Reviews

Ork! The Roleplaying Game

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RPG Blog CarnivalThis month’s blog carnival topic is hosted by Arcane Shield. The author’s topic is to Pimp a Game, promoting lesser known RPG games that we adore.

One of the great things about my time in the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild was the fact that I got to try a large variety of lesser known systems. There are several RPGs that I really enjoy that haven’t gotten nearly enough attention. Among them are:

  • Traveller (previously reviewed here and here)
  • Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
  • Paranoia
  • Star Wars d6

But as I was thinking about which game I wanted to talk about for this blog carnival, I remembered a truly obscure game that I absolutely adore: Ork! The Roleplaying Game.

Ork! The Roleplaying Game was the first product ever produced by Green Ronin, which has since produced many popular products like Mutants & Masterminds, Freeport, True20, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Dragon Age. Ork is only a mere 64 pages, but it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun as a “beer and pretzels” game.

Theme

Ork! The Roleplaying GameThe premise of the game is that you are Orks. Brawny, bloodthirsty, and stupid orks. As the book says, the Orks live by one simple principle: “Me am Ork! Me am kill you now!”

Religion is very important to Orks, who worship the angry god Krom (played by the GM). They believe that he threw up the world over the course of fourteen thousand days, but threw up the Orks last. When he told the Orks that they were his chosen people, they simply yelled back “You am shut up!” Thus there is always a tenuous relation between Krom and Orks. Sometimes he helps them out in battle and sometimes he gets angry. When he gets really, really angry, he turns them into pinecones.

This basically means that Krom is encouraged to do whatever the heck he wants to. Give high modifiers, give low modifiers, or have them get carried off by flying monkeys, smashed by a troll, or turned into a pinecone, it’s all fair game. The way I play it, this usually winds up turning into a Paranoia-style game where Orks are frequently getting killed, but another one is always back to replace him. The fact that character creation takes about 2 minutes (less if you know what you’re doing) helps a lot with this!

Mechanics

Part of the reason that Ork works so well is the mechanics. Traits are rolled by die pools. Each Skill category has a die type (e.g. d8) and then each skill has a number in it (e.g. 3). When you roll them together, you roll the number of dice as indicated by the skill and roll the related attribute die. If you have a 3 in Eyeball and a d10 in Twitch, youʼd roll 3d10 and add the total together. The result is a pretty chaotic and hard to predict die result, which fits with the theme of the game.

All die rolls are opposed. Most often, it’s between the player and Krom, and Krom is encouraged to make up his die pools as needed (perhaps 5d12 on a task he doesn’t want to happen, and 1d4 on a task he really does). This makes things fairly random and chaotic, and it’s always fun when the player’s 3d6 pool beats the 5d12 that Krom used to stop them (or vice versa). This also means that you can pull of some ridiculous tasks: want to jump over the forest? If your dice get lucky enough, you totally can!

Most enemies go down with one hit, but Orks themselves have different wound rules than enemies and can heal pretty easily. To me, this is a real strength in the game. It allows the Orks to swath through hordes of “squishy men” and also means that PvP combat isn’t very effective. Fighting other Orks is definitely encouraged (with the occasional bonk on the head), but ultimately isn’t very effective, meaning that players won’t resort to it all the time and will focus on more interesting things.

Finally, Krom can hand out Ork Points for things like talking like an Ork, committing wanton violence, drinking anything vaguely alcoholic, or exhibiting some other Orkish behavior. Conversely, Krom can take them away for un-Ork-like behavior, like sitting in a field of flowers and admiring their beauty. These points can be used to add dice when you need it or reroll your die pool. I’m a big fan of systems that allow the GM to hand out some bonus for good roleplaying and Ork totally allows you to do this.

Scenarios

It wouldn’t be a good review of Ork without talking about the scenarios that come with it. Generally it involves a fantasy setting, mixed with some bizarre, anachronistic elements through the use of mysterious time portals that things come out of or the Orks go into. The intro scenario in the book has something like that where they discover that the medieval Squishy Men have obtained (spoiler: a Chevy Malibu) that fell out of the sky.

