Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Orcs of Thar: RPG Items I Like

Sourcebook covering Thar, land of the Orcs, Goblins, Gnolls, Trolls, etc. (oh my...) in the classic D&D setting of Mystara.


Comedy is hard. I think there’s an illusion that arises from playing tabletop games- that they’re inherently funny. Just about every game I’ve ever played had some element of joking, laughter, and goofiness- even in the most serious moments. Sometimes that’s about releasing the tension of a scene; sometimes it is about just the pleasure of hanging out. There’s a hundred different reasons and a hundred different ways the GM has to steer things back on track. But that doesn’t mean that the actual material of the rpg is funny. In fact, I’d argue, the best of comedy comes with the setting serving as the “straight man” in the routines.

So I’m always leery of rpg product which take a more comedic route. I’ve seen few products where this has worked. The earliest material from
Paranoia was pretty amazing and truly funny. The Dying Earth RPG makes me laugh at its insanely dry wit, with extravagant footnotes and self-referential comments. But a lot of “funny” games are just silly, and not really funny. Much as I love the Ghostbusters rpg, it is smirk-worthy more than LOL. Tongue-in-cheek games like Teenagers from Outer Space, Toon, GURPS IOU, and Darwin’s World feel more cute than funny. They have a few jokes, but they can also feel like they want to force or enforce laughter at the table. Some games, like Diana: Warrior Princess, go for absurdity- playing it fairly straight such that you still have something to bounce off of at the table. And then there’s the sniggering, finger up the nose of something awful like HoL a tome of toilet humor that wears out its welcome pretty quickly.

So I come to
GAZ10: The Orcs of Thar with a little bias - I’m not fond of forced comedy in games. And forced goofiness bugs me quite a bit. A little bit goes a long way. When you have a book that seems to set itself out as embracing and detailing one culture as goofy and stupid, I’ll admit to being nervous. This isn’t the silly and incidental pop-culture in-jokes of GAZ4: The Kingdom of Ierendi, but something larger. However, Orcs of Thar manages to create a weird balance between the serious and the goofy. It doesn’t stay in the middle, but rather throws in material from both ends of the spectrum: detailed & serious vs. wacky & comedic. It makes for a slightly schizophrenic book, but one that still offers a wealth of material for a DM.


The supplement’s split into two booklets, GM and Player, each 48-pages. Both have pull-out sections, a little unusual. The supplement goes in a number of different directions- resulting in four distinct parts. The map is double-sided, with a region map plus additional inset illustrations and maps on one side. The other offers a wargame map for playing out Orc Wars (or Orcwars as it is written elsewhere in the booklet), a boardgame included in the DM’s booklet. That game originally appeared in Dragon #132 but is reprinted here with heavier cardstock counter sheets. The booklets themselves continue the solid text design of the series, with only a few places where the color background gets in the way. There’s some really tiny text in a couple of places, notably the rules. Bruce Heard, author of the awesome GAZ3: The Principalities of Glantri supplement and the manager for the whole Gazetteer series returns to pen this volume.

And then there’s the art.
Clyde Caldwell returns with another awesome cover (the first without a female on it...). The cartography and graphics remain excellent. But the interior illustrations are all provided by Jim Holloway. I’m not fond of Holloway’s style- I have to be really up front about that. I liked it in the early Paranoia books where it fit. But his fantasy art, even when serious, doesn’t work for me. And here he’s in full-on jokesy, dumb mode. From Orcs picking their modes, to drill-sergeant parodies, to butt humor, to the punk gnoll carrying a boombox and watching someone break-dance…ugh. Here’s the thing- if you like Holloway’s work and like that kind of humor you’re probably going to enjoy this. If you don’t, then I suspect you’re going to hate this. Regardless of your starting bias, part of the problem is that Holloway’s approach undercuts much of the serious and interesting material Heard puts together. That’s not to say he doesn’t go full goofy from time to time, but heard understands the necessary balance. And the art just doesn’t.

The Orcs of Thar might have been better titled, “The Broken Lands.” That more accurately describes the scope and ambition of this supplement. Instead of covering a single dark folk or goblinoid race, it takes on all of them. I’m more used to supplements detailing an Orc nation, a Goblin settlement or a Gnollish Kingdom- with perhaps a few other races thrown in as servants and allies. The Orcs of Thar instead presents a “nation” made up of tribes from each of the different races (Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll, Troll, Ogre, Goblin, Kobold, and Bugbear) with different branches and sub-clans. That’s a huge project- and one that requires the author to create both the unifying structures and details of the internal struggles involved. The Gazetteer series has handled that well in the past (especially in the other race books such as GAZ5: The Elves of Alfheim and GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome).

