Wizards Address the Orc Problem

Nice to see this directly addressed. Obviously I still prefer my solution which was just to replace Orcs with a more sympathetic species, but WotC is a business with tight margins so they'll just do the minimum necessary to not be running a minstrel show.

I've never really used "Drow" except in the GDQ modules (Giants went great, never got a party to finish Drow, let alone Queen of the Demonweb Pits), I preferred the Sidhe from Celtic myth making all "Elves" pretty, alien, and sociopathic (interesting point, there's a subworld of Queen, "Caer Sidi", which inspired me to get into Elves-as-Sidhe!), and later the Gazetteer Shadow Elves created underground Elves with a grudge, but they're not Drow. Having the black-skinned, white-haired Elves be "evil" and relentlessly, cartoonishly cruel torturers, poisoners, perverts, and backstabbers wasn't one of TSR's better takes. And then R.A. Salvatore, the third-worst writer in the world (I've read two of his books, part-way, and they're so bad it's impossible to finish them), made his Mary Sue character Drizzle-doo-wah-Diddy who's the One Good Drow, which became TSR canon. I'd flush the entire archetype, I don't think it's fixable.

The Vistani thing is also pretty hard to fix. They're stereotype "Gypsies". You can pull elements out to make carny folk, maybe, but if you have a tribe of thieves and soothsayers in a caravan it's obvious what you're doing. There's also Romani-based caricatures in Greyhawk, and who knows where else, it was a very popular trope with the '80s-'90s TSR writers, because "a Gypsy tells you your fortune" is a super easy plot hook, if you're unaware/unconcerned about your racism.

Changing ability score modifiers is weird. Now, there's no modifiers in Original D&D, everyone has the same 3d6 scores down the line, and fairly simple species special abilities and some harsh class limits. AD&D 1st Ed added the racist & sexist race vs stat & class tables, and each following edition dug in further. Hm, looking at my AD&D PDF (bought back when Paizo had the rights), I could swear in the original print back in '79 there was a Human column up front there, that's been redacted, where Human females got 3/17 Strength and probably Constitution & Charisma (being used more for leadership in AD&D, and women leaders were Not A Thing to those guys). Was this changed in a later printing? And the Half-Orcs got seriously shafted here.

Note this is the AD&D 1st ed text on Half-Orcs. "Orcs are fecund", "player characters which are of the half-orc race are within the superior 10%". What the fuck, Gary?

I don't really have any use for D&D 5th Ed, it's a cartoony game with 10-100x as many rules as it needs, and they've dug themselves into this hole by pushing out old content which was noted as being problematic 20 years ago, but at least WotC's a little self-aware of the things they're publishing now.

The Thing About Orcs

So, there's this piece on Orcs and racism:

And they have a long blog post about Tolkien's racist origins of Orcs & "Eastern Men":

"The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the 'human' form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
—J.R.R.Tolkien, Letter #210

Which I agree is pretty horrible, I greatly dislike Tolkien the man, and his post-Hobbit work. The post is kind of a waste of time to read beyond that, I eyerolled 180° at the quoting-white-men-about-racism tone, and denial of other people of colors' different experiences (Jason Momoa in particular). Maybe that's just how James talks, all the goddamned time. Someone should set up a medical research fund. Anyway, I'm only in this to read about the Orcs, shit that happens on Earth is not my problem.

My old solution to the Orc problem was to make Orcs tolerated and playable if they lived in civilization, but so culturally different in their nomadic tribes, that you still had something like the classic Human/Orc war trope. That can be problematic when compared to how the US, etc. treated Native Americans and other indigenous populations, but it cut down on the genocides/"we kill all the Orc babies"; players treated Orcs like a hostile tribe of Humans, warred against them until they stopped being annoying, and made peace.

But then why not just use Humans? That's James Raggi's solution, which technically works, but it's not interesting unless you throw an enormous book of "What do the Saxons believe and why are they so awful?" at the players which you don't want to write, and which they won't read. In history it was pretty easy to tell what culture someone was by their artifacts, dress, and speech; but none of those are easily visible in Theatre of the Mind role-playing.