The official website has two additional scenarios for download: Mister Ork’s Wild Ride! (where they go to an amusement park) and Santa Claus vs. the Orks! (where they go to the North Pole). I once wrote a scenario called “Orks in New York!” where they wind up in the city of “New Ork” and try to steal the golden flame from the green queen and have all sorts of hijinks along the way. I think these scenarios perfectly capture the spirit of Ork and they’re incredibly fun!

Conclusion

Ork is a fantastic roleplaying game for when you just want to leave your intellect out the door and play a roleplaying game with wanton violence and stupidity, while laughing the whole time. It’s definitely a great “beer and pretzels” game for the occasional one-shot.

The game isn’t perfect. I think that early in its development it suffered from not having a clear idea of what type of humor it wanted to embrace. The scenarios and some of the book embraces ridiculous scenarios (which I adore), but sometimes it tries to go for gross out humor or tries to downplay the humor, especially for long-term, more serious game (there are rules for playing a campaign with it, even though I doubt anybody ever tried). There are also some rules quirks, like ranged enemies have to make an opposed roll against Krom, meaning that Krom is rolling dice against himself.

Ultimately though, I think that the three published scenarios perfectly capture the tone and the rules quirks are easy enough to avoid because Krom gets to bend the rules anyway. This game is an incredibly entertaining and, if you can find a copy, it’s definitely worth it. Green Ronin has said they’d like to make a new edition someday and I’d love to see it happen!

Review of The GM’s Field Guide to Players

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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this PDF in compensation for this review.

As much as we might not like to admit it, some GMs are better than others. There are a lot of factors that go into this, such as personal charisma and the ability to think on the fly, but there’s also a level of understanding of good principles of GMing. My favorite has been Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, which I consider to be the definitive guide to what makes a good gamemaster. One recent book (well, PDF book) I’ve discovered has a more specific focus: The GM’s Field Guide to Players.

The GM’s Field Guide to Players ($7, PDF) consists of 3 chapters spanning 54 pages. The table of contents and any references to other parts of the book are hyperlinked within the PDF, allowing for easy access. Everything is black and white, which is fine for an informative book. It’s designed to be systemless, but I think that many of the examples and problems are written with D&D in mind.

This picture was in the Power Gamer section. I have no clue why.

One of the first things I noticed as I was skimming through the book was that the art was rather disjointed and had little to do with the text. Some look like fantasy images out of a medieval manuscript, some are modernist art of people using various technology, and some are of animals. One that confused me especially was of white owls standing on books, circling a bunch of toadstools with a black owl on a book in the center of the ring. This was followed by a man and woman sitting on a rock. I’m afraid that ultimately this gave me a bad first impression of the PDF, as it made it seem like it didn’t have a clear focus.

Player Types and How to Use Them

The first chapter revolves around player types. It describes the differences between the Character Actor, the Combat Monger, the Mechanic, the Power Gamer, the Socialite, the Solver, and the Storyteller. I’ve seen most of these classifications before (sometimes by different names) and I wouldn’t say that any of these classifications are radically different compared to the other classification systems I’ve seen.

Each entry provides a description of the “class,” which I find really best describes the exemplar of a class. This is followed by a paragraph each on their “virtues” and “vices” at the gaming table (i.e. the ways they help and hinder a game) along with a list of ways they can be useful and “things to do and not do.” Several also include a list of “sub-classes” describing more niche types that fall into the category.

I found the descriptions themselves to be pretty helpful and informative, if somewhat meandering and over-general. The virtues and vices, which provide a fairly concise description of how you might expect one to play out at the table. I think that these sections would be pretty helpful for a new GM who has never seen these sorts of classifications before.

However, The “ways a ______ can be useful” offers advice that is probably a bit too idealistic and impractical for most games. For instance, it suggests the Mechanic be assigned to looking up die results and creating cheat sheets while the Storyteller should be used as a backup GM. Many of the class entries also suggest that they be used as mentors for other players. In practice though, I think that delegating duties to players is unlikely to work out as well as the author hopes because players tend not to have as much invested in the game as the GM.

