8-14

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Ex-RPGNet Review – Orkworld

November 21st, 2015

Tagline: Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien in Orkworld. Buy this game. Buy it now.

Orkworld - Wicked Press When I bought my copy of Orkworld at its GenCon release this year, John Wick immediately recognized me via my nametag. For those of you not in the know, Wick and I have been involved in some rather raucous on-line debates – both here on RPGNet and over on Gaming Outpost, among other places – concerning the validity of the review process. A small example of this would be my infamous review of Wick’s “Official Review Policy” here on RPGNet, which became part of a larger firestorm elsewhere.

In any case, long story short, Wick recognized me and signed my copy, inscribing it:

”Hi Justin —
If you review this, I’ll break your legs.
:) John Wick

You there, in the back, huffing up your chest to jump all over Wick: Stop it right now. It was a joke. Note the smiley face. He laughed. I laughed. Personally, I get a little grin on my face every time I look at that silly inscription. He made my day.

So Wick had his joke… and now I get mine. (Feel free to insert a sinister laugh here at your discretion.)

I’ve going to write five reviews of his game.

Yes, you read that right. I’m going to write five reviews of Orkworld. Collect the whole set. The next three, if all goes the way I hope, will appear elsewhere, and then I’ll come back here (when all is said and done) to post the fifth – wrapping the whole thing up.

Is this a funny joke? I don’t know. I tend to snicker whenever I think about it, but your mileage may vary. I suppose it depends on just how much irony you can find in the situation.

Is this an elaborate joke? Absolutely. Just to dispel any confusion: Each of these reviews will have the exact same conclusion as this one (“buy this book”) – I’m not trying to be disingenuous. Nor will any of these reviews leave any information out (“And this time around I’ll be taking a look at that zany character system! Tune in next week to find out about combat resolution!”). These are going to be complete, honest reviews, each of which will function just fine all by itself.

But none of these reviews will repeat one another, either: Each will approach the task of reviewing in a very different, but hopefully equally effective, manner. In this sense the project is a little bit of a mental exercise for me – a chance to see just how flexible the idea of a “review” really is without sacrificing the quality of the review.

Do you care? Probably not. But rest easy: You’ve only had to waste 400 words of your valuable reading time on this clap-trap, and from this point on out you can pretend that this is just another RPGNet review. Relax, sit back, and enjoy.

(And lest he feel forgotten, Thomas Denmark – the highly talented illustrator who provides the pictures for Orkworld — also signed my copy, complete with a wonderful sketch of an ork. Thank you, Mr. Denmark.)


My decision to purchase Orkworld can be boiled down to two simple facts: First, nearly 200 pages of cultural information on Orks. Second, more than fifty pages detailing the World of Ghurtha.

Orkworld is a 300 page book.

Wick opens his work with The Caius Journals — the diary of a young soldier serving in the armies of the Solarian Empire who, through a series of encounters, learns a certain level of appreciation for orkish culture. His journey of discovery is shared fully with the reader, and we learn – with him – of the beauties of this alien society living alongside mankind on the world of Ghurtha.

If you can’t make up your mind over whether or not to pick up Orkworld, then I encourage you to pick the book up off the rack of your local game store and read through this opening section: Through it you will see a pertinent and well-crafted glimpse of the careful and intricate construction of orkish life which lies at the heart of this marvelous game.

Following the Journals comes a chapter simply entitled Ork, which is broken into five sections:

Thaloo. “Thaloo” is the orkish word for “belief” – or, more precisely, philosophy. Here we learn, in short, about how orks view the world: What is Ghurtha like? Who are the Gods? How do they worship them? Why do they worship them? What are the guiding principles of their life? What do they think of birth? How do they organize their societies? And why?

It is here that you’ll being to realize the great richness of the material which has been laid out before you. There is so much offered in just this one small segment of the work, that I cannot begin to adequately summarize it – but I will offer a few highlights:

Orks believe that there are two sides to the world. One side, the Wakingside, is where we all live. The Otherside is home to the gods. Likewise the sky, which revolves around the world, is split into two halves – the Day-sky and the Night-sky. When those of us on the Wakingside of the world are beneath the Day-sky, the gods sleep beneath the Night-sky; and vice versa.

The orks believe in four gods: Keethdowmga, the Great Mother; Bashthraka the Thunderer (a god of war); Gowthduka, the Silent God (a god of knowledge); and Pugg, the Trickster (the ork’s favorite). Orks do not “pray, build shrines or make sacrifices” – after all, the gods are on the other side of the world: They can’t hear the prayers, see the shrines, or receive the sacrifices. (Orks are a practical sort of people.) Instead, if communication is desired (and if you’re a smart ork you realize that you very rarely want to have chats with a god) it is carried out through a bodalay – a shaman who can interpret the Omens of the Otherside.

An important concept in orkish life is that of Trouble. Orks believe that they each carry with them a certain amount of Trouble – or, more accurately, “fortunate misfortune”. They think of Trouble (“fortunate misfortune”) as a testing ground – a place for honing the talents of worthy orks and weeding out those orks who would be a burden to those around them. The intricate concepts of Trouble within orkish life are far more complicated than this, but I cannot do them justice in this space. Suffice it to say that I am extremely impressed with what Wick has put together for the backbone of his fictional culture.

Another important concept in orkish philosophy is that of Fana – an ork word which means, literally, “hand”, but also can be translated as “’strategy’, ‘standing’, ‘position’, ‘favor’, and ‘advantage’”. To fanu (“have hand”) in orkish life is to have advantage in a situation – basically it can be thought of as the worth of a particular ork or situation.

Finally, we’ll take a quick look at the concept of Thwak. It is the idea of outsmarting someone – to trick them, defeat them cleverly, or take something from them. This concept of testing yourself craftily against your fellows is highly honored among the orks, and is (in many ways) the guiding principle of the way they approach life and deal with their Trouble.

There’s a lot more here that I’m not even going to touch on (or I’ll be here all day): Domdha, Keerisboon, Shusha, Motherhood, the spiritual beliefs surrounding orkish cannibalism, Noodeema, Dracha, Black Magic, and Dreaming. Beginning to get the idea? Orkworld is chock full of great ideas!

