Black Orc Down

By Kieran Brannan
Point Pony
Basic D&D
Levels 1-3

Nobody else wanted to take on a job of helping out an orc, but if their gold is good then who cares … right? Black Orc Down puts the party on the trail of a missing orc chieftain. Can they rescue him from the dark mysteries of the Undercity beneath Forecastle? Can they uncover the vile plot which threatens to disrupt the power structure of The Shades? If they fail, will the death of one orc really matter that much?

This is twenty page adventure in the “undercity” on a linear map with seven locations in a high-fantasy setting. It hits, negatively, a large number of my review standards. It is not, however, incomprehensible, or hard to run, so at least it’s got that going for it.

There’s this generic fantasy city that’s been taken over by different pirate lords. Pretty standard stuff. It’s high fantasy though, so there’s orcs and goblins and so on, entire tribes, in the city. Bob the orc, leader of some minor blah blah blah orc clan, has fallen through a hole in the floor that gave way while he was on his throne. He’s now in the undercity, the ruins of the old city that the current one was built on top of. He was attacked by skeletons and ran off and his orc buddies tried to save him but were beaten back by the undead. They hire the party, for 100 gold, to go save their orc chief.

I hate high fantasy. Or, rather, I hate THIS sort of high fantasy. I get it, different strokes for different folks. Like what yhttps://crou want and all that jazz. But this just sucks. One of my points is that I like humans instead of humanoids as enemies, most of the time. Or maybe I mean “in certain situations.” A sidebar DOES encourage you to change the orcs (and later goblins) to humans if you’re not playing a high fantasy game, but I want to talk more about the use of humanoids in general. When you take an elf and make him a farmer, on of many in a human village, you generally destroy what it means to be an elf. Elf garbage collectors. Dwarf millers. You’ve just turned them in to humans with pointy ears or short humans. The same with the humanoids. These represent THE OTHER. They should be different. Scary. Maybe bestial. In this adventure the orcs advertise on the local job boards. When they greet you the read aloud says “Thank you so much for answering our request for aid.” Seriously? I get it it. High Fantasy. But … seriously? There’s NOTHING in this adventure that makes the orcs seem like orcs. Or makes the goblins (a tribe of which you meet later) seem like goblins. A society of overly polite orcs drinking tea with their pinkies out? I can get behind that. But generic humanoids? Nope. Sorry. Disbelief broken. Grimy humans? Ok. Human cannibals? Ok. Humans can do some fucked up shit and making humanoids humans instead can lead to some good revulsion. It’s more relatable. But generic orcs with a “thank you so much for answering our request for aid?” High fantasy or not, that sucks.

Twenty pages with seven encounters implies a high word count, and that’s present here. There’s a MASSIVE amount of read aloud. Paragraphs and paragraphs that add little to no value. The writing isn’t particularly evocative, although it is serviceable and clear, generally. It falls in to the trap of telling instead of showing. “The environment is an oppressive unwelcoming shroud …” Well, no. It’s not. When you TELL me its oppressive then its not oppressive. SHOW me. If you’re going to engage in this type of read-aloud then describe WHY. Let the players draw their own conclusions. There are reams and reams of advice on writing that tell you why showing is better than tellings. Go google it for more. Or don’t. Whatever.

There’s a table in this adventure I’d like to talk about. It’s a loot table, in case the party searches a random building in the undercity. A typical entry is “You manage to find a small cache of silverware worth 2d10sp.” BAD BAD BAD! It’s generic. Just “Silverware” It’s written in read-aloud mode. “You find …” Blech! “Elven filigree tarnished silver olive spoons, bent.” Instead we get “The jewellery is of simple design, being of a quality a merchant’s wife might wear.” Generic sucks ass. Specificity is the soul of storytelling. And do it in under fifteen words. Please.

And, to boot, there’s not a lot of treasure. At all. So little for Gold=XP that the adventure encourages a story award at the end for completing the quest. That’s NEVER good. It implies a right way and a wrong way to complete the adventure. I’d be more ok with just giving the party a flat 2000xp after every session, or something like that, instead of a “story” award. It removes free will from the players and forces them to complete an adventure in a certain way. If you squint, then Gold=XP does the same thing. Or, rather,?=XP generally results in the play style being optimized to get the XP, and thus the party will do whatever. I prefer a free will game.

There’s a part of this adventure that I can’t decide on. It goes beyond the generic encounters and dull descriptions of the various rooms. You track some goblins back to their lair/hideout. You come out in the “throne” room. There’s a door. Goblins come through the door. The DM is instructed to make variable number of goblins come through it, in order to heighten tension and give a moment of drama. It is absolutely undeniable that barricading a door, goblins smashing in to it, daggers poking through it, etc, would be a great moment of drama in a game. But FORCING that situation is lame as fuck, especially with a “just keep sending in goblins to heighten the tensions” advice statement. Uncool. If it happens, great. If you want to put 10 goblins outside in the guardroom and have them rush in, loudly, after three rounds that the players hear, great. But forcing the situation is un cool advice. D&D absolutely does NOT need more shitty DM advice.