The section on what to do and not to do with each type has a lot of great advice, but I think that in an effort to provide advice tailored to each class that some good gaming advice that would be useful to all players is instead presented specifically to a certain type of player, which means that a GM reading certain sections may miss some very useful advice. For instance, “describe combat vividly” rather than as mere die rolls is great advice that benefits all players. However, it’s buried in the suggestions for Combat Mongers. I would argue that players in general would benefit from this advice, but if you don’t have a Combat Monger in your group, then you’re not going to read the section that contains that advice.

I found the subtypes of the classes to be over-general. For instance, one of the Character Actor’s subtypes is “the Goth” who is described as always wanting to play “the dark, brooding loner.” They also apparently prefer playing World of Darkness, which implies that a great many players of that game would be of this type. I’ve never come across a player described like this and even if I did, I find it hard to believe that they would absolutely be a Character Actor (perhaps they might be a Storyteller or Socialite).

Field Guide to Players does briefly note that actual players may contain traits from multiple character types, but ultimately I feel that because it focuses so much on the exemplar of each character type that it’s difficult to separate out the individual traits that a given player might take from that category. For instance, I would consider myself something of a hybrid of a Storyteller, Solver, and Power Gamer, but the very absolute descriptions and specific suggestions given to each of those three makes it difficult for a new GM to find out how to best incorporate me as a player (not to mention that you’ll have to read 9 pages to figure me out, then repeat the process for any other players).

The first chapter takes 23 pages to cover all of the types. There’s a lot of great advice in it, but it could have been a lot more concise and less focused on describing the exemplar player types.

Dealing with Problem Players

The book’s second chapter begins with five steps for dealing with problem players, which mirrors a lot of general problem-solving steps used in team-building seminars and counseling (including a section about using “I feel” statements, although not described as such). For most game problems, I think such steps are overkill, but Field Guide for Players seems to want to tackle the big problems. After all, a list of “common” problems a GM might have to deal with include “antagonizing other players,” “cheating on die rolls,” “deliberately sabotaging the game”, and “telling other players what their characters do or feel.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest problem I have with this chapter. Like the proceeding one, it’s about extremes. If you have players like that at your table, there are bigger issues that need to be addressed (and as a GM, you probably ought to think about finding a different group of gamers, which surprisingly is never suggested). In fact, I think that the entire list of “the most common behavior problems” (of which the four I listed above are from), could be consolidated into the following, less-extreme categories:

  • The player is bored (e.g. not paying attention, doing other activities)
  • The player is not cooperating with other players (e.g. hogging the spotlight, stealing from the party)
  • The player is breaking the game rules or not playing in an acceptable way (e.g. cheating, metagaming)
  • Issues unrelated to the game itself are having consequences on the game (e.g. bringing personal issues, arriving late or not at all)

It seems to me like describing these types of problems, rather than addressing how to deal with the big problems, would have been more useful to many GMs who are unlikely to have the big problems arise. After all in my four years of GMing, the worst problem I’ve had is chronically late players, which is usually resolved when the player decides they are too busy to continue. In such cases, the five step model is probably overkill.

After listing situations where you would want to go straight to Step 5 and remove the player (you can probably guess figure that out easily enough), there’s a section on “Ideas for Avoiding Player Problems.” It starts off with advice about laying out the expectations for the game (which is great advice) and states that you may need to change the game to be more engaging to each of the players’ playstyles (also great advice). It then suggests that many problems come up because the player types aren’t jiving with the characters they are playing, which I think misses the mark (and why are they playing the character if they aren’t going to like it?).

The chapter follows up with several paragraphs describing an incentive system to discourage problems. For instance, it suggests giving your chronically late player a reward for being on time, which I think can be a bit overkill and doesn’t do much to address the root causes of the problem. It also recommends voting for an MVP, which in my experience works great for convention games in which prizes are awarded, but would just cause contention in a campaign (looks like Mark’s the MVP again).

