My Life w/ Orcs (And Other Monsters)


Go read this article:

It’s very good. If you’re in any way expecting this article to be some kind of “rebuttal” to that article let me say this very clearly: It is not.

What it is, is a confession, that my experience of Orcs (and Kobolds, and Goblins, and…) has simply not been the same as everyone elses.  And that difference can be seen through out my entire gaming history.

Mom’s Monsters

My mom was not like other moms.  My mom performed elemental summoning rituals with my cousins, before D&D was invented. My mom was a trance medium. My mom wrote and directed plays the living room of our home.  My mom caught wind of the satanic panic and rushed right out to Toy’s ‘R’ Us to buy Red Box D&D.

My mom also had saying, “To keep a boy (forgive her gender foibles) happy, give him monsters.”  She put Where The Wild Things Are in my hands as soon as possible.

Also, my mom doesn’t like fantasy and never encouraged me to read any (Greek myth being an exception)  To this day I have never read Lord of the Rings.  I only read Howard, Leiber, Smith and Moorcock starting in my mid-20s.

Now, my mom does love history (including myth) and horror movies. I saw Sweeny Todd live (George Hearn and Angela Lansbury) and Clash of the Titans at 5, I saw Poltergeist at 6. Alien and Jaws whenever they were first broadcast on television.

So when we delved into that first dungeon and I turned to my DM (my mom), and asked, “What’s an Orc?” She said, “It’s a creature that has arms and legs but with the head of a pig!”  And from that moment on this is what I thought an orc was:


Monsters Don’t Have Culture or Ecologies

You see, with my primary childhood referent for “the fantastic” being horror movies, my idea of a monster is: a highly unique, unreproducable, localized, frighting and largely unknowable *force* antithetical to human life. A personified metaphor for human suffering and evil.

The idea that orcs were “savage” tribal raiders with leaders and culture and even children was not part of my understanding.  Anyone who asked me, “Would you kill an orc child?” would just get a very confused and puzzled look as I didn’t even understand the question.  It wasn’t until I was older and could read the AD&D manual and discovered the half-orc which I thought was a really weird concept. And as soon as I read about Orcs in AD&D my reaction was immediately felt:

“But that’s not a monster.”

And that’s how I felt about Kobolds which I originally thought of as like Tommyknockers in mines.

And Goblins which I thought of like Gremlins in machinery.

In fact, until very recently, I would have sworn to you up and down that this whole mythology around these creatures being tribal and organized and anything but “unknowable things that dwell below in the darkness” was something that was added in AD&D.  I would have SWORN up and down that all that tribal culture stuff wasn’t part of B/X D&D. (Hint: I was wrong).

Going into 2nd Edition D&D I really came to hate the culture/habitat section of the monster manual.  It literally made no sense to me.  There’s A Minotaur in some labyrinth out there placed by divine fate.  They do not come in 1d6 herds or whatever wandering the wilderness.  It’s not a MONSTER if it’s natural or has a habitat or a reproductive cycle or a culture.  THAT’S NOT A MONSTER.

White Wolf Further Confuses The Issue

Given what I’ve said above you can imagine my reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade.  Vampire society?  WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN!? I skipped the whole World of Darkness. When people asked me why, I simply said, “I’m not interested in playing monsters.” But I’m not sure people really understood what I meant by that.

How Chill Saved Monsters

And then I found The Mayfair Edition of Chill and my sanity was once again restored.  Here in their “Things” section were MONSTERS. Largely unique, unreproducable, localized, frighting and largely unknowable *force* antithetical to human life. A personified metaphor for human suffering and evil. Especially the ghosts. Chill has the BEST ghosts. There’s basically one for every kind of human failing.

How Sorcerer Saved Fantasy

And then, I discovered Sorcerer. Sorcerer, the game about people summoning demons for power. And when discussing this game Ron, the game’s author, would say this phrase: “Demon’s don’t exist, not even in the fiction of the game,” and everyone would freak out about this statement.  But I knew.

They don’t have culture. They don’t have a habitat. They don’t “exist” in the world. And yet here one is, offering you a bargain. Existential Horror.

Through it’s supplement Sorcerer & Sword I discovered a kind of fantasy fiction where people were people and monsters were truly monsters.  If there’s racist and sexist allegory it’s because there’s problems with the depictions and treatments of PEOPLE.  But monsters?  Monsters are slavering fanged horrors of darkness.  I love Sorcerer’s description of this fiction as “not horrific adventure stories but adventurous horror stories.”

