Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Retrospective: Dark Folk

When I think about the most unfortunately named line of RPG products ever, Mayfair's "Role Aids" immediately comes to mind. Child of the '70s that I am, the name "Role Aids" reminds me of antacids called Rolaids, which were well known at the time, thanks to a series of TV advertisements ("How do you spell 'relief'?" "R-O-L-A-I-D-S.") Consequently, when I first encountered Role Aids in the early 1980s, the name gave me another reason to dismiss them. The other, of course, was that they marketed themselves as "Suitable for Use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," but they weren't produced by TSR. Back in this days, I was reflexively contemptuous of any non-TSR product that claimed compatibility with D&D. With few exceptions, if I didn't see the TSR logo on the book somewhere, I turned my nose up at it.

Eventually, though, I heard enough good things about various Role Aids products that I decided to take a chance and buy one for myself. The first one I purchased with Dark Folk, which was published in 1983. The book was edited by Paul Karczag, with material by several authors (Irwin Goldstein, Les Kay, Arthur Miller, Alan Nudelman, Steve Morrison, Susan Khas) I'd never heard of and by Robert Asprin of Thieves' World fame. Its subjects, as its name would suggest, were the evil humanoid races -- orcs, trolls, goblins, gnolls, and kobolds. Each race was got its own chapter, complete with overviews of history, culture, physiology, religion, magic items, and so on. Capping off each chapter was an adventure written to take advantage of the new material presented in the book.

As you might expect from a book with multiple authors, Dark Folk is something of a mixed bag. There are some clever and interesting sections and some not-so-clever and interesting ones. In general, the material about the various races is pretty standard stuff, its primary "uniqueness" being that it doesn't always comport with the standard presentation of these races in D&D. Thus, if your image of trolls is primarily informed by the Monster Manual, you're likely to find Dark Folk's take on them original. I remember, for example, that the presentation of kobolds felt odd to me. Dark Folk claims, years in advance of this becoming a common assumption, that they were reptiles (which makes some sense considering that even the MM notes that they're oviparous). But it was the adventures that were where Dark Folk shined brightest. Again, not all of the adventures were perfect -- which are? -- but several were well done and used the information in the book to make each one feel different. In this way, an orc lair wasn't the same as a goblin lair or a kobold one. It's a small thing, sure, but, at the time, it was a revelation to me.

I never became a huge buyer of Role Aids products, despite my fondness for Dark Folk (and, later, Dwarves). Mostly, it was because TSR and other companies were producing enough RPG material that I'd instinctively buy that I already had more material than I could ever use. And there was also a part of me that continued to recoil at the notion of "unofficial" supplements to D&D, no matter how good they were. That's a habit that took many years to break. It seems silly now, but, back in those days, there was a "cultural" divide between those of us who cared about "official" products and those of us who couldn't care less about them. It's a divide that's still very much alive and even relevant given recent events.


  1. I'm a little surprised you say the unfortunate name was "Role aids" not "Dark folk" (who are, of course, "evil humanoid races.") A person could have made a lot of racial insensitivity charges based on that one.

    1. Not in the 80's really. Black Folk maybe but "Dark Folk" would not have been construed as such. It was a much different time ethnically and socially in many respects

      Also US gaming than was a monolithically White Middle Class hobby, even more than it is now.

      This would not have been noticed by them at all. The culture of political correctness that is part and parcel of modern life was little known. Maybe to the better.

      Where I grew up in Colorado for example, everyone and I do mean everyone was White. They might have a little something else, Native American or something but it was not diverse at all.

      We were a product of social and ethic homogeneity reinforced by TV and Media. The US was White (80%+) with some Blacks and very few Others. There were for example almost no Hispanics outside a few States.

      Those changes with large scale immigration and the graduated collapse of the industrial age have changed society a lot.

      Our hobby is a bit insulated from that as we geeks and gamers regardless of ethnicity are kind of a group to ourselves,

      The cultural stuff why D&D is so Western, it reflects the background of the authors and the players.

      The fascination with Japan also dates from that period all thing Ninja and Karate and all that stuff.

      Other cultures were largely ignored in the US as we were almost never exposed to them.

