Orcs in RPGS

This is a diversion from painting to consider the appearance of one of the most common fantasy races in role-playing games – Orcs.

I grew up with an initial image of Orcs from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ‘Monster Manual’, alongside images of Warhammer Orcs from Games Workshop. I think visual images stick in mind more than written descriptions – I certainly saw many images of green skinned orcs. I’d say I had two ideas for orc skin – green from WH and brown from D&D. I played other games with orcs, but didn’t consider that they might be thinking of them as different again. There have been many gaming publications over the years, and in recent decades plenty of fantasy movies (even TV series) that present orcs that may influence what we consider their appearance to be. The Hobbit/LotR movies certainly suggest greys and blacks.

I had been assuming that D&D Orcs were of dark brown skin. While painting orcs recently, I started to look into their description in various editions of D&D and was surprised to see variations between editions that don’t exist in other D&D creatures. Skin colour has changed, and it appears that the designers wanted to get away from the “piggish” look that they started with. Since I’ve been (or will be) painting Goblins and Kobolds, I looked at their descriptions too. There is slightly different wording between editions, but those creatures physical appearance is unchanged in 1st through 3rd edition.

As a result of this minor research, here’s a simple description of Orcs drawn from a variety of sources – with the focus being prominent Role-Playing Games.

1st Edition (AD&D): Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their colouration – brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen – highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black, sometimes with tan patches. Even their armour tends to be unattractive – dirty and often a bit rusty. Orcs favour unpleasant colours in general. Their garments are in tribal colours, as are shield devices or trim. Typical colours are blood red, rust red, mustard yellow, yellow green, moss green, greenish purple, and blackish brown.

2nd Edition (AD&D): Orcs vary widely in appearance, as they frequently cross-breed with other species. In general, they resemble primitive humans with grey-green skin covered with coarse hair. Orcs have a slightly stooped posture, a low jutting forehead, and a snout instead of a nose, though comparisons between this facial feature and those of pigs are exaggerated and perhaps unfair. Orcs have well-developed canine teeth for eating meat and short pointed ears that resemble those of a wolf. Orcish snouts and ears have a slightly pink tinge. Their eyes are human, with a reddish tint that sometimes makes them appear to glow red when they reflect dim light sources in near darkness.

3rd Edition (d20): Gray skin. An orc’s coarse hair usually is black. It has lupine ears and reddish eyes. Orcs prefer wearing vivid colours that many humans would consider unpleasant, such as blood red, mustard yellow, yellow-green, and deep purple. Their equipment is dirty and unkempt.

Pathfinder (d20): It has coarse body hair and a stooped posture like some primitive man but with a grayish-green skin tone and bestial facial features. Burning red eyes peer below a low, sloping brow, just above a flattened nose, and prominent tusk-like teeth. Greasy black hair.

Warhammer: A typical Orc is a naturally large creature that stands taller than the average Man, with long arms and short legs, huge slabs of muscle moving underneath tough green skin, and their jaws are lined with vicious fangs that jut out from their under-bite. They have beady red eyes, a generally foul demeanour, and are naturally bald.

M.E.R.P. (Middle Earth Role Playing): Build: Heavy, with thick hides, short legs, and long thin arms. They have grotesque, fanged faces and random hair growth. Colouring: Black or grey hair, black or reddish-brown eyes, and deep grey or black hides.

The One Ring: “Their appearance and size differs from tribe to tribe, but many prominent features are common to all Orcs, such as swarthy skin, short legs and broad, slanted eyes, wide mouths and long fangs.” Broad, with crooked legs and long arms, Mordor Orcs differ greatly in size and capabilities, from the small but deft Snaga to the large Black Uruk.


Finally, here’s some notes from J.R.R. Tolkien on the subject:

Swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands, ugly and filthy fanged humanoids. The Uruks are larger, more powerful and cruel and “black”.

“They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes”.

In case you don’t know… Sallow = “(of a person’s face or complexion) of an unhealthy yellow or pale brown colour.”


Okay… back to painting now… Some grey mixed with flesh for my new batch of Orcs!



One-shot games (or “What to do when players aren’t free?”)

