The Alexandrian

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 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

Any material in this post not indicated as Product Identity in the Open Gaming License is released by Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Lost Laboratories of Arn

November 16th, 2015

Catacombs of Alexandria

This 3rd Edition scenario was originally designed for my In the Shadow of the Spire campaign. I recently had cause to mention it while discussing the need to occasionally write-off the material you’ve prepped: Due to a series of odd events, the PCs in my campaign ended up falling in with a litorian named Wenra (who you’ll meet in detail below). At the end of one session they agreed to accompany him in exploring a dungeon complex he had recently discovered, but half of the party wasn’t firmly committed to the idea and at the beginning of the next session they managed to convince the others it wasn’t a good use of their time or resources. The rather lengthy adventure — which I had grown quite fond of — was laid aside.

The adventure itself is an adaptation of and radical expansion of two dungeons from the One Page Dungeon Contest: The Sunken Temple of Arnby Strange Stones and Escape from the Lost Laboratoriesby Wordman.


The Arn were a secret society during the era of the Sorcerer-Kings. (Much like the Brotherhood of the Silver Hand.) They constructed networks of underground laboratories to keep their work hidden and connected these laboratories using a teleportal network.

The Arn sect in the area around the City dabbled extensively into the chaotic magitech of the Banelord and Lithuin.

SORCEROUS BRAND OF ARN: These marked the members of the order. The branding irons can still be found in the Temple of Vehthyl (Laboratory 4).

BRONZE TABLETS OF ARN: Written in the secret arcane tongue of the Arn. Requires a read magic and comprehend languages spell, and still requires a 5/2 (failure starts over) Decipher Script check (DC 20, 1 hour per check). Each tablet generally has 1 spell on it.


Wenra is an Artathi — a member of the proud race of felinids who live on the southern continent. His animal companion is a bear named Seenmae.

Seenmae the BearWenra recently discovered a secret door in the Catacombs beneath the City that open onto a long stairway leading down to the entrance of the Sunken Temple of Arn. Finding his way blocked by water, he returned to the surface to get a potion of waterbreathing (and ended up getting several doses of gillweed, see below) and to seek out adventurous companions to accompany him in exploring the ruins (which is where the PCs come in).

Wenra believes that the sunken temple may lead to the Lost Laboratories of the Arn — elaborately concealed laboratories belonging to the arcane sect of Arn which were scattered around the City and only accessible through some sort of teleport network. (He is, in fact, right about this.)

Wenra has in his possession a red key which he believes will allow him to access the entire teleport network. Unfortunately, although it appears intact, it is actually broken. (Spellcraft DC 25 to identify the key; DC 35 to realize it’s not fully functional.)

GILLWEED: Chewing this heavily oxygenated weed allows a character to breathe underwater for up to 1 minute per dose.


APPEARANCE: Broad-shouldered Artathi with golden fur. His mane has ribbons of blue-and-crimson threaded through it. His two front-fangs have scrollwork inking on them in the shape of a bear’s paws.


  • Hunched shoulders.
  • Big laugh.
  • Gleeful about delving (which often overrides caution).

BACKGROUND: Wenra was a member of one of the Artathi hunting bands that roam the rocky land north of the city. He left his tribe and came to the City to escape a wrath oath that was sworn against him by his brother (Tyrian) for sleeping with his wife (Bithbessa).

When he arrived in the City two years ago, Wenra became fascinated with the Catacombs beneath the city. He joined the Wanderer’s Guild and threw himself enthusiastically (if not always competently) into delving.

WENRA (CR 5) – Male Litorian – Ranger 7 – CG Medium Humanoid
DETECTION – low-light vision, Perception +10; Init +1; Languages Common, Goblin, Litorian
DEFENSESAC 18 (+2 Dex, +1 Two-Weapon Defense, +5 +1 chain shirt of silent moves), touch 12, flat-footed 16; hp 61 (7d8+21)
ACTIONSSpd 30 ft.; Melee +1 battleaxe +8/+8/+3/+3/+3 (1d8+5) or +1 battleaxe +12/+7 (1d8+5); Ranged +8; Base Atk +7/+2; Grapple +11; Atk Options favored enemy (animal) +4; Combat Feats Power Attack; Combat Gear caltrops, acid (x3), antitoxin (x2), holy water (x3), potion of cure light wounds
SQ animal companion, improved combat style (two-weapon), favored environment (underground), low-light vision, wild empathy, woodland stride
STR 18, DEX 15, CON 16, INT 13, WIS 10, CHA 12
FORT +8, REF +7, WILL +2
FEATS: Improved Animal Companion, Endurance*, Track*, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting*, Power Attack, Two-Weapon Defense, Two-Weapon Fighting* (* Bonus feat)
SKILLS: Climb +8, Handle Animal +11, Heal +5, Intimidate +3, Jump +8, Knowledge (dungeoneering) +9, Knowledge (geography) +3, Knowledge (nature) +7, Perception +12, Stealth +11, Search +12, Survival +4, Swim +7
POSSESSIONS: +1 chain shirt of silent moves, +1 battleaxe (x2), backpack (caltrops (x2), candle, chain, crowbar, grappling hook, hammer, pitons (x12), 50 ft. rope, torch (x12)), bandolier (acid x3, antitoxin x2, holy water x3, potion of cure light wounds), gillweed (12 doses)