So in everything I've run or written in the last few years, I solved the problem by replacing Orcs with Beastfolk, humanoids with bestial features chosen off a table of local mammals. They behave almost exactly like my previous use of Orcs, and yet because they're not all green-skinned pig-men, and might even be cute & fuzzy, especially the young ones, suddenly reaction is completely different. It either arouses or annoys furries, neither of which is my intention, but that's a small price to pay for how radically it changes the conversation.

I don't usually want "half-breeds", because that directly leads to racial theory bullshit, but in a magical world full of Owlbears it's certainly possible for species to be crossed, and Edgy McEdgertons always want to be a half-breed Goblin/Dark Elf with a tragic backstory or some such, so unless you want to waste half an hour arguing before the game, just say yes and move on.

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying "System Reference Document"

4 months or more since announcement; for old Chaosium that would have been super fast, for "Moon Design sans Greg Stafford now doing business as the walking corpse of Chaosium" we don't know, they haven't shipped anything on a schedule before.

So, it's 23 pages, with 2 pages of license and an artless cover page. And no interior art except two colors of the conformance logo, which must be plastered on your book. The license isn't too different from the D20 SRD, except the massive list of "prohibited content".

The book is moderately useful mechanically, it's a quickstart version of BRP. They've eliminated characteristic/skill bonuses, and very few skills use characteristic bases. One of the nicer features of most D100 variants is either a skill category bonus from characteristics (say +1% to all Manipulation skills per CHA over 12), or direct characteristic base (Influence starts at CHAx2); in BRP SRD, Persuade starts at 15% whether you're a hideous slime beast or George Clooney.

There's a bunch of professions ranging from Cowboy to Warrior, with no theme or note about culture and era, none of which have magic. Equipment is mentioned, but there's no shopping lists for any period; very generic lists of weapons and armor ("Sword, Broad", "Pistol", "Pistol, Laser", etc; I thought I was terse!) are later given with no costs, and the armor uses the same craptastic fixed-defense mechanic as later-era Call of Cthulhu and RuneQuest, rather than the die rolls that made Stormbringer, etc. combat dangerous.

BRP-SRD still has 4 almost totally disconnected task systems: Characteristic rolls, which are score x 5%, pass/fail; Skill Rolls with Critical, Special, Success, Fail, Fumble levels of success (Critical/Special used to be Impale/Critical? Or the other way around?); Skill vs Skill where levels of success are compared; and Resistance Rolls on a big table where characteristics are compared to get a % roll, which boils down to (Attack-Defense+10)x5%, pass/fail. Modern D100 games have simplified that down to just skill rolls and four levels of success, with specific resistance/characteristic test skills.

The classic skill-roll experience system is here, but it barely addresses over-100 skills, and has the classic "golf bag of weapons" flaw: No limit on how many skills can be improved, so everyone is encouraged to try every skill until they succeed once, then never do it again that session. Legend's Improvement Points mechanic somewhat fixes that, and certainly has much more serious over-100 skill rules, as well as paid training, time training, and improving characteristics. This is barely, minimally adequate to play a few sessions in, a campaign will be severely hamstrung.

Combat is minimalistic, with 2 pages of spot rules, heavily whitespace-padded. You don't technically need many rules to run D100 combat, you can make your own spot rules for most things. But there's no off-hand or dual-wield weapon use, for instance, and I like to fight Florentine or with a cloak in any medieval game. Everyone will have their own set of needs and the much longer section from most D100 games standardizes them.

There is no magic system at all, and they've forbidden use of any of the standard BRP systems of the last 45 years. OK, making a new magic system isn't that hard, but if you want it to be like Stormbringer, or Mythic Earth, or Magic World/Big Green Book BRP, you can't. You can't just pick this SRD up and have a usable game for any genre except mundane reality.

There's one animal stat block, and they've forbidden use of essentially any monster ever written because they forbid use of:

All trademarks, registered trademarks, proper names (characters, deities, place names, etc.), plots, story elements, locations, characters, artwork, or trade dress from any of the following: any releases from the product lines of Call of Cthulhu, Dragon Lords of Melniboné, ElfQuest, Elric!, Hawkmoon, HeroQuest, Hero Wars, King Arthur Pendragon, Magic World, Nephilim, Prince Valiant, Ringworld, RuneQuest, 7th Sea, Stormbringer, Superworld, Thieves’ World, Worlds of Wonder, and any related sublines; the world and mythology of Glorantha; all works related to the Cthulhu Mythos, including those that are otherwise public domain; and all works related to Le Morte d’Arthur.

