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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.

Weird Discoveries is a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera. The concept behind these instant adventures is basically what I talked about in Opening Your Gaming Table. I’ll let Monte Cook explain:Numenera: Weird Discoveries - Monte Cook

It’s Friday night. Your friends have gathered at your house. Someone asks, “What should we do tonight?” One person suggests watching a movie, but everyone else is in the mood for a game. You’ve got lots of board games, and that seems like the obvious solution, because they don’t take any more time to prepare than it takes to set up the board and the pieces.

Those of us who love roleplaying games have encountered this situation a thousand times. We’d love to suggest an RPG for the evening, but everyone knows you can’t just spontaneously play a roleplaying game, right? The game master has to prepare a scenario, the players need to create characters, and all this takes a lot of time and thought.

Cook’s solution to this problem is to create one-shot scenarios in a custom format that makes it possible for the GM to run a four hour session after quickly skimming 4-6 pages of information.

This basically boils down into three parts:

First, a two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.

Second, a two page spread that generally looks something like this

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

and which contains the entire scenario. (This two page spread is the only thing you’ll need to look at while running the adventure.)

Third, an additional two pages of additional details that you can use to flesh out the scenario. (These pages are optional. If you don’t have time to read them, the evocative details they provide can easily be replaced by material improvised by the GM.)

The basic idea is that these scenarios give Numenera the same commitment profile as a board game: You pull out the rulebooks and dice. You quickly explain the rules. You hand out pregen characters to the players. And while they’re looking over their character sheets, you spend two or three minutes quickly reviewing a scenario.

Then you play for three or four hours and… that’s it. No prior prep commitment. No long-term commitment from the players. Just pick it up and play it.


First, there’s the weird decision to kick off this book of stand-alone one-shots with two linked scenarios where one is clearly the sequel of the other. (The first scenario is “gaining access to the pyramid” and the second is “exploring the pyramid”.) This isn’t the end of the world and if those had been given at the end of the book as a sort of variant on the form, it probably would have been fine. But one of these scenarios is actually used as the free promo for the book, and I actually held off buying it for awhile because it appeared that the book wasn’t actually delivering on its promise.

Another bit of wonkiness comes from the way that Cook tries to streamline the presentation of the scenarios through the use of Keys. Each Key is some essential element of the scenario which could potentially be found in several different locations within the scenario. Each key is given a symbol, which is then used to indicate the locations where that key can be found.

For example, in a mystery scenario a Key might be:

Evidence that Supect A is innocent.

And that Key might be indicated by a little blue triangle. Then you look at the two page spread and you might see an NPC marked with a blue triangle, and their description will include:

If Bob is the KEY, then if the PCs really grill him, he’ll eventually admit that he saw Suspect A on the opposite side of town at the time of the murder.

In general, you’ll see two or three different places in the scenario where that little blue triangle shows up. That basically mirrors the redundancy suggested by the Three Clue Rule and it makes a lot of sense. And highlighting those essential bits with a visual cue in the form of the Key symbol also makes sense, because it flags the importance of including that bit for the GM.

A couple things mess this up, however: First, the table that tells you what each symbol means ISN’T located on the two page spread. So the simple elegance of the two-page spread is marred because you keep flipping back to that essential information.

Second, the “if” nature of the Keys tends to make it much more difficult to run the scenarios cleanly. The intention seems to be that the GM should control the pacing of when these keys are triggered, but in practice trying to keep track of the locations where a particular key is available (and whether or not this might be the last opportunity for it) requires a totality of understanding for the scenario which stands in sharp contrast with the goal of being able to run it off-the-cuff. (For off-the-cuff stuff, I generally want to be able to focus on the content directly in front of my nose without having to think about distant portions of the scenario.)

In general, you can probably just ignore the “if” portion of the text and run most of the scenarios with the Keys present in all of their potential locations. There are a handful of scenarios, however, where you can’t do this. (For example, a “missing piece” of a machine which can be in several different locations and actually be completely different things.)

In any case, these scenarios would be better if the keys were simply hardcoded. And I’d recommend altering them in whatever manner necessary to make that true before running them.


The other thing that doesn’t quite work are, unfortunately, the two-page spreads themselves. These take two forms.

First, there are flowcharts which show how the PCs can move from one scene to another. (Go to the home of the murder suspect and find a clue that points to where the murder suspect is.) These mostly work fine, although there are a few scenarios with mysterious extra arrows that don’t actually represent any tangible information. (The intention with some of these seems to be “the PCs are done here and can now go follow a lead from another location”, but that’s ideographically confusing because the arrow implies that there is a lead here that should take you there.)

