Author: Wicked Press (John Wick)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2001-10-01
No review of Orkworld can ignore the historic importance of its origins. This game was created on-line at the Gaming Outpost, with a decision-by-decision, day-by-day dialogue visible to all. I don't bring this up to illustrate some notion about the Internet or "group creativity," as few games show as powerful a single-vision as Orkworld, but rather to illustrate its economic significance. Orkworld generated its own fan base, direct from creator/owner to end-users. In other words, it completely bypassed the usual chain of events: (1) game creation, (2) curry distributor and retailer approval, (3) use con appearances to shore up that approval, and (4) wait for the end-users to get it via the bookstores' commitment to the game.
Oh, no. I say again: Orkworld generated its own fan base, direct from creator/owner to end-users, as the first step in the process. John Wick has brought the sensibility of Dave Sim (creator and owner of the comic Cerebus) to role-playing games, and shown that it applies in this medium as well as it does in comics. Once that fan base is established and vocal, the distributors and retailers must follow along (rather than leading the way) or lose a chance to make money. The game author may say to them, "Hey! I'm selling this! You wanna join in?" as opposed to, "Please, pleeeeease, Mr. Distributor-Man, approve of my game so that it may live!"
Orkworld's "success" is a topic of some heated debate, which is not surprising - from the point of view of those who rely utterly on the distributor-retailer axis, admitting any degree of success for Orkworld is openly self-criticizing. Since Wick has disclosed the finances of Orkworld both pre- and post-publication, there are some insights available, as well as some common misconceptions to explode. Again, since this game is so important in this regard, I'll deal with this aspect before getting into its system-design and play.
Orkworld made tons of money, grossing $40,000 in its first year. By any stretch of the imagination, it was a marketing triumph and clearly met a serious market demand. However, its profit was low to non-existent, and many pundits have cited the game as therefore a curiosity of vanity-press, and no "player" of RPG success at all. They are, of course, wrong - Orkworld's lack of profit-success may be laid ONLY to Wick's spending during its production, to the tune of about $40,000.
I cannot stress this insight enough - if Wick had kept his costs down, using the indie-punk philosophy central to the Forge (for instance), Orkworld would have made him an appalling amount of money. The flaw lies only in production costs, and therefore the break-even Wick achieved cannot be considered due to any flaw in Orkworld's design, in its promotion, or in any failure of meeting a market demand. Any claim by anyone that Orkworld is some sort of lame creation that failed to satisfy or interest actual role-players is a false claim. Orkworld is a triumph of creator-owned-and-operating RPG design. If production costs had not been so high, then it would have been one of the all-time triumphs of RPG business as well.
(To Wick's credit, much of these production costs were due to circumstances he couldn't control, such as being hit with a disgraceful and criminal computer virus intended to destroy his work. However, there are other costs Wick mentions that astonish me, and I'll leave it at that.)
Enough economics already, eh? On to discussing Orkworld itself as a role-playing thingamabob.
The primary concept relies on a shared RPG concept of "ork" that will be familiar from Earthdawn, Harn, and AD&D, including an old Mayfair supplement called Dark Folk. These creatures are basically humanoid pigs - hungry, crude, rude, tribal, not especially clean, and regarded as animals with no right to live by all and sundry. As Wick acknowledges, the foundation for this concept is probably Glorantha's famous trolls; furthermore, again as he acknowledges in the text, this concept has little or nothing to do with Tolkien's orcs and is entirely a product of RPG culture.
Wick converts this template to a Noble-Savage model - basically, if you look at it "from their point of view," they turn out to be rather admirable. (One detail of the RPG-ork that has to be jettisoned for this to work is the assumption that they frequently rape human women, which I for one am not sorry to see jettisoned anyway.) What makes this conversion excellent and powerful instead of trite is Wick's central mechanic and the philosophical foundation of ork culture: Trouble.
Trouble has lots of related meanings in Orkworld, including the following:
What we're seeing here are all the hallmark of a Narrativist game: mechanics which raise a problem of common interest (Premise), provide plenty of player-input about how it applies to the character during play (Author stance), and reinforcement that's fun instead of dictatorial (reward system for addressing Premise).
To articulate that Premise carefully, Trouble and its associated roots in orkish thought lead the actual role-playing to a magnificent Premise. It is this: ORKS ARE NOT HYPOCRITES. They use none of the self-protecting mechanisms based on deceit that everyone else does, either socially in the group or in any sort of interaction with some other group. (No, Puggish trickery against non-orks does not count. I'm talking about social advantage and reputation, which means nothing in regard to others who already openly hate your guts.)
Therefore, put an ork into any situation where hypocrisy might pay off. It puts the player into the wonderful position of coping with this situation from the ork perspective that can hardly even conceive of lying for personal gain - if it blows up in the ork's face, as usual, that's the price of not having hypocrisy; if the player figures out a way to succeed anyway, without hypocrisy, you get an ork hero-tale, exactly like the ones in the book.