    2. When I saw the title "DARK FOLK", I thought that was "unfortunately named" even before I started reading the blog post. Then, after I did start reading the post, like bad wolf, I was surprised that it not only focused on the merely amusing "Role Aids"/Rolaids parallel, but actually ignored the ethnically insensitive phrase "DARK FOLK". But, I suppose, having grown up during the '60s & '70s in a culturally diverse community in which more than a few of my friends & acquaintances would've seen the phrase "dark folk" as at least insensitive to the history of racist appellations applied to their ancestors, maybe I'm more sensitive to such issues than most other middle-aged Americans of European descent -- especially socially clueless ones like so many gamers seem to be.

    3. Ed, that was political and uncalled for.

      I've gamed with people over every ethnicity and gender imaginable, able and disabled, odd and normal and we are a tribe to ourselves. Gamer Geeks.

      There was no need to insult your fellow gamers for not having your background or growing up in different times or for just being a bit of an odd duck.

      To whit, your hobby was made by middle aged American men for other like them , the fact that it is as inclusive and tolerant as it is is a benefit, not a necessity.

      Everything in the world is not about race or Black and White or diversity vs. mono-culture or what other bug is up someone backside this week.

      Just play....

    4. @5stonegames

      You're right that what I said was political.

      But you're wrong, though, that it was uncalled for.

      In fact, it was your own false assertion that insensitivity to racism wasn't a significant issue in the USA during the '80s that called for it.

      Because I knew – from personal experience where I grew up in the USA – that insensitivity to racism was a very significant issue as early as the '60s, I felt obligated to mention that fact to refute the false assertions you made based on your apparently ethnically privileged and culturally isolated upbringing in Colorado.

      Where I grew up, in California, not only was insensitivity to racism a very significant issue as early as the '60s, but gaming wasn't "a monolithically White Middle Class hobby" and other cultures weren't ignored at all because we were exposed to many of them almost constantly.

      So, while I'm sure that what you said was true about Colorado and places like it, it certainly wasn't true about the entire USA, and it probably wasn't even true about the majority of the people in the USA, most of whom lived in places much more ethnically diverse and less culturally isolated than Colorado was.

      Furthermore, I didn’t insult anybody for not having my background, growing up in different times, being odd ducks, or anything else. At least, that is, I didn’t mean anything I said as an insult. In particular, I don’t consider mentioning the apparent social cluelessness of many gamers to be an insult. Tactless? Yes. An insult? No.

      Finally, while it’s true that RPGing was, for the most part, created by white, middle-aged men primarily for others like themselves, your claim that ”the fact that it is as inclusive and tolerant as it is is a benefit, not a necessity” sounds like the arrogance of privilege warning outsiders that they better show deferential gratitude or else…

  2. I bought that book as well as other Role Aids products bac in the 80's. I generally liked them, although I did not use most of them. Like many roleplayers, I bought far more products than I could ever use.

    Until bad wolf mentioned it, the racial angle related to the book name never occurred to me.

    1. Maybe because, since the Lord of the Rings and it's "Dark Lord", every Fantasy buff is used to the word "dark" meaning "tenebrous" , and not "dark-skinned"...

    2. But the inadvertent racial implication of the title isn't due merely to the presence of the word "dark".

      The inadvertent racial implication is created by using the word "dark" to modify the word "folk".

      If a word that doesn't mean "people" -- such as "species" -- had been used instead of "folk", then the title wouldn't have any racial implication at all.

      So it's the use of the word "folk" that's unfortunate -- not the use of the word "dark".

  3. Yes, Gary trained us all well with the "accept only APPROVED D&D products!" routine.

    "Mixed bag" is a great description. The Dwarves book was interesting, and I once made a nice campaign out of "Lich Lords" and "Undead".

  4. Dark Folk was a great read. The chapter on trolls is gold.

  5. I liked quite a few of the Role Aids products; the "Witches" book that caused such a controversy at the time was very good. Wish I had made more use of their products in my game.

  6. I hear you about Role "AIDS." The same knuckle-headed player I had in the mid-80's right out of high school who got a kick out of the AIDS part of that also kept repeating the same joke about using "visual aids" in games - you got them from having "optical sex."