The Player’s Guide opens with three pages laying out the oral history of the Broken Lands and a very general sense of the geography. The contents page for the booklet has been jettisoned, likely in the interests of space. However, later on we get a first in the Gazetteer series: a contents page. The next part covers the Ten Tribes of Thar. This section (pages 4-13) describes the major settlements, war hordes with stats, faith, and current situation for each. In some ways, it’s the kind of material you would have earlier seen in the DMs book, with an abbreviated version here. Each culture possesses couple of distinct traits, but overwhelms on first reading. Keeping track and remembering each tribe presents a challenge. There’s some great stuff here though, especially the treatment of the Troll and Ogres- how they interact with the others and how they’re seen. Much of it’s solid and serious. However it does drop down from time to time, especially with names: Bugburbia, Lord Sitting Drool, and Trollhattan for example.

But the vast majority of the Player’s Guide focuses on character creation for these eight races. This runs through pages 14-18, 31-35, and finally 37-48. A massive and comprehensive undertaking, this covers pretty much everything you could need to make a “dark folk” PC. Notably the book suggests that these rules wouldn’t necessarily work in a serious game- they’re explicitly described as a joke. And the rules are aimed more at a group of these races, rather than creating one as a member of a standard adventuring party. (But we know how well suggested restrictions like that go over in most campaigns). The rules here could also be used by a DM to create deeper characters for foes from these races.

Each race has a set of stat modifiers, and the rules offer a unified level advancement table, with each race gaining levels in its own race. These are then distinguished by the HD used, the starting AC and other details. For example there are three kinds of gnolls, with different appearances (canis erectus meridonum, canis erectus septentrionum, and canis erectus hilaris). Each can also roll on an additional physical details chart. After this, a good deal of attention is paid to the question of warfare: morale, commanding troops, subordinate revolt. There’s clearly the sense most tales of these people will be war stories. One of the more interesting aspects of these rules comes with the skill section. Skill rules of one kind or another have popped up in most, but not all, of the previous gazetteers. This book offers one of the most extensive treatments. Importantly, normally class abilities such as Hide in Shadows, appear here as a skills to allow the various races to emulate those paths. Each race also has a traditional associated skill such as Escape for Kobolds and Fighting Frenzy for Bugbears. Despite the rules suggestion that these will be “humorous skills” it’s actually a really interesting approach to character building and a kind of radical change from the traditional D&D mechanics.

A number of other options for PC creation appear as well- many of them based on random tables, including starting hordes and social standing. There’s a really excellent section on names here- useful for GMs looking to add some color to their game. Many of them borrow from other cultures that race has contacts with. Some more amusing and strangely detailed rules appear for damaged weapons, oversized weapons, partial armor, armor failure, and differing armor sizes. The rules finished up with optional Unfortunate legacy rules allowing the players awful problems they can role-play for a laugh. There’s a special Thar blank character sheet give, with everything misspelled. I do like that "Hit Pointz" are put into two boxes: Now and Then.

The booklet includes a few other scattered one-page bits: the index, a guide to fungi, various viewpoint narratives on the Broken Lands, and rules for adapting this to AD&D. The most significant other part of the booklet comes in the pullout section: Thar’s Guide to Good Conduct. 32 quarter-pages long, once folded and assembled, it offers a military manual for members of Duh Legion. There’s some interesting stuff there- and thank goodness it isn’t written as Orcish English. But I wish that the pages had been given over to something more playable- more useful in constructing a game. Handouts like these are useful if the DM sticks with the core assumptions and details of the setting. They can perhaps work to give a player perspective on the life of the people in question. I like something of the idea that the Orcs of Thar live in a perpetual militarized state. But for DM’s not as fond of the slightly joking treatment of these peoples, this handout won’t work.