Types of Problem Players

The final chapter talks about common types of problem players: the Aggressive PC, the Drama Queen, the Flaky Gamer, the Inattentive, the Munchkin, the Persistent Noob, the Rules Lawyer, and the Spotlight Hog. Like the first chapter, it spends 1-2 pages describing each type while giving suggestions about how to deal with them. Again, some of the suggestions are good: like listening to a Rules Lawyer briefly, then making a rules call and sticking with it for the remainder of the game. Others seem a bit childish, notably “pass around a talking stick” (which I’ve seen preschools do). It even recommends solving the Spotlight Hog problem by having a caller (having all players give their suggestions to one player, who then makes a final decision, who relays it to the GM), which I think is a terrible idea because it is unnecessarily complex and will probably kill any fun. All in all, these fourteen pages are a fairly mixed bag.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, for all this book’s faults, it has some good advice, such as the descriptions of the general player types and the suggestions on how to avoid problem players. Perhaps the biggest issue is that it seems excessively wordy and consequently some great gems get buried. Overall, I found The GM’s Field Guide to Players to be a mixed bag that is best for those with very difficult players at their gaming table. If your gaming group is average, there are better books for GM advice out there for about the same price (such as Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, a $7.99 PDF).

Fantasy Flight Games Event Center

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This week, I’m going to be talking about a little known secret, even here in the Twin Cities. Turns out that Fantasy Flight Games, creators of board games like Arkham Horror and A Game of Thrones as well as roleplaying games like Deathwatch and the new Star Wars: Edge of the Empire have the Fantasy Flight Event Center in Roseville, MN. It’s about 15 minutes from my house and 5 minutes from the Roseville Public Library where I go every Wednesday as part of my AmeriCorps service. And let me tell you, it’s awesome!

As the name implies, there are two parts to the location:

Fantasy Flight Games…

The Fantasy Flight Games Event Center’s main purpose is to provide an outlet where Fantasy Flight’s games can be sold. Of course, Source Comics and Games (described here) has all of these games and more, but I imagine Fantasy Flight prefers to have a direct outlet so they can make a bigger profit. Fortunately, this means that games at this location are discounted (15% off for members only) as are preorders (10% for nonmembers, 20% off for members). There are games from other companies as well there, especially if they are products for the same universe as some of Fantasy Flight’s products (e.g. Cubicle 7’s The One Ring roleplaying game was next to their Lord of the Rings Living Card Game).

You can also check out games there to play ($3, free with a membership) or even rent a Warhammer army ($5, free with membership). Membership is a bit steep, especially if you’re on an AmeriCorps living stipend like me, ($20 one month, $50 three months, $75 six months, $125 one year), but if you are a heavy gamer who buys lots of Fantasy Flight products, I could see it easily paying for itself.

…Event Center

Some gamers play Star Wars: X-Wing using a fan-made Death Star trench run map!

In addition to being a store, the Fantasy Flight Games Event Center is a location where people can play games. There are about fifteen open gaming tables tables set up on the main floor and another five on the upper mezzanine (a quieter, more secluded area, but for members only). While I was there, I saw several minis, roleplaying, and board games being played. The staff lets you play whatever you want and said I’d be more than welcome to run my weekly Deadlands game there (we had our first session on Wednesday and it was a lot of fun!).

These gamers were doing a HeroClix tournament between themselves. The player on the far left was really excited to get a chance to pull out his giant Clix!

The Fantasy Flight Games Event Center also hosts special events from time to time. Next weekend is Arkham Nights, a three day event devoted to H.P. Lovecraft and the games inspired by his works. Not only will there be sessions for board games like Arkham Horror, Mansions of Madness, and Elder Sign (with special promo cards as swag), but also a Call of Cthulhu Living Card Game tournament, a costume contest, and even a Cthulhu-themed Fiasco game. Plus the game designers for these games will be there. The only downside is that the event costs $20 to attend, which as said before, can be tough if you’re on a budget.