Just like the D&D mom used to make.

From There To D&D Again

When I run D&D today,  I stick mostly to Undead, Constructs and Fiends as enemies.  Things that are the result or manifestations of human hubris and other failings. I often use Giant Beasts and Plants and Monstrosities but they are placed to emphasize the weirdness and corrupting influences of the dark corners of the earth where only adventurers are brave enough to tread.

I don’t use Orcs or Goblins or Kobolds.  And you aren’t going to encounter any Trolls or Gnolls on the roads from town to town.  If it could be replaced by a person with a sword or spear, you will meet a person with a sword or spear.

I love monsters. I love monster art. I love monster manuals. I own the Monster Manual, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes but just like those 2nd Edition Habitat/Culture blocks I don’t really read them.  I just look at the art and the stat blocks and let my imagination fill in the rest.

If I’m building a haunted watery shrine I just pull up everything with a swim speed until I see the thing I don’t want to find there. You see, I don’t believe you can kill monsters with a sword. Survive its attack? Cut down its material form? Sure. But chances are it’ll come back or it was never really there in the first place?

The only way you can truly kill a monster is by explaining it.





The Value of Empty Rooms

In a previous post I discussed how I’ve been using a formula to construct dungeons for D&D. That formula is mainly derived from the dungeon population method described in Moldvay’s Basic Dungeon and Dragons. Under that formula fully one-third of the dungeon will be empty. By modern standards that may seem like a lot of “nothing happens”. Perhaps, even, the scenario level version of the much criticized “wiff” factor. However, I’m finding that empty rooms have immense benefits.

Empty Rooms Build Tension

On my map key, I don’t just write “Empty.” I write down a short description of the room. I don’t overthink these. I just do a bit of day dreaming and whatever pops into my head is what gets written down.

“Waterfalls spring from the walls of this cavern and swirl down a natural drain.”

The net effect is that, narratively, an empty room is, on first glance, indistinguishable from one that contains hidden traps or monsters. There is always the lingering question of, “Am I missing something here?” And even if they aren’t, there’s always the lingering question of, “Did I miss something back there?”

Every empty room is one more crank on the Jack-in-the-Box that didn’t make it pop open. If the danger isn’t here, where is it? Did we really pass through three empty rooms, or is something sneaking up behind us? Where there secret passages behind those water falls?

Empty Rooms Provide Intermittent Rewards

According to the formula, one-sixth of these empty rooms will contain treasure. Unguarded treasure. No traps. No monsters. Treasure free of the taking.

“This long hall was clearly once a dining room. What remains of the furnishings is dust covered and rotting from disuse. On the table sits two silver candlesticks worth 25gp each.”

These intermittent rewards drive exploration. Having something of value just laying around unguarded incentives looking around for what else might be available.

Empty Rooms Provide Tactical Options

Just because a room is empty, doesn’t mean it’s useless.  Players have a way of turning everything around them into tools. Every empty room is a toy chest of mundane objects waiting for clever players to put them to work.

A group of players may want to lure enemies back to that waterfall room. That way they can hide behind the waterfalls allowing them both the chance at ambush as well as the ability to fight from a position of light concealment. They may even be able to leverage the water flow to help knock enemies prone.

I should note, I don’t bother to think these options through when writing my descriptions. I just write down what I see, but also know that the players may come up with “off brand” uses of these descriptions.

Empty Rooms Make Good Resting Spaces

Finally, empty rooms often indicate areas of low traffic. They can be a good choice for grabbing a short rest or even setting up camp with enough precaution. Frequently if the position is good, I will roll for random encounters either less frequently during the rest or lower the chances of a random encounter occurring.

Breathing Room

Modern game design is moving toward a more rapid pace. More games use scene framing techniques to move from conflict-to-conflict, from action-point-to-action-point as swiftly as possible.  Games that are specifically designed to wrap up in a single session are more prevalent. And that’s all fine. I play a lot of those games too.

However, I personally, am finding a lot of joy in giving some games more breathing room. One way, I’m currently doing that, is by learning to appreciate empty rooms in D&D.

A Few Questions About Dragons in Dungeons

I’ve been debating writing this post as it is likely to open up really old cans of worms. So, consider this a kind-of content warning with regard to old theory discussions. This post contains references to: The Forge, Creative Agenda(“GNS”), and System Does Matter. You have been warned.

A Brief History Lesson

I was an active member of a website called The Forge from its very early days all the way to its formal closure. This site was the primordial soup from which the modern “indie” and “story games” movements were born. Many good things came out of that site and many bad things. Its history and influence is rich and complex and beyond the scope of this essay.