Long gone are the days when my gaming group played some sort of game multiple times a week. Work, partners and/or family, and life in general means my group now averages a gaming day/night twice a month. My main D&D game has six players, and I generally don’t feel like running it if two people can’t make it. The Pathfinder game I play in came about in part for this reason – so that we could still role-play when the two busier people in our larger group weren’t free.

Sometimes a player can drop out at last minute, or you may have a few people who still want to get together. Occasionally, we’ll still play and one player runs two PC’s. We have also ended up playing board games (like Dungeon Quest, Talisman, Minion Hunter), card games (Munchkin, Flux, Unexploded Cow) or I’ve run a one session RPG. In the past we have played two Call of Cthulhu games (I’ve got “Blood Brothers” – designed with this in mind) and last year we did three separate one-shot (/playtest) Gamma World games. I’ve still got another CoC adventure ready to run if required.

Earlier this year, one of the blogs I read – Dungeon Fantastic – detailed two sessions where he ran S2 “White Plume Mountain” (AD&D) as a change from his normal GURPS Dungeon Fantasy. It sounded like a lot of fun, both as an alternative from normal gaming and a chance to play a few adventures from early D&D versions without converting them to d20/PF (which is what I mostly do now) and/or having to make changes to suit my player’s character levels. It inspired me to look at the rule books on my gaming shelves and produce a couple of single-session adventures to have ready for one of those days when someone can’t make a game or we just feel like something different.

Over the last two months I started working on two One-Shot adventures – one for Star Wars and another for Middle Earth. This gave me a theme – Movie/TV – that I’ve been expanding to nearly every RPG I own. Generally I’m taking a part of a movie (or the general idea from the film/TV program) and building something for 4-5 players. I enjoy coming up with adventure ideas and I love making characters, so two ideas have grown into six – so far!

Here’s the adventures I’m working on; titles are subject to change.

Star Wars (d6 W.E.G.) – “The Pit of Carkoon”

Middle Earth Role Playing – “Dol Guldar: The Necromancer”

Gamma World (d20 Pathfinder) – “We’re not in Kansas anymore”

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – “Inconceivable!” (Or “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…”)

Shadowrun (3rd Edition) – “Asgard has fallen.”

Oriental Adventures (D&D 3.5) – “Gandhara/Journey to the West”

Now, it’s possible that the titles don’t mean anything to you, or only sound a little familiar. If so, here’s some more detail:

  1. The “Pit of Carkoon” is the resting place of the Sarlaac from “Return of the Jedi”. Six minutes in the movie makes a great set-up for a major combat on two skiffs and Jabba’s Sail Barge. For five PC’s, with an optional sixth being Boba Fett, fighting against the rest of the players. The session could be expanded with something in Mos Eisley where the players have to get back to the Millennium Falcon.
  2. Dol Guldar is a fortress in southern Mirkwood forest, where the White Council drive out Sauron – “the Necromancer”. There’s a scene that interprets the events from “The Lord of the Rings” in the movie “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”. The LotR book lists the “White Council” as being “the Wizards, Elrond, Cirdan, Galadriel, and other lords of the Eldar” so I’ve made nine characters that can be chosen from by Players, and I’ll modify Dol Guldar from the MERP sourcebook “Mirkwood”.
  3. The classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” converted to Gamma World. Five PC’s (including Toto) are sent by the “Tech Wizard from Oz” to remove the threat of the “Wicked Witch” (an Esper) and her flying monkeys.
  4. Another classic movie – “The Princess Bride”. Westley, Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik and Miracle Max have to defeat Prince Humperdink, Count Rugen and maybe Vizzini. This adventure will draw on the characters more than the actual story in the movie.
  5. I’ve done little work on this so far. The idea is to have a Shadowrun session where the PC’s are all off-duty military/security named after characters (or actors?) from the “Olympus has fallen” movies who have to rescue the President and his son from terrorists. My big change is to relocate this to Parliament House in Canberra, Australia. Downloading basic maps/floor-plans was easy. I mostly need to make-up the PC’s and NPC’s.
  6. The novel “Journey to the West” is the fictional story of an actual Chinese monk who traveled to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. Most people are more familiar with the 1978 Japanese TV series “Monkey”. The five main characters (including Horse) recreated in d20 and doing something similar to an episode of the series.