In real life, we all walk a terribly stressful line, every day, about how hypocritical to be. There is no One Rule of Truth/Lies that leads to the most desirable result. So the ork path really forces us to confront this in story-telling terms. Most of the time, it's a bitch. In the rare instances when the non-hypocrite path actually works out well for you and those you care about - what a rush.
Other fun stuff in Orkworld includes cannibalism and sexual promiscuity, with everyone basically being bisexual. Imagine GMing a scene in which PCs butcher, cook, and eat a fallen friend or foe (NPC or PC ), or asking the players to decide whom their PCs are having sex with tonight, including their same-sex pals among the candidates. This latter concept is based on the dubious proposition that social creatures could possibly not know about the existence of paternity, which is nonsense in the real world (however popularized), but lots of fun as a foundation for role-playing creativity. In a nutshell, playing an ork means you get to be raunchy and sweaty - the Ken-doll characters festooning the pages of many fantasy RPGs have no place here.
Now for some thoughts on the game and its mechanics.
Design 1: The basic resolution system relies on a dice pool and reading the highest die with doubles adding 1 to their facing value (e.g. rolling three 4's gets you a 6; if you rolled a 5 and a 2 as well, you ignore those faces). The value is compared either to a target value or an opponent's roll. I find the former to raise some problems, as the overwhelmingly most-likely value (once you're over one die) is a 6, and that also happens to be the designated "hard" target value. For instance, with two dice, the chance of a 6 is 11/36, and that proportion more-or-less holds as dice are added. It's a very unusual probability-distribution for role-playing, not bell-shaped at all. Success tends either to be very likely or very unlikely.
Design 2: Given the likelihood of success on rolls, Trouble in action is perhaps not too troublous as written - if you force a re-roll, the re-roll will probably succeed. Wick encourages GMs to develop new applications of Trouble, with examples, and my experience suggests that GMs should definitely do this to give Trouble some bite. (Oddly, at various points in the text, visiting Trouble upon PCs is often referred to as a negative-reinforcer, which in my play wouldn't work well. My players love Trouble, even when it hoses them.)
Design 3: character creation is tremendously fun and requires a lot of group collaboration and input. The whole play group begins by defining their Tribe and Household first, and only moving to the individual PCs second. Skill names and definitions are all yours to create, group and individual bonuses are all yours to create, the tribal approach to Trouble is all yours, and more. In a game which emphasizes one's relationship to one's family and tribe, this is a fine system, and light-years away from the old-style notion that any PC can be factored into any scenario.
Design 4: The resolution system becomes disproportionately granular in combat, which is not uncommon in RPGs, and it contains many, many opportunities for strategic tradeoffs (which I am coming to think of as the Wick trademark in resolution systems). My only hassle with it is that, relative to the rest of Orkworld resolution, combat is highly layered: initiative, to-hit, potential damage, to-wound, armor vs. weapons, all have their separate steps. It's certainly quicker and easier than many RPGs, but it is still the most traditional element of Orkworld's resolution systems.
Design 5: as written, the default character in Orkworld is a thraka, or hunter-warrior, and much attention is given to combat nuances (as mentioned above). Therefore, the rules and emphasis suggest that Trouble in action pretty much means a fight, or disadvantages during a fight. However, given the cultural and social emphasis of the game, as well as the interesting angle of playing non-thraka which appeals to many players, this is not too applicable. I (and others, based on fan sites) have found our players willing to play dowmga and other not-obviously-badass character types. Therefore, if I always applied Trouble to fighting, it'd kill all my PCs really fast. I'd very much like to see more on how to apply Trouble in non-combat ways.
Design 6: the Orkworld text includes a phenomenally large percentage of fiction. It's too much for my tastes, and the style is kind of a heavy-emotional Hemingway that doesn't work well for me. However! It gets very, very high marks because these stories are complete, having real beginnings, endings, and themes, rather than the movie-preview, empty snippets we get in most RPGs. And since story-saga creation is the whole POINT of play, both from PC and player standpoint, I do think those stories belong in the book.
Also, it may be a matter of taste (ick! That word does not belong in an Orkworld review), but I'm not happy with the numerous, numerous "story seeds" scattered through the book, in addition to the already top-heavy complete fiction pieces. I would have preferred more system/numerical examples.
There are a couple of design problems here and there. Most notably the Winter rules are broken. These are a yearly check to establish the household's situation for each winter, prior to the "season of adventuring," based on a similar system in Pendragon. I like the idea and role of such rules in Orkworld very much, but they simply don't work as written, as they force one's household to starve. Fortunately, Ralph Mazza's excellent Orkworld website (http://www.ravenhold.lpk-computers.co.uk/) provides a superior method, as well as other play aids, and excellent series and scenario ideas.
Overall, as with all good Narrativist role-playing games, the power and enjoyment Orkworld rely on understanding and milking the Premise for all it's worth, rather than with "fantasy expectations." Never mind treasure and ego. It's down and dirty, with sweat, mud, and childbirth. You're all about your household, your dowmga, and survival in a world which hates you. Once this gets rolling, and character creation does a good job of doing that, this game is bluntly excellent.