One foundational text at that site was Ron Edward’s essay “System Does Matter”. It was written, in its time, in direct opposition to a widely adopted philosophy that the system used for play didn’t really matter. The GM was going to run the game they were going to run, and the players were going to do their thing, and who really cares what you roll to hit things?

Ron’s essay challenged that. He argued, simply, that any given system was either going to help or hinder a group achieve their creative goals. These goals were initially sorted into three broad categories known as G. N. and S. Later still, these categories were both renamed and bundled into an over arching term called a group’s Creative Agenda.

The Two Great Misunderstandings

The mass confusion that was trying to articulate and understand what Creative Agenda looked like in actual play lasted for over a decade. I very recently came to the conclusion that there were two very common misunderstandings that intersected in such a way as to send an entire design movement down a path with diminishing returns.

  1. Some people were under the impression that System Does Matter was asserting that system was the primary driver of play. Some people understood that this wasn’t the case but failed to better articulate system’s role.
  2. Some people were under the impression that Creative Agenda was a property of system design. And again some people understand that this wasn’t the case but failed to better articulate the system’s role in helping a group achieve a Creative Agenda.

All The Wrong Questions

These two confusions intersected in a way that lead a great deal of game design discussion to be focused on two types of questions how and who. First wave Forge-inspired games are greatly concerned with innovations in how things are systemically done. While second wave Forge-inspired games are greatly concerned with who gets to do things.

Assuming a game features a dragon in a dungeon first wave games focused on how, from a system design perspective, the dragon got there. How does talking with the dragon differ from fighting it? How does dealing with the dragon impact the character, perhaps measured in ways other than strict physical modeling? How do the consequences of those dealings carry forward into the rest of the game?

The second-wave raised a new question: Who gets to say? Who gets to say that there is a dragon in the dungeon at all? Who gets to say what the dragon does? Who gets to decide what the consequences of fighting or talking to the dragon are? Who gets to enact or enforce those consequences going forward for the rest of the game?

This emphasis on who and how in game design lead to a great percentage of games entered in design competitions like Iron Game Chef to be deemed “conch passing” games.  That is, the mechanisms of the game were focused almost entirely on passing around speaking authority. Very few, if any, of these games survived beyond their initial contest form because, honestly, simply democratizing narrative authority doesn’t produce a very compelling experience.

The Right Question

This epiphany that we spent all that time at The Forge asking the wrong questions came to me while I was taking a hard look at old editions of D&D. In particular I was looking at dungeon construction techniques and how that intersected (or differed) with more contemporary techniques like Threat construction in Apocalypse World or ‘Venture construction in Circle of Hands.

That was when then right question came to me. The question that would have cleared up those two misunderstandings. The question that would have more concretely explained Creative Agenda in terms of play rather than system design. The question inherent in, but slightly obfuscated, by Vincent Baker’s recent focus on The Object of games, even in RPGs.


Why is there a dragon in the dungeon? Regardless of how, from a system management perspective, it got there or who got to say it was there, the most important question is why it is there at all? Why is having this dragon, here, in this dungeon an exciting thing for these players?

Is it because the dragon is CR 12, and the average party level is around 10, and this is going to be an oh so tense and interesting tactical fight taxing all the players skill and resources?

Is it because ZOMG dragons are so cool and you’ve always wanted to fight a dragon and Dragonslayer is the best fantasy movie of all time, fight me?

Is it because your character has raised this dragon from birth but now that it’s an adult its consuming too many resources and your village is starving and they’ve taxed you with slaying it, oh god what ever will you do?

Creative Agenda exists only in so far as everyone at the table agrees on and enjoys why the dragon is in the dungeon. System Does Matter only in so far as that system helps or hinders the group in expressing why the dragon in the dungeon. Once you know why you want the dragon in the dungeon, then and ONLY then, can you turn to system design and ask, how do these tools help me express this and who at the table is best suited to express this.




Developing Character Ideology

There’s a private online space where I’ve been slowly working through the process of setting up a Sorcerer game. I’ve been walking people through the process of creating characters. When it came time to fill out The Diagram things kind of ground to a halt. Most of the people involved found this to a difficult and laborious process.

This doesn’t surprise me. It actually is a very difficult step. At first glace this appears to be because of the large amount of fictional elements one is asked to develop around their character. That’s partially it, but I think it’s actually slightly deeper than that.