All in all, the Fantasy Flight Games Event Center is an awesome place. It’s a great place to host your weekly game (they even stay open till midnight on weeknights) or have a pickup game with some friends. If you’ve got a disposable income and can afford to be an avid Fantasy Flight gamer, there’s lots of great events and discounts that you can take advantage of. If you’re ever in the Twin Cities, I highly recommend visiting it!

The view from up on the mezzanine. Pictures like this often wind up in the promotional material because it makes the location look HUGE!

Thoughts on D&D Next

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For those who don’t know (because one should always assume that there is at least one reader who doesn’t), D&D Next is the upcoming version of Dungeons & Dragons, which Wizards of the Coast is currently putting in an open playtest. One of the big design goals is to “unite the editions” by taking the best from each one and hopefully creating an edition that would provide common ground between players who each have a different favorite edition. I imagine that this is why it is called D&D Next and not D&D 5e.

By the way, I made predictions about what “D&D 5e” would be like before D&D Next was announced. It’s not quite time to check off the list, but I’m already getting a good sense of which predictions were right and which ones weren’t. I also had a wish list of changes I wanted to see, but which I was not too confident would actually happen.

The first round of public playtesting showed a version of D&D Next that Wizards has adamantly stated is only about 10-20% complete with future rounds of public playtesting providing more developed and finalized rules. There are no rules for character creation yet and the playtest packet includes a set of pregen characters to take through the included adventure, along with about 30 pages of basic rules. Reaction to the playtest has been varied, from highly positive, to neutral, to scathingly negative, although an informal online poll shows that about 65% of playtesters have positive feelings about it with 20% on the fence.

I downloaded the playtest materials myself and read over them, then participated in a playtest at Origins. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the designer’s commentary in their Legends & Lore column. So what do I think about it?

My biggest issue with the first round of playtesting was a lack of innovation in the rules. It seemed like they reverted back to D&D 3.x as a template, made the characters on a level of OD&D simplicity, and threw in the flexibility in spells from AD&D. Now I don’t have a problem with picking and choosing the best aspects from each edition, but I was getting the impression that the rules mechanics were being chosen not as much to create the best of each edition, but rather to take the sacred cows from each edition and put them into one corral (so to speak).

Combat was at about the same speed as Savage Worlds, which I liked a lot. There were some new rules I liked, like the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic and the fact that wizards could use basic spells at-will (hopefully alleviating the temptation to create a fifteen minute workday). I also noticed that there is now an “Intoxicated” condition which gives you Disadvantage to all attacks, but lets you reduce damage dealt to you by 1d6, which could potentially result in some “liquid courage” tactics! I’ve always liked Skills and was a bit concerned about the fact that they were reduced to simple +2 bonuses to attribute rolls, but mechanically it seems to work well enough.

Overall, I came to the conclusion that although the first public version of D&D Next worked well enough, it was not very innovative. Although it was a streamlined version of D&D with a few nice additions, I wasn’t very excited about the system. But that all changed when I read the Legends & Lore article called Bounded Accuracy.

First, some background. One of my biggest complaints about D&D over the years is that common threats are “beneath” higher level characters. This is because as they gain levels, their bonuses to skills and attributes constantly escalate to the point where they can meet the DC of common threats even if they totally botch their rolls and their AC is so high that common monsters can’t even hit them. This makes sandbox games problematic, since the level 20 party rolls a 2 and still kicks down the iron door, then laughs at the fact that the swarm of goblins inside can’t even hit him. As a result, the GM has to make up ridiculous situations just to challenge the party with a DC to match their astronomical skill bonuses (no, it’s not an iron door, it’s an triple-reinforced adamantine door!).

But the aforementioned article stated that D&D Next would be using “bounded accuracy” where characters do not gain increased attribute levels simply by leveling up. Thus with all things being equal, an iron-banded door with DC 17 to break down is just as tough for a 1st-level Fighter as a 20th-level Fighter. This also means that AC is more or less static so you won’t have to get a +5 Magic Weapon or the Weapon Expertise feat just to stay competitive in a fight. In fact, the only thing that really increases as you level up is hit points and the amount of damage you can deal. So an angry mob of level 1 characters could still kill a dragon and a swarm of kobolds could still challenge a level 20 fighter. For the first time, you can use the same low-level monsters to challenge a higher level party, especially if they come in greater numbers.