One nice element to mention here is that, throughout the book, Wick leaves open the question of whether or not the myths which the orks believe in are true or false. Are the gods real? Is there a true afterlife? If there is, is it really on the other side of the planet – or is that just a conceptual fantasy? At the same time he gives a wide array of tools so that, whether you decide these myths are true or false, you’ll have plenty of support from the game. The ambiguity – and the support – are nice touches.

Chochum. “Chochum is the ork verb ‘to live’.” And in this section of the book we learn a good deal about just that: How orks live.

Orks organize themselves into Households which are, in turn, parts of larger Tribes. They are migratory – moving from one eetalday (village site) to another during the course of the year (generally going to where food can be found). One specific eetalday will be specified as the dooladay – the “winter home” where the tribe spends eight months of the year.

In this section we also learn about what orks eat (and when they eat it),

Ganala. This section of the chapter basically deals with the structure of orkish society. A great amount of detail is given to orkish law (including the specific punishments for the crimes in orkish sociey), orkish politics, the orkish calendar, and orkish power struggles.

In addition we learn of Doona and Noona (the former meaning sex; the latter referring to the orkish love – neither of which quite fits our own understanding of those concepts); orkish hygience; orkish art (there’s a bit in here where Wick discusses a startlingly beautiful image of sculptures carved out of living wood); orkish riddles; orkish games; healing techniques; as well as common orkish diseases (and their treatments).

Zhoon. Here we are treated to a discussion of orkish principles of war. Wick has clearly done a marvelous job of researching a variety of traditional tactical manuals (such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and constructed an original gestalt of them, giving orks their own personalized – and yet extremely legitimate and intelligent – philosophy regarding war.

A couple of important concepts introduced here: The Five Virtues (Zho: Strength; Bha: Courage; Thrun: Prowess; Wan: Cunning; and Shoon: Endurance) form the core of how orks judge the worth and talent of one and enother.

Mowgd – meaning, literally, “yellow” – is an interesting orkish concept. It refers to cowardice and it refers to weakness. It can have both a literal and a figurative meaning. For example, someone with “mowgd feet” might have been crippled in some way; or, more likely, they have run away from a fight.

Anatomy. Finally, Wick wraps the whole thing up with a quick look around the orkish anatomy.

Leaving Ork we come to Stories. As if the plethora of information he has already given us was not enough, Wick proceeds to provide more than fifty pages of stories drawn straight from orkish culture: These are the stories that orks tell each other around the campfire at night. Included are the Boondahtel (the Three Brother Stories – the core of the stories dealing with Bashthraka, Gowthduka, and Pugg) and the Puggthwaku (the Pugg Trick stories, in which Pugg tricks the gods of the other races out of their part of the Afterlife). Brilliant stuff here (and I use the word advisedly), giving you invaluable insight into orkish life and belief.

Which leads to my next point. One common problem I have with many roleplaying games is that they overlook something of key importance: People need to understand the roles they are supposed to be playing.

Far too often I have run into games which include unique cultures for which I have no understanding (because they have been created specifically for the game), but for which the game neglects to give me any sort of understanding. How am I supposed to play, for example, a citizen of the Planet Galumph’alot when I’m not told how people on the Planet Galumph’alot live their lives?

Suffice it to say that Wick has done more than enough to avoid this problem. By blending the themes and cultures of a wide variety of primitive societies with the rich soil of his own imagination, Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien.

Yet, at the same time, he has described every pertinent intricacy of orkish life in a way which makes them come alive. No vagueness. No cheats. You’ve never seen John Wick’s orks before – but by the time you’re done with Orkworld, you’ll feel as if you’ve lived among them for years.



If the description of the world of Ghurtha (in which the default Orkworld game takes place) had been as richly detailed as that given to orkish culture and life then I wouldn’t have to tell you that this is where I was most disappointed with the game.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that this is where I was most disappointed with the game.

I could feel a spot of trouble coming on when I turned to the first two pages of the Ghurtha chapter (which comes at the end of the book) and was shown three maps: One covering terrain features, one covering areas of climate, and one entitled “Caribou Migration Routs [sic]”.

I’ve got three problems:

1. None of these maps are labeled. Later on in this same chapter we are given some vivid descriptions of thirty-three locations on the face of Ghurtha (and there are other generalized locations like “the blackened plains of the elves” and the “dwarves’ rocky kingdoms” and “the Solarian Empire” which are also included throughout the text). None of them are actually placed on this map. To be fair, you can piece out the locations of some of them based on their descriptions (for example, the elves live on a “blackened plain” surrounded by “tall mountains” – hence I can sorta figure out where they must live on this map)… but I really shouldn’t have to.

2. That climate map would be a really nice touch… too bad the key for it was apparently meant to be reproduced in color. Hence Desert, Wet Equatorial, Dry Equatorial, Humid Subtropical, Mediterranean, Humid Midlatitude, Boreal Forest, Subarctic Semi-Arid, Tundra, and Ice Cap regions are all varying shades of gray of the exact same pattern (and several of those shades of gray are, for all intents and purposes, identical).

3. Caribou Migration Routes? I may have missed something, but I’m pretty sure that caribou are never mentioned anywhere else in this book. On pg. 73, though, I noticed a reference to “the Migratory Map (found in the World chapter)”. So I’m pretty sure this map isn’t supposed to be of caribou migrations, but of the migrations for the orkish tribes. That being said, though, the map still has problems: It is far too simplistic in its representation to actually be useful as a game tool. And it also doesn’t seem to quite match up with the description of the ork’s migratory movements found in the Ork chapter.

The other major problem I have with this chapter is that the majority of the world simply isn’t described in the level of detail necessary to run a game on Ghurtha. I know, for example, that the major center for human culture on the planet is the Solarian Empire – located on the southern edge of the continent. What’s the capital of this Empire? Whose the Emperor? Are there any other human societies?

On the other hand, perhaps some of this is intentional: The other races are presented as “monsters”, in the same way that orcs are typically represented as “monsters” in traditional fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. (Where the D&D Monster Manual traditionally gives a single page write-up to monsters, though, Wick gives them several pages of description – including culture, philosophy, lifestyles, etc.)

Intentional or not, it means that the responsibility for big, important chunks of Ghurtha have been left sitting in the hands of the GM.

Moving away from the negative elements to be found here, let’s dwell for a moment on the positives: For example, Wick gives use a plethora of interesting information on the cultures of man, dwarf, and elf – giving each a unique outlook, lifestyle, and philosophy. You aren’t left with the feeling that elves are just men with pointy ears who live in trees – elves, dwarves, and men are fundamentally different from one another.