Endurance (Ex): +4 on Swim checks to avoid nonlethal damage; Constitution checks to avoid nonlethal damage from forced march/starvation/thirst, hold breath, nonlethal damage from cold and hot environments; Fort saves vs. suffocation damage. Can sleep in light or medium armor without becoming fatigued.

Favored Enemy (Ex): Gains +4 bonus on weapon damage, Bluff, Knowledge, Listen, Sense Motive, Spot, and Survival checks vs. Animals.

Favored Environment (Ex): Gains +4 bonus Hide, Listen, Move Silently, Spot, and Survival checks in Underground environments.

Wild Empathy (Ex): 1d20 + ranger level to improve animal’s reaction, resolve as Diplomacy.

Woodland Stride (Ex): Move through any non-magical undergrowth without speed penalty or damage.

Ranger Spells Prepared (CL 3)

1st (DC 12)—speak with animals

SEENMAE (CR 4) – N Large Animal
DETECTION – low-light vision, scent, Listen +4, Spot +7; Init +1
DEFENSESAC 20 (-1 size, +1 Dex, +5 natural, +5 partial plate barding), touch 10, flat-footed 19; hp 72 (6d8+24)
ACTIONSSpd 30 ft. (40 ft. w/o barding); Melee 2 claws +11 (1d8+8) and bite +6 (2d6+4); Ranged +4; Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.; Base Atk +4; Grapple +16; SA improved grab; Combat Feats Run
SQ familiar abilities (link, share spells), low-light vision, scent
STR 27, DEX 13, CON 19, INT 2, WIS 12, CHA 6
FEATS: Endurance, Run, Track
SKILLS: Listen +4, Spot +7, Swim +8* (+12 w/o barding)
POSSESSIONS: partial plate barding

Improved Grab (Ex): Start grapple as free action off claw attack, no attack of opportunity.

*Skills: +4 racial bonus on Swim checks.


Wenra’s Path leads:

  • Through the Catacombs to a door.
  • Down a long stairway (with
  • The stairway continues down into sunken passages.
  • The sunken passages lead to Area 1 of the Sunken Temple of Arn.

Go to Part 2: The Sunken Temple of Arn

Any material in this post not indicated as Product Identity in the Open Gaming License is released by Creative Common Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Go to Part 1

We started by looking at how player declarations (or the lack of one in terms of passive observation) trigger the process of making a ruling. Then we broke that declaration down into intention, method, and initiation. Now we’re ready to move into the real meat of the rulings process: Resolution.

Resolution is the bridge between intention and outcome. In many ways, you can think of it as a test: The character’s intention is being tested and the result of that test is the outcome of the action. In the most basic terms, therefore, resolution determines whether the character succeeds or fails at their intention. (Although, as we’ll shortly discover, it’s not always that simple.)


Banksy - Follow Your Dreams Cancelled

The easiest ruling for a GM to make is, “No.”

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: No.

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She refuses to listen.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumors of an ogre in the area.
GM You don’t find any.

When you use “no” everything is simple: There are no complications. No consequences. It’s clean, tidy, and definitive in its finality.

That makes it an incredibly useful tool. It’s also why you should basically never use it.

What you actually want to do is almost the exact opposite: Default to yes.

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: Okay, you’re on the other side.

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She listens to your proposal and agrees to its merits.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumors of an ogre in the area.
GM: Old Man Hob says that a farmer named Willis was complaining about an ogre killing his sheep last month.

“No” inherently stagnates the action. It leaves the situation unchanged. “Yes”, on the other hand, implicitly moves the action forward: It creates a new situation which both you and the players will now be forced to respond. Now that they’re on the other side of the chasm, what will they do? How will Lord Buckingham respond to the Duchess’ unexpected support? Will the PCs hunt down Willis’ supposed ogre?

