Monday, November 23, 2020

REVIEW: Ordure Fantasy

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the play/design/esthetic movement that has come to be known as the Old School Renaissance has had several notable successes, among them a greater appreciation of mechanical simplicity. Indeed, one might reasonably argue that a driving force behind the creation and promotion of retro-clones like Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials is the recognition that simple, even open-ended, rules are very well suited to the activity of shared fantasy on which the hobby is built. Remember that the hobby's foundational work, Dungeons & Dragons, ended the third volume of its 1974 edition with the sage words to "decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!" Improvisation and extrapolation from a loose rules framework has been at the heart of the hobby from the very beginning and the OSR has championed such an approach as worthy of consideration (and, occasionally, as superior to others).

It's with that in mind that I approached Michael Raston's Ordure Fantasy, "a simple d6 roleplaying game." Available only as a 19-page PDF, Ordure Fantasy, as its name suggests, doesn't take itself too seriously, but that doesn't mean its a joke. Rather, its title is a humorous allusion to an earlier simple RPG on which it is partially based. Both games employ six-sided dice for all necessary rolls, usually only one. The goal is to tie or roll under a value rated from 1 to 6. For easy tests, the player rolls 2d6 and takes the lowest result; for hard tests, he rolls 2d6 and takes the highest. It's very simple and easy to remember mechanic and everything in the game uses it. The only other "rule" is the Ordure Test. Whenever the referee isn't sure what might happen – such as whether wandering monsters appear or if a hidden trap is sprung – he rolls 1d6 and, on a roll of 6, "ordure happens." The purpose of this mechanic, according to Raston, is "to ensure the PCs feel constantly endangered and that the world is trying to kill them." There's a delightfully spartan forthrightness to the entire game, which delighted me, but may not be to everyone's taste. 

Player characters have three attributes: Body, Mind, and Luck, all rated from 1 to 4 (or 5, in the case of bonuses from magic items). There are also four classes: Mercenary, Conjurer, Scoundrel, and Curate, each of which broadly corresponds to the classes of Basic D&D conceptually. Classes provide four skills (of which only three may be chosen to start), plus a boon, which is a special ability. For example, a mercenary's boon is the ability to choose one target per turn and, if the attack against that target is successful, the target is instantly slain. On the other hand, the curate's boon is augur, which allows him to ask the referee one question which must be answered truthfully. Characters advance in levels (to a maximum of 6, as you might expect) whenever they survive "something interesting, dangerous, exciting or entertaining," which results in one attribute or skill increasing by 1. At level 3, a character can choose his fourth class skill if so desired. 

Combat consists of a series of tests, with NPC enemies (including monsters) being handled slightly differently. The first test uses a combat skill to determine if an attack is successful. A PC struck in combat gets to defend, using either Body or Mind, as appropriate (with armor providing bonuses to Body tests). If the defense roll is also a failure, they get one more test, against Health. If this too is a failure, the character loses one Health. At 0 Health, the character is dead. NPCs have only a single attribute, Health, which doubles as their other combat skill. If Health is above 5, NPCs automatically hit, dealing 1 damage per hit. They never defend and always take 1 damage per hit by a PC (since all attacks deal 1 damage, unless increased by some other means). Since all player characters have 5 Health, I expect that combat is fairly deadly, particularly against NPCs with Health scores above 5.

As presented in the rules, magic takes the form of magic items, which typically improve attributes or skills, and the class abilities of the curate and conjurer. The curate, as a cleric analog, possesses healing magic. The conjurer, meanwhile, can summon emotions, elements, and beings. These magical summonings are only loosely described, with few mechanical features, meaning that their effects are open to negotiation between the player and the referee. If I were to find fault with Ordure Fantasy, it's here, since I imagine that a little more explicit guidance on how to handle these abilities would be appreciated by many readers, including those already comfortable with improvisational play. 

The bulk of the book consists of six examples of various useful "components" for a game, whether they be monstrous adversaries, equipment, or even haggling with merchants. Raston's overall approach consists of embracing randomness as a springboard for creativity. He makes that very clear at the start of the book, when he lists among the requirements for play "a willingness to play and see what happens." To my mind, that's a refreshing perspective and one that I see as key to the continued appeal of what has come to be called, rightly or wrongly, the old school style of play. If that style appeals to you, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Ordure Fantasy. 


  1. This kind of reminds me of how me and my friends in our early teens played on camping trips or hanging out at the beach at night. As long as we had a d6 (or a coin) we could just agree on numbers needed. It was all that negotiation mentioned in your post. Fantasy, space opera, dr. Who...if we had a couple hours to kill we could wing a game. I’m sure Ordure could be adapted to any genre.

  2. Great review - interesting perspective tying it back to the origins of the hobby.