Second, and unfortunately more prevalent, are the spreads based around maps surrounded by blobs of text that have arrows pointing to various sections of the map.

The best of these are the dungeons, because they at least make sense. But they’re not very good dungeons. One keeps talking about how you can explore beyond the rooms shown on the map… except there are no exits from the rooms on the map. The other is composed of mostly empty rooms. And in both cases, most of the room descriptions don’t match the visual representation of the room that they’re pointing at.

This is because, as far as I can tell, the maps were drawn largely at random and then the various bits of content were “associated” with the maps by drawing arrows that just kind of point at whatever’s convenient. And this is even more apparent when you look at some of the other two-page spreads. For example, consider the spread we looked at before:

Weird Discoveries - Two Page Spread

That’s supposed to be the map of a city. Except it obviously is not. And one of the content bubbles is “three dead bodies lie here”… except the associated arrow points into the middle of a wall. Another content bubble is “monster that’s explicitly moving around in the ruins”, but it has an arrow pointing to a very specific (and obviously completely meaningless) location

Another common technique here is “rough sketch of a wilderness area that’s radically out of scale with random arrows pointing at it”.


Because the scenarios are really good.

They cover a wide variety of nifty ideas backed up with fantastic art that’s designed to be shown to your players as evocative handouts (instead of featuring imaginary PCs doing things).

And despite my quibbles with some of the shortcomings of the presentation, the basic concept of the two-page spread fundamentally works: The maps and arrows don’t make any sense, but the essential content is nonetheless packaged in a format that makes it easy to simply pick up the adventure and run it with no prep time at all.

For my personal use, I’ll be basically ignoring all of the maps and using the content bubbles as either random encounters or logical progressions of an investigation (depending on the exigencies of the scenario). And I’ll take the time to lock down the Keys in a more concrete fashion, but I’m not anticipating that taking any more than 5-10 minutes per scenario, which is not an undue burden.

Ultimately, with ten full adventures, this book is incredibly valuable and I’m going to be getting dozens of hours of play out of it.

The final reason why the book’s shortcomings ultimately don’t matter, however, is because the roleplaying industry desperately needs more books like this: The board game renaissance is palpably demonstrating the power of memetically viral games that can be picked up and played as part of an evening’s entertainment. Games like Mice & Mystics and Mansions of Madness clearly demonstrate that the only reason traditional roleplaying games can’t hop on that bandwagon is because we’ve systematically ghettoized ourselves as an industry and as a hobby by embracing long-term, dedicated play as the only form of play.

With Numenera as its flagship, Monte Cook Games is fighting to change that. And I’m more than happy to help them out. (Particularly since their game is so much damn fun.)

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Monte Cook
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979339

The core rulebooks for Fantasy Flight’s iteration of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game are incredibly gorgeous. For several years I would walk past them in game stores, pick them up, and say, “Wow!”

Then I’d look at the price, realize I wasn’t likely to get a Star Wars game together any time in the near future, and then slowly put the book back on the shelf with a lingering pang of regret.

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Fantasy Flight GamesOver time, though, I started putting the book back faster and faster, and eventually I just stopped picking them up. And that’s largely because I find Fantasy Flight’s packaging of the game absurd.

Back in 2012 when they released the beta version of Star Wars: Edge of Empire for $40 I didn’t have a problem with it: It provided early access to the game. Nobody was being forced to pay for it if they didn’t want to. And it wasn’t the first (nor the last) time that a beta program had a price of admission.

… but then they did it again for Age of Rebellion and for Force and Destiny. And it began to look a lot more like a marketing strategy: By executing a beta-beginning-core triumvirate for three separate games, it looked suspiciously as if Fantasy Flight Games had figured out how to sell the same core rules nine times over.

And there’s really no justification for it. The claim by the game designers that the “core experience” of the Star Wars universe is for Han Solo (Edge of Empire), Princess Leia (Age of Rebellion), and Luke Skywalker (Force and Destiny) to all adventure separately from each other is utterly bizarre.

On top of that, however, there’s the specialized dice. I don’t actually have a problem with a game using a specialized dice set, but these are sold at $15 per set… and in order to get a dice pool large enough that a table of beginning characters can reliably make their checks without having to reroll dice to form a full pool you’ll need three sets. So there’s another $45 you need to spend in order to start playing the game effectively.