For most of these I’ve completed the PC’s and thought about NPC’s and creatures. Specific adventure detail comes next. Once finished, I’ll probably add the adventures to the blog.


MERP Campaign & Resources

My MERP Campaign work is pretty much finished. I’ve customised the 2nd edition MERP rules to suit the way I’d like the game to run, and completed my tables for character creation and campaign play. I’m now in the process of converting ICE’s LOR (Lord of the Rings Adventure Game) adventures into MERP adventures. My aim would be to use the first two LOR modules as the start of my MERP Campaign.

Here’s my campaign adventure plan so far – leading from Bree to Rivendell, then around most of Rhudaur:

LR-0 Dawn Comes Early, LR-1 Darker Than Darkness, <Rivendell>, The Loons of Long Fell (1st level), Hillmen of the Trollshaws – The Trolls Watch-Tower (Low level), Trolls of the Misty Mountains – The Dwarves of Duildin Hill (1st – 2nd), Trolls of the Misty Mountains – The Village of Garkash Hill (2nd – 3rd), Phantom of the Northern Marshes – The Phantom of the Woods (1st – 2nd), Phantom of the Northern Marshes – The Riddle of Ridorthu (2nd – 3rd), Dark Mage of Rhudaur – Before the Snow Falls & Beseiged, Hillmen of the Trollshaws – The Tale of Mong-Finn & Miffli (Mdm level), Hillmen of the Trollshaws – The Rescue of Alquawen (Mdm level).

The LOR system is like a simpler version of MERP – it uses a smaller set of skills than MERP (LOR skills are like the MERP skill categories), a simpler set of races/classes and rolls are all using 2d6. Most MERP products come with a guide for converting LOR Characters to MERP, but it’s mostly along the lines of “work out what level your character would be and assign DP’s for each level to the skill categories determined by the LOR bonuses”. What I really like about the LOR modules is the way they are written – lots of detail about what the characters see, or can learn/interact with through skill rolls. The first adventure is designed for players who haven’t played LOR (or many RPGs) before and is great for the GM to lead them through the basics of skill use, combat and general role-playing.

Most of my conversion requires converting the LOR skill roll results to MERP Static Maneuver results. When it comes to creatures/NPCs, I’m just making my own NPC’s using MERP rules, or adding the relevant MERP creature stats. The adventures also have a lot of maps and visual aids and I’ve been able to use a lot of them to make floor-plans or game play maps. (I recently learned that one of my graphics programs can overlay a grid on an image, and I found another program that takes large images and break them up into A4 sheets for printing!) I made up four new characters using my rules and I’m play-testing my conversions – going nicely so far!

I also decided that with all these things that I’ve developed, it would be worth adding a new page to my blog that lists internet resources that I’ve found helpful and also made some of my RPG files available to others who may find them useful. So far it’s mostly MERP materials – character sheets, tables, etc – but I’ll add Greyhawk material (D&D and Hero Lab) as I find it or finish it.


Middle-Earth Role Playing – Returning to an old favourite


What I read, and the movies I watch, often influence what game system I pay attention to. For example, last year over a weekend my wife and I watched all three Hobbit films. Since then I’ve been wanting to go back to my M.E.R.P. (Middle-Earth Role Playing) material. At that time I did little more than collecting some more RPG material and sketching out a basic outline for a new campaign.

Over the last few weeks I’ve actually sat down and fleshed out my ideas, building a folder with some well developed information for starting characters and GM reference material to guide the campaign the way I want. I’m not actually expecting to run a game any time soon (the last MERP campaign I ran was 20 years ago), but my version of OCD means that I enjoy the planning and preparation; even if there’s no sign I’m going to use it. (I’m playing in a Pathfinder D&D campaign currently that shows no sign of ending, but I’ve already detailed what would be my next character up to 15th level – race, class, feats, etc.)

