Alas poor Otto

By Greg Saunders
Fire Ruby Design
Mork Borg

The wizard Inclulas is dead – a spiked club to the back of the head has that effect no matter how many scrolls you own. Brigands have looted his body within sight of his manse, and his scrolls disintegrate into the bloody mud around him. His servant, Ottö, saw the murder, but his presence in the backlit doorway scared the murderers away – for the time being. Now Ottö has retreated to the alchemical workshop, to help himself to all the liquor he can find. He has inadvertently mixed several potions together in his guts, and the weird magical concoction has had peculiar effects…

Sixteen digest pages of garbage detail nine rooms in a wizards home. More Mork Borg crap.

I know, I know. Believe me I know. How could I not know? I mean, it says Mork Borg right on the blurb. We all know what that means. It’s gonna suck. We all know that. I mean, there’s a chance it won’t, right? And, we can’t actually, any of us, say that we know its gonna suck OUT LOUD. That’s not cool, to lump them all together. But, seriously, we all know this at this point in time. So then why? Why review it? I promise you that I don’t do this on porpoise. As I have said, time and again, I go in to these things with a sense of wonder and hope, optimism for a bright new tomorrow. I mean, read that intro again. “A spiked club to the back of the head has that effect no matter how many scrolls you own.” That’s fucking great! I love that! The rest of this HAS GOT to be like that, right?! 

Let’s crack this fucker open and back in the glow of each other majestic presence! Oooo, look, a description of the butler, Otto! “A thin, gangly man dressed like a shabby butler, with a balding egg-like head surmounted with a strange hat and a pronounced slouch, Ottö is no one’s idea of a good servant. Luckily, Inclulas was no one’s idea of a good master. Ottö is in parts whiny, moody and acerbic, but under it all lies a simmering rage at the injustice of his servitude. Unfortunately, he is also a coward, which is why he is still here after all these years. Drunk: Ottö is completely inebriated. We’ve all been there.” 

I mean, that a little lengthy, but, it’s a good description. A shabby butler, egg-like balding, pronounced slouch, a simmering rage at the injustice of his servitude just under the surface. That fucking rocks. “We’ve all been there.” That’s right man! Tuesday mornings, am I right?!?!

It is at this point that the adventure turns to suckatude.

There are virtually no creatures in the nine room mansion. Instead we are told to sprinkle in the four aspects of ottos’ split personality. They “may be encountered as drama and whim dictate.” Oh come the fuck on man. Fucking pout a creature in a god damn room! Would it fucking kill you to marry the room to a specific Otto and something specific going on? I mean, yes, it would fucking force you to actually come up with something that fits together. Heaven fucking forfuckingbig that you do that. I mean, after all, you’re only asking $4 for this thing, why would we expect you to do any work for us, right? 

The wizards lab? “In here are scattered the paraphernalia of a master of the arcane arts. Or it might be a useless collection of broken glass and rubbish. You decide.” Hmmm, I’m starting to sense a pattern. How about treasure in Otto’s room? “scroll (randomly determine which one) and a scattering of gold and silver coins” 

Are you worried about being judged? Is that why you don’t put anything specific down? If you don’t make a decision then no one can blast you for the decision you have made? And, if someone, such as a certain reviewer, blasts you for that you can just say that people just don’t you, man …    

I think not. This is just fucking lazy design, as all Mork Borg designs are. Are they all? DO I ever recall seeing a Mork Borg design that WASNT lazy as fucking shit? I don’t know. It doesn’t fucking feel that way right now. It feels like all of the Mork Borg shit is just some random ideas someone took an hour to throw down on paper. No real thought. No real design. No real attempt to make this in to an actual playable adventure. 

Is it that much fucking work? No. I mean, I asked these fucking questions before, a couple of years ago, and that what inspired the work I did on Maw. Can you just take a couple of hours and create something worthwhile. My goal was, I think, an hour to create a dungeon level. By the third-ish level I was able to create a dungeon level in about 90 minutes. Were they fucking works of genius? No. But they were fucking light years ahead of this crap. It CAN be done in a short amount of time. You CAN spend just a few hours to polish something enough to be a good enough design to get great gaming out of it.