Money-grubbing corporations will grub money, right? Fair enough. But I think what I find particularly frustrating is that the Star Wars roleplaying game should be a major point of entry for players new to RPGs. And that’s particularly true right now as Star Wars enters its second renaissance. And instead of opening the door wide to those new players, Fantasy Flight has packaged the game at an exorbitant price point which makes it basically as unattractive as possible.

Honestly, the cost would have kept me from ever trying the game. But I had a friend who wanted me to run it for them, and they purchased all the books and supplies. So let’s lay the cost aside and talk about the game itself.


In FFG’s Star Wars, your character is defined by their Characteristics and their Skills. In order to resolve an action, you take a number of Ability Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is higher. Then you upgrade a number of those Ability Dice to Proficiency Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is lower.

Star Wars RPG - Dice Pool(For example, let’s say you’re making a Brawn + Athletics check and you’ve got Brawn 3 and Athletics 2. You’d take three Ability Dice because the higher score is 3. Then you’d upgrade two of those to Proficiency Dice because the lower score is 2. That would give you dice pool of one Ability Die and two Proficiency Dice.)

This basic pool can be then be modified in various ways: The GM can add Difficulty Dice (representing the difficulty of the task), which can be upgraded to Challenge Dice by various horrible circumstances. Particularly notable successes or failures on previous checks might also grant you Boost Dice or Setback Dice, and so forth.

The key point is that all of the dice in these pools are marked with a number of different symbols: Success, Failure, Advantage, Threat, Triumph, and Despair. You roll all the dice, you count up all the symbols and…


 … and that’s when the hoverpads fall off the landspeeder.

After you’ve rolled the dice, you have:

(1) Success vs. Failure (these cancel, multiples successes accumulate but failures don’t)

(2) Advantage vs. Threat (these cancel, multiples of both accumulate)

(3) Triumph vs. Despair (these don’t cancel)

Ignoring quantitative differences, these give you 18 qualitative results:


I’m a huge fan of systems that characterize the quality of success or failure (instead of just treating those as binary qualities). But why do we need to count each tier of dice symbols in a slightly different way? And why do we need three separate tiers of symbols? This system literally generates outcomes like, “Moderate success with something vaguely good, but also something vaguely better than vaguely good, but also something seriously bad in a vague way.”

Okay. So you flip over to the skill guidelines hoping for a little guidance… and that’s when you discover that even the designers have no idea how to use their convoluted dice system.

For example, advantage can’t turn failure into success… unless it’s a Knowledge skill, because then advantage can grant you “minor but possibly relevant information about the subject” even on a failure. (Except… if you’re gaining access to relevant information, that sounds like a success, right?)

Star Wars: Edge of Empire - Fantasy Flight GamesIf you’re making a Computer check, then additional successes reduce the time required to make the check. But if it’s a Stealth check, then you’re going to use advantage to reduce the time required. With Skullduggery you use advantage to gain additional items, but if you’re making a Survival check you’ll use successes to gain those items.

It goes on and on like that.

So you have a system that’s supposedly feeding you “useful” information, but the designers can’t even figure out how to interpret the results consistently despite multiple years of development and nine different products featuring the core mechanics. Why should we believe that this system is going to do anything useful at the table?

Based on my experiences running the game, it doesn’t. A system that says “success-but-complicated” or “success-but-extra-awesome” is giving you valuable guidance in adjudicating the outcome of a check. What FFG’s Star Wars gives you, on the other hand, is a tangled morass.

But maybe I was still missing something. So I talked to people who were playing the game. And what I discovered is that people who were enjoying the system were almost universally not playing it according to the rules.

Many of them weren’t even aware they were doing it. (Subconsciously house ruling away the inconsistencies in how symbols of different tiers are tallied is apparently very common, for example.) It’s as if we were talking about a car, I mentioned the gas pedal, and multiple people talking about how great the car is to drive said, “What’s a gas pedal?”

Even among those who were aware they were changing the game, it would lead to some really weird conversations where I would criticize the dice system; someone would reply to say that they loved it; I would ask what they loved about it; and then they would reply by basically saying, “I love the fact that we changed it!”

Which is, I suppose, the ultimate condemnation of the system.


What about the rest of the system?