Well, that leaves… subtract nothin' from nothin', uh, nothin'. You could publish a game of normal people, possibly medieval peasants to 19th C, who never encounter any monsters except a Bear. They can't go insane, because that's owned by Call of Cthulhu. They can't fight demons or elementals, because those are owned by Stormbringer. They can't be knights errant because that steps on Pendragon and Prince Valiant. I'm not actually sure "Humans" are allowed by this license. Possibly change them to Care Bears Koala Friends to be safe from "DBA Chaosium"'s vampiric lawyers.

★☆☆☆☆ Too little, a decade too late. Not worth the cover price of "free".

OpenCthulhu (see my comments ), Legend, OpenQuest, Mythras, Delta Green, and other D100-systems are much more open, and provide much more material to start working from.

Old-School D&D

  • How To Get Started Playing Old-School D&D For Free: Fantastic list of resources. Though systems wise, I'd suggest either:
  • My own Stone Halls & Serpent Men: Extremely variant but still recognizably D&D. Definitely not for novice Referees, but I've used it with novice players and they were fine because they don't know better (and the Profession system is more forgiving to novices who might "make mistakes"). When I get Delvers in Darkness done we'll see if that's more novice-friendly.
  • Swords & Wizardry Complete: Updated version of OD&D + Supplements I-III + some early Strategic Review & Dragon Magazine articles. About as close to a "final" OD&D as you can get.
  • White Box FMAG: Just the OD&D white box, very well cleaned up into a standalone game.
  • Blueholme Journeymanne Rules: Slightly variant take on the Holmes Dungeon & Dragons Basic Set. In theory this should be my favorite game ever, because Holmes is what I imprinted on first. In practice, it's almost too accurate, there are some elements like multiple saving throw categories that I find annoying in actual OD&D, and the Blueholme doesn't give you much guidance on acceptable races. Also there's no setting or module as found in the actual Holmes book.

Project Status

Made a lot of progress on Perilar Dark Weaver map generation. Hopefully this week I'll get ruins finished.

Spent a little too much time on the new Mystic Dungeon, the TTMS-76 virtual retro-console started on tilde.town but is now replacing the BBS. It now has scoreboards for the games! I still need to finish Heist, which turned out to be bigger than I first thought. In a bit I'll get yet another damned login system done, and from there a forum. I wonder if anyone else would be interested in making games for it? I've got a trivially easy framework, so if you know any Javascript at all it's fun to work with. All BSD licensed.

Updated StupidComments.css to block some more inline "affiliate" blocks and Youtube spam segments.

I started making a console Pomodoro timer, and it works, but needs persistence and a teeny bit of task management before I can release it. Very soon.

RPG-wise, I wrote a bit more of my "survival D&D" game Delvers in Darkness (aka Dungeon Hell), which is looking to come in well under 16 pages for a full Holmes-type dungeon game; maybe 32 if I write more on the setting, which since I complain about that in everyone else's games, I should. Haven't looked at my light game in a bit, and don't know when I'll get back to that.

Open Cthulhu

And Chaosium's reaction to the threat to their cash cow:

"That is correct. We are releasing a BRP Open Game License and a BRP SRD. The SRD is a core BRP rules document that people are authorized to create derivative works from, including rules expansions, etc. But certain things are going to be off limits - you can't use the BRP rules to create your own game using the Cthulhu Mythos. Or your own version of Pendragon. Etc."
Jeff at Chaosium

So, a little context. After H.P. Lovecraft's death, his friend and executor Professor Robert H. Barlow was cut out of control of the publishing estate by con man and hack writer August Derleth, who founded Arkham House to exploit Lovecraft's work. In the '70s, Sandy Petersen wrote RuneQuest for Greg Stafford's Glorantha setting, and founded Chaosium. In the early '80s, Sandy got a license from Arkham House (upstaging TSR which had a… looser arrangement… and had to remove Lovecraftiana from their books) and wrote Call of Cthulhu. And while everyone loves classic CoC, it never lent itself well to fan publishing or 3rd-party publishing because you had to deal with Chaosium for a license.