The other reason to default to yes is that, generally speaking, people succeed at most of the things they attempt. You want to drive downtown? Find some information by googling it? Book plane tickets to Cairo? Those are all things which are generally going to happen if you decide to do them.


The problem with always saying “yes”, however, is that it lacks challenge. It’s boring and it’s predictable. (It’s also not reflective of the way the world works: Failure, or potential failure, is part of life.)

This means that we need to add another tool to our repertoire: Yes, but…

Player: I want to jump over the chasm.
GM: You leap over the chasm, but as you land on the other side the floor collapses under your weight, sending you plunging down into an abyssal pit…

Player: I want to convince the Duchess to support Lord Buckingham.
GM: She listens with interest to your proposal and seems intrigued, but she wants you to promise that her ancestral rights to the Eastermark will be guaranteed.

Player: I ask around town to see if there are any rumours of an ogre in the area.
GM: Old Man Hob says that a farmer named Willis was complaining about an ogre killing his sheep last month. But as you’re speaking with him, you notice a shadowy figure watching from the corner of the tavern…

“Yes, but…” adds to the idea proposed by the player. It enriches the player’s contribution by making a contribution of your own. Unlike “no” it doesn’t negate. Unlike “yes” it isn’t predictable.


That all sounds great, right?

But what happens if what the players want contradicts the known facts of the game world? For example, they want rumors of an ogre, but you know there are no ogres in the area.

You may think that this will bring us back to “no”, but we’re not quite there yet. Generally speaking, the only time “no” is acceptable is if the intention directly contradicts the reality of the game world. So before we get back to “no”, we’re going to make a pit stop at No, but…

Player: Can I find a wizard’s guild?
GM: Yes.

Player: Can I find a wizard’s guild?
GM: Yes, but you’ll have to go to Greyhawk. There isn’t one in this town.

Player: Is there a wizard’s guild in this town?
GM: No, but there’s one in Greyhawk.

Player: Is there a wizard’s guild in town?
GM: In 1982 Berlin? No.

As you can see, No but… is in many ways just Yes, but… looked at from a slightly different angle. Where a clear distinction does exist is when the method by which the character is attempting to achieve their intention isn’t viable: “No, that won’t get you where you want to go. But here’s an alternate way you could achieve that.”


Collectively, let’s refer to this as the spectrum of GM fiat:

  • Yes
  • Yes, but…
  • No, but…
  • No

The reason we default to yes – i.e., default to the top of this spectrum and work our way down it – is because any requests being made by the players generally reflect things they want to do. When they say, “I want to do X,” what they’re saying is, “I would find it fun if I could do X.” And unless you’ve got a really, really good reason for prohibiting them from doing those things, it’s generally going to result in a better session if you can figure out (and offer them) a path by which they can do the things they want to do.

Sometimes they’ll reject that path. (“I don’t want to go to Greyhawk. It’s too far away.”) That’s OK. That means they’re prioritizing something else. But give ‘em the meaningful choice instead of taking it away. Choice is, after all, what roleplaying games are all about.

Banksy - Bomb HuggerAnd one of the great strengths of Yes, but… is that it’s actually quite difficult to game the system:

Player: Can I build a nuclear bomb?
GM: Yes, but you’re going to need to figure out some way to get your hands on enriched uranium. And if the government figures out what you’re doing, the words “terrorist watch list” will be the least of your problems.

(Sometimes, of course, you might be dealing with a troll player who keeps asking to fly to the Andromeda galaxy during your World War II campaign. But if that’s routinely happening, then you’ve got a problem that needs to be dealt with in ways that have nothing to do with action resolution.)

If you’re really struggling to avoid No, another useful thing to remember is that a close cousin of Yes, but… is, “Tell me how you’re doing that.” Which is basically the same thing, except that you’re prompting the player to think of their own “but”.

Player: Can I build a nuclear bomb?
GM: Okay. Tell me how you’re doing that.
Player: Well… I’ll need to find a source of enriched uranium. Can I make a Contacts check to see if one of my old Russian buddies might have a hook-up on the black market?

This last exchange also points us in the direction of the exit ramp which will carry us away from the spectrum of GM fiat: “I’m not sure. Let’s find out.”

This is the point where both the GM and the player turn collectively towards fickle fortune (i.e. the game mechanics) to seek an answer. Of course, the GM’s role is not yet complete: If resolution is the process of testing the character’s intention, then this is where the GM designs the test.

Go to Part 5



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