That is innovation right there and that makes me excited for D&D Next. A long-standing rules issue has been resolved using an ingenious new mechanic for the sake of making a better D&D. If Wizards makes more innovations like that, I will be one of the first to buy the new edition when it came out.

Urban Arcana Cover Art

I’d rather use D&D Next for bugbears in the boardroom than any other version of D&D

Also, it’s probably worth noting that I would rather run my favorite setting, Urban Arcana, using D&D Next instead of 3.x or 4e because it is fast-paced and flexible and appears to be easy to customize. Finding a better version of D&D to run my favorite D&D setting is a total win in my book!

Random Story Generators

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Random generators are incredible tools for GMs. No, I’m not talking about dice or other random number generators. I’m talking about random story generators. Basically, they randomly give you a few pieces of a story and then you have to figure out how they link together. Usually this winds up generating exciting ideas that you might not have come up with on your own.

A really simple random story generator is the online Vortex Oracle: Stories in Time & Space, which creates a random Doctor Who episode. For instance, I just generated:

The Death Children

  • A beautiful structure reaching the heavens, impossibly made.
  • A disembodied brain crackling with psychokinetic force.
  • An archaeological dig.
  • Mourning a lost loved one.

Already ideas are flowing about what kind of story this might tell. I’m imagining a story somewhat like The Time of Angels in which the TARDIS arrives at the ruins of some desolated planet. Perhaps the people made some sort of Tower of Babel structure that wound up being taken over by “a disembodied brain,” whatever that winds up being. And there’s a survivor of the incident who is mourning the lost of her brother after disaster befell him.

Next up are random tables for generating stories. Thrilling Tales of Adventure by Adamant Entertainment includes one such generator in which you roll on eleven tables to generate a full adventure. The benefit of a table like this is that it is specifically designed for creating an elaborate adventure for the setting of the book. I just rolled the following adventure:

Villain: Mastermind

The Fiendish Plot, Part 1: Infiltrate

The Fiendish Plot, Part 2: A Lost World

Main Location: City Skyscrapers

The Hook: Solicitation

Supporting Character: Clumsy, Skilled, Business Owner

Action Sequence Type: Chase, Vehicle

Action Sequence Participants: Lots (5+ per PC)

Action Sequence Location: Educational (museum, college, etc.)

Action Sequence Complications: Props

Plot Twist: Hidden Plot

Looks to me like there’s some key to a lost world (probably Hollow Earth or something) inside of a downtown multi-story museum. And we’ve got a massive vehicle chase through that museum, perhaps even driving the vehicles on display!

Although tables like these are incredible, they are really only designed for a certain setting. So ideally we would want something just as flexible, but generic. The coolest gaming accessory I’ve found lately are the Story Forge Cards, which fit the bill perfectly. These are a set of 88 cards which each have two concepts on them. These cards are then randomly dealt out in a certain arrangement, leaving it up to the GM to interpret the meaning of it all.

Story Forge is mostly aimed at writers, but it does wonders for helping a GM come up with a plot or to determine a character’s backstory (there’s a great video showing the latter). It comes with several predefined card arrangements (called “spreads”), but I could easily see creating new spreads depending on your needs. Perhaps you could create a small spread for a Deadlands character’s worst nightmare. I can even see them being useful during gameplay. The players want to talk to an NPC you’re making up on the fly? Draw a single card and find out what their motivation is. That alone could create incredible plot hooks.

Right now, Story Forge has a Kickstarter project associated with it, which is already more than funded, so it’s definitely going to be made. I definitely encourage you to pick a deck up. It may seem pricey at $25, but a tool for randomly generating stories for any system or setting seems well worth it.

Anybody else know of any good random story generators out there?

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