Chaosium has for 40 years asserted that they own Lovecraft, works, body, and soul. Well, with copyright expiration and his work being clearly in the public domain now, nobody really cares what Chaosium or Arkham House think about that anymore. It certainly doesn't help that the "7th Edition" Call of Cthulhu is incompatible with the 1st-6th Editions, so there's those of us with 40 years of playing this game, and the "official" game which nobody plays.

Mongoose Publishing had a license for RuneQuest in the 2000s, and then released a clean-room OGL book Legend, which is an excellent RuneQuest-minus-Glorantha system, cheap, and unambiguously clear of Chaosium's ownership.

There's a couple of other Lovecraftian RPGs:

  • De Profundis: Epistolary solo or play-by-mail… I'm not sure it's an RPG, so much as a psychedelic drug in paper form. Highly recommended.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: Very rules-light investigation game, but I find the GUMSHOE games dull and predictable, too obviously railroaded by the GM.

Open Cthulhu: Because Cthulhu Wants to be Free

The current PDF is a pre-layout beta, no art, so I can only evaluate the rules.

Mechanically, it's CoC 6E, more or less, classic stats. Combat's streamlined quite a bit from the case-point mess of 6E, and you are directly instructed to inflict SAN rolls for committing violence, murder, and such, as well as the supernatural.

The implied setting is the 1920s-30s, but there's a decent chapter on customizing the setting, including a fairly extensive treatment of the Dreamlands, and rules for entering, leaving, and manipulating the Dreamlands! The Mythos tomes are limited to 5 translations of the Necronomicon, the Book of Dyzan, and The King in Yellow; most others have licensing entanglements.

Unlike Chaosium's "I shoot Cthulhu with a rocket launcher!" stats, Open Cthulhu doesn't give the Great Old Ones normal stats or limit their abilities; the Keeper is the author of the story and can do as they please. I like these guidelines:

  • Hint rather than show outright
  • Mythos Powers shouldn’t be “boss monsters”
  • Focus attention on human worshippers
  • Mental contact is dangerous; physical contact is virtually guaranteed deadly
  • Powers are never consistent; never predictable

Other monsters are almost entirely those from Lovecraft, not Derleth and such. The "Byakhee" are here called "Winged Servants" because Lovecraft didn't name them in "The Festival". The rather ludicrous presence of Mummies, Werewolves, Vampires, and such that would've made good old H.P. sigh with disdain is carried along from Chaosium's kitchen-sink approach; and yet they don't have Frankenstein's Monster, one of the few that H.P. liked! Stats are given for many of his characters, presumably prior to the events of their stories.

A compact but useful library of Mythos spells and artifacts adapted from the books finishes up.

I wouldn't classify this as more than halfway done; OpenCthulhu calls it 1.0a, which only makes sense if they're thinking it'll be done at 6.0. There's one skill for all "special gear" by which they mean photocopiers, computers, DNA sequencers, rockets, and any other tech which isn't a car or firearm; fine for 1920, incredibly stupid for modern games. There's no equipment lists, and while you can find online scans of Sears catalogs from the 1920s-1980s, things get more difficult after that. The weapons and armor system is greatly inadequate for modern games, and I hate low-fixed-value armor like CoC has used in most versions; the RuneQuest/Stormbringer-style random-roll armor is better. The bestiary could use work. Magic spells outside of just the Mythos aren't addressed, and for many games those are important.

But what is here, is a better Call of Cthulhu (almost but not yet a better universal Basic Role-Playing) than Chaosium has, and it's under the OGL so you can make your own, and write materials for it without arguing with anyone. I'm thinking I'll write up some adventures, maybe go back and re-adapt "Nightmare Eve" and my "Shotguns & Strip Malls" games into Open Cthulhu.

Wendy's RPG

What. Wendy's made a free tabletop RPG about fast food kingdoms.

Very weird. It's D&D5E-like (but not explicitly; it isn't OGL, it doesn't use any WotC trademarks, but it rips 5E off completely), very rules-light. I don't like all the 4d4 rolls (some Wendy's marketing thing is "4 for 4", so this pun is all over), otherwise it's unexceptional.