The other thing I like about Orkworld is that it is an affirmation of what I’ve been saying for a very long time: You can take elves, dwarves, men, and (yes) orks; and you can put them into a fantasy world; and, yet, that fantasy world doesn’t have to look anything like Tolkien.

And it can work.

In fact, it can work even more effectively because people – being familiar with elves, dwarves, orks, and men – will give you some extra rope to play around with. Make no mistake: John Wick’s elves are not the elves of Tolkien; they are not the elves of ElfQuest; they are not the elves of D&D. But they are still elves. Damn good elves. Scary elves. Elves like you’ve never seen elves before.

And the same is true for dwarves. In fact, it’s so true that I’m really hoping that someone will convince Wick to do Dwarfworld and Elfworld RPGs (or at least sourcebooks). And I’ll take a Solarian Empire game, too. Throw me on the pyre if you must, but I want to know as much about the elves of Ghurtha as I now know about the orks of Ghurtha.

Moving on: Earlier in this section of the review I mentioned that there were thirty-three really nifty places described in this section. Places like the Singing Forest (the wind in the trees creates susurations of music which lures the unwary to sleep… at which point the trees eat them); Broken Spear Pass (where three orkish heroes have had their spears break in the heat of battle); and the Forest of Black Beasts (home to the monstrous creatures who look like the other humanoids of Ghurtha… but whose eyes glow in the dark, and who don’t walk like any other creature on the planet).

Each of these places can be home a dozen different adventures, easily. John Wick helps pave the way by giving you an adventure seed with each and every one of them. Coincidentally, these small, extremely useful and creative gestures, are liberally spread throughout the entire book. John Wick describes a place, there’s an adventure seed attached. An item? There’s another seed. I’d guess that there were at least one hundred adventure seeds (in various forms) to be found in the pages of Orkworld. At least.


Here’s the way it works: You don’t create a character. Your gaming group creates a Household.

The basic concept has been done before (Pendragon and Ars Magica spring to my mind), but I still consider it a paradigm shift away from the norm – and it works really well for Orkworld.

Household creation takes five steps:

Step One: Questions. In which you decide upon the answers of a number of questions for both your household and your individual characters. And Wick makes you ask some really good questions – questions which will reveal not only what type of Household you’re creating, but also what type of game you want to be playing. The questions, like the entire creation process, serve not only to construct your characters, but also as a collaboration with your GM in order to make the game fun and accessible to everyone.

Step Two: Choose a Household Totem. I’ll let Wick handle this one: “The players choose a single animal to represent their household.”

Step Three: The Point Pool. Instead of individual characters receiving points to spend, the Household as a whole receives a pool of points. Specifically, twenty-five points per player in the group.

Step Four: Household Advantages. Here in Step Four you can spend those points to gain various advantages for your Household – reindeer, blacksmithing, additional thraka, a better Winter Home, etc. The more points you spend on the Household, the better the Household will be. However, the more points you spend on the Household, the fewer points you have to spend on your own characters. It’s an interesting balance act.

Step Five: Creating Thraka. Finally, you create your individual thraka. There’s still no need to split the points evenly – you can freely decide to power up one set of PCs, while leaving another set of PCs comparatively weak. You’ve got all sorts of options available to you.

Your character is quantified in five ways:

Zhoosha. This refers, basically, to your overall standing and ability. You might think of it as somewhat similar to “level” in D&D, but that’s not exactly the right analogy. A better label might be something like “heroic greatness”. Other games might call it “Luck” or “Fate”.

Virtues. Remember when I talked about the five virtues by which orks judge one another? They’re back. Courage, Cunning, Endurance, Prowess, and Strength. You get one at rank 3; three at rank 2; one a rank 1. You can increase them one rank for four character points, but you can’t increase any of them above rank 3 during character creation.

Skills. Skills are assigned to specific virtues, but Orkworld has no predefined skill list (except for five special skills – one for each virtue – which each ork starts with). Instead, you come up with the names and purviews for each skill you want. For example, if you want your ork to be skilled at riding a reindeer one-handed you would simply create and give them the “Ride Reindeer One-Handed” skill.

Trouble. Like the Five Virtues, the ork’s concept of Trouble is also represented mechanically. Everyone starts with one point of Trouble, although they can elect to take a second (and thus get some extra points to spend elsewhere) if they so choose.

Wounds. Finally, your Wound Rating is equal to your Endurance + Zhoosha. This will obviously become important during combat.

Wick wraps up the character creation section in an extremely clever manner: When orks come of age they go through a rite of initiation, known as the gooleeala. Like most rites of initiation, this is a frightening and semi-mystical experience. At the end of the gooleeala, the young orks lose their childhood names, and are given new names by the other orks which went through the gooleeala with them. Wick gives a sample of how GMs can describe the experience of the gooleeala to their players at the end of the character creation process… at which point everyone takes their character sheets, hands them to the person on their left, and lets them name their character.

You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think it’s a nice finishing touch on the entire character creation experience that Wick has built into Orkworld.


Character advancement in Orkworld is handled through the use of Fana Points. Earlier in this review I discussed the concept of “fana” in orkish culture. For the purposes of Fana Points you can think of “fana” as meaning “fame”.

Basically it works like this: Fana Points are awarded to the PCs by the Household’s tala (bard). During the course of the game the bard (who may be either a PC or an NPC) keeps track of Fana rewards – instances where a PC does something particularly noteworthy (whether that’s something “courageous, cunning, stalwart, or even downright stupid” doesn’t matter – just so long as its noteworthy).

At the end of the game, the tala performs a Fana Check for each of these memorable feats by rolling number of dice equal to his Zhoosha. The highest roll (from all the checks for that game) becomes the character’s Fana Points.

The bard himself earns a number of Fana Points equal to his lowest Fana Check for the game (in other words, the bard is gaining Fana for the effectiveness of his stories – just as the thraka gain Fana for the effectiveness of their accomplishments).

From this point on out it becomes pretty standard: You can think of Fana Points as an exact analog for Experience Points (3 Fana per current rank of Virtue to increase a Virtue; 1 Fana per current rank of Skill; 7 Fana per current rank of Zhoosha).