Actually, there’s some really interesting stuff in there. The way mooks are handled is really elegant, allowing the GM to rapidly group their actions together (all the mooks using suppressive fire on Star Wars: Age of Rebellion - Fantasy Flight Gamesone guy) or split them apart on the fly (as the mooks pursue PCs who split up while running through the corridors of the Death Star).

Also of note are the starship combat rules, which do a really nice job of creating a simple structure that (a) captures the dynamics of the dogfighting we see in the Star Wars films and (b) allows all of the PCs on a ship to take meaningful actions during the fight.

But there are two problems.

First, you can’t escape the core mechanic. It is, after all, the core mechanic. It touches everything. So, yes, the starship combat system’s mixture of starship maneuvers and starship actions creates what looks likely a really dynamic structure… but the core mechanic you’re rolling multiple times every turn is still a clunky, time-sucking disaster.

Second, the system is frankly riddled with inconsistencies.

For example, combat initiative works in all ways exactly like a competitive check… except for how ties are broken. Why?! Why would you do that?

Another example: The difficulty of a check to heal someone is dependent on how injured they are. Similarly, the difficulty of repairing your ship is dependent on how damaged it is. If you take those rules and you put them on a table, you end up with this:

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Medicine & Damage Control

Oh! That’s nice! They’ve unified the difficulties so that you can easily memorize and use… Wait a minute.

What the hell?!

I honestly can’t tell if that’s just incredibly sloppy design or if it’s actually a revelation of Machiavellian evil. (I literally keep looking back at the rulebooks because my brain refuses to accept that this is true. But it is.)

The whole game is like this. (We’ve already talked about how the skill guidelines seem to take an almost perverse glee in never doing something the same way twice.) It’s almost as if the designers said, “This system is pretty slick and elegant… let’s go ahead and randomly change half the mechanics for no reason.”


Somewhere inside the nine core rulebooks that FFG has published, I feel like there’s a pretty good Star Wars game screaming to get out. And if you’re the type of roleplayer who’s comfortable just kind of playing vaguely in the vicinity of the actual rules, you might even be able to find it in here occasionally.

But all the clunkiness adds up.

I designed a short little scenario for the game: A few modest combats. A little investigation. Some cool set pieces.

It’s the kind of scenario that, if I was running it in most systems, would take one or two sessions to play through. As we wrapped up our fourth session, we still hadn’t finished it. The mechanics superficially lend themselves to dramatic, swashbuckling action, but the system is so sluggish in pace that even simple combat encounters drag out. The result is that the system takes narrative material and stretches it out until it has long since been drained of interest. It’s bloated, unfocused, and…

Ah. I know what this reminds me of.

FFG’s game is the Special Edition of Star Wars roleplaying games.

Style: 5
Substance: 1

(Substance would be a 2, but you have to buy the game a minimum of three times to get all the rules to play something resembling any of the Star Wars movies. So, weighing its value against the actual price of $180… nah. And that doesn’t even include the dice.)

Author: Jay Little, Sam Stewart, and FFG Development Team
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Cost: $59.95
Page Count: 456
ISBN: 978-1-63344-122-4

Review of Force and Destiny
Force and Destiny: System Cheat Sheet
FFG Star Wars: The Big Fix
Star Wars: Red Peace

This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue of Games Unplugged.

Orkworld - John WickIn 1997 Legend of the Five Rings, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 1999 7th Sea, designed by John Wick, won the prestigious Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year.

In 2000 Orkworld, designed by John Wick, was released at GenCon.

And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make a really strong case for giving the award to John Wick one more time.

The system itself is nothing which is going to send shockwaves to the foundations of gaming: A simple dice pool system lies at the heart of it, and is spun off with some interesting, and at times highly effective, extrapolations for combat. The resolution mechanic itself is a nice refinement of its predecessors, providing a smooth modeling of skill and ability. The combat system, for its part, maintains a simple flow while keeping in touch with the game’s inherent pace and spirit.

In other words, its well done – but nothing to get excited about. Orkworld’s game system, however, serves merely as the foundation for the material which really makes the game shine: The orks themselves.

Wick refers to his book as an “anthropological study of a race that never existed”. The concept of an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer will become equipped with the tools necessary to step into the shoes of someone truly from another world – is a lofty goal, worthy of commendation merely for the attempt. It’s one thing to say “look at these characters who are not like human beings at all”. It is quite another to show us to how to play one.