I do like this variation on critical:

If you roll a 20 on an attack or skill roll, you go into FEAST MODE. You do the maximum amount of attack damage, plus an additional roll of the normal attack dice. You also get advantage on your next roll, making going into FEAST MODE again even more likely. Going into FEAST MODE can completely change the tide of a confrontation.
Likewise, rolling a 20 on any skills check will result in your character’s best possible outcome in their current situation. After all, you went into FEAST MODE.

The equipment list is ridiculous, with Ukuleles, Tiaras, healing by eating Chicken Nuggets, fishing poles. Armor's silly (Apron, Red Polo Black Visor, etc.) but an interesting idea: Some adds to Defense, some to Arcana (magic stat) or Grace (dexterity). Weapons range from Spoon (1d4) to Cast-iron Skillet (3d6). I kinda want to steal a bunch of these stupid ideas.

The book gives you buffs/debuffs based on the food the player eats, obviously encouraging Wendy's food and not anyone else's. What a bunch of jackasses.

The classes are Order of the Chicken (magic-user/thief depending on subclass, 5 subclasses), Order of the Beef (fighter, 4 subclasses), Order of the Sides (spoony bards, 5 subclasses). The powers are jokes but overpowered if you did play them out, and it goes up to level 5; there's no experience, the adventure just says "everyone levels up" after each boss fight. No choices anywhere, just roll stats, pick class, go.

PCs can't actually die, just pass out from hunger and then wake up when the team camps. I guess you could TPK a group, and that'd be a sweet merciful release to death.

So then there's the adventure, which is a pretty standard 5E railroad with five chapters and a couple side-quest areas; zero difference between this and any "adventure path" or recent WotC adventure book, except the branding is different. Some puzzles aimed at small children or drunk frat boys, some very silly monsters. Queen Wendy ("of the Clapback" which either means something very different than I think, or is rather rude) commands heroes who brave the french fry forest to yadda yadda light a bacon beacon, yadda yadda go murder an ice clown in his funhouse and castle. Dave is dead which by my understanding of the rules can't happen, so I suspect Wendy froze him into a statue to seize the throne. Really no sillier than that Chult book.

The art, maps, and layout are very professional (aside from the maps being so linear even Disney couldn't run them as rides), it really makes it clear how commercial-friendly Wizards of the Coast & Paizo are, as if He-Man was selling junk food instead of toys.


Back in the latter days of TSR, Inc, there was a module WG7 Castle Greyhawk, with 13 short comedic adventures by different writers around the themes of Gary's mega-dungeon (some humorless people really take offense to this module; I think it's a funny homage and several levels are great). Level 8: Of Kings & Colonels, by John Nephew (who wrote for TSR, Ars Magica, and Over the Edge) covers a similar gag, with a cavern wilderness fought over by Colonel Sandpaper and King Burger. But he wasn't being paid by KFC to say how great their chicken parts in a bucket are.

Blueholme Referee Repository

Just a collection of the charts from Blueholme, plus a new chart listing all the monsters with Size, AC, HD, Movement, Damage, Align, Treasure, Page; that's super helpful for a game with some weird monsters.

The front and back covers don't show up in Preview or Skim on Mac, only in Adobe's reader (ugh), but the clean art version does on page 3, and the interior seems to render fine. There's some scaling & half-toning artifacts in a few pieces, some of which are rendered differently but also wrong in Adobe. I think the editor needs to ship printable and screen versions.

There may be too much whitespace and large fonts. Holmes was Futura 10 or 11pt, mostly tightly-packed paragraphs; maybe that's too small for quick reference sheets, but this goes too far the other way. The art's great, though. Like the main book, it has the tone of the original Holmes boxed set, but modern artists.

You could make a home-made Referee screen out of these pages, but you'd have to do some editing: Pages 16-17 are the combat charts, but Turn Undead is buried with the classes on page 7, and page 11 has the movement & getting lost charts.

★★★½☆: It's a buncha charts.

Coincidentally, I'd been thinking about and writing some notes for using Blueholme in a Discord or Skype chat game, so this comes at a good time.

OSR Guide For The Perplexed Questionnaire

1. One article or blog entry that exemplifies the best of the Old School Renaissance for me:

Matt Finch's Swords of Jordoba youtubes, which have been hilarious and accurate to how we played/still play original games. Except the minis, which I'm not really into, but it makes for better youtubes.