I found this entire concept to be incredibly clever: You are playing a character out of legend, and the abilities of your character within the legends you are telling is dependent on how effectively the bard has passed down the story of the legend. It’s a little self-referential, but as abstractions go (and pretty much every advancement mechanic on the market is an abstraction) this one’s pretty neat. Plus I think the fact that the system is designed so that the party’s experience points can actually be handed out by one of the PCs is – mechanically – a really interesting and original idea.


John Wick writes that, “when it comes down to it, every game system resolves two things: 1) picking locks, and 2) hitting things.” I think that’s probably one of the best descriptions of what an RPG’s rules are for that I’ve ever heard.

The basic resolution mechanic for Orkworld works like this: Take a number of six-sided dice equal to your Virtue + Skill and roll vs. a Target Number set by the GM. Choose one of the dice you rolled – that’s your Success Total. If your Success Total is higher than the Target Number then, congratulations, you just succeeded at whatever it was you were trying to do.

The Obligatory Twist: When you roll doubles, for each additional die of the same type you rolled, add one to your total. (This creates an interesting dynamic whose effects I haven’t fully mapped out yet. If you roll 1,2,3,3,3,4 – for example – you’d actually want to keep the 3’s – because 3+1+1 is 5 (whereas 4 is just 4). It would be interesting to combine this idea with something like the Silhouette system, because it greatly increases the usefulness of a larger dice pool over the more traditional method of only counting double sixes as plus-ones. But I digress.)

Finishing it up: If you’re directly competing against someone else, then you both roll — the higher Success Total wins. If you tied, then you both check the next highest result to break the tie – repeat as needed. And you don’t necessarily need to count doubles while resolving ties. (Or, if you find this too confusing, you can just let the character with the lowest Trouble succeed.)


I found some of the explanations in the combat section of the rules to be somewhat confusing, but after I muddled my way through the text I found that the system works well in practice.

Step One: Determine Initiative. Roll your Courage score – result goes first. Thraka characters should roll a number of extra dice equal to their Zhoosha score. (Thraka get several combat-related bonuses due to their Zhoosha score. I would have liked to seen similar rules for non-Thraka characters, such as tala, to get Zhoosha bonuses for their areas of expertise.)

Step Two: Take Action. Roll your Prowess + Skill (whichever combat skill is most appropriate). Your opponent rolls his Prowess + Skill (whichever combat skill is most appropriate for blocking or dodging the blow). Highest roll succeeds, as usual.

Step Three: Resolve Action. Here’s where it gets a little complicated, and the explanation in the books gets a little muddy. If the attack was successful you take the difference between the attacker’s roll and the defender’s roll and add the Weapon Value to get the Wound Total.

Then you make a Wounding Roll (Strength + Weapon Value) and the defender makes a Resistance Roll (his Wound Dice – Zhoosha + Endurance). But the defender can’t count any of his dice that come up with a number which you rolled on your Weapon Value dice (so for the Wounding Roll you need to keep the dice rolled for Strength and the dice rolled for Weapon Value separate).

If the attacker succeeds, then it was a Lethal Blow and he does damage equal to the Wound Total. If the defender succeeds, then it was just a Glancing Blow and does only one point of damage.

Because of the way the whole thing is organized I had to read through this section a couple of times to have it make sense (hopefully this summary is fairly easy to understand). It’s also a little unclear whether or not the Resistance Roll is supposed to be your current wound rating, or your permanent maximum (although I’d say there’s a fairly good chance its the latter).

You die if you take damage equal to your wounds. While you’re in an injured condition you lose one die from all rolls for every two Wounds you’ve taken (Weapon Dice, Wounding Rolls, and dwarves are excepted from this for various reasons.)

There are the standard bells and whistles around the edges, and they work the way they’re supposed to. A couple notable things, though:

First, the counter-attack mechanic has a bit of a hole in it: You can counter-attack on any turn where you have an action left and the person attacking you has just missed you with one of their own attacks. If this is the case you automatically score a successful hit as if you hit with a difference of 0. The problem I have with this is that a successful hit always means that they’re going to take at least one point of damage. A beginning level character only has four Wounds – so, in other words, if your character misses someone else four times (while they still have an action left), then your character is dead.

The working together mechanics work really well – involving adding or subtracting dice from characters dice pools in a very intuitive fashion.

The mechanics for handling the reach of various weapons are also handled in a easy-to-manage fashion that lets you take into account the difference between a spear and a sword (which is important to the Orkworld setting because of the importance orks put on the advantages of spears over swords during combat), without losing the simple flow of combat.

There’s one last hole in the combat rules that needs to be addressed: As your characters advance they can obtain Legendary Virtues – Virtues above rank 6. A Virtue of 7 is a Legendary Virtue of 1; a Virtue of 8 a Legendary Virtue of 2; and so forth. The rule for handling these reads like this: “An ork who has a Legendary Virtue can no longer fail any roll involving that Virtue. Also, when he makes a roll involving that Virtue, any dice that roll equal to or lower than his Legend Rank count as Doubles.”

That translates to always getting successful hits – which means you’re always doing a minimum of one point of damage. Actually, “hole” may be too strong a term here – perhaps that’s exactly what’s intended. But it just doesn’t seem to work quite right within the confines of the system.


There are, supposedly, three magic systems in Orkworld: The Simple System, the Mythic System, and Elven Sorcery.

Neither the Simple or Mythic systems (which handle orkish magic) involve the casting of spells: Orkish magic is based not on arcane rituals, but upon the empowerment an item receives through its use. As an analogy, the orkish equivalent of Excalibur would not be magic because the Lady of the Lake enchanted it using her magical powers, but because it was the sword Arthur used in fighting back the barbarian hordes.

Elven sorcery, on the other hand, is about casting spells. I won’t go into much detail here, but I will say that John Wick has delightfully neglected to bother balancing the system. I say delightfully because the elves are meant to be vicious SOBs who put the fear of god into the bones of the players. As John Wick writes:

“Um, isn’t this a little too powerful?”
No. It’s a whole heapin’ helpin’ of “too powerful”. Elves are not something orks should ever be messing with. They are monsters.