The Sorcerer Diagram In Brief

There are four elements that make up who a Sorcerer character *is* from not just a competence and behavior standpoint but an ideological one as well.

  • Cover – What the character does as their “day-job” so to speak.
  • Price – The way in which the character is flawed (physically, emotionally or psychologically)
  • Lore – How the character’s Sorcery works.
  • Kicker – The crisis the character is facing right now.

The Diagram places these four elements on 4 x 4 grid which leads to Cover and Price being in opposing quadrants and Lore and Kicker being the other pair of opposing quadrants.

The process asks that the players list nouns related to these four elements and then arrange them in a specific way. If two things from adjacent quadrants are related they are written next to each other on the boundary between quadrants.  If two things are from opposing quadrants they are written near the center where all four quadrants meet.  Lone items are written near the outer edge of the quadrant they belong to. These rules of course interact and the more things that are related to one another the more elements get “dragged” to the center.

This diagram helps the Game Master to identify points of tension in the character’s life.  Anything near the center is ripe for crisis inducing bangs. Anything along the edges just needs a good push. Anything floating out near the edges needs to be linked up (even to elements on other player’s sheets) in a situation altering manner to bring it into a play.

Sorcerer’s Mandate

What this process is really asking of the players to do, is think beyond what their character does but who their character is, especially in relation to the world around them. The example I often use is superheroes and specifically Spider-Man.

When we think about Spider-Man we don’t just think “a guy with the powers of a spider.” We also think of Aunt May, Uncle Ben, M.J. Gwen Stacy, J. John Jameson, The Daily Bugle, Photography. These are all elements that make up Peter Parker as a character that aren’t strictly the character himself. You can’t really have a substantial conversation about who Peter is, without talking about one or more of these elements (or similar elements).

What the Sorcerer Diagram is really demanding of players is that they have a much stronger sense of their character’s identity before play begins. It’s not enough to be “a guy with spider powers.” Even adding the Kicker (“and someone just sent a bomb to my home address.”) is not enough. The player must, pre-play, develop the whole core identity of the character reaching out into the world around them. The player must think about the Aunt Mays and the Daily Bugles of their character. Who is your character, really?

Fighting For What You Believe

Sorcerer is not alone in this mandate. Another game that makes a similar demand but in an entirely different way is Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel’s character creation system is significantly mechanically more complex than Sorcerer. But beyond the additional choices and accounting lies a similar creative to hurdle to the Sorcerer Diagram.

Eventually, in Burning Wheel, a player must write three Beliefs and three Instincts for their character. Beliefs are ideologically motivated goals that your character strives to accomplish. Instincts are actions the character, has over time, come to do reflexively under certain circumstances.

To write effective Beliefs and Instincts a player must have a deeper grasp of their character’s place in the world and the impact the character hopes to have on it. A player can not simply stop at “the captain of the guard who drinks too much” or even “the captain of the guard who drinks too much and has a crush on the king’s eldest daughter.” The player must think well beyond concept and even drama. The player must know their character.

The Alternative: Apocalypse World and Dungeons & Dragons

In Apocalypse World you choose a playbook which defines your character’s role in the world. In addition you do some light customizing on that. You also define your relationship with the other PCs. Then you start play.

At the start of play you don’t really know your character’s ideology.  You don’t really know their place in the world or the impact they want to make. There’s a reason Vincent Baker has said it takes six sessions for Apocalypse World to really get going. That’s how long it takes to develop the necessary context to form a true ideology.

It takes six sessions of reacting to threats and developing PC-NPC-PC triangles before the players really know their characters. Session six (or thereabouts) is when characters begin to roll up their sleeves and start taking a stand for something. It’s the moment when the players know what they want their characters to make of the world, how they will fight, and what they are fighting for.

Sorcerer and Burning Wheel demand that you START there.

I want to point out that this is not dissimilar from Dungeons and Dragons. The designers of 5th Edition deliberately made the steepest part of the XP curve to be between 5th through 10th level. This is because their market research found that the majority of D&D players spend their time in that range. There’s a good reason for that and it’s similar to AW’s six sessions observation.

It takes about four to five levels worth of play to develop a world and situation context large enough for the players to begin to understand where their characters stand on things.  Then up to about tenth level they spend that time building themselves into who they want to be.

This is why many retro-clones end their advancement at level ten. Games that progress past that point often get a little unstable. The tools of D&D do not handle fully realized ideological world power players very well. I’ve often said Burning Wheel is the game to play when you want to play D&D starting at level ten.