The DM’s Booklet begins with an overview of the material and a reminder of the product's tone. “Remember that this product is supposed to present the players with a fun and humorous version of the D&D game more than anything else. This is what this product does best.” That’s fine- but the earlier Players Booklet actually seemed to move between the extreme poles of humor and seriousness, not staying with either sufficiently. It also bugs me a little that the back cover of the product doesn’t suggest a parody approach. Potential buyers could be forgiven for thinking that they would get as solid and rich an approach as that given to the Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits in previous volumes. And consider that against the secret given here at the start of the book: that Orcs and the humanoid races are in fact a factor of reincarnation. That evil beings were reborn as these beastmen, to suffer the ridicule and hatred of other races. That’s a pretty dark and serous backstory, with some really interesting implications for free will and the power of the Immortals.

The DM’s book begins with that history- an exciting mix of very cool details and ideas. Unfortunately some of those implications aren’t drawn out as well as they could be. Next, pages 5-10, describe the wiccas and shamans of the humanoids, a replacement for conventional clerical magic. There’s some weirdness to the rules here- at one point suggesting spells other than those given on a list there will require special means to obtain. But there’s no list given- just the suggestion that common spells are the spells listed in the D&D rulebooks. There’s some discussion of the various cults for the humanoid gods, included the kinds of practices and benefits associated with them. I would have liked to have seen more on that and the role of these practices among the people of Thar.

Key NPCs of the Broken Lands are covered from pages 11-19. There’s some interesting bits, especially giving insight into how the various leaders try to emulate the rites of other nations. I especially like the NPC investigator from Glantri who has disguised himself to better understand the humanoids. DM’s will find decent fodder for scenarios here. There are a few humorous bits in the text, but nothing as over-the-top as the illustrations here might lead you to believe. Oenkmar, Jewel of the Depths, is a sample Orc city, covered in the next seven pages. It has a strange Aztec flavor, given at least by the naming conventions if nothing else. The material here could be moved to other locations, making it pretty useful. The book ends with a section on campaigns, first talking about the details involved with an all-humanoid game (wars, tribal status, experience, even life spans). Next over twelve pages it presents several different adventures. The first one running about five pages is nicely detailed and intended for use by any kind of party- perhaps even in competition with one another. The other nine campaign seeds (grouped under different game types) offer decent options, including detailed rules for running a deadly sporting event.


The Orcwars boardgame rules also appear here- again material that some might really like, but that could have be left out in favor of more straight rpg stuff.

The Orcs of Thar is an interesting design- more of a buffet than a carefully planned meal. And the buffet cuts across several different cuisines (Extensive Mechanics, Serious Background, Cartoons, Narrative Humor, Wargame, Props). It is both more and less serious than you might expect. If you’ve read the gazetteers, then you might come to this with expectations. But when you see the art and supplemental bits includes you might feel let down and assume the book will just be silly. If you press on and ignore that, focusing on the actual background and material given for the Broken Lands and its people, you’ll find a surprisingly rich work. It takes some effort to tease that out- and there’s less of it than one might like (forced out by the inclusion of some other materials). I’ve read over this a couple of times and I’m still not sure what to think. What I like, I like a great deal. What I don’t like, I really dislike. But given the biases I started from and mentioned at the start, I’m inclined to think it will work for others. If you like the silly bits then you’ll definitely find useful material. For DMs running a solidly Mystara campaign, the first choice will be how much of the silliness you want. In some ways what’s presented here really undercuts these races as a threat. Tone goes a long way to establishing adversaries as interesting and compelling. The question of humor aside, Orcs of Thar offers the start of an interesting take on these peoples. It just may require more mining than the other gazetteers.

The Broken Lands map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at


  1. Thanks for the in-depth study of Orcs of Thar. It is detailed and accurate. And yes: "It makes for a slightly schizophrenic book, but one that still offers a wealth of material for a DM." I've been know for doing that kind of stuff. ;)

  2. There's some really cool stuff here- especially ideas that add some complexity to relation between the Immortals and the inhabitants of this world.

    I do wonder if softening & making the humanoids humorous wasn't in part to balance the need to have them as a playable race? If they remained the pure threat and evil race of other and earlier presentations, would they have worked as a playable race in the late 1980s? I have a hard time picturing a sourcebook from that time focusing on running truly evil characters.

  3. I really enjoyed this book, although I never got a chance to use it. The inclusion of a board game makes it that much more awesome! I would definitely use it to run a non-human campaign. Bruce, I love your writing, but I'll agree with Lowell in that I'm not a fan of Holloway's work. Even in Paranoia, a game I love dearly, he was usually a little too much for me.