A few notes on magic before I move on:

1. The simple magic system is really good – and very different from almost any other magic system on the market. The only weak point here is that it cheats on the Eating Stomach. Orks, you see, can gain mystical powers from eating the body parts of a deceased comrade. Specific powers are granted from the eating of spleen, brain, lungs, hands, and heart. But when you eat an ork’s stomach things suddenly become more than merely hazy, they become downright impenetrable. Allow me to quote the entire section, verbatim, from the rulebook:

Eating an ork’s stomach is a dangerous affair (you eat everything he ever ate). Game Masters should reward (heh, heh) orks with the courage to undertake such an epic task.

I have no problem with “exactly what happens is left to the GM’s discretion” – but I would have liked at least some indication of what, exactly, is being left to the GM’s discretion.

2. On a similar note, in the section on Elven Sorcery we are told that “sorcerors can also store [life force] in a special container (called a “aeldrondoo”) for use at a later time”. Unfortunately, that is all the information we are giving regarding the aeldrondoo – the mechanics of how an aeldrondoo works, how one is made or obtained, and other pertinent pieces of information are left entirely up in the air.

3. Finally, I have some issues with referring to the Mythic System as a system — it’s really just a listing of sample magic items (based off various myths of the orkish people). The section is very well done – giving even more insight into orkish culture, providing adventure seeds with every object, and more – but it’s not a system.


There’s so much more that I could discuss here (the wonderful give-and-take of the Trouble System and the great roleplaying ideas it generates; the Winter Season mini-system which is reminiscent of Pendragon and Ars Magica, accenting the game beautifully; the solid, useful, and insightful GMing advice; and on, and on, and on) – but since I just topped 5000 words I think I’ll cut the praises off for the moment, and move onto the various gripes and nitpicks I have regarding Orkworld:

The biggest nitpick I have is the printing error on pg. 49 which causes a largish chunk of text to be repeated. This error has a cascade effect throughout the product: Not only is the Table of Contents in error from that point forward, but the page headers (which otherwise do a really great job of summarizing the precise contents of each page) are misplaced throughout the rest of that chapter. I also suspect that several pictures have become misplaced throughout the book as a result of this error.

Moving beyond the big screw-up, we encounter a host of minor editorial concerns: The footnotes/endnotes get misnumbered in the Culture chapter; there is some atrocious proofreeding in the Game chapter; some organizational problems crop up from time to time (for example, why are the discussions of Wa and Magic subsections of Trouble?); there are lay-outs in the theme/plot (the various themes and plots, instead of being subsections of “theme” and “plot” are made of equal importance); the discussion of story GMs and diced GMs are reversed on pg. 247; etc.

Finally, with material of such depth and richness, Orkworld is in desperate need of an index. (Although its just as well it didn’t have one, since the printing error on pg. 49 would have almost certainly rendered it nonsensical.)

A particularly pervasive problem is the usage of two similar orkish words: tala and talda. According to the appendix summarizing the high points of orkish language,tala means “foolish heroism” and talda means “bard; one who remembers”. In the text, though, orkish bards are are routinely referred to as “tala”.


At some point in the past I have said that Wick had the potential for genius, and it was unfortunate that it had not yet been allowed to shine as brightly as it might. Welcome to the breakout.

Does Orkworld have problems? Yes. I would have liked to see a finer polish on the final product. I would have liked more details on the other races and the world in general. Some of the holes and oversights in the rules system are also unfortunate. And the editorial errors have a certain egregious quality to them.

But when Orkworld is one target – and its on target in all the right places – it leaves no doubt in your mind: Wick has created something original, creative, and breathtakingly alien in Orkworld.

Buy this game. Buy it now.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: John Wick
Company/Publisher: Wicked Press
Cost: $25.00
Page Count: 304
ISBN: 0-9703013-0-8

Originally Posted: 2000/11/02

I did not end up writing five reviews of Orkworld. The project stalled out, largely because it became so controversial that many of the venues I had intended to publish the reviews through demurred. (Ultimately, the only other review that was published was the review for Games Unplugged.) What I found interesting about the project was the opportunity to explore the different ways that a reviewer can present their opinions and recommendations concerning a particular piece of media: Many thought I was going to write different opinions or conclusions in each of my reviews, that was never the point. My grade for the book (and my heartfelt recommendation for its merits) never shifted. The point was to explore how reviews fundamentally work. And despite the overall failure of the project, I still consider it a success because it taught me a lot about reviewing.

For those interested, my original notes for the approach of each review were:

RPGNet Biggie
Games Unplugged Glitzy (L5R, 7th Sea, and now this)
Orkworld as Sourcebook
Orkworld as Alternative Tolkienesque Fantasy
RPGNet Wrap-Up (Best Game of the Year?)

I would personally visit Orkworld with Fanal the Swordbearer.

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

Go to Part 1

Einstein at Dice - Banksy

The act of turning to the game mechanics is, ultimately, an assessment that there is variability in the potential outcome of an action. At the simplest level, we are saying that there is a chance the intention will succeed and a chance that it will fail.

Before we pick up the dice, however, we should take a moment to consider the potential failure state: Failure should be interesting, meaningful, or both. If it is neither, then you shouldn’t be rolling the dice. The clearest example of this is when the response to failure is to simply try it again:

Player: I try to pick the lock.
GM: You fail. What do you do?
Player: I try to pick the lock again.
GM: You fail. What do you do?
Player: I try to pick the lock again.

This is the gatekeeper of mechanical resolution. If the gate is locked (i.e., failure is neither interesting nor meaningful) then you should go back to the spectrum of GM fiat and remember to default to yes.

(It’s equally true that success should be interesting, meaningful, or both. But this generally takes care of itself because the players are not going to propose actions they are not interested in achieving.)

A common mistake GMs make, however, is to think that expending resources is automatically meaningful. For example, the most basic resource that one can expend is time. So they’ll look at the lockpicking example above and conclude that the failed checks are meaningful because they chew up time. However, this lost time only becomes truly meaningful it has consequences (i.e., wandering monsters, time ticking down towards a deadline, enemies on the other side of the door having more time to prepare, etc.).

The actual process by which an action check is made is obviously dependent on the game system you’re using. I’m not going to attempt a complete survey here, but what this usually boils down to is identifying the skill and setting a difficulty.