If you aren’t familiar with MERP, then here are the basics of the RPG:

ICE (Iron Crown Enterprises) released the game in 1984, as simplified version of their Rolemaster RPG. Players choose from Dwarves, Elves (Noldor, Sindar, Silvan), Half-Elves, Humans (15 ethnicities) and Hobbits, as races, with six base professions – Warrior, Scout, Ranger, Mage, Animist, Bard. It’s a skill-based 1-100 (or percentile) system. Your race gives you a number of points in specific skills, and each level in your profession gives points in skill categories. Each player chooses how to assign their skill points, and can transfer them to other categories under certain restrictions, which allows for considerable customisation. Most classes have access to spells. Actions are made as a d% roll, adding the appropriate skill bonus, subtracting any penalty for difficulty (if say, picking locks or moving stealthily) or deducting an opponents DB (defensive bonus) in combat. The final result is checked against the relevant table and damage, or the measure of success/failure is determined. Most actions (especially combat) have critical success and fumble tables – well detailed and lots of fun to use. Creatures and other campaign detail is based on the wealth of J.J.R. Tolkien’s works, and there are dozens of source books, campaign guides, and adventure modules to cover the length and breadth of Middle Earth. The material references different time periods, allowing games to be run in pretty much any part of the Third Age.

Most of a MERP Character Sheet (1st level Dunedain Ranger)

It’s also very easy to use the Rolemaster material to expand or enhance the game. For example – MERP has nine combat tables – for weapon types, spell and creature attacks. My Rolemaster “Arms Law” book has forty-two tables for individual weapons/attacks, as well as expanded critical and fumble tables.

My new “campaign guide” is 18 pages long (so far) – mostly giving the required info for the races and professions I’ll use. I’ve decided to restrict player races to a subset; only using six of the human ethnicities (Beorning, Dunedain, Dunlending, Eriadoran, Gondorian, Rohirrim), but all of the non-human. They will begin as 0-level adolescents or apprentices – only gaining the skills that their race assigns and no profession level skills (for 1st level) until the end of the first adventure. I’m allowing all six base classes, and also six of the optional classes (Burglar, Conjurer, Explorer, Rogue, Shape-changer, Wizard) – I’d love to see someone run a character that turns into a bear! I’ve created my own tables for starting ages, and height/weight for each race. (Based on the d20 tables, customised with the detail given in MERP.) I’ve tweaked Ability/Stat bonuses, the experience/level table and how characters gained XP. The MERP way of characters individually gaining experience from taking damage, casting spells, succeeding in manoeuvres, dealing criticals and defeating opponents gets quite messy to track and I greatly simplified things. I’ve got longer and more detailed equipment/goods & services tables – expanded using some Rolemaster material. I drew on both the Core Rulebook and “Creatures of Middle Earth” to make a two-page creature table with all the detail that I would require for combats, focussing on lower level creatures/monsters, and using the rules to detail a large variety of 1st to 5th level Orc opponents. (Building Orcs and Trolls in MERP is similar to adding Class levels to monsters in d20, so I’m much more comfortable mucking around with NPC’s/creatures than 20 years ago!)

My campaign will start in Bree, probably about 3015 Third Age. This is after the events of the Hobbit (2941 TA), and Bilbo’s 111th birthday party (3001 TA), when Gandalf has been regularly checking on Frodo, and he and Aragorn are searching for Gollum. If you have only seen the LotR movies, you won’t know that 17 years pass between Bilbo’s famous birthday party and when Frodo leaves the Shire with the Ring (3018 TA). The characters will meet Gandalf, and go to Rivendell early in the campaign. I plan to have them spend most of their early levels in Arnor (Rhudaur and Arthedain), and then probably bring them across the Misty Mountains. I’d like to get them involved indirectly with the happenings from LotR – following events in the background rather than the main story – eventually bringing them south to Rohan and Gondor to fight against Sauron’s forces.

I’ve still got some playing around to do with this – detailing encounters and creature stats for the initial Bree adventure (a player Scout character, or a friendly NPC, has been wrongfully accused of theft and jailed). Then I plan to list a number of published adventures I have in a suitable order to get the campaign progressing. After that… I should go back to some painting, convert some more 2nd ed Greyhawk monsters to PF Hero Lab, and I have a Gamma World RPG to do some work on. There’s always another project and not enough time!