In computer science there’s a general rule that you can almost always trade space for time. There’s a similar principle in effect here. You can trade time in play for creative space up front and vice versa. You can develop your character’s world context and ideology through Sorcerer’s Diagram or Burning Wheel’s Beliefs or you can discover it in play through Apocalypse World’s sessions or D&D’s level progression.





Dungeon Design By Numbers

I recently decided to look at dungeon creation advice across several editions of Dungeons and Dragons. What I found was some very interesting math.

Original Dungeons and Dragons (Gygax, 1974)

Gygax suggests, “It is a good idea to thoughtfully place several of the most important treasures, with or without monstrous guardians, and then switch to a random determination for the balance of the level.” Taking a look at this randomized method we see:

  • Only one-third of the dungeon will contain monsters and only half of those will have treasure.
  • Of the remaining two-thirds of the dungeon only one-sixth will contain treasure.
  • The net result is that only about one-quarter of the entire dungeon will contain treasure, guarded or unguarded.

That’s a surprising amount of empty space. However, Gygax does not take trap placement into account and appears to assume that is more part of the physical layout part of the process rather than an encounter in its own right.

Basic Dungeons and Dragons (Moldvay, 1981)

Moldvay expands on Gygax’s method. He starts with similar advice, “Special monsters should be first placed in the appropriate rooms along with special treasures.” and then goes on to describe a similar random stocking methodology but one that includes traps and “special” encounters. This breakdown yields the following distribution features:

  • Again, about one-third of the dungeon will contain monsters and about half of those will have treasure.
  • About one-sixth of the dungeon will contain traps about one-third of those will have treasure.
  • About one-sixth of the dungeon will contain “special” encounters.
  • Finally, about one-sixth of the remaining one-third of the dungeon will contain unguarded treasure.

This method actually preserves Gygax’s distribution of only having one-third of the dungeon containing monsters and only about a quarter of it containing treasure. It simply folds traps and “other” encounters into that distribution. The result is still a space with a lot of breathing room and by no means a rolling sequence of fights.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (Crawford & Mearls, 2014)

This may seem like a huge edition jump in my tour but I’ll jump back in a minute. Modern editions of D&D concern themselves a bit more with encounter “balance” and the current edition is no exception.

The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a method for calculating Easy, Medium, Hard and Deadly encounters. Combining the information in this chart with the progression chart in the Player’s Handbook you can calculate how many Medium difficulty encounters it would take to level up.  For example, it generally takes about six encounters to go from Level 1 to Level 2.

Gygax-Moldvay Program I

What began to interest me, is the idea that I could use this information from a modern edition of D&D and extrapolate a more old-school feeling dungeon by reversing the math. If it takes six monster encounters to go from first to second level, and we know that represents one-third of the dungeon, then we know that the overall dungeon is eighteen rooms large.

I actually went ahead and created a computer program that will take a number of encounters as input and produce what I call a Gygax-Moldvay Dungeon Distribution.  For six encounters the result looks like this:

–Dungeon Distribution–
Monster: 3
Monster w/ Treasure: 3
Trap: 2
Trap w/ Treasure: 1
Empty: 5
Empty w/ Treasure: 1
Special: 3
Total: 18

Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition (Cook, 2003)

The 3.5 edition of the Dungeon’s Master Guide provides an additional dimension to this distribution: encounter difficulty. According to this edition the recommended break down of encounter difficulty is as follows:

  • 30% of encounters should be Easy.
  • 50% of encounters should be Challenging.
  • 15% of encounters should be Very Difficult
  • 5% of encounters should be Overpowering.

This breakdown happens to map very nicely to 5th Edition’s Easy, Medium, Hard and Deadly categories nicely.

Gygax-Moldvay-Cook Program II

I was able to take all the charts from across these editions of D&D and create a program that gives me a complete dungeon distribution for any number of levels in 5th Edition. For example, here is the distribution of a dungeon spanning levels 1-3.

–Difficulty Distribution–
Easy: 7
Medium: 12
Hard: 4
Deadly: 1
Total: 24

–Dungeon Distribution–
Monster: 12
Monster w/ Treasure: 12
Trap: 8
Trap w/ Treasure: 4
Empty: 20
Empty w/ Treasure: 4
Special: 12
Total: 72


For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with constructing adventures according to this mathematical formula. I have to say that the results have actually been quite satisfying. The resulting spaces feel vast, textured, complex and unpredictable.  The idea of having as many empty rooms as there are monsters may seem insane but it really does allow for tone and atmosphere to play a prominent role in the game.