Does Wick succeed? Most definitely. In over 250 pages of setting information, the orkish culture is detailed down to the finest points – from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic… It’s all here in sumptuous detail. And Wick’s great talent offers an assurance that every page is kept interesting and entertaining. Instead of bogging you down as you might expect, the wealth of minute detail is carefully chosen and presented so that it is a liberation, not a limitation.

Orkworld is not flawless by any means: There are a number of unfortunate lay-out and typographical errors throughout the book. A couple of the combat rules have minor holes. Although the orks themselves are laid out in wondrous detail, the rest of the World of Ghurtha suffers from a certain scantness of detail.

But putting the nitpicks aside, there is little doubt that you will find your $25 richly rewarded when you finish this book. Indeed, the reading experience itself is worth the cost of admission – and you won’t have even begun to see the dividends which the book will provide to your gaming experience.

Grade: A

Writers: John Wick
Publisher: Wicked Press
Price: $25.00
Page Count: 304
Product Code: WP10001

After the initial appearance of a review, Games Unplugged would run a short recap of the review in subsequent issues.

Recap/Tagline: In 1997, John Wick’s Legend of the Five Rings won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. In 1999, John Wick’s 7th Sea won the Origin Award for Best Roleplaying Game of the Year. And with the release of Orkworld at GenCon this year, John Wick has made a strong case for winning the prestigious reward yet a third time.

Orkworld is an “anthropological game” – a game which focuses on the intricacies of an alien culture, revealing its hidden complexities of daily life so that a common roleplayer can truly step into the shoes of someone form another world. This lofty goal is accomplished through a wealth of entertaining detail – ranging from religion to food to sex to love to politics to war to mythology to philosophy to magic and more. All of this is supported by a solid dice pool system, which puts the finishing cap on an inescapable conclusion: You should buy this game.


Tagline: In 32 slim pages Three Days to Kill manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to KillI’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks reading really bad fantasy modules. It is difficult to describe to you the truly excruciating pain of this experience. Instead, I shall endeavor to demonstrate by way of example:

“The characters are in Boringtown. There is a bar, a temple, and an armory.”

“The characters are in Moronsburg. There is a bar, a temple, and a general store.”

“The characters are in Clicheville. There is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith. The mayor approaches them….”

“At the bottom of the farmer’s well there is a secret door which has not been opened in centuries. On the other side of the door is a labyrinth containing giant spiders and goblins. Kill them.”

“The abandoned mansion on the top of the hill has become home to a bunch of necromancers and a couple of ghosts. Kill them.”

“The PCs wander around the desert enjoying random encounters until they stumble across a lost pyramid. There they watch two mummies fight over conflicts which existed thousands of years ago (and about which the PCs know nothing). When the fight is over (make sure that the PCs don’t take part in any way) the PCs get to go home.”


Between painfully artificial settings, a mind-numbing lack of originality, and stunningly awful “plots”, these so-called “adventures” have earned their designers an eternity upon the racks of the Nine Circles of Hell.

(On the plus side, I think actually playing through these scenarios counts as a form of penance. The equivalent of saying fifty Hail Mary’s or something of that nature.)

(The funny thing is that you think I’m kidding. Outside of those satiric town names, though, I’m not – these things actually exist. They’re out there and they’re waiting for you. Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

There were days when I felt like giving in to a nascent Oedipal Complex… and by that I mean stabbing my eyes out with pins to take the sight of these monstrosities away from me.

But through the good graces of providence, a copy of John Tynes’ excellent Three Days to Kill fell into my hands, and thus I was saved from a truly horrific fate.


Before we begin:

John Tynes is a roleplaying designer and writer of immense talents: He was one of the founders of Pagan Publishing. He was a co-author of Delta Green. With Greg Stolze he designed the award winning Unknown Armies for Atlas Games. Last year Hogshead Publishing’s New Style line published his amazingly evocative Puppetland and the startlingly innovative Power Kill.

With Three Days to Kill Tynes has taken advantage of WotC’s D20 Trademark License and Open Gaming License (see the Open Gaming Foundation for more details on both of these programs) to produce a module for the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This is the lead-off product in Atlas Games’ new Penumbra line of products. Over the next few months you can expect to see more support material for D&D3 released through this imprint.

Three Days to Kill is designed for a party of 1st to 3rd level PCs.

And now on with the show:


Warning: This review will contain spoilers for Three Days to Kill. Players who may end up playing in this module are encouraged to stop reading now. Proceed at your own risk.

Three Days to Kill is set in the Deeps, a valley nestled within a mountain range. At the heart of this valley, located on the shores of Shadow Lake, is Deeptown.