    Two things I don't miss about those particular days was that idiot, and also the dudes who would not stop with the Monty Python shit at the game table. Yes, yes, we know. "He's only restin'"

    I do have to admit though that I love the movie quotes and Family Guy/American Dad stuff that sometimes spew from player Dan's pie hole these days.

  7. I also bought this back in the day, being less of a TSR purest and snob than many. Its primary benefit was to present these races in a cultural and biological way, something that was going on in Glorantha settings around Dragon Pass, but springing not so frequently out of the pages of the Monster Manual stat blocks.

    One fellow in my gaming group took the kobolds and ran hard with them, endowing them with a cunning hypergenius. He presented a dungeon setting so completely filled with traps and ambushes and overwhelming challenges, set in tight and low corridors where our weapons and magics were hemmed in on all sides, we barely made it out alive. Of course, they being mere kobolds there wasn’t much treasure or benefit... other than what they managed to steal and salvage off us. Mere kobolds had reduced us to a staggering ragtag ruin.

    We seldom underestimated these cannon-fodder critters in future play.

  8. Role Aids was actually also the target of a threatened lawsuit from TSR about using D&D's name to claim compatibility. Starting their bad IP reputation.

  9. I still have my copy. It was one of the few non TSR products I had. Being somewhat geographically isolated, with no game shops nearby, I was limited in what I could get. If Walden Books didn't have it, I was out of luck. :-)

  10. "There was a 'cultural' divide between those of us who cared about 'official' products and those of us who couldn't care less about them. It's a divide that's still very much alive and even relevant given recent events."

    You didn't leave TSR, James. TSR left you.

  11. This is one of the few non-rulebook gaming products I have kept over the years. I love it.

  12. I remenber fondly the setting presented in the Undead book.

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  14. I remember reading my younger brother's copy of Dark Folk and being quite impressed by it. I ought to have put it to more use when I had the chance.

  15. I LOVED Role Aids back in the day.

    In fact, when people talked about the d20 era as some sort of revelation, I frequently had to explain to them that, in fact, it was just a return to a previous golden age (imo) of the 1e days before TSR decided to clamp down on 3rd party publishers.

    White Dwarf also used to be as good as Dragon back in the days when they did AD&D articles.

  16. And now that I work for Mayfair, I am occasionally able to score some super awesome books from the days when Mayfair made great RPGs.

    I got a bunch of awesome DC Heroes books from them, for example.

    So now everyone can be envious of me ;)

  17. I remember Role Aids, but never bought any of their stuff. On the other hand, third party stuff for Traveller (Digest Group Publications, FASA, Gamelords, etc.), that I scooped up with relish.

  18. I have to admit that I was a Judges Guild fan. It certainly helped that there was no official product to compete with though. We always found the statements against non-TSR game accessories to be amusingly ludicrous. After all, we would steal from anywhere. and yes, that later included Role Aids.

  19. The title of this particular book, The Dark Folk, jumped out at me as unfortunate when I first saw it in this post, too. I only remember ever seeing one Role Aids book for sale when they were in print, and yeah, I thought the name of the line was pretty silly.

    I can't remember the title of the one book I saw during the print run, but I know I bought it and I still have it in my collection. It, too, was an anthology, I think of NPCs, because the only thing I remember clearly from it was an insane Paladin who had a magical prosthetic hand that kept him from ever dying or even passing out, but didn't prevent injury or damage and prevented natural healing. I can't remember if it was part of his history or just a suggestion of something that could happen to him, but there was a mention of him stuck at the bottom of a pit, injured down to zero hit points, unable to heal but unable to die. That was probably the most horrific thing my young brain had ever read in an RPG book to that point, so it stuck with me. I think I may have even read that bit in the store and bought the book on the basis that it was so out-there.

  20. Role Aids was already the butt of the "what do you call -insert gay celebrity- on skates" joke back in the 80s. I still love the game line. DRAGONS was and still is one of my favorite unrecognized potential products of all time.


  21. BAH! Everyone knows "Glory Hole: Dwarven Mine" is the most unfortunately named RPG product of all time.

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  23. I had a half a dozen Role Aids products. Dark Folk was by far my favorite. Im certain i ran ever adventure in it at least once.