Identifying which skill to use is pretty straightforward: Each skill will have a description which defines its parameters. You simply need to figure out which skill’s parameters the proposed action fits, and this is usually obvious

In some cases, you’ll find that the proposed action can fall into the purview of multiple skills. Generally speaking, you can just let the character use whichever skill is better for them. The exception is if you feel that one of the skills is less related to the task at hand than the other: Systems vary in how they handle this, but allowing the check to be made with the alternative skill at a slight penalty is usually a good one-size-fits-all solution. (Another option is to allow a skill check using the alternative skill to grant a bonus to the primary skill. Or, as in D&D 3rd Edition, allowing the character’s expertise in the secondary skill to simply provide a synergy bonus without any check.)

My personal preference is for systems that don’t have a lot of overlap in their skill descriptions. Some overlap is basically unavoidable, but being able to clearly call for a specific check generally streamlines the action resolution process by eliminating the back-and-forth of figuring out whether or not a particular skill would apply to this particular check. This is also why overlapping skills that are frequently used “in the blind” – like a Spot check to notice ambushers – are a particular pain in the ass: Since the player doesn’t know exactly what the check is being made for, they can’t let the GM know if they have an alternative skill they could be using: The GM calls for a Spot Tusked Animal check to notice the brain-eating walrus, but it turns out that the character actually has Spot Carnivorous Sea Mammals at a higher rating.

(Not an actual game. But it should be.)

Not all games have skills, of course. In most of those cases, however, you’ll generally follow the same basic procedure using attributes instead. (In many systems, skills and attributes are actually the exact same thing using different names: You take a single “this is how good I am at doing things” number and you want more detail, so you split it into a half dozen attributes. But then you still want more detail, so you split each attribute into a half dozen skills. It’s only when you get systems that freely pair skills with multiple attributes that the mechanic actually shifts. But I digress.)


There are basically two ways of assigning difficulty:

  1. Look at a list of difficulties and assign the difficulty by either description or analogy.
  2. Start with a “default” difficulty and adjust it by considering the factors that modify that difficulty.

Some systems lend themselves more readily to one approach or the other. For example, D20 systems lend themselves to assigned difficulties and include difficulty tables that say things like, “A Hard task is DC 20.” or “A Formidable task is DC 25.” Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, lends itself to adjusted difficulties by setting the default target number to the character’s skill rating so that the GM adjusts difficulty by applying a modifier to the rating.

Regardless of the system, however, you can use either technique. (And, in practice, you are likely to use combinations of both.) For example, when running D&D you could easily start with a default difficulty of DC 15 and then say, “Okay, it’s been raining and the rocks are slick, so we let’s bump that up to DC 18.”

TAKE 1 / TAKE 10 / TAKE 20

When considering difficulty, there are three additional metrics I find useful. I’m going to use D&D 3rd Edition terminology for them because that was the system where my thinking on this first crystallized. (Players of 4th or 5th Edition may find this confusing because the designers made a really weird decision regarding the handling of “passive” checks such that the description of the D&D 3rd Edition - Player's Handbookmechanics don’t match the mathematics of the mechanics. You’ll just have to suck it up, because I’m not going to try to jump through the broken hoops of poor mechanical design.)

TAKE 20: When you Take 20 in D&D, the result is calculated as if you had rolled a natural 20 on a d20. In other words, it’s the best possible success that the character is capable of achieving. It’s used in situations like our lockpicking example: The character is free to repeatedly attempt the task until they succeed, which means that we can just check the Take 20 to see if it’s a success or not.

TAKE 10: You can Take 10 in D&D when you’re not under any pressure. It’s the average result possible if you were rolling the dice, but the mechanic basically says “this is the level of success the character can achieve if they’re not under pressure or pushing themselves”.

TAKE 1: This concept is not labeled as such in D&D, but it flows naturally out of the mechanic. If you Take 1 on your roll, then it’s the worst result the character can have. If the difficulty of the task is equal to or less than the character’s Take 1, then the character will automatically succeed on that task.

Basically, these concepts break tasks down into three states: What characters succeed at without evening trying (Take 1). What they always succeed at if they make the effort (Take 10). And what they will eventually succeed at if given enough time (Take 20).

(For example, imagine that there’s something hidden in a room that requires a DC 25 Search check to find. A character with Search +5 will always find the item if they take the time to ransack the room. A character with Search +15 will find the item if they just quickly poke around the room. And a character with Search +25 will notice the item just by walking through the room.)

These concepts are generally useful in D&D (and other systems) for streamlining action resolution. But they can be specifically useful when setting difficulty by considering the type of person who would be attempting such actions and then using them as the analogy.

For example, I constructed these tables for D&D 3rd Edition:


Skill BonusLevel of Training
-1 or worseUntalented
+1Basic Training
+20Grand Master
+25Mythic Mastery


DCTaskTake 10 TrainingTake 20 Training
0Very EasyUntrainedUntrained
30HeroicGrand MasterProfessional
35IncredibleMythic MasteryMaster
40Nearly ImpossibleMythic MasteryGrand Master

TAKE 10 TRAINING: Ask yourself, “How much training would it take for someone to be able to succeed at this task as a matter of routine?” Find that level of training on the table and then add 10 to determine the DC of the check (as summarized on the Generic Difficulty Class table).

Example: Even someone without any training in pottery should be able to make a simple, crude bowl if they’re shown how the equipment works, so making such a bowl should only require a DC 10 check (0 + 10 = 10). On the other hand, it takes some training before someone should be able to perform a backflip, so performing a backflip might take a DC 12 check (2 + 10 = 12).

TAKE 20 TRAINING: When dealing with particularly difficult tasks the question to ask is, “How much training would a person need in order to even have a chance to succeed at this task?” Find that level of training on the table and then add 20 to determine the DC of the check.

Example: An average person can’t just pick up a paperclip and pick an average lock. It takes training. So opening an average lock should be a DC 25 check (5 + 20 = 25).

Even if you’re not performing this mental calculation in the moment, this can still be a good exercise to familiarize yourself with what different difficulty numbers really mean in a new system. (I find these techniques particularly useful if you’re trying to calibrate difficulty ratings for characters outside of the human norm.)

But don’t use the character as their own analogy! Setting difficulty by looking at the stats of the character attempting the action and then calculating what you what the percentage of success to be is a pernicious practice. It can seem like a good idea because you’re gauging what an “appropriate” challenge would be for them, but the end result is to basically negate the entire point of having mechanics in the first place.