And as quickly as that we have come to the first major strength of Three Days to Kill: Deeptown is a generic fantasy city. It has been specifically designed to slip seamlessly into any DM’s campaign world.

The minute you attempt something like this you’ve placed yourself in dangerous territory: If you make the town too specific, then its usefulness as a generic setting is lost. If you make the town too generic, however, you end up with the triteness of “there is a bar, a temple, and a blacksmith”.

Tynes, however, deftly avoids these pitfalls. On the one hand Deeptown is imminently generic – any DM with a mountain range can slap the town into place. On the other hand, Deeptown is also developed very specifically – it exists for a purpose, the people living there have their own character and culture, and the whole place has a dynamic quality which makes it not only a potential setting for Three Days to Kill, but many other adventures. Despite the fact that Deeptown can be placed almost anywhere in the DM’s campaign world, it has been craftily designed so that – no matter what world you place it in – it will seem as if always belonged there.

So what is Deeptown? Deeptown is a small city located on the shores of Shadow Lake, a way-point on the east-west trade routes that pass through the Deeps. The mountainous terrain of this trade route makes it easy for bandits to prey on caravans, and, in fact, any number of bandit gangs roam the hills. This helps make Deeptown particularly attractive for young adventures and other assorted muscle looking for jobs as guards (or opportunities as thieves, as the case may be).

There are six bandit lords in the area (although, as Tynes points out, “calling them ‘lords’ gives them too much credit, really — they’re just competent thugs”). The two largest groups are controlled by the bandits Modus and Lucien.

Deeptown itself is technically ruled over by the Town Council, but in truth it is the Trade Circle – the local guild of commerce – which rules the city from behind the scenes. In other words, even the law in Deeptown is governed by the corruption of the all-mighty dollar.

This leaves only one major power group left to consider: Religion. In Deeptown the two most significant religious groups are the Holy Order (dedicated to the preservation of life) and the Sect of Sixty (a group of diabolists). (Both of these groups – while having their structure and general role in Deeptown life laid out in the module – are left purposely vague in all the right places to that you can plug in whatever gods you like. For example, the Holy Order might worship Athena and the Sect of Sixty Hades. On the other hand, the Holy Order might revere Adaire, Goddess of Light and Purity; while the Sect of Sixty might practice foul sacrifices to Cthulhu. It’s all up to you.)

Basically the setting information in Three Days to Kill can be summed up like this: A solid, interesting foundation. For a 32 page module a surprising amount of detail is included, giving the setting a life and reality of its own through the expert application of a handful of deft brush strokes – all the while maintaining an openness and flexibility which will make its use simplicity itself.


Modus and Lucien, the two premiere Bandit Lords, have long hoped to turn “legitimate” (within a broad enough definition of that word). They hope to use their strength in order to convince the Trade Circle to ally with them – essentially moving into the protection rackets (expensive Trade Circle permits would be sold, and caravans which purchased them would be spared from the attention of Modus and Lucien). In the interest of seeing this day come to pass, Modus and Lucien agreed to a pact – stating that neither would enter into a deal with the Trade Circle without the other.

Lucien, however, is no longer willing to wait. He has made a secret alliance with the Sect of Sixty. Lucien wants to use the Sect to use their supernatural powers to help him crush Modus, while the Sect wants to use Lucien to help them gain a foothold over the taxation of trade routes (when his day of power comes).

Modus, although hazy on the exact details of the alliance Lucien is planning, knows that his would-be ally is up to something. Of course, he’d prefer it if Lucien was not allowed to be up to anything…

…and that’s where the PCs come in.

One way or another the PCs are attending the Festival of Plenty (a night of debauchery and infamy which is thrown annually in Deeptown by the Sect of Sixty). Several ways of getting them to Deeptown and into the Festival are given, as are a number of ways of having them prove their worth during the course of the festival. One way or another, however, they come to the attention of Modus’ men – at which point they are approached for The Job.

The Job is this: Modus knows that Lucien is meeting with his mysterious allies at a villa north of Deeptown known as Trail’s End. He wants the PCs to crash the party, screw up the meeting, and make Lucien look foolish and unreliable to his would-be supporters. The PCs, of course, will be well paid for their troubles.

So the PCs head north. On the way to Trail’s End they discover signs of orc activity in the region (which is connected to a coming of age rite), but it isn’t until they reach Trail’s End that the adventure really kicks into overdrive: You see, the villa is packed full of Sect cultists and bandits.