But not it you don’t understand. Not if you don’t understand what an RPG is and how it is played. Not if you don’t understand what an adventure is and not if you don’t understand how to write for the DM. If you don’t understand those things then you get something like this. “Hey, man, here’s some ideas. Like, use them, or not, if you want, to run a game. Or riff off of or something.” That’s not an adventure.

 This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $4. The preview is ten pages and tells you all you need to know.–A-Mork-Borg-Adventure?1892600

Hello. This is the Bryce Emergency Review protocol. Bryce writes about three weeks ahead and has not written a new review in about three weeks, so this script has snagged an emergency review to post instead. Bryce has also been emailed and told to get back to work instead of engaging in whatever delight he is currently using to manage ennui.

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34 Responses to Alas poor Otto

  1. PrinceofNothing says:

    Art. Punk. Crusade.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I sure hope Bryce is ok? This “emergency protocol”-stuff is starting to worry me …

  3. Anonymous says:

    Just yesterday I was thinking about writing a Mork Borg adventure without all the edgy artpunk design. Just a basic dungeon, but statted for MB and with the dark, doomy narrative flavor of the Mork… because I actually quite like the MB rules. Maybe I’ll try it. The new wave of ultra-minimalist layout in the Mork scene.

  4. johncj says:

    Like Anonymous, I am also tempted to attempt a competently designed MB dungeon. I think there’s a fun rules-light system to play with beneath the artpunk.

  5. Gus L. says:

    I think it’s unhelpful to pretend that poor procedural exploration design is a product of some kind of art style or aesthetic – it muddies the waters about what bad design is, seemingly implying that if you merely play AD&D and write orcs and grey corridor adventures with b&w line art you’ll have a decent adventure. You won’t.

    My own suspicions about why Mork Borg’s 3rd party products tend to be poor dungeons is that:

    A) They aren’t trying to be dungeons – the game doesn’t support exploration, and the crowd coming to it is often breezing in from indie and 5E places. They aren’t used to writing dungeons and don’t know how. This for example sounds like some kind of social roleplay thing (not really sure from the review – and I ain’t buying crap) – if you compare it to Grognardia’s Mork Borg play reports you’d think it’s a different game.

    B) Ultralights don’t give very good directions for adventure design, especially to new designers who are left trying to “draw the rest of the fucking owl” without guidance and without even rules that might point one in the right direction about what’s important in an adventure (be it Indie style relationship systems, 5E combat powers & tactics, or Classic movement & supply limits.) FKR has the same failing – so again it’s not an aesthetic.

    Mork Borg is troubled here because it’s own sample adventure is basically a one pager, but this isn’t definative – B/X’s ruined keep is likewise small (though B/X’s real sample adventure was B1 or B2). People copy what the designers give them, and mistakes were made.

    So I don’t disagree with Bryce that this sounds like a bad adventure, or even that Mork Borg has a rather productive community producing poor adventures … but have you looked at DTRPG? Poor adventures abound for every style of play and system. The Mork Borg (and ultralights generally) issue of producing short adventures that lack meaningful detail for play seems at least partially a marketing issue, based on the usefulness of quickly produced short works/pamphlets/one page dungeons for brand building and cheap production. I don’t love it either, but I fear it’s here to stay.

    • Anonymous says:

      Poor encounter design is a result of a focus on esthethics, layout and novelty over gameplay, map design and adventure complexity yes.

      • Gus L. says:

        The fact that you use the post 3E – 5E phrase “encounter design” rather then adventure design or level design suggests a far deeper root to the problem. I see profound lack of community knowledge about how location based adventures function. Sure, the market favors short, pretty stuff, but just as there’s a lot of bad stuff in fake B/X trade dress, there’s good stuff in grunge or other highly aesthetic wrappings: Hole in the Oak, Gradient Descent, and Willowby Hall come immediately to mind.

        Spittle froth about “Art-Punks” doesn’t serve to get to that root problem, and pushes away those attracted by aesthetics away from the Classic playstyle they were looking for.

        • Gnarley Bones says:

          I wonder if the aesthetics aren’t, though, becoming more of a bug than a feature. Looking at the preview for this particular product doesn’t lead one deep into “art.” It’s actually looks fairly clumsily-put together.

          I do note that Bryce, bless him, has run into a plethora of offerings lately that are more akin to brief outlines of modules than actual modules and “dressing them up” with color, fun fonts, weird-for-sake-of-weird and extra umlauts only serves to underscore what they’re missing.

          • Gus L. says:

            Quality certainly varies, regardless of aesthetic, and layout and are both skills that take knowledge and practice.

            New designers and those unfamiliar with the play style are most at risk for screwing this stuff up as well though I suspect. They don’t understand how maps or tables work in play and drop them in to offer a look rather then with purpose. I also suspect you are right that it’s more glaring in works trying to emulate minimalist design, because with fewer words more utility has to be hung off the few one has. One page dungeons are tricky – not at all a good place to start for a new designer.

          • Anonymous says:

            You are ignoring the correlation of poor adventures to high aesthetics. Mork Borg/Troika are among the most elaborate yet adventure quality is all but absent. The appearance serves as the primary outlet for the creative focus. The underlying craft is neglected or never picked up in the first place.

          • Bryce Lynch says:


            It is an art project. An adventure in layout and style rather than an actual adventure.

          • Anonymous says:

            Gus equivocates because he and Ben L make Artpunk.

          • Gus L. says:

            I can’t know the intent of system publishers, and haven’t looked at Troika, but I do know that both Mork Borg and it are ultralights. Much like various other, less lavishly designed ones.

            As mentioned above I’d look to the system mechanics for reasons why such systems don’t have many adventures that support procedural location based exploration. Again, the aesthetics of Knave or Black Hack aren’t shared with Mork Borg, but since many of the ultralight system conciets are, I’d expect similar adventure design issues.

            This isn’t something one can blame on the layout team.

          • Anonymous says:

            Telepathy is not neccessary to perceive an obvious disparity between the effort put into the presentation versus the actual adventure, only a modicum of discernment.

            The problem is self-selecting. The type of creative types that are largely ignorant of or indifferent to the actual classic playstyle (among other things) gravitate towards ultra-lights but are by no means exclusive to them. You can find beautifully laid out shallow drivel for OSE aplenty. These in turn attract other types that don’t play DnD but love buying and talking about not-DnD. Sometimes you can even get these people to write reviews of one page troika dungeons.

            Play-testing is so highly regarded here because it serves as the demarcation criterion between the tourists and the living breathing hobby.

        • Anonymous says:

          In addition: Layout team is a straw man. The argument is not that a layout team produces bad material, the argument is that a DnD design philosophy rooted in aesthetics will produce material with a primary focus on aesthetics instead of the underlying fundamentals. Try to keep up.

    • Beware of style over substance. Also, playtesting matters. I’m not the king of adventure design by any means; but every one of our products has been playtested, and we hear from enough buyers who’ve successfully run (and enjoyed) our stuff to feel justified in our efforts to play the damn thing first. Not that it shouldn’t be obvious. I got a chuckle out of ‘layout team’ though. A lot of this stuff is one guy doing everything and trying to do it well enough to look at least credible. It’s easy enough to get caught up in the physical production and forget there has to be a good adventure underneath, although I understand that other things come into play, including the whole ‘arthaus conceit’ (I’m reluctant to diagnose this in people I don’t know, however). I suppose it’s multivariate…

  6. Anonymous says:

    I like what Ben is doing. Knave is a good ultralight but had no procedures. He thought I did this in Maze Rats why write it again. BUT GUS IS WRIYE PEOPLE COPY

    Ben saw this and said

  7. BACLF says:

    The umlaut over the second ‘O’ tells you everything you need to know about this product.

  8. Melan says:

    Here goes Bryce, saving me another couple of bucks. A good man and a patriot.

  9. Anonymous says:


  10. The Heretic says:

    “Are you worried about being judged? Is that why you don’t put anything specific down? If you don’t make a decision then no one can blast you for the decision you have made? ”

    “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” — Rush “Free Will”

  11. Gnarley Bones says:

    Because I don’t have a Reply feature to Anonymous above: Play-testing is literally *everything.* There’s an ongoing discussion over at DF about the Read/Play dichotomy that’s endemic to our hobby: Many products read well and then fall apart at the table; others are staid or read rather clunkily but kill at the table. How few of these “Impressionistic” (to borrow Grognardia’s term) products list play-testers? There’s a reason for that omission. Even well-regarded Impressionist entries, such as Deep Carbon Observatory ran into play-testing critiques when applied to an actual gamin table (such as innocent questions like, “did no one notice that the dungeon map is indecipherable?”) which, in turn, led the Author to finally play-test his product and release a revised version (although, regrettably, not without snark at Saint Bryce). I don’t claim to be anything special, but at least I made sure to run all my modules through playtesting before having them published so that I at least had some feedback (which, by the way, is the +best+ kind of feedback).

    I have no qualms with artsy, even beautiful, gaming products – with the exception of the attention poured into full-color, high detail maps that *only the DM gets to see* – that is a stark red flag that the designer doesn’t fully understand the game. It IS a problem, however, when the aesthetics actually interfere with running the piece or, as here, seem to be included in lieu of actual gaming material.

    • PrinceofNothing says:

      This. It doesn’t help that the type of artsy types that produce this stuff tend to be very sensitive so any criticism is more readily conceived as either a personal attack or the hoi-polloi not getting it. Patrick, to his immense credit, is the one person that actually rectified his earlier mistakes.

    • Kent says:

      Gnarley Bones says —- “Many products read well and then fall apart at the table; others are staid or read rather clunkily but kill at the table.”

      Do you think reviewers are under the same obligation as creators, in their case to play before reviewing. If not, why not?

      • Malrex of the Merciless Merchants says:

        My opinion–no. If a reviewer had to playtest everything, we wouldn’t be getting too many reviews. I think reading/skimming over an adventure can generate some red flags/positives about an adventure. There will always be occurrences where a reviewer may miss something and that the adventure works flawlessly during play, but it doesn’t seem to happen too often.
        Personally, I wish players would comment more on stuff that they played–that would further help the review and people to decide if they wish to spend time/purchase the adventure or not, as well as help the publisher for further improvement.

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      Gnarley Bones makes a strong case well. Personally I am relieved when I see “Thanks to the DMs and players at GamesFair ’83 who may recognise this module” or similar, as it is highly likely the module is not only decipherable, but also challenging without being overwhelming. Maybe we should pay more attention to Melan, who ends his reviews by noting playtests (or their lack).
      Yes, in the same way a module is likely to be improved if playtested, so a review is more convincing with actual play experience. But do not forget the comments section.
      Some regular referees/players have a keen eye for detail, and their reviews tend to include points that normally only become apparent in play e.g. the description of this feature is different in the text compared with the map. EOTB did a review of the (outstanding) Palace of Unquiet Repose of this type.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Gus is right that Pulp Fiction is not the problem with 90s movies. He is also right that Artpunks and Mork Borgs are products of wotc dnd ruining the hobby without core procedures.

    He is also right the mork borgs were given a one page copy of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.

    Gus is wrong in that the problem is not the Artpunk style.

    Even if mork Borg had a pulp fiction they would take all the wrong elements and ruin poor Andy garcias asshole.

    The issue with artpunk is the focus on the style. If you only take the look of food you make bad food. Complexity in fla for flav is nessesary.

    Artpunk is Tom McFarlane, they read watchmen and said you know what I can do dark and bloody WHERE IS MY FUVKING ICE CREAM TRUCK

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