Infinity - Modiphius EntertainmentSome systems – like D&D or Numenera – lend themselves easily to this kind of analysis. Other systems, however, will obfuscate it. This is often true of dice pool systems. For example, the 2d20 System we use in the Infinity RPG uses a base dice pool of 2d20 which can be expanded through various mechanics up to a maximum pool of 5d20. The target number you’re trying to roll equal to or less than for a success is determined by the character’s skill rating, and the difficulty of the task is rated in the number of successes you need to roll: No matter how skilled you are, there’s no minimum level of guaranteed success. Nor, because of how the ancillary mechanics are designed, is there really a cap on the maximum success you could theoretically achieve.

You could still crank through a bunch of math and get some decent guidelines for dice pool systems like this, but in generally you’re probably better off accepting the nature of the beast and using the adjust-from-default method of setting difficulty.

The 2d20 System largely sidesteps these issues, actually, because it doesn’t actually rely on the GM setting difficulty levels: At least 95% of the time the GM is basically deciding whether the task is of Average (1) difficulty or Challenging (2) difficulty. (Difficulty ratings of 3, 4, and 5 also exist, but are extremely rare in their application.) This is because the system is far less interested in the simple binary of passing or failing the check, and is instead intensely interested in the margin of success the character is achieving.

Which is exactly what we’re going to be discussing next.

Go to Part 6

Go to Part 1

This section of the adventure is based on The Sunken Temple of Arn, a submission to the One Page Dungeon Contest by Strange Stones. Everything you need to use this version of the adventure can be found here, but I recommend checking out the original and some of the other nifty stuff available for free download over there.

The Sunken Temple of Arn - Map

(1 square = 10′ x 10′)


2d4 Monstrous CrabsArea 1
2 Sahuagin Elite + 8 Sahuagin + Dire SharkArea 2
2 KopoacinthArea 7
Fluorescent KrakenArea 8
Sahuagin Shaman + 4 Sahuagin Elite + Dire SharkArea 11
2 Sahuagin EliteArea 16 (spread fire in the hall)
2 Sahuagin Elite + 4 Dire SharksArea 18
Sahuagin Chieftain + 3 Sahuagin Elite + Dire SharkArea 19

(italicized denizens generally do not leave their area but might be fetched as reinforcements; see The Monster Roster)


Although originally a subterranean structure of great beauty, the entirety of the Temple has become completely submerged and is now occupied by a tribe of sahuagin.

KRIS WARRIOR STATUES: Throughout the temple there are a number of kris warrior statues. If these are examined with a detect magic spell they register as having a faint magical aura. A successful Spellcraft (DC 18) check will indicate that they were once animated (as guardians of the temple), but the spells are ancient and no longer operating.

AREA 1 – GARDEN: Overgrown with seaweed. A verdigrised copper gnomon sits on a marble base. The gnomon alone is worth a small fortune (2,000 gp). The complete piece is worth four times as much.

AREA 2 – PLAZA: At the bottom of the stairs, statues of two warriors stare down — one bearing a kris in his left hand, the other unarmed.

AREA 3 – FEASTING HALL: A dozen humanoid corpses, decayed and bloated, float freely throughout this room. Statues of the unarmed, kris-bearing warriors dominate the room. This is a feasting hall — sahuagin simply pass through this area and feed upon the bloated corpses they collect.

AREA 4 – ANTECHAMBER: This room is stripped bare. Profane graffiti is carved into the walls (predating the deluge and sahuagin occupation). A fresco depicting the holy void remains intact.

AREA 5 – PLAZA OF WISDOM: This area features two giant statues of unarmed warriors in strange poses.

Search (DC 15): To find the trapdoor leading to a rusted ladder of iron that descends into the lower tunnels.

AREA 6 – ANTECHAMBER: As per area 4.

AREA 7 – PLAZA OF REPOSE: This area features two giant statues depicting cloaked humans armed with krises, preparing to strike unseen enemies. Perched upon their shoulders are two winged gargoyles (which are, in fact, kapoacinth).

Search (DC 15): To discover a ceramic box concealed beneath the eastern statue containing a variety of silver jewelry (worth 500 gp).

AREA 8 – FLUORESCENT KRAKEN: The room glows with a soft, coruscating light that emanates from a lesser kraken which lives beneath the iron grate of the floor.

False Door (Search DC 16, Disable Device DC 25): If opened, the door springs outwards with great force. Reflex DC 25 or 2d6 damage.

Secret Door (Search DC 20): The sahuagin are unaware of this door.

AREA 9 – ROOM OF SECRETS: The walls of this room are painted red.

Search (DC 20): There’s a secret compartment that contains 4 vials of oil of taggit and a cursed -2 kris.

AREA 10 – HIDDEN LIBRARY: This room contains the long-ruined remains of many scrolls and books. A scything blade trap was once set off here and now hangs limps from the ceiling, stirring slightly in the current. The skeletal remains of its 6 headless victims lie on the floor.

Skeletons: If disturbed, they will animate and attack.

Bronze Tablet #1: Among the water-ruined paper, there is a bronze tablet (see below).

AREA 11 – SHAMAN’S CHAMBERS: Ornate stonework furniture, covered with mosses and lichens, dominates the perimeter of this room, surrounding an altar of sea embers (bright blue coals which burn even in water).

AREA 12 – KITCHEN: This was once a kitchen for the temple. Rusted, worthless cutlery and rare, valuable bone china can be found in the cupboards.

AREA 13 – BATHS: This room served as the baths for the temple. A hot spring still feeds the baths, making the water in this room noticeably warmer.

AREA 14 – LATRINE: This room was once the latrine for the temple.

Search (DC 12): A cache of 75 triangular gold coins can be found at the bottom of the latrine trough.

Lost Laboratories of Arn - Sorcerous Brand of Arn

Sorcerous Brand of Arn

AREA 15 – ROOM OF GHOSTS: A blasted altar stands in the middle of the room.

Shadows: The ghosts of two Arn assassins (treat as shadows) linger here. Each of the shadows has a glowing sigil (the Sorcerous Brand of Arn) glowing brightly on their arms.

AREA 16 – THE WELL: Heavy black fluid rests within the well, not mingling with the water. This fluid burns like oil even when submerged.

Vat: A vat stands near the entrance with liquid taken from the well. The sahuagin can tip it over to fill the hallway beyond and light it on fire.

AREA 17 – MECHANICAL ROOM: Levers, dials, wheels, and gears take up much of this room. They are rusted and verdigrised; their function lost to the tides of time.