And if the PCs rush the front door of the villa, they’re going to be annihilated.

Three Days to Kill is, in fact, a rather ingenious scenario for bringing the gameplay of computer games like Tenchu and Thief: The Dark Project — which emphasize stealth and cunning over brute strength – into the traditional roleplaying realm of D&D. (Tynes actually uses the analogy Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six – but that requires a larger genre shift in my opinion.) The PCs are given weapons, magical items, and a situation which allows them to scout their enemy, plan a strategy, and then carry out a covert operation.

Done right this can be a lot of fun. Done wrong this is going to be nothing more than a hackfest. Either way you should get a good dose of fun before it’s all said and done. Basically its going to play out something like this:

The PCs are going to take out the bandits and the Sect henchman. As they do so, the Sect acolytes are going to fall back to a secluded room inside the villa. In this room is the Bone Mirror – a mystic artifact of great evil which allows them to start gating low-level minions of Hell into the villa.

As the minions of Hell swarm over the villa – and the PCs fight valiantly to reach and shut off the source of the Hellspawn – the remaining bandits will flee… as they do so the orcs (remember them form the trek north?) will come over the top of the hill and charge the villa as well.

Hellspawn on one side. Orcs on the other. Bandits and PCs trapped in the middle. What’s a hero to do?

Smash the Bone Mirror and fight for their lives, of course!

But we’re not done yet!

When the shattered pieces of the Bone Mirror come to rest they begin to bleed. “The blood wells up from the mirror and oozes out of the bones.” At first it merely trickles, but “then the blood comes faster, coating the floor around the shards, and begins to expand rapidly. Tendrils shoot out across the floor and begin running up the walls. As the blood spreads, it transforms the surfaces of the room. The floor bulges, and bones, flesh, and faces to begin to form. The effect spreads rapidly, accompanied by the screams of the damned.” As the process begins to effect the acolytes and orcs who still remain alive, these poor creatures begin to cry out: “He Who Walks is coming! The coming is at hand!”

The shards of the Bone Mirror transform the Trail’s End villa into the Bone Church – an outpost of Hell; a “pulsing, living, screaming conglomeration of bodies”. The PCs and the remnants of their opponents are forced to flee before the birth of this diabolic power.

And thus Three Days to Kill comes to an end: The PCs have, indeed, succeeded at their primary mission (breaking up the alliance between Lucien and the Sect of Sixty) – at least for now – but only by unleashing the seeds of future adventure: The mystery and threat of the Bone Church, the future of the Bandit Lords of the Deeps, the PCs relationship with Lucien and Modus, the evolving politics of Deeptown. Whether you decide to carry these seeds through to new adventures, or merely choose to have the PCs join the next caravan out of the Deeps, is entirely up to you. Three Days to Kill works equally well as a stand-alone adventure or as the germination point of an entire campaign.


Three Days to Kill is one of the best damn modules I’ve ever plunked down my cold, hard cash for. It’s one of those great gaming products that makes you instantly eager to call up your gaming group, roll up some characters, and get down to some serious roleplaying.

In 32 slim pages it manages to not only present a really gut-wrenching, fast-paced, creative adventure, but also conjures into existence a highly entertaining, evocative, and believable slice of a fantasy world.

Three Days to Kill is an exciting product.

And recommendations don’t come much higher than that.

Style: 4
Substance: 5

Author: John Tynes
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games (Penumbra)
Cost: $8.95
Page Count: 32
ISBN: 0-887801-94-4

Originally Posted: 2000/10/29

This represents a major turning point in my life. At this point, as I’d indicated in my review of Tomb of Horrors, I hadn’t played D&D in nearly a decade. 3rd Edition had perked my interest, but I wasn’t really planning to do much of anything with it. Until I picked up Three Days to Kill at GenCon. And, as I said in the review, Three Days to Kill was exciting. It was one of those products that just kind of screams, “Play me!”

So I ended up taking over as GM for what was my regular gaming group at the time. And from that point forward, 3rd Edition would dominate my reviews, my personal gaming, and my freelance writing.

Three Days to Kill generated a lot of buzz when it first came out because it was one of two third party modules available at GenCon when the Player’s Handbook launched. These days it seems to have become something of an unsung classic, though, with fewer people being aware of its existence. I heartily recommend snagging a copy for yourself and running it ASAP.

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




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