Ultimately, this is just another generic D&D adventure. There’s little soul to it, even if you accept the high fantasy premise.

This is available at DriveThru.

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10 Responses to Black Orc Down

  1. Fucktard's Everfull Ass says:

    All humanoids are created equal, Bryce, so why not roleplay them respectfully and simply as differently colored and ear-shaped humans? Stop trying to impose your racist ideas on the fantasy world. – signed, an internet activist who doesn’t actually even play D&D

  2. Dan says:

    “When you take an elf and make him a farmer, on of many in a human village, you generally destroy what it means to be an elf. Elf garbage collectors. Dwarf millers. You’ve just turned them in to humans with pointy ears or short humans.”

    I disagree with this. Dwarves are listed as ‘common’ in the 1e MM, and elves ‘uncommon’, it stands to reason that there would be demi-human residents/merchants/traders in most large sized settlements. Moreover, as both races are available to player characters, there’s nary an adventuring party without at least one dwarf or elf party member, and because of this, and the necessary detailing in the players handbook, the veil is off with these guys, they aren’t anything ‘special’ or out of the ordinary. Part of the ‘wow’ factor with dark elves in the G series, was the presentation of an actual exotic form of elf, as the generic varieties were already commonplace in player’s minds, and even the non-gaming public courtesy of Tolkien.

    If you want to peddle demi-humans as rare and exotic, that’s fine, but you need to acknowledge that it’s not common parlance with most old school gamer’s appreciation of standard D&D fare.

    ‘High fantasy’ is not humanoids and demi-humans, that’s just plain ‘fantasy’.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Fuck, I forgot my original point.

      High-fantasy is not humanoids and demi-humans, you are correct. But goblins and orcs living together with humans in the city with orcs saying “thank you so much for agreeing to help us” IS high-fantasy.

  3. Bryce Lynch says:

    I will accept your point as pushback on my hyperbole, but I stand by my statement. We’re not talking historical documents. We’re talking good adventures. Demi-humans, humanoids, and even monsters should be used to some effect. No every adventure can be centered around a single monster like Humbaba or Grendel. I would not assert that they should be. However they do need to be used to some distinct effect. The essential question is: Why are you using a demi-human? To what effect?

    • Gus L says:

      Indeed, it’s possible to run the dull sort of mid-90’s style TSR world where every innkeeper is a halfling and every local smith a dwarf, it’s common even. It lacks panache and it is such a cliche now, found in every bad fantasy computer game. This isn’t to say it can’t be down, the polygot society of ASE manages to take the demi-human multicultural society and make it interesting (as it manages with so man of the less interesting elements of the 90’s TSR default setting).

      Also one might look at appearance lists in the Monster manual, but I think that if we’re playing grognard reference games here we should look at the LBBs as well as the Monster Manual (which by the time of its publication was clearly the product of a corrupted and bloated default setting). In Monsters & Treasure Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes are listed as monsters, encountered in large groups like other humanoids, with specific notes about the remoteness of their homes (for elves), there mountainous nature and the pet bears they keep (for dwarves). While Men & Magic indicates that elves, dwarves, gnomes and hobbits (or halflings) may follow law or neutrality they are not playable characters, suggesting that like the orc and gnoll, demi-humans are outside of the setting’s human society. Elves and dwarves also appear rare as in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures elves and dwarves do not appear on dungeon encounter tables, they have no castle type noted and indeed only appear on the ‘Giant” sub-table for wilderness encounters, which is notably not a result available for ‘city’ encounters. This is base pedantry of course – if there is one rule to good tabletop rpg playing it’s to not use the everything in the book, and to not use what’s there as it was intended. The goal is creativity, and even digging deep into the musty tomes of early D&D is likely going to be less fun then making things up.

      I think Bryce’s point, that the sort of setting he calls ‘high fantasy’ (which I call vanilla fantasy) tends to drain wonder and creativity from tabletop rpgs is a good one. Also this adventure sounds somewhat painful because it makes no effort to think about its setting. Even the bad pun of a title is just that – a lonely pun – it’s not used at all – there seems to be neither a reference to the Battle of Mogadishu, or even to the memorable Black Orks of Wrhammer Fantasy.

      • Dan says:

        Hey Gus, I wasn’t referencing the MM from a authoritarian text standpoint, but rather, as one of the primary source books informing the collective understanding of ‘what is a typical D&D setting?’. In this respect, the MM, DMG and PH are the more influential texts than the prototypical OD&D texts. If you asked a 100 old school gamers what the stats were for a type VI demon, you’ll get far more quoting AC-2 from the MM than AC2 from eldritch wizardry. All that said, I understand your point 🙂

        I agree about the high fantasy sentiments. These kind of settings don’t appeal to me either and this adventure sounds like a miss.
        I’m ambivalent about the pun.

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