2. My favorite piece of OSR wisdom/advice/snark:

I liked my simple Rules for the OSR.

3. Best OSR module/supplement:

There's a lot to choose from, but in no real order:

4. My favorite house rule (by someone else):

Poison damage-over-time/effect rules in Judges' Guild Ready Ref Sheets (1978). Changed the game for me when I first read them (probably early '80s?); save or die poisons are boring, DOT poisons make the players panic and start counting rounds to escape.

Second favorite is "Orgies, Inc" in Dragon #10, which changed XP-for-gold (which ends up with giant piles of loot which is anti-genre) into XP-for-gold-spent-uselessly and created all these interesting side effects of blowing your gold.

5. How I found out about the OSR:

I'd picked up the PDF of Holmes Basic from Paizo, and went looking for house rules to better hook it into OD&D than the hacks we'd used back in the day. Rules expansions were already starting to appear, and that led to a bunch of blogs.

6. My favorite OSR online resource/toy:


7. Best place to talk to other OSR gamers:

It's becoming MeWe's OSR group, but I'm not that social, I prefer to make things and release them, however infrequently.

8. Other places I might be found hanging out talking games:

I'll talk about games as @mdhughes@appdot.net on Fediverse (Mastodon).

9. My awesome, pithy OSR take nobody appreciates enough:

I prefer dark fantasy and swords & sorcery, not "high fantasy". I dislike Tolkien and his works, and I'm in the process of deleting such nonsense from my games and getting back to mythological roots, and in every way that makes them better. Ban elves, non-Wagnerian dwarfs, and fobbits (portmanteau "fucking hobbits").

10. My favorite non-OSR RPG:

RoleMaster 2nd Ed or Space Master. I'm unlikely to play RM again soon, especially with "Iron Crown" (the company doing business in the name Iron Crown) taking so long on the "RoleMaster Unlimited" rewrite, which is weird since they already have RoleMaster Classic and should just support that. The fiasco of this company (or the people who bought its IP) with the best game ever made, dicking around with unplayable variants for decades, is just infuriating. Hi. I'm Mark, and I have opinions about RoleMaster.

And Stormbringer 1st Ed. Every later edition got less and less like the books of the black blade and his little albino buddy, and then Moorcock pulled the license, but Chaosium made a decent not-Elric game of it, Magic World. Then they ran out of money and Greg Stafford bought them and killed everything that wasn't Glorantha or Call of Cthulhu. And now RIP Greg Stafford, who knows what they're doing.

11. Why I like OSR stuff:

Simpler rules, and access to all the old dungeons and new dungeons in the style of the old ones. I've got plenty of games, almost always better ones, and written many myself, but it's the adventure support that makes OSR work for me.

But I also very much like Jeff Rients' answer:

Gygax and Arneson hit on something magical, but there's no good reason why that magical needs to be bottle and sold to us by a big corporation. There's no reason why a central committee needs to set an agenda for the hobby. As a kid new to the hobby I didn't understand how slavishly lapping up the offerings of TSR shaped my view of what D&D could be, what behaviors (good or ill) it reinforced, what doors it closed. Fantasy roleplaying is an open-ended, artistic, mythological activity between human beings. We don't need an official imprimatur to make that work, in fact such approval inevitable cuts us off from some avenues of exploration. Within the vague concept of "games like this," the OSR is a diffuse, non-centralized, network of individual exploration and group interchange, respecting the right of the individual soul to dream while keeping us connected to each other.
Also, I am not over wizards and dragons and never will be.
Jeff Rients

12. Two other cool OSR things you should know about that I haven’t named yet:

13. If I could read but one other RPG blog but my own it would be:

14. A game thing I made that I like quite a lot is:

  • Delvers in Darkness, my new game which isn't out today but very soon (like, this week if I can get some art done and playtest the adventure).

15. I'm currently running/playing:

Not much, too much time developing software and writing the next game (see previous) which I will run, and it will be my standard "online chat RPG" from now on. I've played a few Tunnels & Trolls solos.

16. I don't care whether you use ascending or descending AC because:

We're probably using AAC in my OSR games, but if not, you've got your to-hit-AC table on your charsheet and I've got a Referee screen/Wall of Fear & Ignorance with to-hit tables.

17. The OSRest picture I could post on short notice: