Wednesday, March 28, 2012
If that sounds interesting to you, I'm sorry to say that, as presented, The Orcs of Thar came across mostly as a joke, with the various humanoid races being portrayed as congenitally stupid and thuggish caricatures. The product isn't helped by the fact that its interior art is entirely the work of Jim Holloway in full-on Paranoia mode. I say that as a fan of both Holloway's art and of Paranoia. My feeling is that the artwork only adds to the sense that we're not to take the humanoid races of Thar seriously, either as traditional exemplars of Faceless Evil or as revisionist Misunderstood Primitives. Consequently, though I own a copy, I've never for a moment considered borrowing any ideas from The Orcs of Thar.
So, when I received my copy of In the Shadow of Mount Rotten from Faster Monkey Games, I was skeptical. Written by Joel Sparks, this 80-page book (available as either a PDF for $12.00 or a printed book for $19.99), it presents rules and information for using goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs in Labyrinth Lord (or any old school class-and-level RPG), whether merely as antagonists or as player characters. Part of my skepticism is due to memories of The Orcs of Thar, but a bigger part of it is that I'm not now nor have I ever been a fan of "playing the monster" in D&D. With few exceptions, I prefer my humanoid monsters to be, well, monsters -- alien and implacably hostile minions of Chaos. Nowadays, whenever someone tries to make orcs or goblins playable, they do so by revealing that they're not really so bad after all and it's just the prejudice of the Man that makes us think otherwise.
Well, I'm happy to say that In the Shadow of Mount Rotten (hereafter ItSoMR) does no such thing. Goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs -- collectively referred to as "Rotlanders," for reasons I'll explain shortly -- are, in general, nasty, brutish beings who think nothing of raiding, pillaging, slaving, and even, on occasion, cannibalism (or "anthropophagy," as the book charmingly calls it). Certainly there's room for putting one's own spin on the Rotlander races, if one is so inclined, but the default assumption is much closer to my own preferences, which greatly helped me overcome my initial skepticism.
ItSoMR consists of five sections of varying size. The first (and shortest) is the introduction, which presents the Rotlands setting, in addition to overviews of its history, mythology, and races. The Rotlands, of which there is a color map provided, connects to the sample campaign setting map provided in the Labyrinth Lord rulebook, as well as the map in the excellent Lesserton and Mor. It's essentially a region of mountainous badlands, where life is difficult for all who inhabit it. The second section covers Rotlander characters. Thus, we get rules not only for the various Rotlander races but also for three new classes: warriors, shamans, and mongers. Warriors are similar to fighters but more geared toward being lightly armored and commanding lesser examples of their species. Shamans are spirit-oriented clerics with their own spell lists. Mongers are the "smart guys," being especially useful because of the nature of the economy in the Rotlands, where scrounging and bartering are commonplace. Much more is packed into this section, such as rules for reputation, ransoming, and encumbrance, some of which has utility even in "standard" Labyrinth Lord campaigns.
The third section discusses the various tribes of the Rotlands and their territories. This section is very useful, whether as a basis for determining the homelands of humanoid PCs or simply as a gazetteer of the region. This gazetteer provides many random tables (and sample maps) to help the referee determine what is found in ruins or caves encountered in the wilderness, along with more peculiar "oddities." There's also a really clever system using 54 playing cards to determine what's going on in the life of the PCs' tribe. It's intended to spur the imagination in creating adventures, which are more fully discussed in the fourth section. That section likewise offers its own random tables for encounters, along with some simple but useful rules for wilderness survival. The fifth and final section is dedicated to "stuff," like trade goods, caravans, and bartering. Concluding the book is an excellent three-page index.
All in all, In the Shadow of Mount Rotten is a well-done supplement to Labyrinth Lord, though its focus makes it more of a niche product than a must-have. Like previous Faster Monkey products, it's clearly written and uses a simple two-column layout. Personally, I find the margins on the pages too narrow, which gives them a somewhat "cluttered" look, but that may just be my old man's eyes speaking. The majority of the book's artwork is by Mark Allen and is uniformly well done and evocative. My only complaint is that I'd have liked to have seen more artwork, but, having self-published a few books of my own, I fully understand why that's not always practical.
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking either to add some depth to humanoid monsters or fancy giving them a whirl as PC races.
Don't Buy This If: You either have no interest in additional details about humanoids or want a more non-traditional approach to these races' societies and cultures.