AREA 18 – SHARK PEN: Rusted remains of torture implements litter this room. There is an outlet to the open sea through a long, narrow tunnel.

AREA 19 – TELEPORTALS: This chamber contains  red teleportal (to Lab 1) and a blue teleportal (to Lab 4). Both are one-way.

AREA 20 / AREA 21 – THE OATHS OF ARN: The secret doors leading to these chambers require DC 25 Search checks to find. In Area 20, the Oath of Arn is inscribed upon the wall. A small altar contains a blue key.

In area 21, the False Oath of Arn is inscribed upon the wall. A small altar contains a blue key which will inflict 2d6 Constitution damage (Fortitude save, DC 20, half damage) when used.


Level: Rgr 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, S, F
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Blood from the target
Target: One living creature
Duration: 1 min/Level
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

By tasting the blood of the caster’s chosen target, he creates a connection with that person or creature, enabling a way of tracking it through all kinds of terrain. For some young wizards (level 1-3) this can be a rather tough experience, and they have to make a Fortitude save (DC 15) or lose the blood connection. The blood must still be liquiscent for this spell to work.

There is no defined range of this spell, but when the duration ends the connection is broken and new blood must be procured to cast the spell anew. The blood can come from an animal as well as a person, and even if that creature lies dead somewhere, this spell will lead the caster to it.

Arcane Focus: The blood from the target.


MONSTROUS CRAB (CR 2) – Medium Vermin (Aquatic)
DETECTION – darkvision 60 ft., Spot +4; Init +1; Languages
DEFENSESAC 16 (+1 Dex, +5 natural), touch 11, flat-footed 15; hp 19 (3d8+6)
ACTIONSSpd 30 ft., swim 20 ft.; Melee 2 claws +4 (1d4+2; Ranged +3; Base Atk +2; Grapple +3; Atk Options constrict 1d4+2, improved grab
SQ darkvision 60 ft., water dependency, vermin traits
STR 14, DEX 12, CON 14, INT –, WIS 10, CHA 2
FORT +5, REF +2, WILL +1
SKILLS: Spot +4*, Swim +10

Constrict (Ex): On successful grapple check (including grapple check to establish grapple), 1d4+2 damage.

Improved Grab (Ex): On hit with claw attack, grapple as free action without provoking attack of opportunity. On success, establishes hold and can immediately constrict.

Water Dependency (Ex): Survive outside of water for 1 hour per point of Constitution (then refer to drowning rules).

*Skills: +4 racial bonus to Spot checks. +8 racial bonus to Swim checks to perform special action or avoid hazard. Can always take 10 on Swim checks. Can perform run action while swimming.


LESSER KRAKEN (CR 6): 60 (8d8+24), AC 19, tentacles +11/+11 (2d6+4), Save +9, Ability DC 16

Str 24, Dex 10, Con 19, Int 18, Wis 17, Cha 17

Skills: Concentration +13, Diplomacy +12, Hide +9, Intimidate +12, Knowledge (geography) +13, Knowledge (nature) +13, Listen +12, Search +12, Sense Motive +12, Spot +12, Survival +12, Swim +16, Use Magic Device +13

Constrict: On a successful grapple check (including grapple check to establish grapple), deal 2d6 damage.

Jet: As full-round action, can jet at a speed of 200 feet. Movement while jetting does not provoke attacks of opportunity.

Improved Grab: On hit with tentacle attack, grapple as free action without provoking attack of opportunity. On success, establishes hold and can immediately constrict.

Ink Cloud: 40-foot spread once per minute as free action. Cloud provides total concealment.


SAHAUGIN ELITE (CR 7): 75 hp (10d8+30), AC 20, talon or trident +14/+14 (2d8+3), Save +10, Ability DC 17

Str 16, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 14, Wis 13, Cha 11

Skills: Handle Animal +13, Hide +15, Perception +14, Profession (hunter) +14, Ride +15, Survival +14

Blindsense 30 ft.

Bloodfrenzy (Ex): 14 rounds, cannot end voluntarily. +2 to attacks, -2 AC, +2d6 damage.

Pounce and Rake (Ex): Full action. Move up to twice speed and then perform a full attack. Gains two additional attacks that each deal 2d6.

Speak with Sharks: Telepathically, 100 ft.


SAHUAGIN SHAMAN (CR 7+2*): 75 hp (10d8+30), AC 20, talon or trident +14/+14 (2d8+3), Save +10, Ability DC 17

Str 16, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 14, Wis 16, Cha 11

Skills: Handle Animal +13, Hide +15, Perception +14, Profession (hunter) +14, Ride +15, Survival +14

Possessions: gold pearl (operates as pearl of power (2nd level) 4 times per day, but only with divine spells)

Blindsense 30 ft.

Bloodfrenzy (Ex): 14 rounds, cannot end voluntarily. +2 to attacks, -2 AC, +2d6 damage.

Pounce and Rake (Ex): Full action. Move up to twice speed and then perform a full attack. Gains two additional attacks that each deal 2d6.

Speak with Sharks: Telepathically, 100 ft.

*6th Level Cleric

Cleric Spells Prepared (CL 6)
3rd (DC 16)—magic circle against good, bestow curse, water breathing
2nd (DC 15)—desecrate, bull’s strength, resist energy, make whole
1st (DC 14)—obscuring mist, bless, entropic shield, shield of faith
0th (DC 13)—create water, detect magic, detect poison, guidance, light
Deity: Sea
Domains: Evil, Water



SAHUAGIN CHIEFTAIN (CR 7+2*): 220 hp (10d8+30), AC 20, talon or trident +14/+14/+14/+14 (2d8+3), Save +10, Ability DC 17

Str 16, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 14, Wis 16, Cha 11

Skills: Handle Animal +13, Hide +15, Perception +14, Profession (hunter) +14, Ride +15, Survival +14

Blindsense 30 ft.

Bloodfrenzy (Ex): 14 rounds, cannot end voluntarily. +2 to attacks, +2d6 damage.

Pounce and Rake (Ex): Full action. Move up to twice speed and then perform a full attack. Gains two additional attacks that each deal 2d6.

Speak with Sharks: Telepathically, 100 ft.

*Potentate (calculated into stat block, see Legends & Labyrinths)

Go to Part 3: The Laboratories

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